On My Personal Sex-Positive Theory & Sex Work

I can’t tell you how irritating it is hearing people reduce sex-positive feminism to so much silliness and lipstick over and over again. I have found this to be pretty much the main road block to the work I and the sex-positive feminists I associate closely with do. This simplistic reduction of what we are has generally come from anti-porn feminists who want to dis-empower us within the greater feminist movement and keep the positions we hold that may contradict their own from being seriously considered.  This is one of the reasons why Audacia Ray’s piece Why the Sex Positive Movement is Bad for Sex Workers’ Rights came as such a shocking disappointment to me.

“Once upon a time, not so long ago, I was a fierce defender of sex positive feminism. When I was working in the sex industry, sex positivity was an important value of mine, one that in some ways gave me the skills to cope with a physically and emotionally demanding job. However, the more I step back from that time in my life, and the more I am willing to look critically at things I have held dear, the more obvious it is to me that my experience of sex positivity and the sex industry are not anywhere near universal, they are just the most visible to me, because I fit the mold as described above. The audience for this essay is very much my peers, people who have had experiences and privileges similar to mine. Beyond our circles, most of what I’ll write here is glaringly obvious, and in communities of color, for people with disabilities, as well as among trans women and men, and other groups we aspire to but do not actively include, this is not news.”

Once upon a time she was a fierce defender of sex-positive feminism. Ok…and? Ms. Ray does nothing really to clarify what sex-positive feminism meant to her. How did she defend it? From what? From who? Unlike the more accepted academic feminism there is no formal sex-positive feminist theory to my knowledge. This allows for a certain intellectual latitude that formal feminist theory doesn’t seem to. I like having the freedom to form my own theories concerning human sexuality and how it is treated by various societies with the works of others in these fields to serve as a guide and/or pieces to the puzzle of my personal sex-positive feminist theory…and no it is definitely NOT “fun” feminism although there is some fun to be had along the way.

~~~On my personal Sex-Positive Feminist Theory~~~

My personal Sex-Positive Feminist theory not only involves gaining a truer understanding of human sexuality but also involves searching for the roots of sexual shame and how that works as a tool for female oppression in various cultures particularly western culture. This is by no means dawning the personal blinders of my western privilege and not giving the proper respect to other cultures. I believe this is of particular importance because as I have found~through my work as a sex workers’ rights advocate~that the U.S. is taking great pains in using it’s power and privilege to strong arm the rest of the world into accepting it’s own brand of acceptable sexuality.(see video below)

Of course when doing work on female oppression one; if they hold themselves to the same standard of objectivity I try to, cannot help but see ways in which it is also used as a tool to oppress not only men but also the LGBTQ community, the disabled, racial minorities, the indigenous etc. In fact human sexuality and the drive to control it seems to be a pretty universal go to tool for social control. Why? So far the most prominent answer I have been able to find has to do with the relationship between shame and vulnerability.

~~~Understanding Shame~~~

Brené Brown has done extensive work on understanding the connections between shame, vulnerability, courage and worthiness. I have just begun to explore her work but it has played a major role in my personal Sex-Positive Feminist theory. Why? It is simple. In order to take up the fight for social justice one must have courage. In order to have that courage one must have a sense of worthiness. Her research has show that vulnerability is not only the root of shame and fear but it is also the source of creativity, joy, love, belonging, innovation etc. There are few things people; pretty much across the board, in western society (and in many others) feel shame about more then their own sexuality and sexuality is something sex workers are neck deep in.

As a Sex-Positive Feminist and sex workers’ rights advocate this to me seems to be the very root of the stigma sex workers fight against every day.  I don’t see how sex workers will conquer stigma until society does a better job of dealing with it’s collective feelings of sexual shame. I believe that people in society shame the “whore” because she represents or seems to be an archetype for the vulnerability and shame they feel concerning their OWN selves as sexual beings. In short; society will only ever be able to treat the “whore” as well as it treats itself concerning sexuality.

Dr. Brown has done two TedTalks videos on this subject. I am going to forgo embedding the first; but I do highly suggest any who read this go watch it, and go straight to the second because she touches more on how these concepts effect men and women differently.

~~~Credit Where Credit Is Due~~~

For a long time I believed that religion was pretty much the only source of this sexual shame. I saw this long before I realized that I was an atheist and it is one of the things that drove me away from the Catholic church. FeministWhore’s reading from the introduction to the book The Woman Who Never Evolved by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy exposes some of the flaws in Darwin’s theories on female sexual selection. As he put it,

“As he put it, the female is ‘less eager to mate then the male.’ She ‘requires to be courted; she is coy, and may often be seen endeavoring for a long time to escape,’ until, impressed by his superiority, she chooses the ‘best’ male, endowing her offspring with such superior traits as he offers. Sexual selection was the theory Darwin himself found most relevant to human evolution, and this is why he titled his 1879 book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.”

And that according to Bateman’s paradigm sexually adventurous females should not exist. But by the 1970’s new evidence was emerging from other primates undermining this belief. Please take some time to watch the video below for more information.

Why does this matter? There seems to be a belief in society; whether they base it on religion, science, or anti-porn feminism, that it is unnatural for women to not want only one man and that any state other then monogamy is deeply damaging to the female psyche. This seems to be at the root of the paternalism that those who oppose sex workers’ rights display and why many “antis” believe that sex work is unnatural and thus exploitative in and of itself. But Hrdy’s findings expose a shocking possible truths.

  1. That there is nothing unnatural about females desiring multiple mating partners.
  2. That the commodification of sex may not only be natural and healthy but may be natures buffer for the sexual dimorphism of the human species.

IF this is true then I believe that it only goes to show that the monogamy Western religions, politicians and anti-porn feminists are trying to impose on the women of the world is in and of ITSELF unnatural and thus exploitative. Her work seems to show that polyandry and the way we as women have been isolated from that option plays an integral role in female oppression and that sex work may actually be a more natural expression of FEMALE sexual selection.

If this is true then I hypothesize that; as many sex workers’ rights advocates have been asserting for some time, it is not the sex work in and of itself that is the source of any psychological damage sex workers may experience in connection with that work but is in fact the social construct of sexual shame built around us that offers monogamy as the only socially acceptable option for sexual relationships and the stigmatization of commodified sex.

~~~”Fun Feminism” It Ain’t~~~

Sex-Positive Feminists are plagued with a stigma of their own and it’s one that; no matter how complex the arguments we make are, we never seem to shake. It’s a stigma that says all we care about is the fun of sex afforded to us by the cushy Western culture we seem lucky enough to live in. This is a common silencing and smear point utilized by the anti-sex worker’s rights brand of feminists. It is also a point that Audacia Ray has just conceded to the antis-sex worker crew doing a huge disservice to the sex workers’ rights movement by helping to isolate it from it’s fiercest, most consistent, most outspoken feminist supporters.

I understand that Ms. Ray believes that she is only trying to help. She states in her piece;

“the promotion of pleasure and sex positivity within the sex industry and as an element of sex worker rights activism, is proprietary to a small but very vocal group of people, namely: white, cisgender women who are conventionally attractive, able-bodied, and have some degree of class and educational privilege.”

…so now I suppose I am expected to qualify my oppression to her. Ok, I am a cisgendered, heterosexual, Mexica/American woman. And I do mean “Mexica” as I have also embarked on a journey of self de-colonization and reject terms like “Hispanic” (meaning “of Spain”) for myself. I am an atheist; and yes Christian privilege does exist, former sex worker (stripper), addict in sobriety, formerly homeless and one major illness away from homelessness again as I am too poor to afford health care and live pretty much week to week. I do have a lap top. I was lucky enough to come into a HUGE sum of money for me ($800) and decided to invest in one because at almost 40 with little money I knew educating myself on the internet would probably be the closest I would ever come to getting an education beyond the GED that I have now. So I”m not the most privileged in the world but I am also not the most underprivileged and I know that.

I trust I’ve groveled enough to prove to Ms. Ray that I am qualified to speak on issues concerning my own oppression. If my irritation at Ms. Ray’s piece is a bit transparent I will tell you why. I have been fighting to get my voice and arguments heard not only as a sex workers’ rights advocate and sex-positive feminist but as a woman of color contending with classist and racist anti-porn feminists who say they feel sorry for me and my “lack of options” and then turn around and call me “uneducated” when I don’t agree with them about what’s best for me for a couple of years now. The slut-shaming and harassment they have exacted on me has shocked and disappointed me because I never expected it coming from so-called “feminists.” I have fought very hard to prove that I am not just some privileged, sex obsessed “slut” to the audience they have tried so hard at every turn to disconnect me from.  I don’t appreciate Ms. Ray telling them that they are basically right about me. I wonder if it ever occurred to Ms. Ray that in saying sex-positive feminists are mostly highly-educated, white women blinded by their own privilege that she was actually helping to further silence women like me who don’t fit that mold within the movement. As if it’s not hard enough to get my foot in the door as an un-formally-educated, Godless, ex-stripper of colour who is staying sober one day at a time!

Her piece has been used as politely worded well-poisoning material against people like Greta Christina who have shown sex-workers the respect of allowing them to tell their OWN stories. An invitation I gladly accepted.

~~~Addressing The Arguments~~~


Is up at Greta Christina’s place. The thread is for sex workers only to share their experiences, so if you’ve done sex work, head over there. The comment section is an interesting and enlightening read, and showcases a variety of experiences. It’s also worth reading with the perspective that, while the internet is a large and diverse place, there are certain privileges inherent in having internet access, being literate, writing in English, being a part of online “free thought” communities, etc etc. So while the experiences documented are indeed diverse, there are certainly lots of voices that aren’t in that conversation (and I’ll refer everyone back to Audacia Ray for further consideration).

Before I address the “P” word let me say now that I AM NOT DENYING THE EXISTENCE OF PRIVILEGE. I know there’s gonna be some idiot that thinks my criticism of the excessive use of the “P” word as a well-poisoning tactic equals a denial of it’s existence. If this is you…you’re a moron. (Disclaimer over.)

Yes, privilege exists. Any of us who have access to clean drinking water, internet, electricity, reading and writing skills etc. have it ,but, the claim that ones view is a product of their own privilege and therefore has lesser validity to the discussion does not in and of itself constitute an argument. Any attempt to do so is nothing more then a good old fashioned ad hominem fallacy by where one is attacking the person making the argument on a personal level and NOT their argument.

Ms. Ray also commits this fallacy and a few others. She claims that sex-positive feminists’ views on sex work are a product of their privilege but does little to concretely prove this. She really only offers two solid examples of her assertion.

First, she quotesCarol Queen in the essay Sex Radical Politics, Sex-Positive Feminist Thought, and Whore Stigma,

“No one should ever, by economic constraint or any kind of interpersonal force, have to do sex work who does not like sex, who is not cut out for a life of sexual generosity (however attractively high the fee charged for it). (p. 134)”

She claims that,

Emphasizing sex and pleasure harms the sex workers who aren’t firmly in the self-defined population of being sex positive and sexually educated, by unintentionally shaming them for not being enthusiastic participants in the sex they have at work.

This seems to be a clever strawman to me. And there’s enough straw to go around. It seems to me that in making this statement that Queen was,

  1. Cautioning those who are not called to the sex industry and do have other means.
  2. Denouncing the other strawman sex workers’ rights advocates regularly have to slay that says we are all “pro-exploitation” and such.

No one should have to do sex work that does not enjoy it and the fact that many do is not an attempt at shaming them but an acknowledgement and denouncement of their oppression.

In her second example she asserts,

In the media trainings I do, I ask the participants to come up with a main message that, if they had two minutes, they want their audience to receive. They then need to back up this message with two or three talking points, one sentence statements that can be evidence-based, use logic or other rhetorical devices to give the audience a different perspective. Every time I have done the training, someone is eager to express the message that sex workers are average people with many dimensions: we are mothers, brothers, taxpayers, neighbors, pet enthusiasts, gourmet cooks, etc. Inevitably, one of the supporting talking points they come up with is, “You wouldn’t be able to distinguish me from anyone else you walk by; I’m not a street worker or a junkie.” But some sex workers – maybe not sex workers in your immediate circle – are street workers and junkies, and we cannot throw them under the bus as we have been doing.

…but this is anecdotal evidence and she gives no concrete evidence that this is common thinking among sex-positive feminists specifically.  She also does little by way of providing context. Where is the proof that the people making these distinctions are sex-positive feminists? In what context are they making these distinctions? It is no secret that antis attempt to paint all sex work and all sex workers with one broad brush. It seems like we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. I hope Ms. Ray is not purposely setting anyone up to have to play that game. That would be…disappointing.

Yes, sex-positive feminism is what you make it. Apparently Ms. Ray did not invest very much serious thought into hers and that is fine. I do not shame her for this. I do not; however, appreciate using her influence as a more predominant sex workers’ rights advocate to help reduce the work other more serious sex-positive feminists do to exactly what the antis would have the world believe we are and thus undermining the arguments we make in support of sex worker’s rights as well. As comment #6 of this thread states,

“And Audacia Ray is also correct that the sex-positive movement does tend to seriously downplay the role of coercion and trafficking in the sex industry.”

But questioning the methodologies used to garner what is taken for-granted as “common knowledge” about trafficking in persons and thus the knowledge itself is NOT a sex-positive feminist argument. It is a sex workers’ rights advocates argument! I fear where this will go.


~~~~~UPDATE 5/7/2012~~~~~

One of my best friends and sex workers’ rights mentor FeministWhore did a video on Ms. Ray’s piece as well. Please take the time to watch it.

16 responses to “On My Personal Sex-Positive Theory & Sex Work

  1. Of course, privilege makes you unqualified to speak for prostitutes who don’t have Internet access, so you should leave that to people with academic tenure who have only talked to prostitutes in controlled settings, if ever.

      • Melissa Farley at least did research that involved some talking to sex workers (who had been cherry picked to git her desired conclusions). What’s worse is her acolytes who think they know all about prostitution because they read about it on the Internet.

  2. Thanks for your research and post. I want to post something here…not just the link…which is the Manifesto from DMSC in Calcutta from 1997. It’s important to note how sex positive ideas inform this manifesto.


    SEX WORKERS’ MANIFESTO, Calcutta, 1997
    Read info re: origins of this Manifesto

    A new spectre seems to be haunting the society. Or maybe those phantom creatures who have been pushed into the shades for ages are taking on human form – and that is why there is so much fear. The sex workers’ movement for last few years have made us confront many fundamental questions about social structures, life, sexuality, moral rights and wrongs. We think an intrinsic component of our movement is to go on searching for the answers to these questions and raise newer ones.

    What is the sex workers’ movement all about?

    We came together as a collective community through our active involvement as health workers, the Peer Educators, in a HIV/STD Control Project which has been running in Sonagachhi since 1992. The Project provided the initial space for building mutual support, facilitating reflection and initiating collective action among us, sex workers. Very early in the life of the Sonagachhi Project, we, with the empathetic support of those who had started the Project, clearly recognised that even to realise the very basic Project objectives of controlling transmission of HIV and STD it was crucial to view us in our totality – as complete persons with a range of emotional and material needs, living within a concrete and specific social, political and ideological context which determine the quality of our lives and our health, and not see us merely in terms of our sexual behaviour.

    To give an example, while promoting the use of condoms, we soon realised that in order to change the sexual behaviour of sex workers it was not enough to enlighten them about the risks of unprotected sex or to improve their communication and negotiation skills. How will a sex worker who does not value herself at all think of taking steps to protect her health and her life? Even when fully aware of the necessity of using condoms to prevent disease transmission, may not an individual sex worker feel compelled to jeopardise her health in fear of losing her clients to other sex workers in the area unless it was ensured that all sex workers were able to persuade their clients to use condoms for every sexual act? Some sex workers may not even be in a position to try negotiate safer sex with a client as they may be too closely controlled by exploitative madams or pimps. If a sex worker is starving, either because she does not have enough custom or because most of her income goes towards maintaining a room or meeting the demands of madams, local power-brokers or the police, can she be really in a position to refuse a client who can not be persuaded to use condoms?

    And what about the client? Is a man likely to be amenable to learn anything from a woman, particularly an uneducated ‘fallen’ woman? For him does not coming to a prostitute necessarily involve an inherent element of taking risk and behaving irresponsibly? In which case are not notions of responsibility and safety completely contradict his attitude towards his relationship with a prostitute? Does not a condom represent an unnecessary impediment in his way to ‘total’ pleasure?

    In most case this male client himself may be a poor, displaced man. Is he in a position to value his own life or protect his health?

    Then again why does not a sex worker who is ready to use condom with her client, would never have protected sex with her lover or husband? What fine balance between commercial transaction and love, caution and trust, safety and intimacy engender such behaviour? How do ideologies of love, family, motherhood influence our every sexual gesture?

    Thus, thinking about such an apparently uncomplicated question – whether a sex worker can insist on having safe sex, made us realise that the issue is not at all simple. Sexuality and the lives and the movement of sex workers are intrinsically enmeshed in the social structure we live within and dominant ideology which shapes our values.

    Like many other occupations, sex work is also an occupation, and it is probably one of the’oldest’ profession’ in the world because it meets an important social demand. But theterm ‘prostitute’ is rarely used to refer to an occupational group who earn their livelihood through providing sexual services, rather it is deployed as a descriptive term denoting a homogenised category, usually of women, who poses threats to public health, sexual morality, social stability and civic order. Within this discursive boundary we systematically find ourselves to be targets of moralising impulses of dominant social groups, through missions of cleansing and sanitising, both materially and symbolically. If and when we figure in political or developmental agenda, we are enmeshed in discursive practices and practical projects which aim to rescue, rehabilitate, improve, discipline, control or police us. Charity organisations are prone to rescue us and put us in ‘safe’ homes, developmental organisations are likely to ‘rehabilitate’ us through meagre income generation activities, and the police seem bent upon to regularly raid our quarters in the name of controlling ‘immoral’ trafficking. Even when we are inscribed less negatively or even sympathetically within dominant discourses we are not exempt from stigmatisation or social exclusion. As powerless, abused victims with no resources, we are seen as objects of pity. Otherwise we appear as self-sacrificing and nurturing supporting cast of characters in popular literature and cinema, ceaselessly ready to give up our hard earned income, our clients, our ‘sinful’ ways and finally our lives to ensure the well-being of the hero or the society he represents. In either case we are refused enfranchisement as legitimate citizens or workers, and are banished to the margins of society and history.

    The kind of oppression that can be meted out to a sex worker can never be perpetrated against a regular worker. The justification given is that sex work is not real work – it is morally sinful. As prostitution is kept hidden behind the facade of sexual morality and social order, unlike other professions there is no legitimacy or scope for any discussion about the demands and needs of the workers of the sex industry.

    People who are interested in our welfare, and many are genuinely concerned, often can not think beyond rehabilitating us or abolishing prostitution altogether. However, we know that in reality it is perhaps impossible to ‘rehabilitate’ a sex worker because the society never allows to erase our identity as prostitutes. Is rehabilitation feasible or even desirable?

    In a country where unemployment is in such gigantic proportions, where does the compulsion of displacing millions of women and men who are already engaged in an income earning occupation which supports themselves and their extended families, come from? If other workers in similarly exploitative occupations can work within the structures of their profession to improve their working conditions, why can not sex workers remain in the sex industry and demand a better deal in their life and work?

    What is the history of sexual morality?

    Like other human propensities and desires, sexuality and sexual need are fundamental and necessary to the human condition. Ethical and political ideas about sexuality and sexual practices are socially conditioned and historically and contexually specific. In the society as we know it now, ideologies about sexuality are deeply entrenched within structures of patriarchy and largely misogynist mores. The state and social structures only acknowledges a limited and narrow aspect of our sexuality. Pleasure, happiness, comfort and intimacy find expression through sexuality. On one hand we weave narratives around these in our literature and art. But on the other hand our societal norms and regulations allow for sexual expression only between men and women within the strict boundaries of marital relations within the institution of the family.

    Why have we circumscribed sexuality within such a narrow confine, ignoring its many other expressions, experiences and manifestations?

    Ownership of private property and maintenance of patriarchy necessitates a control over women’s reproduction. Since property lines are maintained through legitimate heirs, and sexual intercourse between men and women alone carry the potential for procreation, capitalist patriarchy sanctions only such couplings. Sex is seen primarily, and almost exclusively, as an instrument for reproduction, negating all aspects of pleasure and desire intrinsic to it. Privileging heterosexuality, homosexuality is not only denied legitimacy, it is considered to be undesirable, unnatural, and deviant. Thus sex and sexuality are given no social sanction beyond their reproductive purpose.

    Do we then not value motherhood? Just because our profession or our social situation does not allow for legitimate parenthood, are we trying to claim motherhood and bearing children is unworthy and unimportant for women? That is not the case. We feel that every woman has the right to bear children with if she so wishes. But we also think that through trying to establish motherhood as the only and primary goal for a woman the patriarchal structures try to control women’s reproductive functions and curb their social and sexual autonomy. Many of us sex workers are mothers – our children are very precious to us. By social standards these children are illegitimate – bastards. But at least they are ours and not mere instruments for maintaining some man’s property or continuing his genealogy. However, we too are not exempt from the ideologies of the society we live in. For many of us the impossible desire for family, home and togetherness is a permanent source of pain.

    Do men and women have equal claims to sexuality?

    Societal norms about sex and sexuality do not apply similarly to men and women. If sexual needs are at all acknowledged beyond procreation, it is only for men. Even if there are minor variations from community to community and if in the name of modernity certain mores have changed in some place, it is largely men who have had enjoyed the right to be polygamous or seek multiple sexual partners. Women have always been expected to be faithful to a single man. Beyond scriptural prohibitions too, social practices severely restricts the expression of female sexuality. As soon as a girl reaches her puberty her behaviour is strictly controlled and monitored so as not to provoke the lust of men. In the name of ‘decency’ and ‘tradition’ a woman teacher is prohibited from wearing the clothes of her choice to the University. While selecting a bride for the son, the men of the family scrutinise the physical attributes of a potential bride. Pornographic representations of women satisfy the voyeuristic pleasures of millions of men. From shaving cream to bathroom fittings are sold through attracting men by advertisements depicting women as sex objects.

    In this political economy of sexuality there is no space for expression of women’s own sexuality and desires. Women have to cover up their bodies from men and at the same time bare themselves for male gratification. Even when women are granted some amount of subjecthood by being represented as consumers in commercial media, that role is defined by their ability to buy and normed by capitalist and patriarchal strictures.

    Is our movement anti-men?

    Our movement is definitely against patriarchy, but not against all individual men. As it so happens, apart from the madams and landladies almost all people who profit from the sex trade are men. But what is more important is that their attitudes towards women and prostitution are biased with strong patriarchal values. They generally think of women as weak, dependent, immoral or irrational – who need to be directed and disciplined. Conditioned by patriarchal gender ideologies, both men and women in general approve of the control of sex trade and oppression of sex workers as necessary for maintaining social order. The power of this moral discourse is so strong that we prostitutes too tend to think of ourselves as morally corrupt and shameless. The men who come to us as clients are victims of the same ideology too. Sometimes the sense of sin adds to their thrill, sometimes it leads to perversion and almost always it creates a feeling of self loathing among them. Never does it allow for confident, honest sexual interchange.

    It is important to remember that there is no uniform category as ‘men’. Men, like women are differentiated by their class, caste, race and other social relations. For many men adherence to the dominant sexual norm is not only impracticable but also unreal. The young men who look for sexual initiation, the married men who seek the company of ‘other’ women, the migrant labourers separated from their wives who try to find warmth and companionship in the red light area can not all be dismissed as wicked and perverted. To do that will amount to dismissing a whole history of human search for desire, intimacy and need. Such dismissal creates an unfulfilled demand for sexual pleasure, the burden of which though shared by men and women alike, ultimately weighs more heavily on women. Sexuality – which can be a basis of an equal, healthy relationship between men and women, between people, becomes the source of further inequality and stringent control. This is what we oppose.

    Next to any factory, truckers check points, market there has always been red light areas. The same system of productive relations and logic of profit maximisation, which drivesmen from their homes in villages to towns and cities, make women into sex workers for these men.

    What is deplorable is that this patriarchal ideology is so deeply entrenched, and the interest of men as a group is so solidly vested in it, that women’s question hardly ever find a place in mainstream political or social l movements. The male workers who organise themselves against exploitation rarely address the issues of gender oppression, let alone the oppression of sex workers. Against the interest of women these radical men too defend the ideology of the family and patriarchy.

    Are we against the institution of family?

    In the perception of society we sex workers and in fact all women outside the relation of conjugality are seen as threats to the institution of family. It is said that enticed by us, men stray from the straight and narrow, destroy the family. All institutions from religion to formal education reiterate and perpetuate this fear about us. Women and men too, are the victims of this all pervasive misogyny.

    We would like to stress strongly that the sex workers movement is not against the institution of family. What we challenge is the inequity and oppression within the dominant notions of an ‘ideal’ family which support and justify unequal distribution of power and resources within the structures of the family. What our movement aims at is working towards a really humanitarian, just and equitable structure of the family which is perhaps yet to exist.

    Like other social institutions the family too is situated within the material and ideological structures of the state and society. The basis of a normative ideal family is inheritance through legitimate heirs and therefore sexual fidelity. Historically, the structures of families in reality have gone through many changes. In our country, by and large joint families are being replaced by nuclear ones as a norm. In fact, in all societies people actually live their lives in many different ways, through various social and cultural relations – which deviate from this norm, but are still not recognised as the ideal by the dominant discourses.

    If two persons love each other, want to be together, want to raise children together, relateto the social world it can be a happy, egalitarian, democratic arrangement. But does it really happen like that within families we see, between couple we know? Do not we know 0f many, many families where there is no love, but relations are based on inequality and oppression. Do not many legal wives virtually live the life of sex slaves in exchange for food and shelter? In most cases women do not have the power or the resources to opt out of such marriages and families. Sometimes men and women both remain trapped in empty relations by social pressure. Is this situation desirable? Is it healthy?

    The whore and the Madonna – divide and rule

    Within the oppressive family ideology it is women’s sexuality that is identified as the main threat to conjugal relationship of a couple. Women are pitted against each other as wife against the prostitute, against the chaste and the immoral – both represented as fighting over the attention and lust of men. A chaste wife is granted no sexuality, only a de-sexed motherhood and domesticity. At the other end of the spectrum is the ‘fallen’ woman – a sex machine, unfettered by any domestic inclination or ‘feminine’ emotion. A woman’s goodness is judged on the basis of her desire and ability to control and disguise her sexuality. The neighbourhood girl who dresses up can not be good, models and actresses are morally corrupt. In all cases female sexuality is controlled and shaped by patriarchy to reproduce the existing political economy of sexuality and safeguard the interest of men. A man has access to his docile home-maker wife, the mother of his children and the prostitute who sustain his wildest sexual fantasies. Women’s sexual needs are not only considered to be important enough, in most cases its autonomy is denied or even its existence is erased.

    Probably no one other than a prostitute really realises the extent of loneliness, alienation, desire and yearning for intimacy that brings men to us. The sexual need we meet for these men is not just about mechanical sexual act, not an momentary gratification of ‘base’ instincts. Beyond the sex act, we provide a much wider range of sexual pleasure which is to with intimacy, touch and companiability – a service which we render without any social recognition of its significance. At least men can come to us for their sexual needs – however prurient or shameful the system of prostitution may be seen as. Women hardly have such recourse. The autonomy of women’s sexuality is completely denied. The only option they have is to be prostitutes in the sex industry.

    Why do women come to prostitution?

    Women take up prostitution for the same reason as they may take up any other livelihood option available to them. Our stories are not fundamentally different from the labourer from Bihar who pulls a rickshaw in Calcutta, or the worker from Calcutta who works part time in a factory in Bombay. Some of us get sold into the industry. After being bonded to the madam who has bough us for some years we gain a degree of independence within the sex industry. A whole of us end up in the sex trade after going through many experiences in life, – often unwillingly, without understanding all the implications of being a prostitute fully.

    But when do most of us women have access to choice within or outside the family? Do we become casual domestic labourer willingly? Do we have a choice about who we want to marry and when? The choice’ is rarely real for most women, particularly poor women.

    Why do we end up staying in prostitution? It is after all a very tough occupation. The physical labour involved in providing sexual services to multiple clients in a working day is no less intense or rigorous than ploughing or working in a factory. It is definitely not fun and frolic. Then there are occupational hazards like unwanted pregnancy, painful abortions, risk of sexually transmitted diseases. In almost all red light areas housing and sanitation facilities are abysmal, the localities are crowded, most sex workers quite poor, and on top of it there is police harassment and violence from local thugs. Moreover, to add to the material condition of deprivation and distress, we have to take on stigmatisation and marginalisation, – the social indignity of being ‘sinful’, being mothers of illegitimate children, being the target of those children’s frustrations and anger.

    Do we advocate ‘free sex’?

    What we advocate and desire is independent, democratic, non-coercive, mutually pleasurable and safe sex. Somehow ‘free sex’ seems to imply irresponsibility and lack of concern for other’s well-being, which is not what we are working towards. Freedom of speech, expression or politics all come with obligations and need to acknowledge and accommodate other’s freedom too. Freedom of sexuality should also come with responsibility and respect for other’s needs and desires. We do want the freedom to explore and shape a healthy and mature attitude and practice about sex and sexuality – free from obscenity and vulgarity. We do not yet know what this autonomous sexuality will be like in practice – we do not have the complete picture as yet. We are working people not soothsayers or prophets. When for the first time in history when workers agitated for class equity and freedom from capitalist exploitation, when the blacks protested against white hegemony, when feminist rejected the subordination of women they too did not know fully what the new system they were striving for would exactly be like. There is no exact picture of the ‘ideal’ future – it can only emerge and be shaped through the process of the movement.

    All we can say in our imagination of autonomous sexuality men and women will have equal access, will participate equally, will have the right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and there will be no space for guilt or oppression.

    We do not live in an ideal social world today. We do not know when and if ever an idea social order will come into place. In our less than ideal world if we can accept the immorality of commercial transaction over food, or health why is sex for money so unethical and unacceptable. Maybe in an ideal world there will be no need for any such transactions – where material, emotional, intellectual and sexual needs of all will be met equitably and with pleasure and happiness. We do not know. All we can do now is to explore the current inequalities and injustices, question their basis and confront, challenge and change them.

    Which way is our movement going?

    The process of struggle that we, the members of Mahila Samanwaya Committee are currently engaged in has only just begun. We think our movement has two principal aspects. The first one is to debate, define and re-define the whole host of issues about gender, poverty, sexuality that are being thrown up within the process of the struggle itself . Our experience of Mahila Samanwaya Committee shows that for a marginalised group to achieve the smallest of gains, it becomes imperative to challenge an all encompassing material and symbolic order that not only shapes the dominant discourses outside but, and perhaps more importantly, historically conditions the way we negotiate our own locations as workers within the sex industry. This long term and complex process will have to continue.

    Secondly, the daily oppression that is practised on us with the support of the dominant ideologies, have to be urgently and consistently confronted and resisted. We have to struggle to improve the conditions of our work and material quality of our lives, and that can happen through our efforts towards us, sex workers, gaining control over the sex industry itself. We have started the process – today in many red light areas in cities, towns and villages, we sex workers have come to organise our own forums to create solidarity and collective strength among a larger community of prostitutes, forge a positive identity for ourselves as prostitutes and mark out a space for acting on our own behalf.

    Male prostitutes are with us too

    The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee was originally formed by women sex workers of Sonagachhi and neighbouring red light areas, and initially for women prostitutes. However, within two years of our coming into existence male sex workers have come and joined as at their own initiative. These male sex workers provide sexual services to homosexual men primarily. As our society is strongly homophobic, and in fact, penetrative sexual act even between consenting adult men can still be legally penalised, the material and ideological status of male sex workers is even more precarious. We therefore had welcomed them in our midst as comrades in arms and strongly believe that their participation will make the sex workers’ movement truly representative and robust.

    Sex workers movement is going on – it has to go on. We believe the questions about sexuality that we are raising are relevant not only to us sex workers but to every men and women who question subordination of all kinds – within the society at large and also within themselves. This movement is for everyone who strives for an equal, just, equitable, oppression free and above all a happy social world. Sexuality, like class and gender after all makes us what we are. To deny its importance is to accept an incomplete existence as human beings. Sexual inequality and control of sexuality engender and perpetuate many other inequalities and exploitation too. We’re faced with situation to shake the roots of all such injustice through our movement. We have to win this battle and the war too – for a gender just, socially equitable, emotionally fulfilling, intellectually stimulating and exhilarating future for men, women and children.

  3. WOW….I remember reading that manifesto during my “library rat” days in college. Powerful stuff.

    I sincerely hope that that is Carol Leigh (the original “Scarlot Harlot”) posting that comment.

    It was another Carol, though, who solidified my own sex positive belief system; Carol Queen: her seminal essay on sex positivity and sex worker activism is over at my Red Garter Club blog.



  4. Audacia Ray’s concession is easily answered: Eliminate the poverty, and the only people in the sex industry will be there because they want to, not because they lack privilege. Those Dr. Brown vids are great.

  5. I think the problem with labelling yourself a “sex positive” feminist is that you imply that those who oppose you are “sex-negative”. Being an opponent of prostitution and pornography does not mean one is anti-sex. It means that one is anti-commercialisation of sex- which is a huge difference. In fact, many argue that prostitution and pornography do not actually involve real sex as what most people include in their definition of sex is the presence of mutual attraction and desire- which are most certainly not present when money is involved. I also find it interesting that you say all those who oppose prostitution and pornography are trying to push people into monogamous heterosexual relationships. Perhaps those on the Christian right may be advocating for such a thing, but I have never ever heard of a radical feminist who promotes heterosexual monogamous relationships as the ideal. In fact, I would say they tend to be harsher in their criticism of such relationships than you are.

    • Sorry, Elle, but I have to disagree with that standard.

      First, calling yourself “sex-positive” does not automatically render everyone else as “sex-negative”, any more than calling yourself a blonde renders everyone else a brunette or redhead. The term “sex-positive” refers to a distinct belief system, not a series of behaviors.

      Secondly, while it is true that most opponents of prostitution and porn are not necessarily “anti-sex” to the extent that they oppose sexual activity per se, the overwhelming majority of those who are most critical of the “sex positive” label are most definitely sexual conservatives at the least, who wish to throttle or reduce sexual activity or sexual thought into a very narrow and restrictive paradigm that punishes and devalues consent and would reduce significantly the parameters of sexual autonomy. In other words, “sex negativity” isn’t just an invention of “sex positives”, but an active countermovement, and therefore it is perfectly legitimate to both state their positions as “sex negative” and promote an alternative vision as “sex positive”.

      Third….it is true that plenty of radical feminists are as critical of heterosexual monogamy as the “sex positive” feminists are….but the difference is in the focis of the opposition. The “antis” merely want to incorporate a female-centered restrictive sexual morality to replace what they percieve as “the patriarchy” as a means of imposing on men pretty much the same restrictive sexual order as the traditional “patriarchy” has imposed on women. It may be a bit different than the hetero monogamous marriage model of the Christian Right, but it is no less (if not in some cases even more) restirctive in its policing of strict sexual boundaries.

      And finally….there is nothing that says that “mutual attraction” and “desire” is incompatible with the exchange of money for sexual favor, or that consensual sexual exchange need only be redeemable through free expression. There really is no true definition of what constitutes “real sex”, since “reality” is dependent on the motives of the participants, as well as the context of the liasons. It is not your or my business to tell free and consenting people what is “real sex” and what is not.


      • There really is no such thing as the opposites of hair colour- a brown is not the opposite of blonde, as there is also red, black and mixed, varying shades of all. However, positivity and negativity are terms that usually imply dichotomy- if you are not positive about something you are usually negative about it. Yes, neutrality, does exist , but I don’t think it can be applied to the case of opinions and feeling about sex as people usually feel strongly about the topic.

        And I am pretty sure that sex positive feminists gave themselves this label to distinguish themselves from anti-pornstitution feminists- not from the Christian right. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they just call themselves plain old feminists?

        “The “antis” merely want to incorporate a female-centered restrictive sexual morality to replace what they percieve as “the patriarchy” as a means of imposing on men pretty much the same restrictive sexual order as the traditional “patriarchy” has imposed on women.”
        – Can you please explain what “female-centred restrictive sexual morality” is as described by radical feminists because I have never encountered it in my readings before.

        – Most definitely rad fems want to replace the patriarchy, but again, I have never read that they wanted to continue any form of a “restrictive sexual order”.

        “And finally….there is nothing that says that “mutual attraction” and “desire” is incompatible with the exchange of money for sexual favor”
        – Again, I fail to see the logic here. If someone really wants to have sex with someone, they don’t need to be paid for it because their want is the sex itself.

        It is not your or my business to tell free and consenting people what is “real sex” and what is not.

        – A trademark slogan of the neoliberal age. Here is another one I often hear: I am free to make my CHOICE- so don’t tell me what to do. Well, if your choice is *truly* free (but in most cases of pornstiution I would argue it is not), then I am free to critique that choice because you do not live on a deserted island or in a bubble and that choice can and does affect me and other people (especially women & children) in this society. Yes, individuals can make choices but they should remember that these choices affect other individuals. You can also choose to drive an SUV, but your choice creates pollution and causes damage to an environment we all share. And so then I ask you too, what happens to my choice to breathe clean air? I guess I don’t get to make that one, huh? It’s a funny thing how our individual actions and choices affect each other, isn’t it? So, yes, people are also free to define sex as ‘whatever individuals say it is’, but again, I am free to critique it and disagree with such a definition, especially when it is inherently contradictory and its effect causes harm to many people.

        • I find it interesting that Elle tries to paint herself and other radical feminists, who are decisively sex negative in the very aspects I pointed out in my comment, as mere centrists and victims of the hegemony of “sex-positive” feminists. Sorry,ma’am, but your comment simply reveals justifies my point.

          Yes, “positive” and “negative” can be used as descriptive terms to paint your opponents as bad and yourself as good….but they can also be referenced to the different poles of a discussion. (Example: the positive and negative poles of a car battery. )

          In the”sex war” debates, however, they are perfectly adquate in describing the two polar and diametrially opposite views on sexuality. It is not an invention of the “sex positives”, but an emperical FACT that the majority of radical feminists who are the most critical of the term “sex positive” and what it stands, take a far more conservative view about sexuality than those whom they criticize. That doesn’t mean or imply at all that anyone not endorsing the label “sex positive” is either “antisex” or opposed to sex per se. And no one who has endorsed the term has ever, as far as I know, attempted to dismiss those not taking the label as “antisex”. If anything, “sex positives” are far more willing to accept the diversity of sexual behavior and sexual choices, while their opponents tend to want to impose a conservative, restrictive, and highly narrow vision of sexuality. And some of them are quite open about it, too. Does the shoe it a little too comfortably, Elle??

          A “female-centered sexual morality” works like this: any use of sexuality totally unredeemed from and seperated from defined “female” values such as “intimacy” or “female friendship” or tainted with any connection with mere physical pleasure or material instinct, is deemed to be worthy of sanction, shame, isolation, and ultimately banishment from the “feminist” community. Essentially, it is the Religious Right’s sex loathing, yet twisted with a radicalfeminist patina of “liberating women” from the “patriarchy”.

          No radfems want to impose a conservative social order?? Really, Elle?? Do the names Gail Dines, Shelia Jeffreys, Donna Hughes, Janice Raymond, Julie Bindel, and Melissa Farley ring any bells?

          And finally….ma’am, no one is in any way criticizing your right to speak out against sex work or porn or whatever you are against. Knock yourself out….opinions are free. The quality of your critique, however, is very much open to criticism itself, and when you decide to come to a blog post from a sex worker advocate/sex-positive feminist and question her legitimacy, then you should expect defenders of her to respond with reasoned criticism of your ideas in kind.

          Oh…and this “choices should be restricted because your individual rights affect others” meme?? No one on our side denies that….but no one here advocates a “anything and everything goes” approach to sexuality; what we do say is that consenting adult human beings should have both the freedom and the resources to make their own decisions about their sexuality, and that since the exchange of sex for money simply is NOT going away any time soon, it’s far better to create safer and saner environments for such activity to occur. Why ban SUV’s when simply imposing tighter emission standards, better regulations on air quality, and simply building more fuel efficient and cleaner-burning, enviornmentally safe vehicles will do just as well? Unless, of course, you are more after power over people rather than effective means of harm reduction.

          Like I said, Elle….does the shoe fit just a bit too comfortably??


        • @Elle I think yes sex-pozzies do believe rad fems are sex-neg but only because we see all of society as sex-neg and rad fems are just one little group in that greater whole. It’s as if they are hurt that we don’t think they’re any different then anybody else.

  6. Thanks so much for your courage to express your views and to push beyond the conventional borders of common sense. This openness to speak is what makes me optimistic about the future, not only of sexual freedom, but all freedom.

    My only concern, with regard to sex in general, is to what extent we address the issue of bullying and power-centered thinking (or the power mentality) – because I think we are at a time in history when we “forget” that our human ancestors were not so much warriors as peaceful, whimsical, maybe slightly lazy, semi crazy, absurd, foolish, bashful, dreamy & not so busy people.

    It is such a shame that “modesty” has come to signify an aversion to sex. For me, modesty means losing the hurry and the rush (and the overfocus on success & elite motifs), and certainly the over-focus on conquest, which I think has badly infected our notion of human beauty, and therefore our notion of sex and what sex means.

    When I see people in the sex industry PLAYING into that vision, emulating forms of beauty that are really just references to conquest / competition (glamour, symmetrical voluptuousness, etc), I think we are still forgetting or overlooking an aspect of humanity that is a key to a much deeper beauty. I don’t mean to downplay the aspect of conquest, because that is clearly human, and clearly organic… but I do wonder about some sense of what ELSE we are – and what better place to talk about this than in the context of so-called sex “work.” (I sure wish we could somehow take the connotation of “toil” out of that word.)

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