Putting the Progressive Christian carnival together, while an immensely enjoyable and decidedly worth it experience, took most of my already small portion of blog-energy this past little while, so I’ve only been able to scan recent posts on all those other topics I care about. So despite my as usual late-to-the-party status (not to mention all those parties I’ve now completely missed), I couldn’t quite let this one go.
Background: Nine Deuce wrote this post asking a series of questions about the existence and philosophy of “sex positive” male feminists. The questions themselves, to my mind, are exceedingly disingenuous, and the fact that the original author and several agreeing commenters can’t seem to see just how the wording practically guarantees that it will be impossible to provide a satisfactory answer…well, let’s just say that I’m extremely impressed with those who managed, in comments or in their own posts, to put forth the effort required to answer all of them.
But the one I find myself unable to let go is the following:
If sex work is a valid, feminist choice for individual women, what are we to make of women who say that their participation in sex work resulted from dire poverty, drug addiction, etc.?
Emphasis, obviously, mine. Those who have responded to the question have already made the most important point here, which is that if sex work results from dire poverty and drug addiction, then talking constantly about eliminating sex work is really demonstrating an inability to understand the basics of causality. In other words, treat the poverty and the drug addiction, and you’ll eliminate the need for those particular women to turn to sex work. Eliminate the sex work, and you’ll eliminate one of the few options these particular women have for survival while their dire circumstances continue, likely, to worsen.
But see, beyond all that, I have to come right out and say that the beating of this particular drum angers me, and I’m not having an easy time putting words around exactly why, aside from that whole causality thing. The way addiction is discussed in these conversations seems cursory at best and decidedly lacking in compassion/understanding. There’s this vibe that people who have never dealt with drug addiction can just use the words and we’ll all understand the pathos that this entails. The desperation. The despair. The last gasp. I mean, we’ve all seen Leaving Las Vegas, Drugstore Cowboy, Walk the Line, whatever. Ren did a great job dissecting the difference between fighting for sex workers’ rights and waging a “save the whores” campaign, and I feel like the talk about drug addiction adds this extra layer of condescension to the bullshit saviour complex. “Of course they need saving! They’re addicts for God’s sake!”
Pity is not the same thing as compassion. Pity continues to see the pitied as other, lesser-than, subhuman. The dregs of society.
You know what scares me about the correlation between drug addiction and sex work? It isn’t sex work. I don’t know if Nine Deuce realized the implications of the causal chain she was connecting there, but she didn’t say (as some do, and as is no doubt true in some cases) that women are inclined to turn to drugs and become addicts in order to cope with the horrors of sex work. She said that they turn to sex work to feed a drug addiction. What scares me about that is that there’s a market that allows some women to realize, when they’ve been assured that they’re essentially worthless, useless, and good for nothing, that this is the last thing they have that they can barter. There’s a market for that because of misogyny, because of the specifically sexual exploitation of women’s bodies, and also because of all of the ways that drug-addicted women have already been assured that they are worthless. But that’s not really a feminist issue, because, I guess, it’s not an everywoman issue. Sex work is the feminist issue, sex work is the thing we need to talk about. If these drug-addicted women were not also prostitutes, they would not ping the radar of feminists in this contexts.
Nobody’s ever going to argue that drug addiction is a good thing, or even a redeemable thing (and here, I decidedly mean to describe the addiction, not the addict, as being irredeemable). It’s damn tough to talk about this beyond just “so treat the addiction”, because I feel like I’ve been backed into a rhetorical corner that suggests that in order to talk about sex work being potentially redeemable, I have to suggest that it might be okay or a good thing or empowering/ful to be addicted to drugs. Believe me, I have no romantic illusions about addiction. This pity schtick? This is a romantic illusion about addiction. I’d really like to see how this attitude toward addiction when it comes to sex workers translates to an understanding of addiction in men. Because, y’know, it’s the same damn disease. The actions and manifestations and strategies for how to survive are likely different based on gender as well as class, community etc, but it’s not like women are victims of it while men are criminals of it.
Moral agency in addiction is a complicated concept, but it sure as hell isn’t different for women than it is for men, though experiences almost always are. Unless you really have an understanding of a lot of that, bringing the topic into a discussion of sex work only serves to add a condescending cherry to the top of a sundae of condescension toward women who are not in this addict/sex worker category and who are actually involved in the conversation with you.
My question on this subject (and I’m only getting angrier as I get more tired and hungry as I write this) is – who is it helping? Who does it really speak the truth to? Not sex workers who aren’t addicts, as Ren and several other commenters demonstrate. Not addicts who aren’t sex workers (because we’re only saving these people from sex work, we don’t need to save them from the addiction, so…). To me, it just serves to emphasize that in the minds of many, addicts and prostitutes are both lower, pathetic, pitiful beings. If we can equate them, so much the easier.
Oh and by the way – what are “we” to make of “them”? Well, for a start, “they” are not theoretical constructs. “They” are people, and what you “make” of them and the “validity” of their lives is not really on the top of their list of concerns. YMMV, of course.