Thursday, June 9, 2011

All I Really Need to Know I learned In the Club: What Feminism FOR REAL Taught Me About Sex Work and Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism.

Eva Rivera is a proud lesbian Chicana, daughter, sister and sex worker who can walk in 6 inch heels and twirl naked on a pole in front of total strangers but is still viciously afraid of moths. She hails from Fresno, CA and is a poet and aspiring film maker. You can find her more personal writing on her blog.   
Giddy with anticipation, I tore open the manila envelope that held my copy of Feminism FOR REAL edited by Jessica Yee. It was a generous gift from my girlfriend for my 23rd birthday. I had already read all the reviews and conversations surrounding this gem and was ready to start reading it myself. I tend to go for the titles that catch my attention first, then read around them. Of course the two contributions discussing sex work jumped right at me, and I flipped to those pages eager to hear other sex workers speak and to see what we had in common and what new conclusions and ideas I could draw from them.

The first piece was an interview with Anna Saini, Sex Work and Feminism. It was notable because it gave Saini, a sex worker activist, a platform to speak and not to simply be spoken of. I love the interview format because of this reason. She was engaging in a conversation, which is another practice in consent and negotiation, so I felt like this format mirrored sex workers realities and in this way also deconstructed the academic industrial complex of feminism. I was also excited to see Saini create her own definition of sex work, which set the background for the rest of the conversation. What stood out to me, was the importance she places on the context of sex work and how that really shapes what sex work is -- versus what is actually sexual assault (forced sex work isn't work- its sexual assault). This really speaks to the issues she later addresses about the Savior mentality, that some feminists have regarding sex worker agency, victimization, and their need to save us from ourselves.

Another thing I really appreciated about Saini, is her presence on the radio. She speaks about how she is active in this realm, which to me is another form of creating and participating in your own medium of education/educating.  

Equally fascinating was Andrea Plaid's No I Would Follow the Porn Stars Advice. Plaid's essay focuses on the academic industrials complex's need to employ only who they consider experts. Expertise is determined by who holds a degree. I think Plaid really made an excellent connection between the irony and ridiculousness of separating theory (specifically sexology, feminism, etc) from practice- as if a porn star doesn't have working knowledge about sex. Though she has made sex the center of her work, because she lacks the formal education of a sexologist, she can't possibly have the language to describe its complexity. It was vital to include this essay because this is certainly an issue that gets overlooked, even though it's central to our lives, and something that folks who aren't sex workers must come to understand and accept. Even though some of us don't use the jargon considered "proper" when talking about our work, we are still able to break down and understand our own experiences. I don't need someone with a degree to tell me the significance of my performance.

Of course reading this brought attention to my own educational background and to my thoughts on formal education in the world of sex work. Personally,I'm a community college drop out and have gotten plenty of tsk tsks for that. If I actually went ahead and came out to my family as a sex worker too, the backlash would be astronomical. This academic understanding of intelligence and education doesn't account for real life experience as having value. On the other side of the same coin, sex work and formal education have a much more direct relationship than people would think. Most people assume it is an inverse relationship, but who hasn't heard of the stripper who dances her way through college? The woman with a masters in journalism who escorts to pay off her college loans? Or....the smart, bookworm lesbian Chicana feminist, who web cams in between engaging in deep conversations with her girlfriend and reading her eyeballs out?

This discussion becomes even more complex, when you consider that in our world, a degree doesn't mean shit. It's a double-edged sword. If we have a degree, we are in this industry because we weren't successful in the "real world," where degree=success=intellegence. If we don't have a degree, we fall into another stereotype of being so stupid, we only can make a living spreading our legs. We don't live in the kind of world that values experience over a paper saying you are valuable. Ultimately, if you are a sex worker, or even were one in your past, it leaves a mark on you and a degree becomes worthless. Just consider Melissa Petro, the "Hooker Teacher," who was recently fired for being a sex worker years before she even became a teacher.

In order to counter the mythology that sex workers have nothing valuable to say, we must destroy tired stereotypes:
  • sex worker as damsel in distress, falling victim to this insatiable industry, to dumb to recognize her own oppression or to find her way out.
  • sex worker as silly girl who has no mind of her own and has to rely on her beauty to make it in the world
Both assume that sex workers not only lack complexity and agency, but brains. Some people choose sex work for the same reason they choose careers as professors, tellers, and bartenders. With the experience that comes from working in nearly any profession, comes gained knowledge. Information and practices specific to your industry can be applied to real life situations to problem solve, build, communicate, and shape futures. I've had many....too many...jobs and sex work has taught me more than how to spin without getting dizzy, and sweet talk men out of $100. I see sex work as another learning experience in my journey to my personal goals.

I'm going to put an old stereotype to rest right now. Sex workers actually come from all different formal educational backgrounds. Those with degrees are not exceptions, or miracles, or even role models, but a significant portion of sex workers. I could site statistics, but you can google them yourself. I'm going to list some numbers from a local and small poll taken from one of the most popular sex worker support sites. According to Stripperweb.com the numbers break down as such.

Of the 126 web cam models who responded, only 3.85% had dropped out of high school, 32.69% were currently in school and 25.96% obtained a bachelor's degree.

But even if we all had degrees, feminists who focus on bumping up the number of women in executive positions, skip over the equally important lessons that come from simply living and working. Since becoming a sex working, I am much more aware of my body,  my emotions, and have learned a number of skills that will serve me even when I choose a different line of work. But some feminists and mainstream media, have decided that they know whats best for us. For example, Marina Adshade, author of Looking for a Sex Worker? Good News! There's an App for That!, is clearly a misguided outsider.

She states "let me point out once more that 81% of the services these women provide is blow jobs. If that is the most marketable skill that a college degree for an American university gives a woman you, then I would suggest that President Obama is absolutely correct when he says it is time for educational reform."

Yes, this article is dripping with sarcasm. I get it, but that doesn't make it funny. Yes, she points out some issues with the job opportunities available to women, but assuming that simply because one of your job tasks includes fellatio, doesn't mean that's the definition of what a sex worker actually does. Sex work is, believe it or not, actual real-life work! Sex work is more than the performance (which believe me takes skill). It's marketing, communication, problem solving strategy, negotiation, cinematography, psychology, and costume/makeup design just to name a few. You must have intimate knowledge of sex, kinks, fetishes, and other things you generally don't just wake up with knowledge of.  Think about all the interesting and useful things you can learn from sex work.

The author and speaker of the two pieces in Feminism FOR REAL, did an excellent job in pushing folks to consider all that society is missing out on by silencing sex workers. The example of the porn star Ann Maria Rios having her own column discussing sex is important and needs to be a regular occurence. Imagine that instead of being criminalized, sex workers were actually allowed to speak out about topics like safer sex, their tips, advice, concerns and experiences with safer sex.  Now that would be some real education.

Some resources for your viewing pleasure....

*You can read Melissa Petro's response to the "Hooker Teacher" fiasco here

* You can view the Stripper Web poll and comments section here 
* Full article "Need a Sex Worker? Good News! There's an App for That!" here