A Professionalized Body

So I’m startled by the possibilities for reading these two incisive modern labor stories against one another:

Inside the Million-Dollar Get-Rich Doula Clique (Katie J. M. Baker, BuzzFeed News)

The Peculiar Political Economics of Pro-Domming
(Lori Adorable, Tits and Sass)

Lori Adorable’s story speaks to something I have no inclination to report on myself, preferring to leave it to superior, expert observation and commentary: the rise of online domination, specifically the production of online personas in the service of marketing and branding BDSM services, not only those offered remotely through words and pictures.

Adorable: “[I] don’t see how a half dozen or so fin-dommes have transformed ‘fuck you, pay me’ dirty talk into a semi-coherent rhetoric of wealth redistribution on certain strains of social justice Twitter. It seems obvious to me that gamely paying $20 in Amazon gift cards for a carefully calibrated performance of sexualized bitchiness is not full communism. Where did everyone else get it twisted?”

This scene isn’t just about creating appealing content by which to attract and motivate potential customers over time. Selling domination on the internet has become somewhat intertwined in the same kind of empowerment politics that are a strong driver of traffic, emotion, and “engagement” outside the sex trade, too.

Katie Baker’s investigation of doulas reveals a prosperity cult on the rise within this rapidly professionalizing community, one that has gained in visibility in the past through explicitly political challenges to the birth status quo. Through Facebook groups, the new doulas have perfected the art of drama as business plan.

Baker: “Group members accuse volunteer doulas of ‘devaluing’ the profession, calling them selfish ‘oxytocin vampires’ for soaking up secondhand vibes at the expense of their colleagues’ paychecks (women release oxytocin, called the ‘love hormone,’ during labor). ‘Sure hope that birth high is worth taking the food out of my children’s mouths,’ an angry doula once wrote about a competitor advertising free services. Posts about whether doulas are a ‘necessity’ draw hundreds of impassioned comments. ‘Everyone deserves a doula is a catchy phrase,’ one doula recently wrote, ‘but so is “show me the money.”‘

This mix of excessive high self-esteem as marketing, while marketing excessive high self-esteem itself, is of course not limited to the doula scene. Every aspiring #GirlBoss, every #BossBitch trying to ascend from middle management, all those struggling on their way to #SHEntrepreneur status has come across such demands to just believe in herself and the cash will follow. If along the way she has to separate herself from all the less ambitious, less convinced-of-themselves, less resourced (to be honest) women, well, that’s just part of the process. That’s how she asserts her value: pulling away from the women she’s been told (by the people she has paid to tell her) are her lessers.

What the ProDoulas are selling is an aura of success: founders say they have made $1.25M in 2016 through their online seminars and social media consultations, along with conferences, web design services, and professional certifications. Baker interviews doulas who bought in, only to lose business. The rigid ProDoula line didn’t sell in their communities, who didn’t see doula services as the luxury product ProDoula has styled them into. But the ProDoulas broker no room for dissent in their online communities. One doula, who had been critical of ProDoula, told Baker she had been baited into a private conversation about ProDoula by an undercover ProDoula, who then published screenshots of their conversation. Betrayal! Controversy! And – profit. ProDoula execs noted their numbers only go up when they get “haters.”

In wedding their feel-good-but-not-too-feelingsy feminist scheme to a certain kind of passion for trolling as lead generation, have doulas really just discovered the 2010’s findom-inspired call sign, #GiveYourMoneyToWomen? Meant as much as a provocation as a business plan, the hashtag-as-demand moved quickly out of findom spaces and into the broader return to claiming women’s underpaid or unpaid emotional labor as a feminist – and this time, an entrepreneurial – mission.

Lori Adorable again, on dommes: “We spend an obscene amount of energy trying to distance ourselves from escorts, parlor workers, and other full-service providers, many of whom also do BDSM, and we hurt ourselves in the process. With a few notable exceptions like Terri-Jean Bedford, we are cut off from the movement. Other sex workers agitate for their rights, and we claim not to need those rights. They form social and professional networks and we isolate from their organizations. They establish health centers and we ignore our need for STI testing as if needle play were not a higher-risk activity than many forms of sex. They organize know-your-rights trainings, and they certainly don’t miss our holier-than-thou presence when we fail to show. We’re the ones who miss out on community, on services, and on knowledge that can protect us. We’ve done this to ourselves because it’s easier than fighting. We are, to borrow from Charlotte Shane, high off our own non-hooker fumes, enamored of our in-session personas and giving up the ghost of socioeconomic reality.”

Dommes are possibly some ways off from any kind of ProDoula-like scheme (though, of course, anywhere on social media one could be cooking right now). But as Adorable describes the current state of affairs in domme community, these are the precise socioeconomic conditions that could make such a domme-to-domme business profitable. Doula work and domme work are both forms of feminized, stigmatized labor; they don’t require credentials or degrees; they end up thriving at the margins of society for all those reasons, in turn attracting independent-minded workers.

As Adorable gestures to, these dynamics, borne partially of self-protection, also lead to policing behavior – of who is in and who is out. In a way, it is a system for transforming stigma (however temporarily, uneasily) into cash. But along with it, another stigmatizing hierarchy develops, one dividing women who “value” themselves from those who don’t measure up to the standards of whatever clique rules the day. This isn’t, by the way, necessarily an indication of who is most successful at business; it may be only whoever has enough time (therefore resources, which they may already have had) to enforce their vision of the rules.

With ProDoula, along with the rule-making, that high-on-her-fumes persona is in play, too. “I used to tell people that our most popular service was overnights before I’d ever sold a single overnight shift,” one ProDoula told Baker. It’s a persona marketed to pregnant people seeking birth support, and to other doulas seeking community and mentorship. As authentic as that persona might be, it is still primarily a tool developed for the practical work of attracting and maintaining customers.

None of this is intrinsic to doula work, it should be said, and it isn’t to sex work, either.

The women Baker meets in the ProDoula community revel in their business persona; they aspire to be edgy, tough alternatives to both doula conventions and mainstream women’s business. That, too, is supposed to be an expression of their commitment to “value their worth.” Yet what that means in practical terms, when you look at how they spend their days, is spending a lot of time on the internet instructing other doulas on how to overcome their failings. And for free.

On The Work of Sex Work

A little over eighteen months ago, I published a book entitled Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. In it, I relate the cultural fantasies we hold about sex work and who performs it. I call these collectively, the prostitute imaginary. I identify those people who most gain from these fantasies, and how they put them to work for themselves to marginalize, contain, and discipline sex workers’ livelihoods, bodies, and self-representations. In particular, I nod back to theorists of sex work like Jill Nagle and Gail Pheterson, who explained in the 1990’s how the character of “the prostitute” as narrated by outsiders is used to alienate any woman engaged in sex work from the production of her own image.

I have done, in these months, dozens of interviews in print, radio, television, and for online publication. I have written thousands of words in the service of advancing these ideas (that is, the sale of my own). My work has received international critical attention; I have given invited talks on the subject in half a dozen countries. I have used my platform to debate politicians and confront NGO’s, used my journalism to expose human rights violations, and I bring a deep and interdisciplinary knowledge of the current research to my criticism. I am one of the most recognized and original thinkers on the subject. On this, there is little dispute. I have also encountered – mostly from other journalists – all manner of presumptions about my own body, what it has done, and what it is capable of. I have had to defend my ability to do this work as I have carried it off masterfully.

Since I first published and was paid for a piece of writing on sex work more than ten years ago, I have performed these two jobs: the work of writing, and the work of carving out a space for that writing (and its sale). I have watched as, at least once each year, a news cycle winds up concerning sex work, for a time attaching a more recognizable name to an issue few value: the DC Madam, Eliot Spitzer, Craigslist, Backpage, the Secret Service, Nicholas Kristof and Somaly Mam, Amnesty International. Though I do this work daily, in these moments of media flash I am introduced to writers, journalists, and producers who are have only just arrived on the topic, and who I will never hear from again. I understand the paucity of newsroom resources these days – the disappearing of newsrooms themselves – and that any good reporter is going to sniff out those who have more to offer her than her colleagues close at hand, to turn and churn out copy before she is on to the next. I am sympathetic, though these days, I am unmoved.

I turn down more of these requests than I accept; the ratio is likely 5 to 1 in favor of no, a decision necessary to keep my time to myself to pursue my other research and writing interests. Perhaps my apparent success makes other writers and reporters think I have ample time to direct them to books (buy my own), related texts (bibliography appears in my own), subjects to interview (use the internet). Worse, sometimes they think I owe it to them. They are incorrect.

To the writer at the well-known web explainer outlet who asked me to offer critique of his article, after I declined to be interviewed, who told me “no one else” at his website had an interest in sex work, I would direct you to your own archives, which contain – among other things on the subject – an interview I gave several months ago.

To the young feminist making the Sunday show rounds, who emailed me less than twelve hours before her next appearance seeking to “pick my brain,” I didn’t reply to you, intentionally. If you didn’t take it on yourself to read the stories I had sent you earlier in the week, I am not going to make time for you by phone.

To the network television producer who wanted me to introduce her to sex workers from Craigslist so she could tell their stories, and who told me “It’s not work I’m asking you to do, it’s an introduction, and a way to shed light on an important and under-reported issue,” I know it is important and under-reported; that’s why I do my job. The time has come for you to do yours.

Not only from these three incidents, but from what they say about this moment in this media economy: I am on my own kind of strike from doing anyone else’s work on sex work. I will not answer your requests. I will not give you interviews. I will not be a token on your program. I will not direct you to resources. I will not introduce you to subjects. I will not do work you are paid to do. I will not do work which has value to those who employ you. I will not do work which has value to those who place advertisements around your work. I will not, and if you ask me to more than once, I will direct you to the following, now published for you to refer to in the future and to share with your colleagues, too:

To acquire my time from my own writing, research, and public speaking, my consulting fees on the subject of sex work begin at $1000.

Best of luck in this business,
Melissa

Previously: Dear Producer
Follow-up: Reactions to My Strike Notice

tl;dr feminism

(adapted from something that started like this)

Finally, I’m reading books again by other people that have nothing to do with my book, my work, or anything else but what I want to give five minutes on a bench, and that’s where and how I found myself with enough space to rattle out the following after reading exactly one and one-half pages of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, which by my recollection could be the first New York Times bestselling feminist book of the Internet feminist age. And if that’s true, then one of the bestselling books right now opens with an acknowledgment that feminism is painfully dominated by those with the biggest platforms. Of all the things about books that have thrilled (and pissed me off) this year, that this is the book on feminism dominating now is amazing.

I got online in 1994. Made a website in 1996. Added a diary in 1998. Feminism, trust, was alive on that Internet. Blogging – let’s see, I remember installing MovableType in 2003. “Real blogging.” We were getting the sense that what all we were getting up to on LiveJournal was girly, unserious. Probably we were getting that sense from elevated profiles of the handful of men who were getting known from blogging c. early 2000’s.

By the time “feminist blogging” happened, I had been online ten years. New gloss on an old convo. More people raised their profiles.

Some of us oldsters started getting jobs. I mean, my first writing job was online, in 1999, reviewing goth clubs for a porn site. (A porn site. With a hyphen in the URL. In 1999. I know.)

I got a steady writing job from Valleywag in 2008. Blogging was so grown up it was something we argued about being over. (Twitter, at that time, was two.)

What was then crystallizing as “feminist blogging” was just the tippest top of the iceberg. Very white, fresh out of college. The issues that rapidly-crystallized slice of feminist blogging drove soon became mainstream lingo: rape culture, slut shaming, “the war on women.” Not so much sex or reproductive justice. A bit of branding was going on. Rough edges were hewn off, if ever posted in the first place.

(Quick pause to remember the Xeroxed underground paper and zines where I published my first feminist writing in 1993…)

I was a feminist writing for a living on the internet, mostly for men, about technology and sex. (Not gender. Fucking.) As I found my place, I saw mainstream media found places for more of us outside weirdo bloggers. And predictably, shit got less weird.

That white, recently-graduated slice of Internet writing about rape culture & slut shaming? Soon became synonymous with “feminism” in media.

I miss the bigger, broader, messier online feminism I owe my analysis and desire to write from. Even as media has shrunk it down. (Ok, not just “media” shrunk it down. Patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism shrunk it down.)

So now we have outlets who never would hire bloggers let alone feminists five-or-even-seven years ago scrambling to get a feminist blogger on staff. Yet the thing they are hiring when they are hiring a “feminist blogger” is that white, millenialish grad. Who can hot take with blogger speed.

I don’t think I’m an old lady when I crave the days when even the Internet moved slower. Email lists. Usenet. LJ threads over months. Losing the slow, incremental crawl of ideas over weeks and months online is structural. Tweets decay too fast.

Meanwhile, “feminism” is enjoying a brand revival, just as the web content maw cannot be satisfied by any number of tragic sexist tales.

I was having a drink w a fab radical lawyer this week. Talking about journalism. The “abortion law shit show of the day” beat. I was saying, as someone who covers a similar shit show on sex work, as depressing as it is on abortion, it’s almost worse. If you cover abortion law, you have the Guttmacher Institute. Planned Parenthood and NARAL. Communicationss staff at their desks and phones. Press releases. Quick quotes. If you cover sex work law, chances are there is no one seeking you out, let alone returning your call on deadline. There’s simply no comparative infrastructure. You have to build it.

So part of what defines a “feminist writer” or beat is shaped by those resources: this is how some issues are mainstream or are considered whole beats.

You do work with a gender lens outside the “feminist issue” mainstream? You have to compensate for all those deficits, these systemic disinvestments in our culture, politics, and media. You cover women & labor, the drug war, women’s prisons, queer women’s issues, transmisogyny in law? You are doing triple work. You are building sources outside the usual feminist suspects you see quoted again and again, outside and in absence of organizations. You are convincing editors it is a story. You are educating a newly cohering audience.

(And you know, being posi. Supporting ladies.) (Only slight sarcasm.)

None of us does this alone. So who made my job with me? Audacia Ray, a deeply principled sex worker rights’ advocate and media maker, over a long time and with many hats. Sarah Jaffe, a hardworking labor journalist and old friend, who made space for me in her networks. Joanne McNeil, the most human of tech and culture minds, always for the longview.

I wouldn’t be here without their late nights, networks, messy convos, shit-stirring. I’m hyperaware how hard it is to get anywhere right now. And hyperaware how limited this space is, how easy it is to fall off, fall out, claw in only to be pushed out.

It’s why I always look back.

tl;dr I’m a feminist writer, who feels desperately constrained by what’s regarded right now as feminist writing, and so all hail Roxane’s book kicking ass, and wish me luck finding a few minutes to get more than a dozen pages in some time soon.

The Scarlet RT: How WePay Denies Service to Sex Workers & Surveils Everyone

Original Eden Alexander fundraiser

Friday night I was home on a date with myself, my cat, and Hannibal when sex work twitter started showing up en masse around a sister and porn performer, Eden Alexander.

Eden was gravely ill, couldn’t work, was struggling with the cascade of expenses following a medical emergency. Her friends in the sex worker community setup an online fundraiser for her, using the site GiveForward. They knew online services often deny service to sex workers. They were upset, but not surprised, when supporters’ donations were returned, and when WePay – GiveForward’s payment processor – shut down the fundraiser.

That was Saturday afternoon on the East Coast. By dinner, after almost twenty-four hours of Eden’s supporters filling WePay’s @’s on twitter, they responded. This is the part that raised a red red flag for me:

WePay is extremely empathetic to what Eden Alexander is facing and her hardship is unfathomable.  We are truly sorry that the rules around payment processing are limiting and force us to make tough decisions.

So:

At this point, WePay’s co-founder and CEO Bill Clerico turned up. You can watch Bill here in 2009, explaining that WePay’s origins were in a difficult situation he and his buddies had, splitting the bill for a bachelor party (at the 57 second mark): Bill maybe didn’t anticipate the actual workers in that biz he was so moved by to demand service from him. But he was direct, and at least answered some questions. (Phase two of social media blowup: “transparency!”)

That is, according to their co-founder and CEO, WePay is “forced” and “required” not just to deny service, but also to monitor their customers’ activities on WePay and on the rest of the internet.

Who are these people forcing you, WePay? And what are they requiring you to monitor that you don’t want to?

To recap so far: WePay’s CEO claims that some outside guidelines require WePay to deny service to anyone linked remotely to providing “adult content” (for which a legal definition, btw, doesn’t exist), and by “linked” they mean a RT potentially, and this is of such risky business it requires them to monitor not just all suspected sex workers but all their users. Who set these guidelines?

Right:

 

Eden’s supporters have created a new fundraiser for her. Right now she’s raised over $6500 in less than 24 hours.

Final thoughts?

A Party For Love Or Money

For Love or Money

Guillotine celebrates the launch of For Love or Money by Sarah Jaffe and Melissa Gira Grant on April 17 at 7pm, interviewed by Jen Pan (assistant editor at Jacobin), and hosted by Melville House (145 Plymouth St., Brooklyn, NY).

In addition to books, there will be cake and champagne.

Big Brothel Is Watching You

BIG BROTHEL IS WATCHING YOU

Just in, the BIG BROTHEL IS WATCHING YOU bag to celebrate the launch of Playing the Whore and my book tour, The World’s Oldest Procession.

The bag bears a graphic originally produced in 1977 for the prostitutes’ rights newsletter Coyote Howls, screenprinted in 2014 by Melissa Dowell.

Big Brothel is Watching You ad

I’m honored that Margo St. James, founder of the first US prostitutes’ rights organization COYOTE, gave us enthusiastic permission to put this graphic back on the streets.

I’ll have a limited number of these on hand on tour. Come find me.

New School Students Drafted for Opposition Research Against Sex Workers

Scott Long’s got a long, valuable piece putting more context to this Equality Now campaign to get the UN to roll back support for sex workers’ rights, which you should go read – militarized humanitarianism, “good intentions” and worse policy, imperialist sex wars, it’s got it all, and it’s a great read.

But what I want to point out is this note at the end:

…as long as we’re talking about power: a colleague noticed something interesting over at the New School for Social Research. The Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy is offering a practicum for students to do research, in a project for Equality Now. “This project would analyze the legalization of prostitution and formation of sex workers’ rights groups. …  Equality Now seeks to better understand the movement to legalize prostitution and form sex workers’ rights groups in order to refute arguments for legalization and lobby for adoption of the Nordic Model instead.”

According to the practicum description, the students will:

Examine the history of sex workers’ rights groups in the following countries and answer the questions below: Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Venezuela, Brazil, Senegal, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Nepal, India, Philippines and the United States (particularly in Nevada)

– What is the history of the formation of sex workers’ rights groups in these countries?
– Who are the groups, what are their funding sources, and where is the influence on their policies coming from (for example is a larger international NGO working with them)?
– Are the sex worker’s groups pushing for legalization in those countries where it is not already legalized? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)
– In those countries where it is not legalized, what are the local women’s rights groups in these countries saying about legalization? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)

Here’s a screengrab of the practicum description, including the disclaimer “Please keep in mind that this is a confidential work product developed for Equality Now and not intended for distribution or publication. We hope that you will enjoy working with us on this project.”

Please also keep in mind, this is an organization that is engaged in challenging the United Nations essentially for not listening to the correct sex workers, an organization who wants the UN to instead listen to sex workers who say that any sex worker who opposes criminalization is “injured.”

Back to Scott Long:

Now, it’s obvious what this is: it’s what we call oppo research, trying to figure out what your foes (bad people “inured to the wrong” of prostitution) are doing. Many organizations dabble in this at one point or another, though they don’t usually call on students at a distinguished university to help. But this is where the power question comes in. I don’t like the tone of the questions — the funding sources, the suggestion of foreign influence. Most sex worker groups are poor and marginal. In countries where sex work “is not legalized,” the organizations’ very existence is often endangered. Even where sex work is at least partly legal, they’re still stigmatized as advocating immorality, and any number of contrived crimes from promoting public indecency to spreading pornography to running a brothel can provide excuses to shut them down, and even jail their members.

So what exactly is this information going to be used for? Has the professor (a good guy, I think, with a history of work on migration issues) who’s overseeing the practicum asked Equality Now? Has the New School put safeguards in place to make sure its students’ research will only be used for ethical purposes, and will not endanger the safety, human rights, or freedom of sex worker advocates and activists? The school is asking its students to monitor sex workers’ groups for an NGO that really doesn’t like them. And the school needs to be answerable for any consequences. The history of power politics around sex workers’ rights and freedoms is too acute and recent — and the possibility of even inadvertently endangering people is too strong — for an academic institution to pretend this is purely an academic question for very long.

Given the number of sex workers I know who are New School alums, I’d think Equality Now could look a lot closer to home if they wanted  to understand “the other side.” In 2006, I met a number of them, at a conference hosted in part at the New School called Sex Work Matters (I can’t find a good web archive, but here’s the original CFP and an anthology from the conference, Sex Work Matters, published by Zed).

Still, for the students who are part of this practicum, or faculty or others who are familiar with it, what’s going on here?

Off to fund the movement.

Here’s a start for you: an absolutely scandalous little publication, literally called “Sex Worker Health and Rights: Where Is The Funding?” If that’s not shocking enough, there’s the Red Umbrella Fund, on whose advisory board sex workers sit and inform funding decisions.

It’s probably sexier for Equality Now to imagine these activists who are now getting a fair reception at the United Nations as vixens slinking around a smoky hotel conference room, funders nipping at their Louboutins, but the truth, humble as it is, is quite out in the open already.

The sad thing is, I’d be grateful to get this kind of support to research a solid history of the sex workers’ rights movement globally, and I can think of a dozen other people who should be doing this work. But to do it for someone who only wants this information to help them more properly put sex workers back in their place? That’s like enlisting in a Jesse Helms Family Foundation project to document ACT UP.

Listen To Sex Workers – Who Don’t Exist!

I’ve written before about Equality Now (in Jacobin, and in Reason) – a humanitarian women’s rights NGO founded in part to eradicate sex work. One of their key tactics in this ostensibly feminist fight is to deny that anyone involved in the sex trade dissents with their approach. Lately their op-eds have turned explicitly against sex workers’ rights, which makes sense, as the past two years have seen the mainstream of the global health and human rights community joining sex workers in calling for an end to the criminalization of sex work as essential to protecting sex workers’ health and rights.

Equality Now appear to be losing credibility as human rights advocates. How can they claim to have the solutions when the same major actors they once successfully appealed to – various agencies within the United Nations, mostly – have begun to work more directly with sex workers in diverse work settings and a variety of legal contexts to document the harms resulting from sex work being criminalized? As more and more human rights and health advocates join with sex workers, demanding that sex workers be understood as the experts when it comes to setting sex work policy, when those policies informed by sex workers are at a 180 from the anti-sex work agenda of groups like Equality Now, the anti-sex work campaigners begin to look quite out of step with the same people they claim to protect.

This shift (along with this week’s UN General Assembly in New York) in part explains a recent uptick in appeals from women formerly involved in the sex trade, rehashing Equality Now’s talking points and promoting Equality Now’s campaign against the UN’s recommendations to decriminalize sex work. These women are engaged in work a respectable NGO can’t so easily take up in public, like claiming that any sex worker who opposes them is essentially damaged and brainwashed.

As one of these campaigners Rachel Moran wrote criticizing the UN’s stance*  in the Independent:

I believe if a prostitute or former prostitute wants to see prostitution legalised, it is because she is inured both to the wrong of it and to her own personal injury from it.

I asked Rachel Moran, given her claims, how those seeking more just and humane sex work policy – like the World Health Organization, like Human Rights Watch, like the United Nations Development Program and UNAIDS, for example – should incorporate this new standard of vetting reports and recommendations from sex workers into their advocacy. Which sex workers, I asked Rachel, should these agencies, their researchers, and their partners dismiss outright based on, as Rachel is endowed with determining, those sex workers being too “inured” and “injured” to have an opinion on their own lives?

You’ll be surprised (or not!) to learn that for this campaigner, anyway, this is a self-evident question, as “sex workers” apparently don’t even exist.

So. Abolition accomplished?

Our conversation below.

it is worth saying, “the UN’s stance” is how media are characterizing this issue, yet not all agencies within the UN have held the same views on sex work over time. Notably, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that he opposed criminalization of sex work in 2008, and in 2012, UNDP’s Global Commission on HIV & the Law echoed and extended his call to include decriminalizing sex workers’ workplaces. UNAIDS at one point argued for programs to “reduce entry” into sex work and to “address demand” over prioritizing sex workers’ health and rights. But when sex workers and allies protested and organized, they then informed new guidance on sex work and HIV, which places more focus on sex workers’ rights and addresses HIV in the context of discrimination and criminalization. 

Update, 2013.09.24: the Global Network of Sex Work Projects has issued a statement on Equality Now’s attacks, which includes in part:

…recognising the human rights of sex workers and calling for the decriminalisation of sex work is a recommendation made by these reports in recognition of the fact that punitive laws, discriminatory and brutal policing, and denial of access to justice from people most at risk of acquiring HIV are fuelling the epidemic. It is not clear to us how Equality Now and other campaigners would, given this stark reality, write to senior officials at the UN and ask that action be taken that appear to summarily dismiss the voices of sex workers who were an integral part of both UN reports attacked by this coalition.

A porn of her own

feministpornbook
(Valerie Solanas referring to the text)

The Feminist Porn Book has been one of the more fun books to take along on the subway. With this hanging out in my purse over the last few weeks and Kink.com back in the headlines for unfair labor practices, I took the chance to interview some porn performers and producers about porn as women’s work, and how feminist porn can be a feminist labor issue. That’s up at the Guardian.

Maxine Holloway and Bella Vendetta had way more to say than I could fit in print, and I wasn’t able to get in one of my favorite excerpts from the book, from an essay by Clarissa Smith and Feona Attwood, on the resurgence of anti-porn feminism and its’ complicated relationship with the internet:

“…the current wave of antipornography campaigning draws on the arguments of the 1970s and 1980s antiporn feminists but do so in interesting ways – for example, although they build on the central tenets of Andrea Dworkin’s analysis of the misogyny and cruelty of pornographers, they posit this as a prescient account but one that could never have envisaged the ‘juggernaut’ of the Internet… this complex narrative of nostalgia and futurology is a central theme in these accounts where pornography is acknowledged as an already exisiting feature of the landscape, but one that has developed outside the knowledge of ‘ordinary’ adults and needs urgent redress.”

There’s also been some fascinating conversation on Susie Bright’s blog, about how the book positions the current sex positive community with or possibly against the late 1970s and early 1980s contributions of feminists, particularly those who identified as sex radical feminists.

In an open letter to the editors of The Feminist Porn Book, Gayle Rubin (whose “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” is an essential text) writes that in both the introduction to their book and in media surrounding it, the editors seem to be proposing a “middle ground” between what could be read as “extreme” ideologies held by both sex positive and anti-porn camps. “This way of framing the history of debate over pornography within feminism is not uncommon,” writes Rubin, “but it is dead wrong.” She continues:

“This version of the story requires mischaracterizing most of us who were involved in the early arguments by casting us as unreasonable extremists who celebrated pornography without qualifications. It fails to recognize that we– essentially the first generation of feminist critics of the antiporn movement– made most of these so-called “reasonable middle” points in the late 1970s and early 1980s, back at the time when the porn debates first ignited.”

Responding to Rubin, the editors write:

“While noting this tremendous diversity and productive potential [in porn], sex positive feminist critics have not yet fully analyzed the tremendous production of feminist pornographies that has emerged in the past fifteen years. When we say these pornographies have been “lost in the middle,” we mean that critical work on emerging forms of feminist pornography needs to be engaged if we want to continue to advance the cause of sex positive feminism. That’s what our book is intended to do.”

It’s true – most writing about the sex industry in the last fifteen years (not that I just did a lit review, but I did) focuses on first-person storytelling about workplace experiences. Porn performers are often under-represented in this literature, and porn producers (even if they are also performers themselves) are often not represented because they occupy a management role. There’s comparatively less work exploring the production or business side of any sex industry. (There’s also a whole other conversation to be had, about whether or not producers or managers are sex workers, or should be part of sex workers’ spaces (and literature), but it’s somewhere The Feminist Porn Book does shine, in bringing together people who both perform in and produce (and study) feminist pornographies, in the same space, even if they aren’t on quite even footing.)

I wonder if this is why Tristan Taormino responded to my piece, which concerned feminist porn as labor, by saying she didn’t think the performers I spoke with were “representative,” which I disagree with. I’ve heard one of the frustrations I wrote about – that feminist porn doesn’t pay what “mainstream” porn pays – quite a bit, both from colleagues in porn at the time I was working, and from those who still work in feminist porn. This issue of pay deferential isn’t just about what an individual producer can or chooses to pay; it’s about resources, and how under-resourced women’s work and women’s own businesses are. It’s something I’d love to read more about, from performers’ perspectives. (Here’s one take on the question, of how to pay and pay fairly, from a feminist porn producer, Ms. Naughty.)

Back to Rubin, though. Her generation of feminist porn thinkers brought a class politics to their porn politics, one of the most important contributions of the early sex radical feminists, and one that has almost been lost. It’s one of the more challenging things to me about explaining “sex positivity” to those who have no idea what it means (most people), because I find myself digging for a politics of sex positivity, and to find it, I end up back quoting Rubin, Carole Vance, Amber Hollibaugh, Ellen Willis – women who were producing a theory of sexuality and feminism thirty years ago. (In fact, the legendary Barnard Conference on Sexuality was held here in New York in 1982. I wish was had thought to produce a reunion or tribute. I’d love to be in that room.)

In this early sex radical writing and thinking about sexuality and feminism, the actual production of feminist porn might not yet be present (it can’t really yet be), but what is much more upfront is a grounding of this whole enterprise, of sex and gender, in questions about power and class and inequality. Talking about compulsory heterosexuality and motherhood, the uncompensated labor of sex and sexual reproduction, and all the connections between the devaluation of women’s labor and women’s sexuality are what sex radical feminists used to destabilize anti-porn feminism’s recapitulation of female virtue (whether within straight or lesbian monogamy).

These women are the roots of this work, and more urgently, they are the roots I don’t know that my generation (X-ish? Y-ish?) has yet to fully add our own analysis to – of what the questions of power and inequality raised by sex radicals thirty years ago mean to sex positive feminists today. This book is one step in that direction, but it leaves me wanting more, and a more that will require reincorporating the analyses of labor and class that (honestly, most) feminism has sheared off since the 1980s. In trying to understand this gap in analysis and shared history (which is I think what we see in these two open letters), I want to better understand where “sex radical” and “sex positive” feminisms converge and split off from one another. I don’t think they are the same thing, and I think we lost something when “sex radical” (mostly) dropped off the radar. If this transition, from sex radical giving way to sex positive, mirrors anything like the parallel changes in queer and women’s movements, it follows a time, moving from the 80s to the 90s, of an underclass getting more visible, and later, getting more respectable, while still preserving an underclass within the people just barely formerly known as the underclass.

I know it might be hard to to conceive of “sex positivity” as respectable in anyone’s eyes. But just as when Pride went corporate and when feminism becomes a corporate slogan, when “sex positivity” became closely identified (if not entirely identified) by sex toy stores and sex positive porn, where did our ways of talking about inequality go? (Fave exploration of this I’ve ever read is this 1999 piece by Mimi Thi Nguyen, for Punk Planet.) Where are those analyses being developed (over a coffee counts, I’m not just talking classrooms) and where can others find them? The ground work has been done; it’s just a matter of reaching back and asking new questions. (And I’d love to hear your questions, about feminisms, sex positivity, and inequalities, here.)