On Foucault and Sex Work

2 03 2009

I just had a “whoa” moment. Or maybe a “duh” moment, I dunno. Either way, there was revelation.

Understanding the world and the self through a Queer, Foucaultian lens makes the condemnation of sex work really damn difficult, if not downright impossible.

The two bits of knowledge and thought that just connected for me:

1. Sexuality, by Foucault’s definitions and paradigms, is not personal. It is not, actually, something that we “own” or can lay claim to. It’s not just a personal, individual thing. My sexuality, and anybody else’s, can only exist in the context of our presence in a society that has defined sexuality in vary particular ways. I am not “bisexual” because I was born that way, per se*. My bisexuality is a construct that society defined – particular behaviors are assigned a particular signifier, and it is a signifier that is specific to our social contexts. (I don’t want to go into extensive detail about this point, but there’s a lot of really interesting writing that exists on, for example, male homosexuality in Latin-America or in the Muslim world, and how those religio-socio-geographic contexts alter definitions of and understandings of sexuality.) Homosexuality or bisexuality or heterosexuality don’t take the same forms around the world or in different times, and don’t mean the same things. (And it’s not just a matter of mistranslation, although language is also a big part of forming conceptions and constructions of sexuality.)

Thus, sexuality is neither individual nor personal. It is socially constructed and contextualized.

That’s thing #1.

2. This blog: Flooring and Whoring. This post, specifically, was when my “whoah/duh” moment occurred.

I’ve never been really vocal about my feelings with regard to the anti-sex work/pro-sex work feminist debates. I definitely feel more aligned with the sex-positivity end of the feminist spectrum, and I am profoundly uncomfortable with the way that a lot of “radfem” feminists berate and criticize sex with men, sex work, femininity, and other things in those realms as “anti-feminist.”

However, an anti-sex work stance assumes that a woman’s well-being (or the well-being of all women) is negatively impacted by selling sex. This, as I understand it, presumes an inherent connection between “self” and “sexuality,” as though sexuality is individual and inextricably a part of one’s self-worth.

I’m not trying to argue that they are entirely disconnected (one’s sexuality and one’s selfness), saying that sexuality is a social-constructions doesn’t mean that it is “fake” or “irrelevant;” social constructions have very real implications and impacts on people’s lives. However, recognizing that something isn’t “natural” or “inborn” allows us to also deconstruct it. And if sexuality, in the way we think about and define it, isn’t inborn or inherent, a person can, theoretically, have a whole and undamaged sense of self even if their sexuality has been commodified.


So how do you reject sex-work, flat out, if not on the basis of it being inherently damaging to women? How do you reject and deny these women their agency, make claims about false consciousness or having been co-opted? Maybe for some women, their sense of self, sexuality, and the sex that they have aren’t all tied up together in the ways they are for someone else. And maybe that’s okay. And a part of all of us navigating this web of power, resistance, and oppression.

This, of course, isn’t to ignore or deny that there are women who are coerced or forced into prostitution or other roles within the sex industiry. And that’s beyond deplorable. And I don’t even feel good about calling what they are doing sex, because when it’s forced it’s rape. And there are economic circumstances in which women *choose* to do sex-work because it is their best option, and that’s not the same as those who make the choice unfettered by financial concerns and obligations. All of these things are true, and awful. I do not, in any sense, condone them.

But these are different issues. They happen in some of the same realms, but coerced “sex,” for money or not, is rape. Rape is not sex. Sex is something that people choose to do consensually, sometimes for money, sometimes in exchange for other things, sometimes in all sorts of arrays of negotiated power and control, but always because they want to. That which is not consensual is not sex. And the various kinds of sex that people have may or may not be fundamentally tied to their sense of self and self-worth, and it is not upon any of us to dictate to others in what ways their sense of self-worth and value is being compromised.

*I don’t actually identify as bisexual. I identify as queer. But talking about how society constructs queer sexualities is a much longer, more involved, and probably not singular, post. That’s part of why I identify with it. But, for the case of this example, we’ll go with “bisexual.”




3 responses

3 03 2009

Hey dude! Thanks for the link, i’m really flattered to have partially inspired this post. I don’t have much to respond with, not having much of a background in academics (besides the amateur kind). Just wanted to note, I find that people often distinguish between sex workers who are “trafficked” “coerced” or “forced” into sex work vs. the “happy hooker” or the “academic sex worker.” I find it to be more of a spectrum, as we’re all coerced in one way or another into working. I’m pretty happy with my employment, but I also hate it sometimes and feel trapped, and would rather live in a world free of capitalism/industrial civilization. So it’s more like the most acceptable survival tactic of the moment. On another end of the spectrum, “trafficked” sex workers are often treated as victims and denied agency. A lot of women who do choose sex work as a survival tactic are also lumped into the “Trafficked” category simply because they live in the 3rd world. That sort of polarization ends up being purely theoretical and hurting sex workers more than helping people who are trying to survive capitalism and/or forced sex work. The asia pacific network of sex workers (APNSW) has a really awesome video about the effects of anti-trafficking legislation on sex workers in southeast asia. Also the Border Thinking blog is a really excellent commentary on the international sex trade.
thanks again for the link, keep loving, keep writing!

3 03 2009

Hi! Thanks for the comment.

I’m totally with you on the spectrum thing, and thanks for elaborating it so well in your comment, because I think that’s a really important part of this conversation.

And, admittedly, one that I didn’t elaborate very well. I wrote out the first couple parts of the post, let it sit for a while, and then realized that if I didn’t say something about trafficking, I could end up with crazy “OMG YOU HATE WOMEN AND WANT THEM ALL TO BE SOLD TO PIMPS!!!!” responses – and that was not desirable.

I think your comment about capitalism is really important, as well. We are all exploited within a capitalist system, and some of us have greater or lesser degrees of agency and choice in navigating that exploitation. There are particularities to sex work within that context, for sure, but it is certainly not the only form of employment which carries with it risk, or stigma, or the possibility of danger, or dissatisfaction. This, in particular, stuck out to me:

I’m pretty happy with my employment, but I also hate it sometimes and feel trapped, and would rather live in a world free of capitalism/industrial civilization.

How many people in how many different kinds of jobs could have uttered (or written) the same sentence?

I’m not trying to argue that there aren’t differences or particularities to sex work, because it is sex work, and sex and sexuality do hold the kinds of positions and sway they do in our collective discourses (and for individuals) – but I also don’t think it is useful to sequester sex work into this totally separate realm of analysis, as though it has nothing at all in common with “normal” work.

Also, thanks for the links and resources, I’ll definitely check them out.

25 11 2012
Zack Aslanian-Williams

All wage slavery is coerced to an extent, but I think having to sell your own body and sexuality in order to survive is particularly alienating. I do think there is a natural desire for an individual to have control over their own body and sexuality and have those be ends unto themselves instead of means of economic production…

I also think that sex work should be decriminalized and sex workers should have the right to collective bargaining, because the supply and demand for sex work are going to exist as long as we live in this generally repressive and alienating society, and adding the police and the state apparatus into the mix just makes sex work more repressive and dangerous than it needs to be.

Last thing I’ll add is that “The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State” by Frederick Engels has a lot of brilliant stuff on the development of sex work alongside monogamous marriage (which for most of history has been a much more coercive and degrading form of sexual slavery than sex work is). Both rose in parallel with private property and social classes. Propertied men treated their wives like domestic slaves who existed to give them heirs and take care of their household, but in order to have a more romantic experience of flirting and culture and non-reproductive sex, these men would turn to courtesans and geishas, who were freer and better educated but less economically secure than married women.

He also talks about how capitalism was starting to transform both sex work and marriage -women’s entry into the workforce was enabling them to regain sexual rights, but at the same time capitalism was turning sex into a commodity on an unprecedented scale…

Sherry Wolf, Sharon Smith, Eleanor Burke Leacock, and John D’Emilio all add more to this analysis from developments in the 20th and 21st century.

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