Friday, August 18, 2006

Bitching with $pread (part 3)

Here's the second of some excerpts from the Bitch interview. This covers the "exploitation or empowerment" debate and whether its too simplistic. Its timely, because there's been a debate raging on Punkassblog about sex work, and as of today, the inevitable "exploitation or empowerment" question has come up. From the interview:

It's frustrating that debates about sex workers' rights too often get reduced to the "is it exploitation or empowerment?" question. How can we move people beyond that?

Rachel Aimee: There's a misconception about the sex workers' rights movement that it's all about how sex work is empowering, whereas in fact many sex worker activists find that an annoying or at least mostly irrelevant argu­ment. If sex work is empowering, it's generally in that it allows people to make more money than they would oth­erwise be able to make and therefore raise their living standards. I don't think many sex workers find the act of sex work empowering in itself. $pread is trying to move beyond the simplistic debate by presenting a whole range of sex workers' experiences, from the positive to the negative and everything in between. I think the most useful way to frame the debate is in terms of choice: Do you believe people should be able to choose what they do with their own bodies?

Audacia Ray: I think that the empowerment-vs.-exploitation debate is a good one to keep having. Polarizing those issues is not so helpful, but it's a useful framework, because it's the way that people get introduced to these concepts. But what's really important is to listen to the variety of experiences that sex workers have – it doesn't make for good soundbites, but it's important to see the various perspectives. It's okay to be muddled about it, to not be able to say "It's definitely a good thing" or "It's definitely a bad thing." For myself, I have different opinions on different days. [Laughs.]

Sex workers can have a difficult time voicing their opinions because generally [other] people come at this issue with their minds made up, and that can be really threatening when it's your life. It's tough to have people shake their finger at you and tell you what you're feeling.

I've always identified as a feminist, and to deal with feminism from the perspective of being a sex worker has been really jarring to me. Right when I started working on $pread, the Village Voice had a piece about me and someone else, about our lives as sex workers, and it got picked up by the blog Feministing. The comments that people left about us almost made me cry. It was awful because I read that site religiously – I mean, these are my people. And getting these reactions made me realize these are not my people; they hate me.

[Note: Bitch|Lab also blogged today about the above mentioned Feministing debate, including links to several responses Audacia Ray posted in her own blog. – IACB]

Sex – whether commercial or not – is an emotional issue. It's a really challenging thing to talk about. When you talk about sex, people assume that you're talking about them, or that you're talking about sex for all women. And it's just not the case. But those reactions come from it being such a personal thing.

Quite simply, framing sex work as either inherently degrading or inherently empowering is utterly simplistic. (I posted several days ago about the huge range of situations that come under the heading of "sex work".) Certainly, there are many situations that are clearly exploitative, most notable anything that involves coercion or taking advantage of extreme social marginalization – trafficking, pimping, and so on. On the other hand there are some kinds of sex work that could actually be called "empowering" – for example, somebody producing their own porn that is an authentic expression of their own sexuality and that gives them pleasure from showing off their sexuality. The majority of sex work falls at various places in between those two points. Debating whether the whole of sex work is exploitative or empowering is a simplistic Feminism 101 level of debate that doesn't even begin to address the real issues.

(To be fair, I don't know of many people in the sex-positive camp, or at least the sex-positive feminist camp, who are arguing that all sex work is inherently empowering. The owners of SuicideGirls worked the "empowerment" angle for a while before receiving lots of negative publicity to the effect that it wasn't exactly the warm and fuzzy feminist porn site it claimed to be. Ariel Levy also claims that many of the women she writes about refer to their "female chauvinist pig" activities as "empowering", but I'm not sure if that isn't just Levy putting words in their mouth.)