When discussing issues related to Gag Factor or kink.com, the conversation often drifts into the question of choice: did the woman who was gagged or whipped freely choose to go into the industry? Such questions concern the autonomy and agency of women in pornography. Christine Stark, a writer and anti-porn activist who has worked with hundreds of women in porn and prostitution, problematized the focus on choice to me:
What difference does it make how someone gets into pornography? Why do you have to have this extreme amount of violence incurred in getting into pornography in order to make it matter, to make you matter? It’s like you have to prove that you’re a good victim. Do we sit and have endless conversations about domestic violence victims? ‘Did you choose to walk down the aisle with that man, because if you did, I’m not sure if this is really a form of sexual violence.’
Stark raises an important point regarding the need to shift the focus from the conditions that shape porn performers’ decisions to enter the porn industry and towards the conditions created by both the pornographers and the consumers, under which those performers work.
Diane Defoe, a black woman from Hawaii, entered the porn industry in 1999, first as a performer and then later as a director. She has seen many performers come and go:
This industry definitely attracts a certain mindset. You normally have to be a little bit liberal … but you also have to be very young … eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old with little education, little business sense, little financial skills and they’re making ten, twenty times more than that seven dollars an hour they were making at Jack in the Box …
“Making ten, twenty times more” than in a low-wage job is indeed a strong allure for young women getting into the porn industry. For example, Annie Cruz started in pornography when she was 19; at the time of our interview she had worked for a year and already had appeared in 150 movies. She constantly receives emails from women seeking employment in the industry, who write, “I only got eight dollars in the bank account – to my name. I really want to get in bad.” Both Cruz and Defoe observe that there are many women who do pornography for emergency reasons, such as paying off credit card debts or back-up rent, and then get out.
Defoe also reports: People are entranced by the idea that you can go and make an entire month’s salary in a day, and they think that they’re going to be able to do it everyday, and you’re not going to be able to do it everyday. You may not be able to do it, you know, next week. No matter how smart you are, beautiful you are, how many people you know, if there’s a girl coming behind you … that’s better than you, you’re going to be out … It just has to do with who’s … going to do something cheaper than you.
Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry