Posted: June 9, 2010 in Feminism, Identity

I am currently involved in a very interesting discussion over at Cath Elliot’s blog, on objectification and sexualisation of girls and women.

I would be very interested to hear your views on the subject, either on comments to her excellent post or here.

To my readers who work in the sex industries, I am particularly keen to hear what you may have to say on this subject, as  without ‘sexualisation’ or ‘objectification’ I don’t think you would be doing the work you do! Also many feminist discussions on this issue ignore sex workers. Their voices just don’t get heard all too often.

I made a point in my last comment on the post, that in some ways feminists actually ‘de-humanise’ sex workers by speaking for them, classing them as criminals, or victims that need rescuing. This is kind of ironic when it is feminists who are supposed to champion the rights of all women.

If you don’t want to comment in public you could always email me:

Thank you!

  1. Matt says:

    I agree about sex worker voices and in fact for that reason I’m loath to comment: I am not a sex worker and I can’t speak for sex workers.
    But let me comment on objectification. I think the “objectification” argument in relation to sex work is flawed. A lot of the sex workers I have worked with (in sexual health programmes) have an experience whereby many of their clients do NOT see them solely as an object, but in fact want more than just sex – company, sympathy… perhaps the girl (or boy) friend experience? And can considering a client as primarily a source of money be considered to be objectification? Focussing on this abstract concept doesn’t do much to help victims of violence or stigma.

  2. I agree, and that’s a good point about the human contact side of sex work.

    This discussion is very fraught with feminists. It is why I often peel away from a conversation elsewhere back to the safety of my own blog where I don’t get shouted down!

  3. Call Emily touches on this issue on her brilliant blog here:

  4. Jennifer says:

    I think that there is misunderstanding between talking objectification as a system and how it applies to people on an individual level. I think it can seem “de-humanising” when talking about something more academically but at the same time I think it is important to have that discussion. No-one gets to escape the patriarchy (or whatever you want to call it). We are shaped from birth by our culture and we are all effected by it.

    We are currently talking about one of the thousands of aspects of this culture – objectificiation. There is no woman who really escapes this whether she is a sex worker or a nun and all the women inbetween. I don’t think that speaking of it and what it does de-humanises anyone – it is the objectification that did that in the first place.

    I do think that there can be separation between talking about a system and talking about individuals. Sometimes conversations don’t manage to do this and can be insulting to those who have found a way to use a particular system to their advantage. But I also think that sometimes these conversations can be taken personally in a way that is hubristic – especially if one thinks that they have somehow “escaped” any negative impact of a particular system.

    Secondly, I do think that sex workers are heard. They are heard a lot, especially on the internet. The problem is that pro-sex work feminists dismiss the voices of those that had bad or terrible experiences and anti-sex work feminists dismiss the voices of those that are doing just fine. There is invisibilising of sex workers from both sides of the debate. I’ve seen it a lot over the past few years.

    I’m sorry if this isn’t very clear. I’m not much of a word-smith!

  5. Hi Jennifer that is pretty clear to me! You make some very good points. You might be interested in this piece by audacia ray, about pro-porn v anti-porn feminism.

    I actually think it is the pro-sex feminists who campaign the most and know the most about the exploitation of sex workers as they are the ones who engage with the industry and the people who work in it. You don’t tend to get anti -sex industry feminists spending much time talking to sex workers in my experience.

  6. Matt says:

    I think the issue is that because anti-sex work thinkers consider sex work to be inherently abusive, they often do not see a need to look at different types of sex work, circumstances, or working conditions. If the starting point is that the very act of receiving money for sex is violence or exploitation, everything else becomes merely a manifestation of that first condition. Now, it is probably true that there are cases where on the other side, sex work is idealised. Anti-sex work commentators rail against the “happy hooker” or “belle de jour” myths. But I agree with Quiet Riot Girl: not all people who support sex workers take such a view. A lot of people who talk about sex worker rights have, in my experience, a much more nuanced approach – possibly because, as QRG suggests, many of them sell sex themselves and because they have much more contact with people who sell sex.

  7. I saw Belle de Jour talk this week. She didn’t perpetuate the myth of sex work as glamorous. She said ‘I needed the money’ and ‘I am a scientist first and foremost’. I really liked her and it reminded me that a media version of a prominent writer/sex worker/sex blogger is not that actual person!

  8. Matt says:

    Well, that’s the other thing – that the “myth”, to the extent it exists, may well be created more by the media than by people in sex work. I suspect that those who are anti-sex work would see any account that doesn’t talk about “how inherently awful it is” as essentially a glamorisation.

  9. And there we have the paradox: anti-objectification feminists go on about how terrible the media is in perpetuating the objectification of women. They then take the media’s representations of women at face value, as true representations e.g. of sex workers, as evidence to argue their case!

  10. Sarah Ditum says:

    There’s a nice line from Dan Savage – it mostly applies to personal relationships – that everyone objectifies other people to a degree, and quite enjoys being objectified themselves sometimes. Which I think is true. It’s not like anyone’s present in the whole of their personhood at all times in any relationship – whether that’s a sexual, commercial, performative or personal relationship, or a combination of them all.

    From there, I’d say that talking about objectification as though it’s the ultimate test of sexism is a bit of failed rhetoric. And Cath’s blogpost fell down, I thought, because she *seems* to agree with the Mail’s professed logic but object to its hypocrisy. To me, it’s the professed logic that knowledge about sex or apparent sexiness is *always* something harmful, dangerous and imposed from outside that needs unpicking before we can get any handle on what children actually need.

  11. Jennifer says:

    Y’see, I am not surprised the pro-sex feminists think they know the most about the exploitation of sex workers and that they engage more with sex workers. Just as much as I am unsurprised that anti-sex industry types think exactly the same thing.

    The divide has become such that a lot of time both groups are not paying attention to the other unless they are having an ideological argument on a blog somewhere.

    I do agree with you and Matt that there is hypocrisy on the side of anti-sex workers sometimes but I can also say that I have not seen the same thing on the other side of the debate. There is an awful lot of dismissing stories that don’t fit in the narrative.

    Pro-sex work feminists can sometimes welcome some fairly nasty people onto their side; i.e. those that are more interested in maintaining a supply of pornography and sex workers for themselves than in making sure the women are safe and happy. And again, anti-sex work feminists can sometimes welcome some fairly nasty conservative types who are more interested in chaining womens sexuality than in preventing abuse.

    But this is why I quite like this blog. I would call myself a radical feminist if I *had* to define myself. I don’t really fall on either side of the sex-work debate because I think it is inherently more complex than good/bad. But this blog is pretty welcoming for discussion without having to stay within the boundaries of PRO! or ANTI! 🙂

    As for Dan Savage’s quote on objectification – I would disagree. I think we all like to be found attractive from time to time. I think objectification is something very different from this.

  12. The divide has become such that a lot of time both groups are not paying attention to the other unless they are having an ideological argument on a blog somewhere.

    Haha good point!

    I am glad you feel able to discuss issues here: that is what I want to happen. I do try to have open discussions elsewhere but they often get closed off.

    I loved Sarah Ds post. I agree that some feminists seem to accept the logic of the mainstream media they are trying to criticise, by being so strident in emphasising the negative aspects of sexual representation.

    I’d love to sit down and talk with anti-porn feminists in a mature and open manner. On second thoughts…

  13. P.s. I am a feminist first and foremost. But saying that means I get lumped together with others whose views I do not share so I have to qualify it. I am an anti-racist, pro LGBQT rights, pro-socialist, pro-sexual liberation anti-monarchy anti-establishment feminist!

  14. Jennifer says:

    Well, you do know what they say, don’t you?

    Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.

    Viva la revolution! 😉

  15. Matt says:

    And to confirm Jennifer’s point, it is certainly a concern when working on health with sex workers as I often do (in developing countries) to ensure that we are not supporting/endorsing exploitative practices: and for sure it is not always easy to figure it out. In particular when there is a push from organisations/donors/governments to rapidly provide services to a large number of people and not much time for proper analysis. And it becomes even more complicated when state actors (cops, health care workers for instance) is one of the sources of abuse/discrimination.

  16. Here is why I moved this conversation to my/our blogspace. This is something I said on the Cath Elliot blog:

    ‘I am trying to point out that we all do objectify people within sexuality. I Look at pictures of naked men for my own gratification. I don’t know them or care about them at the time. I sometimes see a bloke in the street and say to my friend ‘I so would’ or ‘nice arse’. I sometimes say that to a man’s face if I am really drunk, I mean confident. I like pornography. I like bits of bodies like torsos and cocks. I have had sex with a man and not cared about him. I certainly didn’t phone to check he got home ok’

    This is the response I got:
    Have you raped anyone though?

    polly // June 10, 2010 at 6:26 am

    And then this:
    I almost invariably find factcheckme that when sex workers are murdered, the killer is a feminist. Same goes for sex workers being raped and beaten up.

    (do I really have to add sarcasm?)

    polly // June 10, 2010 at 6:41 am

    And then when I didn’t reply, this:
    And looking at someone and thinking they’re sexually attractive is not the same as ‘objectifying’ them. There’s a significant power imbalance between men and women (it’s called patriarchy) which means that your actions are not equivalent to similar actions performed by a male. I very much doubt a man would feel threatened/harassed by your saying to him ‘nice arse’ in the way a woman may do. He would probably just call you a ‘slag’ or a ‘slut’ to his friends instead if he wasn’t sexually interested in you. He may well do this even if he was sexually interested in you.

    There have been numerous attempts to produce equivalents of soft porn magazines like playboy with pictures of naked men for (non lesbian) women. All have failed.

    polly // June 10, 2010 at 6:51 am

    And finally this: I also find it interesting that you think only sex workers are able to comment on ‘objectification’. A) because you seem to think it is something that only happens to sex workers and b) because you say you have never been raped, but feel perfectly qualified to comment on rape and tell those who have been raped how they should feel.

    Lovely aren’t they, the feminists?

  17. The weird thing is I never said I hadn’t been raped. Not on that conversation. This person may have been remembering something I said on a previous discussion forum. This is what upsets me and pisses me off. That rape here is presented as a more ‘special’ crime /assault than any other. I have said on previous discussions that I have been violently assaulted by an ex. But that gets treated as nothing in comparison to being raped. Its so depressing that women don’t feel solidarity with each other in the face of violence by their partners/exes, regardless of the technical details of that violence. I still don’t quite understand it. I am not going on that particular blog again!

  18. Dan Holloway says:

    this is an incredibly important topic, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. My doctoral work was on subjectivity and the possibility or otherwise of a mutually subjective relationship, so it’s fascinating to read the comments about the way we all to one extent or another objectivise everything and everyone.

    Recently I took part in the incredibly interesting project Lilith Burning

    with Katelan V Foisy ( who has done some great work on the way people react to transgressive portrayals of the feminine. I’ve also been working on transgressive portrayals and subversions of objectivifications in parallel with Daisy Anne Gree, who is putting together a collection of revisionist fairy tales. One of the things we’ve been working on is whether it’s possible to take what seems to be an objectivising image and use it empoweringluy against the implied reader/viewer – something that came to a head with the cover for my new book (life:) razorblades included, which is a self-portrait Daisy took of herself in a seemingly objectified pose, but with her eyes blanked out to imply her absence from the scene, and that she is watching over and condemning the male gaze

    The book contains a story set in the porn industry, The Last Fluffer in La La Land, about objectification in sex work. One of the things it’s been so interesting talking with both Daisy and Katelan about is whether women in these (ambiguity intended) positions is simply beyond the pale, or whether it can be reclaimed and turned around AT the viewer/reader, and if so, how. As a writer & artist, it’s a very fine line to tread, because there is always the risk that opening a discussion will lead to your being branded as the thing you are attacking. But the debate is such an important one to have.

  19. Thanks Dan those two projects sound fascinating!

    ‘there is always the risk that opening a discussion will lead to your being branded as the thing you are attacking. But the debate is such an important one to have.’ – don’t I just know that!

    I will look at the links you gave me and get back to you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s