This is the text of my speech at the 2013 Left Forum, delivered Saturday, June 8 at Pace University in New York City. It was part of a panel discussion moderated by Counterpunch contributor David Rosen
I want to focus on a major concern I have had for years, one that involves me as a lifelong democratic socialist, a veteran film critic for Adult Video News and someone who spends quality time as an advocate for sex workers. The concern is that parts of the Left have adopted a misguided view of sex work and the sex industry that lead them to get into bed with the forces of sexual and economic austerity. As an adult film critic and hobbyist, I am quite familiar with how those forces have preyed upon the ignorance of others by misrepresenting, exaggerating and outright lying about porn’s contents and effects.
The Sex Workers Outreach Project – SWOP - in whose NYC chapter I participate, is a volunteer-based, grassroots organization and part of a national network dedicated to improving the lives of current and former sex workers, on and off the job. We join the fight to end trafficking in persons within the sex trade, valuing the distinction between uncoerced, migrant sex workers and those that have experienced trafficking and acknowledge overlapping experiences; all the while rallying in defense of the Village Voice for hosting Backpage.com, a site that had been falsely accused of enabling trafficking. We are committed to addressing the legal issues of sex work with the intent to empower workers, educate about the alternative of decriminalization with examples from around the world and lobbying, with some success, elected officials to stop using condoms carried by women as evidence of criminal intent. We stand in solidarity with the labor movement in general, and in particular with groups that are fighting a whole host of oppressions, including, but not limited to, homophobia, racism, sexism, transphobia, classism, and xenophobia. A SWOP goal is to establish by-and-for-sex-worker health clinics, education centers, and safe spaces for workers and allies alike.
And because of who we are, we find ourselves, also, in the trenches of the Sex Wars.
Historically, most of us have heard of the Sex Wars within the modern feminist movement over pornography and prostitution, but what is less well-known is that on the Left itself, divisions existed over these issues. One can go back as far as the Paris Commune of 1871, for instance, where prostitution was banned and the legal state brothels were closed. The reason for these actions was stated not in terms of ‘feminism’, ‘objectification’, ‘degradation’ or for that matter, ‘trafficking’, but rather, morality. Additional demands were made by some of the Commune’s leaders to haul all the prostitutes off to jail (along with the drunks on the street), but this was resisted by the anarchist Louise Michel, who, together with a prostitute named Amanda, organized a prostitutes-only armed brigade to fight alongside the rest of the workers against the Prussian onslaught that would eventually destroy the Commune.
Toward the end of the last century, as parts of the Left co-existed with the sex industry in a quiet détente, there arose WAP (Women Against Pornography), the anti-porn movement of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. In Chapter 2 of his book Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges quotes Dworkin thus: “The new pornography is left-wing; and the new pornography is a vast graveyard where the Left has gone to die.” And for her part, MacKinnon hectored the liberal National Organization for Women for coming out against Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination, arguing in Tikkun magazine in early 1991 that conservative men like him are more understanding and supportive of her objections to pornography and therefore should be given the benefit of the doubt; perhaps he might be won over to the larger women’s rights agenda. That Thomas was later revealed to be a porn consumer did not deter WAP from staying on its overtly anti-leftist course.
After Dworkin’s death in 2005, her torch was passed to academics Gail Dines and Robert Jensen. Both call themselves leftist – Dines will even occasionally use the M word – but they have not disavowed anything written by WAP’s leaders, including, and especially, that poison pill cited by Hedges. Hedges quoted Dworkin approvingly to headline his own opposition to pornography, which makes his buoyant, well-received presence at last year’s Left Forum a contribution to an ongoing state of confusion as to where the Left stands on such matters.
When I first presented at the Socialist Scholars Conferences in the 1990s, I shared with the audience my knowledge of the progressive sphere of the adult video and film industry, both in the content of its product, which then-Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn called “those jizz-flecked wankfests” as well as the politics of its best-known and most prolific female performer, the socialist-feminist Nina Hartley. But this new anti-porn Left, these left abolitionists, anchored by Dines’ group Stop Porn Culture, profess either to be ignorant of this recent past, or dismiss it as irrelevant since with the advent of so-called ‘gonzo’ porn, the Misogynist Apocalypse is upon us! To see whether these reports of doomsday are true, and also, as a member of SWOP, to get a sense of the actual state of sex workers in the most highly-publicized part of the sex industry, I traveled last April to Toronto to the first-ever Feminist Porn Conference and the eighth annual Feminist Porn Awards.
First, the Awards. Originally called the “Emma Awards” after anarchist and one-time sex worker Emma Goldman, the ceremony played host to over 500 attendees, its largest crowd ever according to Carly Jansen, the proprietor of the Good for Her sex shop that has produced the award show from the start. The attendees were overwhelmingly from Toronto’s LGBTQ community. The awards were founded in part out of disappointment that porn considered straight male-oriented was squeezing new, experimental and woman-oriented porn out of the spotlight at the Adult Video News award show, where the mainstream media would focus its attention.
Well, what is ‘feminist porn”? According to the award committee, nominated examples must meet 2 of these 3 criteria:
· Women and/or traditionally marginalized people were involved in the direction, production and/or conception of the work.
· The work depicts genuine pleasure, agency and desire for all performers, especially women and traditionally marginalized people.
· The work expands the boundaries of sexual representation on film, challenges stereotypes and presents a vision that sets the content apart from most mainstream pornography. This may include depicting a diversity of desires, types of people, bodies, sexual practices and/or an anti-racist or anti-oppression framework throughout the production.
And “of course, it must be hot!”
The top vote-getters were screened the night before the award show, and as an adult film critic, I found two films, “BioDildo” and “Krutch” a cut above the rest. “Biodildo”, starring independent porn superstar Jiz Lee, features her and her lover, a male-to-female transsexual, bored and longing for variety. They find this when the eponymous biodildo suddenly jumps out of their TV screen and onto the crotch of Jiz’s lover, where sweaty raunch ensues. In “Krutch”, disabled performer Mia Gimp walks, sometimes falling and then getting back up, through midtown Manhattan, fully-clothed. Later, at home, she undresses and proceeds to use her crutches as sex toys, finding routes to orgasm most abled folks have not imagined Like her city walking, there is struggle, resolve – and redemption. To the Canadians present, she was a great ambassador for New York City. From crotches to crutches, this show had it all!
The next day was the Feminist Porn Conference. Billed in part as a response to the resurgence of anti-porn feminism spearheaded by Dines and Jensen, this was a gathering of over 200 scholars, porn creators and sex workers. In the session “Labor, Politics and Power in the Adult Industry”, Mireille Miller-Young of UC Santa Barbara directly addressed the intersection of gender and race, pointing to concrete examples of how African-American women porn producers not only exist, but push on, playing with the stereotype of the hypersexual black woman, and then make lemonade out of lemons by creating scenarios in which they depict themselves as empowered subjects. Jennifer Moorman of UCLA talked with a wide spectrum of female pornographers. She found that some really like the nastiness of much mainstream porn while others do it to make an impression on their male mentors. Some of the directors are proudly feminist while others are uneasy with the label even as they do things that qualify as empowered. Kelly Aronowitz of CUNY (no relation to Stanley Aronowitz) analyzed the power dynamics of the Ultimate Surrender website produced by Kink.com, where women wrestle each other and the loser must submit sexually to the winner. Women overseas taking control of their sexual visions was the focus of the panel “Ladyporn: Porn for Women” The Dutch internet entrepreneur Liesbet Zikkenheimer and her colleagues developed a survey to see what sexual scenarios women liked and created DuskTV, a 24-hr cable network that caters to this audience. They have even coined a new word, porna (pornography for women).
Sex workers took center stage in the discussion about condoms and safer sex. Last November, the passage of Measure B in Los Angeles fueled a national debate over mandatory condom use in porn productions. 80% of gay male porn feature condom use as opposed to less that 10% for straight porn, according to Lisa Kadey of the University of Toronto. She summarized both sides of the argument, and while concluding that Measure B was bad because it gives the state the authority to trump a woman’s right to use her body as she sees fit, she advocates pursuing a Performers’ Bill of Rights, including their right to have condoms available on the set. While opposed to Measure B, veteran performer Courtney Trouble criticized the porn lobby group the Free Speech Coalition for ridiculing dental dams and other barriers when it caricatured Measure B's supporters as wanting all sex performers to wear Hazmat suits. She claimed that big-name porn stars have the privilege of choosing barriers for themselves or their partners, but lesser-known performers must make do working for bareback (non-barrier) studios. Arabelle Raphael, featured on the Ultimate Surrender wrestling site, claimed that some companies play a sneaky game, where they give performers the option to use condoms, but if the performers choose condoms, they will not be hired again.
In summary, the Conference and the Award show painted a convincing picture of an industry that, while problematic in some areas, is quite flexible in accommodating previously marginalized groups. The overall presentation in Toronto was effective in refuting the extreme charges made against it by the Left abolitionists that I refer to as neo-Puritans. And indeed, they are: Dines joined with social conservatives to attack President Obama for not enforcing federal obscenity statutes; Jensen opposes any explicit depiction of sex acts for the purposes of adult entertainment, stating that sex should not be “mediated” (depicted explicitly in any form of media). But what was not done in Toronto was a coming to grips with what its own conference literature billed as a ‘resurgent’ threat; instead, it was exclusively a celebration of personal identity and the empowerment gained for themselves by engaging with the porn industry. An opportunity was missed to discuss how this all relates to the larger struggles affecting women globally, such as the fights for equal rights, abortion rights and against violence against women. It was microfeminism par excellence, with no room for macrofeminism.
The mood was festive, but not feisty. There was no scheduled discussion of the history of censorship, particularly the Canadian experience of cracking down on lesbian and gay bookstores back in the 1990s for carrying items deemed obscene. And no scheduled discussion on how to challenge the neo-Puritans, despite their growing power abroad. Carly Jansen told me that the awards were no longer called the “Emmas” because she and her colleagues are intent on rebranding “feminism” to be a natural fit for porn, and the way to do that is through constant repetition of the F-word. The same day as the conference, the Toronto Star newspaper reported that the New Democratic Party, Canada’s political Left, was so intent on appearing more appealing to the voters that it was moving to delete from its party platform and official documents all mention of the word ‘socialism’ and perhaps ‘social democracy’ as well. So, no more “Emma”, no more “socialism.” And this, in the country that gave us a viable model of single-payer health insurance, and…William Shatner! Who knew that fear was so pervasive among Canada’s best?
While some of us here may mock Dines and Jensen for their over-the-top indictment of porn, their message is received much more seriously in Iceland, continental Western Europe and Israel. When Dines tours these places, she finds no organized feminist opposition to her. And the Left there, pandering to the women’s vote, just nods its head in agreement. And not just on pornography: Dines today, and Dworkin and MacKinnon earlier, were a sizeable influence in getting Scandinavian Social Democrats to campaign and legislate against sex trafficking with the so-called Swedish model (now called the ‘Nordic’ model), which says it’s not illegal for a sex worker to sell a sexual service, but it is illegal for a customer to buy a sexual service from that seller.
The last political success for these neo-Puritans came in 2009 with the election of Johanna Siggurdardottir of Iceland of the Social Democrat/Green coalition. Initially, there was widespread celebration on the Left – she was the first openly lesbian prime minister, and she had campaigned on a platform of getting Iceland to recover from the economic crisis brought upon it by the bankers and the conservative factions. When campaigning, she did not talk about going after the sex industry. But, shortly after she was elected, the Left parties banned prostitution along the lines of the Swedish model, then banned strip clubs and just a year ago, proposed banning all porn on the Internet. It turned out that Dines had met with Iceland government officials to help craft some of these measures, as if Siggurdardottir had her on speed-dial. This program of sexual austerity was soon accompanied by her government’s announcement that it was going to comply with the economic austerity program of the European Union so as to maintain its EU membership. This year, the Icelandic electorate had had enough and threw the Left out of office, reinstalling the same politicians who brought Iceland to the brink in the first place.
Are we seeing a pattern of neo-Puritan sexual austerity foreshadowing leftist parties' caving in to pressure for economic austerity? It’s just one example, so time will tell. But what is clear right now is that if the Left cowers and cringes before the neo-Puritans, it will be making the same mistakes it has made before, going back all the way to Le Commune.
Comrades, don’t we want to win?
Sheldon Ranz is a software consultant, free-lance writer and activist with the Sex Workers Outreach Project - NYC. His writings for Jewish Currents, Shmate and New Politics and his WBAI radio programs have explored the connections between the sex industry and prophetic Jewish dissent. He was a film critic for Adult Video News (1990-1997) and sponsored porn star Nina Hartley's appearances at the Socialist Scholars Conference (1991,1994).