If the pursuit of pleasure is good, how can it be bad for sex workers, people who are professionally steeped in sexuality? Well, it’s complicated. Over the past several decades, a contingent of feminist, sex positive sex workers have emerged, and they have claimed their right to experience the pleasures of sex and share those pleasures with others, including paying clients. Sex positive sex workers have moved to the forefront of conversations about the sex industry, and today are prevalent in online discussions of sex work, especially when it comes to first person accounts. Offline, too, sex positive sex workers have been making their mark on the discourse around sex work, and many have appeared on academic panels and at other public events to offer their perspectives on sexuality and sex work.
However, the promotion of pleasure and sex positivity within the sex industry and as an element of sex worker rights activism, is proprietary to a small but very vocal group of people, namely: white, cisgender women who are conventionally attractive, able-bodied, and have some degree of class and educational privilege. People like this – people like me – are central figures in the American sex worker rights movement, and often claim sex positivity as a key vehicle for claiming rights and making progress. Arguably, some progress has been made, especially in the area of cultural engagement and public awareness about the struggles and humanity of people in the sex industry. The fact that the phrase “sex worker” appears regularly in news outlets when the subject is covered is a testament to this progress. Though offensive slang still publicly brands people in the sex industry, the awareness of the preferred terminology has certainly grown. But despite the progress, there are many barriers to justice. One of these barriers, the one that this essay explores, is sex positivity.
Before we dig in, let’s talk for a minute about unintentional consequences. Surely, you might argue, sex positive feminists, including people who work in the sex industry and those who do not but respect the rights of sex workers, see sex positivity as a means to achieving social good, with a few great orgasms along the way. Why would sex positive feminists want to halt the progress toward human rights for sex workers? I believe that the answer is that sex positive feminists do not intend to create barriers for the achievement of sex workers’ rights, but that there are ways in which this happens anyway. And though it is frustrating to have something that you thought was good, that has your best intentions behind it, pointed out as being potentially or actually harmful, it is crucial to think about the ways we can make our umbrellas bigger and not smaller. Even if sometimes this may come at the personal cost of rerouting your values.
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