Why is pornography legal in the United States, if it is illegal to have sex for money? Why is selling sex so that only your client witnesses it illegal, but when you ensure that the entire world could potentially view you on film, this act legitimizes the prostitution? If pornography never affects real life, then why do pro-porn advocates cite empirical evidence for its impact on reducing rates of male sexual assault of women?
Today, such impossible questions characterize mainstream discourse on rape and sex work in the United States. A recent account of Hillary Clinton’s handling of a 1975 sexual abuse case emphasizes the need to clarify our views about radical feminism and sex work into focus. In 1975, Clinton was a defense attorney. A client of hers was accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. Clinton deployed the Lolita archetype in his defense to imply the child victim was mentally unstable, and possibly seeking out sex with a middle-aged man. Statutory rape law be damned, mainstream Democrats insist Clinton’s behavior is acceptable or even commendable. The story is a ploy, they say, to divide and conquer the left. What does this liberal defensiveness mean?
Defense attorneys must zealously defend their clients, giving them the best possible chance of winning their case. Do we endorse intellectually dishonest and unethical legal defenses, because they might be effective?
“I have been informed that the complainant is emotionally unstable with a tendency to seek out older men and engage in fantasizing.” Clinton wrote in the affidavit. “I have also been informed that she has in the past made false accusations about persons, claiming they had attacked her body. Also that she exhibits an unusual stubbornness and temper when she does not get her way.”
Lawyers commenting on the topic suggest her ability to argue as she did is essential to enshrining our Constitutional rights. For some, there appears to be no contradiction between questioning a rape survivor’s sexual history out of professional duty, and campaigning for women’s rights as a politician. For survivors, this is precisely the problem. If this is considered acceptable, then we ask for reconsideration of what is acceptable.
American police officers are, at times, paid to “legally” rape sex workers as part of sting operations with the goal of putting sex workers in a cage. As this article from PolicyMic points out, “The homicide rate for female prostitutes is estimated to be 204 per 100,000, according to a longitudinal study published in 2004… a higher occupational mortality rate than any other group of women ever studied.”
In Against Innocence, writer and activist Jackie Wang explains, “In southern California during the 1980s and 1990s, police officers would close all reports of rape and violence made by sex workers, gang members, and addicts by placing them in a file stamped ‘NHI’: No Human Involved. This police practice draws attention to the way that rapability is also simultaneously unrapability in that the rape of someone who is not considered human does not register as rape.”
In this world, personages like Andrea Dworkin deserve reconsideration. Feminists today dismiss Dworkin and others like her as too radical. Admittedly, much is questionable about the anti-porn activism of the late 80s and 90s. In 1986, seeking to censor pornography, Dworkin testified for the Meese Report, commissioned by Ronald Reagan. In the 1990s, she continued informally allying with conservatives, attempting to abolish the sex trade.
Dworkin’s positions clearly came from a place of extreme pain as a rape survivor which we must not discount. It may be better for us that her measures of prohibitive censorship failed, but we must retain the lesson of her experience. Sex positive feminists failed to do this. Many have distorted Dworkin’s legacy by sloganizing her. Many insist she proclaimed that “all sex is rape.” Yet she never said this, just as Clinton’s client’s victim never asked to be raped. In reality, Dworkin said:
If you believe that what people call normal sex is an act of dominance, where a man desires a woman so much that he will use force against her to express his desire, if you believe that’s romantic, that’s the truth about sexual desire, then if someone denounces force in sex it sounds like they’re denouncing sex. If conquest is your mode of understanding sexuality, and the man is supposed to be a predator, and then feminists come along and say, no, sorry, that’s using force, that’s rape—a lot of male writers have drawn the conclusion that I’m saying all sex is rape.
Women who refuse to consent to heterosexual sex lose, in some ways, access to a livable life. If men have special access to economic, social, and political privilege—if women cannot access many of these without performing domestic, sexual, and reproductive labor for men—then women cannot freely choose whether or not to have sex. Choice will never be a matter of pure desire. Hillary Clinton would not, for example, be in her current position of power had she decided not to marry or stay married to Bill Clinton. Are we to think it was love?
We need not advocate for abolishing the sex trade in order ask these questions. Considering this, we find that implicit assumptions about sex work inform an excessively optimistic understanding of women’s consent generally. Today, most people only recognize consent as compromised where rape occurs by means of violent force. This is true for laypeople and sex workers alike.
But sex workers are a deviant category in every case, and degraded regardless of the status of consent. Sex workers are usually only viewed as redeemable if their circumstances resulted from violent coercion. The violence of an individual rape is less crucial for a sex worker’s so-called “moral redeemability” than whether she was forced at gunpoint to be a whore in the first place. Sex work is viewed as inherently degrading. So, if a woman “consented” to it, her psyche itself is now the problem.
By projecting deviance onto sex work, we avoid asking similar questions about housewives who marry for money, or waitresses who flirt with customers at diners. Using sex work as the scapegoat, we conceal deeper, systemic ambiguities in economic inequality and consent. In reality, sex work is degraded because it is primarily the work of women. Women are not degraded any more in sex work than they are in any other function in society. By assigning false consciousness solely to the essentially degraded sex worker, we defer a more uncomfortable conversation about whether “consent” can be meaningful for women in general.
It is instructive to remember that Dworkin is opposing a world where “some sex is rape.” “All sex is rape” is a caricature of her rejoinder to the idea that “no sex is rape.” The latter is an arguably real misogynist belief. It is the type of moral maxim which permitted Clinton to argue as she did in her 1975 case and have her handling of it considered normal. If it is remotely possible to spin a woman or girl as having “wanted” to be raped, we do it. We need to understand that rape victims’ rights demand overturning our simple definition of rape as violent force.
The definition of rape cannot be widened beyond violent sex without destabilizing male power to a degree which will create backlash. If rape is only violent force, men may do basically whatever they like with women, sexually, so long as they stop short of this. These rules generate equality about as effectively as rules against animal cruelty institute equal rights between farmers and their cattle. The differential of male power is generated and preserved through this broad domain of sexual access. Rape is simply the most overt incidence of sex. “Sex” distributes power between men and women with a violence that is inexorable.
If we grant women the right to name more subtle violations of their consent, we will eventually have to wonder whether to indict sex as a whole. To function, we keep things simpler.
Thus, let’s make things simple: Clinton does not support the rights of women. She supports the rights of “good” women. These are the rights of heterosexual, upper-middle class, wage-earning women. These women don’t complicate domestic life by demanding wages for housework. Clinton cannot question the basis of the divine right of access which men have to women’s bodies without compromising the special privileges she has been granted by perpetuating them. She operates as a “feminist” on the basis of a conditional surrender to the male-supremacist network as a whole. She is feminist in the context of a power derived from men. She is powerful on men’s terms, for the sake of men’s goals, and only insofar as she allies with them. These are reasons to question Clinton as the appropriate nominee. If she does get nominated, it will be doubly crucial to hold her accountable and bring her record to light.
Sex workers live in a world where they are considered to be universal rape victims, due to the supposedly exploitative nature of the sex trade itself. Yet when a sex worker says she is raped, the police, who are supposed to protect her, will only harm her more when they inevitably arrest her for doing her job. She will be categorically denied the possibility of having been raped. Women who “choose” at one time to engage in sex work are considered permanently degraded. They are imagined to have thereby consented to all sex, everywhere, and for all time. Quoting Jackie Wang once more: “our appeals to innocence demarcate who is killable and rapable, even if we are trying to strategically use such appeals to protest violence.” (Against Innocence, p. 11)
The world defines whores as women who “choose” to be exploited. They want it. Whores are at once universal victims deserving of pity, but also un-rapeable, non-human subjects. They are not thought to exercise real rights in society. For this reason, our culture contains a long list of uninvestigated homicides in which the victim was a sex worker. We are not a priority. Serial killers assert, unsolicited, that they choose to target sex workers, both out of misogynist hatred and out of an even more sinister strategic consideration which indicts society as a whole. The serial killer did not think anyone would care about or miss his victim. He did not expect that police would value the life of a sex worker. The sex worker is theorist Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer: she may be killed by anybody, so long as the loss of her life is not considered a sacrifice.
Dworkin’s radical posture is not the only route to confronting these problems. But it is one example, and it is a strong countermeasure in this era of sex-positive feminism. Hers is, at least, the kind of rejoinder we must provide to the mythos enshrining women’s mandatory enjoyment of the world as it is.
Today, sex workers’ rights do not advance, due to stigma. Most “normal” white liberals—who are otherwise embarrassed not to insist they support gay marriage, for example—appear to possess no opinion at all on this topic. Men fear acting as vocal supporters of sex workers’ rights, because to do so might invite scrutiny into their motives. “Why do you care—are you their client?” Women fear providing vocal support because to do so might invite scrutiny into their character. “Why do you care—are you a whore?” If even indirect association with the concept of “whore” is so contaminating, how much worse must it be to actually be one?
Changing such an atmosphere requires a multi-pronged approach. We need policy change, we need deep cultural transformation, too. At the same time, our policy goals needn’t be identical to Dworkin’s in order for us to benefit from her incisive analysis. Her theory need not imply her legislative direction. This is proven by the relative success of her legacy as a writer.
Dworkin claims in Intercourse that “equality in the realm of sex is anti-sexual if sex requires dominance in order to function.” Her claim is not a generalization, but a testable hypothesis. If we were to abolish all grounds for male socioeconomic dominance, then the only women remaining in a subordinated position to men would be those who truly “wanted” to be. On this topic, the burden of proof is on contemporary men. If we remove all these grounds, and the same number of women are complicit to the same degree with male heterosexuality, then views such as Dworkin’s must be considered archaic, and incorrect as a characterization of the condition of women as a whole.
Decriminalizing sex work, respecting the rights of sex workers to be protected from rape, reforming deep abuse in the pornography industry, combating its effect on the cultural imaginary—these things will help. But it is more important than any of these things for people to learn to view all women as human beings in need of equal access to resources—not only some, not only those who are “good.” We must change culture by speaking out and sharing our stories. We must institute real economic measures protecting equality. Only if sex work (or marriage) is never a woman’s only option, can anyone truly “consent.”
Typical insults to the sex industry rest on the premise that if women had other options, no one would choose to do sex work. Thus, if a woman says she chooses to do sex work, she must be either ignorant or depraved. Such an accusation has one virtue: to address it, we only need to protect the economic rights of women on the whole. The true legacy of Andrea Dworkin is not found in carceral feminism, or in betraying sex workers as bearers of basic human rights. Putting anti-sex work rhetoric to the test demands our awareness of the more pervasive, everyday complicity of all women, and men, with those men who abuse, assault, and rape. Thankfully, cultivating such awareness happens to require granting to sex workers their basic human rights.