The sex positive feminist Gayle Rubin is one of my favorite academics. She put forth a very telling definition of sex negativity that I use as a compass and as a vital argument against sex negative-culture. Sex negativity is when we criticize power dynamics within sexuality more than power dynamics outside of sexuality. A good example of this is how many discussions on porn are. Mainstream porn is correctly called out as commercial and often deeply patriarchal and body fascist. Now, because we live in a sex negative culture the problem is seen as porn itself – it is deemed dirty to watch and get turned on by seeing other people have sex in front of a camera – and the solution is therefore: No Porn. Now nobody would ever say: ”Since most movies (non-porn) are commercial and often deeply patriarchal and body fascist we should stop making movies altogether”. No, instead we value the need for feminist movies and celebrate feminist movies. We should be doing the same with pornography.
The problem with sex positive queerfeminist culture is I believe we are spending too much time being defensive and reacting to sex negative culture – a sex negative culture that criticizes, scrutinizes and stigmatizes power dynamics within sex – and too little time creating our own sex positive queerfeminist discourse around these issues. Instead of being a space that creates new frontiers and a different way of criticizing power dynamics within sexuality, we can sometimes forget to criticize the power dynamics altogether. This is the reason why some people’s view of sex positive queerfeminism is that ”Anything goes” when it comes to sexuality – and if anything goes, than we are leaving the terrain of feminism and diving into the terrain of neoliberalism. Just because sex negative culture criticizes structures within sexuality more than other structures doesn’t mean we should be defending, ligitimizing or trivializing those structures. It doesn’t mean that we should be criticizing structures within sexuality LESS than structures in the rest of society.
Todays society victimizes and stigmatizes sex workers. Now, a reactionary knee-jerk response to that is to instead scream ”No, sex workers are empowered and strong”. Creating a new, nuanced and reflective discussion on sex work is to instead acknowledge complexities and power dynamics, while also putting forth agency, empowernment and strength as well as acknowledging weakness, problems and being honest with how the mainstream sex industry, just as many industries in todays society, is part of a sexist, ageist, capitalist, racist and lookist society. When we say that these power dynamics also exist in many other parts of society, it is not to ligitimize them, it is to put them in a broader context, so that we can fight them without blending them with sex negativity. I do not understand how society can think it’s so terrible to buy/sell sex, which is something many human beings feel they need, while buying/selling products that we don’t need and that destroy the environment is completely legitimate. We have to call out that hypocrisy. But we also have to ask ourselves other questions. Why is it mostly men who buy sex? Do we want more women to start buying sex? Why/Why not? Almost only male-clients does mean that there is patriarchy going on. The power dynamic is obvious but it is hardly linear as in clients=oppressors, workers=victims or that sex buyers are taking something holy and precious from sex workers.
It is also important for me to say that I am speaking from the perspective of somebody who has been a sex worker themself. I have worked mostly as a stripper, but also sold sex a few times. Stripping was a positive experience for me, selling sex was a negative experience. In sex positive spaces I’ve almost felt bad talking about my negative experiences with selling sex and felt like ”thank goodness that I have positive experiences with stripping” – otherwise I’d be seen as sex negative. It’s like society in general won’t listen to, or believe, people who have positive experiences with sex work, while sex positive-culture sometimes risks just flipping the coin.
And this brings us to the next taboo: Speaking about experiences of sexual assault and sex work or BDSM in the same sentence. Sex negative culture has taught us that most people who do BDSM or sex work are victims of sexual assault who are acting out their abuse as a means of being self-destructive. In sex positive culture it is often taboo to mention sex work or BDSM and sexual assault in the same sentence – the defensiveness garners the response No, No, No we (BDSM and/or sex workers) have not been sexually assaulted and if you have, be silent about it, so as not to blend the issues with eachother. In the best case scenario the sex positive-discourse says that BDSM and/or sex work can, contrary to popular belief, be part of a healing process from sexual assault. And yes it can, especially BDSM, but it can also be the exact opposite and I don’t want my complex healing process to be used in an oversimplified agenda in either direction. My personal experience is that stripping was wonderful for my healing process, BDSM has that potential as well, but selling sex set me aback and had I continued doing it, it would have been waaaay self-destructive. Luckily I had a friend who was sex positive but understood the nuances and complexities and was able to talk me out of continuing. Had I had a discussion with someone who was sex negative I would probably just have been defensive. ”Healing Sex” by Staci Haines is the first book that I’ve read that deals with BDSM and sex work in relation to sexual assault in a nuanced, complex and non-judgemental way. Finally.
What I’m looking for is a discussion on sex that is allowed to be complex and not black-and-white - that is not a knee jerk-reaction to a sex negative world that victimizes, stigmatizes and villianizes sex workers – but that creates something new altogether. One of the best articles I’ve read on sex work was by somebody who talked about her negative experiences as a sex worker and therefore called for the importance of sex workers rights and the legalization of sex work. She was specific about this being her personal experience and that is the thing – I want the discussion to be broad, because there are as many different experiences as there are sex workers. And the structures can not be ignored, because the structures in sex work mirror the structures in the rest of society, both when it comes to clients and workers. You don’t see many 70-year old strippers. I would love to see a society with strippers of all ages, genders, body-sizes, gender expressions. We are not there yet. I usually say that the modelling industry is more lookist, ageist, capitalist and sexist than the sex industry, but that isn’t to legitimize the power dynamics within the mainstream sex industry – it is to destigimatize them and fight them on a battle ground where they have the same playing field as the fight against power dynamics in other parts of society. Within sexuality, stripping, pornography we can create body positive queerfeminist spaces. However it is mostly within the mainstream sex industry that we are able to make a living – and the mainstream sex industry is not a radical political space, it is not feminist, it is not queer (Although sometimes gay) and it is not anti-capitalist. This is the case for so many jobs, but we still have to acknowledge these things and many other things. Like objectification – 2nd wave feminism called out most everything that had to do with sex and (Female) bodies as objectification, sex positive queerfeminism barely ever discusses objectification and lookism. We have to define for ourselves what the difference is between objectification and lookism on one side and radical political norm-shattering body positivism on the other.
As sex positive queerfeminists we have to discuss issues like how far from everybody are able to do different forms of sex work and feel good about it. This needs to be brought up without judgement and without the whole patriarchal and capitalist notion of those who are able to do it=strong and strength=good, where as those who are not able to do it=weak and weakness=bad. We have different experiences in our baggage and this effects us. We have different class backgrounds and economic conditions and this effects our ability to choose/choose not to do sex work and this choice also effects how we feel about it (but this isn’t simple either. It’s not as simple as sex workers with working class backgrounds=victims, while sex workers with middle class backgrounds=empowered – but there are structures (regarding racism and cisism etc. as well) and these can not be ignored). We have to acknowledge that sex work is a very precarious line of work (because of sex negativity, stigmatization, capitalism, not enough rights etc.) and therefore there is a need for emotional support. We have to able to talk about negative experiences without judgement, we have to also be able to ask for help to leave sex work without being judged for it. We have to keep in mind that Glorification and Victimization are not the only two possible ways of discussing sex work.
Another issue that is important to discuss is ”coolness” within radical queer-spaces. There are many things that can be deemed as ”cool” within these spaces, BDSM is one, fucking a lot of people is another and being a sex worker is also something that can make you be viewed as the coolest, most radical, most emancipated Queer. What happens with this type of coolness and hierarchies? It means that some people get peer-pressured into having a lot of sex and/or doing sex work in order to be deemed ”cool”. This is a problem because sex work is not cool, it is work and a means of income that works well for some and less well for others – it should neither be glorified nor stigmatized nor victimized nor villianized. We, and this is something I’m going to get back to in part 5 om my series, have to get rid of coolness all together. Doing BDSM doesn’t make you cooler or necessarily more emancipated than somebody who doesn’t do BDSM. Having had sex with 100 people doesn’t make you cooler or necessarily more emancipated than somebody who has had sex with 5 people. To be honest, of the around 30+ people I’ve had sex with, probably only around 5 or 6 of the times was it with people and in situations where I really wanted to have sex. This has partially to do with a history of sexual assault, but not only, nearly half of my experiences came before the first time I was assaulted. To be emancipated is to really listen to your body and mind when having sex and in that case I would have been more emancipated if I’d only had sex with 5-6 people. But had I told people within radical queer-communities that I’ve had sex with 5 people I would probably be ridiculed in different ways or been asked Whyyyyy I’ve had sex with so few people? I’d definitely be viewed as ”un-cool”. So thank goodness that I can say that I’ve had sex with 30+ people so that I don’t have to meet that type of judgement… Or, Queer-culture has got to reflect and change - we don't need coolness, norms and hierarchies.
10 reasons why sex work should be decriminalized.
10 reasons why sex work should be decriminalized.
This text is part 3 in a 5 part series on my thoughts on how sex positive-queerfeminist spaces can become broader and deeper in their politics on sex/sexuality. Part 4 will be coming soon. Here is a list of the five parts:
2. Sex positive spaces not being inclusive for survivors of sexual assault. (click the links to read part 1 and part 2)
3. Criticism of power dynamics within sexuality
4. Femininity and Masculinity
5. Many different ways of interacting with our bodies and our emotions.