Ask Surly Amy and Sophie: Is Sex Work Anti-Feminist?
What is the rational, skeptical stance in the feminism vs sex work debate? See further:
Can one be feminist and still see a rational buck to be made from selling a service with constant demand, if it means using your body to do so?
I’d love to see a Surly Amy / Skepchick response to this.
As far as I’m concerned, I see no problem with adult, empowered feminists being involved in sex work as long as it is their choice to do so, the work doesn’t degrade them and they are in charge of what they do and what they do not do. It seems to me that women completely in charge of their own bodies and their sexuality would help break the stigma that women hate sex, that sex is a sin or that women are somehow victimized by the act of sex itself.
I am not an authority on this topic. I do however, know someone who is!
I contacted a good friend of the Skepchicks, Sophie Hirschfeld.
Sophie is the writer on the popular sex and science blog and she herself is a sex worker, a peer counselor and President of the Eastern Washington Sex Workers Project. She works in and has worked in a variety of branches of the adult industry from erotic texting to webcam to dominatrix work and many others in between. Her current work includes webcam, phone sex and dominatrix work.
I asked Sophie to give her perspective on the above question:
Assuming that the person asking the question is defining feminism as the seeking of rights equal to those of men (or any other gender, if you would like to acknowledge that sex isn’t a dichotomy), then of course one can still be a feminist. Feminism is an ambiguously defined term, though, so trying to give a clear answer to their question is a bit tougher. As you know, I’m very big on human rights issues, and I actually see gaining more rights for those in the sex industry as a step toward progress in the women’s rights movement. How can we say that we are truly free, sexually, if we don’t even have enough ownership of our own genitals to be able to sell entertainment with them?
There are a few things I think are important to acknowledge based on how this question was asked. One thing that has plagued the progress of gaining rights for sex workers is how people see sex work. People never tell you that if you’re using your arms to bake a cake, that you’re selling your body when you’re hired to do so. Nobody tells you that working as a driver, where you use your legs, is selling your body. In the act of doing nearly any kind of work, we use our bodies, and we are never seen as selling those body parts or selling our body when we are working. It is only in the world of the sex industry that one is considered “selling themselves” or “selling their body” as a part of work. Our society sees our genitals as a separate entity, seemingly, in how we relate to work. As a result, it is only with the addition of the use of genitals, in a job, that the job is suddenly seen in this manner. The reality is, though, my vagina is not my whole body nor is it my whole self. The same is true of anyone in the adult industry. Our genitals aren’t us. Most people in the adult industry leave their work with their body entirely in tact, just as any other worker does. I have always thought it was a strange aspect of anti-porn movement that those working against pornography (and freedom of speech) were more inclined to make a sex worker the sum of their genitals than those who purchase pornography.
Most people in the industry choose their work (just as most other people do). I have peers who are in the adult industry for a variety of reasons. Women that I work with and counsel are here for the same reasons people do most types of jobs. It is hard work, but it is very pleasant work, as well. Naturally, this means that I have peers who are here specifically because they like to get paid for their pleasure. I also have peers who can make more money doing this than they can elsewhere, and furthermore, I have peers who just joined the adult industry out of curiosity.
Also, I agree that, as with any work, if an individual is forced or if the situation is unhealthy, they should not be in the adult industry. One of the things I have pointed out in workshops and lectures is that people should look at the same factors that serve as unhealthy stressors in a regular job in order to help assess if a person in the adult industry is in an unhealthy setting. I could probably write a significant amount about what constitutes healthy and unhealthy work environments in the adult industry, but that would take us pretty far off topic.
That is a problem that is an extension of other feminist issues. If someone is trapped in a type of work they don’t like, it isn’t the job itself that is to blame. Someone who is forced into an unwanted work situation can still, of course, be a feminist. However, their work may be an example of where we still need to see social progress. For example: It is not uncommon for women in certain poorer countries to be forced into the sex industry. One popular thing for them to do, to avoid being discovered by people they know, is webcam work. These women sometimes fight for their rights alongside their work, and they see their work as a way to keep their housing or their food. Robbing them of their identity as feminists or human rights advocates as they work in an industry they would otherwise not like would merely be robbing them of themselves. This can possibly have more so of an effect than if their work was taken from them. Taking on the label of feminism has little to do with whether or not one is in the sex industry.
Feminism took a stance against the adult industry because feminism brought us out of a time where women’s sexuality was controlled by what it seemed men desired. As women’s sexuality became more their own, it was tough for feminism to break away from that bias. Now, actions against the adult industry are counteractive to what we have gained from the feminist movement. Legal issues over the adult industry causes an increased risk of violence against those in the adult industry. There are few protections for those who face violence because of social stigma and the law. There is little open communication between sex workers, as well, for the same reasons. People keep their work hidden because the consequences of being outed can be so severe, it can ruin lives. This isn’t the industry’s fault. This is the fault of the social environment we have created.
So, I suppose, the best answer is, feminism is something to be considered separate of employment. If you are truly looking for equal rights; if someone is interested in being an advocate for human rights, no matter the sexual presentation or preference of the individual, then logically, being a proponent of sex worker rights is something that would make you more of a feminist, not less.
Special thanks to Sophie for taking the time out to help answer this question!
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