Posts Tagged ‘stigma’

2011 1 Jul

“Inherent Female Submission”: The Wrong Question

I get a certain question occasionally, from straight dudes who’ve had a number of sexual partners. It goes something like this:

All the women I’ve slept with liked pain. They asked me to hurt them or to dominate them in bed. I did it, and enjoyed it; I loved how much it turned them on … it turned them on a lot. But I keep thinking about it now. Why are all women into being submissive and/or masochistic in bed? What does that mean?

They ask me this question in vaguely worried tones. Sometimes they say things like, “It’s really creepy.” It is obvious that these dudes are rather concerned about this Terrible Truth.

Here’s my short answer for those guys: If you know women who are submissive and/or masochistic in bed, that means those particular women like being submissive and/or masochistic in bed. It doesn’t mean anything else.

You’re still here? Ah, well. I figured that wouldn’t satisfy. So here’s a longer answer:

Firstly, if you’re a straight dude, and you’re drawing conclusions about “all women” based on the women you get involved with, then stop. Just stop. Even if you have slept with zillions of women, you don’t actually know what all women want, because:

A) Your experience of women is limited to women who got involved with you. You are screening for certain qualities, sometimes consciously, and sometimes unconsciously or by accident. If you tend to enjoy the dominant role, for example, or if you use a dominant style of flirtation, then you could be screening for submissive female partners, whether you intend to or not.

B) Everyone has biases, including you. I love the old saying: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If you have a bias towards seeing women as sexually submissive (and you almost certainly do, because female sexual submission is a hugely prevalent cultural trope), then you’re more likely to see female submission in places where it does not exist.

C) Women, like people of all genders, are demonstrably varied. You really don’t think non-submissive straight women exist? Why then, it must be so inconvenient when I point you to the work of blatantly dominant women, huh? It’s shocking, I know … next I’ll be telling you that queer and asexual women exist! (Not to mention women who switch among roles — from submissive to dominant, from sadistic to masochistic. I primarily go for submissive masochism, but still, I myself play for both teams.)

The thing is, though … no matter how many holes I can poke in these dudes’ anecdotal “data”, I can’t bring myself to worry like they do. Even if a brilliant, well-reviewed study came out tomorrow and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that 100% of women are submissive masochists in bed, I wouldn’t care. (I bet you my left ear this study will never happen, but I’m just saying, even if it did, I wouldn’t care.)

Let me say it really clearly: Even if most women are submissive masochists in bed (and I’m not convinced most women are), there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t care. [ 1 ]

Why don’t I care? Because all this anxiety and argument about submission — and in particular, what it means for women to be submissive; whether all women are submissive; whether women are “inherently” or “biologically” submissive; whether BDSM is an orientation or not … this is all the wrong question.

I’ll note that the research seems to indicate that more kinky women are submissives than dominant. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about the tastes of women who don’t identify as kinky. And it’s probably biased by culture, in that everything from fashion photos to romance novels emphasizes female submission and male dominance. Within BDSM culture, female dominance and male submission are often disappeared, much to the justified frustration of actual female dominants and male submissives. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail — sometimes including our own psyches and sexualities. Plus, if the only available patterns for kink emphasize something a person doesn’t like, then that person will probably avoid kink. Note that in the research I linked to, for example, the percentage of submissive women was higher in samples from within the BDSM subculture than in samples from outside the BDSM subculture … perhaps because many BDSM subcultural gatherings emphasize female submission and thereby alienate women who are primarily dominant. Anyway, regardless … this is still the wrong question.

In short, “inherent female submission” is the wrong question.

Certainly, I’ve fought through a lot of personal fears about what my interest in BDSM meant for me as a feminist … but these days I have trouble understanding what, exactly, got me so upset. I can’t believe how long it took me to outthink those fears. Now, it just seems instinctively obvious to me that:


2011 21 Jun

S&M Superpowers

I’ve gotten so bored of the biases and stereotypes against S&M. It’s like, “Hey, another person who implies that those of us who do consensual S&M were all abused as children? Sweet! That person is wrong, and I consider those views highly stigmatizing and sometimes damaging. So, can we go for a swim now?” (For the record, however, there is nothing wrong with people who consensually process past abuse through BDSM; see footnote [1].)

It’s much more entertaining to imagine how people would talk about S&M, if we lived in a culture where S&M wasn’t wildly stigmatized. In fact, what if S&M were admired or seen as a great thing … instead of being repressed and forced underground and seen as a dark, evil, disgusting thing? I’ve known people who called S&M and other fetishes “superpowers”, in a kind of ironic twist on this concept.

Many people have written about how S&Mers can offer lessons in sexuality that we gleaned from our outside-the-box perspective (there’s a whole paper on this topic for clinicians, written by a psychologist and titled “Learning from Extraordinary Lovers“). I myself have talked about how S&Mers tend to use much more careful and precise sexual communication tactics than the mainstream (examples include checklists and safewords). But these lessons are hardly confined to S&Mers — there are lots of vanilla people out there who are awesomely careful and precise about communicating sexually.

The superpower framework is a bit different ….

+ For example, it’s been demonstrated that S&Mers are not more likely to have endured non-consensual acts — so we know that despite what Freud would have had you believe, all S&M does not arise from childhood abuse. But maybe it does arise from a childhood experience … an awesome childhood experience. Maybe the Missing S&M Link is that something totally wonderful happened to S&Mers in our childhoods.

Hey, vanilla people? I’m so sorry you all had such bad childhoods. Really, you have my sincerest sympathies.

+ For example, some folks will say that we S&Mers have a wire crossed somewhere; some genetic inferiority. But maybe we are totally way superior. Maybe average dominants and sadists are, say, more empathic than the norm. (There is, after all, actual research showing that consensual S&M increases intimacy.) Maybe average submissives and masochists are better at processing pain and enduring challenges, both physical and emotional, than the norm. [2]

Sorry vanilla people, but we’re going to have to start screening for your gross vanilla genes in the womb. Nothing personal.

+ For example, one of my exes has a story about how he was down in Latin America and he only had access to incredibly cold showers. So he gritted his teeth, stepped into the shower, and told himself that a dominant woman was forcing him to take it. “Actually it made the shower a million times easier to deal with,” he said later. “And I had a raging erection the whole time.”

Aren’t submissives awesome? I pity those of you who lack submissive tendencies.

I leave the question of whether S&M superpowers can properly be attributed to people who don’t feel a so-called “sexual orientation” quality to their kink as an exercise for the reader.

Just because anything on the Internet can and will be misread, I will conclude this post by hammering down the point that this is all a thought experiment, and I do not actually think vanilla people are any less wonderful than S&M people. It’s okay vanilla folks. I love you just the way you are.

* Footnote: For the record, the biggest and best-designed study ever done on this topic surveyed 20,000 people and found that S&Mers “were no more likely to have been coerced into sexual activity” than the general population. But — also for the record — an S&Mer whose sexuality was associated with being abused would not be “less legitimate” than the rest of us, as long as that person practiced kink consensually. Because what makes S&M okay is consent, right? Right. S&M isn’t okay (or not okay) because of its “source” (whatever that might be) — it’s okay only when it’s practiced consensually, right? Right. So this is all actually kind of a silly conversation to have in the first place, right? Right. It’s too bad stigma tends to make zero sense, isn’t it? Stigma loves to trick you into debating on its own terms.

** Footnote 2: Although I did recently sprain my ankle, and I was not at all awesome at enduring the experience. For the record.

* * *

This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

* * *

2011 20 May

[image] Kinkier Perrier: the lost ad campaign

Above image taken from this Flickr set, but I first encountered the ad in the Carter Johnson Leather Library — a traveling BDSM collection that came through Chicago a few weeks ago. (Check it out, maybe it’ll visit near you!)

The image portrays a couple people in fur suits, one pouring Perrier on the other. And the Perrier logo in the page’s upper corner says “Kinkier” instead. It seems that Perrier first placed this genuine ad in 2007. There was such an outpouring of outrage (furries? and water sports? in our Perrier?!) that the ad campaign was rescinded within weeks.

(For those BDSM people who get freaked out by the idea of including “those” water sports people or “those” furries in “our” kink, I refer you to the excellent Marty Klein article, “Is there such a thing as kinky sex?”)

2011 8 May

Towards my personal Sex-Positive Feminist 101

There’s an aphorism from the early 1900s literary critic André Maurois: “The difficult part in an argument is not to defend one’s opinion but to know it.” Even though I identify as an activist and genuinely want to make a real impact on the world based on my beliefs … I often think that much of my blogging has been more an attempt to figure out what I believe, than to tell people what I believe. And sometimes, I fall into the trap of wanting to be consistent more than I want to understand what I really believe — or more than I want to empathize with other people — or more than I want to be correct. We all gotta watch out for that.

But I’m getting too philosophical here. (Who, me?) The point is, I am hesitant to write something with a title like “Sex-Positive 101”, because not only does it seem arrogant (who says Clarisse Thorn gets to define Sex-Positive 101?) — it also implies that my thoughts on sex-positivity have come to a coherent, standardized end. Which they haven’t! I’m still figuring things out, just like everyone else.

However, lately I’ve been thinking that I really want to write about some basic ideas that inform my thoughts on sex-positive feminism. I acknowledge that I am incredibly privileged (white, upper-middle-class, heteroflexible, cisgendered etc) and coming mostly from a particular community, the BDSM community; both of these factors inform and limit the principles that underpin my sex-positivity. I welcome ideas for Sex-Positive Feminism 101, links to relevant 101 resources, etc.

This got really long, and I reserve the right to edit for clarity or sensitivity.


2011 3 Apr

[storytime] Fear, Loathing, and S&M Sluthood in San Francisco

The following meditation on “sluthood” anxiety first appeared in December 2010 on the women’s site Off Our Chests. I’m reposting it here today because San Francisco loves me and I love it.

* * *

Since I was small, I’ve loved the Van Gogh painting “Starry Night.” I loved the cypresses in particular: winding spiral trees, hallucination trees. They were so unlike other trees I’d seen that I thought Van Gogh made them up, and so when I first saw cypresses years later, I was stunned: the hallucination trees had been imported into my world. I’d like to think that my world turned a little bit sideways forever, when I first saw cypresses, but I’m probably being melodramatic.

San Francisco has cypresses, and a lot of other hallucinations, too. The city is full of angles, vantages, transitions, unceasing changing views: it feels, at times, like an unsolvable puzzle. A forested path leads darkly under a bridge, suddenly opens upon a manicured lawn with a white lace conservatory. A cement staircase rises through a narrow outlet, resolving itself step by step into a slice of brightly painted Victorian façade. I walked once with a friend alongside an ocean road, pacing through thick fog, and arrived at a dirt path that I insisted on following; thirty seconds later we stumbled upon extraordinary ruins.

San Francisco. Halcyon city, heartbreak city. Cypress city. The place I come to recover from being torn apart and, it seems, sometimes the place where I get torn apart again. This is okay with me, because nothing is more fun than overanalyzing strong emotions. I am not even kidding.

* * *

I returned from Africa recently; paused briefly in my adopted city of Chicago to collect my thoughts; and then went to the Burning Man Arts Festival, thence to San Francisco. This is my version of emotional decompression, and it worked! I feel much more centered now. But part of decompressing, for me, was specifically going out to a lot of dates and BDSM parties and pushing my own boundaries, which carries its own potential decompressable risks.

At the time of this story, it had been a couple of months in San Francisco, and I was leaving soon. I’d had an assortment of adventures, but there were two guys in particular who I was excited about. Not necessarily in a long-term way — I’m not in this for the white picket fence and the 2.5 kids — or at least… not yet. But definitely I felt excited in a wow-I-have-to-control-myself-or-I’ll-come-off-as-kind-of-puppyish way. New Relationship Energy: it is such a mind trick, such a delicious head-trip. You are the perfect drug.


2011 22 Feb

[ladypornday] BDSM Can Be “Love Sex” Too

This post is for Rabbit Write’s Lady Porn Day.

I’m not a big porn consumer, but I have no problem with porn in itself. When I have a problem with porn, it’s because I have a problem with how it was made: because there are labor issues, or questions of the actors’ consent. Sometimes, I get frustrated with the context in which porn exists or the stereotypes it expresses — but there, the problem is with the context and the stereotypes, not with porn in itself. I tend to think that most anti-porn anxiety arises from irrational grossed-out reactions and stereotype-created fears, and I try to open up conversations about the ethics of making porn whenever I can.

This isn’t to say I don’t get angry because many people in our society are pressured to have sex that doesn’t work for them — but that’s not the fault of porn. I certainly get frustrated by sexual stereotypes, but I don’t think porn created those stereotypes.

One stereotype I’ve been thinking about a lot lately — one that I see expressed over and over in BDSM porn — is the idea that BDSMers don’t love our partners, or that love can’t be part of a BDSM relationship. Last month I posted a quotation from the writer Patrick Califia that touched on this … here’s the relevant paragraph (which contains spoilers about the endings of three famous BDSM novels — Story of O, Return to the Chateau and Nine And A Half Weeks):

I still remember how crushed I was when I read Story of O and Return to the Chateau and came to the ending, where Sir Stephen loses interest in O and tells her to kill herself. I can also remember being furious with the way Nine And A Half Weeks (the book, not the movie) ends. The submissive woman has a public breakdown. She begins to cry hysterically, and is abandoned by her master, so that strangers have to obtain help for her. One of the cruelest stereotypes of S/M people is that we don’t love each other, that there is something about our sexual style that makes our relationships mutually destructive and predisposes us to suicide.

This came back to mind during a conversation I had a few days ago: I was talking to a girl who really likes BDSM sex but referred to non-BDSM sex as “love sex”. Because, you know, love is just not an ingredient in BDSM sex. “Everyone knows” that — the same way “everyone knows” that BDSM always arises from childhood abuse, or dominant sadism is for villains, or everyone who likes BDSM is damaged and miserable and irresponsible, or ….

Not to put too fine a point on it: fuck that.

I’m not saying there’s no BDSM smut out there with love in it. Anne Rice’s Beauty series ends with Beauty riding off into the sunset with her loving sadomasochistic partner (although of course the characters deal with all kinds of uncaring brutality first). But even nuanced BDSM erotica seems to fall into this trap more often than not — for example, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, which is so consciously written that it includes safewords, also portrays a main character whose most compelling BDSM relationships are with her enemies and whose love relationship is with a man who can’t stand to hurt her. (Carey took a very different tack later in the series, with other characters; I’ve always wondered whether she did so as a reaction to criticism.)

It’s easier to criticize than create. And all my porn critiques could come back and bite me soon, because I plan on releasing my own BDSM smut sometime this year (if only to see if the online publishing model can actually make money) … and I’m sure that what I produce won’t even be close to perfect. Yet one thing I really want to ensure I represent in whatever I write is love. There are plenty of BDSM fantasies that partly operate on the absence of love — that even demand it, perhaps because the fantasy is all about a vicious and emotionally distant dominant, or because much of the erotic tension is derived from how much the partners hate each other, or for lots of other reasons. And yeah, they’re hot ….

But it’d be so great if those weren’t the standard.

I’ll leave you with some thoughtful porn/erotica links I turned up lately:

* Gender and Misogyny: Responsibility and Erotic Writing, by Corey Alexander

* Rewriting Herstory Through Erotic Romance (Love, Anonymously), by Kama Spice at Racialicious

* 7 Ways To Create A Sex-Positive Critique of Porn, by Charlie Glickman

* Sex blogger Maymay wrote a critique of Lady Porn Day that I thought was interesting and important. Again, I really don’t care about what kind of porn an individual might like … but I think an activist event like Lady Porn Day has different responsibilities from an individual wanking in the bedroom, and that such an event should offer porn ideas that bust scripts and attack stereotypes whenever possible. In other words — I have no problem absolving people for their personal non-politically correct sexual desires, but if we’re going to talk about diversity of porn and trying to set new standards, then I think those conversations should make as much space for different sexual desires as they possibly can.

* And on a non-porn note, there is an actual study out there establishing that consensual S&M increases intimacy among participants. You’d think they could have just asked us rather than doing a study … but, you know, that’s cool.

* * *

This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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2011 21 Jan

[litquote] S&M stereotypes, parenting, and community action

The following quotation is from an essay that tears apart awful BDSM stereotypes, and also makes a great case for coming together as a community and living our lives without shame … all in the context of parenting. It’s called “S/M Fetish People Who Choose To Parent,” and it was printed in the anthology Speaking Sex To Power by one of my all-time heroes: the brilliant and inimitable Patrick Califia.

The state does seem to have a vested interest in preventing anyone who is sexually different from raising a child. Over the years, I’ve heard many stories of custody battles involving polyamorous people, pagans, transsexuals, sex workers, and members of the BDSM-fetish community, not just lesbians and gay men. The people who go through these battles usually do it alone, and they usually lose. But that story can change when there is enough publicity to generate community support.

In early 1995, members of the BDSM-fetish community in the US and Canada were appalled to learn that a couple in the scene had had their children taken away. The Canadian fetish magazine “Boudoir Noir” established a defense fund for the unlucky pair, known as the Houghtons. As we had for the Spanner defendants, the community banded together and raised enough money to allow Steve and Selina Houghton to hire a decent defense attorney. Selina ultimately pled guilty to a disorderly conduct charge, and her husband to one count of endangering the welfare of a minor, a Class E misdemeanor. They were also ordered to continue to receive family counseling …. Although they did not receive jail sentences, their privacy and home life had been badly damaged by the intrusive actions of the police. When the Houghtons got their kids back, they moved suddenly, disappearing from the scene, probably to protect themselves from further persecution.

This tragedy occurred because the pair had made a videotape of a scene they did at a dungeon party in a bordering state. A family member and friend who babysat for the children apparently unlocked the box where the tape was kept, revealed its contents to at least one of the Houghtons’ children, told them their father was abusing their mother, and sent a copy of the videotape to the police. No minors were featured in the videotape, and S/M activities did not take place in the Houghtons’ home. Nevertheless, the videotaped evidence of kinky sex was enough to bring down the wrath of Child Protection Services, who removed the 7- and 12-year-old and kept them in foster homes for more than a year. This was in spite of testimony by one of the law guardians, who told the court the children would be better served by returning them to their parents.

… It’s interesting to think about how we might feel about being parents if we lived in a society where S/M was not stigmatized. … One of the smartest things I ever heard about S/M was uttered by a gay man, Steven Brown, who used to pair up with me to do educational lectures about the scene. He once said, throwing up his hands in despair about the suspicious grilling we were getting, “I do this because I am a loving person. I love and respect the people I play with. And that includes being able to embrace parts of them that are supposed to be unlovable.” This foundation of acceptance and empathy seems to me to be potentially quite useful to a parent, who must be able to see things from a child’s point of view, and deal with a lot of behavior that is extremely trying.

As a top [i.e. a dominant/sadist], I’ve learned how to communicate in terms that will make sense to the other person. I’ve learned patience. I have a deep love for the vagaries of human nature and respect for the wisdom of the body. I am able to create a positive experience within a framework of limitations handed to me by another person. Of course, some idiot will probably assume that by making this list I am saying that I am going to somehow top my child. That would be asinine. I’ve learned how to keep my intense sexual experiences from spilling over into parts of my life where that kind of role-playing would not be appropriate. That is, if anything is, the First Principle of participating in these kinds of erotic fantasies. In order to be a responsible, safe player, you have to know when to be your scene-self, and when to be your mundane self.

I still remember how crushed I was when I read Story of O and Return to the Chateau [two famous BDSM novels] and came to the ending, where Sir Stephen loses interest in O and tells her to kill herself. I can also remember being furious with the way Nine And A Half Weeks (the book, not the movie) ends. The submissive woman has a public breakdown. She begins to cry hysterically, and is abandoned by her master, so that strangers have to obtain help for her. One of the cruelest stereotypes of S/M people is that we don’t love each other, that there is something about our sexual style that makes our relationships mutually destructive and predisposes us to suicide. We are supposed to be content with existing as two-dimensional caricatures of vanilla people’s erotic paranoia, emerging from our warrens only after dark, always clad in body-hugging fetish gear, having no real lives outside of public dungeon clubs and “violent” pornography. What’s really sad is the fact that a number of us buy into this insane picture of how a “real sadomasochist” is supposed to behave. It’s a good way to end up burned out, disillusioned, and in exile from the realm of pervery.

2011 16 Jan

The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team

This was originally posted on September 28, 2010 over at Feministe, where it picked up a fair number of comments. I’m posting it here today partly because I’ve been reflecting on my identity as a feminist and partly because there is an upcoming Chicago workshop on abuse in the BDSM community — it will take place on the afternoon of Saturday, February 12, at a local dungeon.

* * *

BDSMers face a lot of stigma around our sexuality, and this can be a major problem when BDSMers are trying to deal with abusive situations. I’ve written before about generally negative conceptions of BDSM — they can briefly be summarized as:

* S&M is wicked,
* abnormal,
* a sign of mental or emotional instability,
* inherently abusive,
* or even antifeminist.

Given this climate, it’s not surprising that two things almost always happen when BDSM and abuse come up:

1) People of all genders who are abused are often unwilling to report. People of all genders who are abused within BDSM relationships tend to be particularly unwilling to report. Victim-blaming is already rampant in mainstream society — just imagine what happens to, for example, a woman who has admitted that she enjoys being consensually slapped across the face, if she attempts to report being raped. And that’s assuming the abuse survivor is willing to report in the first place; ze may prefer not to negotiate the minefield of anti-SM stereotypes ze will be up against, ze may be afraid of being outed, etc.

2) Members of the BDSM community sometimes push back against real or perceived anti-SM stigma by talking about how abuse is rare within the BDSM community. This BDSM blog post and comments claim that not only is abuse within the community rare, but abusive BDSM relationships seem more likely to happen outside the community. In fact, if you look then you can find posts from submissive women who found that getting into the BDSM community, being exposed to its ideals and concepts, helped them escape or understand their past abusive relationships.

I tend to think that #2 is a really good point — particularly the bit about how abusive BDSM relationships are more likely to happen outside the community, due in part to lack of resources and support for survivors. For this reason, I tend to stress the role of the community in positive BDSM experiences, and I encourage newcomers to seek out their local community. But lots of people don’t have access to a local community at all, especially if they’re not in a big city. Plus, lots of people have trouble enjoying their local community for whatever reason, perhaps because they have nothing in common with local S&Mers aside from sexuality, or because they don’t have time to integrate into a whole new subculture.

There’s also the unfortunate fact that point #2 sometimes reacts with point #1 in a toxic way — that is, it can ironically be harder for abuse survivors to talk about abuse within the BDSM community because the community is pushing back so hard against the stereotype of abusive BDSM. I’ve spoken to BDSMers who feel that the S&M community pushes back far too hard, and that survivors are being aggressively silenced simply because the rest of us are so invested in fighting mainstream stereotypes. I have never personally experienced this, but I would not be surprised if I did. And the fact is that I’m sure there are toxic dynamics in some BDSM communities — we aren’t a monolith, folks — and that even in 100% awesome communities, I’m sure there are at least a few abusive relationships. And even one abusive relationship in the community is obviously too many.

As Thomas MacAulay Millar wrote when the most recent abusive BDSM case hit the media, “Our declaration that the abusers are not us has to be substantive.” This is something we should be taking action on. But how?


2010 24 Dec

[litquote] Sex workers and whore stigma in southern Africa

I read a lot when I was in Africa. One of the most interesting books available was Catherine Campbell’s Letting Them Die, which describes a community HIV/AIDS project that took place in a South African community called Summertown (not the community’s real name). It is really an exceptional description of the difficulties inherent in the promotion of sexual health. It’s also got a lot of interesting discussion and commentary on sex work and whore stigma, and the experience of sex workers who were interviewed for the study.

I want to emphasize right now that I don’t always agree with the writer’s approach, though I always find it interesting. This is a loaded topic, and there are some issues with the following quotations. However, I think there is a lot of wisdom as well. Quotations follow:

* * *

A key reason why people agreed to discuss their stigmatized work so openly in the baseline interview study lay not only in their growing fear about the epidemic, but also because, in setting up the interviews, much emphasis was laid on the fact that the interviewers regarded sex work as a profession like any other, and had no desire to criticize or judge anyone for their choice of work. [page 81]

* * *

How do people deal with having a spoiled identity, the stigma of a shameful profession? … One way was through a series of justificatory discourses. Predominant among these was the discourse of “having no option”.

S: “I give my clients respect by telling them I don’t like doing this job. I tell them I only do it due to poverty.”

W: “This is a job that lowers our dignity. We discuss this often, that we should look for other jobs. But the truth is that there are no alternatives.”

Virtually every woman said she had been “tricked” into starting the job. They all spoke of having been recruited by friends, who tempted them away from their rural homes with stories about jobs in Johannesburg, without telling them the nature of the work. They spoke of arriving and initially refusing to sell sex. Eventually they had been forced into it by a combination of hunger and the lack of transport money to return home.

… In a paper reporting on similar interviews with sex workers in Gambia, the authors use somewhat judgmental language, variously describing sex workers’ accounts of their lives as “lies”, “fiction” and accounts that “could not be trusted”. Possibly this was also the case in the Summertown study. Peoples’ stories of being tricked into sex work were remarkably similar.

… In relation to sexual health-promotion among this group, however, the objective veracity of their accounts is not the most interesting or key feature of the life histories. What is more important is how people reconstruct and account for their life choices, given that these accounts reflect the social identities that are crucial in shaping sexual behavior. In this context, the main interest of these stories of origin lies in the role that they play as a strategy of coping with a spoiled identity — the way they are used by women to distance themselves from this stigma in as many ways as possible.


2010 17 Dec

Whore stigma makes no sense

(The above image is a slide from a presentation by Marlise Richter, a researcher at the AIDS Law Project, Centre for Applied Legal Studies, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. It is described at the bottom of this post.)

Stigma is an interesting beastie. Whore stigma is particularly interesting, in part because it makes no sense and falls apart the minute it’s exposed to any rational analysis whatsoever. Yet somehow, even though it makes no sense, it is a constant and often overwhelming social force that shapes the lives of all women.

There’s an old joke about a man who walks up to a woman at a bar and asks, “Would you have sex with me for a million dollars?” She says, “Yes.” He says, “What about fifty dollars?” and she snaps, “What the hell do you think I am — a whore?” He replies, “We’ve already established that you’re a whore; now we’re just negotiating the price.”

Inherent in this joke, and in the slide I showcase at the top of this post, is the tension and confusion that happens pretty much automatically whenever anyone tries to point out the difference between a “nice girl” and a “whore”. It’s one of the best ways to show that whore stigma makes no sense: the difference is impossible to pin down.

What’s weird about these conversations, though, is that everyone almost always gets caught up in the question of who’s a whore and who’s not a whore — and in the confusion, very few people think to question whether whore stigma itself is ridiculous and divisive and harmful. This even happens during conversations that start with the intent of questioning the very concept of whore stigma, such as this post by sex work researcher Laura Agustín; the post’s whole point is that the concept of whore stigma makes no sense — but commenters on the post immediately start trying to define what a whore is.

Indeed, this even happens among sex workers. My friends at the Sex Workers Outreach Project have told me how complicated it can be to pull different sex workers together, in order to work towards legal rights and societal recognition. One recurring issue is how some sex workers will refuse to associate with other sex workers: for example, professional dominatrixes or strippers may refuse to associate with escorts because “You’re whores, and we’re not whores, and we’re not like you.” This is one more factor making it hard for sex workers’ rights advocates to achieve social momentum. Which may mean that when — for example — the law randomly decides that dominatrixes are actually whores (surprise!), those non-whore sex workers may find themselves without resources.

But of course it happens among non-sex workers, too. Because being an “actual” sex worker is in no way a requirement for being called a whore, or for having whore stigma slammed in your face. Any woman who carries condoms might as well be a whore, right? Not even thirteen-year-old girls are exempt from whore stigma or its twin, slut-shaming, as we learned from Hope Witsell’s suicide last year. Hope sexted a boy who betrayed her and sent her message all over the school — at which point she was punished severely, was socially ostracized, and killed herself.

Examples of whore stigma abound, and none of us are innocent from reinforcing it. I’ll cop to it: before I had a grip on how problematic whore stigma is, I myself called one or two women whores because I felt threatened by them. I hadn’t thought through how easily I myself might be harmed by the label; I hadn’t yet identified my fears of being labeled one myself. I was insensitive — and I was also stupid, because whore stigma could come get me as easily as it could get an “actual” whore. Contributing to it wasn’t just hurting other women, it was also shooting myself in the foot.

Plus, the more effort women put into distinguishing ourselves from whores, the less effort we can put into actually working on the issues that harm women. Or making common cause with, say, sex workers who aren’t women and therefore get completely disappeared during all this anxious finger-pointing.

When we will acknowledge that whore stigma makes no sense, that it’s ridiculous and divisive and harmful? What does it take? All women’s appearance and activities — especially our sexuality — are attacked, limited, and kept in line by the threat of “sluthood” and “whoredom”. In that sense, we all pay. We all have a stake in taking down these social structures.

And we can start by accepting and acknowledging sex work as an honorable job that deserves both legal and social recognition. Today is a fantastic day to do just that. December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, and there may just be an event in your area. It’s also worth considering reading up on how to be an ally to sex workers and passing that information on to your friends.

Please note that The Wisdom of Whores, the awesome book by Elizabeth Pisani that I encouraged y’all to read for free on World AIDS Day at the beginning of this month, is still available for free download — all the way through the end of December. Pisani’s book is one of my favorites, ever — there are some valid critiques to be made, but even with those in mind, I just love it. It’s free! What are you waiting for?

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(The slide at the beginning of this post shows a straight horizontal line with an arrow at each end. At the top, the graphic is labeled “Sex-for-reward continuum”. The right end of the arrow is labeled “Illegitimate”, and the left end is labeled “Legitimate”. From right to left there are five points, labeled as follows:

* “Self-identified sex worker on a street corner?”
* “Woman who has sex at the back of a taxi in exchange for a ride into town?”
* “School girl has sex with her ex-boyfriend for cell phone airtime?” [Note: This slide was used in an African presentation. In Africa, or at least in the parts I’m familiar with, cell phone airtime is a somewhat expensive commodity. A school girl having sex in exchange for airtime is somewhat analogous to having sex in exchange for a nice piece of clothing.]
* “Student sleeps with her lecturer in order to pass?”
* “Wife has sex with her husband as she knows they are going to the mall tomorrow?”

At the bottom of the slide is a triangle pointing up to the line. It is labeled: “Who do we put in jail?”)

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This post was cross-posted at Feministe. This version has a few small edits for the sake of clarity and sensitivity; those edits are lacking from the Feministe version. However, the Feministe version has a hell of a lot more comments.

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