pussy politics

sussing out the bullshit in American sex politics

“Becoming a sex worker crosses the line into forbidden territory: How dare we use our bodies and our sexuality to earn a living or merely express ourselves? Who gave us the right to absolute control over our bodies and our sexuality?” — Candida Royalle

The rhetoric of empowerment seems to make up the bulk of sex positive feminists argument, which is what the quote from Candida Royalle’s essay “What’s a Nice Girl Like You…” from The Feminist Porn Book is supposed to convey[1]. The focus on the idea that sex work is empowering for women erases the fact that there are many sex workers who a) are not cisgender women and b) have a complicated relationship with “choice,” depending on their race, gender identity, ability, and class. While white women and feminists, queer and otherwise, are fighting for gender equality and control of their bodies, black and brown cis and trans women have been fighting a much more complicated battle, not only for control over how our bodies are perceived in the wider society, but for economic parity and more complex media representation both inside and outside of the sex industry. Economic inequality and poverty have a direct impact on how and why black and Latina women and LGBTQ+ folks of varying genders have such a high participation rate in sex work.

Mainstream sex positivity (pro-sex feminism) can be extremely focused on empowerment and positivity at the risk of obscuring or talking over those who do not always find it to be such. As a result many poor black and brown sex workers, particularly those who trade sexual intercourse for money (porn actresses and prostitutes) or have had negative experiences such as assault or racist encounters, could feel alienated by this rhetoric. In addition, some sex positive theorists tend to emphasize subversive or “hardcore” sexual practices as a major component for dismantling sex negativity and sexual repression. In her paper, “Sex Positive: Feminism, Queer Theory, and the Politics of Transgression, Elisa Glick critiques this saying: “[T]he prosexuality movement suggests that transgressive sexual identities and practices offer a privileged position from which to construct a truly radical sexual politics.” She specifically mentions the work of Gayle Rubin, among others, critiquing their tendency to frame sex positivity as being mainly about sexual pleasure and emphasizing radical transgression of “normal” sexual practices at the risk of “replacing social liberation with personal liberation[2].” Basically, by elevating the individual over the collective, this brand of sex positivity tends to ignore the economic and political conditions that have led to many women, femmes and LGBTQ+ people choosing sex work as an option. Job flexibility, mental health, poverty and lack of childcare are just a few reasons why one might choose this profession. Many sex workers are single mothers, or transgender youth who have been kicked out or abandoned. Employment is a huge factor for transgender people, who can find it difficult to get hired.


Empowerment is a tricky thing to discuss, particularly because what’s empowering to one may not be to another. Also, different feminisms have their own idea of what counts as radical and what does not. For instance, in my class textbook for an Intro to Women’s and Gender studies course I am taking right now (for shits and gigs), the anti porn authors describe women who endorse the idea of porn as empowering as “sex radicals.” Their claim is that these sex radicals are simply making the case that porn is empowering, when in reality they are making the claim that porn can be empowering. Those are two different things, but do you see how they framed that? That way, those who shy away from the harsh label of “radical” will feel discomfort, and they (the writers of the book) can still claim that they are sex positive feminists just looking out for the wellbeing of women whom they have designated victims in their crusade to eradicate female [sexual] oppression thru the prohibition of their body work. In addition to promoting the fallacy that one can designate victimhood to a grown adult (thereby revoking the individual’s agency and ability to make decisions for their self), they claim that they are still pro-sex. But really what they are saying is that they are pro-a certain kind of sex. They are the ones who get to decide what is healthy and what is not, regardless of actual studies or personal accounts from actual sex workers. They are the ones who get to decide who is a victim and who isn’t. By pushing for the eradication of the sex trade entirely and conflating (abusive) sex trafficking and (adult/consensual) sex work, antiporn and trafficking activists are obscuring two real issues with totally different problems and solutions[3].

Similar to their somewhat savvy, racist foremothers, suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who courted white supremacists in order to gain leverage and secure white women’s right to vote), the largely white anti porn feminists have formed coalitions with conservative religious groups in order to promote their cause. The use of inflated, erroneous statistics and conservative rhetoric about an ideal form of healthy sex is key to antiporn activist strategies, along with framing their cause as being about trafficking. Maggie McNeill’s article, “Lies, damned lies and sex work statistics,” discusses this at length[4]. Conflating sex work and sex trafficking is not only erroneous but makes it harder to discover and help actual victims of trafficking. It diverts all this energy toward controlling grown adult’s decisions about sex, economics and consumption. Antiporn activists have also been criticized by Robyn Maynard, among others, for their co-optation of abolitionist rhetoric and their claim that sex trafficking and sex work are “contemporary slavery.” Says Maynard: “‘[S]lavery’ has been decontextualized from Black struggle and repurposed to describe the multiplicity of workplaces where sexual services are exchanged consensually and for remuneration, such as strip clubs, brothels and massage parlors and on the street[5].” These groups are able to secure funding for their cause (criminalizing sex work) by framing sex work (mainly prostitution and pornography) as inherently oppressive roads to sex trafficking, similar to the idea of marijuana as a “gateway drug,” and partnering with conservatives who seem to have a vested political interest in controlling women’s bodies.


So on one side we have pro-sex, love your body, individualized sex positivity. On the other side we have the antiporn/anti-trafficking “abolitionist” saviours, nobly protecting women from themselves. Not only that but we have a group of so called feminists who seem to think that it’s a good idea to combine forces with conservative groups who have shown little regard for making sure women have access to birth control, trans people have health care, and people of color have access to funding and employment to get out of poverty. These are people who are funneling money into keeping grown adults from paying for consensual sex and sex products, but have little to say about mass incarceration, which is actual slavery, by the way.

Yes, most pornography is made for and caters to the white male gaze. But that doesn’t mean we have to eradicate all porn. It also doesn’t mean that all porn is violent and oppressive. There are grown women who choose to do porn. Women and femmes watch and enjoy porn too, and now we are beginning to make our own queer, trans and woman friendly porn to fap to. We can acknowledge the issues and talk about the problematic features of a lot of porn without deciding for other grown adults what they should or should not consume based off faulty research and personal or religious judgment. Yes, they are choosing this while living in a misogynistic society. But does that make their choice any less valid than women who decide to stay at home and be caregivers in a society where they can now work? Does that invalidate my decision to engage in sex work, even though I misbelieve in the institution of capitalism? Inequality is an integral part of capitalism. Without a top, there is no bottom.

By splitting the debate between sex positivity (choice) and antiporn/anti-trafficking (coercion), both sides have contributed to the erasure of actual problems, namely the myriad inequalities which push women and femmes into undesirable occupations — and not just sex work. Neither side seems truly intersectional — whether they are queer inclusive is almost irrelevant because intersectionality was coined to describe the unique combination of inequalities faced by black women, i.e. the matrix of domination[6]. There is not enough focus on sex workers real lives and problems. In addition, most targeted sex workers are black and trans, and we face high levels of violence and discrimination. Yet there aren’t too many faces like mine that are getting paid to write about our viewpoint. You’re not gonna see a black stripper celebrity who isn’t a reality tv star, and she’s definitely not gonna be brown or dark skinned. To my knowledge there is no black or brown equivalent to Maggie McNeill or Elle Stanger. (Nothing against them personally, they are both great writers.) The most amplified voices I have heard in the sex worker activist circles have been of cis white women. Many black and trans women are either reluctant or afraid to be as open about their job/s, because we simply aren’t rewarded in the same way. We have a wholly different set of stereotypes to navigate. This is not to say that there is never any negative feedback received by white sex workers, but that they are perceived differently and are more likely to get a book deal and still come out looking fantastic, unlike Karrine Steffans who made her money but is still being regularly shitted on by black men to this day.

proheauxism 1. Proheaux. Derived from the more colloquial pro-hoe. (Spelling altered to reflect difference & refinement.) Black or brown womanists — women and femme, cis or trans — who are pro-sex and/or are sex workers and support sex worker rights. Committed to collective and personal empowerment, not just sexually, but through economic security sans judgment of the means. 2. Also: A woman or femme who understands the racialized nature of sexuality. One who rejects misogynoir and transmisogynoir.

The above is the gist of what I propose as an alternative. As a black, female womanist sex worker for whom poverty is a motivating factor, I am passionate about providing an alternative framework that suits not only me, but my sisters as well. I chose the word womanism to denote the pure blackness of this philosophy. (In fact my definition was a play on Walker’s definition of womanist.) Proheauxism is meant to be a combination of womanism, queer and trans theory, sex worker activism, and sex positivity. To read the extended working definition click here.

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Notes:

  1. The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure, Edited by Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley, Mirielle Miller-Young
  2. Sex Positive: Feminism, Queer Theory, and the Politics of Transgression by Elisa Glick
  3. Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions by Susan M. Shaw
  4. Lies, damned lies and sex work statistics by Maggie McNeill
  5. #Blacksexworkerlivesmatter: White-Washed ‘Anti-Slavery’ and the Appropriation of Black Suffering by Robyn Maynard
  6. The phrase “matrix of domination” was coined by Patricia Hill Collins. Bolded words can be found in the glossary tab at the top of the page.