April 30, 2007

My thoughts on the sex industry

Posted in Feminism, Musings, Sex at 3:09 pm by The Lizard Queen

I’m not entirely sure I want to write this post. I consider myself a card-carrying feminist, and I feel like there are far too many other feminists out there (particularly, perhaps, in the blogosphere) who are all too ready to strip me of that card I carry (if you will) if I publicly disagree with them. The trouble is, there’s an issue about which I disagree with certain feminists who are more vocal than I am and/or have made their name as Feminists to a greater extent than I have. And normally I wouldn’t talk about it in a blog post for fear of never wooing the sort of readership I’d like to have. But I’m just so tired of the “good feminists believe x” meme that I had to say something: I don’t think the sex industry is inherently anti-feminist. Now, please don’t misunderstand me; there are a number of problems with the sex industry as an overgeneralized monolith, as well as more specific problems with more specific arms of the sex industry that generally connect back with reinforcing patriarchal ideas, subjugating women, and making violence against women acceptable. However, I disagree strongly with the idea that things like pornography, phone sex, erotic dancing, and even prostitution can never be empowering for a woman, and that any woman who does take pleasure in any of the above is deluded, or worse. Here are a few of my problems with the anti-sex-industry stance:

1. It’s all well and good for a white middle-class woman who’s never had to worry about where her next meal is coming from to rail about the societal damage strip clubs wreak. However, there are a number of women out there to whom the sex industry is a very appealing way to make ends meet. Could you look a woman who made the decision to strip so she’d only have to work two jobs instead of three in the eye and tell her her choice was wrong?

2. To be perfectly honest, the argument that a woman’s choice to willingly enter the sex industry isn’t really a true, willing, free choice because of our patriarchal society has some merit (but I think that also comes back to the class issue–the choices of lower- or working-class women, as well as women of color, are significantly more limited than those of middle-class white women), but the statement that women who find dancing or working the phones or acting in a porn flick empowering and sexy just don’t understand how oppressed they are by the patriarchy sounds, to me, patronizing. How different is having a feminist pat your head and say “it’s okay, you just don’t know any better” from having a patriarchal male do the same?

3. The sex industry exists, so I find it a great deal more productive to consider what can be done to make the sex industry as it exists right now safer and more empowering for the women involved in it than to disapprove of the whole industry as (again) an overgeneralized monolith.

To wit, here are a couple of great quotes from the comment thread of this post on the problematic nature of choice (the author of which is “not feeling the pro-pron thing,” but as opposed to many feminists who are anti-porn, I feel like she and I could have a good discussion on the topic–and I feel like we would agree more than we would disagree):

Jasmine: For me, I think all of this operates at a level of abstraction I’m increasingly frustrated with. People ARE sex workers right now today in our communities. People DO sex work right now today in our communities. How “we” (non-sex-working-liberation-interested folk) FEEL about it is not really the most important issue. These are people I love, these are people that I want to be safe. If more folks would get real about it, these are people you know and love too.

People will do sex work as long as people buy pron and buy other sexual services. There’s no end to that in sight – even if we wanted one (which is of course debatable). So in the meantime we need to attend to how all of the structures of oppression (racism, classism, ablism, heterosexism, transphobia, etc. etc.) play themselves out ON THE BODIES OF (again, these are more than abstract concepts, they are lived and felt realities) a population of people who cannot call for help even from the chronically dysfunctional social and legal mechanisms available to non-sex-workers. What happens when a population of people (a population that exists because there is a market demand for such services) cannot count on communities to defend our humanity (b/c we are not “respectable enough”)? cannot count on police to do anything other than arrest us when we report being victimized by violence in the context of sex work (b/c of the criminalization of sex work)? what happens when society says that sex workers cannot be raped – are unrapable?

Blackamazon: I dont care how the cop FEELS about taking in an abusive john or the health center FEELS about making sure sex workers are protected.

Protect them.

If anyone’s interested, here’s more on the debate: on the more pro- side, here’s Jessica’s post about the Feminist Porn Awards turns into a debate in the comments thread; on the other hand, in this post Twisty (of I Blame the Patriarchy) explains it all to you (three rapid fire-thoughts: a) IBtP is not for beginners!; b) I really enjoy reading IBtP about 90% of the time; and c) I couldn’t read the comments thread because toward the beginning someone mentioned that people shouldn’t “need” visual stimulation anyway, at least not ideally–and, yeah, don’t even get me started on how I feel about that one). Also, if anyone’s curious, here’s the post that set me off–and it wasn’t the post so much as the fact that someone voiced disagreement, ending with the line “Sorry Kyso, but as a feminist sex worker who works constantly – and selectively – to preserve and promote my political beliefs, I cannot help but feel offended by Twisty’s blatant overgeneralization and ignorance of the porn industry”–and rather than engage her in a dialogue, the subsequent comments just shut her down, rather harshly in my opinion. (Also, like Twisty, I generally enjoy reading Kyso’s writing.)  Example:

What the Patriarchy wants most is for women to enact their assigned role of sex hole(s). It doesn’t care much how you do it.

If you want to participate in an industry that reinforces women’s status as objects worth nothing more than their sexual usefulness, be my guest. Just don’t pretend it’s a feminist endeavor.

I appreciate that this is an emotional issue, but I’m not sure how belittling women who are most likely on your side about every other issue relating to feminism accomplishes anything.

I was going to put a video in here, but I think maybe this is running a bit long (heh… just a bit…), so I’ll save that for a separate post.  If Sera, the Radical Vixen, and/or she who is Uppity and Unrepentant are still with me, I would love to hear your thoughts!  (And, of course, anyone else’s; it’s just that those three ladies are likely to have some strong opinions on the subject…)

16 Comments »

  1. luaphacim said,

    I’m not sure what exactly to think about the pr0n debate, as my particular brand of feminism is a conflicted, Midwestern one that is easily attracted by both sides. I will, however, say that in terms of media objectifying humans, I find The OC just as much an offender as any porn movie is. But I dunno.

  2. Dave Regan said,

    I think that there are plenty of feminists that would agree with you on this. There are plenty of people who work in the porn/sex industries who consider themselves feminists (or so I hear ;). Violet Blue is a great example.

  3. Evil Bender said,

    I agree with you on this one. Just as I don’t think the solution to patriarchal ideas about sex are for women to stop having sex with men, I don’t think that the patriarchy’s control over sex work means we can tell women not to engage in that field.

    Would we tell women to stop working in the corporate world because it is skewed to favor men? Or should we work to make industries where people will continue to work safer and better for members of oppressed groups?

  4. Indy said,

    You know, a lot of these blog threads have a lot of repetitive phrases about economics and upbringing shunting women into the sex industry- being poorish, eager for the wrong kind of attention, and resonably attractive placing you at high risk.

    I don’t really belive in free will, so much as a stochastic shifting of possible options that changes according to what we’ve done recently.

    So, as a lot of femminist blog readers think that there are a bunch of “sexbots” out there, ignorant dumbunnies reveling in their exploitation while ignoring the horrific and all-encompassing power structures that direct and surround them (Like, say, the woman that guy above me linked to), what if it’s a two-way street?

    As an aggressive and direct young woman of liberal tendencies and punk expression who grew up to be a confirmed lesbian with a double masectomy, does Aunt Twisty really have any choice but to be a femminist blogger?*

    *not really, and she’s totally aware of it, hence the spinster-aunt theme.

    //dude, she’d so totally ban me for that.

  5. Indy said,

    also, fuck the hivemind. the respect of your peers is more likely to come through persistance and intelectual honesty than quailing in the face of criticism.

  6. also, fuck the hivemind. the respect of your peers is more likely to come through persistance and intelectual honesty than quailing in the face of criticism.

    Word. :)

  7. Mishka P said,

    Of course I agree you Queen Lizard, but what worries me the most are your worries about your “feminist card” being revoked. I think the people who put stringent parameters on what it means to be a real feminist are doing incredible damage to feminist work. I have taught four women’s studies courses and watched my students squirm around the issue of identifying as a feminist, or stammer out “I am a feminist but…” Any movement that cannot accept dissonance and difference will die. I wish all my students could feel comfortable identifying as feminists, if they feel they are, without fearing recrimination from some “more conscious than thou” person. Individuals who would reify a specific stance that a movement must take are missing the point of feminism – a movement which is ostensibly interested in dismantling problematic and intersecting power structures – not recreating them.

    The onus of the sex work issue is not one of choice – economic or otherwise. Women of color feminists have reframed the discourse of choice (which is embedded with many problematic assumptions) as a discourse of justice. Justice in terms of sex work would mean unions, health benefits and regulations to keep employees safe – the same thing justice means in any labor situation. Plus, I fail to see how sex-work is any different from other “care” work (which often goes unregulated). There are many forms of intimate labor in our society – wet nurses, surrogate mothers, flight attendants, nannies, maids, in home care workers and cooks – are all of these employees equally mindless? What about the intersections of race, class and gender that segregated and still do, many of these occupations? How would this dimension play out in this debate?

    And what about the gendering of factory labor that wreaks havoc on young female bodies of color – there’s the basic pain of repetitive labor but in Juarez women are being picked off like it doesn’t even matter. Framing the issue in terms of work and justice broadens the discussion. Is porn really important when young women on the border are being raped and dismembered without any recourse? Is it sex work that is problematic or the gendering (and racializing) of work in general?

  8. Mishka: I think part of my problem re: voicing dissent is that I’m still very much finding my voice in general. In a way I keep looking around, waiting for someone to say, “Sit down and shut up, little girl.” That combined with the comment from PunkAssBlog…

    You make some excellent points there, and my brain is fried enough that all I can say in response is, “Exactly.” And your point about whether or not porn is important when women’s very right to exist is being challenged in places as nearby as Juárez is well-taken. (Incidentally, is there any reading material you might recommend on las muertas de Juárez? I know the gist, but am interested in learning more–if, indeed, there’s much more to learn at this point than the gist…)

    I bet your women’s studies classes kick ass, too.

  9. Sera said,

    Sex work has become “cool”–not necessarily to those of us who do it, but to those engaged in academic/political/blogospheric discussions. Frankly, they tire me.

    In scanning all the posts that prompted you to write yours, Lizard Queen, I noticed that most blog writers and commenters focus wholly on street prostitutes and porn actresses. I suppose that encompasses the sex industry–to those writing, at least. Oh yeah, strippers, too. But we sex workers know that the sex industry is much larger. Most of what I fleetingly see in the blogosphere discusses street prostitutes, porn actresses, strippers, and escorts. Are the rest of us–such as Dominatrixes, PSOs, those behind the scenes running the business–invisible? Or, are we less easy to attack?

    Money is power. Every intersection of class, race, and gender encompasses economics. Economic power is socio-political power. Perhaps some self-named feminists are uncomfortable with a sex worker’s means to this power. Perhaps other outsiders to the sex industry fear our achievement of economic power. But in all frankness, my knee-jerk response to all the comments on the blogs you’ve listed that I tried to read but tired of is to show them a bank statement. The more money we make, the more access we will have to socio-political power. The more money we make, the more we can support the developing organizations that support us–like $pread, like Annie Sprinkle’s annual SF walk/parade. The more we can support those organizations, the more likely we are to form and support unions. The more we unionize, the louder our voices become. The louder our voices become, the more we can demand from the current dominant puritan paradigm.

    Or, we could just threaten to release our client lists. (Cheap shot, I know, but I couldn’t help it.) Seriously, though–if every sex worker in the United States released her client list, something would certainly change. But the bottom line is that very few of us would do that; we’re not interested in blackmailing our way to rights and respect. We’re working, in every sense of the word.

  10. N1nj4G1rl said,

    It seems far too easy to say all pr0n is bad, because EVERY SINGLE bit of pornography out there is degrading. All of them regardless of anything.

    “The sex industry exists, so I find it a great deal more productive to consider what can be done to make the sex industry as it exists right now safer and more empowering for the women involved in it than to disapprove of the whole industry as (again) an overgeneralized monolith.”

    THANK YOU!!!! In the feminist blogosphere I see people railing and ranting that we must stop teh pr0n! That all sex work must be stopped because in no way could it ever not be degrading to women. That’s a great sentiment to believe in, but let’s try some reality. Prostitution, pornography, and sex work in general is never going away, mainly because the measure that it would take to ensure it’s elimination would be complete worldwide governmental control. I would like it if sex work could be done only by people who WANT to engage in it, and are getting fair and equal treatment with plenty of access to health professionals, and above all a safe work environment. But that’s a difficult goal to work towards and a lot harder than simply saying, porn/sex work is bad (for whatever reason) so it all needs to stop.
    The gray area is harder to be support then the black and white.

  11. […] arguments among feminists in the blogosphere about sex work and its sociopolitical implications. I think the Lizard Queen’s argument is more eloquent than I could manage, as are a number of the comments in that thread, but I’d add one thing: the desire to deal […]

  12. Vixen said,

    I have several thoughts but the first thing that came to mind is a memory. I’m a feminist and when NOW had a booth in town I asked them what the group’s stance was on sex workers and porn.

    What did these fellow feminists do first when I identified myself as a sex worker? They looked over to my husband and gave him a look of disapproval. That told me so much more than their non commital answer

    And why do people insist on spelling it pron? At first I thought it was a typo but I’ve seen it crop up several times.

  13. Sex is so wonderful that any healthy society would have lots of art in all media devoted to it, and lots of professionals doing different kinds of sex work. Yes, I know we’re not living in a healthy society, and the state of porn and sex work certainly shows it, but I don’t think the healing of this society is going to be helped by the persecution of pornographers and other sex workers.

    Vixen, the spelling “pr0n” (with a zero for the “o”) started out as a way of getting past filtering software, though I’m sure that by now the filters are all programmed to block “pr0n”, too.

  14. Cara said,

    A girl my husband went to high school with put herself through college, while driving a Mercedes convertible she bought herself, by stripping. We hardly feel bad for her or like she was oppressed into perpetuating the patriarchal society, blah blah blah. In fact, she laughed all the way to her hefty bank account, right past all the kids balking under the weight of their student loans.

    That’s obviously not everyone’s experience, but it’s so obvious that not every sex industry worker is a poor, oppressed, possible drug addict, low self-esteem burdened woman with no other choice.

  15. Oppobowly said,

    You don’t really need or want that lifestyle, it might hurt y’all slowly more…….Just tell him you
    don’t wanna repeat something your not too proud of z7uas.

  16. cgb said,

    Ever notice that every generation thinks that IT is the one that invented sex, and that IT’S attitude toward sex is the only “enlightened” one? Fact is, sex has been going on since the first hunk of protoplasm bumped into the second hunk and enjoyed the experience. Kids, it’s all been said and thought before, and your preoccupations are no more original, interesting or significant than those of that protoplasmic couple’s extant descendants. You’re boring. Find something more important to obsess about. All peace, then


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