the rack and the screw

perspectives on female sex work

Posted in blogwars, feminism, sex work, sexual violence by bellareve on February 7, 2009

After a brief stint in sex work, and reading tons of both academic theory/studies & the writing of actual sex workers, I have something to say to the rad fems and the pro-porn/sex positive crowd:

You’re both wrong.

Ok, not exactly. To me, you both have good points and not so good points. I have had a super hard time navigating blogs on this topic because the debate is highly polarized and generally the commenters on particular blogs are just repeating each other and themselves in increasingly more fervent tones. So, intimidated and frustrated, I never comment.

I’d love to finally explain how I feel on the issues I find most problematic. First, to address the views of (some) radical feminists/anti-porn folks:

1. “Sex workers are: lazy, naive, stupid, trashy, bimbos, manipulative, lacking in self respect/dignity/self esteem, greedy,” etc. (I have read things like “a truly smart, resourceful woman would get a legitimate job like the rest of us have to.”) Now, to be fair, these stereotypes are HUGELY popular in mainstream discourse and media, where they no doubt originated. However, if you are a feminist it is ABSOLUTELY your job to defend sex workers and fight AGAINST these characterizations rather than perpetuate and endorse them. (Just as a feminist would defend a career woman or a rape survivor or a single mother, etc.) Otherwise you might as well be an MRA.

2. “Sex work must be gross and disgusting eew all those old guys touching you.” Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Some of the guys I danced for were awful and traumatizing and others….turned me on. Yep. Some were cute, and I liked dancing for them. I cried a few times, I had fun a few times. Just like with other jobs. It really depends. This is kind of another way of implying that sex workers are tainted & diseased. 

3. “Sex work makes all women look bad.” I think that sex workers are marginalized and stigmatized  in a unique way, and to an extent that doesn’t have much at all to do with “other” or “all” women. Remember, there are Virgins and Whores, women on Pedestals and those in Gutters. I would argue that sex workers are generally treated  faaaaar worse than women who don’t do sex work, and rank faaaaar lower on the social hierarchy. Also, sometimes what another woman does to survive or to support her kids has, um, nothing to do with you. 

… and now addressing the other side, the perspectives of (some) pro-porn/sex positive folks:

1. “Sex work is not a monolith.” I agree! However, any decent observer of human behavior knows that there are PATTERNS and TRENDS which can often tell us a whole lot about a society/institution/culture, etc. Ignoring such patterns seems sloppy and unsophisticated. The DOESN’T mean we should speak in universals or refuse to acknowledge individual differences. But it is entirely reasonable to note general trends in populations. 

2. “There are a few asshole rapist men  out there, who should be prosecuted. But most are decent and harmless. Feminists constantly vilify innocent men and the male gender.” It seems that many debaters on this side of the fence don’t fully accept the idea of a rape culture and instead see rapists and sex abusers as rare outliers. One in six women are victims of sexual assault. One in four girls is sexually abused before she turns 18. Are the same like, 30 dudes (or 300 or 3000 or 30000…) assaulting 16% of the entire world’s women and 25% of its female children/teens? Probably not. Sexual violence is an epidemic, and a great deal of men are guilty. (This is personally a big deal in my life…me, my mother, and my partner are all survivors). 

Also. Add to actual rapists all the men who: dismiss, ignore, make light of, condone, encourage, defend, and/or help facilitate rape. Guilty too, they are. Then? The male gender is Not Looking Too Rosy. Sorry. (Of course, some women do the above things too, also seriously problematic)  

3. “Payment and a signed contract is proof that a sex worker consented.” Essentially, many people believe that unless a woman was underage, trafficked, or had a gun to her head, the sex work was done out of free will. There is little attention to financial/economic coercion. If a woman has no other means of feeding her children, paying for medical care, having shelter, or otherwise surviving, then it is NOT a true choice. To be clear, I think it IS possible for women to have agency and make decisions, but some women act under a highly constrained set of circumstances. Their “choices” are anywhere from severely limited to non-existent. And this absolutely occurs in other industries (agriculture, domestic work, etc) where it is no less fucked up.


3 Responses

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  1. AF said, on February 23, 2009 at 9:58 am

    I have a theory. A hypothesis really – it has much to do with the choice issue, the “if a woman is broke, is it really a choice” – but my theory looks at it from a biological angle…. hmmm, really it’s about a lot more than the choice issue – anyway –

    I’m calling it “The Biological Contract of Reproduction”
    I’ve detailed it here –

    it’s in a somewhat rough draft at the moment, I wrote the entry a while ago, and now I’m trying to get some more opinions/perspectives about it… I know a lot of people disagree with it, but some others have said they think I might be onto something…

  2. SnowdropExplodes said, on February 23, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    Okay, I speak more from second-hand perspective here (although I do identify as a sex-positive feminist), but I think your characterisation of the sex-positive side is inaccurate.

    Your point 1, for example, I don’t know of anyone on the sex-positive side who writes seriously or at any length on the subject, who has denied or ignored that there are similarities as well as differences. You hear “sex work is not a monolith” from sex-positive feminists so often because that’s the thing that gets ignored by everyone else and needs to be emphasised.

    Your point 2 argues against a position I don’t think ANY sex-positive feminist/activist has taken. The line in the quotemarks is not from the sex-positive side of the debate; it’s from the MRA side (and they’re not interested in debating with feminists of any persuasion!)

    And point 3, again, sex-positive feminists have written at length about the issues of economic coercion and how it’s important to get rid of it. Renegade Evolution (whom I would guess from the language in your quotemarks is being held up again as a representative of the sex-positive “crowd”) doesn’t say her payment and contracts are “proof” of anything, but that they are clear evidence; she also says quite distinctly that people should listen to what she has to say and not try to draw their conclusions from other factors.

    The sex-positive group say, “these economic issues are a real problem, so lets do something real to help instead of waffling about theory – and taking away women’s/sexworkers’ pay-cheques isn’t going to help”.

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