Infiltrators, Conspiracy Theories, and Pandora’s Box: The Ongoing Feminist Education of a Stripper
(a rambling, somewhat incoherent, and REALLY long post)
Growing up, I generally considered myself a feminist, not really knowing what it was, but thinking it sounded like a cool thing to be. I was raised mostly by my father, who was a womanizer, and my abuelita (grandma), who was a Latina traditionalist who thought young single ladies should still be chaperoned while out with single men. In one ear, I had my father telling me how every man only wants what is between my legs (and that it was up to me to not let them get it), while in the other my abuelita insisted that by wearing red nail polish I was somehow communicating to the world that I am a woman of easy virtue. My father ensured that I knew where the Playboy magazines were, and that I should feel free to ask any questions I needed answers to, while my abuelita gave me lectures about how tanning in my bikini in the front yard (we had no back yard) was effectively (and inappropriately) putting my body on exhibit for the whole world to see.
My abuelita was quite an unintended feminist herself. Being from a culture where a mistress was a sign of status and women typically turned their eyes the other way when their husbands took one on, she refused to fall into line – even if it meant raising two sons on her own while engaging in a full-time career in academia. She’d earned a Master’s degree and was working on her PhD at Columbia when she divorced her first husband, and was a full-time professor with a second son when she divorced her last. Mistresses were simply not to be tolerated.
She was very much an elitist, never hesitating to point out how her husbands’ mistresses were of a lower class and “knew all the sexual tricks”. In my own mind, I made a mental note to self: learn all the sexual tricks. Not because I particularly wanted to gain or keep a husband, but because that was clearly one area of expertise in which my otherwise amazing abuelita lacked. And I wanted very much to be just like her, only with all the sexual tricks and none of the stodgy gender traditionalism. I also didn’t get the classism…everything she deemed “low class” always seemed so fascinating to me, from red nail polish to sexual prowess.
When I first heard the term “feminist” at the age of about 12 (probably on TV), it sounded really exotic and sophisticated to me, and I decided that I wanted to be one. I didn’t think about it for several more years, at least not directly. I did find it odd that in history class all the “great” people we read about were always men, and that women, in fact, never really appeared in my history lessons except for the token Betsy Ross-type character here and there. I also found it annoying that when I first heard of Georgia O’Keefe I wasn’t that interested in her work; you see she, being a woman, couldn’t possibly be a real artist. Real artists were men. I caught myself on that pretty quickly, but to have even thought that was alarming. How many young people out there think that and don’t question it? Later, I became a little bewildered that even fields of supposedly “women’s work” –sewing, cosmetics, and cooking – were professionally dominated by men: male designers, makeup artists, hairstylists, and celebrity chefs.
The next time I came across actual feminism was while I was stripping in southern California. A girlfriend of mine and fellow stripper was taking women’s studies at UCI, and was telling me all about how women were historically oppressed. I argued with her pretty vehemently at first, as every night I was all but worshipped by men. So was she, for that matter. But, she explained, the oppression was there in all kinds of ways- and from her explanations I could see why I wasn’t feeling very oppressed, and I felt very fortunate to be in the situation that I was rather than have to deal with a regular job where there were glass ceilings and inherent sexism. My friend gave me a book to read by Catherine MacKinnon, but unfortunately, it wasn’t the exciting, powerful feminism I remembered hearing about as a 12-year-old girl. Rather, it seemed an angry, victim-focused feminism that I wanted no part of. Yes, I could see the reasons for the anger, but I couldn’t see the man-hating. I loved men, and really felt they needed our sympathy more than our hatred. I always saw them as completely at the mercy of women. The hetero men I knew who had what they considered “power” really had nothing more than brute force in their favor, and to me, that was a really insecure, fear-based power. A power like that wasn’t sustainable. But the silly men actually believed they had it made with this kind of power, while at the same time they were so weak when it came to the power of sexuality, wielded by adept women. So I felt sorry for them rather than angry at them most of the time.
The next time I came across formal feminism was at Cal, where I was fortunate to have attended some excellent courses in women’s studies. I was introduced to post-colonialism, global feminism, and deconstructionism in an atmosphere of social justice. I finally “got” what all the fuss was about, and became even more feminist in my thinking. I was shocked at how little women around the world were paid compared to men when looking at how much actual work each did. I admired the challenges that working women from traditional cultures posed for gender relations in their communities, especially the women I studied from Southeast Asia who worked in factories. I saw in them the women I had met from rural Thailand and the Philippines who worked in bars in Bangkok and Tokyo; I considered them some of the most powerful and independent women I knew.
So it felt like a slap in the face to learn that some feminists hated women like us and considered us traitors because we take men’s money in exchange for sexual entertainment. When I researched the women in Thailand and the Philippines, they were never portrayed as the powerful women I met; rather, they were portrayed as sad, hapless victims “moved about” at the whims of men. Well, I couldn’t imagine any of the women I knew being “moved about” anywhere without a fight, unless, of course, they decided it was in their best interest in some way. I have met victims in my life – and these women were in no way victims of any sort (except, of course, of the same thing we are all victims: a patriarchal capitalist system that values work that men do far more than the work that women do).
I only recently discovered sex radical feminism (and am still studying it). I knew something like that had to exist out there somewhere, because I knew I was some sort of feminist, but hardly the kind I had been running into. And despite their insisting to the contrary, I felt very powerful in my feminism, and my work as a stripper buttressed the power I felt. True equality to me meant an elimination of the sexual double standard – that women should be permitted to explore and express their sexuality as freely as men have been able to without being punished for it by rape or sexual harrassment. It also meant the elimination of the power of the whore stigma- that women would no longer be judged based on their sexual choices.
Feminism for most of my life, therefore, had been claimed by those who perhaps had the same interest in reproductive choice, but seemed to be unable to advocate for sexual choice. I wanted to know why. What happened to choice? Why could I choose to become or not become a mother, with all the blessings of my feminist forebears, but could not choose to be a sex worker? Why did my choice suddenly become evidence of false consciousness? I felt deserted by feminism.
In reading various versions of the history of feminism and sexuality, I became suspicious that feminism and the women’s movement, like many other leftist movements during the 60s and 70s, had been infiltrated by those who would like to see it fail or at least be rendered ineffective. Infiltrators were clever sorts who very subtly worked their way into the leadership of a movement, eventually leading the movement into failure. Some infiltrators rendered their chosen movement ineffective by simply advocating for an ineffective path, while others destroyed their chosen movement’s credibility by suggesting violent actions that would bring harsh criticism on them while destroying any existing public sympathy. Feminism, I believe, was a victim of the former, but it went a bit further in that it actually succeeded in co-opting the movement. Yep – to many women it sounded like a great idea to do away with men – who needed ‘em? As preposterous as that might have sounded (and did sound) to those not in the movement, enough women within the movement agreed with this line of thought to actually create a separatist feminism. The problem was that too many women, made very uncomfortable as a result of being emotionally unprepared for the sexual revolution, agreed with my suspected infiltrators.
Out of this separatist feminism came MacKinnon and Dworkin, and the anti-porn movement. Somehow, the clever bastards managed to get the women’s movement into bed with the right wing, something they hadn’t really manage to do with any of the other movements afoot at the time (environmental, animal rights, anti-war, etc.). Thusly, the women’s movement effectively became a bizarre hybridized pawn of the patriarchy, with the full and passionate support of most of its members. After all, isn’t a major part of patriarchy keeping women in their place? What better way than to divide and conquer- to make some women “more equal” than others? The good-girl/bad-girl dichotomy sprang into full action yet again, spurred on – yet again – by women themselves. (More on that later.)
Back to the sexual revolution. None of this infiltration would have been possible, I believe, without the preceding “sexual revolution.” Sexual freedom for women as a result of the Pill came prematurely (no pun intended). For millennia, women’s sexuality had been tied up with their virtue, and that kind of long-term, multi-generational psychobiological conditioning is difficult to de-condition. Women on the whole hadn’t yet learned to enjoy sex for the sake of sex itself, free of the emotional expectations of a Prince Charming Romance, but at the same time, didn’t want to be considered spoiled sports, so played along with it in hopes of achieving that holy grail of sexual equality. Of course, men took full advantage of this lack of preparation, using sex to maintain their power and leadership in the progressive movements while also using it to determine which women had power and influence. As a result, you had a lot of cat-that-ate-the-canary men and a lot of really angry and bitter women. The sexual revolution was, as it turned out for the most part, a feast for men but a relatively unsuccessful experiment in sexual exploration for women.
Women hurt during the sexual revolution by and large, I believe, became the weapons of the right – the “in” for infiltration and subsequent take-over of much of the movement.
During the anti-porn movement, feminists somehow made it an unspeakable thing to be sex positive without appearing to be a pervert or agreeing to the sexual exploitation of women. (Still researching this…)
Back to good-girl/bad-girl feminism. During the stirrings of the sexual revolution, the women’s movement, for the most part, were pretty much in support of sexual freedom for women. This was very exciting, as finally women weren’t beholden to the possibility of unwanted children, which was one of the main reasons for women’s lack of sexual freedom. But unwanted children were also part of the reason that chastity for women was such a strongly entrenched idea. While the “good girl” imperative saved some women from becoming unwed mothers, this conditioning was so successful for so long that women believed it almost unquestioningly. The oppressed have to agree with the oppressor’s viewpoints on some level for them to be successfully oppressed.
Women who were hurt in the sexual revolution were not only hurt by men, but also by the women the men chose – women who they saw as attractive, and women who had come to terms with and were able to enjoy sex without expectations. These women, along with the men, became the targets for the hurt women. But enough of the sexual revolution had happened to make it unacceptable to champion chaste women over sexually autonomous women outright without looking suspect. So, they had to think of another tactic that would be less overt but affect the same results – keeping these sexually autonomous women in their place while punishing the men who loved them. Enter Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon, and the anti-porn movement.
As Orwell illustrated in Animal Farm, the oppressed often turn into the exact kinds of oppressors who oppressed them when given similar positions of power, and thus, feminists became the oppressors of women (with the help of the infiltrators). The traditional female powerbrokers – upper middle-class white women – were being threatened by the myriad sorts of women unleashed with the opening of Pandora’s Box: women of color, queer women, lesbians, women of lower socio-economic classes, and so on (women in these categories often had fewer issues with unfettered sexuality than the upper middle-class white women). The Pandora’s Box of the sexual revolution had to be shut. The anti-porn movement was just the thing! “If women didn’t make themselves sexually available for men – particularly prostitutes and porn stars – then men wouldn’t feel entitled to sexual access to women’s bodies and wouldn’t rape them.” Blaming the victim for her rape- sound familiar? Remember the Contagious Diseases Act of the mid 1800s, and the subsequent social purity movement? Colonialism? My abuelita? Women keeping women in their place…
These feminists carry on this work pretty vehemently, nowhere more evidently today than in anti-sex work activism (or as Laura Agustin calls it, the “rescue industry”).
Anti-sex work feminists (often the same cast of characters as anti-sex feminists) purport to want to save women from what they consider to be inherently degrading work that nobody in their right minds would want to do. But I believe that the truth is that these feminists are terrified that sex workers will take the husbands (and thus livelihoods, resources, or access to power) from “good” women. There is the sense of a real threat, and perhaps a tinge of jealousy. This was showcased very blatantly when a discussion on Pandagon had the anti-sex work feminists – who’d originally expressed their deep concern for the women who were being exploited in sex work – degenerating into insulting those same “exploited women” for “her hundred dollar foot mangling hooker-heels and complimentary cosmetic surgery.” And when asked why this particular feminist hadn’t helped the sex workers she felt so inclined to protect from exploitation, answered, “Maybe the answer has something to do with me earning less than those Manhatten [sic] studio apartment pros who you thrust forward like so much hideously disfiguring plastic boobage…” Oops. Someone let her petticoat show there.
Now that the division between good women and bad women is becoming less acceptable to enforce, these feminists have commandeered the “trafficking” hysteria to use for this purpose, under the guise of altruism. Interestingly, it is still upper-middle class (usually white) women doing this work, which results more often than not in effectively preventing poor (usually brown) women from crossing borders. Claiming to be able to see the big picture of how sex work exploits all women, they oddly don’t see the big picture, and how eliminating sex work as a choice and encouraging draconian measures against sex workers (while doing nothing to improve the geopolitical economic realities of actual women on the ground) leaves the women they claim to want to protect in far worse situations than they would have been if left alone.
Susan (not me), a poster at Laura’s blog, sums it up perfectly with this statement:
“And the thing you must really remember is that when anti-prostitution people use the term ‘sex slavery’, it is not the ‘slavery’ that they are against, it’s the ‘sex’. Because if they were truly concerned about the slavery, they’d be doing a fucking lot more about it than they are now.”
So what became of sex radical feminism? Why did they desert us? My history of feminism education continues…