If the pursuit of pleasure is good, how can it be bad for sex workers, people who are professionally steeped in sexuality? Well, it’s complicated. Over the past several decades, a contingent of feminist, sex positive sex workers have emerged, and they have claimed their right to experience the pleasures of sex and share those pleasures with others, including paying clients.
Sex positive sex workers have moved to the forefront of conversations about the sex industry, and today are prevalent in online discussions of sex work, especially when it comes to first person accounts. Offline, too, sex positive sex workers have been making their mark on the discourse around sex work, and many have appeared on academic panels and at other public events to offer their perspectives on sexuality and sex work.
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. People like this – people like me – are central figures in the American sex worker rights movement, and often claim sex positivity as a key vehicle for claiming rights and making progress. Arguably, some progress has been made, especially in the area of cultural engagement and public awareness about the struggles and humanity of people in the sex industry. The fact that the phrase “sex worker” appears regularly in news outlets when the subject is covered is a testament to this progress. Though offensive slang still publicly brands people in the sex industry, the awareness of the preferred terminology has certainly grown. But despite the progress, there are many barriers to justice. One of these barriers, the one that this essay explores, is sex positivity.
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. And though it is frustrating to have something that you thought was good, that has your best intentions behind it, pointed out as being potentially or actually harmful, it is crucial to think about the ways we can make our umbrellas bigger and not smaller. Even if sometimes this may come at the personal cost of rerouting your values.
On a Personal Note
I am a former sex worker. My several years of work experience in the business included escorting, sensual massage, porn, fetish work, and working as a phone girl at a dungeon. During much of the time I was working, I also engaged in activism in support of sex workers’ rights. In particular, I was an editor at $preadmagazine for three years, and I organized art shows, performances, and other public events to raise funds for the magazine. Over the last few years, as I have dug deeper into providing peer support and trainings in media, storytelling, and legislative advocacy for people in the sex industry via my work at the Red Umbrella Project, I have been critically examining the ways that the sex worker rights community talks about what we do and what we want to see change. I have been looking hard and close at who this “we” of the sex worker rights community is, and I have been listening hard to people who feel excluded by that “we.” Some of the points I make in this essay might be a bitter pill to swallow, or may make you feel defensive, or like I am pointing fingers. But it’s important for you to know that I am very much culpable in this, too.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, I was a fierce defender of sex positive feminism. When I was working in the sex industry, sex positivity was an important value of mine, one that in some ways gave me the skills to cope with a physically and emotionally demanding job. However, the more I step back from that time in my life, and the more I am willing to look critically at things I have held dear, the more obvious it is to me that my experience of sex positivity and the sex industry are not anywhere near universal, they are just the most visible to me, because I fit the mold as described above. 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.
Sex Positive Feminism and Sex Work: A Quick Overview
The sex worker rights movements in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand have been, for the last forty years, very entangled with feminist movements. Though there is, certainly, a history of disagreement between feminists and supporters of sex workers’ rights, there are also many feminists who support the rights of sex workers. The phrase “sex work” first came into use in the late 1970s, has made its way into official channels, and today is used by the United Nations. The feminist value of bodily autonomy, or the ability to choose what to do with one’s body, figures most prominently in feminist support for sex workers’ rights. The link with feminism in these geographic contexts aligns sex workers’ rights with the rights of usually white, cisgender women and often links it to reproductive rights and health.
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.
Certainly, there are other global movements based around the rights of sex workers, though their cultural and activist histories are different and less rooted in feminism. The Latin American sex worker rights movement is large and powerful, especially in places like Brazil and Argentina, and it is a working class movement that has been developed largely by street based workers and uses aggressive tactics to ensure that their members’ voices are heard. In India, there are sex worker rights groups that count thousands in their memberships, and for whom the process of collectivization is key to getting a response from state and national governments, particularly on the issue of access to unbiased health care. In other places in Asia, sex workers have organized alongside garment factory workers to ensure that their rights as workers are protected. Of course, a paragraph devoted to the global movement does it no justice, except to make the point that there are different ways of organizing sex worker movements, beyond feminism.
The Dominion of SEX over work
In the 1997 anthology Whores and Other Feminists, edited by Jill Nagle, Carol Queen’s essay “Sex Radical Politics, Sex-Positive Feminist Thought, and Whore Stigma,” set the stage for the feminist sex positive perspective on sex work that has been so prevalent over the past decade and a half. 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.
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.
The “‘poor abused whores’ lobby” spews plenty of toxic garbage about the experiences of people coerced into the sex industry and their preferred (unattainable, abolitionist) solutions, often without letting people with those experiences speak for themselves. However, if feminist sex positive sex workers also silence these voices, we are not contributing as positively to the cause of sex workers’ rights as we want to believe.
“Happy Hooker” vs “Exploited Victim”: Defeating the Dichotomy
In the media trainings I do, I ask the participants to come up with a main message that, if they had two minutes, they want their audience to receive. They then need to back up this message with two or three talking points, one sentence statements that can be evidence-based, use logic or other rhetorical devices to give the audience a different perspective. Every time I have done the training, someone is eager to express the message that sex workers are average people with many dimensions: we are mothers, brothers, taxpayers, neighbors, pet enthusiasts, gourmet cooks, etc. Inevitably, one of the supporting talking points they come up with is, “You wouldn’t be able to distinguish me from anyone else you walk by; I’m not a street worker or a junkie.” But some sex workers – maybe not sex workers in your immediate circle – are street workers and junkies, and we cannot throw them under the bus as we have been doing. To define oneself as essentially normal, in opposition to drug-using, street based workers, is to imply that they are not as worthy as rights as those of us who fit better into society. Furthermore, when we define ourselves in opposition to what we view as negative portrayals of sex work, we silence people who have had these experiences, and we communicate to them that they are not welcome in our community.
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.
I haven’t given up on the radical potential of sex and pleasure, but now I see these pursuits as being very different from the task of promoting and protecting the rights of people who are in the sex industry by choice, circumstance, or coercion. For me, it is no longer acceptable to maintain a barrier between conversations about the positive potential of the choice to do transactional sex and the injustices many people face when they do sex work because of circumstance or coercion. To do so is to maintain a class divide that is wide and deep. The sex industry is extremely complex, and attempting to make tidy arguments about the positive and negative sides of the business discredits both sides of the argument. It’s time to find a new paradigm, one that will allow for a more authentic pursuit of the human rights of sex workers and will be more inclusive of the broad spectrum of experiences of people in the sex industry.