Al Jazeera America: “There is no such thing as the slut”

Sluts take up more space in our imagination than in anyone’s bed. Like its cousin “whore,” a slut is never about what you did there and with whom you did it but rather what is said about you. “Whore” is an older term, but the conceit is the same: A woman’s sexual value is thought to be interchangeable with her social value, power and influence. Armstrong and Hamilton tease these apart helpfully and reveal that slut stigma cannot be challenged by a rejection of the label. That denial is already built in. It gives the label its power. That is, there’s no sense in insisting you aren’t a slut; you’re supposed to do so.

There is no such thing as the slut,” by Melissa Gira Grant for Al Jazeera America

Whores at the barricades

Caty and I got into lively conversation last night (well, we were already in it) when these photos from Sunday’s demonstrations in Turkey started flying around Twitter and Facebook. This one’s been shared about 5000 times from this post, and then was tweeted (and translated from a sign with the same slogan) on Twitter:

“We’re whores, and sure these politicians are not our kids!”

Caty put it to a Turkish-speaking friend on Facebook, who offered this translation of the sign, which is a little different:


“We whores are sure that Tayyip is not our son.”

The reference for the shirt and sign’s pushback is the insult “son of a whore,” one of those slurs of contamination (your mother is worthless, ergo…). You see and hear it at these demos sometimes without a thought, particularly the thought that maybe, the woman in the t-shirt with the red umbrella marching side-by-side with you might be a whore. So here she is speaking back.

And, using the same words as sex workers at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol occupation in 2011 to do so, when they had to confront the same:

…we decided that we absolutely had to have a pedagogical, and not just militant, approach. We try to make protesters aware that some of the language and slogans they use are profoundly misogynistic, even if they don’t mean them to be. People tend to call such-and-such politician a “son of a whore”, for example. In response, a group of sex- worker activists began holding posters that read: “Excuse me, but I’m a whore, and I can assure you these politicians are not my sons.”

We try to use humour and dialogue, not so much to change the actual words people use, but to get them to reflect on negative gender stereotypes and their impact on society.

This one says: “Let whores govern, since their sons have failed us”

I remembered a more explicitly nasty variation on the whore-as-capitalist-collaborator meme that popped up at Zuccotti Park, again in the pose of anti-austerity critique:

"MY money's no whore."

Heaping such blame is both anti-worker and misogynist, and props up claims that capitalism and patriarchy are somehow driven by prostitution (which predates one, if not both). If it exists at all as its own special dirty category of money distinct from all that other virtuous money, “whore money” – the actual money made by whores –  is a stop-gap for many struggling in the crisis, not the crisis itself. Never mind the fact that whores are more likely than most other workers to keep money outside of a bank, due to banks’ own discriminatory policies and fears of attracting scrutiny that could in turn attract police attention. (Also, is ball-licking here posited as awesome or exploitative, and can you have it both ways, even rhetorically? Cool story, protestbros.)

(That’s a sticker, by the way, stuck up on “the red thing,” Occupy Wall Street’s iconic homing beacon. To throw more signs, etc. on top of this, it was the day Judith Butler came to speak at Zuccotti, and the park was so packed we couldn’t even find her, just ten feet away.)

But in Zuccotti Park, as in Puerta del Sol, as in Gezi Park:

Sex workers stand w/ all workers

Whores have long been at the barricades, even when they didn’t announce themselves. Forty years ago this Sunday, the prostitutes of Lyon did so under their own banner, and occupied a church in protest of the police, an action now regarded as the birth of the modern sex workers’ right movement:

And also this weekend, French sex workers union STRASS with members of Doctors of the World offered this message in solidarity (h/t, Luca):


(Mega h/t to @kitabet on Twitter, who translated and circulated the original images from Turkey, who pointed out that if the park that inspired these protests was destroyed, trans sex workers would be among those displaced. Many “development” projects in global cities have been nothing but tarted-up “clean streets” campaigns, resulting in, and certainly in the case of Times Square’s re-development, intending to cause the isolation of sex workers from their work, homes, and communities.)


@mexber on Twitter comments, “I don’t have any hard evidence but I am pretty sure that frase was used in the early 00’ protests in Argentina.” He finds this photo from Mexico City in 2004:

Que nos gobiernen_ juzguen y cuiden las putas_ que sus hijos nos han fallado

The banner reads, by his translation, “Whores to power. Their sons have already failed us.”


On whore stigma and slut shaming

On “the whore stigma,” from Margo St. James, early US sex workers’ rights activist and founder of COYOTE and St. James Infirmary, and Gail Pheterson, author and sex work researcher who coined the term. (Video by Scarlot Harlot, excerpt from “Outlaw Poverty, Not Prostitutes,” 1989.)

Lately I’ve been considering how “slut shaming” grew – unacknowledged – from the experiences and intellectual contributions of sex workers who first identified “whore stigma.” Slut shaming exists now as a critique external to sex worker feminisms and politics, applied mostly by women without sex work experience to describe the loss of social capital they suffer when assumed to be whores. What’s been lost is the centering of people who are marked as whores, in the assumption so common within attempts to resist “slut shaming” that being a whore is the worst thing to happen to you. So long as we cling to that notion of the slut or whore as the ultimate outsider, we reinforce whore stigma. This should be obvious.

How much for your “binders full of women”?

Screen-shot-2012-10-17-at-1.37.03-PMI skipped the debate last night – I was working, and then watching the second season of the The Wire (for the first time), which so far revolves around the discovery of the bodies of thirteen (or fourteen) “Jane Does,” who maybe (I’m only on the second episode, don’t wreck it) were trying to get into the US or were smuggled into the US for sex work.

I was working late because I was up until 3 the night before finishing a review (will tell you when it’s out) of Katherine Losse’s memoir about her time at Facebook, The Boy Kings, in which she makes a compelling argument for Facebook building their value on the digital photographs (if not actual leadership, or fair compensation) of women.

I woke up yesterday to a phone call from an old friend in San Francisco worried that if Proposition 35 passes with California voters, she’ll have to register as a sex offender and surrender to internet monitoring for the rest of her life – all because she was arrested for prostitution as a teenager. That’s thanks to provisions in Prop 35 that its proponents (like lead funder and former Facebook privacy officer Chris Kelly) claim will help with prosecutions for human trafficking: she’ll be forced to give her name, her address, her online profiles, and her photo to their database, or could face further penalties herself.

I got an invitation to a discussion of Prop 35, where a friend who attended told me a pro-Prop 35 organizer who works as a Silicon Valley HR consultant pled with the folks there to vote yes on the bill because she was scared her teenage daughter would be trafficked over Facebook.

I had a client years ago who told me a long and questionable yarn about the old escort agencies he once favored, where even after escorts moved on to the internet to advertise, the madams would still bring you – once you wrote a check to prove that you were a serious customer – a photo book of all the women who worked with them, so you could still make your hire in private.

“Happy Hookers”


“…happy hookers, says Kristof, don’t despair, this isn’t about women like you – we don’t really mean to put you out of work. Never mind that shutting down the businesses people in the sex trade depend on for safety and survival only exposes all of them to danger and poverty, no matter how much choice they have. Kristof and the Evangelicals outside the Village Voice succeed only in taking choices away from people who are unlikely to turn up outside the New York Times, demanding that Kristof’s column be taken away from him.

Even if they did, with the platform he’s built for himself as the true expert on sex workers’ lives, men like Kristof can’t be run out of town so easily. There’s always another TED conference, another women’s rights organization eager to hire his expertise. Kristof and those like him, who have made saving women from themselves their pet issue and vocation, are so fixated on the notion that almost no one would ever choose to sell sex that they miss the dull and daily choices that all working people face in the course of making a living. Kristof himself makes good money at this, but to consider sex workers’ equally important economic survival is inconvenient for him.”

That’s from Happy Hookers, my critique, in part, of feminism’s departure into special-white-lady-ism, and a critique made possible by one fundamental text.

Thanks to Bhaskar and Peter over at the Jacobin for working with me on this. And thanks to Sarah Jaffe and Mike Konczal, also, for the late Thursday night thinking-and-drinking that inspired it in the first place.

Data is not prostitution

The internet is not a place. A website is not a brothel. Data is not prostitution. At least one court now agrees.

In the matter of a New Mexico man’s website for discussing and arranging appointments with escorts, a state judge ruled this week that “an online message board nor a computer amount to a ‘house of prostitution or a place where prostitution is practiced, encouraged or allowed'” (Albuquerque Journal), and so therefore, his website was legal.

The prosecution could still appeal, or try to argue that, as the Journal quoted their attorney, “if the website itself is not a place where prostitution is practiced, encouraged or allowed, and neither is a computer, is the room where the computer is stored?”

So the creation, collection, or transmission of data about prostitution in a room constitutes enough of an act of prostitution to render the room itself a house of prostitution?

What server room, hotel, or high rise isn’t a brothel, then?

Occupy Oakland Patriarchy outing people in the sex trade?

An important follow-up to the demonstration that activists organized under the banner of Occupy Oakland Patriarchy held outside an anti-prostitution conference in Oakland last week—Emi Koyama, who writes extensively on anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution campaigns, responds:

…in the statement announcing their protest/disruption, [Occupy Oakland Patriarchy] prominently use a quote from my article in Bitch magazine, identifying me as a “sex worker and activist”…

While I do not make secret of my history in the sex trade, I use discretion as to when and where I refer to myself as a sex worker for my safety–not just safety from violence, but from prejudice, discrimination, and police surveillance.

It’s a distinction that might not make sense to people who haven’t done sex work. It’s one that I’ve fought with, as well: when writing about Backpage and Ashton Kutcher for the Guardian (UK) last year, I didn’t explicitly come out as a sex worker in my piece, which angered some people in response to it, who felt I should have (as if that alone explained away my criticism?).

Posting Emi’s response here gave me pause for a minute, too. I don’t necessarily want to amplify the original posting that Emi is calling out. But I do think it’s important to amplify Emi’s concerns and to ask activists, even those who aim to support sex workers, to understand the risks that can come with being known as a sex worker.

Six Completely Obvious Tropes You Can Expect From This, Only The Latest “Prostitution Scandal,” In Ever


1. FIRST LOOK!: in which one photograph will launch some clicks (winner: New York Daily News)

2. CREATIVE TAXONOMY: “excort”  (winner [again!]: New York Daily News)


“a short jean skirt, high-heeled espadrilles and a spandex top with a plunging neckline”


5. HER LOST CLUB SINGLE (predicted: Gawker)


Porn as ritual communication

Reading Jay Rosen on Iowa this morning, who points back to James Carey’s essay “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” which proposes we discern two models of communication: the transmission, or “the transmittal of information across space,” and the ritual, which is concerned with creating a moment for shared belief, the aim of which is not to inform but to ensure the “maintenance of society in time.” (Iowa? And the Santorum jokes on Maddow that others dutifully post to Twitter and riff on for hours? You guess which column that goes in.)

Leaving the obvious (froth) out of the picture though — how can, or have, these two models of communication been applied to understanding pornography as media?

Both pro- and anti-porn thinkers apply the transmission metaphor; that pornography conveys information about how to have sex, who has it, and what sex looks like.

But if we take the ritual metaphor? That pornography creates a shared moment, between the audience (or consumer) and the actors on the screen. It simulates desire: the commercially-produced desire of the actors for one another, the desire of the audience for the actors, or to participate in the acts on the screen. What’s on screen doesn’t convey information so much as it advocates norms. (The act of searching for and downloading porn can’t be entirely divorced from the viewing of porn, and it — like masturbation — becomes part of the ritual communication itself.)

Anti-porn people have been much louder than pro-porn people in challenging the norms conveyed by pornography, particularly the unspoken norm that desire can be performed, that desire is a creation. They might oppose porn on the grounds that it is dehumanizing to women, but they often point to the idea that the reason it’s so dehumanizing is because it “forces” women to perform sex on demand (in opposition to sex outside of porn, which is understood to be natural, not a performance, etc.).

But what would pro-porn advocates have to offer, by taking up the porn as ritual metaphor? What values and norms would they defend in porn, or advocate for? That sex is good for its own sake? That sexual variation is a human norm? That sex is sometimes a performance of desire? That paying for sexual entertainment is okay, or good? Is that kind of argument no longer fashionable? Must pro-porn arguments always start with the sigh, “Yes, but of course no one really believes this is good sex information, but…”? Could they begin with the assertion that it is okay to consume images of people having sex, and that it is okay to pay people to have sex? How much further can a pro-porn argument go without that much on the table to start?

This might explain why so many pro-porn arguments fall apart. To apply only the transmission metaphor to porn, we end up debating whether or not pornography is a valid source of information, if pornography accurately represents sex, or if pornography is invested in educating the public. As Rosen argues of the media coverage of the Iowa caucus, the transmission metaphor is of limited use when the media in question are chiefly concerned with “the gathering of a tribe, which affirms itself and its place.”

Maybe this is just too uncomfortable a perspective to take with porn, which is undeniably invested in the perpetuation of itself, in illustrating and then obscuring the commodification of desire (the assumption being, an audience will pay for people to perform sex so long as they don’t really have to remember that what they are watching is a performance). But is the perpetuation of porn the perpetuation of a market for selling dirty pictures? Or is it the perpetuation of the idea that it is okay to sell dirty pictures, and okay to pay people who perform them? (Anti-porn people have gone after both the market and the idea.)

Can pro-porn people abandon the fight re: is porn good information or not (it is not, and it is against its own business model to become so), and take up this other set of questions, about the values and norms and community implicit in porn? Here’s Carey again:

[In the ritual metaphor], communication is linked to terms such as “sharing,” “participation,” “association,” “fellowship,” and the “possession of a common faith.” This definition exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the terms “commonness,” “communion,” “community,” and “communication.”

Here’s some fights worth having: who is presumed to be in the community of porn viewers? What are the values produced by their communion? Who is excluded from this “common faith”? Is this common faith broadening? Do we value broadness, or narrowness, in depictions of sex acts? Do we even want to see ourselves on the screen? And can we get off on difference?

(… and thank you, Jay Rosen, for making me actually want to think about porn again?)