Andrea Dworkin

(“Flurry” by Marilyn Minter, 1994)

This year’s London Frieze art festival included an exhibit called Sex Worka retrospective on the first wave of feminist art. “Your Art (Probably) Sux!” cried sex workers, upon realizing that the only one of us formally involved was an anonymous porn actress’ cropped pussy lips in a photo.

But to be fair, we hadn’t even seen much of the show. So how have we gotten to this cynical place, where giving an artist the benefit of the doubt seems like a losing bet? Because when it comes to conversations about sociosexual mores, the deck is stacked against us and the house always wins. Sex workers have long been used as muses, metaphors, and props, sensually strewn throughout the art world’s most famous boudoirs but rarely recognized as cultural producers in their own right. When it comes to the era of radical feminism at the heart of  Sex Work, a period of artistic fascination with (fetishization of?) prostitution, a time integral in the creation of a violent anti-prostitution feminist politic, the stakes seem life or death. Fool me once, you know?

For the record, I don’t think the art in Sex Work sux. Considering the recent death of Hugh Hefner, a misogynist whose myopic hetero vision of men, women, and sex shaped a generation, it is still somehow precious to see bodies represented through the eyes of anyone but straight cis men. Betty Tompkins’ black and white “Fuck Paintings” feel spectral, like catching a glimpse of her hazy vulvas through a steamy window. They were all too real, though, in 1973 when she had to order pornography from “the far east” to a secret mailbox in Canada, and then smuggle it across the American border.  Marilyn Minter’s color-saturated orifices aren’t nearly as shocking as the idea that only a few years before I was born she was told by a gallery that women artists don’t sell and to come back in ten years—or never.

The historical context of these works can’t be overlooked. They herald from a time that is eerily recent, when an exhibit featuring only women artists like this one would be so transgressive a curator might lose a career over it, and where the best an artist could hope for in terms of positive reviews was a patronizing remark about a work’s alterity—its “feminine qualities. “I like this art and yet I still struggle to release the distrust lingering from a many-decades-long betrayal committed by the epoch in question. Because after all, there is a historical context for sex worker outrage, too.

[NSFW image after the cut]

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andreahillaryWhy 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.

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