Stacey Swimme

Innovative Thinking On The Sex Industry & Social Justice

Archive for the category “Feminism”

Sex Workers and Feminists Unite! (5 of 6)

Excerpted from a post I contributed at Sex In The Public Square on February 25th, 2008.


Women have been at the forefront of raising awareness about human trafficking and the economic exploitation of women. Sadly, there is conflict among feminists in developed nations. The conflict is a result of a generation divide as well as differences in attitudes toward sex, gender and sexuality. This often results in the exclusion of sex workers, immigrant workers, transgender women and young women in forming an effective response to human trafficking. This practice of exclusion is making the battle to change bad policies affecting women’s health increasingly difficult.

It also means that the anti-choice political forces don’t have to put as much effort into restricting access to birth control and safe, legal abortions because women are divided and working against each other rather than together. This division is killing the women’s movement and will have terrible domino effects for future generations of women and girls.

Most feminists fully support a woman’s right to choose on all matters of sexuality and understand that one woman’s choice to say ‘yes’ does not compromise another woman’s right to say ‘no.’ We have to question the motives of those who are the loudest and most influential in the human trafficking debate:

“Mainstream feminists like to say [Bush is] anti-woman, but by supporting the abolitionist work against the global sex trade, he has done more for women and girls than any other president I can think of. . . . Years from now, when the anti-Bush hysteria has died away, I believe he will be recognized as a true advocate for women’s freedom and human rights.” –Donna Hughes National Review (January 26, 2006)

Feminists know that when it comes to abortion and women’s rights, religious fundamentalists and the Bush administration in particular are not our friends. Why would any feminist claim that Bush has done “…more for women and girls than any other president I can think of…?” The first thing that Bush did when he got into office was re-implement the global gag-rule on abortion that limited funding to organizations who provide a variety of health and prevention services to women globally. [President Obama repealed that ban upon entering office.] Because of the limited funding, these organizations are unable to provide a wide variety of health services including counseling, condom distribution and well-woman care.

The anti-choice forces understand that by lumping prostitution into the abortion debate they can persuade women to abandon their right to choose for the sake of prohibiting prostitution- at least from an economic standpoint. PEPFAR is just one example of how the right to choose and the right to charge are both being attacked by the same anti-woman forces that keep Plan B from being sold in some pharmacies and the same forces attempting to require minors to get a parent’s signature in order to access safe and legal abortions. Feminists have to reconsider our attitudes toward sexuality, promiscuity and monogamy to adopt a more inclusive approach. If we don’t work together, we all lose.

Ethicist Reports: Prostitution is Not Harmful

Aspiring philosopher and ethicist Ole Martin Moen of The University of Oslo, Norway published a paper last week entitled “Is Prostitution Harmful?” in the Journal of Medical Ethics. It seems this question has been asked repeatedly in many academic and social environments. Moen’s 8 page response to this question revisits many of the same tired arguments that academics, activists and feminists have already discussed ad nauseam, however, he has a fresh framing of a few perspectives that I find are useful to repeat over and over again until academia, feminism and society at large are able to accept them as truths, despite their moral and philosophical resistance to the facts. I’ll highlight some of them here and if you’d like to review the full article, here’s the PDF.

I believe food and sex are related, if not directly then metaphorically. Regarding casual sex and the “cheapening” of sex if not for romantic purposes, Moen writes:

When a romantic couple dines at a lovely restaurant, their eating might well be romantically significant for both parties. What is, biologically, the mere satisfaction of a nutritional need is given deep personal meaning because of its social and psychological setting. It is not clear, however, the advocate of the ‘casual view’ might argue, that one degrades eating as such and destroys one’s capacity for appreciating romantic meals if one has earlier engaged in ‘casual eating’ or has been ‘eating around’, occasionally catching a cheap hotdog on the run. If this is right, then engaging casually in an activity that has the potential for romantic significance needs not destroy that activity ’s romantic significance on other occasions. If we accept this, then we would need a separate argument to explain why casual sex destroys sex even though casual eating does not destroy eating. (Page 2)

There’s a tendency to believe that the harm done to sex workers is from an acute, strictly defined group of men who exploit, rape and beat sex workers. It’s rarely acknowledged that entire societies are actually responsible for the outcomes sex workers are subjected to:

A client cannot rightfully beat up a prostitute any more than he can beat up a hairdresser or a plumber. (It is true that in many societies, violence against prostitutes is taken less seriously than violence against non-prostitutes. That, however, should speak against those societies, not against prostitution.) (Page 5)

And this:

…imagine that we were all brought up told that good girls are not hairdressers, that many of our common derogatory terms were synonyms for ‘hairdresser ’, and that most people, upon seeing a hairdresser, would look away. Imagine that hairdressers had to live in fear of social exclusion if friends or family found out how they struggle to make ends meet, that no one would knowingly employ ex-hairdressers, and that landlords would terminate housing contracts if they discovered that their tenant is a hairdresser. Imagine that most hairdressers had to work on the street, in cars, or in the homes of strangers, and that if their work were organised, it were organised by criminals offering no work contracts, no sick leave and no insurance. In such a society, hairdressers would very likely suffer significant harms. There would be two reasons for this. Most obviously, the social and legal maltreatment would be a heavy burden to bear for those already engaged in hairdressing. Less obviously, but statistically just as important, the maltreatment would skew the sample of who become hairdressers in the first place. If hairdressers were maltreated, then only (or almost only) people who were already in serious trouble would find it worthwhile to become hairdressers. As such, if hairdressers were treated the same way prostitutes are treated, we should not be surprised to learn that hairdressing correlated with depression, suicide attempts, drug abuse and so on—even if, as we all know, hairdressing is not a harmful occupation. (Page 8)

Elsewhere in the paper Moen acknowledges that there are some risks associated with the profession, but demonstrates that the benefits outweigh the harms, then he closes with the synthesis of his argument: that if the role of prostitutes in society is compared to the role of homosexuals in society, we can see that social harms far outweigh occupational risks and change can indeed lead to better conditions for sex workers:

In less than two centuries we have, in large parts of the world, ended slavery, given men and women equal rights, and accepted homosexuality. It is important to remember, moreover, that these changes were made possible because some people dared to be a little utopian and abstracted away from their present context. We can all too easily hear the voice of someone opposed to homosexuality half a century ago proclaiming that homosexuality is deeply interrelated with various complex social and psychological factors (such as youth uncertainly, depression, exploitation, rape, disease, drug abuse and unstable families), that these form part of what homosexuality is, and that trying to assess homosexuality apart from them is hopelessly utopian. Today, we are glad someone dared question their assumptions and look beyond their immediate social context in their assessment of homosexuality. If my arguments in this paper are sound, we should approach prostitution in a similar manner, and be open for the possibility that prostitutes are harmed, not because prostitution is harmful, but because society at present seriously wrongs prostitutes.  (Page 8)

Overall I applaud Moen’s report here and I hope it’s reigniting some more creative debates in academia around the issues of prostitution and social stigma. I’d especially like to see more academic explorations that question how societies or specific groups within societies benefit from, and therefore have a vested interest in, maintaining and propagating myths that keep sex workers at a second class status.  In particular, looking at societies’ need for a group to embody a symbolic demon to loathe and fear and make suffer. To achieve real change, we desperately need a better understanding of the motivations and incentives that drive not only the prohibition efforts, but also the apathy from those who have no moral objection to prostitution, while at the same time having no moral objection to the ostracism of sex workers.

CatalystCon Comes to the West Coast!

I am so excited to be a presenter at CatalystCon this month! Dee Dennis, one of the organizers who brought MomentumCon to the Washington DC area for the past two years, has set her sights on Long Beach, CA for the weekend of September 14-16. From the website:

CatalystCon is a conference created to inspire exceptional conversations about sexuality. It is about reaching out and stimulating those who attend to create those important conversations in their own communities, changing how we as a society talk about and treat sexuality.  It is about stimulating the activist that is within all of us and sparking transformation in the way our friends, neighbors, children and even politicians discuss one of the most important aspects of humanity.

Whoa! That’s a tall order to fill. For any of us who’ve been doing activism and social change in the field of sexuality, we know that we’re facing an uphill battle here in the US to change how we as a society talk about and treat sexuality. Fortunately, this conference is organized by a deeply talented woman who has pulled together an all-star lineup of sex educators and gurus, marriage & family therapists, sex workers and activists who will blow your mind! In addition to sessions and socials, there’s a pre-conference party called Glory Hole hosted by the Pleasure Chest and a CE seminar led by Dr. Marty Klein.

I’m most excited about the Sex Worker-only private mixer happening prior to the opening plenary. People often wonder why it’s so important for sex workers to have private space in these conference environments. We deal with an extreme degree of alienation, isolation and discrimination. Even among a super sex positive crowd like those who attend CatalystCon. It’s not because people are jerks. It’s usually just because people don’t understand how difficult it is to live a closeted life where your professional identity invites unwanted attention. Many sex workers want to be able to discuss business or personal issues with each other in private as a means of protecting their ‘vanilla jobs’ or their families. And often, men with completely harmless intentions end up bombarding us in our “off” time with their needs and interests. So frankly, it’s just easier to not acknowledge our sex worker identity during the main conference and focus on making those important connections in a private environment. We’re fortunate that Dee and the Catalyst crew understand this need and have risen to the occasion to support us.

Of course, you won’t want to miss my session for sex workers and loved ones “When Someone You Love Is A Sex Worker” on Sunday 9/16 at 10:30am. I hope all you partiers can either get up early or just stay up all night and make it to an early Sunday morning session!

Here’s a sampling of some of the other sessions I’m excited about:

Reid Mihalko will be leading a fab session called “When To Give It Away and When To Charge For It: Knowing Your Worth, Assessing Others’, And How To Make Ends Meet As a Sex-Positive Professional” I know many of us struggle in this area. Sometimes it’s hard to reckon the value of our sex educating services in a society that so undervalues authentic sexual information.

I’m finally going to meet one of my all-time heroes, Mr. Buck Angel who is leading a session called The Buck Angel Effect

Sure to be a controversial session, Paying for It: How Client Stigma Impacts the Sex-Positive Movement will be led by the lovely Sabrina Morgan

Allison Moon brings us Creativity for Radicals in which she “explores the politics, privileges and identity issues endemic to creating art. In this interactive talk, Allison will deconstruct notions of “privilege guilt” into useful components for creativity, discuss the intersection between art and social justice, deconstruct activist skill-sets to turn them into useful tools for the creation process, and share methods for distilling passion from conflict to turn activism into relevant art.”

And there are dozens of other amazing sessions that you don’t want to miss at CatalystCon 2012! If you haven’t registered yet, please do soon before registration closes on Sept. 13. I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

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