When I make porn I find it to be a positive experience. That is based on a wide range of factors that I’ve spoken and written about in depth over the past eight years. For one, trans women’s sexuality is greatly misrepresented in media and it’s important to me to be able to create representations of sexuality on my own terms. I also take great care to address and incorporate ethics into every level of production. My porn includes Audre Lorde references. My porn has been nominated for and won several feminist awards. My porn includes complex discussion of police violence, immigration politics, post-traumatic stress, and other social issues.
Yet, inevitably, I encounter individuals who point at my work and declare that it is objectifying on face—typically without having even watched it. Then they demand that I come up with a thesis worthy defense of my claim that making my porn is a positive thing. Anything I’ve already said or written in defense of my work is ignored. Any reasoning or argumentation about my informed decision to work in porn is lost. My argument is simply represented by my detractors as “because I chose it.”
Choice feminism is the idea that anything that any woman personally chooses to do is a feminist act. The most commonly given example of this argument is that choosing to do sex work—or to take pole dancing classes, be in porn, sext, fill in the blank—is empowering simply because a woman has chosen to do it and criticisms against perpetuating objectification are irrelevant.
The problem here is that in most cases women are simply trying to point out that they know their own lives and are making an informed decision. They are not claiming that any woman’s exercise of her agency is by definition a feminist act, but that denying a woman her agency is an inherently un-feminist act— especially coming from someone who doesn’t have a shared understanding of the context of that decision in her life.
It’s clear how disingenuous labeling someone a choice feminist is when you look at where this argument is applied. It’s pretty much only used by white middle-class feminists in reference to other women in marginalized positions. Trans women are told the decision to transition is really a patriarchal plot. Sex workers are told they are brainwashed into deciding to do sex work. Can you imagine these same voices indicting women who work at Starbucks, at Walmart, or any minimum wage job, demanding they defend whether or not their job is empowering? How often do they accuse women who are CEOs or politicians of making choices the patriarchy foisted upon them?
Look at the individuals these feminists target. When Megan Murphy wanted to criticize women choosing to pose naked for photos, how many thousands of women could she have written about? But she chose to write about Laverne Cox, a trans woman of color who said, “It is revolutionary for any trans person to choose to be seen and visible in a world that tells us we should not exist.” Murphy’s hatred was palpable as she denied Cox her womanhood and derided her body as “some cartoonish version of a woman.” Even if you believe that Cox’s photo spread in Allure magazine was disempowering, was it more disempowering than Murphy’s article?
As Murphy was spotlighted for her anti-trans rant, many rushed to her defense with arguments against choice feminism. They ignored everything Cox said on the subject of her nude Allure magazine shoot and tried to make the argument be about a choice feminist straw person.
The most insulting thing about this process is how it denies any agency or even self-awareness on the part of those critiqued. When a porn performer defends their choice to work in porn, the reality is that most are very aware of the oppressive aspects of their work. After working in any industry long enough, workers develop a laundry list of complaints, shitty bosses, and violated workplace rights. Porn performers are no exception to this rule. But when anti-sex work feminists argue for the abolition of your industry and want to rescue you from your own decisions, it’s hard to defend your right to work in the porn industry while simultaneously addressing its faults. That’s how you end up with plenty of examples of women who—on the surface—look like choice feminists when they respond to these kinds of attacks. Yet the woman who’s been working in the industry for 5-10 years is always going to know more about her experience than the feminist critic whose knowledge about working in porn only comes from her perspective as a media consumer.
I want to be clear—choice feminism is a terrible concept. The idea that every women’s choices are innately feminist is overly simplistic, poorly thought out, and ignores the fact that some women choose to support racism, transphobia, and even misogyny. But while some individuals may genuinely believe in this premise, I’d be willing to bet that most of the time a woman is being criticized as a “choice feminist,” it’s a horrible misrepresentation and reduction of her position, and that her words are being distorted in the service of a rhetorical argument dismissing her decisions and the nuanced motivations behind them.