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.