What’s so wrong with a little sex work?

We shouldn’t forget that legalizing something means you’ll get more of it.
NYPOST.COM

This opinion piece poses an interesting response to the people arguing for legalizing sex work– of which, I am one.

I would argue that there is a difference between choosing sex work from a place of shame and desperation and choosing sex work from a place of knowing that it’s a good match for one’s interests and skill set.

Prostitution does not inherently commodify women’s or men’s bodies more than professional athletics, or acting, or hell, professional mime. It commodifies their compassion and hearts and conversation skills no more than therapy or teaching. It is no more soul-destroying than being a lawyer — far less in some cases.

I’ve meet a number of sex workers — and have two dear friends in sex work.  They are not victims or survivors (of anything more hostile than the occasional bad police work). They don’t lack self esteem — they’re empowered feminists who are proud of what they do.

One of them has a client who is a paraplegic who doesn’t leave the house.  Another has clients who are shy or don’t have the social skills to approach people for sex, but still have sexual desires.  Some clients are in town for business, or are just too busy to bother with all the complications that come with having a girlfriend or boyfriend.

I’ve known people who are clients too.  There are those who visit sex workers to learn new skills, to have a physical-only relationship with a person after their spouse or partner has become ill.  Some people are clear that they want sex, not a relationship.

What is wrong with that?

 

The author of the New York Post article also uses a slippery slope approach to argue that once sex work is made legal, everyone will want to do it.  There’ll be human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together…mass hysteria! (Thank you, Peter Venkman in my head.) The fear is that economically desperate and unemployed women will receive pressure to go into sex work…like they don’t already?

What is this romantic idea about empowerment through legal work, but not illegal work? Go to the nearest Target or McDonald’s and ask the workers there if they chose the job out of need and desperation or a recognition that it matches their skill set. Then ask them how empowering their work is, and if at the end of the day they feel fulfilled or maybe just a little degraded.

The author of the article then mentions all the organizations that are against Amnesty International’s position to decriminalize all aspects of professional, voluntary adult sex work, mentioning all the organizations that are against Amnesty International’s decision. In their own position paper, “Sex Workers’ Rights are Human Rights,” Amnesty International does describe this controversy and admits to being attacked from all sides when they first announced they’d be developing a group to protect the rights of sex workers.  It’s true.  This is a hugely controversial issue.  But you know who agrees with them?  Other reputable human rights organizations.  From that paper:

We would like to claim to be the first to address this issue.  But we are not. Other groups which support or are calling for the decriminalization of sex work include the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, International Labour Organization, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations and Anti-Slavery International.

It’s true that sex work is dangerous. You know why? Because it’s illegal. Until it is legal sex workers will not come forward when they’ve been harmed outside of their negotiated contract for fear of retaliation. Until it is legal, the industry won’t be regulated for safety.

Until it is legal, law enforcement will still conflate powerful, self-respecting, often feminist sex workers with human trafficking victims. Charitable groups will waste their time trying save people who don’t want or need to be saved when they could instead be devoting their efforts to real human trafficking, slavery, and the institutionalized injustices which make real crime invisible.

Rape Culture in YA Literature

Steady yourselves, I’m going to recommend an article in Glamour magazine.

But first I want to talk about Veronica Mars. You remember Veronica Mars right? A TV show a few years back, it featured Kristen Bell as a high school girl who helped solve cases that came in to her Dad’s detective agency. But what sucked me in right away was her backstory.

Veronica Mars was a popular girl who went to a party and was drugged & raped … and didn’t know by whom. When she went to  law enforcement she was ridiculed by the sheriff (“Why don’t you go see the Wizard. Ask for a little backbone.”) Her boyfriend broke up with her. She lost her “friends” overnight. I found that to be … well, realistic.

When the show opens, it is a year after that event. She has become a wise-cracking tough girl with no friends. A girl with PTSD who nevertheless handles her aftermath with grace and a taser.

Though that may not ring quite as true with many of us survivors, it is my fantasy of how I handled things 30 years ago. This was back in 1984. There was no background or training about rape other than from the plots of 1970’s cop shows. Opening: woman walks through dark parking lot. Footsteps. She looks back and quickens her steps.  The following steps quicken.  She fumbles for her keys and runs for her car door.  A man in a mask puts a gloved hand around her mouth.  Cut to commercial.   That was rape.

But someone forcing sex on you in his apartment?  That was just a thing that happened. Unless you were a pristine virgin attacked by an absolute stranger in front of witnesses, you didn’t go to the police. You put up with it. You didn’t question it. There was no talk about consent culture or rape culture. No one recognized acquaintance rape as “real rape” back then.

I talked to my roommate, who told me the same thing had happened to her and shrugged. I talked to my parents, who sympathized and urged me to stay in school. I talked to someone in the counseling office who talked about rites of passage and growing up. And I talked to a friend who said “Everyone’s first time sucks.” I don’t resent any of those people. We just didn’t know. It did not occur to anyone that this was rape, least of all me. (Also, tasers weren’t commercially available until after 1994, but I digress.)

If the books mentioned in the Glamour article below had been around, maybe one person would have believed me. If I had read these books, I’d have had the tools to acknowledge what had happened. I don’t have a lot of regrets in life, but I do wish I’d known enough to prosecute this guy.  I’m sure I’m not alone in that regret. Still today, 68% of rapes are not reported, and 98% of rapists won’t spend a single night in jail.

Over three decades we’ve changed a lot, and that’s worth celebrating.  A young* person raped in someone else’s apartment today may still be slut-shamed or told that they’re making too big a deal out of it, but there are advocates all over the internet.  Like RAINN.org, where a survivor can start getting the support and information they need.  Or No More.org, which gives friends and family members the strategies to be supportive. Or 1in6, specifically created for the estimated 17% of sexual assault victims who are men.  As the conversations about date rape and rape culture come up, and consent culture gains advocates, sexual assaults have gone down about 49% since 1993.

And here’s a great thing:  today’s young adults are getting more of an education about what rape culture is, through media. Glamour’s article on YA Literature makes that clear. And it is here:

http://www.glamour.com/story/ya-lits-hot-new-trend-fighting-rape-culture

It’s my hope that today’s young adults will recognize rape as rape when it happens to them or their friends. Certainly counselors and administrators and law enforcement have more information about it. But we still have a long way to go. Even as you read this some shell-shocked teenager is being questioned by someone they trust who will fail them by asking what they were wearing, if they were drinking and if they really thought it was rape. “It can’t be real rape — you’re a boy,” they will be told. Or, “you went to his apartment willingly.”

 Call to action: promote consent culture by having conversations with the young people in your lives…and buy someone a book that will help them recognize rape when it happens to someone around them.

Radical Feminism and BDSM

I was raised by a radical feminist, and I consider myself a strong feminist and proponent of sexual freedom and an activist in the sex positive movement.  So I was startled to be asked “Why is that radical feminists have such an anti-BDSM stance?”

First, not all radical feminists *do* have an anti-BDSM stance, particularly within the BDSM community. I run into feminist women and men all the time who came to an understanding of their kinks & fetishes through a long and authentic personal journey that led them to understand that what they want and need sexually is fine in the context of the Sex Positive movement.

But for radical feminists who don’t have a good understanding of BDSM? Look, when read on the surface, all the cultural norms of male Dominant and female submissive relationships *look like* the cultural norms of oppressive, patriarchal culture.*

If you’re not familiar with most of the conventions of BDSM, it *appears* that males have power and females don’t in these relationships. Female submission in particular is problematic. When I was a child, women were still considered legally the property of their husbands in the majority of the states. If a woman was raped by her husband, it wasn’t rape. Only in my lifetime has that changed. To radical feminists — hell, to most non-kinky human beings — watching a man tie up and beat a woman is like watching a nightmare come true. Watching a woman agree to that is like watching a woman punish herself through her own choices, choose subjugation over freedom, and deny who she really is.

We can’t blame people who are not in the culture for not getting it. If you planted me on an island in the South Pacific, I’m sure there are lots of things I wouldn’t understand. If you winked, I might not understand if you were trying to cheat me, flirt with me, or make an alliance with me. If I went to France and you sold me a ticket to a ballet in Paris, I might go assuming that I had a seat, and be very surprised to find that the ticket I bought entitled me to sit on the stairs. Two fingers held up in a V by a male American soldier during World War II often meant victory; the same gesture made by a long-haired girl with flowers in her hair in 1967 meant peace.

There is so much of counter-culture that simply can’t be read from outside it. If you are in the BDSM community for a year, you start to understand concepts like “consent” and “negotation” and how important they are. You also learn to separate out the true Dominant or Sadist from the jerk who preys on women new to BDSM — the man who calls himself a top or a Dom but who is actually bent on real abuse. When you’ve been in the BDSM community for a year, you see a man tie up and beat a woman, and you understand that this is consensual, the woman has enthusiastically agreed to the scene (or sought it out), and even if it’s not your idea of a good time, you get that he and she are probably having a good time.

When you’ve been in the BDSM community for 10 years, you’ve come to understand it as a culture, or a collective of cultures with their own norms, and you understand that when you are watching a man tie up and beat a woman, you are watching a woman who has exercised her sexual freedom and her right of choice to seek out an intense sensation and a power dynamic that gives her an endorphin rush and gets her off. You understand that much of the power in that relationship comes from the woman giving her power to the man — and that she can take it back at any time.

If you are steeped in BDSM culture for a long time, that scene looks very different. You see power flowing between the two parties. You see the overt power — which looks like it is all the Dominant’s — and the covert power — which is the submissive’s to give over to the Dominant or not. You see, perhaps, the flow of the power as it waxes and wanes in a given scene. If you’re lucky, you see how much love that couple has for each other (if it’s that kind of relationship). And if you’re the very, very lucky submissive — as I am — maybe you’re the woman tied up on the St. Andrew’s cross participating in a deep ritual of love and trust (trust that’s reinforced again and again) that feels like nothing else in the world.

All power to the radical feminists who have their own deep culture and readings and interpretations of things. Just understand: it’s a different culture. And you can’t expect someone who is new to your country to understand what it means when you wink.

–Virginia Lore

* [I’m using the male D / female s construct because that’s the one that raises the most hackles in the feminist community. Female D / male s doesn’t seem to hit the same nerve.]

BDSM or Murder

All four defendants were found guilty in the beating and strangulation death of “house slave” Shirley Beck, reports the Leaf Chronicle in Clarksville, Tennessee.  Beck, who was 39 at the time of her death in 2014, had come to Clarksville  in 2012 to be trained in BDSM* and meet the man she’d developed an online relationship with, whom she hoped would become her Master.

The relationship didn’t work out.  Beck moved in with next-door neighbor Twila Ours, and a few months later asked if she could be Ours’ slave, according to Ours. Ours said she took Beck on as a house slave, a term the Leaf Chronicle calls “the lowest level in the BDSM community”.  Though Ours and Beck had a BDSM relationship, it did not include sex, said Ours.

She loaned Beck to the mistress Cynthia Skipper at the house at 108 Wilson to do some cleaning, and Beck eventually moved in there, where she did the housework and chores for all six housemates, none of whom worked. Skipper received Beck’s disability checks and controlled her money.

One day in June, 2014, one of the housemates (Alphonso Richardson)  became enraged because of what he thought was boric acid residue on his girlfriend’s glass. He said his girlfriend was blind, and he thought Beck was trying to kill her.  He woke up the other housemates yelling, and four of them suspended Beck, took turns beating her until she passed out, revived her, continued to beat her until she passed out, revived her again.

They beat her for four hours, and revived her three times to continue their punishment. Matthew Lee Reynolds was responsible for at least 50 strikes and kicks using martial arts moves. Alphonso Richardson continued to beat her well past any of the others, sometimes using a metal pole he’d taken from a military cot.  Skipper sat by and continued to inspire the men to beat Beck.  Derek M. Vicchitto helped suspend her, revive her, and suspend her again.  He beat her with an oxygen hose. At one point she was moved from a bedroom into the living room because the roommates didn’t want to damage the electronics in the room.

The defense argued that the beating was consensual, that Beck never uttered her safeword, and that this death was the tragic result of a BDSM play session gone bad.  There is a difference between BDSM and domestic violence, and that difference is consent.

The defense attorney stated, and the press asked:

Was this BDSM?

No.  According to the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, consent must be “informed and freely given.”  In its “SM vs. Abuse Policy Statement” the NCSF says that sadomasochistic activity relies on activity that is safe, sane and consensual.

In guidelines developed by the Leather Leadership Conference in 1998 (then in New York), there are questions that one can use to determine whether the activity is BDSM or violence.

Informed consent must be judged by balancing the following criteria for each encounter at the time the acts occurred:

  • Was informed consent expressly denied or withdrawn?
  • Were there factors that negated the informed consent?
  • What is the relationship of the participants?
  • What was the nature of the activity?
  • What was the intent of the accused abuser?

Whether an individual’s role is top/dominant or bottom/submissive, they could be suffering abuse if they answer no to any of the following questions:

  • Are your needs and limits respected?
  • Is your relationship built on honesty, trust, and respect?
  • Are you able to express feelings of guilt or jealousy or unhappiness?
  • Can you function in everyday life?
  • Can you refuse to do illegal activities?
  • Can you insist on safe sex practices?
  • Can you choose to interact freely with others outside of your relationship?
  • Can you leave the situation without fearing that you will be harmed, or fearing the other participant(s) will harm themselves?
  • Can you choose to exercise self-determination with money, employment, and life decisions?
  • Do you feel free to discuss your practices and feelings with anyone you choose?

BDSM was the label the group of housemates put on their behavior to justify it.  But calling this horrific case “BDSM” is like calling rape “sex”.  If Shirley Beck were asked the questions above in the weeks before her death, no doubt her answers would have been “no”.

This case wasn’t about BDSM.  It was about psychopathy, group-think, a cluster of people who brainwashed each other into a culture in which it was okay to beat a disabled woman whose money the house mistress controlled.

Beck had a safeword, yes. She did come to Clarksville in search of a BDSM relationship, of course she did.  Another article in the Leaf-Chronicle reports that she left Illinois, a marriage and a child, because she felt like something “was missing from her life”.

Her housemates said she never used her safeword. The prosecution pointed out that she had socks stuffed in her mouth and was barely conscious for much of the beating.

And there is also this: though a neighbor had reached out and asked if he could take her to a domestic violence shelter a few days before, she had declined that help. Other neighbors stated they felt she was afraid, terrified of the people she lived with, but more terrified to leave them.

In such a state of mind, consent is not possible.

The Leaf Chronicle called a “house slave” the “lowest level in the BDSM community”.  As if there were a single BDSM community that had hierarchical rungs up a ladder, and if you weren’t good enough you would be knocked down to the next-lowest rung.  This implies that disrespect of the slave  is the usual basis of a Mistress/slave relationship.

It isn’t.  In many power exchange relationships, the power goes both ways, exerted by both partners within their roles.  The one who identifies as a “slave” may serve because he or she feels an almost holy vocation to serve others, or finds it very comfortable and natural.

Of course there are as many ways live a BDSM lifestyle as there are people who live it. But how these people expressed their kink that day in June has nothing to do with BDSM. It doesn’t touch the way the kinky people I know live their lives: gently, lovingly, ethically, and creatively.

Was this an injustice? Yes. A tragedy, yes. A beating death. Group violence.  But not BDSM.

This was just pain old murder.

 

*BDSM refers to some part or all of these: Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism.  For a more involved definition, see the wiki.