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Prostitution, porn, identity throw wrench in sex positivity

Credit: Maegha Singh/ Credit: Maegha Singh/
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When I was a sixteen-year-old budding feminist still afraid of the label, I wrote a research paper that attempted to disprove virginity. It was a “construct,” I argued — a sexist, heteronormative box that society invented to restrain and shame women’s expression of their sexuality. Like many millennial feminists, I was proudly “sex positive.”

Following the second-wave doctrine of free love, I supported all women’s freedom to have as much and as wild sex as they saw fit. I rallied against slut-shaming, a sexual double-standard that calls promiscuous men “players” and women “hoes.” Anything from kink to porn to sex work was fair game as long as it followed the BDSM golden rule: safe, sane, and — most importantly — consensual. Sex was fun, after all. It was one of the most natural and beautiful things people could do.

But nothing is that simple. Four years and a few rude awakenings later, I’ve realized that sex positivity — a philosophy followed religiously by so many well-meaning feminists — is far from a perfect fix for society’s toxic relationship with sexuality.

Nowhere is this toxicity more evident than in the never-ending debate over prostitution, the so-called “oldest profession in the world” and quite possibly the most controversial. It’s illegal everywhere in the United States besides some parts of Nevada, but that doesn’t mean it’s not thriving. Research indicates that the underground commercial sex trade exists in virtually every state, nets many billions a year, and provides pimps with weekly profits as high as $30,000.

Sex-positive feminists draw a hard line between sex work, the consensual selling of sex between adults, and sex trafficking, the kidnapping or otherwise forcing of primarily women and children into the sex trade. They generally argue for a crackdown on sex trafficking along with the widespread legalization of prostitution. In a hugely controversial report published last year, Amnesty International — one of the first and most prominent global human rights organizations — officially came out in support of this stance. They cited many common, and extremely valid, arguments of the pro-prostitution camp: decriminalization shifts limited police resources from sex workers to trafficking victims; it frees sex workers to demand safer working conditions, more economic autonomy, and protection of the law against abusive pimps and clients; and, if anything, it decreases the size of the industry. Meanwhile, criminalization does not eliminate prostitution or “save” prostitutes. On the contrary, it drives both underground into darker, seedier corners. By conflating prostitution with trafficking, it patronizes women working in the sex industry by choice while failing to help the real victims.

For a glimpse of the other side, we don’t have to look further than one highly publicized response to the Amnesty International policy: a scathing open letter signed by dozens of human rights organizations and big-profile celebrities, including white feminists Lena Dunham, Anne Hathaway, and Meryl Streep. This letter decries the sex industry on principle as both the product of and a perpetuator of gender inequality. In the anti-prostitution camp, “sex work” is a contradiction in terms because all prostitutes are akin to sex slaves. This camp’s primary arguments rest on the frightening reality of prostitutes’ lives. The majority are pulled into the trade as teenagers, usually runaways or wards of the state with a history of abuse. They are often completely economically dependent on pimps. They experience ubiquitous sexual, physical, and psychological violence from pimps and johns alike. Even when they are raped, they can expect no retribution from the law. In fact, they are arrested far more often than either those who sell or buy their bodies. Marginalized populations, especially poor minorities, are disproportionately represented in the industry. Across the board, prostitutes are at high risk of substance addiction, STDs, mental illnesses (especially PTSD), and homicide. The mortality rate of the industry is such common knowledge, and prostitutes are so stigmatized, that “dead hooker” remains a punch line.

Both sides have valid points, but they’re so dedicated to destroying each other that they refuse to see the issue as anything other than black and white. Each cherry-picks, slants, and manufactures evidence to support their side. Though some statistical manhandling is inevitable in any contentious issue, I actually had a very hard time finding statistics that weren’t affiliated with some “pro” or “anti-prostitution” stronghold. It's impossible to know how much data on prostitution has been skewed. Many studies predominantly or even exclusively interview police officers, pimps, and rescued sex trafficking victims. Often excluded from these studies are sex workers by choice, who would reap heavy benefits from decriminalization. Consequently, many sex workers have criticized leading anti-prostitution advocates — such as the celebrities who responded to Amnesty International — for misrepresenting their experiences.

These are the women who sex-positive feminists imagine when they support the legalization of prostitution: women who deserve to make a living however they choose, free from judgment and protected by the law. But here again we must question what it means to “freely choose” sex work. Just as consent by coercion is not really consent at all, can marginalized and abused and impoverished women really choose prostitution when they have few better options?

It seems difficult, if not impossible, to separate “good” from “bad” sex work without further victimizing women. No one should be surprised that prostitution is a dangerous job, even for those who choose it. But there’s also no substantial proof that blanket bans on prostitution don’t harm more than help. Despite all the idealism and well wishes in the world, this many-billion-dollar industry isn’t going anywhere. This is especially true because advocates on both sides far more often address the supply of sex than society’s unquenchable demand for it, a demand fueled by rampant misogyny and the commercialization of women’s bodies.

This demand is further bolstered by pornography, another controversial sexual commodity generally supported by sex-positive feminists. Research hasn't yet reached a consensus on whether porn is addictive, despite the gargantuan efforts of websites like "YourBrainonPorn" which claim that it can be as damaging as alcohol or gambling. Like drug addicts who develops a tolerance, many chronic porn users report a compulsion to view videos of sex acts that are increasingly far from “vanilla.” Probably the eighth commandment of sex positivity is “don’t kink-shame,” but there’s still something very wrong with a society that doesn’t blink an eye at whole categories of PornHub videos dedicated to “teen,” “humiliation,” “abuse,” and “rape.” The normalization of such extreme pornography, even if performed by consenting adults, normalizes in turn an often violently misogynistic view of sexuality. While "feminist porn" is a beacon of light, demonstrating what porn could and should be, the mainstream porn industry continues to thrive, inevitably encouraging misogynists to bring harmful fantasies to life. In so many of these videos, women are objectified and abused and — most damning of all — they like it.

Plus, the sex positivity movement provides men with a “pro-feminist” excuse to pressure women into sex that they’re supposed to want and enjoy. Think of all the men who’ve snap-chatted unsolicited dick pics, who’ve pushed a drunken make-out into assault, who’ve refused to accept rejection, even to the point of violence. Imagine all these men with Robin Thicke in the background, smirking and crooning again and again: “I know you want it.” To these men, a sex-positive woman should be in favor of all sex, anytime, with anyone. She should not — or even cannot — turn them down.

Sex positivity shouts from the mountaintops about women’s freedom to enthusiastically consent. But it needs to place equal emphasis on her right to say no. Not wanting sex, in the moment or ever, is normal too, and any implication to the contrary erases women on the asexuality spectrum. After all, the implicit message of sex positivity’s “it’s natural” motto is that if you don’t want sex, there’s something wrong with you. This feeds smoothly into stereotypes that asexual, or ace, people are broken, unfeeling, even inhuman. Not only is this kind of thinking often used to justify corrective rape, but it’s horribly detrimental to the self-esteem of women who feel little to no sexual attraction or drive, especially those who are naturally sex-repulsed or experiencing sex repulsion in the traumatic aftermath of sexual assault.

The sex positivity movement has chipped away at many women’s shame in their own desires, and allowed them to explore their sexuality with less internalized and societal judgment. It has underlined consent as the foundation for all healthy sexual expression. It has helped to normalize what was once widely considered deviant, particularly same-sex relationships. Thanks to sex positivity, queer people are more widely accepted and better educated about their sexuality.

But sex positivity is not a movement without victims. Those hurt most aren’t sexually explorative college feminists, but women at the fringes of society — sex trafficking victims, prostitutes and porn actors who’ve known little else but abuse and exploitation. On a free-loving, freewheeling train where everyone gets off and no one gets hurt, these are the women thrown under the tracks. Not all sex is fun and natural and beautiful; a good deal of it is rape or coercion or the result of intense pressure from every corner of a hyper-sexualized culture.

We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater here, but ultimately we need to take a long hard look at the giant sea of grey area that the sex positivity movement cannot escape. Countless women are in desperate need of such a reevaluation. Let’s listen to them.