Tuesday, September 20, 2011

PETA.xxx? Using human bodies to protect animal ones?

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has apparently decided to launch a porn site in the new .xxx top level domain. See an article about this here. The decision from the domain name registry about whether the site is approved should come in November.

This is waaaaaaaaayyyyyyy to good to be true for a scholar whose work includes studies of the body in global politics, Internet governance, and global political economy.

Where to begin?

For those who aren't immersed in the minutia of Internet governance, a top level domain (TLD) is the part of a web address that comes at the end: .com, .edu, and the like, and now .xxx. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a nonprofit corporation, charted in California, that was initially formed at the behest Clinton Administration, is in charge of determining what new TLDs are added to the global Internet. (And if that sounds weird -- that a California nonprofit determines global Internet policy -- believe me, you are not even seeing the half of it! It's workings are much more bizarre: ICANN is arcane.) Back to our story: ICANN decided in March of 2011 that .xxx was a worthwhile addition to the virtual real estate that is the Internet. ,

This new TLD is a "sponsored" TLD (sTLD), which the .xxx registry, ICM defines this way:

The Sponsored Community consists of individuals, companies and organizations that have voluntarily determined that a system of self-identification would be beneficial and have voluntarily agreed to comply with all IFFOR Policies and Best Practices Guidelines. The Sponsored Community also includes those who provide Adult Entertainment intended for consenting adults and those who provide talent, products or services to the adult industry.

In other words, .xxx is something of a virtual, global red light district, and its supporters argue that it provides a way to both keep the young from accessing porn and to create a more law-abiding online porn industry. To be able to have a .xxx website, you have to provide evidence that you are not going to steal your customers' money, that you are not dealing in kiddie porn, etc.

Best Business Practices

Developed by the International Foundation for Online Responsibility (IFFOR), all .XXX registrants will be obliged to follow a set of practices to be drawn up to provide effective self-regulation by the adult industry.

In particular they must:

Safeguard children from being marketed or targeted online
Defend customer privacy
Oppose fraudulent, anonymous and unsolicited bulk SPAM advertising adult entertainment
Combat the use of unlawful malicious codes and technologies (e.g., spoofing)
Use and promote accurate labeling and meta-tagging allowing .XXX to be blocked more easily by parental controls
Ensure clear and accurate disclosures, security of transactions and contact information
Protect intellectual property rights. IFFOR will preserve the credibility of these practices through regular revisions and updates to accommodate developments in technology and in keeping with the current views of the general Internet using public.

Enter PETA. PETA thinks its message needs to be heard by the porn consuming public, which apparently includes most males and a large proportion of females. (For example, consider the study of Danish adults ages 18-30 by G.M. Hald. It can also be found online here.

Despite the widespread consumption of porn, porn certainly raises issues of sexual exploitation of women and others, despite the IFFOR best business practices. There is a debate about the extent to which women, either by overt coercion or because of a lack of other options, are forced into prostituting themselves. There are further questions about the misogyny and racism that plays out in the content of the porn. See, for example, an article by D.M. Hughes in the Journal of Sexual Agression. Other analyses differentiate between those who are forced into the pornography industry and/or prostitution and those who choose to be "sex workers." R. Weitzer, in Politics & Society (see also here), for example, carefully makes this differentiation and demonstrates the factual inaccuracies of the "moral panic" over sex trafficking.

In any case, though, porn websites have at best moral ambiguity attached to them. So, why peta.xxx?

Given the problematic elements of porn, PETA is definitely opening itself up to the charge that it really does not care at all about one kind of animal: the human kind. The PETA site, judging from news reports, will feature actors and models who have chosen (no coercion!) to arouse (sorry) interest in the protection of animal rights by (mis?)using their own bodies.

PETA has not shied away from using fetishized naked (male and female) bodies in its campaigns before, though such campaigns are more artsy than pornographic, in large measure because the organization seeks public outlets for them. In a Ron Jeremy ad, the art form leans toward satire, veering in the direction of sarcasm, with a well-known (and rather pudgy) porn star encouraging spaying and neutering pets because "too much sex is a bad thing." He says this in bed, nude and draped with a sheet. How silly is that?

It seems like PETA is trying to do two things: make the case that violations of animal rights are more "pornographic" than porn and show the public that being anti-meat and anti-fur does make the organizations' members stodgy fussbudgets. OK. We get it: animal cruelty is wrong and PETAns are cool. We also get that PETA makes a clear distinction between animals and humans and privileges the dignity of the animal over that of the human. And we get that PETA is trying to take advantage changes in Internet porn delivery through the .xxx sTLD.

But peta.xxx? Really, what are the odds that an .xxx surfer looking for some good, racy porn is going hang out on the PETA.xxx site and take PETA's political message to heart?