Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Porn Conversations

I've wanted to write about Robert Jensen's book, Getting Off: The End of Masculinity, ever since it came out, way back in 2007. The book is an anti-porn manifesto, but it also attempts to be a critique of traditional masculinity as well, advocating, as it says in its title, an end to masculinity. For such a slim tome, this is quite a goal, and it falls short.

One of the reasons I've been hesitant to take on Jensen's book in any substantial way has to do with the difficult, vitriolic "discussion" of pornography and sex work both within feminist communities and in the world at large. These are emotional issues (as they should be), and there is an understandable tendency toward oversimplification and over-generalization on all sides of the issue. As with many other issues, especially when they're discussed on the internet, the idea of giving a charitable reading to something sort of goes out the window--and I totally get that, since aspects of Jensen's book make me want to claw my eyes out in frustration, rather than "read charitably".

Which is why I have actually enjoyed the recent discussions between Meghan Murphy and Hugo Schwyzer, which were an attempt to have a conversation about "pornstitution" that would help everybody better understand at least some of the disagreements between (some) sex positive feminists and (some) anti-sex-work feminists (it is difficult to use neutral terms here). Just the attempt to have the discussion was refreshing, and I commend both Megan and Hugo for making the attempt; that said, most of what was clarified for me was the problems with the arguments (and attitudes) of the anti-sex-work folks. Which has led me back to re-reading the Jensen book, and working on some posts about the book, and about the anti-sex-work positions in general.

Before I begin with the book though, a preview of some of the ideas I want to examine, starting with just a little piece of the conversation that Meghan and Hugo had, because I think it highlights a particular theme that the anti-sex-work folks just get wrong.

Can People Choose Sex Work?
Meghan is frustrated with actual sex workers who put themselves forward as examples of people who have chosen to do that kind of work, and who don't consider themselves particularly oppressed. She says:
“Re: the teeny minority of self defined “sex workers” who enjoy it. Since when is enjoyment or pleasure or *feelings* of empowerment–*feelings* in and of themselves- the same as truth or reality? What sort of argument is being made here? Feelings are also socially constructed in a capitalist/patriarchal society: think of mania for commodities; see the mobs going crazy after sports events (like in Vancouver now?). Lots of feeling there: does it mean consumerism and mob-violence is ok? Men feel empowered by raping: so, do we validate rape? Abolitionists of slavery didn’t care what made a few slaves content–slavery is wrong. Selling people is wrong, no matter how content someone is to sell themselves. These ideas about individual empowerment and pleasure are all part of the way we are bamboozled in neoliberalism. Since when has being content with one’s lot stood as an argument that one’s lot is therefore just and right? We don’t have to tell an individual woman “porn star” about what her “experience” is in order to critique the prostitution of women as a societal institution–to critique the demand by men that women’s bodies are for sale.

But of course people who want their voices heard aren't speaking up because they think their choice means that everybody has the same choice that they do. Instead, some folks who do/did this kind of work offer themselves up as counterexamples to the claims that some radical feminists make that sex-work can't even exist as work, because one can never, ever choose it without being in some sense coerced. Murphy chooses to place the term sex work in scare quotes when talking with Hugo, which follows suit with the idea that there just is no such thing as sex work, because all sex work is coercive. A sex worker who wants Meghan to listen and acknowledge that some porn work is chosen freely isn't asking Meghan to then never critique porn as a larger industry; she (or he, or zie) is asking Meghan to ditch the claim that doing porn can never be a choice.

And clearly there are lots of folks who don't have a free choice--sex trafficking, for instance, is a clear case of coercion (and, because it's obvious coercion, we shouldn't call it sex work. And clearly there are huge problems with the production of pornography--but that still doesn't mean it is the case that folks can never choose to do sex work. Some anti-porn folks acknowledge this, but when they continue to use scare quotes around the phrase sex work, I'm not sure why they don't understand that folks who do sex work feel silenced by that.
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