CESE Online Global Summit: How porn industry targets marginalized women and subjects them to sexual slavery

Meghan Donevan, Research and Prevention Manager at Talita, offers new insights into the industry's insidious tactics to groom, recruit, and exploit young marginalized women and girls


                            CESE Online Global Summit: How porn industry targets marginalized women and subjects them to sexual slavery
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There is ample research out there that bring to light the harms of pornography. With the evolution of the media, advocacy that relentlessly strives to disseminate the social harms the pornography causes on viewers has also caught the public attention. But little is known about the operation of the pornography industry, how production takes place and the alarming fact that women exploitation exists in pornography production. Porn has managed to escape the ramifications of the #MeToo movement, a conversation about violence against women in the mainstream entertainment industry. While sexual abuse meted out by film producers of music managers headline as scandals, in porn it is often seen as putting a job in jeopardy. However, the fact of the matter is that pornography also constitutes one arm of the global sex trade.

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Meghan Donevan, Research and Prevention Manager at Talita, was among the speakers about issues concerning pornography at this year's Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation (CESE) online global summit, hosted by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. Referencing findings from the first-ever study on Sweden's (where Donevan is based) pornography industry, she provided new insights into the industry's insidious tactics to groom, recruit, and exploit young marginalized women and girls. She also cast a light on the harms of pornography production and the blurred lines between social media, pornography, prostitution, and other forms of sexual exploitation. 

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In a qualitative systemic mapping of the pornography industry, Donevan and her team probed into the forums, producers, distributors, and the kind of recruitment methods they used. They interviewed nine women who have been a part of the pornography industry at some point in their lives. Their findings suggested that traditional pornography producers still operate in the industry, where they hire a studio or an apartment, recruit men and women and then sell the content online. Besides, they found that most of the recruitment takes place on amateur pornography sites. Scandal Beauties is one of Sweden's most popular amateur pornography websites, unique in the way that women and girls are recruited and made to upload and sell films and images. What characterizes these kinds of websites is that they perform very active recruitment. They hire young, good-looking men to write on the social media accounts of young girls, and woo them enough to convince them to become models.

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It is also important to note the kind of language that is at play here. Donevan quotes a Scandal Beauties advertisement that stresses on 'blogging' instead of 'modeling'. "Why be okay with just likes when you can get paid? Why be on Instagram and just get likes when you can make really good money off of your photos and images? Tag, someone who should be in to blog at Scandal Beauties," she read. Such language use normalizes what's going on. It enables easier recruitment in young women because there's are also the types of terms we see in popular culture, where young girls are taken with influencers who have blogs. It is the intentional use of language that also serves as a facade to disguise what their content is really about. "So initially you would think that, 'Oh, no, there's not really much pornography and production going on in Sweden'," Donevan explained. "But actually when you scratch the surface, you realize that websites like this, this is exactly pornography production and what's going on here in a local context." This is how pimps groom young girls into uploading pictures. 

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In the selfie-age where every young person is fishing for likes as a means of self-assurance, the culture is pushing their boundaries further. "All it takes for someone to say, you can earn money instead of likes," said Donevan, elucidating on a young person's need for affirmation, something that they may have been lacking in their childhood. Starting out uploading scantily clad images, eventually, young women subject themselves to extreme violence and degrading acts. "We see the eroticization or sexualization of racism, sexualized violence, incest, and torture," she added. Pimps have a specific demographics target of women that they go after and that constitutes those who are vulnerable and marginalized. They go to the weakest and groom them so that they gradually starting growing on them. It then becomes much easier to control them, manipulate them, maintain them, and explore their hard-limits. 

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Donevan and her team also examined some vulnerability factors that are common to the pornography industry. From the nine women that they had surveyed, they concluded that background was one push factor when it came to prostitution. These women may have been mere teenagers that came into the industry in need of money. They may have not have a strong educational background, or financial security. Another push factor that stands out is sexualized violence or childhood sexual abuse. "All the women expressed, whether it was during their childhood teenage years or young adult life, different forms of, sexualized violence," Donevan observed. What that does is groom young women to step into this industry because they learn how to dissociate, turn off their emotional and different other mechanisms that are required to survive in the pornography industry. Research shows this very clear link between childhood sexual abuse and prostitution, and that it's the most common factor. They also learned that these women's mental health is deteriorating. They all suffer from high rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and extremely low self-esteem stemming from various forms of abuse. 

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A common misconception about women being in the porn industry is that they love sex and they love men. So why not kill two birds with one stone? However, that is not the case. As Donevan's study suggests, these women have developed a sense of hatred towards their male counterparts. When one of the women was asked what she thought about men, she replied "I looked down on men. I become really cynical because I see what happens in my branch. And I have no respect for them." In addition, she said, "I don't even believe in my own product. These men actually believe that this is something the woman wants to do. I literally don't get it. She just does and says exactly what she knows the bastard wants." She is talking about the splitting of the self, a survival mechanism where a woman separates herself into two entities -- the woman she wants to protect and the woman who is brought and sold. But over time, this may have devastating effects in the form of dissociative disorders 

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Women thus move through different forms of prostitution within the sex industry. They tend to where there is a demand or where their pimps place them. There are different faces within this vast pornography system that includes stripping, escorting, sugaring, and more. Yet they all lead to the same thing, men's violence against women, men's control over women and their bodies, and women being bought and sold by men. Words like 'sugar-dating' and 'glamor-modeling', Donevan asserts are a way for pimps to try and sensationalize or hide the reality, that it is, in fact, prostitution. "We call this whole system sexualized slavery," Donevan stated. 

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