Confession time: There were a few years in my early college career when I thought all porn was evil. I thought this for a complex set of reasons including how I was defining porn (for example I didn’t count the erotica I was reading or writing at the time as “porn”), how I’d heard porn talked about growing up, and the discussions of pornography that happened in my women’s studies classes (brief and embarrassed). I also happened, at some point in adolescence, to pick up an anthology of essays by Catharine McKinnon, one of the leading anti-pornography feminist legal scholars of the 1980s.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t grow up in a household where sexuality was shameful. But I grew up in a home where “pornography” (never very clearly defined) was something other than sex, and lived in a culture that reinforced the porn = bad equation continually. When you grow up thinking that sexually-arousing materials have a negative effect on sexual relationships, and then encounter feminist writers who argue that in addition to that they’re also a form of violence against women then, well, it’s pretty easy to have an unexamined bias against porn.
True story: I remember my first year in college I went to hear an ex-gay preacher speak (long story but to be clear I was there in protest) and one of his arguments was that romance novels were for women what porn was for men (i.e. harmful to “healthy” relationships). I was outraged that he would equate erotic narratives with “porn” … without ever stopping to examine why I thought erotica was distinct from porn and, even if so, why porn was horrible to start with. I probably should have stopped to think about this the second I heard someone actively anti-gay also being anti-porn. There’s a point at which your bedfellows should really make you stop and take a second look at your ideological choices.
I’m long past the era when I thought porn was categorically eeeevil. But I always think of this history when I read current material on sex work and feminism - like this week’s installment in the Feminism For Real series: anna Saini’s conversation with Jessica Yee about the relationship of sex work and academic feminism. Mostly because it reminds me how “common sense” our assumptions can be when it comes to the intersection of sex and commerce … and how self-identified feminists are just as likely to be making those assumptions as anyone else.
SEX WORK AND FEMINISM: AN INTERVIEW WITH anna Saini by Jessica Yee (pp. 93-96).
p. 93 – anna Saini [aS]: “i think academia is an environment where ‘isms’ like feminism are unchecked by real experience.” At risk of sounding like a broken record, the further I read in FFR the more I am prompted to think about this division we so often make between “real experience” and “academia” (see part three), and wonder how valid it is. It’s not like institutions of higher education – or K-12 classrooms for that matter! – are mere simulicra: students, faculty, and staff live a significant proprotion of their lives in academic spaces, and those spaces are far from insulated from things that happen in the world at large. I would argue that feminist theory, regardless of where it is practiced (in or outside of the academy), is as prone as any other set of ideas to abstraction.
p. 94 – [aS]: “the only way that feminism will regain relevance: by connecting theory to practice to action in the lives of regular people.” I’m all about theory and praxis co-creating, and about grounding both in the experience of actual people … but I’m hung up here on this idea of “regular” people … as opposed to … exceptional people? Who defines what’s “regular” as opposed to its opposite? Perhaps because of the way “regular” and “real” have been used politically by the Right in recent years as a populist rallying cry, I bridle at the idea that people people who think theoretical thoughts or hold certain ideas aren’t “regular” and thus shouldn’t have a voice at the table.
At the same time, I recognize that what Saini is saying here, in part, is that a small group of elite/exceptional folks have somehow taken feminist discourse in a direction that is not grounded in actual peoples’ lives. She’s talking about an imbalance of power that does need to be addressed in some way.
p. 94 – [aS]: “The pivitol part of the definition [of sex work] is in the economic exchange amongst consenting adults. Without mutual consent, we’re talking about sexual assault; without economic exchange, we’re talking about sexual relations.” I think this is a wonderfully concise definition of what sex work encompasses (and does not encompass). Everyone write it down and pin it to their wall! There’s also a really interesting discussion in this passage about how what is identified as sexual is fluid and changes with context. So that (to use Saini’s example) washing dishes can be erotic in the context of role play or dom/sub interactions but is otherwise not coded as sexual.
p. 95 – [aS]: “Although i have agency in deciding to pursue sex-work, i wouldn’t say that sex-work is a free choice for me. It is one of the very few viable options to support my lifestyle as a poor, dis/abled women [sic] of colour media-maker…” I think this is a really key point, and I love the way she positions sex work in this passage as both a choice and one of the few options she has available to meet her needs. I think the pro- and anti-sex work factions have too often become polarized around 1) the concept of sex work as a viable and freely-chosen profession, and 2) the concept of sex work as coerced and damaging. There can be gradations in the middle, and this is one of those times when individual voices of experience are important to listen to … because each individual experiences their own mixture of choice and coercion.
p. 96 – [aS]: “Appropriation runs so deep and is so problematic in feminist organizations that attempt to control our bodies, our economie survival and our sex lives by stigmatizing sex work …” I think this passage leaves me with a lot of questions. I wonder whom she’s talking about when she uses the term “feminist organizations”? I would be interested in some examples, since present-day feminist approaches to sex work vary so widely (inside as well as outside academia!) I have not been very involved with feminist organizations that take on sex work and/or sex trafficking in a practical way. Most of the feminists I encounter on a daily basis have a much more nuanced view of sex work than the type she is talking about here, and I wonder where the people who hold those stigmatizing views hold sway organizationally.
I’d love to hear from any of you Harpies who have run into this sort of thinking recently in feminist spaces. I obviously see it recurring in online discussions, and it’s an aspect of the mainstream media’s interpretation of feminism that gets highlighted lots — particularly in discussion of the so-called generational tensions between “second wave” feminists and us folks who’ve come after. Experiences? Thoughts?
Join me next week for a discussion of Andrea Plaid’s essay ” ‘No, I Would Follow the Porn Star’s Advice’: A Case Study in Educational Privilege and Kyriarchy” (pp. 97-103).