The Soapbox: The ’80s Called And They Want Their Sex Wars Back

I’m writing this on an airplane from Toronto, Ontario, to San Francisco, California. I’ve just spent six days among other women, other queers, other porn performers, and other feminists at the Feminist Porn Awards and the Feminist Porn Conference. In that time, I have witnessed moments that made my heart soar, my eyes tear up with love and the fiercest of joys, pride in the people I hold close to me. I have experienced moments that hurt my heart, that disappointed me, moments that underlined how privilege can alienate and divide us. I spoke to academics, I spoke to sex workers, I spoke to sex workers who were academics. It was a weekend of realizations, inspiration, determination … and I came away from it all feeling exhilarated and ready to change the world.

I also realized that the sex wars are still very much A Thing. There are still Good Feminists and Bad Feminists, though the definition of which is which varies depending on who you ask. It’s saddening to see us fighting each other, women who have been called prudes for asserting their sexual choices attacking women who have been called whores for asserting their sexual choices … and vice versa. This is, of course, exactly what the patriarchy wants. While we bicker about whether or not porn is empowering, we are being systematically marginalized, turned away from jobs, thrown out of school, our kids and our workspaces and our money and our privacy taken away from us. The act of having sex on film or any other sex work may empower some and humiliate others, or we might start feeling one way and eventually feel another. (The same holds true for food service workers, though we ask that question far less often). In our current culture we are all experiencing and navigating the effects of capitalist patriarchy.

Now, it may shock you to know that I read a fair amount of sex negative feminist theory. I mean, to be honest, I read a lot of sex positive feminist theory too, and trans* feminist theory, and feminist theory by people of color. Each story and experience I hear is like another layer in a Van Gogh painting, adding depth and detail and context. There are areas of each I disagree strongly with — for example, I don’t think that all sex work is rape, or that trans* women aren’t women, and I don’t think that sex is always nice, or that someone’s consent is necessarily a guarantee of their agency. The truth is often somewhere in between, but we will miss it if we keep insisting on creating sides.

“Remember who the real enemy is,” is a takeaway phrase from the popular “Hunger Games” films. (Hey, I’m on a plane, I watched a movie). It’s something Katniss’ mentor says to her to remind her that the other Tributes are equally trapped in an abusive system, that the Capitol keeps the oppressed Districts fighting in the Games rather than fighting the Capitol in the streets. I see some real parallels to that in feminism, and it kills me. I see the morals and assumptions of mainstream patriarchy in the trans* misogyny I witness among some feminists, I see it in the racism of who can come to a conference on feminist pornography, and I see it in who speaks over whom. We need to remember who the real enemy is, and make sure it’s not us simply due to defensiveness.

This isn’t just some feel-good bullshit meant to say “we should all hold hands and kumbaya” or whatever. This is about survival, pure and simple. Our critique needs to embrace aspects of sex positive AND sex negative feminism to be holistic in their nature and to save people’s lives. I agree with sex negative feminists that we cannot ignore how mainstream pornography is problematically marketed, what acts are featured above others, who is shown and how, and the entitlement that can come of male privilege. I agree with sex positive feminists that we cannot ignore how big business ensures via payment processors and terms of service that they continue to define the terms of what’s “normal” and what is deviant, we cannot ignore issues of representation or the stigma of female sexual pleasure. I’m also aware of how the Nordic Model and the stigma it reinforced lay the groundwork for the death of Petite Jasmine, even as proponents of it claimed criminalizing johns was for the safety of women. This isn’t just academic theory, tossed around a classroom. The longer we go without addressing issues raised by both the sex poz and the sex neg camps, the longer the uninformed public will throw their support behind things like “Real Men Don’t Buy Women” or rescue organizations that offer religious propaganda rather than childcare, GED assistance or places to live.

Feminist sex work excites me because I think it offers a response to both areas of concern in a practical, financially sustainable way … or it could. I don’t think anyone in the sex industry (even the feminist porn industry) could say honestly there’s nothing fucked up going on in some areas. We cannot be afraid of criticism. We should instead welcome it. We need to see being called out as a moment to check in with ourselves, to seek out the voices of the marginalized in our communities and to listen. We need to acknowledge that if we are genuine about wanting to hear from less privileged performers, we need to make it worth their while to take time off work to educate us (and yes, I mean pay them, among other things). I do not believe feminist porn or the sex worker rights movement as a whole will succeed if we do not create and encourage space for challenging discourse.

Additionally, we need to make space, safe space, for sex workers to have a bad day at work, to give consent without enthusiasm and have that respected, and to make hard choices. It’s easy to walk off a set when you know you’ll book another gig; it’s not so easy when you waited months for this one and rent needs to be paid. And women are expected to provide emotional labor for free on a daily basis. We are told to smile, to look pretty, to be nice and not angry, to be compassionate and not cold. We are punished if we do not respond receptively to catcalls, sometimes with violence, sometimes with death. We cannot do this to ourselves, and insist that women in particular perform arbitrarily “appropriate” responses to their desires or sexual behavior in order to fit a mold of “Good Feminism.” And we certainly should not blame those people who decide that if they are going to be pushed to provide said labor that they should be paid for their work.

“Why do you need me to be empowered or degraded in my work?” asks Christina Parreira, and it’s a good question. We don’t ask most employees to pick sides, because we understand that relationships to jobs are complex. We might like the money and hate our coworkers, or love our coworkers but hate the pay. We might love our work but hate the impact it has on our relationships. We might have fun sometimes, and wish we could be anywhere else at other times. Life’s complicated like that, especially under capitalism and patriarchy.

Queer indie porn producer and performer Courtney Trouble gave the closing keynote at the Feminist Porn Conference to a standing ovation. In the conference keynote, they (Courtney uses “they” as gender neutral pronouns) did many difficult and perhaps even taboo things — came out as a survivor, came out as genderqueer, came out as a fat femme who still cannot be cast in most feminist porn. They interrupted the academic structure of a keynote by giving some of their time to the floor for people of colour to speak. Trouble laid bare the various ways in which feminist porn has dropped the ball on intersectionality and representation, and challenged us to “let our feminism impact our porn, and let our porn impact our feminism.” I cannot think of a better call to arms for a new, informed chapter of the sex wars – one in which we fight the institutionalized power that oppressed us in the first place, from every angle. After all, an army of lovers cannot fail.

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