-Stacey Reed (1997, as cited in Nagle, 1997, p.184)
In order to address feminist issues of sexual oppression in Canadian mainstream society, it is necessary to address issues of oppression within the Canadian sex industry as they are interpreted and experienced by sex workers. Such action is more conducive to genuine women’s sexual liberation rather than the anti-sex movement it has predominantly been in the past. Because of the lack of research material on this topic, I will demonstrate my points using my experience as an exotic dancer in British Columbia. However, the resulting implications may be extended to all parts of Canada and internationally, considering that many dancers travel abroad to perform, consequently experiencing cultural variations of stigma and oppression.
For the most part, the voices of sex workers have been ignored or unheard in mainstream feminist circles and society alike. Evidence of this is apparent in feminist sentiment from Women’s Studies courses (which teach Dworkin-Mackinnon anti-porn ideologies) to propagandist mediums across the board. The image of the abused and degraded sex worker trying desperately to finance her drug addictions is an image that we, as a society, have come to accept as accurate despite denial from the sex workers in question. Such denial has been disregarded in-so-far-as we assume that the sex worker is not capable of realizing her own degradation as a result of the abuses she has previously been victim to. Contrary to such beliefs, I submit that the role of the sex worker as a victim is not due to male sexual exploitation of women but to the feminist and societal “victim” stigma attached to her. At this point, I would like to add that many dancers (and other sex workers) are unaware for various reasons that a sex worker feminist mode of thinking even exists which could explain why some are persuaded to accept the anti-porn, mainstream beliefs as true.
I propose that the oppression inherent in the sex trade industry (and for the purposes of this essay - the exotic entertainment industry), is perpetuated by such negative stigma, consequentially creating an industry in which nude dancers are more likely to be, and are, subjected to sexual discrimination without benefit of legal recourse because legal action would result in loss of work. Furthermore, I challenge anyone who can find an industry in Canada where the policy-makers and officials are as free to make decisions without consulting its workers or where the thousands of workers have no representation and are deemed to be as inconsequential to their policy outcomes as is found in the legal industry of stripping.
In the course of my study at Simon Fraser University I have been inspired by teachings discussing the differences of sexual oppression concerning women of colour or ethnicity, lesbians and disabled women. It has recently become clear that all these women have been represented falsely and without representation in the feminist debate. Likewise, sex workers, too, have been represented falsely by non-sex workers. Although I do not condemn the expressions of women as wives and daughters of patrons of sex trade establishments, I feel that it is wrong for them to speak for us (strippers) as though we are too incompetent to have valid opinions of our own. That is simply not the case. Furthermore, the foundation of women’s oppression residing in our sexuality demands that sex workers, who primarily deal with issues of sex everyday, should not be absent from the sexual liberation movement. In the words of Sunera Thobani (1993, as cited in Cohen, Bourne, Masters, and Pierson, 1993, p.27), “It is only when the concerns of the women who face the harshest levels of discrimination are addressed that the women’s movement will remain true to its principles of empowerment and equality for all women.” The time came for women of difference to cease the representation of their issues by white, middle-class women. It is no longer tolerable or acceptable. Now I wish to see the same for sex trade workers, for we should not be considered incompetent because of our jobs or backgrounds. Likewise, Jill Nagle (1997, p.1) expresses the same idea:
Defined broadly, sex worker feminisms are nothing novel. What is new is the number and variety of openly identified sex workers speaking as feminists about feminism…In recent years, women from within many marginalized groups have begun to contribute their perspectives to the dynamic, contradictory body of thought, action and narrative called feminism. In response, the face of public feminism has shifted to incorporate analyses of other forms of oppression such as race, class, and sexual orientation. However, mainstream feminism has yet to make major moves beyond analyzing how sex work oppresses women, to theorizing how feminism reproduces oppression of sex workers, and how incorporating sex worker feminisms results in richer analyses of gender oppression.
Beyond the debate between anti-pornography feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon (1988) and sex worker feminists such as Jill Nagle (1997), the intention of this essay is to show that human rights violations inherent in Vancouver’s exotic entertainment industry, and across Canada, are perpetuated by this predominantly one-sided debate and its dehumanizing policies as an anti-sex movement. In the following quote by a stripper and feminist, Nina Hartley (1997, as cited in Nagle, 1997, p.60), she illustrates how much of radical, feminist, anti-porn activism has led to a denial of women’s sexuality (hence the term “anti-sex” used to describe it):
Over the past twelve years, I’ve observed that the more uncomfortable a woman is with the state of her sex life, the more outraged and irritated she is by the existence of porn and the women who are proud to make it. The angrier she is at “the patriarchy” and the more she blames men for all the ills of the world (and her own particular problems), the more she wants to punish men for their ability to become easily aroused through visual stimulation. In their efforts to remove the injustices of rampant sexism in the public arena, some women have become overzealous and extended their prohibitionary efforts to the bedroom, exactly where privacy and tolerance should be most extended. Speaking as one to whom a lot of their anger has been directed, it feels like they’ve cut off their clits to spite their orgasms. These women appear to be acting like the worst of their Victorian sisters, with all of their erotophobic logic: lust is evil, and only romantic love and its chaste expression are civilized and acceptable, and it’s up to woman to control men’s animalistic side (if she’s self-hating enough to sleep with them in the first place). Collaterally, any woman who caters to men’s “base” desires or Goddess forbid, likes sex (especially sex with men, or sex outside a committed, monogamous relationship) is deserving of pity and contempt.
Accordingly, strippers have not felt that feminist organizations are a resource available to them when their rights are violated in the workplace and only outside of the industry if their career choices have not been disclosed. Right now in clubs across Vancouver, many of which are considered by dancers to be desirable work environments, implementation of policies that are clearly aberrations of human rights is being practiced. From mandatory floor-time (which requires that dancers be available and dressed provocatively to perform private shows) to free shows (which blatantly disregards our right to paid labour), dancers are perpetually subject to outrageous discrimination in policy and procedure. Furthermore, the recent adaptation of “half-shows” requires that dancers actually perform two short shows (quick strips) but only get paid for one show. Similarly, dancers who choose the route of private show dancing for its flexible hours and potential income are required to perform two half-shows without benefit of pay as well as requiring them to pay out $20 or more for the privilege of working in their establishments regardless of how much they earn during their shift. In effect, the dancer gets naked twice for free and also pays to work. One requirement or the other would not be such an abuse of power. (Combined with the prospect of paying to work and delivering free shows, the private dancer is often shunned by her stage performer colleagues, being the first suspect in theft and denied the right to use the more elaborate and safer change-rooms available to stage performers. Reasons for such condemnation ranges from jealousy of money earned in a shorter time to a deep belief that the private dancer has compromised her decency to perform so intimately for “the enemy”. The latter view closely resembles the scrutiny imposed on strippers by mainstream feminists and society at large. So it can be stated that private dancers often face a double censure, one maintained within the industry and one maintained without.) Strippers who refuse to conduct themselves according to bar policies are “blacklisted” and subject to assignment in undesirable establishments and/or low-budget spots that require long hours and little reward.
One still may be uncertain about how sex worker issues relate to mainstream sexual inequality. The answer lies in many arenas, not the least of which is the ever-present “whore” stigma that confines women to limited sexual expression. Sex trade workers are not isolated recipients of the categorization of “whore”. That the Webster’s New World Dictionary (1990) defines whore as “a prostitute” just goes to show what degree of stigma is attached to that label, for it goes without saying that prostitutes bear the brunt of criticism and condemnation directed towards sexual openness in women. Nevertheless, many a fourteen-year-old virgin has been called a “whore” for her sexually “inappropriate” behavior. The struggle for women in mainstream society to avoid being recipient to such an undesirable and stigmatized label has led to an ingrained sense of hostility towards sex workers. The opposite belief, that sex workers perpetuate the labeling system of “whore” to non-sex workers, in turn perpetuates the oppressive attitude that leaves a stripper feeling resourceless and ashamed.
Consistent with the undesirable “whore” stigma is the resulting suppression and denial of women’s sexuality. In our fear of being labeled whores, we have limited our sexual expressions and behaviors to what is acceptable, the terms of acceptability being determined traditionally by the male fear that we will be unfaithful or that we will bear them bastard children unbeknownst to them. Women’s fears of unfaithful male partners who are traditionally encouraged to freely express their sexuality, are directed not at the men themselves as we women are targeted, but rather they are directed at sex workers because they are the visible “enemy” to fear. It is apparent how the women’s movement is undermined by the lack of unity among women in this sense.
The near absence of women’s sexual expression is demonstrated in the sex trade industry in that there is a tremendous disparity between the production and services of male-centered erotica/pornography and woman-centered erotica/pornography. Such disparity leads us to believe that women are not visually, sexually stimulated and we repress such feelings because we are not “supposed” to have them. I cannot help but believe that if we were to encourage women’s sexual expression, especially in the form of marketable goods and services, a broader recognition of women’s sexuality would result, bridging the gap more in our quest for sexual liberation and equality.
Comparatively, I believe that such a move would lessen the separation of sex workers from feminists, resulting in a mutually beneficial advancement of the roles of women inclusively, as well as creating an educational tool available to women in terms of eliminating sexual sacrifice that aims to satiate only male sexual needs. We do not need less porn necessarily, but more woman-identified porn that recognizes the needs and desires of women, recognition that is necessary for women to overcome their “second-sex” protocol that has traditionally been practiced.
Respectively, we would be empowered to stop creating the “us” and “them” dichotomy that much of the anti-sex movement has imposed on relations between men and women. The ultimate goal of society as a whole should be the acquirement of peace and recognition for all people. Nina Hartley (1997, as cited in Nagle, 1997, p. 61) poses an important ideology in the following quote:
Through my experiences stripping, I learned many valuable lessons. I learned that my body was attractive to many different men, even though I am many inches and pounds away from any magazine model. I found that the majority of heterosexual men will follow sexually if women will only lead, and that men feel victimized around sex just as women do, only in different aspects of the sexual dance. I realized that, as a committed feminist, I had to be open to men’s pain and see it as equally valid to women’s. I discovered that a woman who is willing to talk about sex honestly and show her body can get men to listen, learn, and be better lovers with their partners. Finally, I learned that to be eternally mad at men’s sexual “nature” was as useful as being mad that water is wet. Anger inhibits intimacy and shared pleasure, to the detriment of all involved. I seek in my work to defuse anger so that the pleasure I invoke can work its healing magic.
This is not to say that anti-porn activism is backwards and wrong, for it has many meritable and clearly applicable concepts that are useful and necessary in the quest for women’s sexual liberation. Indeed, images portraying women as recipients of violence can be extremely victimizing to a woman’s sense of self. But I would be lying if I were to say that I have never fantasized about men being in those positions. Maybe it is my unconscious resentment of men that facilitates such fantasizing and maybe there is not necessarily a reason for it. All I am saying is that I feel freed now that I can look on pornography as a valuable and creative sexual tool rather than a misogynist (woman-hating) display of male power. We must learn to examine the intent of such images rather than imposing our own biased views on them. The picture on the cover of Hustler that depicted a woman in a meat grinder horrified and sickened women everywhere. But the intent behind it was Larry Flint’s decision to stop producing male-centered porn and start producing more “holy” forms of sexual entertainment (which was clarified in the movie “The People vs. Larry Flint). Obviously, Flint’s intention was obscure and it is rather hilarious that the image caused an opposite and harmful effect. Nevertheless, what is apparent to me is that while anti-porn activism works to free women from the practice of sexual subordination, it also tends to repress the sexual nature of women.
In conclusion, I feel that although the implementation of higher production of women’s erotica is a worthy long term goal, strippers remain at this time to be taken advantage of and discriminated against within the industry. The only way these issues will be resolved is if we, as dancers, come together and agree to stop tolerating these abuses by refusing to work in establishments which require free shows, or mandatory floor-time, or mandatory private shows, etc. And if we accomplish this, then we can only hope that it will inspire or force industry officials to discontinue their violating policies that thus far have been unrecognized and deemed unimportant. As strippers continue to be subject to unpaid labour and industry discrimination, so will women continue to be divided and power-less.
Cohen, Marjorie Griffin, Bourne, Paula, Masters, Philinda, and Pierson, Ruth Roach. Canadian Women’s Issues Volume I: Strong Voices.
MacKinnon, Catherine and Andrea Dworkin. “Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day for Women's Equality.” Organizing Against Pornography, 1988.
Nagle, Jill, ed. Whores and Other Feminists.