UPDATED: Scroll to bottom.
As a bonafide sex-positive leftist and supporter of sex-positive feminism for the past ten or so years, I’ve been pretty much used to the usual rounds of criticisms that are thrown towards those of us who proudly claim that label.
Mostly, they are caricatures created by either right-wing fundamentalist religionists or the more extreme “radical feminists”, which simply reduce us “sex pozzies” to nothng more than “fun feminists” who put the pursuit of individual orgasms, high heels, push-up bras and breast implants, and “slutting out” over the real concerns and needs of women, or men who simply want to use sex-positive theory as simply a means to get into women’s bras and panties. The idea that we are capable of multitasking and pursuing the goals of basic broad human rights AND empowering people to pursue sexual pleasure in a safer, saner, and more expansive environment, seems never to get into their skulls, since they are so invested in their essential pursuit of containing, if not outright censoring, sexual expression not redeemable to their narrow value systems.
This isn’t to say that sex+ feminists and sex+ activists aren’t prone to mistakes or not to be held accountble for their/our actions, or that many of those who are proponents of sexual liberation along with broader human rights shouldn’t respect legitimate and useful criticism or strongly evaluate and adjust their efforts to fit the local situation when necessary. But, on the whole, it would be nice if those willing to invent phantasms about the assumed “failure” of sex-positive activism would actually listen to and evaluate the actual people and their records before going off on such tangents.
Needless to say, Audacia Ray is NOT a rabid antiporn feminist or a fundie Christian; in fact, she has been exactly the prototype of tireless, sensible sex worker rights activist that represents the best of what progressive sex work activism is. She also has full experience walking the talk as an activist sex worker, even going as far as being involved in the production of a porn video (was it The Edge of the Bed??), nearly 5 years ago, when she fully identified with the goals and ideas of sex+ feminism.
Well…that was then, and this is now; and both the passage of time and evolution of Dacia’s work have greatly changed her views on sex work and sex+ theory…so much so that she has now broadly repudiated and renounced the label of “sex-positive feminist”, and has moved significantly further away from the ideals of “sex positivity”.
The culimation of this process is an essay that she produced and published as part of the official anthology for the 2012 Momentum Conference (herefore referenced as @MomentumCon), a meetup of activist women exploring the many intersections and vectors connecting sexual rights activism, sex work , activism, and women’s roles in sexual media and sexual relationships. (The anthology is available on sale via Amazon.com. ) Dacia has now made her essay more publically available through her Tumblr blog, and I will use that as the foundation for my counter-response to her exposition on, as the essay title theeorizes: “Why The Sex Positive Movement Is Bad For Sex Workers’ Rights”.
Before I dive in, I shouldl make this perfectly clear: I have nothing but absolute respect for Audacia Ray and her efforts to improve the lives of sex workers, and nothing that I will say here in criticism of her words in this particular essay should be misinterpreted in any way as a personal criticism of her work. This is simply intended to be a friendly, if spirited, criticism of what I believe to be her slightly tainted impressions of sex-positive activism.
My first slight beef with Dacia comes with this passage early on in her essay:
However, 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.
Now, it is unabashedly true that many sex+ activist spokespeople are majority White, middle-class or above in economic status, cisgender, and able-bodied women and men who do, especially when compared with the majority of what makes up the sex worker diaspora, have some degree of economic and educational advantages. Problem is, though, how does that convert into saying that sex+ activism is inherently a set back for activism?? Does being a college-educated White woman with “conventional beauty” automatically disqualify you from having legitimate social empathy for the plight of those less privileged?? And, does having the resources to escape the worst of poverty and engage in a more expansive and open sexuality inherently close such people off to genuine progressive social action??
And, what about activists who aren’t so privileged?? What about, say, a working-class Black male who has never ventured into a strip club or couldn’t even afford to even enter a sex club, but who nevertheless understands the essential link between expanding resources and rights for everyone under egalitarian principles and breaking down and demythisizing the dominant conservative belief that sexuality should only be experimented under the most narrow, reactionary environments? What about activists of color, or working-class women, who endorse the fundamentals of sex-positivity? (Dacia, how about meeting someone like Divinity and telling her that her core beliefs are mere byproducts of her “privilege”?? Or, perhaps, someone like Aspasia Bonesera??)
Actually engaging with real sex+ activists should dissuade people of the notion that we are all nothing more than the sum of our collective dildos.
The irony in all this is that Dacia sounds all too much here like another White elitist middle-class cisgendered able-bodied woman who also made pretty much the same charges and overbroad assumptions about sex+ folk. Of course, Zinnia Jones’ girlfriend Heather was a bit more obtuse and had far more ulterior motives than Dacia has…but does that mean that Dacia’s kinder, gentler, softer critique doesn’t still miss the point?
Then, there is this, where Dacia prefaces her main critique:
Before we dig in, let’s talk for a minute about unintentional consequences. Surely, you might argue, sex positive feminists, including people who work in the sex industry and those who do not but respect the rights of sex workers, see sex positivity as a means to achieving social good, with a few great orgasms along the way. Why would sex positive feminists want to halt the progress toward human rights for sex workers? I believe that the answer is that sex positive feminists do not intend to create barriers for the achievement of sex workers’ rights, but that there are ways in which this happens anyway.
So, by Dacia’s opinion, sex+ feminists should not be judged by their intentions, which do come from a good place, but by their results, which have been universally proven (at least in Dacia’s mind) to be an ultimate detriment to sex worker activism. Never mind that plenty of sex worker activists would disagree with that broad brush statement, or that it could be considered highly debatable whether or not sex worker activism has been helped or hindered by sex positivity. The point is that it’s just not Dacia’s perogative to declare the game over in mid-stream.
And once again, Dacia’s reduction of “sex positivity” to orgasms and high heels simply flies in the face of actual activism by sex+ people…especially those on the Left. Since she was one of the more eloquent actiivists, she should at least know better.
Then, there is this note about the audience she is shooting for in this critique:
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.
But…”glaringly obvious” by whom?? Does Dacia assume that those outside of the supposedly protected “sex positive” bubble are nothing more than truthseeking radicals who have found, like her, the real truth behind “sex positivity”?? That sounds dangerously close to something that a full-blown anti like Diana Boston would say….and she would probably, if she didn’t know better, nod approvingly. We know that Dacia’s not going there, so why make that assumption?
Dacia then moves on to an overview of the history of the interlock between sex worker activism and feminism, and gets to the root of her critique of sex+ feminists:
This, however, creates a chain of denial – many feminists who focus on reproductive rights do not value the contributions of sex workers to their movement, and many sex worker rights advocates who focus on bodily autonomy do not value the particular issues faced by people who do sex work because of coercion or dire economic circumstances. Or, perhaps a fairer way to put this is not that these things are not “valued,” but that there isn’t an active effort made to make space for a multitude of concerns. In action, this looks the same. And so, while sex positive sex workers focus on trying to get a seat at the table of reproductive rights, they simultaneously deny other people in sex work a space at their table.
Ahhh…sorry, Dacia, but that’s just plain conjecture. How in the HELL can sex+ feminists have enough power to “force” out other points of view when they themselves are effectively forced out under intense pressure from the more radical antiporn/prohibitionist radfems who loudly challenge even their addition to the debate?? When groups like Women Against Pornography and CATW are allowed to use gutter tactics to smear and distort sex+ feminists, and level such lovely insults as “cumdumpster” and “tools of the male dick” in order to dismiss their attempts at education, how else do you expect them to react in kind? And, why is it innately sex+ feminists’ fault, and not that of the anti extremists, when attempted debate on sex work dissolves and disintegrates into turf warfare??
In short, it is NOT the responsibility of sex+ feminists to represent the views of ALL sex workers, or even to claim to represent every single one. Their objective is to present what they see as the best approach to promoting their beliefs…and their contributions are simply too important to be merely dismissed with a flip of the hand or a charge of stifling other choices.
My main critique of Audacia, though, is based on what I consider to be a complete distortion of one of the seminal manifestos of sex positive feminist/sex radical tracts….namely, Dr. Carol Queen’s seminal essay, “Sex Radical Politics, Sex-Positive Feminist Thought, and Whore Stigma.” (One note: the essay first appeared not in Jill Nagle’s anthology Whores And Other Feminists, but in an earlier anthology titled Sex Work: Writings By Women In The Sex Industry, which was published around 1986-ish.) I have the full essay archived as a page on this blog; I’d highly suggest a view.
Here is how Dacia critiques Doc Carol’s early vision:
In Queen’s essay, the sex positive feminist perspective on sex work is very much a reactive one that was generated in opposition to what she refers to as the “‘poor abused whores’ lobby.” Queen argues that sex workers who enjoy their work and “live well, with no loss of self-esteem” have “sufficient sex information and are sex-positive [sic]” (p. 129). But as big a part of the job as it is, sex work is not all about sex for many people who do it. The emphasis on sexuality unfairly erases the other half of the equation: work. Queen asserts that:
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)
But the reality is that people who don’t like sex, or don’t like having sex with strangers, or aren’t sexually oriented toward the gender of the clients they see, or don’t like doing sexualized performances, work in the sex industry every day. And it is just that parenthetical “attractively high [fee]” that is the reason for their actions. For the majority of people who work in the sex industry, money, not sex, is the driving factor. Until a day comes when jobs are available that have wages that are competitive with the sex industry, particularly for cis and trans women, people of color, and young people who need to get out of unstable or violent housing situations, many people will sell or trade sex.
OK…so many people do sex work that aren’t necessarily sex-positive. And, many people who would rather do other things do sex work because it’s one way to score a quick payday. So, what does that say for those who do in fact get into sex work for the sex?? I’d say…..not much.
And, that’s a distortion of what Queen actually originally wrote. Allow me to add some context by posting the whole section of that snippet.
There is no sexual majority, although the whole society conspires to behave as though there were.Our clients – mostly married heterosexual men who show an illusory exterior of “normalcy” (whatever that useless concept means) – are also cross-dressers, anally erotic, bisexual, fetishistic, wrapped up in wild fantasies no traditional heterosexual marriage could ever contain.And what the “poor abused whores” lobby will never tell you is that many sex workers, too, are fetishistic, sexually curious, nonmonogamous by nature, and exhibitionistic, delighting in the secret proof our profession provides us that restrictive sexual mores are rupturing everywhere.
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 high the fee charged for it).Wanting to make a lot of money should not be the only qualification for becoming a whore.We in this profession swim against the tide of our culture’s inability to come to terms with human sexual variety and desire, its very fear of communicating about sex in an honest and nonjudgemental way.We need special qualities, or at the very least we need a way of thinking that lets us retain our self-esteem when everyone else, especially do-gooders, would like to undermine it.
Activist whores teach, among other things, a view of our culture’s sexual profile that differs from traditional normative sexuality.Every whore embodies this difference each time s/he works.It is time for all whores to embrace this difference, to become ambassadors for sex and gratification.The politics of being a whore do not differ markedly from the politics of any other sexually despised group.We must include radical sexual politics in our agenda, becoming defenders of sex itself.Our well being and our defense depend on it.
Quite clearly, Doc Carol’s emphasis was on promoting “activist whores” as sex+ pioneers in using sex work as a means of transgressing and widening sexual boundaries in a world where such boundaries are constantly being set and moved by the broader “sex wars”. Hardly an renouncement of those in it strictly for the money.
Plus…does Dacia really believe that decoupling sex worker activism from sex-positivity and promoting sex work as just another job or profession will prevent the antis and their fundamentalist allies from overemphasizing the sexual that much more, and simply continuing their campaign to wipe sex work off the map? Right…like gay marriage has domesticated antigay forces obsessed with their Leathermen/gay bathouse fantasies and false nightmares of jock-wearing twinks with erections loaded with HIV-infested sperm ready to invade schools and bedrooms?? Remember, being a Catholic college school girl didn’t prevent Sandra Fluke from being labeled a “slut”, a “whore”, and a “porn star” by Rush Limbaugh…and it won’t stop Melissa Farley or Shelley Lubben from labeling even former performers or street workers “prostituted women” or “hookers”, either.
But, this paragraph is really what made my blood boil, and even prompted a thought that Dacia had turned full on fundie/anti:
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. When engaging in the trade or sale of sex is helping an individual to meet their basic physiological needs, they often do not have the personal resources to channel energy into making the experience of transactional sex perfectly pleasurable for either themselves or their client. Not every sexual experience, whether paid or not, has to be perfectly erotic. This is an unreasonable expectation, and one that makes it more difficult for people who have negative experiences to speak openly about their truths with sex work or sexuality more generally.
So, did I read that right, Dacia?? By merely saying that she enjoys her job and all the benefits of getting all that good sex and getting paid nicely for it, a sex+ feminist sex worker by her mere existence shames all other sex workers who aren’t so fortunate (in either quality or quantity of sex or compensation); and imposes a needlessly impossible standard of eroticism that distracts from and actively works against the betterment of those at the bottom. And, plus, it makes it harder for those who don’t have absolutely perfect experiences to speak out against the harms they suffer regularly.
WOW. Shelley Lubben or Rebecca Mott couldn’t have said it better. What better means to isolate and throw under the bus sex worker activists who’s only sin is that they happen to be happier and more successful at their work. That’s like saying that someone who makes it to become an assistant manager at, say, IBM, is tainted and a distraction to those other workers still suffer as entry-level workers with low wages and no benefits…and they should be fired or demoted as a means of elevating the others.
But mostly, it is a bald-faced strawman that belies the reality of actual sex-positive activists who have worked tirelessly on the Left to improve overall workplace conditions and wages for everyone in sex work, not just those most advantaged. Do I need to remind Dacia that the most eloquent and fiercest sex-positive activists started out as Leftists who simply applied their visions of greater autonomy and freedom from the class and race and gender spectrum over to sexual politics? Do the names Margo St. James, Susie Bright, Scott Tucker, and Nina Hartley ring any bells?? Need I also remind her that many sex+ activists who started out as sex+ leftists were mostly hounded out of the feminist and political Left movement by exactly the gutter-style tactics of the antis and Puritan Leftists, with collusion from the broad Right and Center??
It almost seems as if Audacia wants to be the Bill Clinton of the sex workers movement, repudiating her earlier excessively “liberal’ positions and moving towards the “radical center” as a means of reviving sex worker activism. That’s all well and good for her, but throwing sex positive liberals and Leftists under the bus and denying their contributions to the struggle in order to do that, is just not justifiable…..even if, as I said, her motives are in the right place. Even more, it simply gives that much more ammo to the hard Right that if sex+ folk can be repudiated by “liberals”, then they are open to free fire attack and abuse from everywhere else. That’s pretty damn dangerous territory, and not condusive to the goal that Dacia stated.
One last quote from Dacia:
If we put aside our attachment to the sex positive construction of sex work, we will certainly hear things that will be hard to sit with. But for sex positivity to be a useful framework, one that encourages the pursuit of social justice, it must also engage with the ugly pieces of sexuality, and not in a simplistically reactive way. Otherwise, the concept of being a sex positive sex worker is a self-serving marketing practice, in which the enjoyment of sexuality is being sold as a product to both workers and our clients.
A legitimate challenge…but one that has been answered time and time again.
I’ll just let Nina Hartley conclude this with some snippage from one of her classic essays from 1993, on how feminists and sex worker activists AND sex-positive leftists can work together and not cross each other. Full essay is here.
When I entered this field of endeavor nine years ago, it was not only to explore my sexuality; I wanted to be an aware feminist voice from inside the business. I made myself available to anyone who wanted to talk about what I did and what it meant. I’ve done countless TV and print interviews, written numerous articles (both sexy and serious), and spoken to many college classes. I’ve faced a variety of people, some sympathetic, some not so happy at my existence. I’ve looked into the eyes of women who look back at me with hatred, and I was able to understand how women could be burned as witches. I’m usually fairly calm during these exchanges, since I am at ease with my subject and because my experiences with sex are some of my most cherished moments — not the source of my deepest pain.
The common thread I see connecting my most vocal feminist opponents with each other is that they are operating from a base of often justified rage. This is fine. Angry women can and have affected needed change. However, they must understand just how much time and energy is expended wastefully when one is continually angry and outraged. They must learn to practice self-awareness and acknowledge when their anger is justified and when it is self-indulgent, when it is a positive force for growth and change and when it is overpowering one’s ability to think clearly. If they are honest, the distinction will be self-evident.
Speaking as someone who has made peace with my sexuality and that of men in general, it boils down to this: how does one choose to deal with one’s rage and what triggers it? I choose to feel it, acknowledge it, recognize its origins, own it and then incorporate it into my ever-evolving sense of Self. I choose to process my anger and go on with my life since I don’t want to waste the only life I have by having anger color everything, every day.
What can feminists do? As members of the third wave of the revolution begun 30 years ago, we need to continue our struggles, in both the public and private spheres, toward equality. What lies between now and utopia is day-to-day living. We need to do our best to demonstrate compassion toward those in pain — and to recognize when we need to mind our own god-damned business. I suggest we use feminist sex workers and feminist porn as a fifth column and use the erotic medium to change men’s and women’s attitudes at their deepest neurobiological level. We cannot-we must not-be drawn into limiting by law what consenting adults do in private. Don’t worry about how other people enjoy themselves. Instead, turn some energy to providing support to those who ask for it. Take care of your own compost heap before feeling free to meddle in others’. Learn to relax a little; we’re not going to change the problems of the world in our brief lifetimes. Pet a cat. Meditate. Work in our gardens. Take a walk. Get a massage. Give ourselves more orgasms and appreciate how far we’ve come in only thirty years.
Let us see past our antagonisms, and create some common ground so that we may build a solid future for generations of feminists to build upon.
And…let us understand that sex-positive feminists have added and will continue to add strength and knowledge to the sex worker activism movement; and continue to hash out our differences so that we can create a better movement for everyone….whether they have lots of orgasms, or not.
Divinity (aka Godless Strumpet) has now posted at her blog a much more detailed and thorough critique of Audacia Ray’s assertions about sex-positive feminism and its impact on sex worker activism. Some snippage from that post:
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!
I’d seriously recommend you go to Div’s place and read the post in its entirity for the full effect.
Also, Feminist Whore has released this week a YouTube video reflecting her own critique of Dacia from her perspective.