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Economies of Virtue

Scott Long’s got a long, valuable piece putting more context to this Equality Now campaign to get the UN to roll back support for sex workers’ rights, which you should go read – militarized humanitarianism, “good intentions” and worse policy, imperialist sex wars, it’s got it all, and it’s a great read.

But what I want to point out is this note at the end:

…as long as we’re talking about power: a colleague noticed something interesting over at the New School for Social Research. The Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy is offering a practicum for students to do research, in a project for Equality Now. “This project would analyze the legalization of prostitution and formation of sex workers’ rights groups. …  Equality Now seeks to better understand the movement to legalize prostitution and form sex workers’ rights groups in order to refute arguments for legalization and lobby for adoption of the Nordic Model instead.”

According to the practicum description, the students will:

Examine the history of sex workers’ rights groups in the following countries and answer the questions below: Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Venezuela, Brazil, Senegal, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Nepal, India, Philippines and the United States (particularly in Nevada)

- What is the history of the formation of sex workers’ rights groups in these countries?
- Who are the groups, what are their funding sources, and where is the influence on their policies coming from (for example is a larger international NGO working with them)?
- Are the sex worker’s groups pushing for legalization in those countries where it is not already legalized? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)
- In those countries where it is not legalized, what are the local women’s rights groups in these countries saying about legalization? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)

Here’s a screengrab of the practicum description, including the disclaimer “Please keep in mind that this is a confidential work product developed for Equality Now and not intended for distribution or publication. We hope that you will enjoy working with us on this project.”

Please also keep in mind, this is an organization that is engaged in challenging the United Nations essentially for not listening to the correct sex workers, an organization who wants the UN to instead listen to sex workers who say that any sex worker who opposes criminalization is “injured.”

Back to Scott Long:

Now, it’s obvious what this is: it’s what we call oppo research, trying to figure out what your foes (bad people “inured to the wrong” of prostitution) are doing. Many organizations dabble in this at one point or another, though they don’t usually call on students at a distinguished university to help. But this is where the power question comes in. I don’t like the tone of the questions — the funding sources, the suggestion of foreign influence. Most sex worker groups are poor and marginal. In countries where sex work “is not legalized,” the organizations’ very existence is often endangered. Even where sex work is at least partly legal, they’re still stigmatized as advocating immorality, and any number of contrived crimes from promoting public indecency to spreading pornography to running a brothel can provide excuses to shut them down, and even jail their members.

So what exactly is this information going to be used for? Has the professor (a good guy, I think, with a history of work on migration issues) who’s overseeing the practicum asked Equality Now? Has the New School put safeguards in place to make sure its students’ research will only be used for ethical purposes, and will not endanger the safety, human rights, or freedom of sex worker advocates and activists? The school is asking its students to monitor sex workers’ groups for an NGO that really doesn’t like them. And the school needs to be answerable for any consequences. The history of power politics around sex workers’ rights and freedoms is too acute and recent — and the possibility of even inadvertently endangering people is too strong — for an academic institution to pretend this is purely an academic question for very long.

Given the number of sex workers I know who are New School alums, I’d think Equality Now could look a lot closer to home if they wanted  to understand “the other side.” In 2006, I met a number of them, at a conference hosted in part at the New School called Sex Work Matters (I can’t find a good web archive, but here’s the original CFP and an anthology from the conference, Sex Work Matters, published by Zed).

Still, for the students who are part of this practicum, or faculty or others who are familiar with it, what’s going on here?

Off to fund the movement.

Here’s a start for you: an absolutely scandalous little publication, literally called “Sex Worker Health and Rights: Where Is The Funding?” If that’s not shocking enough, there’s the Red Umbrella Fund, on whose advisory board sex workers sit and inform funding decisions.

It’s probably sexier for Equality Now to imagine these activists who are now getting a fair reception at the United Nations as vixens slinking around a smoky hotel conference room, funders nipping at their Louboutins, but the truth, humble as it is, is quite out in the open already.

The sad thing is, I’d be grateful to get this kind of support to research a solid history of the sex workers’ rights movement globally, and I can think of a dozen other people who should be doing this work. But to do it for someone who only wants this information to help them more properly put sex workers back in their place? That’s like enlisting in a Jesse Helms Family Foundation project to document ACT UP.

I’ve written before about Equality Now (in Jacobin, and in Reason) – a humanitarian women’s rights NGO founded in part to eradicate sex work. One of their key tactics in this ostensibly feminist fight is to deny that anyone involved in the sex trade dissents with their approach. Lately their op-eds have turned explicitly against sex workers’ rights, which makes sense, as the past two years have seen the mainstream of the global health and human rights community joining sex workers in calling for an end to the criminalization of sex work as essential to protecting sex workers’ health and rights.

Equality Now appear to be losing credibility as human rights advocates. How can they claim to have the solutions when the same major actors they once successfully appealed to – various agencies within the United Nations, mostly – have begun to work more directly with sex workers in diverse work settings and a variety of legal contexts to document the harms resulting from sex work being criminalized? As more and more human rights and health advocates join with sex workers, demanding that sex workers be understood as the experts when it comes to setting sex work policy, when those policies informed by sex workers are at a 180 from the anti-sex work agenda of groups like Equality Now, the anti-sex work campaigners begin to look quite out of step with the same people they claim to protect.

This shift (along with this week’s UN General Assembly in New York) in part explains a recent uptick in appeals from women formerly involved in the sex trade, rehashing Equality Now’s talking points and promoting Equality Now’s campaign against the UN’s recommendations to decriminalize sex work. These women are engaged in work a respectable NGO can’t so easily take up in public, like claiming that any sex worker who opposes them is essentially damaged and brainwashed.

As one of these campaigners Rachel Moran wrote criticizing the UN’s stance*  in the Independent:

I believe if a prostitute or former prostitute wants to see prostitution legalised, it is because she is inured both to the wrong of it and to her own personal injury from it.

I asked Rachel Moran, given her claims, how those seeking more just and humane sex work policy – like the World Health Organization, like Human Rights Watch, like the United Nations Development Program and UNAIDS, for example – should incorporate this new standard of vetting reports and recommendations from sex workers into their advocacy. Which sex workers, I asked Rachel, should these agencies, their researchers, and their partners dismiss outright based on, as Rachel is endowed with determining, those sex workers being too “inured” and “injured” to have an opinion on their own lives?

You’ll be surprised (or not!) to learn that for this campaigner, anyway, this is a self-evident question, as “sex workers” apparently don’t even exist.

So. Abolition accomplished?

Our conversation below.


it is worth saying, “the UN’s stance” is how media are characterizing this issue, yet not all agencies within the UN have held the same views on sex work over time. Notably, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that he opposed criminalization of sex work in 2008, and in 2012, UNDP’s Global Commission on HIV & the Law echoed and extended his call to include decriminalizing sex workers’ workplaces. UNAIDS at one point argued for programs to “reduce entry” into sex work and to “address demand” over prioritizing sex workers’ health and rights. But when sex workers and allies protested and organized, they then informed new guidance on sex work and HIV, which places more focus on sex workers’ rights and addresses HIV in the context of discrimination and criminalization. 

Update, 2013.09.24: the Global Network of Sex Work Projects has issued a statement on Equality Now’s attacks, which includes in part:

…recognising the human rights of sex workers and calling for the decriminalisation of sex work is a recommendation made by these reports in recognition of the fact that punitive laws, discriminatory and brutal policing, and denial of access to justice from people most at risk of acquiring HIV are fuelling the epidemic. It is not clear to us how Equality Now and other campaigners would, given this stark reality, write to senior officials at the UN and ask that action be taken that appear to summarily dismiss the voices of sex workers who were an integral part of both UN reports attacked by this coalition.

The Feminist Porn Book
(Valerie Solanas referring to the text)

The Feminist Porn Book has been one of the more fun books to take along on the subway. With this hanging out in my purse over the last few weeks and Kink.com back in the headlines for unfair labor practices, I took the chance to interview some porn performers and producers about porn as women’s work, and how feminist porn can be a feminist labor issue. That’s up at the Guardian.

Maxine Holloway and Bella Vendetta had way more to say than I could fit in print, and I wasn’t able to get in one of my favorite excerpts from the book, from an essay by Clarissa Smith and Feona Attwood, on the resurgence of anti-porn feminism and its’ complicated relationship with the internet:

“…the current wave of antipornography campaigning draws on the arguments of the 1970s and 1980s antiporn feminists but do so in interesting ways – for example, although they build on the central tenets of Andrea Dworkin’s analysis of the misogyny and cruelty of pornographers, they posit this as a prescient account but one that could never have envisaged the ‘juggernaut’ of the Internet… this complex narrative of nostalgia and futurology is a central theme in these accounts where pornography is acknowledged as an already exisiting feature of the landscape, but one that has developed outside the knowledge of ‘ordinary’ adults and needs urgent redress.”

There’s also been some fascinating conversation on Susie Bright’s blog, about how the book positions the current sex positive community with or possibly against the late 1970s and early 1980s contributions of feminists, particularly those who identified as sex radical feminists.

In an open letter to the editors of The Feminist Porn Book, Gayle Rubin (whose “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” is an essential text) writes that in both the introduction to their book and in media surrounding it, the editors seem to be proposing a “middle ground” between what could be read as “extreme” ideologies held by both sex positive and anti-porn camps. “This way of framing the history of debate over pornography within feminism is not uncommon,” writes Rubin, “but it is dead wrong.” She continues:

“This version of the story requires mischaracterizing most of us who were involved in the early arguments by casting us as unreasonable extremists who celebrated pornography without qualifications. It fails to recognize that we– essentially the first generation of feminist critics of the antiporn movement– made most of these so-called “reasonable middle” points in the late 1970s and early 1980s, back at the time when the porn debates first ignited.”

Responding to Rubin, the editors write:

“While noting this tremendous diversity and productive potential [in porn], sex positive feminist critics have not yet fully analyzed the tremendous production of feminist pornographies that has emerged in the past fifteen years. When we say these pornographies have been “lost in the middle,” we mean that critical work on emerging forms of feminist pornography needs to be engaged if we want to continue to advance the cause of sex positive feminism. That’s what our book is intended to do.”

It’s true – most writing about the sex industry in the last fifteen years (not that I just did a lit review, but I did) focuses on first-person storytelling about workplace experiences. Porn performers are often under-represented in this literature, and porn producers (even if they are also performers themselves) are often not represented because they occupy a management role. There’s comparatively less work exploring the production or business side of any sex industry. (There’s also a whole other conversation to be had, about whether or not producers or managers are sex workers, or should be part of sex workers’ spaces (and literature), but it’s somewhere The Feminist Porn Book does shine, in bringing together people who both perform in and produce (and study) feminist pornographies, in the same space, even if they aren’t on quite even footing.)

I wonder if this is why Tristan Taormino responded to my piece, which concerned feminist porn as labor, by saying she didn’t think the performers I spoke with were “representative,” which I disagree with. I’ve heard one of the frustrations I wrote about – that feminist porn doesn’t pay what “mainstream” porn pays – quite a bit, both from colleagues in porn at the time I was working, and from those who still work in feminist porn. This issue of pay deferential isn’t just about what an individual producer can or chooses to pay; it’s about resources, and how under-resourced women’s work and women’s own businesses are. It’s something I’d love to read more about, from performers’ perspectives. (Here’s one take on the question, of how to pay and pay fairly, from a feminist porn producer, Ms. Naughty.)

Back to Rubin, though. Her generation of feminist porn thinkers brought a class politics to their porn politics, one of the most important contributions of the early sex radical feminists, and one that has almost been lost. It’s one of the more challenging things to me about explaining “sex positivity” to those who have no idea what it means (most people), because I find myself digging for a politics of sex positivity, and to find it, I end up back quoting Rubin, Carole Vance, Amber Hollibaugh, Ellen Willis – women who were producing a theory of sexuality and feminism thirty years ago. (In fact, the legendary Barnard Conference on Sexuality was held here in New York in 1982. I wish was had thought to produce a reunion or tribute. I’d love to be in that room.)

In this early sex radical writing and thinking about sexuality and feminism, the actual production of feminist porn might not yet be present (it can’t really yet be), but what is much more upfront is a grounding of this whole enterprise, of sex and gender, in questions about power and class and inequality. Talking about compulsory heterosexuality and motherhood, the uncompensated labor of sex and sexual reproduction, and all the connections between the devaluation of women’s labor and women’s sexuality are what sex radical feminists used to destabilize anti-porn feminism’s recapitulation of female virtue (whether within straight or lesbian monogamy).

These women are the roots of this work, and more urgently, they are the roots I don’t know that my generation (X-ish? Y-ish?) has yet to fully add our own analysis to – of what the questions of power and inequality raised by sex radicals thirty years ago mean to sex positive feminists today. This book is one step in that direction, but it leaves me wanting more, and a more that will require reincorporating the analyses of labor and class that (honestly, most) feminism has sheared off since the 1980s. In trying to understand this gap in analysis and shared history (which is I think what we see in these two open letters), I want to better understand where “sex radical” and “sex positive” feminisms converge and split off from one another. I don’t think they are the same thing, and I think we lost something when “sex radical” (mostly) dropped off the radar. If this transition, from sex radical giving way to sex positive, mirrors anything like the parallel changes in queer and women’s movements, it follows a time, moving from the 80s to the 90s, of an underclass getting more visible, and later, getting more respectable, while still preserving an underclass within the people just barely formerly known as the underclass.

I know it might be hard to to conceive of “sex positivity” as respectable in anyone’s eyes. But just as when Pride went corporate and when feminism becomes a corporate slogan, when “sex positivity” became closely identified (if not entirely identified) by sex toy stores and sex positive porn, where did our ways of talking about inequality go? (Fave exploration of this I’ve ever read is this 1999 piece by Mimi Thi Nguyen, for Punk Planet.) Where are those analyses being developed (over a coffee counts, I’m not just talking classrooms) and where can others find them? The ground work has been done; it’s just a matter of reaching back and asking new questions. (And I’d love to hear your questions, about feminisms, sex positivity, and inequalities, here.)

I’ve got a piece out in the Washington Post, a commentary on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate feminism, on the eve of her book Lean In. I’ve been following Sandberg as one of the more visible “women in tech” since she joined Facebook, just one month after I began writing for Gawker’s then-San Francisco based tech blog Valleywag.

Sandberg, along with Marissa Mayer, has served as a stand-in for a “woman in tech,” and now more broadly, as a “powerful woman.” These are roles that, back when their names were known to relatively few people outside the Valley and those who obsess about it, Sandberg and Mayer have played, and I’d argue, both played to and played against, like any woman handed a role that could elevate her as much as reign her in. Mayer says she isn’t a feminist; Sandberg says she is. In playing these roles, they also make for appealing stories of “what it all means” for the media.

But anyone who knows anything about the tech biz knows that this is a (social) media side show, and that feminism will never be one of the “disruptive” values of Silicon Valley so long as Silicon Valley is principally a machine for producing wealth for the few. (See: the story of Katherine Losse, an early Facebook employee who also crossed paths with Sandberg.) To the extent that someone who so benefits from that business culture espouses feminism, it will be ruthlessly friendly to the corporate environment in which it is exercised.

It’s this limitation that concerns me about the brand of feminism we see in Sandberg – because it’s gaining ascendence, and because we’ve been here before. It’s a trickle-down feminism that centers the concerns of an elite minority of women, and it repeats losing tactics in the history of feminist movements. Sandberg is far from the only prominent feminist who supports these tactics, which – despite their intentions – have been insufficient in addressing inequalities among women. If the book and its attendant publicity had only framed Sandberg’s contribution as something “by and for women in positions of corporate leadership,” I doubt we’d be having this conversation.

The book isn’t out yet, though Connie Schultz has a critical review out (also in the Post), and it affirms the omissions I anticipated based on the materials I had available to me, including Sandberg’s own telling of her leadership trajectory. Here’s one of the most widely-circulated Sandberg quotes on that, from an interview she gave to PBS/AOL for the Makers documentary. You can view it online:

I always thought I would, like, run a social movement. Which meant, basically, I would work in a non-profit.

It’s a telling understanding: of both the qualities of social movement leadership (which few who work within them would call “running” them), as well as where one would find a social movement (incorporated as a 501c3). And it’s another tension that’s too real for those working in movements for social justice – including women’s rights and gender justice – as we try to understand how to actually get change made: outside systems, or within them. And in fact, Sandberg has followed through on this early vision: according to documents obtained by the New York Times in advance of the book’s release, Sandberg has incorporated the related projects around Lean In as a c3. By the strike of her own pen, this is a movement.

But, is this a “real” movement? I think the legitimate concerns about what’s being sold as feminism here has got lost in the many meanings of that word, and how little people who have not been part of movements understand their function. I got my own movement education first as an activist, then while working at an explicitly feminist foundation. So for my part, I wonder what this might mean for those already working in movements on these issues, who struggle for visibility and funding, and who will likely never (and perhaps would never want to) attract the kind of media attention and corporate partners that Sandberg has found in Lean In. Will their work be made any easier? Will they find new allies? Or will they be told, as they have been for decades even by those who claim they work alongside them, that what they want is still impossible?

And what would Sandberg say if she were told the same?

by Imp Kerr

Of all the tech hijinx I covered while writing for Valleywag (missu), Facebook’s always felt the least inspired. Even in 2006, when Valleywag launched and when Facebook had just barely made itself available to anyone outside an Ivy, there was something antiseptic about it that felt so fundamentally disconnected, like whoever had built it had forgot that their business was actually on the wild, wooly internet.

Of course, it wasn’t. Facebook was in the business of our offline lives, and “frictionless” (right) sharing thereof: the business of generating wealth from and never really for its users.

Except. Except the users under its own roof. In the most recent Dissent, I look at Katherine Losse’s The Boy Kings, her excellent memoir of her time working as one of the first women at Facebook, as a way back into understanding that time, grafted onto my own overlapping years spent in San Francisco, and pointed at the question of, what really makes Facebook go and yet who is still least valued by Facebook but women?

Facebook, we know now, was never meant to be the product; we, its users were. Without us, the “product” would be worthless. Zuckerberg understood this in 2003, when he created the proto-Facebook site Facemash, built from photos of Harvard University women—Zuckerberg’s classmates and peers—and presented to users—presumed to be Harvard men—to vote on their attractiveness. In a Harvard Crimson story published after Zuckerberg beat an expulsion rap for violating students’ privacy in launching Facemash, two campus groups are reported to have opposed the site publicly: Fuerza Latina and the Association of Harvard Black Women. Zuckerberg changed course slightly, creating a site where he would not need to scrape photos off a server. We’d give them to him.

Losse herself was an early Facebook adopter, during the fall of her last year at Johns Hopkins when Facebook launched on her campus. Prior to using Facebook, she never associated her online activities with her legal name. “For women,” she writes, “there is no value in putting yourself online and offering yourself to strangers.” But women have long found ways to reap this worth for themselves, whether as fashion bloggers, porn stars, or attractive TED speakers. In performing some version of themselves online, pseudonymous or not, these women have earned their reputations and their rent.

Bonus extended mix if you want to time machine with me: the two Valleywag stories referenced in the essay, on photo-sharing site Zivity and the perils of “Girl Geek” networking.

Thanks to Sarah Leonard, the excellent editor on this, which appears as part of a feature section, The New Feminism, in the magazine and online. You can read her essay on gendered labor and Marissa Mayer in the new Jacobin. Another great pairing for the piece is Sarah Jaffe’s “Cost to Connect,” at Rhizome, which we were writing over the same weeks, and I dig the overlaps in all these very much. You should also see some influence from Sarah Jaffe’s piece in this same issue of Dissent, on being on strike from feminism:

Whether it’s City Council speaker Christine Quinn in New York City blocking paid sick days or Marissa Mayer taking the helm at Yahoo or Shannon Eastin taking the job of a locked-out worker for less money, we have to recognize that some first steps are taken on the backs of workers, many of whom are also women.

And so we are at this point, where all too many feminists see “saving” sex workers as an appropriately feminist activity but not walking a picket line with striking teachers or nurses or hotel housekeepers. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of raping Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel housekeeper, feminists rallied to her defense, but that support hasn’t led to increased support for hotel worker unions even as Hyatt hotel workers engage in a nationwide boycott, even though UNITE HERE, the hotel workers’ union, supported Diallo and protects workers like her from being fired for speaking out against abuse. Instead, it led to too many swoons over Christine Lagarde, who took Strauss-Kahn’s place at the International Monetary Fund.

As long as feminists are lauding the ascension of women to boardrooms for equality’s sake and not questioning what happens in those boardrooms, true liberation is a long way off.

The biggest thanks of all, of course, go to Kate Losse for her very sharp book. Besides the tech and boys and fame she made me want to write about San Francisco again, the barely bygone years between 2005 and 2009 – which she absolutely nails, cameras in the air and all.