Trigger Warning: Graphic description of child abuse and rape.
This is going to be bit rambly. I can't help that. I have a lot of thoughts, conflicting thoughts, and I'm going to try and get them out as best I can.
I have no personal experience with prostitution, or with what most people think of when they talk about pornography.I have been molested and raped: both times, pictures were taken. When I was nine, I was molested over the course of a year by a seventeen year old boy who was living in our house as he finished up High School. I was easy prey; I was homeschooled, extremely sheltered (I didn’t even know what sex was), a chubby, socially isolated outcast with few friends, and though my parents loved me, they both worked all the time On several occasions, he took pictures of me, partially undressed, in what I now realize were sexual poses. At the time, I didn't fully understand what was going on. I knew enough to be ashamed, I knew that I couldn't tell anyone. But J. told me I was beautiful and had me pose like the pictures on the magazine covers and movie posters, like a real woman.
Years later, when I was an adult, I was brutally raped just a couple blocks from my home, when I took a stupid shortcut through the park. The pictures were almost an afterthought; after he had bruised me, burned me, raped me, he pulled out a camera phone and snapped a couple pictures. The most I ever saw of him was through the glow of that phone, his bulbous nose and crooked teeth, not enough for a good description for the cops. Oh, the wondrous progression of technology.
I have lived in fear for years that those photos of me are on the internet, graphic snapshots of my humiliation and pain. I have no reason to think that they aren't. Sometimes I can't help thinking about the men who have, over the years, masturbated to those images of a scared, humiliated little girl trying so hard to be pretty, to be loved, to be a woman. I wonder if that rapist was able to get my face in the shot, or if I exist only as a headless battered vagina, if he could even get the pictures to come out when they were taken on a pitch-black night. I try not to think about it, which is really all that I can do about it.
People would be quick to point out that what happened to me wasn't really pornography, it was rape, and they would be mostly right. I didn't chose what happened, and I certainly wasn't paid for it. But I have heard too many stories from girls and boys and women who were forced to take pictures, like I was, so that men could continue to rape them in their minds over and over and over again. I can't entirely dismiss the comparison. I also can’t dismiss the similarities between what I went through and common images in movies and magazines. Would I still have been raped and molested without the multi-billion dollar porn industry, much of it saturated with images of raped and abused women? Maybe. But the boy who molested me wasn't an adult, wasn't any older than my baby brother is now (who seems impossibly young to me). Would he have known what to do without porn? Would he have even thought to take pictures? Again, maybe. There's no way to know something like that. Thinking of a society without porn seems even more fantastical than thinking of a society without religion.
I have my own thoughts about prostitution and pornography. I dislike on principle the thought of someone selling their body for money--and, yes, I know the argument that goes we all sell our bodies for money, whether by cleaning tables or dancing on top of one, but prostitution feels different. And, yet, I'm a skeptic, I'm a feminist, I can't base my beliefs on what feels right, and judging what other women do with their bodies--or trying to force them to live the way I think they should--goes against everything I believe in.
One thing I’ve learned since becoming involved in progressive politics in how important it is to listen, especially to marginalized groups you are unfamiliar with (and though both anti-porn and pro-porn folks might both disagree, I think it’s hard to make a case that the vast majority of women in porn and prostitution are not marginalized), and most especially when your motivation is to “save” them. Yes, it’s important to be an ally, to fight with people against oppression and injustice, to stand up for people who are being victimized. But if you don’t listen, if you don’t take the time to try and understand a different perspective, you can do a lot of damage. At the very least, you can unintentionally hurt someone because you don’t realize that what you’re saying is hurtful (unfortunately, especially in racial and trans* issues, I’ve done this). There is nothing more condescending than telling someone you know better than they do what they really need, when you haven’t lived their life. It’s alienating, and it destroys movements. There is too much history of white, straight, cis feminists telling other groups what they need (and then fighting for that perceived need) instead of listening to the true needs and desires of those they’re supposedly allies with, that I am very weary whenever I find myself advocating a position for a group I am not a part of. I don’t want to be yet another woman charging in all willy-nilly on a white horse and accidently trampling those I want to help.
The other extreme, though, is not okay, either: I can’t only focus on helping those who look like me or act like me. There’s an unfortunate feminist history of that, as well: again, the needs of white, middle-class, cis, able-bodied women are the only ones given serious attention. Oh, we’ll occasionally talk about those “other” groups (as though they aren’t really, fully women), and then pat ourselves on the back for our inclusivity and sensitivity. I don’t want to let my fear of doing the wrong thing keep me from doing anything at all.
Any woman who has spent much time in the feminist blogosphere is probably familiar with the term “mansplaining,” either from hearing the complaints or seeing it for ourselves in the comments section. Seldom is a “woman’s issue” ever discussed on a news site or general blog for very long before a man (or three) shows up in the comments to tell the ladies what’s really going on, what’s really important. Any feminist who has had to deal with a guy trying to school you on the realities of being a woman--so sure his perspective is unique and valuable, telling you something you’ve never heard and that will of course change your life--can understand why I don’t ever want to be that person. And I’m sure that mixture of irritation and incredulity is familiar to a sex worker hearing someone who has never been in that industry telling her what her life is really like, and what she really needs.
Obviously, the solution is to listen. This is much simpler said than done.
I have heard from sex workers who say they love what they do and chose their life freely. I have heard from sex workers who were forced into it because of poverty, drugs, lack of education, lack of support, who hate everything about it and desperately want to leave. I’ve talked to former prostitutes who regard their past work like I do my stint at Home Depot, and other women who can’t talk about that period in their lives without crying. I’ve read interviews with porn stars who gush about how much they love their job, and watched interviews with women who shook as they sobbed a description of the degrading acts they performed.
Even in Greta Christina's post for sex workers to share their stories, (prompted by Taslima Nasreen's post that prostitution is always oppression), there were sex workers, former and current, that talked about how and why they enjoyed their work, and sex workers that said that they hated it and did believe it was oppressive and wrong. Granted, there were many more that came down on the “for” side than “against” (though I would say there’s probably some selection bias, there), but isn’t it just as wrong to ignore those voices as it is to ignore sex workers who say they like what they do?
And here is where I say that I have no answers. I don’t know what the solution is. I have some ideas...listening to what sex workers (both for and against) have said, it seems that people are in agreement, generally, that decriminalization is important (not legalization), that we should work to eliminate child prostitution (and not punish children who, if they aren’t old enough to consent to regular sex, certainly can’t consent to child prostitution), and make efforts to provide options to women looking to leave the industry (rehab, job training, protection from pimps, a place to stay...unfortunately, most of the organizations that offer programs like these are religious), as well as working more generally to get rid of the stigma against women in sex work.
Other than that? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out where I stand on this issue, or if it’s even important (or appropriate) for me to have a position. Figuring out what inclusive feminism looks like and means is an ongoing process. I’m very open to hearing what others have to say.
And I’m trying not to let my past experiences and prejudices color my current understanding. That’s hard.