Friday, August 1, 2008

And now, an interjection from a sex-positive feminist

When I usually encounter a "sex-positive" on the internet, they are about as far from being feminists as humanly possible. I submit for your evidence: Bang-Bros (don't worry, it's just a wikipedia link).

Occasionally, I actually stumble upon an actual feminist, not someone who is posing as one to write off their nasty exploitive shit as art, who submits that they are "sex-positive".

Via Feministe, KaeLyn's Feminist Porn: Sex, Consent, and Getting Off. I was pleasantly surprised. No overt anti-feminist sentiments were expressed. No glaring logical holes were presented. The comment thread, quite long at this point, is mostly civil.

Nevertheless, the post bothered me. Not in the way that inspires me to hurt inanimate objects, but in the way that I felt that the work of my feminist icons and my own opinions were being unintentionally misunderstood and discarded.

I find it most constructive to refer to the actual post for my analysis. KaeLyn starts her prose with:

Feminism has a love/hate relationship with sex.

How so? I have yet to meet a feminist that isn't a parody of the word that actually loathes mutual sexual satisfaction between various amount of people of various genders and non-genders. I simply have an issue with how that mutually consensual contact may be expressed in fashions that I feel have more to do with social convention and gender roles than reciprocal respect and genuine want. I don't hate sex, and I surmise that even the most strident of radical feminists doesn't either. Merely, most of us don't consider some forms of popularly considered "sex" sex at all. Where the average Joe sees a particular act as sex (for example, having sex with a sleeping girlfriend), I might see rape. That doesn't mean I hate sex, that means I hate rape and rapists. Also, there is a bunch of sexual expressions that are not rape in the legal/criminal sense, but I feel would not be possible outside of the pressures of a patriarchal society. Again, that is not a hatred of sex. Also, I have yet to find any sort of feminist that truly hates sex. It would probably be prudent of KaeLyn to reference a "feminist" that she assumes hates sex, so that I am not puzzled as to what she is referring to.

I once spent an evening at a hole-in-the-wall strip club with a 20-something friend fiercely debating her anti-pornography/anti-prostitution position. We spent half an hour of that night talking with a dancer, a young single mom and the only woman-of-color on the floor. She said it was better than working at a grocery store; she made more money and didn’t have to pay for day care. How could I blame her? It was niave and classist for us to engage her in this conversation, but I was in college and didn’t know how stupid I was being.

How is it naïve and classist to want to know the justifications and thoughts of a stripper? I think it's actually quite insulting to assume that the acts and works of a stripper are beyond question, or that engaging a stripper in conversation about her work, in so long as she is willing to talk, is demeaning. No human is ever beyond question, period. Of course, there is a right and wrong way to do everything. Simply discussing stripping with a stripper with the goal of understanding her is fine, in so long as she is willing to talk. Denigrating her lifestyle, however, would be sexist and classist.

Furthermore, is it naïve or stupid of me to wish that there were no women in the world that would have to pick between a minimum wage job and sex work? I strongly feel that true agency is not found between a rock and a hard place.

In the 60’s and 70’s, Andrea Dworkin led a brilliant fight to expose and illuminate rape culture and end violence against women. Her analysis of the gender binary, pornography, and theories of penetrative sex as a patriarchal act is at the titillating center of a lively and necessary conversation in the feminist community. I also believe the work of Dworkin and her peers has contributed to the division of lesbian and heterosexual feminists, persecution and demoralization of sex work and sex workers, exclusion of transfolk from feminist spaces, and a whole lot of personal feminist guilt. But I gotta’ give kudos to Dworkin for putting rape culture on the map and, there are many awesome, inspiring, fabulous feminist leaders I admire who also happen to be card-carrying members of the anti-prostitution camp including Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan.

How and why has Dworkin divided lesbians and heterosexual feminists? I consider myself a member of the "not heterosexual" category, and I don't feel ostracized and neglected by feminism. That mainly is because feminism is concerned with gender roles, and those are most often expressed in the relationships between two people of the opposite gender identity. Also, it might have something to do with the fact that heterosexuals are the majority of the population, and their experiences are more shaped by social norms and more common to come across. That is not to say that feminism never touches lesbianism, bisexuality, or any other deviancies from the gender binary. For example, the Beyond Masculinity project touched on the these issues from the perspective of genetic males.

Also, I have never heard of feminists persecuting and demoralizing sex workers. We criticize sex work, true, but that's because the conditions of every facet of the industry are so heinous that ignoring them would be tantamount to malicious neglect. If we truly want to fight against rape and sexism, I feel that we ought to look at the parts of our economy that are responsible for the most paid rape, infidelity, murder, abuse, disenfranchisement, child exploitation, and objectification. Simply wringing our hands about how much housework an upper-class woman does in comparison to her husband is a worthy discussion, but the seriousness of that issue pales in comparison to things like how the legal system ignores violence against sex workers but defends those that profit the most off of sex work, namely pimps, pornographers, and people like Hugh Hefner. All of the above, I might add, are idolized by popular culture while sex workers are vilified or objectified.

Furthermore, since when has Dworkin said anything nasty about transsfolk? The draft of her civil rights ordinance that characterized pornography as "the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words" states that the use of men, children, and transsexuals in the above context is also relevant. I recall, although I cannot locate a direct quote, that in Woman Hating she stated something to the effect that transfolk wouldn't exist if we lived in a completely unsexist world, although that doesn't mean that they don't live in a state of emergency and deserve full state funding for any and all medical procedures. By that, I gather that without a patriarchy, gender really doesn't matter much at all. In fact, gender will be as unremarkable as having grey or green eyes. Thus, if we change our gender, it would have very little effect on how people perceive us, much like wearing colored contacts or having your irises tattooed a different color. I do not interpret these as anti-transsexual sentiments.

All that said, a reproductive justice framework, in my mind, calls for the full rights of sex workers and a liberation of sexuality that goes beyond mainstream pornography and sex work. Don’t women, and all people, have the right to control their bodies, access their sexual desires, and to enjoy safe and consensual sexual pleasure?

Ironically, I completely agree with the above statement, but I draw completely different conclusions from it than those that KaeLyn expresses.

And while the porn and sex/adult industry is currently geared towards men and definitely objectifies women, forgets women’s pleasure, and supports an oppressive rape culture, I see a bigger solution than attempting to censor or criminalize sex. Like abortion, homosexuality, and other social issues that have been labeled “deviant” and make people uncomfortable, sex work and the sex trade will always go on, even if pushed underground. And legalization and support of sex work can open the door to helping the sex/adult industry become safer and healthier for sex workers and a more welcoming and affirming place for feminists and all people.

KaeLyn's initial reaction to the sex/adult industries are completely correct. Then, she errs. Radical feminists want to criminalize acts and depictions of rape and objectification, not sex. Abortion and homosexuality are not fraught with the same ethically wrong abuses as the sex industry. Pornography, stripping, and prostitution are not true depictions of sexuality and sex any more so than two actors in a sex scene are actually having sex. Some radical feminists don't even want to criminalize those things, but they would like a strong stigma to be attached to them and demand to increase for actual depictions of true desire and sexuality. My feeling is that the aforementioned is impossible in our current society because of the gender binary and roles. Patriarchy is still alive and well, and it is still best expressed through sex, and reinforced through orgasm. In a true "chicken or the egg" dilemma, the sexist sentiments of society demand demeaning sexist porn, and then the porn further warps and twists definitions of sexuality. This theory is correct, simply because the instances of non-objectifying porn are extremely rare. If I rented the 100 most popular porn videos, and magically brought them to life, I would have 100 sexual situations that I would wish to have no part of. I submit that those that remain pro-porn have an extremely romanticized and erroneous view of our sex industry, of the demand that fuels it, and the conditions that allow it to flourish and proliferate.

It is right, however, to assume that it will go on as normal if it is illegal. However, legalizing it will hardly make those that sell objectifying disgusting smut easier to catch. Simply, our justice system is very concerned with the First Amendment and "innocent until proven guilty". Without suspicion of a crime, no investigation will take place. Our justice system is totally inept when it comes to combating things like child pornography, rape, human trafficking, and prostitution while those acts are illegal. Imagine how little will get done once the justice system has to have reasonable doubt of abuse, not just prostitution, before they break into a massage parlor that is holding women in sexual slavery. The justice system is not concerned, at all, with the plight of sex workers. The link I provided above to the man that received only a day in jail for killing a prostitute should make that abundantly clear. Donald Trump hires an underage nude model, offers an extremely transparent excuse, and receives no penalty. A Dallas strip club makes a 12-year old runaway perform in exchange for board, and is still open for business. These acts are blatantly illegal, exploitive, and foul, and still the justice system does nothing. Giving those that profit off the sex industry even more legal room to operate will hardly solve the problem. Ever since the Netherlands legalized prostitution, 80% of prostitutes are foreigners, and 70% have no papers, suggesting that they are trafficked. In contrast, once Sweden criminalized buying sex while legalizing selling sex and provided extensive exit programs for sex workers, demand for prostitutes has fallen, the number of prostitutes has fallen, and human trafficking has decreased at a rate unsurpassed by the usually ineffective anti-trafficking measures.

Making the demand for sex work legal will not magically transform the sex industries overnight into a feminist paradise. We should know better. The people who fuel and profit off of these industries the most are bigots, liars, criminals, traffickers, abusive pimps, cheating johns, pedophiles, and woman-haters. Simply put, the average john, porn-viewer, and strip club regular is not an up-standing member of the community. These are not curious people wanting to learn more about their sexuality (a ludicrous assumption, because there is very little in porn, prostitution, and stripping that has anything to do with real sexuality), these are people that, at best, are capable of completely divorcing the sensation of sexual arousal from respect and emotion. At worst, they are addicts to exploitation and degradation, constantly demanding more and more extreme porn until they glean sexual pleasure from rape, murder, children, abuse, and the most vile and inhuman acts.

I, and others in the pro-sex camp like Pat Califia and Betty Dodson, believe in a society that truly values gender justice, where women can make free and safe choices about sex and sexuality, be free from abuse and assault, and have available to them the same frank and authentic access to their sexual selves that Western culture affords men from the day they pop out of the womb.

Again, what would really help women make "free and save choices about sex and sexuality" is a society in which female sexuality is not defined by catering to the pleasures of her viewer. This is an evitable part of any economic exchange: by the very act of someone paying me to do something, it is assumed that the act itself is not pleasurable enough for me to do it without pay. A choice between minimum wage and stripping is not a choice that men have to make, so why should women? Also, a culture of men that masturbate to images of women that cannot and will not say no (or if they do, in the case of rape porn, they are forced anyway) is hardly going to convince anyone of anything other than the assumption that women are sexual property, open and welcoming to the male gaze, and always perpetually sexually available. These attitudes absolutely fuel the rape culture. In fact, I cannot think of a single man I have every slept with, who later admitted that he views porn, who seemed to have a good working knowledge of anything but what he wanted in bed and what he assumed I wanted by watching a bunch of smut. On the contrary, my best lover was a virgin who thought pornography was disgusting. We explored what we both liked without any preconceived notions of what sex ought to look like and what "real men" could get their women to do in bed.

Of course, it is more complicated then just embracing porn. I, obviously, do not condone human trafficking or sexual slavery. I do believe that legalizing sex work will help regulate and prosecute human trafficking and sexual slavery and will create human rights for sex workers. I do not believe that all pornography should be legal. Porn or sex work that involves minors, animals, killing of people or animals, and rape should be criminalized to the fullest extent of the law. I do think that pornography that include consensual sex between adults, including rape fantasy, incest taboo, BDSM, and other “kinky” sex should be legal and can be deconstructed and even embraced by feminist pedagogy.

Like I explained above, all evidence points towards the fact that legalizing the demand for the sex industry allows the most heinous of exploitations, while criminalizing it has proven to be the most successful policy. That is not to say, however, that the legality or illegality of sex work fuels exploitation. My theory is that neither matter much. What does matter is the simple fact that the justice system does not give a damn about the abuse of sex workers, even when such abuses are illegal. Legalizing sex work will only give them another excuse to fail to uphold the laws or put forth no effort in criminal investigations, and provide even more opportunities for pornographers, pimps, and johns to slip out of any charge brought against them.

KaeLyn's portrayal of "consensual" sex in this context is extremely limited. In a patriarchy, like I said, all sex acts lie along a continuum of non-consent. To simply group all sex acts into black and white categories of "consensual" and "non-consensual" is far too simplistic. In order to have such a sharp divide, the law would have to define consent in such a way that all acts could therefore be categorized easily and efficiently. As I have explained in a prior post about rape trails, the legal definition of consent is currently so easily manipulated that more women wind up shamed and alienated by rape trials than rapists wind up behind bars. This is because the law will say that consent is the difference between "yes" and NO. But that no has to be firmly and repeatedly stated. Oh, and there have to be bruises all over her body. Don't forget the signed witness statements of ten other people. They're only good witnesses if they are sober though.

Does anyone see the problem here? If rape porn is legal, how the hell is someone going to prove non-consent? If a woman will lose her only source of income and be popularly recognized as a prostitute or porn star, why the fuck would she come forward? If every sexual act she has ever done in her entire life is opened for scrutiny, why would she even bother? In fact, how could a prostitute living barely above the poverty line go after her upper-class pimp, or a single mother porn star working three jobs pay her legal fees?

The answer is that they cannot. If normal women cannot make rape charges stick, well, what hope do porn stars, prostitutes, and strippers have? Our legal system is so hopelessly fucked that our entire society would have to be re-ordered to deal with the legal demands of a regulated healthy sex industry. In so long as sexism, misogyny, and violence are demanded by the masturbating public, does anyone even for a second believe that this is possible?

So theories and pontificating aside, let’s add reality to the mix. The reality of what women, even feminists, find pleasurable is not always politically correct. Sexuality is not neat and clean. I have talked to many feminist women who struggle to balance what really happens behind closed doors and what they feel the bedroom politics of a “good feminist” should be. Enjoying BDSM, strap-on sex and sex toys, genderplay, rape and incest taboo, mainstream pornography, and other “deviant” sexual taboos with a consensual partner does not make a person a “bad feminist” or a hypocrite. To the contrary, feminism is what gave me permission to love sex, with myself and with others, to embrace my sexual orientation, and find out what turns me on. Pro-sex feminism argues that recognizing the role of fantasy in sexual arousal and coming out of shame about sexual desires opens the door to a more frank and honest discussion about women’s bodies, consent, and safer sex. And that leads to better, safer sex that encourages communication and complete, enthusiastic consent to sex that is fulfilling and healthy. How is that not feminist?

Of course sexuality isn't always "neat and clean". If you masturbate to objectification, rape, or children enough you're going to want to objectify your sexual partners, rape some people, and have sex with children. In fact, you'll think this is perfectly normal. Take, for instance, the state of rape law today. Many people persist with the bizarre notion that is it perfectly normal for a man who sees a drunk attractive woman in a miniskirt to rape her. In fact, it's her fault that she got raped, because men are incapable of controlling their penises. Some people even go so far as to say that men who rape children are normal because she wanted his approval and dressed like a whore. The social definition of rape, consent, and sexual desire is so fucked up by the legacy of thousands of years of treating women like sexual property that the idea that the average person knows the difference between non-consent and consent without careful introspection is, frankly, extremely optimistic and dangerous.

My thoughts are that if you genuinely cannot get off without your rape role-playing and heavy BDSM you have serious issues. Sex is exciting enough with normal varieties like different positions and toys, why the hell does everyone have to add this undercurrent of submission/domination and objectification to get off? I personally have absolutely no desire to treat someone I respect or love as a masturbatory object, and I don't think that I could have a relationship with someone who does. You know, variety is the spice of life, but if all that gets the blood pounding is images and acts of objectification, exploitation, pain, and abuse, then please stay far far away from me. The notion that things like rape fantasies and heavy BDSM are feminist is bizarre. I cannot think of anything less feminist than the use of someone's submission, pain, and abuse to orgasm. At the very least, these acts are neutral. At most, they're criminal.

Of course, feminism did give me the agency to "find out what turns me on", but it also, to a great extent, showed me what does not. What does not turn me on, in any way or form, is violence, abuse, and exploitation. Feminism gave me the voice to say "fuck you and your porn, you're not getting that dick anywhere near my ass", and the knowledge to figure out it's better to want someone than to do what someone else wants because you want them to want you.

I also reject the use of "pro-sex feminist". All feminists are pro-sex and pro-women. Nothing is more "pro-sex" than telling people that want to define me in terms of what they want me to do and be to fuck off. What KaeLyn is implying is that I am "anti-sex". Which would be false, being that I love a little genital friction like any other human being. What I don't like is rape and exploitation. Thus, I do not like stripping, porn, and prostitution. I am capable of separating porn stars from pornographers, johns from hookers, and viewers from strippers. I follow the money and power. Who ever has it, and gets the most of it, is probably responsible for the disgusting state of the sex industry. Thus, I'm quite capable of not vilifying a woman that chooses between minimum wage and stripping, but wanting to drag the mutilated body of someone who goes on sex vacations through Thailand to fuck toddlers through the streets.

Frankly, discussion of why we get turned on by the things we do is healthy. After I was raped by a boyfriend, I had fantasies of someone tying me up and telling me I was a "sheath for his cock". I really don't consider that a healthy expression of my sexuality. Shame when it comes to sexual deviancy is healthy. It's what keeps a potential pedophile away from real children. Not all sex acts are equal. Just because it feels good doesn't mean it's moral. Seriously, do I even have to state something so obvious?

What would really lead to better safer sex is a society in which men don't assume women want exactly what they want because they masturbate to nothing but paid performances. A society in which I am not assumed to be perpetually sexually available by a culture of viewers who see image after image of women that never ever say no. A legal system that locks away rapists and abusers instead of vilifying their victims. A society in which I discovered what I wanted sexually before I discovered what I had to be for people to want me.

Underneath her prose, KaeLyn lists various porn sites that are owned by women, open to many kinds of beauty, pro-feminist, or trans-accepting.

I clicked on many of them, I didn't find really much of anything I could get off with. Mainly, because the majority of the sites still featured women for men to look at. They didn't even have the decency to have many woman that I would like to look at. I saw fetishizations of the menstrual cycle, hairy women, transsexuals, "alternative" women, feet, and vegans. But all of these lifestyles weren't respected for being genuine political statements, they were just another gimmick to wank to. That's the difference between someone who understands my anger and opinions and wants to do some serious introspection and research themselves, and someone that sees my anger, thinks its hot, and wants to fuck me without ever thinking about the words and feelings that I express.

That's not feminism, it's the fetizishation of feminism. If I wanted people to want to fuck me because I'm a feminist, I wouldn't be a feminist all! In this society, nothing is more disgusting than an opinionated cynical woman who doesn't shave her legs, doesn't give a shit about her weight, and is not impressed by your love of anal sex. What would really be a true expression of sexuality is someone who understands my message, understands me, respects me, and wants me because he/she likes me for who I am and what I think. A very shallow and hollow sentiment would be someone who still doesn't give a shit about what I say, but thinks my hairy legs are hot, and thinks my mouth could be put to better use than talking about rape at a Take Back the Night rally.

Also, the sentiment that a few women-friendly (or at the least, not insulting) porn sites are enough to combat the massive demand and supply of really disgusting abusive shit is silly. That's like Michael Jordan and Bill Cosby going to Africa and telling all the Africans that being white is not an advantage in this world, because look at all they accomplished!

Assuming that a stripper wouldn't want to be a stripper if she was offered a chance in her life to be a high-paid lawyer isn't insulting, it's realistic. I feel that the entire ideology of sex-positive feminism is built upon an overly optimistic view of the sex industry and its customers, an invented "anti-sex" opponent, and the unwillingness to face the facts that pleasure and exploitation are not incompatible, and never have been. Furthermore, until we look inside ourselves and at others and say to them, "you do not have the right to demand exploitive sex, have exploitive sex, pay for exploitive sex, or fuel the demand for exploitive sex", then we're never going to even dent the rape culture.


Anonymous said...

This post rules.

Jen said...

Thanks a bunch. I'm glad it didn't come off as repetitive and overly wordy.

the bewilderness said...

While I can understand a woman taking the menz word, up to a point, for what feminism is, it is this statement:
"And while the porn and sex/adult industry is currently geared towards men and definitely objectifies women, forgets women’s pleasure, and supports an oppressive rape culture,..."
right there, where I expect them to have a light bulb moment, that just never seems to happen.

How exactly do you blow right by that. Well yeah, women are being abused and tortured by men and other men really like to watch women be raped and beaten, but....what?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'm with The B. I usually use "While..." to do away with phenomena that exhibit tiny and usually irrelevant deviations from the idea presented in the independent clause/main part of the sentence, not to completely dismiss 65 things that totally outweigh the idea in the independent clause.

Jen said...

I stayed away from pointing it out in the main post to maintain a more positive tone, but the structure of that sentence brought to mind many conversations that began with the phrase, "I'm a feminist, but..."

D said...

Do you know why people say you're anti-sex?

It can be easily read in what you yourself have already said.

You say you don't hate sex, you only hate rape. But you also say that in your mind, all sex exists in a state of no-consent, ergo, all sex is rape.

Therefore, you yourself have basically stated that you hate sex.

So, people assuming you hate sex isn't really a far reach, since you've said it yourself.