Legitimising Sex Work: The Counter-Arguments to Your Anti Sex Work Position

This is a controversial opinion, especially among second-wave feminists and radfems and even some intersectionally-aware feminists, but I firmly believe in legalising and destigmatising sex work in developed countries. I come from a firm sex-positive standpoint and very much support the Safe, Sane and Consensual Risk-Aware Consensual Kink creed found in the kink community*. This post is written for people who come from a similar viewpoint, but may still feel conflicted about sex work.

As I am not a sex worker myself, I would welcome any corrections to this post.

People who identify as sex workers do a variety of different work, and it’s not just prostitution**. There are people who make pornography, there are people who strip, there are people who you can pay for a bunch of kinky shit, but may not actually involve sex. Sex work is partly legal in Australia, however it will depend on the type of work and laws vary from state to state. Famously, the porn site Abby Winters moved away from my hometown because of strict Australian laws regarding the depiction of real sexual activity – regardless if it’s completely consensual and agreed to under ethical conditions.

Before we begin, let’s get some common objections to sex work out of the way first:

Sex workers are primarily women, and we don’t want women selling their bodies!

If sex workers are “selling their bodies” then so are manual labourers. And athletes. And office workers. In fact, anyone who has a job is “selling their bodies” because everyone is selling what their bodies can do for money. That’s what labour is. In some cases, people are literally selling their minds for jobs that are brain-intensive – like researchers, writers, and basically every creative job ever (which, arguably, can be almost every job).

The truth is that no one can really “sell their bodies” because slavery is universally illegal. To imply that sex workers are “selling their bodies” is in some ways incredibly offensive because in my mind it implies that all sex workers have no personal choice about the jobs they do and the clients they have. It implies that all sex workers have no agency over their own consent.

(Hold that thought. I’ll get to the issue of choice and consent later in the post.)

Sex workers only do it for the money! They’re addicted to money!

Similarly, anyone who has a job can be said to “only do it for the money”.

There’s an odd few who might actually labour in their chosen career paths for free, but that’s definitely the minority. A lot of people hate their jobs. A lot of people are completely indifferent about their jobs. A lot of people would prefer to never work again, if not for the money.

Some of those working people could probably live on significantly less than they’re currently earning – yet they still choose to work more hours in order to afford more. Are they “addicted to money”?

(If your answer is ‘yes’ that’s probably a discussion for another post. But if your answer is ‘yes’ then you’ve also failed to identify why this objection applies moreso to sex work than any other paid work.)

The sex industry is sexist, racist, and caters primarily to straight white men!

So are Hollywood movies. So are books. So is modelling.

Much of this blog has been dedicated to deconstructing problematic media. Media produced by the sex industry is just another problematic thing that you can be a fan of. Sex work and pornography itself, however, is not fundamentally problematic. Current mainstream attitudes are not the be-all and end-all to what pornography can be.

Like all media, there are people who are actively trying to break new ground in representation. There are sex workers who are queer, fat, disabled, etc etc all actively trying to give representation to the spectrum of human sexuality rather than just the straight, white male view. There is even an annual Feminist Porn Award.

CHOICE, CIRCUMSTANCE & COERCION

First, you should read dana boyd’s article about the model of Choice, Circumstance and Coercion in sex work, because it will cover the same ground, and in more detail. To quote the article:

On one end, you have choice where individuals with a high level of agency and capital (social, economic, cultural) choose to engage in sex work, often because they hold pro-sex attitudes and believe that the world would be a better place if people were more open and honest sexually… On the other end of the spectrum, you have coercion where individuals lack any form agency or capital and are directly or indirectly forced into the trade through manipulation or force. In between, in a category that describes what I suspect is the bulk of commercial sex, is circumstance. Circumstance itself can also be treated as a spectrum. On the end closest to choice, you have individuals who believe that they should have the right to sell any part of their bodies for financial gain… The bulk of circumstance has more to do with challenging economic issues, including poverty or financial desperation. Finally, closest to coercion, there are individuals who are both financially hard off as well as grappling with serious mental health issues, including drug and alcohol addiction, gender dysphoria, a history of abuse, and/or co-dependency.

I want to make clear that it’s not surprising that many sex workers from marginalised backgrounds will operate from the “coercion” or “circumstance” category (although obviously not all). This is because sex work is not an idyllic career that exists outside the framework of privilege, but nothing does so it’s not particularly “special” in that regard.

 

COERCION VS CIRCUMSTANCE

In my view, the difference between the Circumstance and Coercion categories is primarily one of information. As trite as it sounds, knowledge and information is power. Someone who is faced with homelessness but who can or knows to contact emergency accommodation and support is in a different position from someone who faces homelessness and is not aware of their options, or that there’s even an option to be had. The former makes an informed choice, and their individual agency should be respected because they are in the best position to make the choice for themselves. The latter don’t have a functional choice because they’re not aware of other options.

The former I would categorise in the Circumstance category – those who have chosen sex work from informed consent; and the latter I would place in the Coercion category – those who work in sex work non-consensually. There is some grey area about what constitutes “informed consent” but that’s a discussion that falls outside the boundaries of this post, suffice to add that the question extends to areas outside of sex work as well.

Sex-positivists (and I include myself in this category) are used to thinking about sex and consent in a very straight-forward way. To have sex, you should seek consent in a very active way from your partner/s. To not do so is to run the risk of raping someone.

But why do people consent to sex? People may consent because they’re in a romantic relationship with their partner… but they might just want to get their rocks off. They might also consent for less emotionally healthy reasons, like to get back at an ex, to boost their own self-confidence, to manipulate another person. I’m not saying these are “good” reasons to have sex, but as long as both parties consent, it’s not rape (although it may be other forms of emotional abuse which I’m not going to deal with in this post).

And, except for some very very limited circumstances, the reason why people consent to sex is generally not my business as long as the consent is there. Similarly, the reason why some sex workers give for working in the industry may not fill me with joy and cupcakes, but ultimately it’s not my business why someone else chooses to consent to sex.

Anti-sex work lobbyists will often point to the fact many sex workers in this category will have problems with drug and alcohol addiction, mental illnesses, homelessness, etc and are resorting to sex work because they can’t get money anywhere else. If that’s the case, then it’s clearly NOT sex work that is the problem, but the fact that people don’t have alternative options. If a sex worker said they’d rather be working as a waitress, but that their wages as a waitress did pay them enough to live off, then that’s a problem with the minimum wage or the social welfare system. If they’ve made a decision to do sex work instead of becoming homeless or not having enough to eat, why do anti-sex work lobbyists focus on eradicating sex work instead of rallying for more support to low-income earners?

Lobbyists will often focus on the fact that some sex workers have very few other choices – which may be true – but this rhetoric detracts from individual agency and the conscious choice being made. Someone may personally feel that sex work is the better choice out of two bad options, so the aim should not be to make sex work an equally bad option, but to make the other option better, or increase the number of options that person has access to.

 

TRAFFICKING AND SEX WORK

I place trafficked sex workers solely within the Coercion category and their work as non-consensual, ie. rape and sexual assault.

Traffickers will often prey on uneducated women from developing countries, lure them to a developed country with the promise of a jobs as maids and cleaners, and then force them into debt bondage at their destination country. Traffickers will claim that the girls owe them money for the trip, food, accommodation – and when they can’t meet the costs, the traffickers force them to work in brothels as sex workers.

The women have little or no English. They are in a foreign country where the only people they know are literally their captors. They are told by the traffickers that the police won’t help, will arrest them and/or won’t believe them. They are told they’ve signed binding legal contracts when they have not. Sometimes they not only threaten and assault the women themselves, but also threaten their families in their home towns. From the minute they enter the country, the women are entirely reliant on the traffickers.

I want to make a distinction clear: there are foreign sex workers who might come to a developed country in order to pursue career opportunities in sex work. The exchange rate may be quite favourable, or perhaps the destination country has better laws for sex work. Either way, they’re in a very different situation from women who have been trafficked.

Trafficking and forced labour occurs in both legal and non-legal brothels, and the fact that licensed brothels have been complicit in people trafficking has been an argument against legalising sex work. However, what’s less often spoken about is the fact that other kinds of legal, licensed businesses also participate in people trafficking.

Trafficking does not solely occur within the purview of sex work. People trafficking and forced labour occurs in many industries: at restaurants, factories, farms and retail shops. Anti-slavery Australia gives four case studies as an example – only one of which is about sex work.  But no one calls on the government to ban construction work, or fruit-picking, or table service at restaurants. This is because we recognise those jobs to be legitimate in and not fundamentally harmful in themselves. There is no reason why we can’t apply the same reasoning to sex work, which is fine when consensually agreed to, but abhorrent when it is forced upon people.

This should be obvious, but maybe it bears saying: No sex worker I’ve ever met, heard or read has supported people trafficking or forced labour. Every sex worker I’ve encountered is disgusted by the practice. Conflating sex work with people trafficking and forced labour is lazy and intellectually dishonest and if you take that approach, you may as well conflate the hospitality, retail and agriculture with the same.

 

THE CASE FOR LEGITIMISING SEX WORK

First, sex work is no different from any other labour that is sold for money, and the sex industry is no more or less problematic than other job industries.

Second, if disadvantaged people choose sex work as their best option when they are faced with a number of bad options, then it is the government and our society that is at fault, not sex work. Money ought to be spent in improving access to mental health services, education system, drug and alcohol programs – not spent trying to dissuade people from choosing sex work. The problem is not that they’re choosing sex work to survive, but that our society cannot provide adequate health, monetary and social support for some of the most disadvantaged people in our community.

Third, people trafficking is not exclusive to sex work. People are trafficked across a number of different industries, but the majority of businesses within those industries operate lawfully and morally.

Consequently, there are a number of things that occur when sex work is criminalised:

If people are in desperate situations, criminalisation may not dissuade people and they may turn to sex work anyway. In the end, it would only result in a criminal record for a lot of marginalised people, and extra administrative costs for the police and the courts. Alternatively, it may mean that people will need to pick “the worse option”, whether that means working three jobs or becoming homeless or something else.

For people being trafficked, those sex workers remain controlled by their traffickers who will have no qualms in directing them to break criminal laws. The fact they’ve committed a crime will be used as additional ammunition against them by their captors.

In the end, all criminalisation would do is curb the choices of those sex workers in the Choice category – the most privileged group with the most opportunities available to them – which also happens to be the category of people who we are the least concerned about engaging in sex work.

If we are really concerned in helping disadvantaged and marginalised people, banning, criminalising or stigmatising sex work is not going to solve anything. Much of the criticism thrown about relates not to sex work per se, but to the system of privilege that affects all aspects of our society, sex work included. The fact of the matter is that most mainstream opinions towards sex work are still firmly couched in anti-feminist, anti-sex rhetoric about women – and the idea that governments should dictate what women can or can’t do with their bodies.

 

*Edit: With thanks to a friend for pointing out the problematic aspects of using SSC and that the better acronym is now RACK.
**Edit 2: Please note that “prostitution” and “prostitute” are generally not accepted terms to apply to sex work and workers. I have used this term in the absence of anything else that describes exactly what I want to convey, but please note that the preferred words are always “sex work” and “sex worker”.

Spam (Please Stand-by)

Hello readers!

Unfortunately we’ve just gone through another round of getting hacked by spammers. It should now be cleaned, but if you experience any spam redirects please, please, please let us know.

There will be some announcements and updates from us in the near future as well!  SJL are doing well – we’ve just been incredibly busy these past few months.

Accepting Help from Homophobes

I wrote a post on Tumblr about the Salvos a few months back, but the issue of homophobia in the Salvation Army has recently become headline-worthy in Australia since singer Darren Hayes’ called to boycott the organisation.

I’m the last person who is going to defend rampant homophobia, and let’s be clear, that’s certainly the institutionalised belief system within that organisation. All of us on SJL are strong proponents of secularism and exist somewhere on the agnostic to atheist scale (okay, I’m probably the only person closer to that agnostic point). The problem is that no one else is really providing the same services as the Salvation Army – at least not where I live.

In my work I am regularly in contact with people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, newly-arrived migrants with little or no English, women in or who have come from violent relationships, people with severe mental illnesses, people who are homeless, people who are barely getting by financially. And when those clients need access to free financial counselling, food vouchers, public transport tickets and general community support I usually refer them to the Salvation Army or another religious-based organisation that probably doesn’t have more progressive views on being queer.

There’s a couple of reasons why this is the case. First, these organisations need to be based in the local area where the clients are living. Yes, there may be a secular organisation doing the same work in the city, but considering clients may need to be regular contact with caseworkers, it’s not practical to be making referrals to places with more than 30 minutes travel time one-way. The additional issue is that clients may not have access to a car, live near public transport, or even necessarily have the money to access public transport.

Second, these non-secular organisations are often a one-stop shop for a disadvantaged person. If someone can pick up food vouchers and book an appointment with a caseworker to find emergency housing, have another appointment with a financial counsellor about their managing their finances all at the same place then that’s going to be the easiest and most convenient way for them to seek help.

Third, while I don’t have too much experience in this, my understanding is that those organisations will provide support to queer people if they meet their merits criteria (which will be an assessment of assets and income) despite their homophobic doctrine. I have heard stories about queer people being turned away from the Salvation Army in the USA, but so far I’ve not heard any similar stories about the organisation in Australia. And while it would be best if queer people were not being provided support by a homophobic organisation, if someone is severely marginalised then the important thing is that they are getting that support in the first place. Unfortunately neither I, nor my clients can be particular about my referrals because simply, there’s often no choice to be had.

From an activism point of view, what would be far more helpful is supporting and establishing secular charities that provide the same services without the homophobia. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as it may seem. One practical obstacle is that where service-provider already exist in a region, it’s often difficult to find money or funding to set up a service that would do substantially the same thing – even if the existing service is non-secular and discriminatory. There’s the additional self-sustaining cycle of such organisations from being the sole provider of aid in area. Because people come to know and rely on a particular organisation, that group gains more social capital. Any new service would need to forge new ties and take the time to establish themselves in the area, and it’s far from guaranteed that people would flock to an alternative.

Am I saying you should donate to the Salvation Army? Honestly, that’s entirely your own choice, as is the choice to boycott the organisation. But let’s be clear that boycotting an organisation is a privilege not everyone has. People in need of emergency aid and community support often aren’t able to choose which organisations they approach, even if they are aware of the homophobia in an institution. And while it often irks me to make a referral, it would be worse if I denied marginalised and disadvantaged people access to the help they need.

The Man With the Hero Complex… Tattoo

Spoilers for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo book and major trigger warnings for rape, both in the review and in the book. I am not a survivor of rape or sexual assault so I would happy to receive any criticism or comments of this post by survivors, either through the comments below or through our contact form.

The two reasons why I wanted to read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were because of the original title, The Men Who Hate Women, and also because I’d heard that Larsson wrote the book in response to witnessing a rape. I’d been told from a number of (not explicitly feminist, but usually somewhat reliable) sources that the main character, Lisbeth Salander, was one of those Strong Female Characters who was emotionally detached and exhibited sexual desire and agency that was uncommon for female protagonists.

On the other hand I’d also heard the book was a rape victim’s revenge fantasy – and that was something we should be critical about, and I wasn’t sure what to think of that. So curiosity overcame my natural suspicion of popular books dealing with complex feminist issues.

After slogging my way to the final page, I closed the book and immediately thought of Kate Beaton’s comic (again). At best, the book is unspectacular and deals clumsily with the issues of rape, misogyny and abuse of power. Here is a man who witnessed a rape take place, felt shaken enough to write a book about it, yet still did the most superficial and cursory research into the subject. At worst, the book is downright offensive.

While Salander’s general detachment is refreshing – it is implied she is aneurotypical and that she’s probably autistic, perhaps the lone point of feminist interest – the book merely ends up retreading age-old hero and damsel in distress tropes. Contrary to my impressions before reading, the male journalist, Mikael Blomkist, is actually the protagonist who gets the most page-time and his character is significantly more developed than Lisbeth. Lisbeth really acts as a sidekick to his detective work and like many Strong Female Characters (TM), while she is smart and resourceful, her internal motivations for helping Blomkist are unclear and difficult to believe.

What’s more is that Salander falls in the love with the protagonist for no particular reason at all. The passages from her point of view are all tell, no show, and reading Salander wax poetic about how Blomkist doesn’t interfere with her life is utterly perplexing because this is apparently the reason why she falls for him. A man who doesn’t interfere with a woman’s life and her choices is, at most, neutral, since men don’t get cookies for meeting the basic standards of morality, even if those men are few and far between. There is absolutely no reason for her to show such an interest in him at all.

What’s made even more disturbing is that Salander is named after the victim whose rape he witnessed. And considering that Larsson and Blomkist share the same occupation, that Blomkist is the fictional representation of Larsson seems extremely likely, and then it becomes extremely disturbing that Larsson has written a fantasy where the representation of a real victim of rape falls in love with him.

As for the rape victim revenge fantasy, I’m going to completely blunt: Salander rapes her rapist to punish him. Yeah. Like, I don’t even know where to go with that. Rape culture is not solved with more rape culture. Just like sexual assault in prisons is not justice and merely contributes to rape culture, this fantasy also contributes to rape culture. Even if this were a frequent desire or reaction of rape survivors, Larsson himself was not a rape survivor (that we know of) or even someone who frequently worked with survivors of sexual assault and rape. While I can appreciate that witnessing a rape would have a deep impact on a person, to forward the narrative of a survivor raping their attacking seems pretty fucking appropriative of survivor experiences and feelings.

And if Larsson were considered a survivor, the narrative in the book is still highly irresponsible because it condones Salander’s actions as justifiable because society’s systems have failed her. Yes, it is disgusting and awful for society’s to regularly fail to protect women, but presenting society as having forced Salander’s actions as justified vigilantism ignores the organisations and activism that do exist to help women who have been victims of violence. Maybe witnessing a rape opened Larsson’s eyes to the systematic victimisation of women, but many of us have had our eyes open for years and some of us have done something about it. Rape aside, not every woman is able to physically fight  their attackers like Salander or extract themselves from financially-dependent relationships. Once again, Strong Female Character is being interpreted as physical “strength” without much regard to the mental or emotional resilience that I would characterise of many survivors of sexual assault. (Of course, I definitely do not consider “strength” or lack of it to be a moral judgement.)

The book also engages in victim-blaming and fails in any complex consideration of the psychology of rapists. On one level I understand this is meant to be a crime/thriller novel where the crime needs to be sensational in some way, but I am so sick of rapists being painted as psychopaths who kidnap women and set up basement torture chambers. That happens in a tiny minority of cases and then it becomes easy to dismiss rapists as “monsters” without humanity, and also for Salander’s acts of vigilantism to be more easily accepted (ie. it is acceptable to rape “monsters” if they have no humanity left). Furthermore, Salander is shown having no compassion for her fellow female survivors (I think it would be far more realistic for her to experience strong feelings here than with Blomkist) and in fact blames one of the victims for not speaking up earlier. Blomkist is then the one who mansplains a rape survivor’s psychology to her, another rape survivor, and at this point I decided that someone should give me an award for continuing to turn the pages of this book.

What’s also disturbing is how the acts of rape are described in detail and in a way that made the scenes feel like spectacles rather than crimes that are deeply scarring and emotionally damaging. The women who are the victims of the crimes are, on the whole, faceless, and described as prostitutes, immigrants and generally marginalised people in society whose bodies have been tossed into the oceans. We have no emotional connection with them. Salander is an emotionally detached character and remains so regarding her rape, and another character’s rapes occurred 30 years ago so she’s not about to recount it all. Because there’s no real focus on the impact on victims/survivors the focus becomes the acts of the violence, the rapes themselves. When Salander gets her revenge on her rapist, I have the feeling that this is the end of the matter for Larsson because justice has been served. Even if her actions constituted justice, the reason why rape is such a heinous crime is because the psychological and emotion scars it leaves on its victims. It’s very convenient that Larsson wrote a protagonist who just so happens to be completely detached from the world.

I can imagine that this would have been a very cathartic novel for Larsson to write, and obviously because it was published posthumously he had no say in the matter of its publication. But honestly, this should have never been published. We really did not need another white dude’s account of horrible things done to women, even if his heart was in the right place. None of the narrative, characters, mystery, ANYTHING provided anything that was particularly helpful in forwarding the feminist message. The fact this was labelled feminist in the first place has me worried. The most “feminist” part the novel I could find is how each part opens with a statistic about violence against women in Sweden. Old hat to hardened feminists, but might be why the mainstream seems to think it’s so revolutionary.

In a completely unrelated area of criticism, I found the writing quality to be abysmal and almost unreadable. I’ve been told that the writing is equally pretty bad in Swedish and it wasn’t just the translation that made everything painful to read. For the first few hundred pages I was so distracted by the writing that I couldn’t stop myself from mentally editing everything and the last time I did that was with a Laurell K. Hamilton book.

I would not recommend this book to anyone. It is a bit of a page-turner in the sense that I wanted to know what happened next when I didn’t want to throw it across the room, but that’s about it. Unfortunately I’ve bought the whole series already so I suppose you’ll have to look forward to more long ranting book reviews from me.

Achievements Earned: Sexual Harassment, Rampant Misogyny, Silent Complacency

Listen up, gamers! When a prominent member of your community states explicitly that not only is sexual harassment a good thing, but that it’s ethically wrong to try to eradicate sexual harassment from gaming cultures, there is something very, very wrong. (I’m not the biggest fan of PA or this particular coverage, but it’s probably the best and most general overview of the issue.)

The fact that the article goes on to say that the fighting game community is split on the issue is positively frightening.

I’m not even going to address the people who think sexual harassment is okay because you’re morally reprehensible and frankly, you’re not worth my time. But for the people who are worried about the reputation and culture of the fighting game community, the gamer community or even the geek community in general, let’s chat.

First, it may be surprising that I’m not particularly interested in this Aris dude or the apparently numerous gamers who agree with him. At this point I’ve written them off as no-hopers who can’t see past their own egos to understand basic codes of moral behaviour. What I am concerned about, however, is the circumstances where the gaming culture has allowed these disgustingly bigoted views to flourish.

In many other subcultures and communities, people like Aris and his supporters wouldn’t make news or even dent the reputation of the community. Bigots like these people would be dealt within internally, mocked for their views and prompted ejected and vilified (as they should be). It would be clear that they were so completely out of touch with the community standards for good conduct that anyone claiming they were representative of the whole community would be laughed at.

But clearly this isn’t the case. There is a prominent and even normalised trend of sexually harassing women in gaming circles. I’m sure there are a number of perfectly nice gamers who don’t harass people and you know what, I could even believe that people like Aris are part of a small but vocal minority. The problem isn’t numbers, the problem is systematic complacency to bigotry and douchebaggery.

The Penny Arcade article illustrates the point perfectly here:

It’s important to point out that video comes from the first day of the competition. The stream where Aris defends and encourages the harassment of female players takes place on day five. That means this woman may have been mocked and sexually harassed for days without anyone stepping in, stopping the situation, or speaking to Aris. At one point during the stream there is even a conversation about the “Cap cops” coming in to shut things down, but the conversation about sexual harassment continues.

When no one stands up to bigots, then everyone who is silent is complacent to their bigotry because bigots take silence to mean approval. Yes, Aris was the one who was sexually harassing female players, but what of the number of spectators who stood around and just let it happen? This kind of behaviour could have been nipped in the bud if someone had spoken up from day one. Their individual silence is as bad as Aris’ abuse, and collectively more significant.

You might think it’s unfair that I accord this sort of responsibility onto spectators who don’t have control over what Aris says. The fact of the matter is, Aris had enough confidence to let loose his abuse because he’d done it before with no consequences. He’d done it before, might have even been congratulated by a few douchenozzles, but more importantly, he’d experienced no or very little backlash from fellow gamers. The truth is that if you’re silent about bigotry then you are complicit in it – because bigots will assume that, you too, are a bigot.

You might still think it’s unfair that I accord this sort of communal responsibility onto spectators, but it’s also fucking unfair that Miranda Pakozdi was allowed to be abused in this way. You can’t have it both ways; you can’t say that people like Aris are ruining the community image on one hand while having a laissez-faire attitude to the existence of such people within the community on the other.

Hey, gamers? If you’re so concerned with the reputation of the gamer community, you should be less concerned about the effects of media coverage and more concerned with eradicating bigots from your community so the media will have nothing to latch onto. Instead of complaining how the media focuses on the negatives, maybe you should be stating that people like Aris are unequivocally condemned within the community and their presence is wholly unwelcome in your social circles. Just like high scores or impressive chain combos, good reputations are earned by working at them and not by sitting around watching others play.

Under the Gaydar

Most people reading this probably know what the word “gaydar” means. It’s apparently an innate ability that identifies people with queer sexuality without explicit knowledge and sometimes, without even speaking to that other person. It’s an innate ability both straight AND queer people have professed to possess. However, it’s a concept that’s extremely erasing of some queer identities, and plays into assumptions about a heterosexual norm.

I’ve no doubt this myth has arisen unintentionally due to unexamined confirmation bias. Every time someone “correctly” identifies a queer person they stick that into their evidence basket, and eventually they seem to have a whole lot of evidence supporting the fact that they’re really good at identifying queer people. This kind of sampling obviously does not hold up to scientific rigor. What people don’t realise is that they’re not taking into account the people they’ve failed to identify as queer – or generally, people who they’ve assumed are straight.

I’m someone who often flies under the gaydar, and I know people who are even more stealth cloaked than I am. The problem is that only certain people are detected with gaydar: usually those whose queer identities are highly visible because they clash with the heteronormative framework (for example, femme men and butch women). And of course I think those identities are as wonderful and as valid as anything else, but the concept of gaydar reinforces the idea that queer sexuality only comes in so many flavours, and nothing else. For example, femme lesbians will often experience incredulity from others that they’re not straight, because they’re “not butch enough” to be a lesbian.

“Gaydar” also reinforces the idea that certain queer people (and ace/asexual people!) need to come “out” about their sexuality. I understand that in a heteronormative society there are benefits when an individual comes out, but we should be working towards a society where straight sexuality is not the default assumption. If we lack actual information about a person’s sexuality, then we shouldn’t make any assumptions because sexuality is not something that can be gleaned from personality type or clothing.

While I don’t accept the concept of “Gaydar”, I do want to acknowledge the benefits of having a queer community who can recognise each other. There’s nothing wrong with dressing or performing queerness in a way that differentiates yourself from the heterosexual crowd, especially if this is a practical necessity when looking for partners. And if that’s the case, then it’s necessary for other queer people to draw certain assumptions about sexuality almost purely from a person’s appearance. The ability for queer people to spot other queers is necessary and, I would argue, community-building to an extent. Something babies something something bathwater.

However, just because I’m queer doesn’t mean I’m perfect at identifying other queer people either. In one particular case a person was very active in both the queer and kink communities, was completely at ease with any deviations from heteronormativity, but was actually completely straight.* I had been 110% convinced they were queer.

To delve into some wholly unproven and unqualified pop psychology, I think I’m better at identifying queer people than a straight person because I’m more exposed to queer culture. I can point to community identifiers outside wearing plaid shirts and listening to Tegan & Sara, even if I can’t express exactly what. Often the feeling doesn’t come from any particular thing I can point to, it’s from everything and something extra. That said, I’m only good at identifying queer people from my region and culture, because I’m specifically exposed to the regional queer culture. I’d have a much harder time spotting a queer person if I were in another country with a markedly different culture. “Queer” itself is, after all, a Western-centric concept.

So where does this leave us? I’d argue that the Gaydar has been a broken model from the beginning, and if anything, a concept that is rooted in straight appropriation of queer experiences. Certainly we are not doing the queer community any favours by advancing or validating that concept. However, we also want to be able identify members of our community who are performing a certain form of queerness, while not forgetting other members of our community who validly choose to perform their queerness in perhaps a less immediately identifiable way. Oh yeah, and also acknowledge that we can often fuck up while doing both.

It’s complicated (of course) and I definitely don’t have the answers. My personal solution is probably fairly unsatisfying: “put less weight on your ability to evaluate a person’s queerness if you don’t know for certain”. My ability to evaluate queerness changes depending on the context of my encounters as well – from queer events, a friend’s party, a shopping centre and to being in any country where homosexuality is still outlawed.

If I were to admit to the existence of “Gaydar” I would say that it only works moderately well in extremely limited circumstances, never finds all the targets you’re looking for anyway, and will sometimes result in false positives. In my opinion it’s better disavow the existence of Gaydar altogether than explain all that to straight people who will otherwise think that queer people have a secret handshake and superpowers. Or, you know, that queer people can only look and act in very limited ways.

On a more serious note, it’s also my personal belief that the limited portrayal of queer identities in queer sexuality is one of the reasons why many stay in denial about their sexuality. The idea that you have to change your whole identity to look or act a certain way is a far more daunting thought than the fact you’re simply attracted (a) particular gender(s).

*I’m aware that there’s some discussion around how the “queer” label and identity should be applied (namely, whether it can or should be used in solidarity with the polyamoury and kink communities), but as this is a social justice blog I think we can agree that a straight person still benefits from straight privilege, even if they may be marginalised in other ways.

Reveeenge! (Against Common Tropes For Strong Female Characters)

Mild spoilers for Revenge up to 1.12 Infamy. When I refer to Emily, I refer to the protagonist of the show.

Every time I hear or read the phrase “strong female characters” I get flashbacks to Kate Beaton’s comic about it. Characters like Sarah Connor and Xena were pretty ground-breaking at the time for being bad-ass female protagonists, but it feels like pop culture hasn’t progressed very far in their definitions of what a bad-ass female character should be. Too often creators seem to believe that “bad-ass” means making a woman hold a gun and fighting rough while spouting sarcastic one-liners. There’s often no internal motivation or driving force behind that character besides “being bad-ass” (read: being a male fantasy and nothing else).

Revenge is a TV show (very) loosely based on the Count of Monte Cristo and features a female protagonist. I was delighted when I heard about the premise because Dumas is one of my favourite authors, but my delight turned to full-blown worship after I actually watched the show.

I think what elevates the show from “alright” to “exceptional” is how it avoids the common gender tropes for female bad-asses, and subverts many of them. When I really thought about it, I realised that most shows that purportedly had strong female protagonists usually engaged with at least one of the following tropes that would irritate me, yet Revenge hasn’t (yet). I’ve got my fingers crossed that the writers will continue to treat Emily (nee Amanda) with the awesome she deserves and not have me hastily retconning the content of this post.

To be clear, I don’t think the following tropes are problematic in isolation, but they’re macroproblematic representations of women, especially when media engages with more than one of them at a time. The issue is not the representation itself, but the fact that there are very few other representations of women:

1. Women are more emotional and sentimental.

Part of what the actress Emily VanCamp does beautifully is her portrayal of a single-minded, focused woman who is actually operating deep undercover. A lot of media fall into the trap of women being “fooled” by their own emotions while undercover, such as accidentally developing feelings for people they’re meant to dislike. I think the writers tried to incorporate this into the text, but I hope they gave up on it. VanCamp plays the duality perfectly – in one moment she is warm and friendly to her enemies, and in the next moment we see her coldly plotting their demise.

It’s refreshing to see a woman who is not sympathetic to sob stories and who can’t be swayed by appeals to her emotion. It is a male character, Nolan, who frequently has to play The Heart and moral compass to Emily’s scheming – to varying levels of success.

What’s even more heartening is the lack of emotional attachment to the consensual sex she has while undercover. Women who have sex with people they don’t love or even like are usually presented as having an unhealthy emotional motivation. She’s insecure. She’s lying to herself about her feelings. She wants to make someone else jealous.

In this case, Emily has sex with Daniel because it’s useful to her quest for revenge, and there’s nothing more to it. What we see instead is Daniel becoming attached to her after sex. Which makes sense given how Emily is deliberately plotting to attract him.

2. Women react to events rather than take initiative.

You are the Chosen One, go slay some vampires. Your son is going to lead a future rebellion, protect him. Something nasty is after you, pick up a gun. In many cases the actions of female protagonists are brought about by fight or die situations where characters have limited choices, and their only motivation is to stay alive.

Emily’s decision to exact a slow and terrible revenge on everyone in the Hamptons stem from her father’s death, but it’s hardly a forgone conclusion. Most of us would probably take the money and run. But rather than accepting the status quo, Emily takes initiative and makes plans to shape events and her world so it aligns with her beliefs. What’s exciting is watching events unfold as a direct manifestation of her will – a woman who has an impact on the world because she chooses to, not because she’s forced to.

3. Women are unable to achieve their goals without the help of others.

I’m a big fan of action movies where the lone wolf (or lone wolf plus side-kick/partner) trope is often invoked. Sadly there aren’t many female action heroes generally and the ones that do exist often do fall into the other tropes I’ve mentioned. Other portrayals of leading bad-ass women (Buffy and Veronica Mars for example) require them to receive help from their network of friends and allies — which is fine, but I’d love to see a female MacGyver, for example.

So far Emily has called in exactly two favours – everyone else she has manipulated, blackmailed or otherwise persuaded. She saves and navigates herself out of tricky situations – the favours she calls aren’t white knights or deus ex machina and still required a lot of her own scheming to work. While she receives assistance from Nolan, it’s clear that she initially doesn’t want it, will never ever need it, and probably doesn’t rely on it. Their dynamic seems to imply that she lets Nolan help as a favour to him, rather than as assistance to her.

It helps, of course, that she has a ridiculous amount of money. But so does Batman.

4. Women use sex to get what they want.

Emily is not a femme fatale. She has a sexual relationship with Daniel, but the sex is a byproduct of having that relationship. They have sex because she convinces him that they’re a romantic match and that she loves him; not because he’s suddenly lost all rationality because a woman wants to sleep with him.

Instead of overdone come-ons and seduction plots, we see Emily deftly using information and subterfuge to draw suspicion on others, and manipulating relationships to her advantage. It’s clear that she’s not only extremely intelligent, but also extremely competent. Too often we’re just told that a bad-ass female character is smart, only for the narrative to limit the demonstrations of her talents to her physical allure and nothing else.

Revenge subverts the femme fatale trope in many ways because the people we see wielding sexual power to manipulate others are men – Nolan and Tyler. Nolan seduces Tyler and makes a sex tape, Nolan is the the dinner date diversion while Emily blows shit up. Both are common plotlines would ordinarily be given to women.

And this is why Revenge is so compelling for me. The femme fatale story and the superspy story have already been told a thousand times – I don’t need to watch another iteration. But when you reverse the gender roles that story becomes different and infinitely more interesting. It highlights how much storytelling is about the choices of creators and that while certain choices are being made over and over to the point of needless repetition, other stories are being completely ignored.

Loki: An Allegory About Internalised Racism

I really enjoyed Thor when I first viewed it. Like many fans I found Loki to be one of the most compelling characters and villains I had ever watched. Then I stumbled across this short post on Tumblr, and I realised why I related to the character so much. I read Loki as a character who suffered from internalised racism, and I know that experience pretty intimately*.

All his life Loki believed he was Aesir by blood. For years he’s been fed negative messages about Frost Giants – probably that they’re backwards, barbaric and unattractive. For years he’s participated in the Othering of an entire race (species?) and hating them for just being who they are. As the victors of war, Asgard would paint themselves as the noble and courageous warriors in every story and the Frost Giants as untrustworthy, cowardly and sly. Frost Giants are the butt of every joke. It’s clear Loki views them as disposable as everyone else in Asgard when he lets them into Asgard to be killed, just so he can make a point about Thor’s inadequacies.So what does he do when he finds out he’s adopted and biologically Jotun? Naturally, he manipulates events just so that he can commit genocide on his own people.

Maybe this sounds like a long bow to draw for people who haven’t experienced internalised racism, but in my opinion his reaction is a realistic portrayal of what racism can do to people of colour. I’m not saying anyone is going to commit genocide but that’s a lot of hate that’s being directed to people who’ve done nothing to him personally. And because Loki is a Frost Giant that’s also a lot of hate directed inwards AT HIMSELF.

Realistically, those negative messages don’t melt away the instant Loki knows about his heritage. No, what he wants now is to be accepted as Aesir “in spite of” the fact he is Jotun. Because of that he has to be more Asgardian than anyone else in Asgard. He has to hate the Frost Giants more, he has to be tough (not “soft” like Thor at the end) and he has to do something that will prove beyond doubtthat he is Aesir at least at heart.

Imagine if Loki knew he was Jotun from the beginning. His friends and family in Asgard treat him well, but still make remarks about the Frost Giants and how they’re an ugly race of people. They’d try to watch what they said around Loki, but sometimes let a racist joke or remark slip. And they’ll glance at him guiltily and think they’re helping when they clarify: “No you’re good, you’re not like the otherJotun.” Loki will grow up thinking he’s loved as long as he’s a certain “type” of Jotun and one that acts like he’s Aesir and goddamn, why wasn’t he born Aesir?

After he finds out, Loki monitors his behaviour. He makes sure he does everything Aesir, divorces himself from any Jotun-esque traits he might hold. He denounces the Frost Giants more than anyone else, he hates them and their culture and everything they are more than anyone else. He makes derogatory jokes about them, maybe even encourages others to do the same.

I read much of Loki’s pain and loss through the film as an allegory for internalised racism because I experienced it for myself for many years. Internalised racism is growing up with the message that only white people can be complex and successful and happy. Non-white ethnicity and culture is, at best, regulated to a supporting role for the privileged; at worst, it is outright hated, mocked and derided. You want to be happy right? Your brain does a little irrational flip and tells you the only way to be complex, successful and happy is to emulate a privileged person, right down to the racism.

Of course you can never be as good as a white person but you can try**. You can try to be better, and you can try to out-act their privilege. You can proudly distinguish yourself as one of the exceptions to the rule, the “good” type of minority that “acts white”. The price is giving up your heritage, distancing yourself from native cultural practices, from languages, food and clothing.

The emotional toil of loathing yourself stays until you come to terms with your own oppression. But the sense of loss has never left me. When I think back to how I was operating under internalised racism, I remember the positive experiences and opportunities I refused to take because they were too “ethnic”. I remember the deep shame of being non-white, my embarrassment of being seen with other non-white people and especially those who couldn’t “act white” enough for me.

I think about the racist things I did and got away with because of my ethnicity and I’m really glad I’m not that person anymore.

When Loki announces he wants to “destroy that race of monsters” you know, on some level, he’s referring to himself as well. And then my heart breaks into tiny pieces because I remember exactly how it feels to hate who you are.

*I realise that Thor is pretty white-washed in terms of casting and there are only two characters of colour, but nevertheless I found this storyline compelling when analysing it from a racialised point of view.

**People of colour who are able to “pass” as white will have to be a subject of another post.

The 500 Days of Summer Dilemma and How to Manage Your Unreliable Narrator

Spoilers for 500 Days of Summer. Obviously.

 

I’ve read an amazing amount of feminist critique about this film for something that’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. I like it, but I don’t like it as much as say, Bruce Willis action films. The story is about an emotionally manipulative man, the Nice Guy (TM) even, who subsequently unleashes his misogyny and feelings of entitlement on an ex-girlfriend after she breaks up with him. I think all feminists agree on this point. But people seem to divide into two camps when analysing the underlying message of the film:

1. The film (and audience) sympathises with the plight of the protagonist and the purpose is to reinforce the dominant sexist narrative that women are emotionally manipulative and “play games” with men, while men get their hearts broken.

OR

2. The protagonist is an unreliable narrator who is selfish and unable to consider anyone else’s emotional needs but his own. As he embodies many of the negative traits commonly given to women in romantic comedies, the film is in fact a subversion of sexist gender stereotypes.

Surprisingly, the latter was the intention and the belief of the writers, the producers and the actors of the film, and they expected the film would be viewed with interpretation #2.* Unsurprisingly, a great deal of people not acquainted with feminism leave Youtube comments about how Tom was too good for Summer and how Summer is a “bitch”.

Thanks to the Death of the Author both of these interpretations are equally correct. But what’s so striking about this case is the divergence of opinion, even amongst feminists who would usually agree (and within SJL for that matter). More importantly, how did interpretation #1 become so popular when it was the exact opposite of what everyone involved in the creation of the film intended?

Some people have pointed out that our post about liking problematic things did not address narratives where bigoted characters were condemned. That analysis is beyond the scope of the post, because the existence of bigotry and bigoted characters do not necessarily make media problematic. This seems like an obvious point to make in say, oh, Harry Potter for example. Voldemort and the Death Eaters are clearly bigoted and racist by any mainstream measure of the word. But they are the villains of the narrative and the plot is a complete condemnation of their beliefs and actions. (I realise Harry Potter is macro-problematic in a lot of other ways though.)

Media is not problematic where bigotry is condemned or punished by the narrative. A character may undertake a bigoted action and it’s not problematic as long as that action is somehow condemned. Ron, who is positioned as one of the good guys, at one point says sexist and slut-shaming things about his sister Ginny. The important thing is that Ginny, another hero of the story, calls him on his prejudices and the audience is alerted to the fact that there is a problem with what Ron has said.

Alternatively, bigotry can be condemned by the position of the character in the text (ie. the actions of the Death Eaters are generally condemned because they’re positioned as villains). While not every narrative will have the more clear-cut good and evil divide of Harry Potter, many characters will often have particular areas in which character flaws consistently manifest. Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly is consistently misogynistic and expresses whorephobic, slut-shaming and anti-sex worker sentiments throughout the show, despite being a “good” guy  – an anti-hero really. However, I believe the Firefly text is generally supportive of sex work over all, and presents Inara as a strong, relatable woman who has a lot of agency in her profession (although the show arguably sometimes lapses into positive stereotyping). The audience therefore learns that Mal is unreliable when it comes to views about sex work and perhaps women more generally.

The Unreliable Narrator

Moving back to 500 Days of Summer. The main problem is that the story is told from the privileged person’s point of view. In this case, the point of view of a man who feels entitled to not only a woman’s time, but also entitled to a relationship with her. I believe the intention was to use the unreliable narrator as a literary technique to subvert gender roles in traditional romantic comedies. But, as we all should know, intentions are not magical and do not mitigate marginalisation when it happens. In the context of patriarchy, male experiences are valued over female experiences so this subversion doesn’t work well. No matter where the men are positioned in the text your typical audience will likely sympathise with the men more, because that’s the voice we’re told is more authoritatative and objective.

As a feminist, I read many of Tom’s actions as inherently manipulative and misogynistic. But in the kyriarchy, microaggressions and forms of subtle bigotry aren’t recognised as bigotry at all and people are often told to just “get over it”. While this film might have had some self-awareness in its production, sadly unexamined bigotry from a privileged protagonist is an all too common story played out in Western film. If you want to convey a message or “moral” to a story then subtle bigotry isn’t going to cut it when signalling “THIS IS BAD BEHAVIOUR” to your audience. You’re going to have to unequivocally show how terrible the behaviour is – either by having another “good” character condemning it loudly or by having the bigoted character meet a series of terrible accidents as a consequence of their bigotry.

The narrative in fact relapses into the very tropes it sought to avoid. Summer is at first the antithesis of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to some extent because she is not interested in a long-term relationship and is not particularly bothered with romance. However, near the end she helps Tom come to grips with his (privileged) (asshat) emotional baggage and idealism, reinforcing the narrative that women are only valuable insofar if they help men realise their true potential or something equally stomach-turning.

While Summer calls out some of Tom’s douche behaviour it’s not strong enough to over-power Tom’s unreliable point of view. More problematically, Tom’s character never really suffers for his bigoted behaviour. (Parts of the film where he is sad and misogynistic about Summer breaking off the relationship is not “suffering for it” in my book.) In fact, he has a “happy ending” where he winks at the camera with the suggestion that he’s moved on to “Autumn” now. At no point does Tom acknowledge how much emotional pain he puts Summer through. At no point does Tom recognise his actions tie into his male privilege (this is all attributed to the fact that he is a romantic and idealist).

I really enjoy the unreliable narrator as a literary device when it’s executed well. I think it’s possible to write an unreliable narrator with deeply problematic views and for the text itself to be unproblematic. But because we’re only getting the narrator’s point of view, the text needs to shout louder and flag more frequently that the narrator is not only deeply biased, but also quite bigoted in action at the very least, if not also in intent.

*All I’ve found is this interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but if any one of our new Tumblr fans wants to help me out with additional links I’d much appreciate it.

Spam Spam Spam

I’ve been notified that the website is having some spam problems, namely redirects from Google. Currently looking into how to clean it up, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I will need to back-up and reinstall a clean copy of WordPress from scratch. I will probably be doing this tonight but in the meantime, but you can keep in touch with us via Twitter.

EDIT 1: Looks like all our PHP files have been infected and a clean install is the best bet to ensuring the website is malcode free. I’ll be doing this tonight with my fingers crossed that I don’t accidentally delete everything. In the future please let us know if something’s broken on the site as soon as you see it! SJL is a labour of love and we’re not always able to notice these sorts of things promptly.

EDIT 2: As of right now posting this, I am pretty sure that the site is clean. HOWEVER, there is a good chance that the spam may come back. I’d do a more thorough investigation, but that would require a lot more time than I have on my hands right now so I’m hedging my bets that it won’t come back. Please, please, please let us know if you experience any further problems. Thanks everyone!