Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Feminism
27 February 2016

From pornography to surrogacy, too few of us are ethical consumers of bodies

When it comes to buying access to other people's bodies, experience shows that it's a buyer’s market: those with the economic power set the terms.

By Helen Lewis

Sometimes I wish I was better at maths, because there’s a diagram I really want to draw. Here are the two axes – up the side, need for item or service; across the bottom, responsibility for obtaining that item or service ethically. As your need for something increases, the ethical burden on how you obtain it diminishes.

This model would be useful for conceptualising the morality of, say, stealing a loaf because your child was hungry. Squatting in an empty house because you are homeless. Buying a battery chicken because it’s the only way you can afford to eat any meat.

Stranded on the wrong side of the line would be conflict diamonds, fur coats and setting yourself up as a bloodthirsty dictator in order to afford a gold toilet. In all of these cases, the need is non-existent, so the ethical obligations can never be met.

Where I find my imaginary graph most useful, however, is in deciding how to feel about services involving human – often female – bodies. This helpfully refocuses the question on to those with the economic power in any given situation, whereas too often (even among feminists), it is the conduct of the seller that’s under scrutiny.

Take sex work. It’s a term of abuse now­adays to say that a feminist is “sex-worker exclusionary”. It’s more interesting to ask, though, if buying sex is compatible with feminism. In the unbearable formulation of a million op-eds: Can You Be A Feminist And A Punter?

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

I would argue that it’s difficult, and that any moral imperative is on the buyer not to shop around to find the migrant sex worker or street prostitute with the lowest price, but instead to ensure that whoever they are paying for sex isn’t being coerced (physically or financially) into acts they would rather not perform.

The same goes for porn. I shudder to think of the number of guys who piously lecture me about feminism’s lack of attention to issues of class, then go home to get off on watching freelance workers with poor employment protection and terrible long-term career prospects carry out potentially dangerous physical labour. And most of them refuse even to pay for it.

Anyone on the left who pretends to care about ethics shouldn’t watch porn if they don’t know how it’s made. A few years ago, I spent an instructive few months reading porn actresses’ memoirs and learned – surprise! – that an industry run by older men and
relying on a turnover of young women in need of quick cash is prone to extreme abuse.

In Oriana Small’s Girlvert, for example, she recounts going with her boyfriend to a porn set and being pressured to get him free merchandise. “Tyler’s eyes were shining like it was Christmas. He was told that any chick that went to the Anabolic warehouse and blew someone could have free shirts and hats.” Small tries to resist, so Tyler tries emotional blackmail. “He knew he could persuade me to do anything if he threw a fit or made a big enough commotion about it.” On set, the director tries to make her cry by asking her what her parents think of her becoming a “whore”, then convinces her to let Tyler urinate on her, saying the video will go only into his private collection. And then he releases it on a site called

It is worth noting that Small isn’t telling her story for sympathy, or arguing that porn is inherently harmful. (It isn’t a good advert for it, mind.) Later in the narrative, she gains more control over her career and co-workers, and she certainly doesn’t end up becoming a nun. The problem is that there is no pressure for the industry to be ethical, because sex, which is deemed to be a private matter, is involved. That is exactly the wrong way round; it should be particularly ethical because sex is involved.

Naturally, this puts a heavy burden on consumers. Until recently, progressives used to congratulate themselves for watching scenes featuring Stoya and James Deen, a couple in real life as well as on screen. And then, two months ago, Stoya accused Deen of raping her. (He denies those allegations, as well as accusations made by others in the industry.) It turns out if you want to watch ethical porn you have to work quite hard. But so what? You won’t die without it.

The latest point I’ve added mentally to my graph is surrogacy. On 5 March, an organisation called Families Through Surrogacy will be holding a conference in London. A news report in the lead-up to the event contained alarming language, speaking balefully of couples being “driven” to seek surrogates abroad to “commission a child”. This seems an oddly entitled way to refer to the use of someone else’s body.

Every year, up to 2,000 surrogate babies are born on behalf of British couples, 95 per cent of them to mothers ­overseas. That is because currently, in Britain, surrogacy is permitted only as a non-commercial relationship. This is firmly the way it should stay; informal agreements might be more difficult where a personal arrangement becomes messy, but surrogacy should be seen as a gift, not a service with a monetary value.

The rise of commercial surrogacy has led to women in developing countries such as India being encouraged to sign legally binding contracts that turn them into walking incubators. (The Sensible Surrogacy website offers women in Ukraine for $47,570 and those in Cambodia for $42,500; a “host” in the US will cost double that.) As women in the West leave childbearing until later in life – and struggle to conceive as a result – and as diminishing homophobia frees more gay men to have children, the demand for babies is sure to increase. And so there will be louder calls for the ban on commercial surrogacy to be overturned.

That is something the left should resist. When it comes to bodies, experience shows that it’s a buyer’s market: those with the economic power set the terms. I only wish I could capture that truth on a graph, too.

This article appears in the 24 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash