I recently sat in on Audacia Ray’s presentation at Momentum, Why the Sex Positive Movement is Bad for Sex Workers’ Rights. She’s also posted her essay from the conference anthology on her site, so you can read her thoughts on the topic. You might also want to check out this analysis of her post.
My big takeaway from it is that the sex-positive world hasn’t done enough to integrate an awareness of labor issues into an analysis of sex work. And I do think she has a point- sex world often operates from a place of unexamined privilege, and labor and class issues are almost never included in discussions of sexuality even though they most definitely affect it. But I think that a deeper analysis of the relationship between sex-positivity and sex work issues shows that there are many ways in which sex-positivity has much to offer in support of sex workers’ rights.
I’m not suggesting that sex worker activists and advocates need to incorporate sex-positivity into their work, though I think that some of them might find it useful. Rather, I think that if more non-sex workers had a better handle on sex-positivity, it would make it easier for them to separate out the labor and class issues that affect sex work from sex-negative and sex work-negative judgments and assumptions.
What is sex-positivity?
Although Audacia didn’t define the term in her session or in her essay, I want to start by explaining what I mean by sex-positivity. In my experience, a lot of people equate enthusiasm for and/or enjoyment of sex with sex-positivity. But I see a lot of people who have amazing sex lives express profound judgment and shame for people whose sexualities are different, which I think is sufficient proof that the two aren’t equivalent.
My current definition is that sex-positivity is the perspective that the only relevant criteria by which the value of a sexual act, practice, or experience can be judged are the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people who do it or are affected by it. Of course, each of these facets is complex and highly variable, so let’s take a look at how they relate to sex work.
For consent to mean anything, we need both the freedom to engage in a particular act and the freedom from coercion. In other words, we need the room to say yes or no, based on whatever criteria are relevant to us in that moment. If I can’t trust your no, then I can’t trust your yes, and vice versa. For that matter, there also needs to be room for “not right now,” “tell me more about what you mean,” “yes with these boundaries,” or any other response.
This is one of the most difficult points in the sex work debates. After all, there’s no denying that some people are forced into sex work through violence, economic necessity, addiction, or a belief that there are no other options. That is most definitely real. And it’s also true that there are people who choose to become sex workers because they like the economic freedom it brings them, the flexible schedule, the work, the travel, the ability to explore sexuality, and many other reasons. Any analysis of sex work that ignores either of these realities is doomed to create false models of how sex work takes place and to offer useless “solutions”.
Unfortunately, many discussions about sex work fail to acknowledge the full range of experiences that sex workers have. As Audacia points out, the common myths are the “happy hooker” (which tends to come from the sexual enthusiasts) and the “exploited victim” (which usually comes from the abolitionists). Both of these are problematic because they deny the humanity of sex workers by ignoring the complexities of their experiences and the diversity of their voices.
In my view, sex-positivity offers an opportunity to listen to sex workers’ stories because it reminds us that consent is isn’t simple. It can also help us develop more awareness of the nuances of consent, and hone our ability to navigate our way through its ever-shifting terrain. This is especially important when well-known people such as Gloria Steinem say things like:
“Also I don’t think “consenting adults” is practical answer to structural inequality. Even sexual harassment law requires that sexual attention be “welcome,” not just “consensual.” It recognizes that consent can be coerced.”
By definition, if it’s coerced, it isn’t consent even if the word “yes” is spoken. And frankly, I’m rather surprised that Steinem doesn’t seem to see that.
Sex-positivity can help us learn how to sit with the question of consent, compliance, and coercion in order to step away from simple platitudes. Further, it can teach us that our choices and actions around consent will not be the same as everyone else’s. I have found that this has helped me deepen my understanding of sex work and hear the voices of sex workers, rather than imposing my judgments upon them.
This is especially important in light of the ways that many people equate sex slavery with prostitution. There are people who are enslaved in agricultural work, domestic work, food processing and preparation, clothing manufacture, electronics manufacture, among other areas. Yet we are able to decry that and work towards change without saying that we need to abolish food preparation, or denying that there are people who choose to do that work and even find it personally satisfying, as well as people who tolerate it in order to pay the bills.
So what it is about sex that makes it so much more difficult to distinguish between consent and coercion? One factor is that the notion of sexual consent in general isn’t really integrated into our cultural understandings about sex. In my personal experience and observation of other people, sex-positivity can help us understand the nature of consent much more clearly. I believe that makes it easier to look for useful responses to sexual slavery and coercion, while also supporting and making room for people who choose sex work for any reason.
Most people who aren’t sex workers tend to assume that the only pleasure in transactional sex is on the part of the client. From talking with people in many different branches of the sex trade, I think it’s fair to say that while there’s more pleasure for clients than sex workers, it’s also accurate to say many sex workers do experience pleasure in their interactions. There does seem to be a rough correlation between where one is in the industry and how much pleasure one experiences- for example, folks at the high end of the escort range more often say that they feel pleasure than folks working the streets, at least among those I’ve talked with about it. But that certainly doesn’t mean that no sex worker ever experiences pleasure.
I think it’s also rather myopic to only look at it from the perspective of sexual pleasure. After all, there are many different reasons that anyone might choose to have sex, and there are many different kinds of pleasure one might feel. If you’ve ever given a partner some pleasure without reciprocation, simply because you enjoyed making them feel good, you know that sexual experiences that don’t bring equal physical gratification to both people are not inherently problematic.
Further, one can experience satisfaction and pleasure (in a broader sense than the physical) by making enough money to pay your bills. Just ask a freelance graphic designer who finishes a contract in time to cover the rent whether there’s an extra pleasure that comes from meeting their financial deadline. I think it’s arrogant to say that those pleasures are somehow less important or relevant. (Stella Resnick’s book The Pleasure Zone is a great read on the nature of pleasure, btw.)
A sex-positive angle on this is to acknowledge that there are many different reasons someone becomes a sex worker and there are many different ways in which one might experience pleasure, in addition to the sexual. A sex-positive response might be to suggest that if someone is able to do the work while staying emotionally and mentally present (for example, not needing to numb out through drugs or dissociation in order to make it through), and is able to find satisfaction and/or pleasure, they should have the right to do that. And if one experiences discomfort, pain, dissociation, numbing out, or shame, that is a sign of a problem, just as it is in non-transactional sex or non-sexual labor.
This is one a term that’s easy to use and hard to pin down. When I think of it, what comes to mind is whatever is good for a person, as they define and experience it. It’s easy to pass judgment on what another person does, and I try to remember that what brings me well-being is often not what works for another person. In my experience, most of us try to make decisions that will maximize our well-being, although we often have selective filters that shape and limit our ability to do so.
Nevertheless, one thing that sex positivity has to offer is the awareness of the incredible range of well-being, as well as daily practice in setting aside our judgments in order to listen to the stories of other people. It’s not for me to say that engaging in sex work is a bad decision for someone else (assuming that they have consented to it). Instead, I try to honor their ability to make the best choices they can and manage whatever feelings I have about what they do, unless it affects me.
For that matter, sex-positivity is an excellent practice in learning to recognize that we each have different needs and priorities. Doing sex work in order to feed your kids, go to college, or pay the bills is, in my opinion, a perfectly fine reason to do it, just as it’s a good reason to work in a restaurant or a store. Many of us have jobs that we tolerate because we need to get paid. If we’re going to say that those are not sufficient justification for sex work, then I don’t see how they can be sufficient reason for any other kind of work.
The People Affected By It
So far, I’ve focused on the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the sex workers themselves, since that’s where most of the debates about sex work center. And given that almost nobody (as far as I’ve ever heard) is forced to hire a sex worker, I don’t feel much need to worry about the consent, pleasure, and well-being of clients, though the reasons people pay for sex are much more complex and diverse than anti-sex work proponents generally acknowledge.
But what about the people affected by it? It seems to me that this is one place things often get heated. I’ve heard people say things like “I shouldn’t have to see women working the streets in front of my house.” Or “when men hire prostitutes, it affects their wives.” Or “sex work reinforces male dominance over women, which affect all women.” Each of these and other similar sentiments get complex, often because of biased assumptions, but also because there is some truth to many of them.
However, I think that even here, sex-positivity has something to offer. In my view, it suggests that when two (or more) people are figuring out if and how to have sex, nobody’s needs or desires can be considered more important than the other’s. They are both necessary to the conversation, and any decisions that don’t take them both into account are likely to cause resentment and other problems.
I think that the same thing can easily be said when it comes to managing the varied and competing desires and needs related to sex work. Most discussions on the topic ignore or oversimplify the concerns and needs of sex workers, and privilege the desires of everyone else. Sex-positivity has taught me to listen to the voices of everyone participating in or affected by a particular situation in order to seek responses that are relevant and effective for everyone (or at least, as close to that as possible). Additionally, the more I’ve practiced looking for common ground when things appeared to be in conflict in my sex life, the easier it has become for me to apply that skill in other settings. Of course, there isn’t always a both/and, but there is more often than many people realize.
One of the slogans of the sex workers’ rights movement is “nothing about us without us.” Sex-positivity is certainly not the only way we can integrate this into our lives, but it is certainly a good way to do so, especially when it comes to decisions about sexuality.
While sex-positivity doesn’t directly address the issues of labor and class that Audacia quite rightly says are central to a relevant analysis of sex work, I do think that it has quite a bit to offer. Unfortunately, the confusion between sexual enthusiasm and sex-positivity often makes it hard to recognize that value and develop an understanding of how sex-positivity can be applied to issues of sex work.
Practicing sex-positivity has taught me that expecting other people to have the same motivations and experiences as I do is arrogant. I think that suggests that sex-positivity has much to offer an analysis of sex work because an audience that is able to take that perspective will be more able to examine the labor issues of sex work without letting their personal judgments about sex take over.
Ultimately, taking a sex-positive stance on sex work lets me ask questions like:
What is your experience of sex work? How does it affect you physically, mentally, and emotionally?
What needs are you trying to meet? Are you able to do so? Can you change how you work when you need to take care of yourself?
How do your consent, pleasure, and well-being come into play in your work?
What choices do you see as available to you? How do you feel about them?
If your experience is problematic, what do you need to change that? Is there anything I can do to help make that happen?
Obviously, these aren’t directly questions of labor. But they can easily form the foundation for a deeper analysis of the reasons why a particular person or why people in general engage in sex work, as well as what they need to minimize risk & harm and maximize the benefits. They can also help us see more clearly when someone needs support in order to make positive changes in their life, rather than jumping to rescue them in ways that are irrelevant to their needs or cause them harm.
Further, by recognizing the differences between sex-positivity and enthusiasm for sex, we can develop much more clarity around the experiences of sex workers without forcing them into either of the common myths of “happy hooker” or “exploited victim.” Sex-positivity can help us listen to their stories in all of their complexities instead of forcing them to fit the fantasies that our imaginations and society create. It can help us understand the difference between sex work and sex trafficking by making it easier to let go of the sex-negative judgments that often accompany discussions of sex work.
So yes, while I agree with Audaica that sex-positivity is not sufficient, I do think that there are many ways in which it can improve our ability to look at the very real problems that sex workers face, as well as those that victims of trafficking endure. And that can help non-sex workers become true allies and supporters of sex workers, instead of using them to score political points and force “solutions” on them that make their situations worse.
In the end, if that’s the only thing that sex-positivity has to offer sex workers (and I don’t think it is), that would be a big improvement over what we have now.