I mentioned to a couple of folks that I had used their blogs or posts for a paper, and I promised to post a bibliography when I had one ready. For those who are curious, here it is. It’s far from every blog ever written, but if you want to sift through it, you will find the foundations of a very solid critique of sex-positivity and authenticity in political advocacy, from a pro-decriminalization standpoint. I also read and cited the comments on most of these posts, but cut them from the bibliography for brevity, and I read dozens of other online writings that I just ran out of space to write about — so there is a lot of knowledge that gets produced by the fact of having a community, but it’s not readily documented within the conventions of academic citation.
Here’s the short version, in other people’s words, of the argument in my paper about sex workers’ unhappy stories:
I feel like our culture, as a movement, has come to revolve around either the memoir or the closet, after work in the sex trades. — Sabrina Morgan
From early on, speaking for myself meant straining to somehow fit my experiences and my opinions of my own experience—at times, it felt, of my very self—into one of two dichotomous positions: for or against. — Melissa Petro
I remember when I first got involved in sex worker rights and was a naively impressionable young woman.… I mentioned that I didn’t like sex work myself I was chastised by fellow activists. — Wendy Babcock
And there are a lot of us, more than most folks realize. We frequently stay closeted … partly because we may lack the physical energy or emotional stamina to brazenly insert ourselves into the activist communities that dislike us. — Lori Adorable
It is no longer acceptable to maintain a barrier between conversations about the positive potential of the choice to do transactional sex and the injustices many people face when they do sex work because of circumstance or coercion. To do so is to maintain a class divide that is wide and deep. — Audacia Ray
The truth doesn’t have a sound bite. It’s complex. — Hadil Habiba
In a comment on my last post, I made an analogy to abortion advocacy, based on a paper I read about an activist’s decision to talk about all the “things we cannot say.” Here is that paper, authored by Jeannie Ludlow. It’s a bit thick over the first few pages, but the analysis is worth it, in my opinion. Continue reading
Sex positivity isn’t cutting it
Sure, I see myself reflected in feminist writing about sex work. I come right after “although” and right before a list of stereotype-busting truths about those other sex workers, the ones who like their jobs. As in:
Although some sex workers come from backgrounds of poverty, mental illness or drug use, many sex workers come from the middle class, have post-secondary degrees and choose their work because it offers flexible hours and a high rate of pay, a chance to explore their sexual curiosities, and a challenge to mainstream sexual norms.
That’s not any one person’s writing, of course. It’s more of a patchwork, pulled together from the zillions of sex positive writings on the topic that I’ve read in the course of my sex work activism and degree work.
Late last fall, Audacia Ray published a talk she had given as a blog post, challenging sex positive feminism to develop beyond repeating this statement that sex work can be fun:
During the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the sex wars of the 1980s and 1990s, the struggle to define sex positivity with respect to sex work served a purpose. To say that not all people have a horrendous experience of the sex industry, and that many sex workers value sexuality and see themselves as complex sexual beings as well as sex educators was an important statement to make, and one that had not been spoken before. However, it is essential to put this statement in historical context. To continue making the statement that many sex workers have a good experience of the sex industry without also including those whose experiences are negative and making space for them to speak up reveals a deep doubt about the validity of the sex positive argument. If we believe in the positive power of sexuality, we must also examine what happens when people’s lives are infused with sex negativity, and we must listen and support people with this experience in sharing their personal truths.
I’ve been working lately on a conference paper that considers my story about doing sex work alongside those of other not-so-happy hookers, using blog posts from Audacia Ray, Lori Adorable, Melissa Petro, Olive Seraphim, Wendy Babcock, Hadil Habiba and others. It’s been harder than I expected to write—in part because there is so much excellent material in these posts that I want to do justice to, and in part because, even with so many brave and groundbreaking writings to pave the way, I feel afraid to write.
What I found was that I didn’t want to write “my story” into a paper and share it with a bunch of feminist academics. That’s actually a really scary idea, and I can’t imagine why I thought it was a good one. Between my fear of appropriation by abolitionists and my fear of rejection and ridicule by sex positive feminists, I’m paralyzed every time I try to write. I thought I might like it better here, shared with other sex worker bloggers. Continue reading
People ask me the strangest things, probably figuring I’m unlikely to judge them for their curiosities. By the time I had answered Mr. Curious’ question about the ‘money shot,’ I had a pretty solid analysis of this ubiquitous porn scene and (if we can believe porn provides any insight into sexual behaviour) common sexual practice, and nothing to do with it beyond that exchange of emails. So I guess I’ll blog it?
The question at hand was:
I heard/read something (can’t remember the source, admittedly), that a survey and follow-up questionnaire asked men if they liked cumming on a woman’s face. Of the men who responded yes, in the follow-up questionnaire reportedly had a higher ‘respect’ for women than did the men who said no. Have you heard this before? […]
Now, I realize there are a huge number of subjective terms in that explanation. Respect is certainly among the most. I also don’t know how well the survey was put together. Perhaps it was transparent and the men knew what was going on. In any event, let’s assume the results are correct. Any thoughts on why? I’m not looking for a huge debate, hah […]
Unsurprisingly, he’s not interested in being credited for that quotation.
Setting aside my immediate response, which was along the lines of “EW EW EW WHY” (we were aiming for a hookup, and facials really aren’t my thing) this is an interesting question. For one thing, he probably felt at least some anxiety in asking, expecting a ‘feminist’ answer that such scenes are inherently degrading to women, and expressed that by saying he wasn’t “looking for a huge debate, hah.” I’m not inclined to think of pornographic images as inherently anything, so he was safe there, even if the idea of it sounds majorly ooky to me. (He also expressed some anxiety, in the parts I cut out of the quotation to keep it PG, that I might think he was suggesting I was a well-practiced ‘money shot’ expert. This anxiety is also interesting, and reflects a common experience for anyone who speaks positively about pornography or sex work on a regular basis: the assumption that there must be some illicit ‘reason’ for the interest… because everyone knows good girls don’t talk about hardcore fucking.*)
Porn, or sex?
Mr. Curious didn’t reference porn in his question, but I made the leap myself almost immediately. In wondering what his source might have been, I considered Kinsey. Kinsey researched sexual “deviance,” and probably wouldn’t have batted an eye at the idea of a man ejaculating on a woman’s face. But quickly, I doubted myself; Kinsey’s research seems too early. Were ‘facials’ common practice, before hardcore porn became widely accessible? Prior to the 1970s, we had few means of documenting our private sexual practices, and difficult, expensive, unreliable and limited means of distributing such documentation. That doesn’t mean the idea of ejaculating on a partner’s face couldn’t have been passed on from fellow to fellow, but it seems unlikely to have been an easy topic of conversation in a culture where some people are to this day unsure about whether or not using a condom is sinful. Enter the crass, but far from crude, phenomena of late capitalism: hardcore porn and new media. Nothing is sacred (or so it seems… we’ll come back to that) and everything, from an intimate caress to g-spot stimulation, is at our fingertips.
I’m not interested in disputing that folks try the things they see in porn. The trouble is that the ‘hardcore’ version only looks good, and only from that one camera angle. In practice, shit’s awkward, low-contact and really hard on the everyone’s back. But that’s the nice thing about real life and real consensual sex: when thing don’t feel good, we can stop, try something else, laugh at goofy bodily contortions, negotiate, change our minds… and it doesn’t ruin the ‘scene.’
Some people really dislike porn because it isn’t an accurate representation of healthy, consensual, hot sex. I’d like to put that sentiment into perspective: The Lord of the Rings, in addition to being longer than I have either attention span or bladder capacity for, is in no way an accurate representation of the lives of elves, trolls and dwarves in Middle Earth. And no one expects it to be because it’s a fantasy. Even the documentaries we watch don’t seem to document reality very well. So why do we expect pornography to perfectly represent sex?
In Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in North America, Laura Kipnis writes:
[…] it seems quite impossible to begin to think about contemporary pornography as a form of culture, or as a mode of politics. There’s zero discussion of pornography as an expressive medium in the positive sense-the only expressing it’s presumed to do is of misogyny or social decay. That it might have more complicated social agendas, or that future historians of the genre might generate interesting insights about pornography’s relation to this particular historical and social moment-these are radically unthought thoughts. One reason for this lacuna is a certain intellectual prejudice against taking porn seriously at all. Those who take pornography seriously are its opponents, who have little interesting to say on the subject: not only don’t they seem to have spent much time actually looking at it, but even worse, they seem universally overcome by a leaden, stultifying literalness, apparently never having heard of metaphor, irony, a symbol-even fantasy seems too challenging a concept. (163)
As we begin to wonder what the ‘money shot’ might mean, it’s worth remembering that porn movies aren’t documentaries. They’re as constructed as any other movie. A fun exercise might be to check out the behind-the-scenes footage for Twinklight, a deliciously queer rewrite of the popular Mormon abstinence porn series Twilight. When we view the final product, we may think we’re watching sex — we may even be having a sexual experience of our own — but for the workers making porn, it’s as constructed and edited as any other film.
Where the survey referenced above starts to ring true is in the translation of the image seen in porn to sexual practice. To put it bluntly, the ‘money shot’ is not something you want to spring on your partner without asking, at least not if you ever want to have sex with her again. Simply talking about desire and consent with a partner, especially in a way that makes the asker vulnerable by referencing anxiety-producing taboos about watching porn, is a ‘respectful’ act, and a great way to learn about ‘respect’ with personalized depth and detail.
Kipnis also summaries a ‘feminist’ viewpoint that contradicts my own: the one my friend was worried I might yell at him with, that pornography in general, and the ‘money shot’ in particular, is an inherently degrading, humiliating and violent act against and representation of women. (I keep putting ‘feminist’ in scare quotes because I think this is a lazy, patronizing and frequently harmful version of feminism: I don’t hold with the idea that sex-positive or pro-porn theories are anti-feminist, but rather that they are a part of the practice of good feminism.)
Kipnis quotes Douglas in writing that:
there are beliefs that each sex is a danger to the other through contact with sexual fluids […] Many ideas about sexual dangers are better interpreted as symbols of the relation between parts of society, as mirroring designs of hierarchy or symmetry that appear in the larger social system. (146)
Semen can be read as a symbol of danger in Andrea Dworkin’s condemnations of pornography, and specifically of the images of men ejaculating on women’s faces, when she writes that “to ejaculate is to pollute the woman” (Dworkin qtd in Kipnis 146) and the image of contact between women’s skin and men’s sexual fluids “forces women to accept semen and eroticize it” (146). For Kipnis, “it’s simply not plausible to take these [pollution] beliefs literally,” but rather
there’s a magical leap from the fact that “some men are violent” to “semen is dangerous,” paralleling the equally problematic magical leap from the possibility that some rapists may look at pornography to the conclusion that pornography causes rape. A real fear, rape, finds expression in a symbolic and imaginary cause: pornography. (147)
Kipnis’ analysis suggests that the ways pornography so often highlights class (e.g. a working class man, often pictured at work in pornographic scripts, fucking a high-class housewife; or a professor coercing a student into having sex with him, a doctor ‘tricking’ a female patient into an inappropriate exam) makes the images powerful and popular representations of cultural anxieties, desires and condemnations of the intersections of economic power and sexual access (147-48).
The work of representation
Another alternative can be writen from the perspective of actors who work in porn. In The Conflicted Existence of a Female Porn Writer, Lynsey G. writes that ‘facials’
are a fascinating phenomenon on a number of levels. For instance: Who came up with this idea? When, in the annals of porn history, did someone decide that not only should the ejaculation be shown, but that it should almost exclusively happen in close proximity to a woman’s face? As recently as the ’80s and early ’90s, facials weren’t all that common, but to look at porn today you’d think some Porn Pope had issued a Pop-Shot Bull decreeing that facials were the only proper type of cumshot and must be used in Blue Films unto boredom. […] I can’t help but think that whoever came up with the idea should have copyrighted it, because that person would be set for several lifetimes by now.
“It doesn’t make sense evolutionarily […],” writes G., but “it could be viewed as concrete proof of female empowerment. After all, a woman who swallows a load isn’t likely to get pregnant, and therefore is more than just a baby-making machine.” G. points out that porn actors are paid to pretend to enjoy whatever silly representations of sex writers come up with, and it seems reasonable that a representation that reduces workplace health and safety risks would present more pay for less risk than something generally considered more intimate and less degrading, like ejaculation, sans audience, in a partner’s vagina. (And from this dyke’s perspective, I have to add: the ‘intimate’ and ‘less degrading’ option is an absolutely revolting idea. Given the option, I’d take the money shot.)
We can also look at the way our culture treats sex workers, and wonder whether a porn actor might have different ideas about what constitutes ‘degrading.’ When sex workers are regularly required to defend their basic human rights, like the right to enforcement of fair labour legislation, freedom from incarceration, privacy rights, the right to freedom from violence, can we call a practice that presents no real danger, and in many cases would alleviate real dangers, like pregnancy and STI risks, ‘degrading’? Or can we see the ‘money shot’ as a symbol of workers’ ingenuity, resourcefulness and resistance, in less-than-ideal working conditions?
Once again, given the options of either doing a facial or having to prove to someone that I am in fact a human being with rights, I’d opt for the facial. At least that washes off.
Offline Works Cited
Kipnis, Laura. Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in North America. Durham NC: Duke UP, 1996.
This is a reproduction of a post from April 13th 2011 on my blog at https://landing.athabascau.ca/profile/sarahma108