Thursday, March 30, 2006

Sex-positive feminism (2)

Note: this is a work in progress, having spun out of the comments from an earlier post. The "you" here, at least in the first part of it, probably refers back to bitch | lab, to whom I was originally responding. At any rate it's worth checking out that whole sequence for better context.

**3/31/08** Having looked at this piece for the first time in a couple of years, now that it's been carnivalized, some of it's making me wince. If you think you remember this differently, it's because I'm doing some on the fly late edits.


I keep reading several themes within "anti-pornstitution" writings.

Mainstream, at least; or all, depending on who's speaking--obviously this isn't monolithic on the radfem/feminist end either--porn & prostitution are oppressive because

a) they, or more specifically porn, here, reinforces patriarchal hegemonic structures and ideals, through the saturation of media images

b) they/it reduces what should be an intimate, soulful interaction into a meaningless cash transaction, the woman to be consumed by the male consumer. (Gay male prostitution is generally unacknowledged, but if someone else brings it up, it is swept under/into this same category, because the people who buy the services/consumers are stil men, and the prostitutes are still being exploited/consumed)

c) most, if not all women in sex work are doing this against their will, are badly exploited and abused in the process of making porn and performing sex work services.

It is pretty much a truism even among the "sex positive" that by far the majority of people earning their living by sex do not live lives much resembling that of sex-positive sex workers such as Carol Queen. Even if one is skeptical of, say, Melissa Farley's "90%", it is probably fair to say that there is, for quite a lot of women, if not all, at least some serious element of exploitation, if not outright danger, inherent in the gig.


Well, it seems to me that c) is by far the fairest and most troubling critique of the whole business: that is, the abuse/exploitation is real, it's widespread, it's often breathtakingly horrific, and it's not gonna go away just because a handful of relatively privileged (on the global scale) women are finding a way to not just survive but make a relatively lucrative and soul-fulfilling career out of sex work in spite of it all.

But the thing is, you cannot separate the question of class from all this, and that is most blatantly apparent here. And it's here where I think the construction of patriarchy as the all-encompassing frame to examine all this breaks down. While this is admittedly not my area of expertise, it seems obvious to me that if one seriously wants to examine sex work as exploitive because it transforms the workers into a commodity to be bought and sold, usually at the hands of grossly more wealthy and hence powerful consumers, then is is more accurate to pin the problem in this case, at least, as capitalism, not so much patriarchy. And that it would probably be more helpful to shift one's central focus to a socio-economic lens (i.e. talk about class, work and money in general) than one dealing solely with male-female power dynamics.

More troubling to me is the way in which all the railing and blaming still does nothing in itself to help the actual exploited women, and in fact often ends up demonizing them or at least depriving them of their agency, any agency, through a patronizing tone. This is putting aside and separate from real-world activism that results or has resulted in enactment or enforcement of laws which 1) in realpolitik terms usually means that the radfems have to get in bed (!) with the uber-patriarchal Religious Right, and, perhaps because of this, or perhaps would have happened anyway, 2) the laws and regulations effectively end up, historically have ended up, blaming, demonizing and punishing the very women the anti-sex-work/"pornstitution" feministswere supposedly trying to help.

It seems clear that the most important, (often unsung) work is being done by the sex workers themselves.

(Sex trafficking is, assuming one does not agree with the position that it is indistinguishable from prostitution, a topic to itself, one which I don't feel qualified to tackle at the present. It is worth noting, however, that there are in fact places where the intersections of "sex work" and trafficking, along with other international human rights issues, are considered. Here's one. Ditto abuse, underage prostitution, pimping, and other grim realities that are not, contrary to the apparent belief of some, what "sex positive" people are in favor of or complacent about. The meeting ground is usually found under the name "harm reduction." An example. Another).

And it's at this point where one comes to a crossroads: either one does or does not agree that, okay, sex work is problematic primarily because it is exploitive as a money transaction in an ownership society, and that it is at least possible to conceive of a set-up in which sex work is, in the final analysis, work, no more or less. Even if one is skeptical (for good reason, imo) that such a set-up is likely to become the norm anytime soon, if ever, this is still an important point.

Because, particularly if one is coming from a radical position, the assumption is that one is at least open to, hell, is working for, deep-rooted, widespread change, even if over the long haul. And that therefore it is worth distinguishing "rare, steep uphill battle to achieve at all, but not impossible" from "never has worked, never will work, not in any way shape or form, let's move on." And my argument is that non-exploitive, meaningful, creative, "positive" sex work falls into the former category; because I have observed, first-hand, if not directly experienced except indirectly (but even that was something) that this is so.

And, further, that sex work can thus be viewed in the same way as all other work for pay, however one approaches that whole enormous complicated subject. For example: the garment industry. There are many many women and children viciously exploited in hellhole factories throughout the world, and arguably this is as least as predicated along gender and racial lines as prostitution. Does this mean that all clothes production is inherently exploitive? Does one dismiss the experiences of say a fortunate handful of independent clothes designers, who work primarily for themselves and love their work? Does one lump an underpaid hash-slinger, perhaps one who's in the country illegally and accepts miserable conditions and below-minimum pay in order to not be deported, into the same category as a self-employed caterer who works out of her home? Is "straight" work always automatically better, even assuming it's available?

Because if one reads all this and is still going, yesyesyes, but it's DIFFERENT. sex work is DIFFERENT,

then it leads us directly into

b), which is predicated on the assumption that sex is something special, apart. Higher or lower (or both!) than the more mundane activities we take for granted as work or play. That physical sex is bound up inextricably with emotional intimacy; and that both physical sex and erotically charged emotional intimacy are inextricably bound up with the idea of relationship, specifically and usually, a monogamous dyad. The traditional-family-values folks insist that this dyad must needs be differently-gendered; the leftier folks of this position broaden the view to include homosexual (monogamous, is usually the implication, at least) dyads, as healthy and desirable. And that sex is healthy and good...within this set-up. But not so much outside it. Certainly not as much, even if the occasional fling might be okay (depending, again, on who you ask) between or on the way to a real, serious relationship.

Which position, is perfectly fine, as individual preferences go. But it does tickle me a bit when it's coming from someone who positions her/himself as radically opposed to patriarchy, kit 'n' kaboodle, and when it comes up in the context of a sociopolitical discussion (i.e. what's good for women/people in general, not just what I like).

Because the assumption here is that sex, even if one accepts that it can be about fun and pleasure rather than just or primarily procreation (which is the right-wing sexual conservative position), 1) needs to be emotionally intimate in order to be a good thing, and/or 2) erotic emotional intimacy is only possible within the context of a long-term, monogamous, dyadic relationship.

Which assumptions are surprise! surprise! brought to you directly from the Patriarchy (tm), here more specifically the Victorian version, with its emphasis on a domestically romantic love. What to do, what to do.

Well, one could always go the way of late seventies/early eighties-style rad lesbian feminism, you know, "feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice." Never mind if you're not into sex with women, especially; the goal is to Overthrow The Patriarchy, after all. Maybe go so far as live on a commune, and/or have polyamorous and/or casual sexual relationships with one's fellow wimmin, so long as they're completely egalitarian, free of such dangerous remnants of the Patriarchy as butch-femme, BDSM, maybe even penetration.

At which point one who is naturally predisposed toward monogamous romantic longterm (and especially heterosexual) dyads may well respond roughly along the lines of, (as I have seen come up, more or less), "well, gee, I don't do everything in order to please or subvert the Patriarchy. I do this because it feels right and healthy and natural, and say, why are you getting all up in my grill? Why even bring this up? I thought we were talking about patriarchal oppression, not how radical I am or what I do with my relationships and/or sex life."

At which point the sex-positive feminist, who is not necessarily so predisposed and has been trying to say this all along, goes, "DING DING DING DING DING DING DING!!!"

I'll speak to my own experiences in this in a separate post someday soon, I think, and probably in another blog. But briefly: what I learned in particular from my experiences with an organization called Body Electric, was that it is possible to have moments of *profound* erotic/emotional, even spiritual, connection with someone whom one barely knows, has little or nothing (superficially) in common with, and will likely never see again after the weekend. And that further, the experience can be healing in a way that reverberates long beyond the actual encounter. And that while I did not do this as a paid sex worker, there were a number of people I encountered along the way (male and female) who do and did do this in their own lives; and clearly experienced such meaning in connection in the work they do/did. In this way the sex work is a lot closer to more traditional counseling (my own chosen path, or eventually) than to selling oneself as a consumer good.

Finally, I'm now thinking that a) needs to be treated in a separate sequence of posts, as it starts to get into the whole notion of "objectification."


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