Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Being Naked On The Internet Should Be Okay

The latest Dear Prudence has a letter from a woman who's wondering whether to tell her family that she has a profitable side job doing online sex shows. Prudence's advice is unremarkable and, I suppose, prudent: "the idea that you can perform sex online and expect to keep that pussy cat in the box is ridiculous. Though your question is whether you tell your family you are a porn star, I think your concern about this coming out should give you pause about your line of work, no matter how lucrative. Someday you'll age out of this career, and you have to be aware what you've done can follow you for the rest of your life."

If this is good advice in your society, you have a problem. The fact that someone appeared naked on the internet says nothing negative about their ability to manage a business or work in a hospital or teach high school math. This is true of the whole spectrum of internet nakedness -- whether we're talking about acting in hardcore porn, or just having your college-age sexting appear on the internet. As far as I'm concerned, internet nakedness says nothing negative about them as a potential spouse, either. If we're disqualifying people for future opportunities because of stuff like this, we have an arbitrary prejudice that occasionally ruins people's careers while preventing us from taking advantage of people's talents in the way that best benefits us all. And in a digital age where pictures of everything are everywhere, the costs of this prejudice could be quite large.

Unfortunately, some institutions run by people who don't themselves have the prejudice I criticize here may still have reasons not to hire those who have appeared naked on the internet. That's because they may have to deal with prejudiced people outside the institution. Even if the people who hire math teachers realize that having done online sex shows in the past is entirely compatible with being a great math teacher, they may have to deal with parents who don't see things that way, even to the detriment of their children's math education. Social connections like this make prejudice hard to eradicate.

So it's important that we fight these kinds of prejudices publicly, through trying to show people how pointless and destructive they are. I would've liked it if Prudence had expressed the hope that in the next couple decades, people would come to accept her correspondent's previous occupation -- not even as a forgivable youthful indiscretion, but simply as an interesting and unusual past job. I hope this is the way things go in our society and the world, and I hope you share my hope.


Anonymous said...

It's a shame that anyone pays attention to Emily "Prudence" Yoffe in the first place. The quality of her advice is really pretty mediocre. I'd rather consult a Magic 8-Ball.


Unknown said...

Neil, there does seem to be another potential issue.

If you are in a society where there is a prejudice against these sorts of activities, however irrational, and you know this, and take part in them anyway, that is also evidence about your risk preferences.

It's not necessarily negative information -- civil disobedience against popular but unjust laws would also be evidence about your risk preferences -- but it is information that a rational and unprejudiced employer might consider.

I'm sure some employers would claim that was their rationale. Some of them might even be telling the truth.

Neil Sinhababu said...

If people are taking the kinds of risks that an employer should be interested in, it has a reasonable chance of showing up on their CV somewhere already. "Why did it take you two extra years to graduate?" "Well, I left school to start a company that made flavored widgets."

Having arbitrary prejudices against otherwise harmless behaviors would be a overly costly way to build a risk tolerance indicator.