When I think about, and especially when I write about pornography, I sometimes want to lean away from the fact that for some people (for me, when I perform for lovers!) the affirmation of sexual appeal is a really huge draw.
I feel like, in order to justify the “goodness” of porn, there must not be anything superficial about the motivations for performing it. If we are performing for our lover’s gaze, if it is not coming from inner motivation, some inner desire, it must be “bad.” Or at least, it will be interpreted as bad. Having internalized the rhetoric of “you must love yourself (or, in this case, find yourself attractive),” I extend that belief to include “you must not need others to love you/find you attractive.”
But that’s ridiculous! As Nina Hartley says, the idea that it is a sign of oppression to think about how others view us is, “a rather self-defeating attitude for someone who want[s] sexual attention” (Hartley 62).
Although the beauty standard is bullshit and objectification on the gross scale of pop culture is vile, there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel sexy and to have that affirmed by an appreciative audience.
Yet, I doubt myself. I wonder if posting this, if saying that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with porn stars doing porn because they like the idea of people looking at their bodies, of having the appreciation of a wide audience, is a mistake. If it will open me up to too much critique, to accusations of being not feminist enough, or not empowered enough, or damaged, or delusional.
In the interest of honesty in this journalling process, I will admit that I feel waves of anxiety about posting this paragraph! I am not as confident as Nina Hartley in owning my own desires, and feeling strong in the knowledge that wanting affirmation is not a sign of weakness!
I don’t do sex work for money right now. I am not a sex worker. I have seriously considered it in the past, and will continue to consider it, because I have an exhibitionist streak that has been present since I was a teenager, and I adore performing, and sex work seems like a really great fit for me. And part of that, if I’m honest, is because I love the idea of people looking at my sexuality and being turned on by it. I love the idea of that affirmation.
Vicky Funari recounts an experience in a peepshow booth:
He pulls out a pen as the shutter slides down, and when it comes back up seconds later he is pressing a napkin to the glass that says, “I love your hair.” He points to my belly, my crotch, my underarms to be sure I understand he means my abundant body hair, not the shiny auburn wig on my head…. While his attraction to body hair is no different in nature than another man’s revulsion, it’s undeniably easier to perform for an appreciative audience. (Funari 22)
Funari does experience men moving away from her window because of her “abundant body hair” but she comes back multiple times in her essay to this moment of acceptance from her customer. I do not believe that feeling good because of that acceptance is wrong. It isn’t bad. It doesn’t indicate her weakness or her patriarchal indoctrination. When my lover told me that my growing armpit hair and leg hair turned hir on because it was so boyish, I finally felt okay about changing this visible and deeply stigmatized performance of my gender. I felt okay about breasts and armpit hair because of that sexual acceptance. Is it different because my lover doesn’t pay to share my bed? I don’t think it necessarily is.
Funari speaks candidly about both the positives and negatives of her experience as a sex worker. She does not sugarcoat the experience or elide the deep impact it had on her sexuality and her life. Her essay conveys the complexity of the experience, and I think is an important look at one person’s time in the industry. She did not enter sex work in order to find affirmation, but the moments where it shows up are meaningful for her.
Writing about a different experience of acceptance within sex work, Cosi Fabian writes:
I did know I possessed a vital and experienced sexuality, but at forty-two I was understandably concerned about my age. Plus I had many typical anxieties of a woman: breasts too small, butt too fat, hair too thin. My experience ultimately proved my mother right who, when I bemoaned my nonclassical face, told me that personality is more important than looks. (Fabian 49)
What I find interesting about Fabian’s account is that she brought her anxieties, “typical anxieties of a woman” – anxieties that I would expect to be made worse by pornography and sex work because of the stereotypes about both – and those anxieties were calmed through her work. She found that her clients accepted her as she was, and appreciated her work and affirmed her sexuality. This is pretty far from the stereotype of johns being interested in only one body type, and I think points to why feminist porn, with its wide range of bodies and diverse gender performances, has much more of an audience than might be anticipated.
She says, “[f]ar from the squalid stereotypes of hooker and john, I participate in honorable interactions between intelligent adults seeking relief from our manic world” (Fabian 51).
Nina Hartley writes, in a sentiment found throughout the book, that “my sex industry experience has also helped decrease my long-standing fear of men and their sexuality… I gained competence and confidence, two things I had always wanted” (Hartley 61) and, “I learned that my body was attractive to many different men, even though I am many inches and pounds away from any magazine model” (Hartley 61).
I don’t know how women find that same affirmation outside of pornography and sex work (though clearly they do – in my case through a lover whose gender is as bendy as mine and who appreciates my deviation from feminine norms). I know that it does seem that women do, find this affirmation in some sex work and some work in pornography. I know that it is not wrong to enjoy, and to desire, that affirmation. And I believe that it is not wrong no matter where you get that affirmation – in sex work or in personal interactions. I also think that is important to leave room for men to desire this affirmation. And for trans* individuals and genderqueer folks and everyone between or beside or beyond the binary.
So the shame I feel on behalf of the sex workers and porn performers that I write about, the shame that kept this blog entry in my draft folder, incomplete and waiting, for over a week… that shame is patronizing and inappropriate. If I want my lover to find me attractive, if I want to know that multiple people look at me with lust and desire, does that make me a bad person, or a bad feminist? I’m sure arguments could be made that it does, but I reject them.
I believe that where there is shame and a desire to hide, it’s important to examine not only the thing that I want to hide but also the reasons I want to hide it.
In this case, the thing I want to hide is my secret, shameful desire to be desired, to have my sexuality and my attractiveness affirmed by others. My shame at this secret is exacerbated and projected onto the sex workers I’m reading about who also want to, and do find their sexuality and attractiveness confirmed – and not because they are conventionally attractive – by their work. I extend my own shame and feelings of failure onto these people and it clouds my ability to write about their work and their experiences. I find myself wanting to hide those moments in their writing where they acknowledge how good it feels to see a sign that says “I love your body hair.”
This project pushes me out of my comfort zone in that it requires me to examine these little bits of discomfort – the debris of living in a sex-negative world full of whore-stigma and shame. Defending porn and sex workers rights is very much within my comfort zone, but examining these places of intersection – where objectifying culture meets empowering work… yeesh. It is difficult.
Because I do believe that we cannot discuss how much it is okay to want to be wanted without also talking about how our culture says that women must be wanted. And that to want to be wanted is a feminine trait, so that male performers who express a desire to be desired are seen as less manly, or as effeminate. We need to talk about male gaze and the expectation of sexual availability. It would be dishonest to avoid it.
And yet, when that necessary discussion starts to discount the experiences of sex workers themselves, I am so wary! We need to make space for sex worker voices. We need to trust that their experience is their experience, that they know themselves better than we, we arrogant academics, ever can.
In my secret heart I want to know that when I do pursue sex work, there will still be space for me.
That’s why this discussion is so uncomfortable, because it’s so personal. What’s at stake in my arguments regarding the validity of sex worker experience and empowerment is my own desire to make space for myself in that future dialogue.
That’s the reason I want to hide this shameful thing, this shameful discussion – because I am afraid of the consequences of this discussion. I am afraid that it is too tangled, that male gaze and the demand to be sexually desirable is too tightly wound up in sexuality and that wanting to be wanted can never be empowered or empowering. I am afraid to pursue this too far, for fear that I am wrong and that I will have to hide my sexuality and stop encouraging others to explore and enjoy their sexuality as publicly as they want.
I am afraid.
It is the same fear that kept me from writing my application for this project (it sat on my to-do list for weeks), the same fear that keeps from engaging with some of the heavier academic reading I’m doing in this blog. I’m afraid that I’m wrong. I’m afraid that porn is bad, sex work is bad, and I am bad for loving it.
But if everyone who fears that their unconventional view is wrong keeps it silent, nothing will change.
And, to quote my favourite supervillain (link is SFW), we need to destroy the status quo, because the status is not quo.
Fabian, Cosi. “The Holy Whore: A Woman’s Gateway to Power.” Whores and Other Feminists. Ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 2010. 44-54. Print.
Funari, Vicky. “Naked, Naughty, Nasty: Peep Show Reflections.” Whores and Other Feminists. Ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 2010. 19-35. Print.
Hartley, Nina. “In The Flesh.” Whores and Other Feminists. Ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 2010. 57-65. Print.