Friday, March 02, 2007

The elephant in the room, or, what’s missing from the feminist conversation about porn and sex work

Class. Can we talk about that for a minute? I know that America likes to think of itself as a classless society but…um, no. Just because your aristocracy don’t have titles or distinctive accents (and even that last part is debatable) doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.
In reality the USA has pretty much the same basic class breakdown as every other society. The percentages in each class level vary a bit from one society to another, but the essential structure remains that same. So, how does this apply to porn?
In my experience the vast majority of the people who do any kind of sex work are working class. I do not mean this as an insult – I’m a socialist, working class is not scornful term to me. What I mean is that I have met many women who do some kind of sex work over the years, and I have yet to meet one who was from any kind of a background that could be described as truly privileged. I’m sure there are a few, mind, but I’ve never met one. A few middle class girls, yes, but no one truly upper crust. No, Paris Hilton does not count just because she made a sex tape. That’s not work, that’s a rich kid having a laugh. I’m talking about people for whom sex work is how they pay the rent.
This fact seems to be completely missing from most of the discussions I’ve ever seen about sex work within the feminist world. Part of that I think is that Americans tend to dominate the conversation, and many Americans are still basking in the illusion that they live in a classless society. Not the case – America right now has about as much social mobility as it did in the 1920s, if not less. Most people end up on the same rung of the ladder they were born on, and most significant wealth is inherited. Social mobility is possible, yes, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
The other reason is the radfem idea that gender is the most significant of all things in term of how human societies are divided, summed up in the phrase “sex class”. If women are the sex class, and that’s the primary division in society, then why even bother talking about that other kind of class, the one that affects what school you go to and what food you eat and what kind of house you live in and all those other things which impact where you end up in life?
The problem is that those things count. They count a lot, actually, especially when it comes to educational and employment opportunities. Trust me, I’ve spent a good part of my working life in and around America’s elite, and let me tell you right now that they are not interested in hiring, promoting or even socializing with people who are working class. At one company I was the only non Ivy graduate there, and that’s only because I went to university in the UK. Class has a huge impact on what job opportunities are open to a person in this country.
So, back to sex work. It’s mostly done by people who grew up working class. This is important to acknowledge if we’re going to talk about it, so why is class the elephant in the room in this discussion, and why do so many feminists seem to not even notice that the elephant is standing right in front of them?
Let my throw my own story into the ring. I was a pretty privileged kid. Several members of the British royal family went to my boarding school. We also produced the first female Wimbledon champion (pretty upper crust sport, tennis). My high school was as elitist as it gets. I spent my teens in a nice, safe, clean little upper class bubble, and if my Dad hadn’t been stationed in the Third World for most of my childhood I’d probably be as utterly clueless about how the world really works as most of my former classmates still are.
Then I moved to London. I deliberately cut most of my ties with my former classmates, mostly because I wasn’t very happy about living in the bubble. I was bored, and the idea of sealing myself up in yet another bubble (some of my former teachers are probably still fuming that I refused to apply to Oxford) did not appeal to me at all.
When I got to London I began to move in entirely different circles. I’m a music nut, punk, metal and industrial mostly, so that became my peer group, other people who were into the same music. I still somehow managed to end up with a long term boyfriend who was as thoroughly privileged as I was, funnily enough – you can take the kid out of the bubble but you can’t take the bubble out of the kid, I suppose. For the first time I met a lot of people who actually had to work for a living, who couldn’t rely on Dad to pay the rent and bail them out whenever they got into trouble, and that’s when I first started to encounter the sex industry up close and personal.
There was a group of girls who all did sex work of one kind or another. The Italian girl was a stripper, the London native worked as a barker in a strip club and occasional hooker, the girl from the north of England worked as an escort. They didn’t like me very much, given that one of their friends had been dating a guy very much adored within our little scene who dumped her as soon as he met me – ah, the dramas surrounding boys who are in bands that the girls get unwittingly pulled into. Kind of funny in retrospect since his band sucked and he was a lousy lay, but anyway…suffice to say that I was not popular with these girls. One of them once tried to stab me in the throat with a broken beer bottle, again because of the “boyfriend stealing” thing (amusing since he chased me, not the other way around). That was my first impression of people who worked in the sex industry, and it wasn’t a very good one. The Italian girl I actually kind of liked at first, but then the whole guy drama happened and of course we had to be enemies. Teenage logic at it’s finest.
But then there was Noriko. Noriko was a dominatrix. She actually had a day job in a restaurant for visa purposes, a good thing given that her parents had essentially disowned her and would probably have turned her in to immigration if given the chance. She provided the first revelation for me – she didn’t actually have sex with any of her clients. The idea that people would willingly pay just for the domination and humiliation was a little surprising. I actually hung out and watched a couple of her sessions when we first met, because I was curious and she liked having an audience. She was also, and still remains, the sexiest woman I have ever met. Long dyed orangey red hair down to her ass, ripped fishnets, denim short shorts, big motorcycle boots…sexy punk girl at it’s finest. Anyone looking for something on which to blame my abiding interest in Japanese pop culture can blame her. She was also an awesome human being who introduced me to new music and new people, taught me how to cook Japanese mommy food (which I still do), and took care of me like a big sister. I loved her dearly, and still regret losing touch with her when I moved to San Francisco and she moved to Tokyo.
So there you have my introduction to the sex industry. One set of people that I met were, well, hugely fucked up. The London girl and the Italian were both hooked on heroin, and the girl from the north of England drank more than any other person I have ever met. I know that the Italian girl was an abused child, because she sobbed her story out on my shoulder late one night in a club before it was decided by the rest of her group that she and I needed to be enemies. Basically they fit the negative stereotype that most people have of women in the sex industry perfectly.
And then there was Noriko, and the friends who she occasionally worked with. Part of the difference may have been cultural – they were all Japanese, and blessedly free of the weird Christian hang-ups about sex to which the other group were prone (all three of the others were raised Catholic, interestingly enough). They were also all from a rather higher class background and a whole lot more educated. Part of the difference may have been the client base they worked with – mostly Japanese businessmen who were in town regularly for work, a few who were stationed in London more permanently, most of them married to women who for whatever reason they didn’t want to share their interest in all things fetishy with. Pretty much all of the clients were steady and long-term, and all seemed to be vetted by their boss fairly thoroughly.
The first group horrified, frightened and repelled me. The second…I worried about them occasionally, but they all seemed to be smart women who knew what they were doing and none of them seemed to have been coerced or forced by addiction or some other unfortunate circumstance into their profession. It wouldn’t have been my choice, but I was able to acknowledge that it was their choice to make.
I had my own encounters with the industry, too. I met Noriko’s boss a few times, and she kept trying to recruit me to work for her. She seemed to think that I would have been quite the hit with the clientele, and she was probably right – I’m a petite, pretty woman with soft, feminine features and big boobs, not to mention perfect boarding school inculcated manners, plus I’m one of the rare Western women who’s smaller than most Japanese men. I never for a second considered accepting, though, in fact I was rather offended that she even asked, and here’s where the class factor comes in.
Firstly, for most women of my class the very idea of sex work is unthinkable. It’s easy to pretend that that’s a moral reflex, but I don’t think that’s the case. Really I think it’s all about the class. Sex work is something that those other women do, the ones without the perfect manners and the useless but socially valued skills (horseback riding, piano playing, ballroom dancing, fencing, archery – seriously, who really needs to know how to fence?). It’s déclassé. That was what was going through my mind every time Noriko’s boss talked to me. It was most definitely what was behind my instinctively sneering response to the other group. Funny that it took me years to even realize how obvious my sneering must have been, and that that might have been part of the reason why they resented me so much.
There was also this guy who I ran into all the time who was a photographer. I didn’t know exactly what kind of photography he did at first, although I really should have figured it out sooner given how young he was and what an expensive neighborhood he lived in. At one point I was looking for a new place to live because I hated my landlord, and that’s when he made his move. He offered to let me share his apartment cum studio (gorgeous by the way – I had been there once for an after-party) and pay no rent at all. All I would have had to do was one modeling session a month, a couple of hours maybe. I sat there in shock as he laid it out for me – it was soft-core stuff that he did, pretty stuff, no penetration, just pictures of beautiful girls.
I slapped him, threw my drink in his face and stomped off in a huff. The next few months were weird, because I saw the guy around all the time and he kept trying to talk to me but I wasn’t having it, and of course there was Noriko to the rescue with her perfect punk snarl and her big stompy boots (anyone who thinks all Japanese girls are of the shy and cutesy variety is smoking crack – that girl could have kicked the ass of most men I know).
At the time I was hugely offended and frankly horrified that anyone would say such things to me. Nice, well-raised, steady boyfriend having, upper middle class me. It felt like a judgment, as if I had been called slutty, and it upset me.
A few more years of actual life experience and I see things differently. The fact that I don’t look “slutty”, that I look soft and pretty and girly, is precisely why he was interested in me. His mistake was in assuming that because I was hanging out with Noriko I was open to the idea of working in the industry, which I wasn’t. I also see the really important thing that I didn’t see then – it was laughably easy for me to walk away from that offer, because I could always rely on Dad to pay the bills and keep me out of trouble. Not everyone has that option. It was easy for me to stand on my morals and bathe in my offended feminine virtue, because I was also bathing in class privilege. Refusing that offer had no negative impact on my standard of living whatsoever. It wasn’t a difficult choice, it didn’t hurt me – but what about someone less economically fortunate? What about someone like the Italian girl, who was an illegal immigrant who couldn’t get legitimate work and whose family wouldn’t lift a finger to support her? What would the same offer have looked like from her perspective? And how much of my horrified reaction was based precisely on my outrage that anyone could possibly think I might be “someone like her”?
I really think that that’s what’s behind some of the more virulent hatred directed at women who do sex work by other women, even when those women are feminists. There’s a fear of being tainted by association, of being judged. It’s the Good Girls versus the Bad Girls all over again. It’s kind of pathetic, really – you would think that those of us who identify as feminists would be too smart to buy into that kind of thinking, but that does not seem to be the case. What’s going on is othering – “I’m not like her. She’s a slut, I’m not. God forbid that people think I’m like her”.
So, that’s what I think is really going on. The Good Girls versus the Bad Girls. Sex and class. The ways these things intertwine, how important it is to all of us that other people see us the way we see ourselves. We seem to be forgetting the sisterhood part, and that’s a sad thing, because if we other people and refuse to see women as sisters just because we don’t like what they do for a living then what does that say about what kind of people we are? About our capacity for empathy, or compassion? About our ability to accept that other people are always going to make choices different from our own?
There’s a really old British saying, from a folk song. “Rosy O’Grady and the Captain’s lady are sisters under the skin”. We all seem to have forgotten that recently, and I think it’s time we all remembered.
And on a small, personal note…damn I miss Noriko. Wherever she is and whatever she’s doing now, I hope she’s happy.

23 comments:

antiprincess said...

great post, cassandra!

Amber said...

What AP said. :)

Thanks for writing this. Very nicely done. I tried to blog about this issue when I was drunk, but... well, you can imagine how that turned out.

Cassandra Says said...

AP, Amber - Thanks!
Amber - I've attempted martini-fuelled blogging before too and...yeah, didn't work out so well. I'd love to see what you'd come up with sober, though!

no mangina said...

Being that most woman today are infested with std before they even need a trainning bra and have cunt cancer by the time they hit 30 I say the hell with it.If your going to do it you might as well make some cash.

Cassandra Says said...

Dude with ridiculous screen name - Piss off you ignorant troglodyte. Go babble to somone who actually cares what you have to say.

Cassandra Says said...

And seriously...std singular? Cunt cancer? Which is what, exactly? Is there even such a thing as cancer of the vagina? The cervix is not the same thing...but then I suppose in order to become acquainted with the inner workings of the female body one would have to be willing to actually allow you to touch her and yeah, that's not likely to happen.
Isn't it cute the way they think if they just use some nasty words we'll get all weepy and intimidated? Precious, really.

FoolishOwl said...

May I recommend disemvoweling?

Anyway, that was a brilliant post.

Cassandra Says said...

FO - Thanks. The radfem tendency to ignore class has been vexing me muchly recently. In fact the tendency of the left as a whole to ignore class is a little puzzling.
Sadly disemvoweling wouldn't work in this case since the troll followed me home from APs place.

Renegade Evolution said...

good post

Cassandra Says said...

Ren - Thanks, I was kind of expecting you to smavk me upside the head for my teenage stupidity.

FoolishOwl said...

In fact the tendency of the left as a whole to ignore class is a little puzzling.

It depends a bit on what you're calling the left. Liberals have a vested interest in denying or obscuring class divisions.

But, there is a tendency on the left proper to avoid talking about class. I think the short version is that a lot of the left still thinks that the collapse of the Soviet Union, et. al, was a defeat for socialism, and therefore class politics don't work. (That's not my analysis, of course.)

Arwen said...

Yessss, my precious. Beautifully done. They don't call 'em working girls for nothing.
I'm absolutely feminist; but I see class overriding sex as a primary motivator for exploitation much of the time. Yes, the working class dude can holler at the upper crust lady. She has always had other avenues to power, though, and in any class struggle the working class dude better fucking NOT holler. Frankly, I tend to put race before gender too. Put them together? I'd rather have been the rich white plantation lady than a slave of either gender, even if it meant I had to put up with a regular humping from old stinky the business-marriage. There's the evil of being a woman with few rights, and then there's having your kids sold because you're of colour and have no rights. And but ALL of it comes down to class: Ole Miss grad Ms. Fluttering Julep may have a hard time with rape and abuse maritally; but if she was brilliant, feisty, known, connected, charming, etc., she could run her husband's business or her own affairs, regardless of laws. Whereas the slave couldn't jam the system even if they were Superman and Jesus combined, and they had to be careful with everything anyone decided to throw their way, not just their partners.


So my priorities: class. Then race. Then gender.

And I didn't realize you'd started blogging all regular-like again!

Cassandra Says said...

Arwen, you're awake!
My priorities shift from day to day, and from situation to situation. I'm actually mulling over a post abour radfem and the prioritising of gender over all, I'm just not quite sure what I want to say yet.
My ass does seem to be back on gear, huh? I blame it on BelleDame and Ren, it's all their fault. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Well, that and the IBTP hatefest. That pissed me off. Nowadays there are all kinds of new posts. Scroll down if you don't believe me.
In truth my return to the Net started with music, as so many things do for me. Funny how that works.
The fact that people keep ignoring class makes me want to bang my head against the wall, to be honest. It's so obvious, how do people keep missing it?
I thought you were avoiding feminist bloglandia, though...

Arwen said...

I am doing some avoiding of feminist bloglandia. I occasionally drive by IBtP, because Twisty is a very strong writer, and very funny; and although I often disagree with her, I also appreciate where she forces me to re-evaluate my thinking. I stay the hell out of her comments, though.

I don't read Pandagon, anymore. I drop in on Bitch Phd, Queer Dewd/Bitch Lab, Feministe, Feministing, Women of Colour, and Fetch Me my Axe, but I've largely stopped commenting. Every once in a while, I chime in, but I've become a lurker.

belledame222 said...

Is there even such a thing as cancer of the vagina?

There is, but it's extremely rare.

sadly, miserable fuckwit mouth-breathing trolls are not.

belledame222 said...

Put them together? I'd rather have been the rich white plantation lady than a slave of either gender, even if it meant I had to put up with a regular humping from old stinky the business-marriage.

yep.

plus, if you were really lucky he might die (not that unlikely when men can marry old and women gotta be married off at a tender age), and--well, i was just looking up property rights and so on, but put it this way: you're still in a lot better shape than many.

Cassandra Says said...

Twisty's an interesting case, like Ginmar. They're both brilliant writers, even though both make me want to break things occasionally. On Twisty's comments we are entirely in agreement.
Belle - Yep. Funny how people seem to forget all that.
Once again, this is my fundamental argument with radfem theory. There are oppressions other than gender.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of being a pedant, if you are refering to the tennis champion I think you are referring to, she was not the first. The first Wimbledon singles champ was Maud Watson. She won back-to-bakc, once over her sister. The person you speak of, who is an alum where I think you went, was both an Olympic and a Wimbledon champ, but not the first holder of the women's singles champ at either.

If you did mean Watson, then I have no idea where the hell you went to school, but it's not where I thought.

Thomas

Cassandra Says said...

Thomas - See, this is what happens when you believe what your teachers tell you...
I don't remember much about the woman they were talking about other than that I think her first name was Kitty. She would have been very elderly by the time I got there but I think they trotted her out for some event or other.
If the school you're thinking of is in a town most commonly associated with golf (although I associate it more with the Scottish religious wars) then indeed I am an alum.

Anonymous said...

Yep. Kitty has a great history in tennis, and a notable first, but I didn't want to play the whole thing out because you protect your pseud like I do and I didn't want to make it any easier for someone to pick the school. (In fact, I would have emailed this except that I lost your address in my last email-client move. Email me for her last name.) As it is, one has to have a significant knowledge base to know even where to look to figure out which school. I, of course, do.

Thomas

Cassandra Says said...

Thomas - Hey, I'm amazed that you figured out my alma mater from the few hints I've dropped here. That info would indeed make me very easy to find, since there are only about 50 students in each year, sometimes less.
RE The pseudonym thing - someone actually e-mailed me recently demanding that I post pictures and my first thought was "do you think I want people to stalk me, crazy man?". Well, that and "no".
I can't find your e-mail either, actually. I deleted an old account and opened a new one so I think that's where it was. Feel free to e-mail via this site at some point and I'll get that, though it's an account I check less often, it really exists only to have an account without my real name attached to it.

Victoria Marinelli said...

One of them once tried to stab me in the throat with a broken beer bottle

Oh, man. If that isn't emblematic of all kinds of the divide-and-conquer crap among women (especially as relating to sex industry matters), I don't know what is.

It was easy for me to stand on my morals and bathe in my offended feminine virtue, because I was also bathing in class privilege.

It matters to me - a lot - that you really own your class privilege here. Thank you.

I really think that that’s what’s behind some of the more virulent hatred directed at women who do sex work by other women, even when those women are feminists.

I had a long response to this that had been forming in a comment wherein I was responding to your recent exchanges with Sam of Genderberg, and IE ate the comment, and now I want to sob over the apparent futility at all.

As good a time as any to get the fuck out of town for a nice metal show, dontcha think? :)

Anyway I'll try to come back to this post, as well as my own, when I get back to town, because there's a lot of substance I want to carefully draw out and examine.

The short version is, from my vantage point, a lot of the 'good girls/bad girls' motif you're invoking here is a kind of inherited exaggeration (promulgated especially from the late '80s/early '90s going forward, e.g. through the now out of print Seal Press anthology, Good Girls/Bad Girls: Sex Trade Workers and Feminists Face to Face) which tends to obfuscate the reality that a lot of feminists who oppose prostitution have significant (even if often 'undeclared') lived-experience bases upon which their anti-industry ideologies are rooted; it's not quite so either/or.

Which isn't something you seemed specifically unaware of, I should note. Only that references to 'good girls/bad girls' cause me to bristle based on an awful lot of bullshit I've seen/been subjected to over the years on this issue.

But I'm not here to critique, just wanted to say I finally got around to reading this post, the link to which you'd made available at least 2 weeks ago (sorry for the delay). And it's clear to me that, whatever disagreements I may have with you on specific matters of substance, you're nothing if not earnest in what you've shared here, and I value that enormously.

Cassandra Says said...

Victoria - First off, thanks for actually giving me the benefit of the doubt. Many people wouldn't have.

"The short version is, from my vantage point, a lot of the 'good girls/bad girls' motif you're invoking here is a kind of inherited exaggeration (promulgated especially from the late '80s/early '90s going forward, e.g. through the now out of print Seal Press anthology, Good Girls/Bad Girls: Sex Trade Workers and Feminists Face to Face) which tends to obfuscate the reality that a lot of feminists who oppose prostitution have significant (even if often 'undeclared') lived-experience bases upon which their anti-industry ideologies are rooted; it's not quite so either/or.

Which isn't something you seemed specifically unaware of, I should note. Only that references to 'good girls/bad girls' cause me to bristle based on an awful lot of bullshit I've seen/been subjected to over the years on this issue."

Oh, I absolutely get where you're coming from. That's the point I was trying to make over at your place - whenever this subject comes up everyone seems to react based on past negative experience more than on what's actually being said to them. That's why I bailed from the dicussion at your place - abbys2hope's comment triggered my "this person isn't going to listen to me, so I may as well not bother" reflex. And yep, I'm aware that my being able to respond that way is privilege too - it's EASY for me to bail, because I don't have a personal stake in the conversation. For people on both sides of the debate who ARE directly involved, it's not so easy.
As far as my invocation of the motif, most of it's really coming from experiences I had studying feminism in college (which was indeed in the nineties), and from a few bloggers that I see now (Twisty would be the most obvious example) who I think are reacting the way they do partly out of class privilege. It shows up in the way they talk about women who don't act the way they (the IBTP commenters) think they should. And I'm a socialist, so that raises my hackles in a big way.

But in general, yes, I'm VERY aware that when a lot of feminists who're very strongly anti prostitution talk about it they're coming from a place where they've been personally involved and badly hurt by it, so the way they respond makes perfect sense. Ditto people who work more around issues of rape.
I just wish there was a way we could all talk to each other without attacking each other as strawpeople - you know, actually talk to each other, not the other people who are actually bad memories of conversations we had in the past, not people at all.

Anyway, you sound like you've had a stressful couple of weeks, you deserve some time off and some fun! Enjoy the show, jump in the pit and rock out for me if that's your thing, and if you want to talk when you get back you know where to find me.