Feminism and Sex Work

At Good Vibes we’ve long used the phrase “friendly, feminist and fun” on our promotional materials. Maybe you’ve heard us describe ourselves this way on an ad or a talk show. Yet not everyone associates the sort of fun sex-positivity we strive for with the word “feminism.” Somehow feminism has gotten a reputation as anti-sex — and even as anti-male, even though the majority of women who describe themselves as feminist are probably heterosexual. The media should get its fair share of blame for this, especially given its tendency to present people like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin as feminist spokespersons while excluding women with much more sex-positive points of view.

The fact is, feminism is a lot more diverse than the media makes out (isn’t everything?), and I just got a graphic reminder of this thanks to a visit to the National Organization for Women’s annual conference. I went as part of a group of sex-positive women whose agenda was to request that NOW reaffirm its years-old resolutions to decriminalize prostitution. Bet you didn’t know NOW had ever passed such resolutions. But it did, in 1973 and again in 1980, partly thanks to consciousness-raising and lobbying by strong feminist women like Margo St. James, founder of the sex workers’ rights group COYOTE, and Priscilla Alexander, who co-edited the classic book Sex Work. Now a new generation of activists are walking in their footsteps.

Mainstream feminists are confused by the sex work question, there’s no doubt about that, and much of the accepted rhetoric is sex-negative and doesn’t recognize the very different ways sex work manifests itself in this and other cultures. Arguing that the experiences of a drug-addicted hooker on the street and a college-educated outcall worker are the same really stretches credulity.

But I encountered more support at NOW than I expected to find, and that reminded me that we do a real disservice to ourselves when we let the media and special-interest feminists convince us that feminists all believe the same things about such volatile sexual issues. Many women who embrace the label “feminist” agree with us at Good Vibrations that sex can be a source of empowered pleasure for women and men of all sexual orientations, as long as it’s consensual. We think the things that stand in the way of that kind of universal sexual empowerment have a lot to do with the fear and ignorance about sex that traditional morality inculcates in people.

After all, one barrier to women’s full equality has been the sexual double standard, enforced by limiting young womens’ access to sex information and safe ways to explore their own sexuality. This almost guarantees that many women’s first sexual experiences will be difficult or frightening. Yet there hasn’t been a major outcry within feminism to demand high-quality sex education to all youth, except among the sex-positive branch of the movement.

Feminism is about women having access to opportunity and removing barriers that stand in the way of success, growth, and equality, whether those barriers are legal, material, or psychological. It’s not about spurning sexual pleasure, only about recognizing that this pleasure will take different forms for different women. Removing the barriers that stand in the way of sexual pleasure and comfort for women won’t end all unequal treatment — but it’s senseless to ignore the very real part sexual empowerment can play in the way a woman feels about herself.

That’s the kind of feminist work we do at Good Vibrations, and it’s a source of pride to us every time we hear a woman has had her first orgasm or learned to communicate successfully with a partner. Those are significant moments in her life, but that’s not all. They’re also building blocks for all of us who believe that access to sexual pleasure is a woman’s right and a sign of a healthy culture.

Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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