a bird and a bottle

Then Again, maybe for some women it Is a choice
March 7, 2007, 1:35 pm
Filed under: feminism/s & gender, media, NYC, sexuality

I wrote the other day about college porn mags and expressed my ambivalence about pornography, and (in comments) my concern that women are often coerced into careers in pornography and/or prostitution.

NY Magazine seems out to prove me wrong. Their food blog, Grub Street, today features an interview with Sara, a waitress at the Penthouse Club Steakhouse (more on that here)-slash-Ph.D. candidate in philosophy (her work at the Penthouse Executive Club helps her explore a “mind-body dualism”).

Sara loves her job (“You’ll be calling me Doctor before I leave,” she remarks) — and she certainly has other options. So maybe choice here — at least in this one case — is not a fallacy.

Even if it is, my concerns about how pornography reflects on women’s bodies and what it says about women’s role in society (as other than sex objects, say), still stand.


9 Comments so far
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This is definitely a tricky subject. Women (and anyone else) can “choose” to have themselves subjugated. Whether that makes the subjugation any better is highly questionable. So, too, I would conjecture, Sara’s exploration of a ‘mind-body dualism.’ I strip therefore I am…? I don’t think so.

Comment by professorplum

In fairness to Sara, she does not strip — she serves drinks very scantily clad and in three-four inch stilettos and receives diamond earrings as tips in return. Totally different animal than stripping.

(sarcasm, people)

Comment by bean

Sex work is certainly not all fun and games and I’m sure Sara knows that. But can you blame her for chatting up the NY Magazine about all the perks of her job? Especially in an industry that is routinely thought of as at the bottom of the barrel. And can you blame her for not wanting to be thought of as a pitiable victim of subjugation?

I’d bet that Sara’s got some privileges that many other sex workers don’t have and she probably has more fun than most sex workers. But she’s not delusional – and neither are all the current or former sex workers that I know. They know they’re interacting with a shitty patriarchal system. So are the rest of us. They just choose to take advantage of it as best they can. Even the street-walking prostitute makes decisions about his/her work. And when badass people take their shitty situation and their limited choices and work them to their advantage, “subjugation” doesn’t seem like an appropriate description. It doesn’t offer them much credit and I don’t think it helps as a way to think about the issue. From my experience, what helps is putting a twenty in their garter and working to change the system.

Comment by maxwell

Fair points, Maxwell. I think your comment raises the question that many feminist thinkers have struggled with: do we attempt to change certain aspects of the patriarchal system from within or without? As you acknowledge, we are all (or most of us) living within the system. But when we see something that highlights the patriarchy — like sex work might — do we try to change the system by subverting it from within (like Sara might be) or by standing outside and saying “prostitution is bad. There shouldn’t be prostitution”? I’m not sure. Some combo of both?

Comment by bean

Two presidents have appointed commissions to study the effects of pornography. In 1970, Nixon appointed the Lockhart Commission that found no evidence demonstrating any significant social harm from pornography. One surprising finding of the Lockhard Commission: Pornography kept would-be predators off the streets (they tended to engage in more autoerotic behaviors than predation). Result of this unintended finding: Nixon refused to accept the commission’s conclusions.

Reagan appointed the Meese Commission in 1985. Critics have charged this Commission with engaging in foregone conclusions. According to one critic: “A physician who examines a patient complaining of a cold and, during the course of a physical examination, discovers the patient is also suffering from cancer. The physician treats the patient only for his cold and justifies ignoring the cancer because the patient came in for treatment of a cold” (Scott 1159). Violence, critics have noted, is the real cancer in American society; and those who treat pornography as a scapegoat are ignoring the real malignancy.

My own view: This debate is part of the so-called Culture Wars, now 30+ years extant. A free society must tolerate a certain of licentious behavior, and the critical question is “how much” before freedom of choice and privacy are at risk. Shrewdly, the conservative agenda has co-opted disgruntled feminists into believing that pornography debases women, while ignoring the impact of violence. The right wing agenda has a dark side: Witness recent attempts to limit reproductive rights and reduce women to vessel (vassal) status.

My admonition: Please think through these issues thoroughly, and be careful what you wish for.

Comment by Swampcracker

hey bean, i think you’re right on that sex work hits a nerve with a lot of folks because it so brightly highlights the patriarchy. as for what we do with it…

well, i’m not sure sara is subverting the system. subversion, to me, would look more like what tristan toarmino (www.puckerup.com) has done with her empire of queer/kinky porn built on videos where ladies strap it on and do their boyfriends in the bum. i personally want a world with tristan in it so i don’t think sex work is always bad or should be eliminated. but I agree that there are definitely a lot of people doing sex work that would rather be doing something else. how best to help them get there?

i think we have to listen to them first. the ones i’ve read and talked to say the first step is getting the cops off their ass so they can work above ground in a safer and more protected setting. so I agree that lots of prostitution is bad (or unsafe), but how do we reconcile that with the goals of the people doing the work?

Comment by maxwell

As I think your post implies, Maxwell, decriminalization would be an important first step (and one that I wholly support). Decriminalization would provide protection for sex workers. Right now, though it is a crime both to prostitute oneself and to solicit (to be a “john”), it’s mostly the women sex workers who are arrested while the johns walk.

Comment by bean

agreed, most ladies are stuck in a crappy situation. and no surprise – a lot of the johns are cops (though not a john if you don’t pay, just a rapist).

Comment by maxwell

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