Thinking Through The Sex Trade

I love when people say feminism is a monolithic dogma with a specific party-line that must be towed. It’s hilarious. Obviously they’ve never been around more than one feminist at a time when the subject of sex work or pornography comes up.

It’s pretty much an instant debate, really. You step in one direction and you’re slut-shaming. Step another direction and you’re genital-essentializing. Take another step and you’re sex-negative. Another and you’re supporting objectification and rape culture. Etc.

I don’t want to prop up the myth of the “hyper-sensitive” feminist and her hair-trigger temper, but it does get a bit frustrating how easily people’s positions on the matter get straw-manned, misinterpreted or used as a basis on which to make a litany of assumptions about what they think on a hundred disparate issues pertaining to sexuality and such. It’s often hard to find a chance to actually outline your position before someone has gone ahead and projected one onto you.

The reason for that, I find, is that the question of pornography and sex work involves a number of extremely important questions held in tension and conflict. It’s a loaded issue not only in terms of a particular set of implications for women’s rights, gender, sexual rights, etc. but several, spanning different considerations that may or may not be prioritized the same way by one feminist or another.

There’s the question of bodily autonomy I talked about yesterday, and what it implies to have an abstract state telling a woman she must not use her body in a particular way. There’s the question of representation, and what this means in terms of our cultural conception of what a woman’s role (sexual or otherwise) “ought” to be. There’s the question of the degree to which our perceptions on the issue are being muddied by outdated codes of sexual morality. There’s the question of how often a woman involved in such work actually is making a true and genuine choice, versus being forced (in varying degrees) into the sex industry through socio-economic circumstances or even outright coercion. There’s the question of slut-shaming and the intense degree of stigmatization attached to sex work that is almost certainly filtering our ideas of what sex work is and means through a heavy cultural bias. There’s the ways that pornographic representation plays into issues of intersectionality, and cultural concepts not only of male sexuality and female sexuality, but also how we understand race, disability, gender variance, homosexuality, and many other concepts through a lens of sexuality, and the immense potential for exploitation and othering.

And there’s probably a whole textbook worth of other issues I just totally overlooked.

Working through those concepts to end up arriving at some kind of definitive, comprehensive position on sex work and pornography is virtually impossible. There’s just WAY too many variables and implications to take into consideration to make any kind of grand sweeping general statement. But yet, the intense degree of cultural baggage attached to the issue ends up sort of insisting on that. I keep finding myself backed into corners where I need to proclaim myself definitively pro-legalization of sex work, or against the sex trade, or in sex-positive and in favour of pornography, or totally against the sexualization of women in media. Every time I have to make such a proclamation in order to spare myself the hassle of people projecting some OTHER definitive generalized position onto me (one they disagree with), I’m, at best, telling a half-truth. I wonder how many feminists are doing the same.

Do ANY of us actually have a definitive, all-encompassing position on any of this?

When you work through the individual considerations, what you arrive at is an ever-expanding set of complications and interlocking ambiguities. In so far as I have a position, it’s based on questions, not answers.

To give an idea of what I mean, let’s take a walk through the exciting, magical world of pornography and erotica (not that there’s exactly a meaningful difference between those two terms). One thing I’ve found almost as predictable as “it will rain in Vancouver some time this week” is the fact that if I’m on the internet and I mention demeaning and/or sexist pornography, someone will chime in with “but not all porn is like that! There’s feminist porn!” or “there’s porn that portrays lesbian intimacy in a non-objectifying way!” or “there’s porn that portrays trans women without demeaning them!”, etc. Let me make this clear: I know. I know that porn is not by nature sexist, misogynist, demeaning, othering, etc. I know that not all porn producers and performers are greedy, shallow, predatory, exploitative, desperate or sell-outs. I know that porn can be made in socially conscious ways, and still be sexy, fun and awesome (generally even more so). I know, I know, I know. When I refer to “demeaning pornography” or “sexist pornography”, I mean the demeaning and sexist kinds, respectively. You know, like I said.

The fact that porn is not necessarily a harmful thing, and that there’s nothing problematic about it as a…um… genre? Medium? What would you call it, exactly? Well… whatever it’s called, that’s not the problem. But that does not mean that how it is done is not typically highly problematic.

One of the arguments often made against the anti-porn types is that they are holding porn as apart from other types of media, and looking at through a specially negative lens. This may often indeed be the case. Our sexual moralities lead a lot of people to assume a negative bias towards things associated with open sexuality, like porn, and to hold them to a particularly high standard in order to prove themselves worthy of existing.

But that’s not necessarily what everyone is always doing when they make a point about the problematic nature of certain types of porn. In fact, the inverse often ends up being the case: sex-positive feminists will also hold porn to a different standard than that to which they hold other media and will give it special exemptions, as they perhaps over-zealously work to avoid giving it special criticism.

What I mean by this is that feminists who will, say, enthusiastically offer (legitimate) criticism of the way that women are represented in non-porn media like the Michael Bay Tranformers movies, or Sherlock, or Sucker Punch, or Madea Gets A Job, or whatever, will consider critique of the way that women are represented in pornography to suddenly not be worthy of the same questions.

The premise driving feminist critique of media is that our overall cultural conception of women (and of femininity, masculinity, gender roles, and gender as a big crazy multi-stuff thinky-brainy thing) is largely constructed and maintained through media like film, television, literature, etc. This therefore makes media complicit in whatever consequences arise from our cultural attitudes about gender.

So if we accept this premise as true in the case of non-pornographic media, why would it non be true in the case of pornography? There is a trend from the opposite direction where people will overstate the influence of pornography on cultural attitudes (and on the individual) where the idea is that porn directly mediates / affects / determines the sexuality or attitudes of the consumer. Sex-positive feminism I think rightfully debunks that assumption (which if I remember correctly has also been debunked by science as well… I kind of recall there being studies concluding that consumption of porn does not have a significant impact on a man’s attitudes towards women or his sexuality. Anyone have any links? Am I getting this wrong?). But that’s not what I’m suggesting. I don’t think porn has any kind of special influence on attitudes about gender and sex, only that it holds to assume it probably has more or less at least the same kind of influence that other media does.

So it doesn’t really hold for me that we should grant pornography special exemptions and consider it off limits in terms of critique of how it presents things. I sort of feel we ought to just throw it in with the stack of media as a general thing and consider its weight there. Sort of like how I’m not an atheist because I have any special problem with the idea of God, but because I hold that idea to the same standard of critique I hold all ideas.

Like… let’s take the way trans women are represented in most media. We’ve got the occasional documentaries, where you can kill your liver playing The Trans Documentary Drinking Game. We’ve got the typically horribly written and poorly researched newspaper articles that make me want to shove a drill into my left tempero-parietal region and Broca’s Area. We’ve got the various web-comics and fan-fics and stuff, most of which function as sublimated sexual fantasy or wish-fulfillment scenarios. We’ve got the one or two feature films that come out each year, which while maintaining a veneer of sensitivity usually have a pretty significant set of problems (and always fail my adapted Bechdel Test). Then there’s the couple dozen genuinely great books, and the little trans blogosphere, that do a fantastic job of actually articulating trans experience and perspectives but almost no one actually reads. And then there’s the porn. Lots of it.

If the “shemale” and “chicks-with-dicks” porn and the “hot asian shemale traps” and “submissive thai ladyboys” and “DDD trannies with big tits and bigger cocks!” sites  (I’m just typing these examples to get a boost in traffic, really) are a significant portion of the representation of trans women in our culture, and what constitutes people’s perceptions of that, why shouldn’t we question it, and think about what that means, what the potential consequences are?

Posing such questions is not the same thing as demonizing pornography itself anymore than saying that Megan Fox’s character in Transformers was a highly problematic look into Hollywood’s stagnant way of writing and representing female characters is some kind of indictment of cinema as a medium. Yes, there have been fantastically feminist films, and fantastic films that weren’t specifically feminist but still did a terrific job or writing women, and fantastic films that may not have included women at all but were still terrific masterpieces of the medium. But we still can look at specific instances of sexism in film, and still talk about what that means. Likewise pornography. The presence of good, high-quality, feminist and queer-friendly and trans-friendly and non-coercive and non-demeaning pornography doesn’t erase the problems with the rest of it.

(also please stop acting like you’re the only person in the world whose ever heard of socially conscious porn, and that we’ll totally instantly agree with you about whatever once we discover it exists… it’s kind of annoying in the same way those “have you heard of our saviour Jesus Christ?” people are)

And the truth is that pornography, and critique of it, is something we often need to talk about. It’s impossible, for instance, to discuss the problems of race in the gay community without looking at the representation of men of colour in gay pornography. It’s impossible to discuss the different way homophobia operates in relation to gay men compared to how it operates in relation to lesbians without looking at representations of “lesbians” in pornography meant for consumption by straight men. And in all instances, pornography provides an extremely important touchstone for how any given group or element of identity is culturally conceptualized, particularly in relation to gender and sexuality- disability, size, amputation, tattoos, race, intersexuality, etc. When we silence this discourse by labeling it “sex-negative”, we’ve lost something vital.

But of course, silencing the discourse about the ways in which pornography can be a healthy expression of sexuality, or the discourse about the rights and dignity of those who produce or perform in pornography, is likewise to lose something vital. As much as these tensions are understandable given the degree to which our culture has weighted anything connected to sexuality, we can’t allow those tensions to snap and leave us unable to think about, or discuss, these issues.

What we’re left with is the complexity. Which leads us to a point where the only viable way to talk about pornography is in terms of specific instances, specific types, specific situations, specific representations, specific critiques.

This is more or less the same position we end up in regards to the question of sex work. As much as we make legitimate generalized statements, such as that legalization or decriminalization is the only way to offer sex workers proper protection and safety, or that a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her body and sexuality needs to be protected even if many would “disapprove” of her choices, or that it’s pointless to criminalize it anyway since it will always continue to exist, we will always end up having complications pop up- how much is it really her choice? What impact would decriminalization have on sex trafficking and human slavery, and our ability to locate and combat it?

The thing is, yes, absolutely I think legalization or decriminalization is the proper decision, and the one that would lead to the best conditions for sex workers. I don’t think there’s any good, fully justified argument against it. But I take that position in awareness of the complexity, and largely because of it. Because we CAN’T universally say that all sex workers are coerced, or aren’t legitimately choosing to do sex work, or are only choosing it because of their circumstances, or that all professional sex acts are an act of unequal sexual domination without fair equitable consent (the money introducing an imbalance into the legitimacy of the consent, such as authority or threat does), or that the sex trade as a general thing contributes to misogyny or rape culture, etc. Therefore we need to accommodate the possibility and existence of mature, reasonable, respectful, safe, fully informed and consensual sexual acts done in a context of business.

I’ve got a couple friends who run cam-sites. I have a friend who is quite successful in feature porn films. And I have two friends who do sex work, one of whom makes an enormous amount of money as a high-track “specialty” escort. All of these women did genuinely choose to do this. For none of them was it a “no other choice” situation. They’re all happy with the work they do, are not ashamed of it, and it’s hard for me to imagine why anyone would think they need to be stopped from doing it “for their own good”. And I’ve honestly considered it myself on occasion. Seriously. Sometimes I get tired of ramen and peanut butter toast.

It’s because of women like that that sex work ought to be legal, because that’s what sex work can be. Not because of ignorance of the other horrible circumstances under which sex work does occur. As such, it’s awareness that there’s not a particular universal narrative or universally “dehumanizing” / “demeaning” way that this kind of work happens that leads me to supporting legalization / decriminalization (well… that and the whole dramatic improvement in safety thing… and the bodily autonomy thing too… actually there’s lots of reasons…).

However, none of that means we need to turn a blind eye to the existence of human trafficking and slavery, coercion, socio-economic influences, survival sex work, intersectionality with issues of race or poverty or transgenderism, the influence of sex work on cultural ideas about sexuality and gender and overlapping issues of identity, and so forth. We can consider a range of possibilities involved in what the sex trade is, what it means, and how it operates (and chiefly how what it is and means and how is something that can shift dramatically from circumstance to circumstance) and keep the cultural dialogue open. Discuss the facts, possibilities, risks, implications… talk. Think. Come up with ideas and possibly solutions or harm reduction strategies.

The problem here is that entrenched concepts of both our old biases about sexual morality AND the imposed dichotomy of “sex-positive” / “sex-negative” present an oversimplified comprehension of an intensely complex element of human life and society. Under both we’ve got pressures influencing us to prematurely shut down dialogue and thought, or assume a particular over-arching positi0n on something that may work completely differently under different circumstances. What is of primary importance, I believe, rather than championing such positions is simply being able to foster a healthy discussion of these issues. Jumping too quickly to slut-shaming or accusations of “sex-negativity” or otherwise reprimanding someone just for trying to think or talk about an issue related to the sex industry prevents us from being able to ever arrive at a meaningful discourse about it.

Right now, when it comes to sex work and pornography, we do not need to have conclusions and answers and positions (much less those that can be condensed into pithy sound-bytes or identities or isms), and shouldn’t really have them demanded of us. We’re not there yet. What we need to be working towards right now is just being able to ask the right questions, and have the right conversations.





  1. Anders says

    Just OOC, is man-on-man porn considered a feminist issue at all? There are a lot of straight and bi women who find that very stimulating.

    Otherwise, a good article. I’ll be back when I’ve thought things through. So sometime next year. 🙂

    • Megan says

      As far as I know, the only man-on-man porn that gets much feminist discussion features trans men. Likewise, porn featuring trans women doesn’t really appear on the radar as a feminist issue, either – regardless of whether the feminists in question are pro- or anti-porn. Basically, cissexism is just as big a problem in feminist conversations around porn as it is in any other area of feminist activism.

      • Anders says

        How about animated porn? Yaoi, Yuri, and whatever else of tentacled-nightmare-fuel/erotica that our Japanese friends can think up? Sure, there are voice actors, but I imagine that’s not as hard work as actually being filmed.

        • says

          I recall finding at least one anti-porn activist site on the internet where they similarly opposed animated or drawn porn. When they draw an absolute line in the sand, they really mean it.

          Well, except for “romance” novels. Those didn’t count, for some reason. Anyone who’s ever cracked a few open surely knows all manner of questionable ideas lie inside.

          If I remember right, the “justification” for this was that it is wrong to involve women in their own “subjugation”. Somehow, the fact that most erotic novels are written by women for women escaped them…

          It’s fine to contest fictional sex acts as being in poor taste, but they’re not any more dangerous or degrading than fictional violent acts.

        • Infophile says

          There are a few different types of complaints about animated porn that I’ve heard:

          1. There’s the standard “it’s obscene” camp, which would outlaw it on the basis of “obscenity” (a word with no specific legal definition). Of course, these people would do the same to live action porn if they could convince people, so this isn’t really unique.

          2. There’s a subsection worried about animated porn of minors, which is currently a legally-grey area. Even though no actual minors are harmed in the production, it still often gets prosecuted under the same laws as live-action child porn. There have been a few high profile cases, but none that have actually gone to court (as it would be hard to convince a jury against an obscenity charge, however good the legal arguments).

          3. Most significantly, there’s a lot of critique of the content of animated porn. Perhaps in part because most of it comes from Japan, which is even more patriarchal than the US (the major manufacturer of most live action porn), perhaps because they can get away with more when the characters are less-obvious real people, it tends to have far worse implications. For instance, rape is a far more common scene in animated porn than in live-action (I’d hazard an estimate that over half of all hentai OVAs have at least one rape scene).

          But really, it’s simply not on the radar that much in the English-speaking world, except among consumers of it. Over in Japan, however, there’s a bit more discourse, primarily about #2 and #3 above. There’s a lot I could say about it, but to keep this comment a reasonable length, I’ll simply say that none of the debate is about the voice actors for it; it’s all about the content.

          • says

            Perhaps in part because most of it comes from Japan, which is even more patriarchal than the US …

            That’s very questionable. There is no comparable counterpart to the theocratic right we have in the United States, for example.

            In both countries, conservatives have a lot of political power and a large influence in the media. That doesn’t say much about the general public’s views, to be honest.

    • Rieux says

      is man-on-man porn considered a feminist issue at all?

      By some, absolutely. I can’t find a reference at the moment, but I distinctly remember reading an assertion by Andrea Dworkin that gay-male porn is misogynist because a penetrated male partner is a feminized stand-in for a woman.

      More concretely, the anti-porn laws promoted by Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon have had severe impacts on gay porn (both gay-male and lesbian), a fact that both of those advocates were perfectly comfortable with.

      I’m only a little more comfortable declaring unadulturated support for pornography than Natalie is (and I sure as hell am not criticizing feminism), but there certainly exist feminists who do not hesitate to argue that gay male porn is a major part of the porn-misogyny problem.

    • leftwingfox says

      I have seen at least a recognition by feministe about issues in gay porn, specifically regarding uke/seme stereotypes in Yaoi manga, and the tendency towards misogynistic framing towards submissive or recipient characters. I admit, it’s not an area I spend an awful lot of time researching through. 😀

  2. kingjing says

    Extremely well written and argued, as always. It always bothers me when people take something as complicated as the pornography debate (or any of the zillions of sub-debates surrounding it) and try to boil it down into a simple yes or no question. It can be convenient to have a ready answer when people bring the issue up, but that answer will never be perfectly accurate. And unfortunately, most people (myself included) lack the attention span to sit down and parse the argument from beginning to end every time they get into the debate. :/

  3. says

    Dammit. I was working on a post where I made mostly the same argument, but have been putting it off while I try to figure out if has a problem with me linking to porn so I can explain examples. Mine was more aimed how even specific instances are difficult to assess because of difficulties of interpretation (for instance a black guy and a white guy might both like a “black monster cocks and tiny blondes” video, the the former would think it was about how awesome black dudes are in bed and the latter would think it was about degrading white women), but you made a whole bunch of the same points I was planning.

    I agree with the gist. There’s nothing wrong with porn in theory. There’s plenty wrong with the porn we have, both in terms of content and processes. Both problems largely stem from amoral cost-cutting, just like any number of other problems with employment and products. I support unionization or similar protections for sex workers. That would actually go a long way to solving both problems.

    There are plenty of producers, directors and writers in the porn industry who take some pride in their work. Some, like Paul Thomas, have shown signs of socially conscious work. I think a big effort to encourage more production of good porn is needed. Trans women have made some good progress lately, but racial stereotypes are still the general rule, especially for black and Asian men, but the women are only a bit better off.

    When’s the last time you saw an Asian man in American het porn, for instance? Even if we stick to the three roles allowed to Asian men in Hollywood films (marshal arts master, scientist, restaurant worker), there are lots of possibilities. Guy delivers Chinese food and ends up having sex with a woman who doesn’t have enough for a tip, for instance. Or maybe a grad student leaves the semen samples from a study out and they go bad, so he needs help from another lab assistant replacing them before anyone notices. I should write this stuff.

  4. michaeld says

    I like this post and I like that you point out that there’s a lot of interplay between a lot of different feelings, forces, and beliefs (boo no alliterative appeal). I think anything else I might say would be very rambled so I think I’ll just leave it there.

  5. says

    This is an excellent post. It’s indeed really hard to stake out a good middle ground in this debate.

    I consider myself sex-positive and certainly not categorically anti-porn. I am irked by how much of what is labeled “sex-positive” is the same old crap: Women who are fuckable by patriarchal standards, performing for men, who are not expected to adhere to similarly rigorous standards. A few tattoos and body piercings don’t change that.

    To quote the conclusion of this blogpost:

    When women can, without cultural opprobrium or expectation of reciprocation, lie fully clothed, hairy, and makeupless on the sofa and passively watch attractive men performing to our taste, then we can talk about sex-positive feminism. Until then, it’s just sexism in a skirt.

    On the other hand, while I find some radical-feminist commentary on this subject refreshing in its unwillingness to sling sugar-coated bullshit, too much of it is bound up in slut-shaming and in unrealistic ideas about how exploitative any sort of erotic representation is.

  6. says

    I was just at a talk/discussion about feminism, empowerment, and pornography, and you’d be surprised at how many people there

    a) had never watched porn
    b) had never heard of feminist porn
    c) had no understanding of kink concepts like consensual non-consent, BDSM empowerment, etc

    So while that response about feminist / socially empowered porn might be annoying, it’s legitimately something that some people opining about feminism and porn seem not to have have encountered.

  7. kerfluffle says

    I’m pretty sure I said “Exactly!” about 40 times while reading this. Porn is the outward expression and retail product of our most conflicted social interaction. It can’t be just one thing because sex is a million different things. It’s socially related to everything from rape to the penultimate valentine and porn will reflect that. Approaching porn as simply another aspect of media makes this very easy to explain.

    And if I’d thought of that myself, I would have been able to skip a lot of those raucous debates you mentioned at the beginning. Dang!

  8. Eris says

    Discussions about porn always make me uncomfortable. You see, I am a survival of childhood sexual abuse (by my father). I also have had a bondage fetish since before I had a sex drive. My bondage fetish has maintained itself since my sex drive kicked it, and it has also morphed into a rape fetish. This has not always been a comfortable reality for me; in fact, it was so uncomfortable for me when I was young that I spent a chunk of my childhood trying to train the fetishes out of me. The problem is that no amount of shame, guilt, stigma, fear, or mental games could make my fetishes disappear. They are, for better or for worse, a part of my mental makeup.

    I’ve largely come to terms with these feelings now, but when people start talking about how we need to be moving away from the current porn which tells degrading stories and towards a new porn that presents a fictional scenario that is egalitarian, empowering, feminist porn, I feel myself getting tense. When I power up my computer and start skimming through my collection of literary porn or (more rarely) start browsing for some live action porn, I almost never looking for porn that presents a fictional scenario that is egalitarian and empowering. Certainly I want the actual people behind the porn to be empowered, there by their own free will, and enjoying themselves, but that’s not the fictional story that I want to watch.

    I don’t know how to balance all that out against the idea that it is damaging to present a story in which people are degraded. All I know is that I hate abuse, but my fetishes aren’t going away unless someone gives me some type of sexual lobotomy (which I would never agree to).

    • says

      I recall recently reading over at Libby Anne’s blog several similar stories about how sexual repression, though not necessarily the violently abusive kind, tends to come out later in life in “unusual” fetishes like bondage and rape fantasies. Unusual receives the quotes because it’s questionable whether these are really all that rare.

      Whether it’s the result of previous experiences or not, I don’t see how people’s sexual inclinations can be “fixed” one way or another. This is a large part of the reason I don’t support repressing particular kinds of sex scenarios merely because they offend people.

    • michaeld says

      Having some fantasies myself that are also not necessarily egalitarian this kind of conflict is also something I think about. I think part of what I’d like to see is a shift so that degrading language etc is less of a mainstay of porn and is treated more like an niche element similar to say spanking. Also (and this’ll sound weird) I’d like degrading language treated with more respect. Something that’s agreed upon and discussed before the scene and where the people involved could stop it. A kind of recognition that these things can have negative effects and should be treated with care.

      Actually I’d like it if all porn was treated more like BDSM with elements, limits and stop words discussed before and after the scene. It would be even better if (in the case of video) this was included along with the scene itself as some people already do. Anyway those are just some of my thoughts and I’m sure someone already disagrees.

      • Tex says

        Sounds kind of like making porn into something that was somewhat more instructional and how-to… not a bad idea at all. (Lolz but still seriously) if porn also incorporated more safe-sex messages Id be willing to bet wed see a measurable drop in teen pregnancy in a lot of the state w/ abstinence only sex ed.

        • says

          I assume you mean those 18 & 19 year-old teens. You have to click a button that you are 18 or older to see porn.

          If people were modeling their sexual behavior after porn that literally, they’ pull out and ejaculate on their partner’s check, face or ass. This greatly reduces pregnancy risk.

        • michaeld says

          Not necessarily a how-to at least not a how to have anal sex or what ever. I guess you could call it a bit of a how to negotiate some boundaries and consent before hand. I’m more or less stealing this from (an BDSM site) where they have discussions before and after a scene. As important as safe sex is its also important to be able talk to partner(s) about what is or isn’t ok and I don’t think it hurts to see that in porn either.

          As to the age screens I’ve been on both sides of dealing with them. I’m guilty of doing that when I was younger getting into some stuff that I shouldn’t have been seeing. I’ve also been on the other side I used to be a moderator of an adult forum and part of it was banning any profile that admitted or claimed to be underage. Its unfortunately a bit of a tricky issue trying to run a place that’s free for adults and is free of underage people. You can always just drop it all behind a pay wall but you have to deal with people worried its a scam and people using stolen credit cards. If I learned anything while there its that there really is no easy solution and no matter what you try it kind of sucks.

          • amhovgaard says

            For pornsites this is really just a “we have to be seen to follow the rules” kind of problem; I don’t think anyone needs to worry about the real-world consequences. It is a more serious problem for sites where people interact… the moderators of a popular local (Norw.) gay website (Gaysir) spend a fair amount of time weeding out the profiles of 14-15 yr. old boys (you have to be 16=age of consent).

    • leftwingfox says

      My condolences on the abuse.

      While I’ve been fortunate to not to have been abused, I can certainly understand where you’re coming from regarding fetishes and attractions that aren’t socially acceptable.

      I think one thing to keep in mind is that often when people talk about the problem of non-consensual or demeaning pornography, the issue is the ubiquity, rather than the existence. It’s like talking about the Bechdel test; a failing movie could be good and compelling; the fact that so many movies fail such a low bar is evidence of the greater problem. Similarly, it’s the fact that so much mainstream porn is demeaning, shaming or unrealistic that’s a greater problem than the simple existence of porn which provides a safe fantasy valve for anti-social natures.

  9. Monica says

    I loved this article. I usually like to say that my position on these things is “nuanced.”

    Example: As a former (and still occasional) sex worker, I find myself worrying about legalization/decriminalization for one reason. Regulation. I worry that trans women would be regulated *out* of a lot of sex work, or at least shamed out of it. We’d be forced to disclose publicly against our will, en masse, and be forced to submit to, I’m sure, a higher frequency of STD/AIDS testing, and likely more shaming surrounding that. I look at what the US has been doing towards reproductive rights and the way they use shame and regulation to cut people out of access, and it terrifies me that we’d end up with the same thing in the sex-industry.

    And I know if there was even one (more) iota of shame tied to the “survival” sex work (I never liked that phrase) I did as a young lady, I’d have opted against it and suffered the financial consequences. The only reason why sex work remained an option was the relative compartmentalization and privacy I could still maintain.

    And I’d hate to take away one of the main sources of income for many trans women out there. For many of us, it’s the only way we could have gotten by, and without that goodness knows what we would have done.

    So, do I favor decriminalization/legalization? In theory, absolutely. But it even has potential ramifications of hurting those very people we set out to help!

    Uh, yeah, so what I mean to say is: great article Natalie. (:

  10. Movius says

    tl;dr version to start: Sex is fun, Porn is fun but lonelier (usually). Whats moral doesn’t suddenly become immoral because of a camera.

    I can’t think of any type of pornography (everything here assumes informed consent obviously,) that offends me. Theres stuff I strongly dislike because it reminds me of offensive conduct (men spitting at women would be a good example to my personal tastes,) but too my surprise there are many people who are into giving and receiving such treatment in controlled environments (The proliferation of ‘demeaning’ fetishes in amateur and home/self made porn should be proof of this.) I think I would demean the dignity of the people into that stuff, not to mention the performers, to say that my personal taste is the sole arbiter of right and wrong. Particularly given how my own preferences have shifted and morphed over the years.

    The closest thing to offensive to me would be the marketing, though again I can’t always assume the performers aren’t in on it. I get kind of put off when I think the description doesn’t match the content, eg. “aesthetically pleasing man and woman engage in vigorous intercourse together.” becomes something like “stud plows worthless so and so”

  11. Art says

    I get up, carry out my ablutions, rush to work where I do things with my body and mind I wouldn’t do if I didn’t have bills to pay. My work puts me in danger and is frequently demeaning and dirty.

    Often while I work someone is considering me their lesser even as I perform work they could not accomplish given their physical, mental and/or psychological state. In the face of this condescension and belittlement I continue to act politely and professionally. At the end of the day I go home, take a shower, do those things I would rather be doing, sleep, and do it all again the next day.

    Many sex workers could use that to describe their work day. I’m an electrician. I climb into attics that are 150F. I crawl under houses around raw sewage. I work on industrial switch gear that will kill or maim me it I don’t pay attention or make a mistake. I get looked down on by people who don’t work with their hands. People who have to go to the gym to break a sweat. People who couldn’t do the work, make many times what I do, but who feel no shame in complaining about what I charge. I do what I must with my body and mind to deal with the coercion inflicted by my unreasonable desire to live indoors and eat regularly.

    IMHO the only reason we think of sex workers differently is that we, as a people, have never reconciled ourselves to our biological needs for sex and physical contact. We keep sex in the shadows by claiming it is base and/or sacred. In the darkness of the shadows, and bedrooms across the country, it festers, twists, and takes on all the shades of humiliation, degradation, hate and abuse. And the combination of desire and revulsion drives people to want it more. Literally, in the worse way.

    • says

      Insightful. I have also wondered why other dangerous, physically and mentally taxing jobs are not regarded as “selling yourself”. It seems like a clear case of discrimination and an attempt to demean a particular job.

      Outside of those rich enough to coast on investments and inherited wealth, pretty much everyone is required by society to sell their labor to meet the fundamental necessities of life. Why does this become a moral hazard when sex becomes involved?

      We may dream of a day when all kinds of difficult labor are performed by machine automatons and the benefits are shared among everyone. However, that day is still a very distant fantasy and we must acknowledge the reality of here and now.

  12. says

    I really love this article. I have some sex work in my background, and I’ve gotten to the point where if it comes up, I typically leave the room; I either get told by people who have no experience with it or have an experience with sex work tempered by middle class resources that my critique of it means I’m ‘sex negative’ and boring, or somehow bigoted against sex workers, or I’m condescended to by people who think I’m stupid.

    (Let’s not even mention the people who think they can blackmail me into something using that information, or think they can walk up to me, without asking, and start talking about the sexytimes they’d like to have.)

    The debate is often missing any sort of reasonable discussion of variability in circumstance. The sex work I’ve done was survival oriented/coerced (economic needs and pressure from others; I was homeless as a teen and in my previous grad school, I had an unscrupulous professor and older student combo put pressure on me.) Hearing someone with money and the inability to understand social dynamics describe sex work as liberating, across the board, annoys the shit out of me (that view is popular in my current academic department), in a slightly different way than hearing someone describe the whole thing as horribly degrading (with the clear implication, or outright expressed point of view that any woman involved needs to be saved from her stupid decisions.)

    I appreciate this post precisely because it allows for a more realistic analysis. Thank you.

  13. Kate says

    I appreciate your willingness to discuss sexwork in an open and public forum, but do you really think it’s your place to decide whether or not I am exploited? It’s not even really your place to “guess” whether or not I or any other sex worker is doing sex work of our own free will.

    You supposition that those of us who identify as sex workers who have chosen this field as our work may not even be aware that we’ve been “coerced” is shameful and incredibly degrading. You remove our agency and autonomy with that attitude and it’s not only not appreciated, it’s incredibly harmful to us.

    Please stop talking about sex workers like we’re some social experiment or a slimemold you’re growing in a petri-dish. Don’t assume you can speak for us, or that your job as an electrician or plumber or social worker qualifies you to speak about *my* choices.

    Please don’t encourage your readers to speak about us as though we are children who need saving or as though we’re all abused, sad little mice who just can’t wait for someone to save us.

    Please don’t speak about sex work, or allow your commenters to speak about sex work, as if it were something bad or dirty or awful.

    Please don’t let people get away with the odious practice of repeating the lie that we’re “selling ourselves”. That’s so offensive, so erasing of our agency and reduces us to “things” that someone can “own”. Even when someone has paid me, they DO NOT OWN ME. I still can, will and do say “no” when boundaries are crossed and when you continue with the lie that I’ve “sold” myself you continue to support the view that once you’ve paid me you can do whatever you want regardless of my consent.

    Your careless words are just another voice out there telling me that I can’t say “no” because you don’t think my “yes” ought to matter.

    There is so much wrong here, in both the original post and the comments. It hurts, really, to see how “enlightened” people still hold on to the idea that we need to be *SAVED* from our work and forget that what we need to be saved from is the dangerous attitudes that pervade society and make it impossible for us to do our chosen work safely, to report abuses when they happen and have those reports taken seriously and not dismissed out of hand.

    …and one more thing about “saving” sex workers: That is some seriously twisted paternalistic clap-trap. How offended would you be if your commenters were suggesting you need to be “saved” from being trans? Or do you simply not think of us as human and our choices as valid the way you think of yourself as human and your choices as valid?


    I need to go shower now and get the stink of patriarchy and misogyny off my skin. I have clients who respect me waiting and I’d much rather spend time with someone who appreciates me and the work I do than with a bunch of supposedly “progressive” folks who can’t even acknowledge I’m a human being.

    …because that’s how you made me feel. Like you don’t even see me. Like you can’t even conceive that I have autonomy and the ability to choose. Like I’m some sort of social problem that you need to “fix”.


    • says

      Thanks for totally and completely missing the point.

      I was saying exactly that. That we DON’T know, that we CAN’T make such guesses or projections or assumptions. That we shouldn’t be moralizing or trying to impose laws for sex workers’ “own good” without considering the full range of realities. I was saying the same thing you’re saying. I made the specific point that sex workers aren’t universally a “problem” that needs “fixing” and that in many circumstances it’s entirely of their own volition, a choice they have made for themselves with no coercion involved.

      How you could misread this as being the EXACT OPPOSITE message is totally beyond me. I mean, DID you even read it? Or did you just see the title and just decide to assume what the content was?

      Reread the fucking post.

    • says

      Kate: as one person with sex work experience to another, I’m not sure we read the same article. She does not say that people with sex work are all in need of saving, nor does she tote the line that all sex work is peachy.

      She says the issue is complicated, and that the discussion of it is frequently too simplified to do a good job of being realistic.

      The following is MY opinion of sex work, not Natalie’s.

      I’ll go ahead and say, for myself, that much of the ‘sex work is great, I love my clients’ justification sounds to me, from my experience, like misogyny in a leather skirt. Out of the hundred or so clients I had while I was in my last grad school, there were exactly two decent people who treated me like a person with a brain and ideas of my own. The rest treated me like their sexual desires were my fault for being dirty, and no amount of flattery on their part could make up for the fact that they behaved as if I were the reason they had dirty thoughts. Sure, they can call it ‘power’ over them, but that’s not how the power dynamic plays out in the world outside their fantasies. You see, they have the money, they constantly pushed for more than I was willing to give them (in terms of access to my life and in terms of access to my self/body), they contacted me, their fantasies made up the content, and they used the threat of money and the company I worked as a contractor for to try and force me to do things I didn’t want to do. And no amount of asserting that I should have been more forceful, I wasn’t being a dominatrix right or I wasn’t mean enough changes the exploitative nature of that relationship, even outside anyone’s feelings about sex.

      It may be that some people have a much better relationship to the job, but I haven’t seen that relationship. I worked for a company employing fifteen of us as dommes/subs, and freelance; the people I’ve talked to in person (strippers, phone sex operators, dommes, subs and hookers) have had roughly the same stories, though sometimes they’ve dressed them up more nicely than I do.

      To my mind, no matter how flattering my clients were, the way they behaved was dictated by society, misogyny, and in some cases, straight-up hatred of women. And that the nature of the way that work is treated prevented the work from being a positive experience. If I’m going to have people manipulate me, I’ll be damned if I give them any more of my sexuality and self than I have to.

    • says

      I read Natalie’s post and all the comments and fail to see where any of the views presented here by Kate were being represented. Honestly, considering how volatile the subject is, I think it’s been a very nuanced and open discussion.

    • amhovgaard says

      Kate: It is not enough to be able to write, you should also learn how to read. And if the message you were trying to get across was “I don’t have a problem” – you failed. Sorry.

  14. Jason says

    Being aware of how difficult an issue is to solve is sometimes a solution in and of itself.

    Some problems are unsolvable, and knowing that while still remaining compassionate about the difficulties is the best you can do.

    Excellent post.

  15. says

    I don’t understand how pornography or sex work is a matter of telling anyone how they “should” use their bodies. That is only a concern for a tiny majority of women in the sex industry, and they are the women who have a lot more options as sex workers than others because they can leave. My fight against pornography and prostitution focuses on the experiences of TYPICAL sex industry women, who would not be there if it were not for economic or social misfortune, the women who start in the industry before they can legally drive a car, who are pimped out or have drug addictions. Why the hell is it that whenever I see prostitution and pornography discussed it is always about “choice” or “autonomy” when the majority of women trapped in it have none of those things? Why is it that when arguments about porn come up people obsess about the theoretical possibility of feminist porn instead of the overwhelming volume of rape porn? I find disussions of prostitution and pornography as some abstract exercise in philosophy to be extremely tiresome; will someone look at what it actually *is* for a moment? Plenty of women are fucked and then killed and tossed aside, no one gives too much of a shit about investigating a missing prostitute. That is why the green river killer racked up so many victims. The push to make prostitution and porn seem more palatable erases those realities, it doesn’t make the world any safer for prostitutes.

    I am fairly typical of radical feminists who oppose the “sex positive” feminists (which is a stupid term, because I am not “sex negative” for having a different opinion of sex work), and I have no interest in telling women not to be in porn or prostituting themselves if that is what they really want to do, I just have a problem with people saying the porn or prostitution is a feminist act. It simply isn’t, it does nothing to further the situation of women. It isn’t that difficult to understand. The majority of positions created to oppose the radical feminist critique of pornography are set up to attack a straw man. Case in point- it is hard to find a good critique of the swedish model of prostitution (prosecutng johns/pimps but not prostitutes), but it is easy to find plenty of critiques of radical feminists for opposing nevada style legalized prostitution. This is despite the outcome of the swedish model being so favorable for women.

    Andrea Dworkin once said that equal pay for equal work was not a basic feminist idea, but a radical one. That is why it hasn’t been acheived yet after decades of being on the books; right now a typical woman’s best economic option is sex work, either as an actual prostitute or as a wife. She gets to choose to prostitute herself to many men or one, but she is always primarily valuable as a sex object, as a thing useful to men. Supporting the right of men to purchase women only furthers that system and the entitlement that goes along with it.

  16. says

    And now that we’ve had the hard-line radfem critique, above, I’ll make a few points about concerning a strong “sex-positive” position and where I think you get some things wrong.

    First, while you do raise some good (albeit obvious) points, I think you fall into a too-easy “the truth lies somewhere in between” position, and a seeming desire to pave over very real, principled differences in the name of building one big “consensus” feminism.

    First, this idea that those of us who are “anti-anti-porn” don’t treat pornography with the same standard that we do other industries, in particular, other media industries. But one need only look at progressive critiques of other media industries to see a key difference coming from the anti-porn side. I can think of few if any other kinds of media where critique is so closely coupled with calls for censorship. (Other than possibly advertising, and that tends to have a particular “time and place” nature that makes it more ubiquitous and prone to calls for control) And by censorship, I mean a range of tactics from outright calls for a priori bans partly enacted in the UK in no small part due to antiporn feminist lobbying), to selective content-based lawsuits (the Dworkin/MacKinnon strategy, rightly ruled unconstitutional in the US), to calls for content-based “regulation” that no other media industry would be subject to in any country with meaninful free speech protections, to more “liberal” calls for self-censorship, such as “no porn pledges” for men. Sorry, but while I see a lot of critiques of violent or otherwise problematic movies and TV, I see very little of these kind of tactics generally directed at other media, at least by progressives. (Other than, I’ll note, those who are already anti-porn and export such tactics into activism against more mainstream media.)

    “Dirty Harry”, for example, is a film with *incredibly* problematic politics, but I don’t see anybody saying no true liberal should watch it or enjoy it, nor have their progressive politics called into question based on liking that movie. In other words, the whole nature of the anti-porn critique has utterly distorted the nature of the debate. Take censorship and shaming off the table, and I think you’d find the discourse to be very different.

    Second, critiques of the sex industry more generally. I think there are many of us on the pro-sex work side of the equation with a very nuanced view of the pros and cons of working in the sex industry, and we take bloody seriously accounts of the less rosy side of the sex industry recounted by actual sex workers. What I take less seriously is the kind of paternalistic and pearl-clutching rhetoric about sex work coming from a certain kinds of do-gooder academics and those in the so-called “helping” professions, and like it or not, this is where much of the feminist and “abolitionist” discourse around sex work comes from. Or, worse, coming from well-funded NGOs spawned straight out of the religious right.

    Again, as somebody who takes “Kony2012” to be a distorted and politically self-serving take on the very real problems of political violence in parts of Africa, I’m being inconsistent in rejecting such views.

    Final point – as often as not, it seems to me that critiques of porn and the sex industry are hopelessly tied up with squicks and issues of personal taste, and kneejerk judgement concerning other peoples desires – your apparent problems with non-violent “girl-girl” porn favored by a segment of the male porn-viewing audience being an example. Maybe we should made chocolate vs vanilla ice cream a major political issue for good measure. 😛

    • says

      Well, no, I’m not really looking to build a consensus feminism. I’m looking to build something almost antithetical to that: a feminism aware of nuance and complexity, that doesn’t insistently demand we take “hard” positions on extremely complicated questions, but instead is able to engage in the necessary discourse.

      Btw, I agree with your point about critiques of porn being hopelessly tied into the “squick factor”, but that’s NOT where my critique of “girl-on-girl” porn comes from. It doesn’t squick me out. I find it to be a disturbingly reductive and objectifying representation of queer women as sanitized de-queer-ified objects for male consumption.The immediate assumptions you (and others) have made throwing me into the “eww! Porn!” or “I must save you from yourselves!” crowd is EXACTLY part of the problem here- that attempting to take ANY level of complexity in your position results in you being strawmanned as one of “The Other Team”. Which is especially obvious when you contrast how anti-sex-work person up there responded to my position. A girl just can’t win.

      We shouldn’t be forced to simply “pick a side” on such an intensely multifaceted issue.

      And ice cream isn’t made of human beings.

      (at least I don’t think so, anyway…)

      • says

        “Btw, I agree with your point about critiques of porn being hopelessly tied into the “squick factor”, but that’s NOT where my critique of “girl-on-girl” porn comes from. It doesn’t squick me out. I find it to be a disturbingly reductive and objectifying representation of queer women as sanitized de-queer-ified objects for male consumption.”

        Well, I’m quite aware of that critique, but I think it misses the obvious, namely, that lesbians or queer women have no monopoly or patent on f/f sex. “Heteroflexibe” women women are the real deal, and I’ve known more than a few IRL. More than a few women who specialize in doing this kind of porn describe themselves as bi or heteroflexible. And if there’s an entire group of women who are quite willing to do this kind of porn (ranging from those who say they really enjoy it to those who say it’s a relatively easy kind of porn to work in), then I really can’t see why the large numbers of men who are turned on by this kind of thing should be called on to forgo it simply because it happens to offend some people. Any more than people should stop doing BDSM play or watching BDSM porn because there are other people in the world who might be really offended or triggered by it.


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