Thanks to Harpy reader heykoukla, who emailed me today on the subject of the British sex-work blogger Belle de Jour, pointing me to a recent post on Belle’s blog about the recent Shapely Prose post quoted far and wide, entitled “Schrödinger’s Rapist.” The SP post is itself worth reading, on the subject of the near-constant low-level awareness of sexual violence women live with. If only I could say the same for Belle’s, wherein her general agreement with the SP post is qualified by the following:
If you’re reading my blog, then you know I’m a long time, dyed-in-the-wool A-number-1 Fan Of Men.
I’m glad she got that out of the way, though I can’t imagine myself saying I’m a Fan of Women because I’m a feminist (it would be absurd, right?), but no matter. Onwards:
Let me state for the record that if being a man was easy, hookers wouldn’t exist. Fact.
She gives no support for this statement and I’m not even sure what this means. Is it her contention that men seek the comfort of sex workers to… escape the violence of the outside word? Baffling.
But fear not: her idea is that the problem here really truly is privilege, because otherwise there is, in her view, no basis to the claim that women face a particularly high level of physical danger:
Bottom line, it takes a particular kind of self-consciously middle-class gynecentric view of the world to imagine that the only physical danger men face is in a war zone. As someone who has lived in more than a few dodgy neighbourhoods – because sponging off my parents was categorically Not An Option – and been privy to the secrets and fears of my male friends, I do not think they have it easier than we of the XX-type. Different, yes. Easy, no.
Ooooohkay. You can sort of imagine how it goes from there. But I’m not really interested in doing just an interblogular hit piece today. No, what’s interesting to me about this sort of thing is how it dovetails with my general skepticism of feminist discourse surrounding sex work.
Let me emphasize here that I am talking about how “feminism” talks about sex work, not the culture at large. Because let’s be clear: in a patriarchy, sex workers don’t get bonbons for being sex workers. They get ostracized and degraded as less than human. As a recent reminder of this: “Belle de Jour” is of course a pseudonym, and she recently identified herself in the press. It appears to have been under some duress, though she hasn’t said explicitly that she was “forced” to come out.
But once I am safely ensconced in conversations with people who agree that sex workers are entitled to human dignity (a regrettable minority), though, I find it hard to get behind the general sort of “chosen sex work” banner that Belle and her ilk espouse. Not for nothing, but I’ve never heard the sort of “sex work is a valid choice” argument come from anyone who wasn’t young, white, cisgendered and relatively well-educated. That is to say: privileged, and thus relatively able to call on certain defenses when necessary. And I don’t understand, and am not sure I ever will, because believe me I have tried, the impulse to insist that this perspective be permitted to enter into a conversation about women’s exploitation. In other words: if she isn’t being exploited, bully for her, but I am not sure why this is relevant to a discussion, say, of human trafficking. And yet there it always is.
I would catch a lot of hell in the feminist blogosphere for this kind of statement, however, or at least some of the fora I frequent. Because at the end of the day, these people say, if I don’t embrace sex work, I am slut shaming those engaged in it.
This confuses me. See, I come back again and again to the same old question: is there a feminist obligation to defend sex work writ large as a practice, or is it merely that feminism demands the defense of sex workers as human beings?
It will come as no surprise to anyone that I fall on the latter side of the fence. While I absolutely would support the “right” scheme for the legalization of sex work – i.e. a scheme designed around the founding principle that humanity does not fly out the window the moment one engages in sex work – it is because I believe the people who engage in sex work deserve the same dignity as anyone, not because I think of sex work as a particularly liberatory practice. Personally, I do not understand how the liberation of women, or anyone else for that matter, can possibly be connected to a practice that contructs their bodies as ones for hire. Yes, I would agree that “sexual purity” is overly personalized and fetishized in this society, and I do not advocate that we start setting out rules for what kinds of consensual sexual behaviour are acceptable. Not only is it offensive to do so, it would be unenforceable anyway.
But: I think if the abortion rights fight has shown us nothing else, it is that the body, in this culture, still matters. What I mean by this is that for all our training in deconstruction and inscriptions, at the end of the day feminism still values the integrity of women’s bodies. I really think it is hard to argue that anyone’s body ought to be leverage in a negotiation. It simply shouldn’t. Call me an idealist, tell me I am using the master’s tools. But I cannot look at any person and think to myself: there’s something I could rent.
It strikes me that in a world where we were all considered fully human, nothing tied very closely to our bodies would be for rent or sale. You may say that sex is just work, but the connection between my work and my body begins and ends with my fingertips. Sure I use my brain, my legs to walk there, but other than that, it demands very little of me.
Of course we all live in a world that is capitalist, and people have to eat, I agree. I guess I just don’t know that feminism can sign up for capitalism quite so easy. As a professor of mine once said in another context, this notion that it’s okay to express value in dollar signs turns the world into eBay. And I like eBay for cheap jewelry, I guess, but I don’t particularly want to live there.
See, to come back to Belle: I think of her view as a somewhat purely capitalist one. she’s just earning a living! It’s economically sound! (Paging Levitt and Dubner!) Why are people so uptight about it? The danger is illusory, or at least exaggerated by people who want to keep women’s sexual agency in check!
I guess all I have, for that sort of thing, is this: I think your concern is misdirected. If you want to go after the Christian right for wanting to rescue you as “fallen women,” I’m on your side. I will defend your right to safety no matter where you are and what you are doing. But I will also continue to consider the people who purchase these services as engaging in an essentially objectionable activity. I will continue to consider the commodification of human beings essential to the continued practice of sex work, and I will lament that commodification. And if that makes me the uncool kid on the playground, so be it.