"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Saturday, June 9, 2007

It's not about sex. It's about strategy.

If you've been reading this blog for any extended period of time, you will find that when I address issues that are divisive among feminists, my writing often attempts to seek out some sort of common ground. I think that critique and debate among feminists is crucial, but not at the expense of abandoning the goals we have in common. At the end of the day, it's important that we can still be united with each other against sexism, patriarchy, and ALL forms of oppression. So, in keeping with that theme, I thought I would post an excerpt from a much longer essay I just wrote on about the sex work industry:
A topic that cannot go unaddressed in any discussion about sex work is the extreme divide among feminists on the topic. Although their debate is complex, one of the biggest obstacles faced by feminists on opposite sides of the issue can be boiled down to a disagreement between the liberal and the radical. While those who are fighting for the rights of sex-workers might be viewed as radical in the sense that subversive sexual acts are considered more extreme, what feminists who champion sex-work are really fighting for is the right to work within and gain benefits from an oppressive, patriarchal system -- and working within the current system for empowerment (both economic and otherwise) is actually a liberal feminist strategy for helping women survive in a patriarchal society. It is unavoidable that this ideology will conflict with the goals of radical feminists who are more concerned with overthrowing patriarchy altogether than with trying to merely navigate through the oppressive system. Feminists who are most concerned with prostitutes’ rights advocate for the removal of a stigma on behaviors that radical feminists feel are detrimental to all women. While the more liberal-minded “sex-positives” argue that the fact that it is commonplace for women to use sex as currency is a justification that we should eliminate the stigma against the most deliberate practice of this exchange, radical feminists would rather live in a world where no woman would ever be in a position to have to use sex as currency at all. They would argue that using sex as currency is not something we should work to normalize, but that it is one of the things most wrong with the system.

Because sex can be such an intensely personal issue in our society, the divisiveness among feminists on this topic is extremely complex and deeply emotional. Conflicts could be avoided, however, if more feminists took a step back to realize that the struggle is not as much about sex as it is about strategy. The members of each ideological camp seem to have the same end in mind – a world in which women are free from patriarchal oppression -- but they happen to disagree about the means through which this can be achieved.

The problems faced by women in sex work mirror the problems all women face as an oppressed class. Like all women, their collective lack of access to power within patriarchy and capitalism prevent them from uniting in a solid movement to fight for their rights, and the vast differences among them in terms of class, race, sexuality, and the circumstances of their work keep them isolated from each other and unable to mobilize. However, to portray them merely as victims would deny their agency and their potential to organize do great things under the right conditions.


Anonymous said...

This is something that I'm still definitely working out for myself. I consider myself "sex-positive" and want to decriminalize prostitution, but at the same time, I find prostitution to be a dangerous, exploitative, misogynist institution. I don't know what the answer is, but it's always something good to ponder.

Tracey said...

Yeah, I took an entire class on Feminist Analysis of the sex work industry, and I'm more confused than ever about it. I can seriously see both sides, and I understand how both sides can be incompatible.

Kristin said...

Choosing a side in this argument is always dangerous. I tend to feel so second-wave or sex-negative in this discussion, but oh well. One important factor for me is the distinction between different types of sex work. Stripping in a unionized peep show for a summer after college is clearly different than working as a prostitute on the street at 13-years-old, or in a brothel for that matter. I don't think prostitution should be legal. The studies I have read (mostly by Melissa Farley I will admit) show that prostitution whether legal or illegal is extremely harmful for women both mentally and physically. I can see how stripping (especially while unionized) can be positive for women, but I don't see it with prostitution. Of course I believe in supporting women in prostitution and would go for legalizing working in prostitution but making the johns the criminals. I would love to continue this discussion so any replies would be appreciated! I tried to bring this topic up in the feministing.com comments once but it didn't take. This has also inspired me to do a post about the Lusty Lady strip club on my site. Thanks Tracey!

Tracey said...

Kristin: Well, I can weigh in, but I don't know if I'll sound coherent. I have recently learned so much that I don't even know how to keep all my ideas straight. Heh. Here goes:

Like you mentioned, sex-work certainly includes many different people in many different situations, from trafficked sex slaves to sex-positive feminist porn stars, and everything in between. Luckily, there seems to be a complete consensus that it is a bad thing that so many women are forced into sex work or sexual exploitation, via trafficking or due to a lack of economic alternatives. It's when women freely (or seem to freely) choose it that the issue gets sticky.

I'm like you. Choosing a side is incredibly rough. Whenever I read something by someone who has strong convictions one way or another, I often find myself agreeing with them. But what I keep coming back to is what I discussed in the post. That the "sex-positives" (a term I have to put in quotes because I don't like how it assumes that there's a "sex-negative" category, which really isn't fair) seem to be thinking in terms of their own independent empowerment via economic gain or self-confidence through performance. They see how their sexuality has power, and they want to use it however they can to obtain more power for themselves.

It seems like when they are actually thinking of the empowerment of ALL women, it's in terms of further deconstructing our society's entrenched sexual stigma and asserting that women CAN be free sexual agents -- that they don't need a man to tell them who to sleep with and how and when.

And then there's the whole historical argument that prostitutes were actually the first feminists. That they were the women who resisted marriage and subjugation to men when patriarchal systems were taking over formerly matriarchal or egalitarian societies.

I could say SO much more about this, but I'll stop there so there can hopefully be some back and forth. I have stuff to say about the Lusty Lady as well, but I can comment on your post about that.