This article was originally posted by my dear friend Melinda Tankard Reist and is re-published on Sunday Everyday with permission. You can follow Melinda and her amazing work at melindatankardreist.com Trigger warning for some.
Melinda Tankard Reist is an author, speaker, media commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls.
She is best known for her work addressing sexualisation, objectification, harms of pornography, sexual exploitation, trafficking and violence against women.
Re-imagining a new world where violence and coercion at the heart of subordination of women are no more.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches courses in media law, ethics and politics. I first came across Robert’s work when I read his powerful and diabolical Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press 2007). When Abigail Bray and I decided to co-edit Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry (Spinifex Press 2011) naturally we asked Robert to contribute. Fortunately, he said yes, contributing the potent chapter ‘Stories of a Rape Culture: Pornography as Propaganda’. Described by Michael Kimmel as a ‘thorn in the side of patriarchy’, Robert has since written and released The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminist for Men (Spinifex Press 2017). The End of Patriarchy asks one key question: What do we need to do to create stable, decent human communities. He calls for an end to the violence and coercion at the heart of all systems of domination and subordination.
Extracts from The End of Patriarchy
Prostitution and Pornography: ‘Sex Work’ or Sexual Exploitation?
‘Sex Work’: Justice and Dignity
We seek to build a just society, and in this book I am focused especially on a sex/gender system that could guarantee the dignity of men and women. Because a just society that guarantees dignity for women is impossible in patriarchy— whether the conservative or liberal version of institutionalized male dominance, the hostile or benevolent version of sexism— we work not only to dismantle the structures of patriarchy but also to imagine what a society beyond patriarchy would look like. One way to clarify our thinking about any particular idea, project, or policy is to ask how it would contribute to human flourishing in a world beyond patriarchy. Hence, here is a simple question about the concept of sex work:
Is it possible to imagine any society achieving a meaningful level of justice if people from one sex/gender class could be routinely bought and sold for sexual services by people from another sex/gender class? If one class of people were defined as ‘available to be bought and sold for sexual services’, is there any way that class of people would not be assigned subordinate status to the dominant class that does the buying? Is justice possible when the most intimate spaces of the bodies of people in one group can be purchased by people in another group?
Same question, stated differently: If we lived in an egalitarian society with sex/gender justice, would the idea of buying and selling people for sexual services likely emerge at all? If we lived in a society that put the dignity of all people at the center of its mission, would anyone imagine ‘sex work’?
Another formulation: You are constructing a society from scratch, with the power not only to write laws (if you decide there should be formal laws) but also to write the stories people tell about themselves, each other, and the larger living world. Would you write stories about how one sex/gender class routinely buys and sells another sex/gender class for sexual pleasure?
Last question: You are speaking with a girl who is considering future vocations. You want her to live in a world with sex/gender justice. She asks you, “What do you think I should be when I grow up?” Do you include ‘prostitute’ on the list? If she includes that on her list, do you respond in the same way as to other possibilities? If the answer to these questions is no, perhaps it is because, as Kathleen Barry puts it bluntly,
“When the human being is reduced to a body, objectified to sexually service another, whether or not there is consent, violation of the human being has taken place…
This presentation of the issue makes it clear that I believe the institution of sex work is incompatible with a just society that fosters human dignity. When I have stated this in public talks and writings, I have been told that this political position is based on moral judgments about sexuality, and I agree. My sex/gender politics has moral underpinnings, just as do the sex/gender politics of those who defend other positions. At the core of my rejection of the idea of sex work are judgments about the appropriate role of sexual behavior in human societies, just as defenses of sex work are based on different judgments about that subject. All these ideas are based on notions of what it means to be human and to live a good life—in other words, moral judgments. No one in the discussion gets to claim they are not making such judgments, though people routinely assert that position. In a healthy conversation, people articulate and defend their moral judgments…
The reference to capitalism triggers another common claim, this one from defenders of sex work who acknowledge the harsh conditions under which women routinely work in prostitution. There are many jobs in capitalism—perhaps most jobs—in which people are alienated from self and others because they have lost control over their work and become a tool of capitalist production. So what is the difference between working a job on a factory assembly line and sex work?
I am anti-capitalist and believe that human freedom and capitalism—as that system really exists in the world, not the fantasy version in economics textbooks—are incompatible. I agree that work in capitalism is profoundly alienating. But is there really no difference between renting yourself to an employer who pays you to use your mind and body to produce products and services, and renting yourself to another person who pays you to penetrate your body to achieve sexual pleasure? Lori Watson argues that the claim that selling sex is work just like any other form of work is indefensible on the surface because “if we apply the regulations currently applied to other forms of work to the selling and buying of sex, the acts intrinsic to the ‘job’ can’t be permitted; they are simply inconsistent with regulations governing worker safety, sexual harassment laws, and civil rights…
‘Sex Workers’: Women’s Decisions
…respect for a person’s preference in self-naming does not require that we abandon an analysis of the larger industries or the patriarchal forces at their core. In other movements that focus on harmful industrial practices, such as the critique of sweatshop conditions in garment factories in the developing world, no one suggests that the critique is really an attack on the factories’ employees who decide to work there. Anti-sweatshop campaigns are not accused of denying the fact that workers have a capacity to make decisions, but rather are understood to be focused on the conditions created by those with more power—in that case, factory owners and managers, and the multinational corporations for which they typically are manufacturing apparel.
So, meaningful discussion of the decisions that individuals make requires attention to the conditions under which people select jobs, which means considering (1) not only the conditions at the moment the decision is made, but the conditions in their lives leading up to that moment, and (2) not just an account of the options available to them that are visible to an outside observer, but their subjective understanding of those options.
Let’s consider two aspects of the sexual-exploitation industries that are established by research: The women in these industries have higher levels of childhood sexual assault and lower socio-economic status and education levels compared with the general population.125 Do those realities affect women’s options? Childhood sexual assault often leads survivors to see their value in the world as the ability to produce pleasure for others. Reduced economic and education opportunities can make alternatives seem implausible. Observing these patterns does not mean every individual’s life can be explained in the same way, but the patterns reveal important aspects of the conditions under which people make decisions…
…Rae Story, who was first prostituted at age eighteen, testified that after an adolescence marked by bullying, homelessness, depression, and self-harm:
I was not in a position to make this choice freely—if we are to understand the nature of freedom to its fullest extent. And nor were most of the other women I met. I worked across the flimsy class divides in prostitution—working class brothels, middle class escort agencies—and all of the women I met carried with them the same bundles of neurosis, addiction and melancholy. Without exception. Many were desperate to scramble out of destitute circumstances, abusive husbands, redundancy, or the assumptions of ignobility that society presumes of the poor. Most had some relationship with addictive, impulsive or ostentatious, attention seeking behaviours. Oscillating between self-damage and crying out to be liked, respected and admired, as a remedy for whatever incompleteness they falsely believed of themselves. … One doesn’t consent, simply, to prostitution, it is rather an impoverished form of bargaining. However as time moves on, the worth of your chips further degenerate. Your self-esteem erodes, your understanding of yourself becomes confused, as the labour necessitates self-denial and psychological suppression. … I didn’t choose to leave prostitution, my body chose for me. In the end, it knew better.
The debate about prostitution and pornography typically focuses on women’s choices, but it’s crucial to shift the focus. While women’s decisions to participate in the sexual exploitation industries are complex, men’s choices are fairly simple. Men who buy and sell women’s bodies in prostitution and pornography often attempt to avoid uncomfortable questions about why they are buying sexual pleasure by claiming that these women are ‘freely choosing’ that occupation. Male pornography users in one study agreed that most of what they watched featured men dominating women, which was not seen as distasteful or deserving of critique but instead “was more likely to be minimized through humor or distancing, or rationalized through claims around individual choice on one hand and biological realities on the other.” Here’s how one male pornography user put it in an email message to me:
While reading your article there is one thing that I really wanted to point out to you. It’s something I’ve always wanted to scream at all the feminists out there who hate pornography. No one makes the girls do it. They choose to do it. And they get paid to do it. Some of them get paid quite well. In fact, the ones that don’t get paid that well are still making a lot of money for the little amount of time it takes to make a porno.
This sums up the standard way in which many men (and some women) derail any call for critical self-reflection about their use of pornography—three assertions, leading to a comfortable conclusion:
Assertion #1: The women in pornography choose it, and
Assertion #2: they get paid a lot, and
Assertion #3: those who don’t get paid a lot still have it easy because they are being paid for getting fucked, which is easy.
Conclusion: Therefore, I need not think about why I opt to attain sexual gratification by using the women in pornography.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume the assertions are accurate. Why does that eliminate the need for critical self-reflection on the part of pornography consumers? I believe that men are moral agents and we therefore are obligated to assess the consequences of our actions. We can start, selfishly, on questions about the effect of using pornography on men. When we routinely gain sexual pleasure through viewing women being dominated and degraded sexually (the theme of much, possibly the majority of, pornography), what are we saying about ourselves? When many women in pornography have testified about how they were hurt in the industry, why do we brush those stories aside?
That kind of critical self-reflection is difficult because it demands that we recognize how we were socialized to eroticize domination, which has implications for how we understand and experience ourselves and our sexual desire, along with the obvious implications for women. The cheap and seemingly easy way to avoid grappling with ourselves and our socialization is to complete the conclusion above with a grim unstated assumption: “I need not think about why I want to attain sexual gratification by using the women in pornography because that’s what women are for, to get fucked.” When men use women in pornography and prostitution— whether or not we say it out loud, whether or not we even think about the question—we are implicitly endorsing that idea: That’s what women are for, to get fucked.
When men decide not to participate in the sexual exploitation industries—either in selling or buying women’s sexuality—we are stating that we believe women are fully human, deserving of dignity, and do not exist to satisfy men’s sexual pleasure. When we make that choice, men are also stating that we believe we are fully human, too.
Men cannot evade these decisions. Neither can women, though it is easy to understand why many women seek to insulate themselves from these questions. For example, after I had summarized for a group of young women the feminist critique of pornography (which they had never heard of), one of the students (in her early 20s) suggested that older people (such as myself, then in my mid-50s) are out of step with young people, including young women. Yes, some pornography is nasty, she said, but she and her friends don’t get all worked up—it’s just porn.
I offered a hypothetical to test her assertion: Imagine that heterosexual women in your social network are asked out by two guys. The men are equivalent in all the ways that matter to you—sense of humor, intelligence, appearance—and the only clear difference is that one regularly masturbates to pornography and the other never looks at it. Who would you rather go out with? The student winces and acknowledges that she—and most, if not all, of her friends—would choose the non-porn user.
Why the disparity between the stated commitment to being porn-friendly and the actual preference in partners? Further conversation with those students, and many others, suggests that women know what pornography is (male dominance made sexually arousing) and how men use it (as a masturbation facilitator, which helps condition their sexual imaginations to that dominance), but feel a sense of resignation about contemporary pop culture. Do heterosexual women want partners whose sexual imagination has been shaped by making women’s subordination a sexual turn-on? “There’s no sense in asking them to stop using it,” one woman told me, “because they won’t.” Perhaps some women profess not to be bothered by pornography when they believe they have no options, and if they have never heard of the feminist critique of pornography they cannot consider how that creates options.
What is Sex for?
…What if our discussions about about sexual activity – our embodied connections to another person – were less about heat and more about light? What if instead of desperately seeking hot sex, we searched for a way to produce light when we touch? What if such touch were about finding a way to create light between people so that we could see ourselves and each other better? If the goal is knowing ourselves and each other like that, then what we need is not really heat but light ton illuminate the path. How do we touch and talk to each other to shine that light?
Though there is no sexual instruction manual to tell us how to generate that light, I do not hesitate to suggest that the sexual-exploitation industries leave us in the dark.
(For footnotes refer to The End of Patriarchy)