Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sex work in the feminist utopia

A reader (thanks!) pointed out on the previous post that there was a mix up between Meghan Murphy and Jill Filipovic. The article had responded to Murphy's response, but not Filipovic's.

Filipovic wrote her own response to Melissa Gira Grant's article - "The War on Sex Workers"

Filipovic titles her work, "Supporting Sex Workers’ Rights, Opposing the Buying of Sex"

You may be wondering, how does that work?

Down to Filipovic's arguments:
I am an anti-sex-trafficking feminist. I think sex work is incredibly problematic. And I also support the rights of sex workers. I think you can do all those things at once.
Okay. Let's table that.

The problem seems to be one of philosophy vs. practicality, and what should dictate policy. My view is basically that sex work wouldn’t exist in the feminist utopia.
Since when should utopian visions be in the policy driver's seat?

In utopian education, kids would be autodidacts we could just place in front of information. Right? Then we should be leaning towards firing all teachers.
Because sex wouldn’t be this commodified thing that some people (mostly woman) have and other people (mostly men) get. Sex would be a fun thing, a collaborative thing, always entered into freely and enthusiastically and without coercion. While that view would leave room for some types of sex work — sexually explicit performance, for example, if that performance were no longer primarily a looking-at-women’s-bodies-as-stand-ins-for-sex thing, which is what it mostly is today — it doesn’t leave room for offering money in exchange for sex, especially as we see it now, with men being the primary consumers and sex being seen as something you can buy.

Try to wrap your head around a sexually explicit performance that is not "primarily a looking-at-women’s-bodies-as-stand-ins-for-sex thing."

(For the record, it also doesn’t leave room for offering other things — social status, commitment, ongoing financial support, etc — in exchange for sex, which would nix a whole lot of “traditional marriages”).

In a feminist utopia, it would seem, sex must be completely divorced from even the appearance of occurring within a transaction.

None of that means that I think what sex workers of any stripe do is unethical or immoral or bad. I don’t think there would be McDonalds or Wal-Mart in the feminist utopia either; it doesn’t mean that in the here and now I don’t want to see the workers there have a full range of workplace protections and rights.

Keep this in mind - she's making no judgments against sex workers. More on this later.

And that I think is where we lose each other, and why I often feel like I can’t find a comfortable place in these debates. I tend to “side” with the pro-sex-worker voices, because they’re promoting the kinds of things that are necessary in the here and now to protect women and to promote the voices and needs of women who are too often silenced or ignored. I see the anti-sex-work side simply promoting criminalization, which doesn’t work. I see them casting the net of trafficking a bit too widely, and using that buzzword to fight against hard-won victories like the distribution of safer sex supplies to sex-work-heavy areas.
That makes a lot of sense.

[...] Part of the problem is that the net of trafficking as been cast so widely that in response, sex worker advocates have cast a similar too-wide net — arguing that sex work is a job like any other, that every job is coercive, etc etc. [...] But it’s not that simple. All choices are constrained, and certainly people who work in slaughterhouses or at clothing factories for 16 hours a day are coerced into that employment. But from a birdseye feminist view — from a sex-positive view — sex work is different because it’s commodifying something that should ideally be a basic pleasure, entered into entirely freely and at will.  

At this point, her entire argument seems to amount to "sex work is special because sex should be special." 

You can find just as many people having sentimental feelings about family farms, microbreweries, and mom-and-pop retailers. But Filipovic is probably sentimental about all of these things as well, so it's difficult to say she's inconsistent.

She then moves to quote Audicia Ray:

During the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the sex wars of the 1980s and 1990s, the struggle to define sex positivity with respect to sex work served a purpose. To say that not all people have a horrendous experience of the sex industry, and that many sex workers value sexuality and see themselves as complex sexual beings as well as sex educators was an important statement to make, and one that had not been spoken before. However, it is essential to put this statement in historical context. To continue making the statement that many sex workers have a good experience of the sex industry without also including those whose experiences are negative and making space for them to speak up reveals a deep doubt about the validity of the sex positive argument. If we believe in the positive power of sexuality, we must also examine what happens when people’s lives are infused with sex negativity, and we must listen and support people with this experience in sharing their personal truths.
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.
The argument seems to be sex-positive arguments in support of those that are capable of consenting to sex work belong in the 1980s, and suddenly now if we only listen we'd hear about people with bad stories about prostitution. How incredibly surprising.

All of that said, the reality here today is that there are millions of people working in the sex trade. And while a small percentage are relatively privileged and fairly compensated, most aren’t. And most sex workers face very real barriers to basic rights like bodily autonomy, workplace safety, and freedom from violence. [...] what serves a 14-year-old in a Cambodian brothel whose clients are mostly middle-aged white guys from Europe and the U.S. is not the same as what serves a 22-year-old in New York advertising on Craig’s List. Just like what serves a steelworker in a U.S. auto plant is not the same as what serves a Pakistani migrant doing construction in Dubai.

...No shit?
There are lots of other things I want to write about here — the colonization aspect to many areas of the sex industry, and what it means that the international sex work hubs involve white men going on sex tours so they can sleep with (often underage) women and girls (and often boys) of color; or the fact that in the relatively wealthy northern European cities where sex work is common (Amsterdam, Hamburg) you don’t see many of the beneficiaries of those welfare states doing sex work, and instead large proportions of the sex workers there are migrants from Eastern Europe. When you’re talking about sex for money, you can’t take money and international economics out of it. As I’m troubled by the exploitation of brown labor here in the United States, and by the gross mistreatment of migrant workers from the global south in much of the global north, I’m troubled by the migration of sexual labor and what it says about who “deserves” sex and who provides it.  

What does this mean?

The picture being painted is that rich white boys are literally f__king the world.

Instead of seeing the demographics of sex work as a function of its criminality, Filipovic presents it as white johns simply having an insatiable, disgusting need to abuse women of color.

In Filipovic's world, the regulated market does not allow an opportunity to replace coercive transactions with sober, open-eyed consensual ones.

To believe that, you would have to believe that if presented a choice between buying clean cocaine from Wal-Mart and cocaine smuggled in someone's ass, the American consumer would always choose the ass-balloons.

I’m troubled by the lack of focus on johns, because while I don’t think it’s immoral or unethical to exchange sex for money, I do think it’s immoral and unethical to buy sex.
Here Filipovic restates her idea that the seller is essentially blameless.

In what reality is a seller never at fault?

Use your imagination.

A sex worker soliciting a minor.

A sex worker soliciting a drunk/drugged person.

A sex worker soliciting a married person.

It would be a moderately safe bet that Filipovic thinks someone selling bullets bears some responsibility on the results. Filipovic also believes that sex is an act that is unique. It is a puzzle how selling sex can not be put under the microscope on its own.

I think it speaks to a view of human sexuality (and women’s bodies in particular, although of course there are men who pay for sex with men and boys) as purchasable; it belies a buyer’s view of himself as entitled to sex as a thing, instead of a party to a mutually pleasurable experience.

In short, it makes Filipovic queasy.

But those are different posts. Here, I want to talk about the friction between one feminist ideal of sex as collaborative and enthusiastically consensual, and the here-and-now necessities of advocating for all women and centering the voices of the women who know best what they need. We can do two things at once, can’t we? Push for a world where sex isn’t commodified, while still recognizing that today it is commodified and sex workers, like all workers, deserve to live lives free of violence and social ostracization, and deserve basic workplace protections? Labor movements do this every day — I’m personally a fan of capitalist marketplaces because I don’t think there’s a better system out there, but I also know that capitalism is man-made, and it’s what we make it. We can respond to the basics of supply and demand while not giving corporations outsized power; while building a social safety net; and while instituting physical, legal and financial protections for workers. We can critique the forces that establish patters of exploited migrant labor while advocating for the rights of migrant laborers. Can’t we?

Nothing hammers it home like detailing what you "want to talk about" in your concluding paragraph!

Filipovic is trying to find a middle ground, but has done a horrible job at defining what that could be. The article demonizes clients to no end, while describing sex workers as either morally unquestionable or complete victims.

In the "feminist utopia", no male feels the need to pay for companionship. All couplings are "enthusiastically consensual" which means no monies nor favors were exchanged during courtship.

Everyone will find themselves in a long term, happy monogamous relationship and employment entirely based on their intellect.

It would be a great place, and if Filipovic is to be believed the only dial that needs to be turned is the behavior of affluent white males of a specific age range.

But let's not put them in jail. That would be absurd, right?!

Let's perhaps just publish their names and berate their choices without doing any serious analysis of their situation.

Then, let's nudge 'sexually explicit performance' like pornography out of the public sphere, using the half-baked idea that since it is sort-of like prostitution the relationship between the two must be symbiotic.

Here's the facts that Filipovic conveniently ignores - the existing law is already solidly in the camp of the prohibitionists. It is already all the heavy-handedness she wants, and then some.

Filipovic inserts some talk about utopia as if to say 'let's not be too sex-positive, or too pro-sex-work, just in case legislators go crazy tomorrow and make it a free for all!'.

It is not time for two camps to compromise.

It is time for people to create realistic policy proposals that would in some way legitimize sex work.

We may write laws, or fiction.


  1. I'm a gay/bisexual and sexually submissive man who only recently came to terms with my sexuality. I spent most of my life trying in vain to find cis women who would accept me as the short, rather shy (with women I'm attracted to) sexually submissive male I am. Unfortunately I found the vast majority of women -from vanilla women to women who identified as Domme- all wanted a confident, tall and sexually active man in bed.

    As a result most of my sexual experiences have been with female and trans women sex workers.

    The feminist idea that men who pay for sex do it because they feel "entitled" or are using their innate economic power to take possession of women's bodies is infuriatingly erroneous, simplistic and bigoted.

    Many men who pay for sex earn less than the sex workers they are paying, and are paying not because they think they are entitled to sex but because they either lack confidence -in a dating culture where men are required by women to be confident-, are just plain unattractive to women or have alternative sexual needs which the average Jane wouldn't be to happy about hearing about let alone getting involved with.

    All of this feminist diatribe against men who pay for sex is based on the deeply sexist assumption that all men who pay for sex are moneyed Alpha males ruthlessly using their cash and penises to use and abuse because as creatures of privilege they can.

    Also the idea that the sex industry in countries like Thailand is some kind of racist sexual colonialism whereby thoroughly reprehensible white men use their cash and privilege to rape children and abuse poor brown women is utter uninformed racist nonsense.

    This radical feminist view of men is simplistic, bigoted and needs to be challenged whenever it rears it's ugly head.

    Oliver @freshverbal

  2. Thank you for sharing your perspective!

    You're entirely correct - the assumptions made about participants in the industry are completely absurd. Not every client is Eliot Spitzer, and not every worker is impoverished.

  3. Absolutely but it seems to me that equating men who pay for sex with Eliot Spitzer is charitable by feminist standards. Filipovic seems pretty moderate compared to the likes of Ophelia Benson or Greta Christina let alone Julie Bindel or Cath Elliot yet even she seems to equate men who pay for sex with pedophiles, rapists and racist neo colonialists.

    They think the word twat is offensive yet they fail to see that equating men like me with the likes of Gary Glitter, Fred West or Eugene Terre'Blanche is more offensive than any gendered swear word could ever be.

    The mind boggles.