Recently a ballet dancer named Jeppe Hansen was expelled from his school for the reason that he had also been a porn actor while he was a student. In 2009, a student by the name of Paul Donahoe was ejected from his college wrestling team for the same reason. Everyone feels bad about it, but it happens.

The typical reaction that I hear and read from people about this is usually something along the lines of, Well that’s what he gets for doing porn. He should have thought about his career before he undressed on camera.

In a way, I can understand this line of reasoning: Actions do have consequences. No one put a gun to his head and made him become a porn actor. (Actually, I haven’t looked up this guy’s porn—maybe it was kinkier than I think.) If you don’t want others to be able to see you having sex, then maybe porn isn’t for you, right? And besides, the ballet school has every right to choose the students they want in their company.

This sort of attitude underscores a lack of understanding that is typical of our society’s current relationship with pornography. It might have been the case that the ballet school or the wrestling team had every right to ask the offending student to leave, but it was certainly the wrong thing for them to do, and I will argue that the punishment was potentially exploitative in three overlapping ways.

Hansen defended his actions, saying that he wanted to do porn for artistic reasons and the student code of conduct made no mention of porn acting. There are many people who go into porn because they have a positive inclination toward it, whether or not you want to invoke the term “art” to describe it. That said, the focus of the following argument is on those who go into porn because they need the money and have few options, not because they really want to be a porn actor.

Not everyone can afford not to be a porn actor

Despite the condescending lecturing of baby-boomers everywhere, the 2013 job market is actually much worse for 20-somethings today than it was for them, ever. Not only that, but it’s largely the fault of the baby-boomers themselves. They cling to jobs that they should really hand over to younger employees and enjoy the benefits of a financial system, largely of their own making, that recently crashed, mostly at the expense of the lower class. To emphasise, it’s not just a matter of young people who refuse to “pay their dues,” or who “feel entitled.” Economic conditions right now are much, much worse than they have been probably since the 1930's, and sometimes, this means that people have to do things to pay the bills that they otherwise wouldn’t consent to. Think about this, next time you’re watching porn: How many of those porn actors do you think come from a background of wealth and affluence, and how many are there just because they can’t afford this month’s rent and they ran out of options?

The sad fact is that pornography is therefore an issue of justice and equality. It is not just a matter of a boy (or a girl) who lacks forethought and wants to be a porn star and make a few quick bucks. Porn actors are not ideally free and autonomous agents that always act in perfectly rational ways.

Everybody does it

The situation is further complicated by the near-universal consumption of pornography. To exaggerate just a bit—but not much, porn is something that pretty much everyone uses. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that there’s probably one or two consumers of pornography even among the people in charge of expelling students from schools whose policies conflict with their students being porn actors.

As an example, I was once the men’s ministry coordinator for a conservative Christian university organisation, and I can tell you for certain that there wasn’t a single person (in the men’s ministry at least) who would claim that he never consumed porn. We all lined up and went to the “You Better Not Watch Porn” talk at retreats and conferences, and no one ever put up his hand to say, “I’m gonna skip this one. It doesn’t really apply to me.”

Triple exploitation

This makes our society’s current relationship with pornography triply exploitative: Not only are the wealthy, middle-aged and privileged consuming pornography starring young people who (in many cases) would rather not be porn actors, but they are the ones forcing those younger men and women into the economic position of having to sell their bodies, and then they are punishing them for doing so in a number of ways—expelling them from school, condemning them morally and shaming them publicly.

It is not anything new that the upper class is using its wealth and privilege to make it more difficult for the less wealthy to improve their lives. But this issue comes with just a bit of extra ethical baggage, since it touches on sexual morality, and I think this is what makes me most angry.

You see, conservatives look down their noses at porn actors. They see them as being examples of moral failure, and not, as is often—but not always—the case, the victims of exploitation. This is why it is so wrong for the administrators of a school to condemn and punish them. In an attempt to uphold some vaguely Christian moral standard, they do nothing but continue the cycle of exploitation and make it that much harder for those who are already disadvantaged to live a good life.

I can already hear the objection, But what about all those porn actors who do porn just because they want to, and not out of dire financial need? Should I therefore give them a free pass to do whatever they want sexually, just because some porn actors are in it out of financial need?

God forbid you should accidentally show too much compassion, forgiveness and understanding.