Fighting Sexual Objectification is not Exclusionary

Featured image: The International Coalition Against Human Trafficking

     by Max Wilbert / Deep Green Resistance

“Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. Therefore, it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.” – bell hooks

Last weekend, I was tabling for Deep Green Resistance at an environmental conference. A young man, who looked to be in his early 20’s, came up to the table. I approached him and asked if I could answer any questions.

He pointed at the sticker on the table: “Patriarchy + Capitalism = Pornography.” With a sneer he asked, “Do you really believe that?”

I told him I did. “So are you a SWERF,” he asked, using a common acronym for sex-worker exclusionary radical feminist. “What about agency?”

What an insane thing for a leftist to ask! Would anyone say that I’m “denying the agency of U.S. soldiers” because I oppose US imperialism? Would anyone say that I’m “excluding McDonald’s workers” because I oppose capitalism and the fast food industry?

Of course not. These arguments are self-evidently bullshit. It’s possible (and I can’t believe I have to say this) to oppose larger systems while still having sympathy, and even acting in solidarity, with those who are trapped inside those systems. And just because some women “choose” and “enjoy” working in pornography and prostitution doesn’t mean that we can’t critique the industry—and even critique these women for choices that have harmful effects on others.

The fact that a member of an oppressed class chooses to participate in the oppressive system doesn’t mean their choice can’t be criticized. After all, as the wonderful anti-porn activist Gail Dines has said, “Systems of oppression are flexible enough to absorb some members of subordinated groups; indeed, they draw strength from the illusion of neutrality provided by these exceptions.”

So why does this young white man believe that when it comes to pornography, “agency” is more important than the real, material impacts of the porn industry?

What I explained to the young man is that mass media and culture shapes the way we think. This has been a fundamental understanding of the left for decades. We can call it manufacturing consent, propaganda, or cultural hegemony.

Advertising works. Propaganda works. That’s why they use it.

That’s why Arundhati Roy, writing about right-wing police forces battling indigenous land defenders in rural India, quotes the superintendent of police chief as saying, “See Ma’am, frankly speaking this problem [sic] can’t be solved by us police or military. The problem with these tribals is they don’t understand greed. Unless they become greedy there’s no hope for us. I have told my boss: remove the force and instead put a TV in every home. Everything will be automatically sorted out.”

Take the same approach and apply it to patriarchy, and you’ll have the last 50 years of this culture: pornography becoming more and more normalized, softcore porn moving into pop culture and social media, and ubiquitous access to demeaning, woman-hating content 24/7 from the device in your pocket.

The pornography industry in the United States is more profitable than Hollywood. It’s also more profitable than the NFL, NBA, and MLB—combined. Porn sites, at any given time, have about 30 million unique visitors watching.

As Sheila Jeffries writes, “Pornography, then, educates the male public. It would be very surprising if it did not.”

Do you really think that getting paid a small amount of money in order to have a strange, smelly man aggressively fuck you is “empowering?”

Here’s the reality: prostituted women are often “physically revolted and hurt by the sex.

Women who have escaped prostitution have higher rates of PTSD than soldiers who have been in combat.

Read that sentence again.

There are an estimated 40 million people in prostitution worldwide, most of them (more than 80 percent) women and children. Women of color make up a highly disproportionate number of prostituted women. Of the 40 million, 2.5 million are trafficked. In other words, they are sex slaves. The average age of entry to the industry is 13 years old.

Thirteen fucking years old.

But in the face of this violence, the “agency” of a few relatively wealthy “sex workers” who claim to enjoy their jobs is more important.

If we call prostitution a “job” (rather than a form of abuse), it would be by far the most dangerous job in the US, with a murder rate of 204 per 100,000. Even if we don’t call every sex act within the context of prostitution a rape, about 80 percent of prostituted women have been raped, and they are raped an average of 8-10 times per year.

As indigenous feminist Cherry Smiley writes (brilliantly) in the Globe and Mail, “Prostitution, akin to the residential school system, is an institution that continues to have devastating impacts on the lives of aboriginal women and girls, who are disproportionately involved in street-level prostitution. Prostitution is an industry that relies on disparities in power to exist. We can see clearly that women, and especially aboriginal women and girls, are funneled into prostitution as a result of systemic inequalities such as their lack of access to housing, loss of land, culture, and languages, poverty, high rates of male violence, involvement with the foster care system, suicide, criminalization, addiction, and disability. To imagine that prostitution, a system that feeds these inequalities, should be allowed or encouraged, is dangerously misguided and supports the ongoing systemic harms against our women and girls.”

The whole notion of a SWERF is ridiculous. As Jindi Mehat writes, “Supporting an argument that excludes the majority of women in prostitution, while calling the very women who consider the whole picture ‘exclusionary,’ shows how intellectually vapid and hypocritical so-called liberal feminism is. Just like calling support of prostitution, which exposes the most marginalized among us to increased levels of violence and abuse, a feminist position, this isn’t about women’s liberation, it’s about feeling good and progressive and not having to actually change anything

“Supporting prostitution and screaming ‘SWERF’ at abolitionists isn’t feminism, it’s capitulating to male supremacy and writing marginalized women off as collateral damage. It’s living in a dream world of consequence-free individual choices. It’s refusing to go beyond scratching the surface, and instead hiding behind buzzwords and tepid half-measures while trying to silence women who are willing to dive deep no matter the cost.”

So what do we actually want?

Radical feminists generally advocate for what is called “The Nordic Model,” a legal approach in which the people (almost entirely men) who buy sex are criminalized, and the people (almost entirely women and children) who work in the industry are provided with resources and programs to help them exit the sex trade and build alternative livelihoods.

This approach has been proven to result in positive outcomes. First, it teaches sex buyers (“johns”), who are primarily men, and the broader society, that women are not for sale at any price. Second, it provides support and full decriminalization to those who are prostituted, giving them options to exit the inherently-violent industry.

In my book, that’s not exclusionary, that’s human rights. That’s feminism.

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