Exploring Power, Sex and Knowledge in the Feminist Debate on Pornography and Sex Work

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Venus with Drawers, by Salvador Dalí

by Caroline West, Dublin City University.

What counts as knowledge in the sex work debate amongst feminists? Who is permitted to be an expert? Who is heard the most in this discussion? Why does ‘my body, my choice’ apparently not apply to sex work?

These questions occurred to me while studying pornography during my masters in Sexuality Studies. I noticed a trend: the voices being heard in the debate were primarily those of white anti-porn feminists. This is reflected in mainstream media too, where most of the voices heard are the same – with the voices of those actually doing the work marginalised in favour of those campaigning against sex work. Of the voices of those who have direct experience in sex work, the women who report negative experiences appear more than those who report positive experiences. Looking at the feminist debate, we have seen feminist authors such as Sheila Jefferies completely dismiss the lived experiences of sex workers such as Annie Sprinkle and label them as ‘victims’, with the people who listen to them labelled as ‘mistaken’. When we consider that Annie Sprinkle has decades of experience in many different aspects of the sex industry, as well as achieving a PhD in human sexuality, we must consider the ethics of this framing. What are the ethics of framing someone as a victim when they do not feel that term reflects their experiences? Indeed, what are the ethics of insisting someone is a victim, while making a career of campaigning against their chosen employment? And what are the ethics of publicly excluding someone from expert status when discussing their lived experiences? When someone like Annie Sprinkle has such a wealth of experience, why does this experience not count as valid knowledge and why is it subjected to dismissal?

Ethics is further critical when we consider the terminology used in discussing sex work. Some feminists will argue that sex work is not a valid term, and claim it hides the issue of sex trafficking. These feminists will write sex work as ‘sex work’; the use of these sneer quotes deliberately situates the term in a state of ambiguity, outside the realm of acceptable language. However, the term was coined by a sex worker named Carol Leigh who used it to recognise the labour of the worker, rather than a focus on the consumer. The outright dismissal and denial of women to name their work and identity in a way that works for them, is a critical question of power and ethics in the feminist debate over pornography. Through my research with sex workers, I have come to understand it as a form of violence, specifically epistemological violence. This nuanced form of violence is when a person is excluded from the status of expert, and their knowledge dismissed as not ‘true’ knowledge. It is exclusion from ways of knowing.

For all the heated discussion about pornography, there is very little research on the realities of working in the industry. Often, anecdotes are used in place of large scale, ethical, sound research, and anecdotes that tell of negative experiences are promoted in favour of ‘non representative’ positive anecdotes’. Porn studies is a relatively new field of research, and often ideology is substituted for rigorous research. You could almost count on your fingers the numbers of studies that actually talk to women in the industry; studies that talk to men or trans people are even rarer. Yet we see plenty of headlines talking about the ‘realities’ of working in the industry, generally written by outsiders to the industry. In any other field of research, this would be unacceptable and poor research would be instantly dismissed. Perhaps research subjects like porn and sex is too ’icky’ for some, or too extreme, or too close to home.  I have had a number of women come up to me after presentations on my research and tell me that the women who told me they willingly engaged with the industry were wrong, and they didn’t in fact consent. I ask how they know this, about these women they don’t know and will never meet, and the answers are always the same : ‘no woman chooses to do that’. And they will refuse to listen, instead preferring to cling to their beliefs. Or they end the conversation with a curt ‘we will have to agree to disagree’, without listening to what I or my interviewees actually have to say. Other porn researchers have confided the same has happened to them. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the relationship between power, sex and knowledge, and how this relationship can violently exclude and contribute to stigma.

My research involved interviewing women working in the American porn industry, travelling to the AVN awards show in Las Vegas to conduct my interviews. This research project will be one of the few studies that looks at the nuances of stigma experienced by women working in the pornography industry, a sorely neglected area of research. Along the way, I’ve learnt so much about how power operates in this debate, and how exclusion and dismissal of a marginalised group of women is justified by factions of feminists who simultaneously proclaim ‘my body, my choice’ and ask us to believe women’s stories.  A PhD will only address so much, but there is a massive scope for improving scholarly research in this area. A new approach that favours methodologically sound research over ideology is very much needed; one that is inclusive and goes beyond the usual tired binary of looking at sex work as being either exploitative or empowering. This approach will allow the multitude of lived experiences in between these opposites to be discussed in a more holistic and ethical way. But we also need to become more reflexive as researchers, and ask ourselves why we are doing this research; if the research contributes to harm to sex workers through stigma and exclusion, and if the research is accurately reflecting the experiences of the studied population. The violent Othering of research participants is of utmost ethical importance, especially in this field, and one cannot claim to contribute to a nuanced understanding of sex work without being cognisant of these concerns.

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One thought on “Exploring Power, Sex and Knowledge in the Feminist Debate on Pornography and Sex Work

  1. Brenda Kelly says:

    Well said! This is another area where white feminists can learn by listening more and talking less; another way for feminism to become intersectional.

    Like

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