Years ago, when I was a young radical feminist, I recall marching in the annual Take Back the Night Rally in my hometown. We marched through the streets, occasionally stopping to shout slogans in front of various institutions which were considered bastions of male privilege. One of the stops on the route was always a local porn shop where we would chant, “Porn is the theory, rape is the practice.”

Today, fewer than twenty years later, the traditional feminist opposition to pornography, prostitution, and the exploitation of women's sexuality for commercial purposes has been substantially eroded. A third wave feminist movement often referred to as “choice feminism” seeks to present “sex work” as a legitimate form of employment which can be empowering and contribute to women's sexual liberation.

Choice feminism essentially represents the application of the logic of reproductive freedom to other aspects of women's sexuality. Exactly the same rhetoric, “My body my choice,” is used to justify the claim that women should have the right to sell their sexuality if they so choose, and that whatever choices they make should be supported by feminists as a legitimate expression of their autonomy. Many go even further than this, claiming that the stigmatization of sex work is intimately bound up with patriarchal attempts to control women's sexual behaviour and demonize women who enjoy sex or use their sexuality for their own benefit.

In portraying sex work as an “empowering choice,” third wave feminists tend to emphasize the experiences of a privileged minority (women who are involved in the production of “ethical porn” or who perform in peep shows for example) while downplaying the fact that these women represent an infinitesimally small percentage of the industry. The disparate realities of prostitution, pornography, stripping and burlesque are conflated into a single category: “sex work.” Feminists who enter the sex industry as a deliberate form of political transgression almost invariably gravitate towards arenas where the performer is rarely required to interact with the consumer. These women enjoy the safest working conditions in the industry, they are able to maintain a high degree of control over what they will and will not do, and they often perform “sex work” that doesn't involve actually having sex.

I have no doubt that many feminists who enter the sex industry do so out of a sincere desire to enter into solidarity with their stigmatized, marginalized, and exploited sisters. The problem is that, in the process, they end up appropriating for themselves the right to tell the sex-worker's story—and the story that they tell comes from an atypical experience of sex work that is voluntarily undertaken, relatively sanitized, and easily abandoned.

Feminists in sex-work may be aware of these complications—the discourse within feminism itself is not un-self-critical. Burlesque performer Katherine Frank, for example, writes, “The hard truth is that I cannot predict or prescribe how my performances will be interpreted: while a woman who knowingly dresses herself in the fetishistic garb of stilettos, stockings, and suspenders may claim she is making a postfeminist statement about her ability to choose to masquerade as a sex object, a man may still see her as a sex object. His interpretation does not cancel out her experience of agency, but the power of men to appropriate and redefine my own performances sobers me. If I am consciously performing a role, yet it is taken as truth—the truth about ‘women,' the truth about ‘whores,' the truth about ‘me'—is anything really transformed or subverted when I dance?”

This kind of nuance and examination is not, however, translated into the public discussion where the “empowerment” narrative put forward by feminist sex-workers is routinely used by the sex-work lobby and the porn industry to obscure the real abuses associated with pornography and prostitution. The experience of a very small and privileged few are presented as the norm, while the violent, coercive, and traumatizing realities of the sex industry are made to vanish by waving the magic wand of “choice.”

What's missing from the discussion is a recognition that the choices of feminist sex workers could, in fact, be immoral. By insisting that we respect and value all female choices, choice feminism creates a double-standard which trivializes women's moral capacities and denies our agency the same kind of significance that we attach to that of men. Male choice remains subject to critique, and men are still expected to take responsibility for the social and political consequences of their actions; only women are exempt.

This attitude is profoundly demeaning to women. Generally we will only praise a person for doing something badly if we are impressed that they can do it at all. When a toddler draws his first recognizably humanoid squiggle, the adults present applaud as though it were the Mona Lisa. Choice feminism makes sense only if we honestly think that women, as a group, have such infantile decision-making skills that every time one of us makes a choice the rest have to gather round and pat her on the back.

For a very small minority of women who have been badly abused, this may be appropriate—however, to offer such women the option of being sexually degraded and used for money is to offer them the chance to perpetuate their own victimization. The rehabilitation of authentic freedom demands that we help women in this position make decisions which will heal and reinforce their sense of their own dignity. Choice does not happen in a vacuum, and a woman who has been routinely, violently deprived of her autonomy may gravitate towards situations in which she will be re-victimized—because for her, that seems normal.

These women, however, are the minority. Most women are perfectly capable of adult moral deliberation and decisive action. While real constraints, both exterior and interior, may unjustly hamper our freedom in some cases, we are not moral infants. Women are just as capable as men of making morally good decisions—and we are just as capable of choosing evil.

Choice feminism subtly undermines women's agency by refusing to recognize the possibility that some women work in pornography or prostitution because they have made a free and deliberate choice that is morally wrong.

Full recognition of the moral dimension of female choice demands an acknowledgement that women's decisions are not merely individual—that, like men's decisions, they have social and political significance. Agency is not just a personal experience of empowerment or liberation, it's a capacity for meaningful action with ramifications that extend beyond oneself.

When a woman chooses to sell herself as a sex object, and claims that it is empowering for her to act in this way, she cannot divest herself of moral responsibility for the way that men will interpret her actions. The truth is that when a feminist performs the role of sex object in order to transgress and/or reclaim heteronormative constructs of femininity, her audience is excluded from the alleged meaning of her work. Men don't go to peep shows so that they can self-critically reflect on women's sexuality and the politics of desire. To ignore this is not an act of radical female autonomy, it's an act of dangerous and narcissistic irresponsibility.

In order to adequately address the moral dimensions of pornography, prostitution and industrial sex, we have to acknowledge that these institutions are not merely loci of female victimization, but also of female concupiscence. In erasing women's vanity, women's lust, women's avarice and women's capacity to sexually dominate men from our analysis of sex work, we lose the ability to talk about women's moral responsibility in the sexual sphere. In doing so, we trivialize women's freedom and deny women's true dignity—a dignity which includes the capacity to make choices that have objective moral and political significance that extends beyond a private sense of liberation.

Melinda Selmys is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and Slave of Two Masters.

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