Monday, February 22, 2010

In which sex-positive feminists have some splainin' to do.

So I've been reading Amber Hollibaugh's My Dangerous Desires. It's brilliant, as an account of the real need women have to feel that their own sexual needs are respected and accepted by the feminist movement. But it's also gotten me thinking about the inadequacy of our ways of talking about the interplay of power and sex.

It seems like the terrain gets divided up too quickly between, on the one hand, "anti-porn" feminists, who think porn is inherently objectifying, BDSM is inherently sexist and women's participation in it is evidence of false consciousness, and sex workers deserve some combination of pity and contempt, and on the other, "sex-positive" feminists, who think porn is hot if it's done right, we should stop worrying about the interplay of power and sex as long as it's consensual, and sex work can be a reasonable and healthy response to economic and sexual repression of women.

All of this, I think, reflects a tendency to see things as either harmless (and therefore private, and something feminists should defend women's right to) or harmful, public, and something we should resist at every turn. But all of these issues demand considerably more nuance than this can afford, and it's a pity we're not giving it to them.

Feminist porn is a huge step. Women in porn need to have some control over what they do and the safe-sex practices they use in the process. Furthermore, images that force us to examine our stereotypes of women's sexuality as essentially passive are important -- especially when they involve sex that focuses on women getting pleasure. And showing women of different body types doesn't hurt, either.

But fundamentally, all porn does allow us to be involved in others' sexuality without having to think of them as human. Viewers aren't challenged in the notion that women are fundamentally for sex, even if in order to get that sex you have to worry about consent and pleasure -- that notion, if anything, is encouraged. And that's something we should be concerned about.

But porn has advantages, too. In particular, it enables people whose sexual agency is denied in mainstream culture to explore different sexual options, to learn about their own sexuality at home and in private. This sort of exploration is really important for developing sexual identities. I think it's probably worth it.

But the point is, it's important to realize that this "pro-porn" stance comes as a result of weighing positive and negative aspects of sex, and finding that what's good about porn is more important than what's wrong with it -- not as a result of a belief that there's nothing wrong with it.

The same goes for BDSM. It can't be as simple as the claim that, as long as it's consensual, there's nothing wrong with BDSM. Should men who like dominating and abusing women -- and who participate in creating and sharing narratives about dominating women -- really feel that this desire is unproblematic? I don't think so.

But I think part of the reason why BDSM gets so much shit is because we, as a society, have long thought of fantasies as real, as more real than actions or beliefs -- at least in terms of what they reveal about our personalities. If a man believes that women are humans deserving of respect, and acts on that belief, but then has sexual fantasies about beating them up, forcing his dick down their throats, and coming on their faces, we take this as a sign that he really hates women, but has learned how to talk feminist-speak and do the feminist-dance to trick us.

This is, of course, bullshit. It's based on the age-old idea that our spontaneous urges come from a pure place that's truly us, and our ideas are simply superstructures that we build over that. But we should have gotten rid of that long ago. Freud was pretty sure that many of those spontaneous urges are developed in early childhood, and it seems pretty clear that he was at least partly right. There's a multi-billion dollar industry devoted to the idea that those spontaneous urges can be profitably influenced by flickering images on a screen. (When was the last time you found an argument in an ad convincing?)

The point is, just because you fantasize about something doesn't mean you secretly believe it's right. We should treat people's actions and beliefs as sufficient to define them, even if they differ from their fantasies.

I think there's a valid analogy to be drawn here to other types of role-playing. Tabletop and computer role-playing games tend to be intensely violent, and there's a real sense in which they contribute to the normalization and valorization of violence. They're also male-dominated, both in terms of their content and in terms of their creators and players. When we play these games, we contribute to a collective fantasy life which centers on violent men and hypersexualized, usually helpless women. That's bad.

But it's also clearly not bad enough to make someone not count as a pacifist or a feminist if they play Baldur's Gate (or even Dante's Inferno).

The same goes for our more explicitly sexual fantasies. We should be uncomfortable about creating narratives about men dominating and exploiting women, and about allowing our fantasy lives to center on these narratives. And in the case of BDSM, there's a real argument to be made that it has a positive role to play, too -- one that, I'd say, outweighs the negative one.

Greta Christina writes about the relief BDSM can provide for women who have been raised to feel that submission is natural, but have been taught to believe that it is unethical. I've also heard at least one man talk about how being a sub in a 24/7 relationship gave him a sort of cover to undermine his own masculinity, and challenge other men's conceptions of what men do.

Also, as I've mentioned before, BDSM gives us a space in which to acknowledge and explore the role that power already has in our sexual lives. Without this space, our only choices would be to normalize acts that express male dominance or to abandon them. The presence of BDSM spaces allows men to acknowledge their desire to express dominance, while acknowledging that this desire can only be ethically expressed in a context that emphasizes consent and allows for other options.

Most importantly, though, if your feminism makes women feel that they have to choose between having the kind of sex they like and being feminists, you're doing feminism wrong. Even if female subs (or, depending on who you ask, all women who like BDSM) are victims of false consciousness, seeking out sexual pleasure is a fundamental human right, and feminism can't be about restricting that.

Lastly, sex work -- and, particularly, prostitution and stripping. And, in particular, let me talk about the non-trafficked, pimp-free side of sex work -- where the only incentives acting on sex workers are financial. Not because I think this is more prevalent, but because I think it's in cases like this that feminists tend to disagree.

To me, it's still impossible to separate the genderedness of sex work from gender inequalities in income. When people face hunger, homelessness, or other hardship if they refuse sex, they are being coerced. And very often, sex workers do face these things. And most of us would agree that coercive sex is bad news.

But, that said, when people face hunger, homelessness, or other hardship if they don't clean your house, or work in your factory, or sell your products, that's coercive and exploitative too. And who am I to tell sex workers that they've chosen the wrong kind of exploitation? We don't treat the other kinds of workers with nearly the same kind of pity -- and sex workers have chosen sex work even though they (at least sometimes) had those other options.

This just gets us to hating johns rather than prostitutes -- and that's a step in the right direction. But I don't think even demonizing johns is appropriate. Let's imagine an oversimplified version of this situation: someone will actually, literally starve to death without your money. It would, clearly, be unethical to tell them you will only give them money if they have sex with you -- which is essentially what johns are doing. But it would be at least as unethical to just not give them any money, and not have sex with them -- which is what most other men are doing.

Even "nonviolent" prostitution and stripping is coercive -- but it's not really fair to put all the blame for that coercion on the people directly involved. The coercion takes place before the john walks into the room, when we tell people they need to find some money in order to survive, and we systematically deprive women of their fair share of the money. And the solution isn't to not pay people to have sex with you -- it's to give poor people money.

So the point is, I don't think we have to believe any of these things are unproblematic in order to believe they're OK. But I think the distinction between "there's nothing wrong with X" and "X is an acceptable thing to do" get's blurred very frequently (linguistically and in a deeper sense), and so we feel more comfortable denying that there's anything wrong with porn, BDSM, or sex work, rather than acknowledging the wrongs and saying it's all right (and sometimes even good) to do them anyway.

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I see this as connected to the "unlockeing" project I embarked on earlier. In both cases, there's a tendency to turn the argument into one about whether our actions have potentially troubling consequences for others, when what we should be talking about is what those consequences are, and what good is being created, and whether it's worth it. I think we're reluctant to have these types of conversations, because they involve talking about values, which makes lefty types uncomfortable -- but I think they're exactly the conversations we need to have.


  1. I will admit that in the majority of cases, sex work is financially coercive as you explained it, but what in the relatively few cases where someone has plenty of other reasonable options for work but chooses sex work truly willingly? Is there something fundamentally different between sex work and all other sorts of work that makes it impossible to enthusiastically want to do sex work? I am thinking of situations such as women who get paid to do professional BDSM who already enjoy it, or when middle/upper class women with financial security choose to be escorts when other jobs are available to them.

  2. A lot of what I was aiming for is that there is no major difference between sex work and other kinds of work, except that people tend to aim for a higher standard in terms of consent to sex than they do when they're thinking about consent to other things -- and I think we should aim for that higher standard all the time.

    I think it's absolutely possible for people to make truly liberated, non-coerced decisions to have sex for money -- and the only problem I have with that sort of sex work is my more general belief that money needs to be abolished, along with the idea of earning a living. Once you get rid of that aspect, "sex work," to the extent that it is noncoercive, would be replaced by "lots of sex," which I'm also in favor of.



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