What would a future anthropologist make of the bizarre and seemingly contradictory
assortment of information on sexuality available today? Place side by side: the
Meese Report, with its sordid account of the social effects of pornography; an
article in Self, a respectable women's magazine, by a professional journalist
about the unexpected pleasures of moonlighting in a phone sex company; and On
Our Backs, "Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian" which promotes
sexual experimentation and sex education from a decidedly feminist point of view.
How does one reconcile the fact that in our society, which places such a high
premium on sexual pleasure, sexuality is also the object of intense public scrutiny
and official censure?
A popular interpretation of this paradoxical evidence is that we are in a period
of transition. According to the pendulum theory of historical change, sexual attitudes
periodically shift from one extreme to the other. Thus the 40s and 50s were characterized
by uptight, moralistic attitudes toward sex. In the 60s and 70s a cycle of sexual
permissiveness followed, while now in the mid-80s, the pendulum appears to be
in full swing back to the repressive extreme. Presumably, by the late 90s we can
expect yet another reversal.
Such cavalier explanations of social/sexual "trends" ignore the diffuse,
but profound effects that changes in the moral climate have on everyone's daily
lives (not just on those who become the immediate victims of moral panics). These
explanations don't account for people's susceptibility to these shifts, then ignore
the moral crusaders' political motives, and trivialize the legacy of sexual freedom
resulting from the social movements of the 60s, 70s and early 80s. The pendulum
theory promotes a fatalistic passivity in response to the current moral crusade
("Don't worry, it's just a reaction, it'll pass in time"). But I, for
one, am not prepared to sit out 20 years of sexual repression.
A history of attitudes on sexuality reveals that society has not always been so
obsessed with it. Moral standards and definitions of what is sexually desirable
vary immensely throughout history and between cultures, as do the manner in which
sexual mores get encoded and enforced. It is only in the past century, for example,
that medical and psychiatric institutions have played a significant role in setting
standards for sexual normalcy and health, and in defining appropriate sexual behavior.
Much more recently-- since the 50s--sexuality has become a key component of our
self-esteem. We feel like failures if we don't have a good sex life. What has
remained constant in our culture for centuries is a puritanical view of sex as
a dark force, the wild side of human nature that society must tame. According
to this view, which Gayle Rubin has termed the "domino theory of sexual peril,
unchecked sexuality will devour everything in its path, leading to the demise
of civilization as we know it" (see bibliography at the end of this article)
It is this view that keeps resurfacing in morality campaigns and that becomes
the outlet of many fears and anxieties. It was this sex-negative attitude that
the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s challenged. The result was new opportunities
for personal freedom and sexual pleasure and experimentation which for the first
time touched the lives of millions, and not just small groups of avant-gardists
in bohemian quarters. For if sex is a vector of oppression, as Gayle Rubin puts
it, it has also been a vector of freedom. The liberation of sex from its procreative
function cleared the way for a complete re-evaluation of women's place in the
world and furthered the public emergence of a homosexual rights movement.
The conviction that men and women could enjoy sex outside the nuclear family contradicted
the ideal of Woman as guardian of sexual morality. The excitement and openness
about sexuality allowed many women to explore their sexual passion. These developments
helped break down double standards based on "natural" differences between
the sexes. Even those of us who were too young or apolitical to be directly involved
in the social movements of the 60s and 70s benefited from the change in the moral
landscape that followed. I never expected to marry and have kids with the first
man I had sex with--at fifteen, marriage was the furthest thought from my mind.
What I sought was pleasure, adventure, experience, and, yes, romance. In a contrast
to my mother's generation that should not be underestimated, I entered my first
sexual relationship expecting to enjoy it, and without fearing pregnancy. This
experience was momentous and scarcely free from anxiety, but it wasn't laden with
immense burdens of guilt and fear either. Later, at sixteen, I discovered the
pleasures of casual sexual relationships.
This historically unprecedented sexual freedom was intimately connected with my
idea of myself as an individual with my own life to lead, with my own goals and
desires. Twenty years earlier I would have been preoccupied mainly with seeking
a man to append myself to, and hoping for children to devote my life to. When
I did decide to have a child, I discussed the division of labor at length with
my partner. There was an unquestioned assumption that life and work outside the
domestic realm was equally important to both of us. A serious commitment to a
life-partner and a child has not ended the process of sexual discovery and experimentation.
I can hardly claim to have found the key to sexual happiness. My own experience
has led to painful bouts of jealousy, sexual insecurity, and time- management
nightmares, and I am still contending with the traditional gender division in
many ways. I hope that my daughter will benefit from our continuing attempts to
challenge these limitations.
Millions have enjoyed the opportunities for greater fulfillment that freedom from
the traditional confines of conjugal heterosexuality has provided. For many of
us, these private opportunities would have been unthinkable without a widespread
conscious challenge to our traditional sexual heritage.
to the Sexual Revolution?
ROOTS OF REACTION
The initial wave of freedom and excitement that redefined sexual roles left in
its wake a whole new set of problems and anxieties, especially for women. Sexual
freedom came to mean too much and too little at the same time. Divested of their
radical social implications, the new sexual attitudes were narrowly reinterpreted
as "the more sex the better." The idea of sexual revolution became associated
with a promiscuous "lifestyle"; this fit in nicely with the hedonistic
ideology that has marked the 80s. ( Ironically, the divorce of sexual freedom
from social implications has made it possible to put sexual passion in the service
of traditional conjugal heterosexuality. In The Remaking of Sex [see bibliography]
Ehrenreich et al describe the fundamentalist sexual revival, which encourages
women to be sexy but only with their husbands and in their own bedrooms.)
Once sexual freedom and promiscuity had been equated, those who didn't get off
on promiscuity- -who felt pressured into it or who tired of it when the novelty
wore off--began to question the importance of sexual freedom itself. For many
women, in particular, the freedom to have more sex doesn't do the trick. The route
to sexual pleasure tends to be easier for men, who are often more comfortable
with and aware of their sexual desires. Women are confronted with the double problem
of freeing themselves from subordination to male desire while discovering their
own. And it doesn't help that the discourse of sexual desire has, until very recently,
been primarily a male domain. Our attempts to define our sexuality are complicated
by efforts to counter what we have experienced as oppressive sexual objectification.
For example, we want to free ourselves from our conditioned obsessiveness with
our bodies, while discovering new ways to feel at home in them. For some feminists
the solution has been to reject the whole concept of sexiness, which they consider
to be inextricably associated with oppressive male standards. In its extreme form,
the attitude holds that sexual objectification is the keystone to misogyny and
is therefore central to the widespread violence against women in our society.
This is the position of the feminist anti-pornography movement. Other feminists
have attempted to broaden the notion of sexiness to encompass qualities that are
more in tune with their own tastes.
Another ideology popularly associated with sexual liberation is sexual naturalism,
the notion that all we have to do is recover our "natural" sexuality
in order to transform society into a loving community. But what constitutes natural
sexuality? One major problem with the idea that sexuality can be extricated from
social and historical contexts is that it leads to new standards of "naturalness"
that exclude acceptance of benign forms of sexual variation. There is nothing
particularly natural about a vibrator, for example, yet many women have found
their path to orgasm using one. Homosexuality has often been condemned on the
grounds that it is a crime against nature. The new opportunities opened up by
sexual freedom were thus riddled with confusion and ambiguity. Over the past few
years, a new body of research and literature has attempted to explore and clarify
these issues. (See bibliography ). Meanwhile, other social changes have exacerbated
the confusion that became the breeding ground for reaction. The counterculture,
which had provided a context for experimentation and discussion, collapsed. The
disintegration of family and community networks accelerated, one example being
the dramatic increase of single-mother families. Women, particularly those in
rural areas where the traditional mores continued to hold sway, were afraid of
the license the new sexual freedom gave their husbands. They feared that their
husbands' ties to them would be weakened, leaving them in the lurch with little
possibility of financial independence.
The sexual revolution (or, rather, a vague constellation of ideologies and images
that the term has come to evoke) became a scapegoat for many problems that had
little to do with sexuality per se. It also became a focus of disillusionment
because of inflated expectations about the degree to which it could change people's
SEX FOR THE MARKET
Controversy over the meaning of the sexual revolution has led to contentious debate
over the vast growth of the commercial sex world. The sex industry accounts for
expenditures of billions of dollars every year. In 1985 alone, $375 million was
spent on porn videos in the U.S. For some people this is an alarming indication
that the sexual revolution has gone too far. Opposition to the sex industry has
brought together feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon and right-wing
zealots like Edwin Meese in an unlikely coalition. These people have targeted
the sex industry as a primary locus of social decay and female oppression.
Certainly many entrepreneurs (pornographers, advertisers, media moguls), few of
them concerned with feminist ideas, have capitalized on the popularity of sexual
diversity and experimentation. Yet amidst the controversy over the sex industry's
effects on women, there is a remarkable lack of analysis of what the industry
means to the women who work in it, and how sexual liberalization affects them.
What is really going on in the sex business? Why do women work in the industry?
How is the campaign against pornography and prostitution affecting the women in
it? Does the freedom of sexual expression contribute to the oppression of women
in the industry? It's difficult to talk about the sex industry as a monolithic
whole. The kinds of people who work in it and their reasons for doing so, vary
as much as the services the sex industry provides. For many female sexworkers,
working in The Life is fraught with danger and violence. See, for example, Linda
Thomas's "Your Knife in My Life" in this issue.
But the stereotypical idea of how women enter into prostitution and why they are
vulnerable to violence is badly skewed. Except for a small minority (accurate
figures about the sex industry are impossible to obtain for obvious reasons) people
don't get dragged into prostitution when some porn-addicted pervert forces them
to sell their bodies. Violence and degradation often begin in a family life marked
by poverty, desperation, and, in many cases, physical and emotional abuse. Whereas
for some women prostitution continues the pattern, for others it provides a tangible
escape to economic independence. In any case, the decision to market one's sexuality
is often based on a perception of limited opportunities for economic survival
in the straight world.
Much of the violence associated with this work stems from the stigma and repression.
Clients who feel guiltiest about their sexual needs and the most disdainful of
prostitutes are the most likely to treat them badly. The fact that prostitution
is ghettoized in areas of high crime is also a major cause of danger. Other significant
sources of danger are the police and the jails.
Directing moral campaigns toward the suppression of the sex industry, instead
of addressing the underlying economic issues for the women in it, makes things
harder for those women, especially the ones at the bottom. Prosecution of prostitution
makes it difficult for them to get out of The Life. They need money while looking
for new work, and the bail for routine arrests makes it difficult to accumulate
funds. Prostitution's illegality also reinforces subordination of prostitutes
to their pimps, who provide protection of sorts. One woman was robbed and threatened
with rape by hotel security guards who accused her of soliciting. The fear of
being turned in makes it hard to sustain a community--every bust leads to suspicion
of betrayal. Many women in the industry say that escort services routinely turn
in women in exchange for not being busted. Greater restriction on prostitution
will not put an end to it. To the contrary. Intensified repression of the sex
industry will most damage the women who are the most vulnerable to abuse. At this
end of the industry, demand is created by society with limited opportunities for
sexual fulfillment, while the supply of women is assured by poverty.
Some women believe that the changes of the past decades have affected prostitution.
It may be, for example, that a stronger sense of independence has somewhat lessened
women's reliance on pimps for protection and emotional support. Feminist organizations
like the U.S. Prostitutes Collective and C.O.Y.O.T.E.
(Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), by defending the rights and dignity of women
in the sex business, take away some of the stigma associated with it. Women like
Linda Thomas (see her article in this issue) benefit from a sexually open-minded
community that let them "come out" about their experiences, and put
them in perspective. Their willingness to open up, in turn, is a valuable contribution
to our own understanding.
Moral campaigns, on the other hand, force women sex workers deeper into the closet,
and increase the stress of leading a double life. The stigma makes it harder to
organize or demand better working conditions, and also to seek help or get legal
protection. One woman, for example, who had a serious occupational accident on
a porn set could not prosecute because the publicity would ruin her reputation.
She also got fired from a "straight" job when her coworkers discovered
she worked as a porn actress.
The stigma associated with sex work has led to a gross underestimation of a second
category of sex workers, the "temps." Many women occasionally trade
sex for some quick cash, or maybe in a good discount on a new car. Such trade
can involve anything from a quick blowjob to a one-time session for a nude magazine
or an orgy scene in a porn movie. We may wonder why our society creates a demand
for such temp jobs, but it's hard to portray many women who do them as especially
oppressed. The sex temps I know of come from all kinds of backgrounds and they
look on these jobs as a way to make a fast buck--not something they'd want to
do all the time but not particularly problematic either.
Many women, particularly dancers, models, and escort agency call-girls, choose
the work because it pays better than most other jobs they could get, and they
have a fair measure of control over it. This says more about the paucity of
women's economic opportunities than it does about the degradation of female
sex workers. "Dancing has meant I could spend time with my daughter for
the first lime in her life" claims one working mother, a former university
teaching assistant who now makes far more money doing three 5-hour shifts weekly
in a strip club. Another woman who works in a booth, talking sex over the phone
to men behind a glass wall, got the job after she found she couldn't make ends
meet working for an insurance company.
Some women like erotic dancing and acting in porn movies because they enjoy
performing or frankly admit to being exhibitionists and loving the attention
they get. In any performing career there is the hazard of getting too caught
up in an "egotrip." One woman commented that some performers begin
to think of themselves solely in terms of their sexuality and appearance, leading
to competitive attitudes towards coworkers. On the other hand dancing allowed
another woman to overcome feelings of inadequacy about her appearance. "I
was never a hot number with guys. I always felt like an ugly duckling. When
I started dancing I fell in love with my body. Now I am more sexually self-assertive."
Working conditions in erotic dance clubs vary enormously. Some are cleaner
and more well-kept than others. Some managers harass the women, demanding sexual
favors in return for job security, while others leave the women pretty much
alone as long as they show up on time. Sometimes women have completely different
experiences working at the same place. These differences seem partly related
to a woman's level of self-esteem and her ability to stand up for herself. A
woman who appears vulnerable is more likely to be harassed. Wages also vary.
In some of the clubs, women get paid a straight salary for their shifts, and
any stars make more than the regulars. In others, the salary is negligible;
the money comes from tips. Some women prefer this because they make much more
money, and some like the contact with customers. Others, however, hate having
to talk to customers and sit on their laps.
Another category of women involved in the sex industry is the "activists."
Many have had careers in social work or sex education. One dominatrix working
in the East Bay, for instance, rejects the classification of "sex worker."
She believes that her occupation can teach men how to respect women. One woman,
who has worked as a call girl in Marin, sees herself as a "sexual healer,"
providing a service that men need, but can't get because of repressive social
attitudes. More recently, however, this woman has begun to question her own
altruism, wondering whether identifying her job with social work isn't becoming
a rationalization of problems she is becoming aware of. She admits to feeling
degraded at times (though she has never been coerced in her work) but at times
her work is a revenge against degradation. When she gets depressed or feels
taken advantage of, turning a trick makes her feel in control and restores her
self-esteem. The experience, which is not uncommon among sex workers at all
levels, points to the complexity of the power relations in the work. Moreover,
it shows that the male clients, too, are victimized by contemporary sexual morality.
Women in the sex industry often feel that what drives men to pay for sexual
services is more degrading than providing them.
One part of the sex industry really is a direct product of the feminist ideals
of sexual revolution--a very small, but growing area of the industry that could
be called the alternative sex industry. Many people who work in this area do
so not primarily for the money, but as sex educators. The philosophy of Good
Vibrations, a San Francisco vibrator store that sells many varieties of
women's sex toys, is to help women discover and enjoy their sexuality. "We're
100 years behind men, asserts Susie Bright,
editor of On Our Backs, whose circulation, she claims, has jumped to 12,000
in a few years, making it the best-selling lesbian periodical. She believes
women need to become more knowledgeable about fantasies and sexuality. They
need to learn how to enjoy porn, which includes finding sexy images that are
not male-identified. The alternative sex industry is trying to address many
questions that the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s left unanswered.
SEX: A SCAPEGOAT FOR ALL REASONS
The sex industry has been held responsible for the proliferation of sexist
images and ideas throughout society, for women's victimization and exploitation,
for the destruction of families, and for encouraging rape and child-molesting.
The growth of pornography and prostitution is held up as one of the nefarious
consequences of the sexual revolution, an example of how dangerous loose sexual
attitudes really are. So appealing has porn been as a target that it has united
feminists like Andrea Dworkin (for whom the Meese Report was "a turning
point in women's rights" [Time 7/21/86] with right-wing fundamentalists
who want to put women back in the home.
Scapegoating the sex industry distracts the public from deeper social problems.
What is really going on in the morality campaigns is an attempt to re-legitimate
traditional values. The mission of restoring the nuclear family as a haven of
warmth and safety is appealing for many reasons. It offers a hope that we can
extract ourselves from the complicated horrors of the world, it allows us to
close our eyes to the endemic sources of violence and degradation in our society.
Singling out the figure of the sex-crazed child molester, for example, is easier
than acknowledging the far more pervasive routine emotional and physical abuse
that abounds in the American family. For the media, stories of psychotic sex
criminals make good copy, for politicians, sexual fear is a political goldmine.
The politicians behind the resurgent interest in sex-busting are at least appearing
to do something about the anxieties created by social decay.
By deflecting fears from the real causes, moral panics exacerbate the anxieties
they pretend to address. Even the most trivial social interactions become charged
with fear: mothers react with panic when a stranger stops to pat their child
on the head, childcare workers refrain from affectionate physical contact with
the children in their care. Children themselves are taught to associate sex
with fear and danger, reinforcing sex-negative attitudes.
Sexual license is a primary target of today's moral panic, and in response
we assert our right to sexual freedom--not just on the grounds of free speech
or privacy, but in affirmation of the positive side of sexual pleasure. At the
same time it is important to go beyond the sexual to understand the anxiety
that is being tapped by the sex-busters. We need to focus our fear and anger
on underlying economic and social problems and not on false targets.
by Maxine Holz
Pleasures, Women Write Erotica (Harper & Row, 1984), Lonnie Barbach, ed.
A History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, by Michel Foucault, trans.
Robert Hurley, (New York, Pantheon, 1978).
"Thinking Sex" by Gayle Rubin in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Women's
Sexuality; (Boston and London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984). Carol Vance,
"Pleasure and Danger: Towards a Politics of Sex" by Carol Vance in
Pleasure and Danger, op cit.
Sexuality and Its Discontents: Meanings, Myths and Modern Sexualities (Routledge
and Kegan Paul, 1985) by Jeffrey Weeks
On Our Backs, Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian, PO Box 421916, San
Francisco, CA 94142.
Re-Making Love, The Feminization of Sex by Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess
and Gloria Jacobs (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986).
U.S. Prostitutes Collective
P.O. Box 14512
San Francisco, CA 94114
P.O. Box 26345
San Francisco, CA
(addresses were current in 1987)