Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Good Old-Fashioned Sex Work

A recent post on Unapologetically Female, one of my new favorite blogs, has inspired me to bring up one of my all-time favorite discussions. Sex work. Feminists are divided about whether sex work can be empowering or is a harmful, misogynistic tool of the patriarchy. Okay, so maybe it's not that dramatic, but folks do get quite passionate about it.

One example of where lines get blurry is the Lusty Lady. For all of you non-Bay Area readers, the Lusty Lady is a peep show in San Francisco whose workers fought hard to unionize, making it "the world's only unionized, worker-owned peep show co-op". Pretty sweet, I must say. Although my general view (however unpopular) is that sex work is not empowering, this place definitely changes my "is not" to "usually is not". The documentary Live Nude Girls Unite, about this very club, shows brave, empowered, role-model type strippers taking control of their workplace. The film's behind-the-scenes look into how the women feel about their job and about themselves definitely opened my eyes to some sex-positive stripping possibilities. But does this really transfer to the majority of strip clubs that treat their workers poorly (the whole reason they unionized in the first place)? I've heard first-hand horror stories of mental and physical abuse by club managers, not to mention patrons.

And then the empowering argument seems to fall right apart when it comes to prostitution. To be fair, I have not specifically sought out pro-prostitution literature or research (and welcome any comments or links of this opinion), but the scientific research I have read paints a pretty nasty picture for the women in this work. Melissa Farley at the San Francisco non-profit Prostitution Research & Education is one of the foremost researchers on the effects of prostitution on these workers. Her research shows that even when legalized, workers in prostitution face all forms of abuse. She believes that prostitution is (or has the potential to be) sexual harassment, rape, battering, verbal abuse, domestic violence, a racist practice, a violation of human rights, childhood sexual abuse, a consequence of male domination of women, and a means of maintaining male domination of women.

I want to believe that legalized prostitution can be okay for women, but it seems that the negatives outweigh the positives. I think that one good answer is to legalize prostitution for the workers, but make it illegal for the johns. Although I do not think prostitution is positive for workers, they should be provided support instead of punished for their work. Any level of support however will not eradicate the stigma that women in prostitution face.

I'm still not sure exactly where the line is but I think it lies somewhere between the Lusty Lady and the Tenderloin.
There is so much left to say, but I'll leave that up to you.


nidhi said...

i agree. i don't believe sex work is empowering. i feel in my heart that it is a place that women have come to due to the other movements in feminism.
i don't believe our bodies should be considered a means to employ ourselves. it will never go the other way.
i also have this horrible feeling that men take immeasurable joy from the thought that women sell their bodies because they like it and it makes them feel empowered. i hate that.

oh... and originally i was going to write: i knew someone who worked at lusty lady. she was part of the unionization, but still felt the whole thing was sick.

Tracey said...

as far as info from women with positive stories about prostitution, if you've seen Live Nude Girls Unite! you saw a few clips of Carol Leigh, aka The Scarlet Harlot. She's been a prostitute for over twenty years and works to legitimize sex work and to gain feminist support of prostitution. Anything she has written is probably a great resource to hear a voice from the other side.

Also, the books "Whores and Other Feminists" (a collection of essays by sex workers, edited by Jill Nagle) and "Live Sex Acts" by Wendy Chapkis are great resources.

By saying all this, I'm not necessarily claiming that I agree that sex work is always empowering, but I also don't know if it's necessarily inherently degrading, either. When I read Dworkin and MacKinnon, and even Twisty Faster, I can't help but think, "YES!" But I can't help but get where these other women are coming from, too.

Kristin said...

Oh, I didn't know that about The Scarlot Harlot. I will definitely have to check out some of her work. I am really interested in hearing her side.

In March I went to an Association of Women in Psychology conference in San Francisco and participated in a roundtable discussion about women in sex work. I was excited to hear the range of opinions from different feminists from all over the country. We were all there because we were interested and conflicted about the subject but somehow our biases were on the side of not empowering. Unfortunately, it ended up being quite one-sided. Occasionally, someone would bring up that maybe it's not that bad in this way or that way and we'd all look around for someone to say, "Yes evidence shows it's not always that bad." But then folks who had done research in this area would provide a finding that showed how it was that bad in this way or that way.

So, I don't know, I'm going to have to pick up "Whores and Other Feminists" next time I'm at the library and see where this goes.