What does it mean to be “unrapeable?” It can mean, among other, almost limitless possibilities, that the labor we perform, the industry we work within, those that consume the products of our labor, and those that try desperately to deprive of us self-determined working conditions, somehow belongs to everyone but us. It means that our bodies are meant for others. It means we are robbed of control over our art and our labor, which are ultimately the same. To be “unrapeable” is to presume nymphomania. It means consent is rendered irrelevant. It devalues our bodies, our art, and our labor to the point of only ever being (to the chauvinist) in service of male desire.
In any other industry or variety of work, the Left would rise to the occasion to point out the poor working conditions, the need to form unions for representation, the solidarity with the organizations which would stand arm-in-arm to fight for a better way within that “factory” or field. Except when the workers are whores. Except when the labor product is pornography. Instead there exist fearmongering and slut-shaming campaigns to save us from the ravaging mouths of men, and to make us "better feminists." This brand of feminism, and cultural criticism, for that matter, is rooted in the punitive and carceral. We cannot tolerate this feminism which breeds fear of disease, fear of rape, and fear of our sexuality to control our lives. It is really only recently that we’ve felt real resonance with our experience in written material advocating for our needs and desires--advocating against the cops and religious groups and for strippers, cam girls, escorts and pro-Doms.
What does it mean to recognize porn as art? This roundtable project was born out of a need to center the voices of sex workers, folks writing on “sex work as work,” and performers and artists who are marginalized because of their queerness, their ethnic identity, their class, their demand for dignity and decriminalization. Our art practice is often rooted in survival. Our political bodies are used to negotiate living arrangements, supplement income, support our degree plans, addictions, and families.
There has long been a literature gap addressing the connections between pornography and performance art that is accessible (i.e. a popular discourse) and motivated by sex workers themselves. We need to build these communities of thought. We need to be bold and unapologetic about our work and its decriminalization. We need sex worker-led organizations that can fight for our interests, and not those designed to “get us off the streets” with a hyper militarized police force like so many so-called feminists are wont to suggest. What could it mean to fight for a radical, enthusiastic consent in our lives?
What follows is a frank set of questions posed to a group which includes students, journalists, writers, sex workers, activists, cultural commentators, and most of whom are all of the above.
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I’d like us to reflect and address the importance of Stoya calling out James Deen's supposed (and loose at that) feminist reputation, and beyond that identifying him as a rapist. This raises questions like: how does consent via contract happen in the porn industry? What sorts of mechanisms do we want to see in place to support sex workers and performers?
Cathryn Berarovich: The Stoya and James Deen situation is, of course, really tragic, I mean rape is awful and it shouldn't happen, but the fact that it only took two tweets for people to rally in support of a survivor speaks really well to how far we've come. Even a few years ago I think it would've been very unlikely to see such a positive response, instead the world would've said, "Oh well, that happens, sucks for you," and moved on relatively the same.
The fact that James Deen was immediately dropped from several contracts and will most likely never work in porn again, at least not on the level he once was, is awesome to me. I can't really speak to the way consent is negotiated in porn, since the closest I've come to doing porn is some shady dude paying me extra to set up a tripod while he sort of uselessly tried to turn a scene with my girlfriend into a threeway, but I do think it's important to have consent exist outside of a contract as well as within it.
Things happen, and since consent within sex work is so conditional, I think that consent is more likely to change than in other situations. I think the biggest support that sex workers need, is a removal of stigma. Obviously that will be a gradual process, and it's heartening to me that I see that process happening slowly, but ultimately the thing that will benefit us most is the destruction of the idea that since we as sex workers rent out our sexuality, we are up for it all the time. The inverse of this: is the concept that all sex workers are helpless victims being "pay-per-rape," as I believe Julie Bindel called it. If we are unable to give conditional consent for the labor we provide, what can we give consent for?
This is also closely tied to the need for full decriminalization, since the law states we are criminals makes it very difficult, if not impossible to report abuses by predators who pose as clients, as well as making us more vulnerable to those abuses. Decriminalization and destigmatization are both necessary for each other, but also for the safety of sex workers and to the recognition that our bodies and sexualities are ours to do with what we want, and that includes renting them out.
Miss Lydia: I think consent via contract is potentially very harmful as there is an obligation by all parties (prior to the work being done) to meet the requirements of said contract regardless of clashing personalities, specifics of what activities/scenes will play out or how the performers/actors get along with one another in a professional and personal level.
The contracts for porn and modeling are unique from other art forms or jobs as they do not rely solely upon one party to produce a product, image or piece. Although many art forms or other jobs may rely on collaboration, it is not to the same level of intimacy or group relations as pornographic sex work. The intimacy, or group dynamic in this sense is important because we do live in a twisted world of violent sexism, misogyny and general subordination of women-identified people. Often times the same people running the show or collaborating alongside women are the same people abusing or exploiting women.
Yes, women are human and enjoy sex! Yes, women participate in the sex industry for money, love of the work, are good at it, and all of the above… does that mean every paid (or contractual) encounter is safe and consensual? No. Does that mean that every woman has had or will have a negative or abusive experience throughout their sex work career? No. Both of these truths need to be emphasized.
Melissa Gira Grant: I haven't made porn in a long time. What I know here comes from the performers who have spoke to me about their working conditions for stories I reported for the Guardian and Dissent. Two different kinds of consent are getting conflated by producers and the general public, and just pointing that out is not popular: consent to different kinds of sexual activity, and consent to performing different kinds of sexual activity in particular working conditions.
As much as "porn sex isn't real sex" gets traffic as a slogan, most people who haven't actually performed in porn (including porn producers) still struggle to understand that what's going on isn't just sexual consent, but consent to labor. Any mechanism to ensure consent at work can't just lift from, say, the principles of enthusiastic consent that are becoming more common to talk about around sex. It isn't going to just look like a BDSM yes/no checklist. In essence, it's just a freelance contract, but one backed by some degree of trust that it can be enforced, respected, and revised between all parties.
Margaret Corvid: As many porn performers have said, the problems with consent violation in porn are not so much inherent to the porn industry - they are inherent to rape culture and to the poor working conditions in porn. Porn performers, reliant upon their public image and reputation and upon the vagaries of producers, have few incentives as workers to call out rape and assault on porn sets; if they do, they’re the ones likely to lose work, not their abusers. That Stoya has received so much support is due to the fact that a strong feminist movement has redefined public discourse on sexual assault.
Mechanisms to support sex workers and porn performers must include the full decriminalisation of sex work; while porn production is legal in many states and countries, the stigma of sex work is a huge disincentive towards porn performers speaking out. Stoya’s disclosure was incredibly courageous and encouraged other women who had been abused by James Deen to come forward, but it also highlights the fact that trans performers, people of colour, and performers who don’t fit the mainstream porn preference of skinniness can face bigger hurdles than she did in disclosing rape and abuse.
Any mechanisms to make porn safer for women performers must come from performers themselves. Just as in other forms of sex work, those who do porn face a public which sees them and their work through the lens of stigma, and think that they know best what would make their work safer. As in other work, the best mechanism for safety and good working conditions for porn performers is self-organisation. Like Uber drivers, many domestic workers, and freelancers of all stripes, most porn performers are independent contractors, so what could benefit them most isn’t a well-meaning legislation – it’s support for the organisation of “gig workers” everywhere.
Michelle Z. Chen: Rape in the porn industry is generally framed in two dimensions, in terms of either total victimhood or total shame. In a stigmatized sector, the question of consent hinges on moral binaries – whether it’s the view that one’s profession renders her somehow “unrapeable” (that is, rapeable with impunity), or that anyone engaged in the trade could not possibly exert choice, control or agency in any aspect of her work.But what if we understood the sex industry as a labor sector – as a more complex spectrum of experience, by turns transactional, coerced or empowering.
Can we take some time to center the roles of the artist, performer, creative? In doing so should we actively make the connection between affirming sex workers' rights, including an end to slut shaming, stigma, and organizing against Rape Culture? This could include making the case that porn does not inherently or en totale enable Rape Culture so much as male dominance and gaze within the production of pornography.
Cathryn: The affirmation of sex workers' rights and the end of rape culture are absolutely connected, since both are about the bodily autonomy of human beings, especially women. The idea that sex work is inherently degrading is tied to the idea that sex devalues women, which is, of course connected to the idea that our sexuality is not our own. The idea that sex workers can't be raped is also, of course, a byproduct of rape culture, and our sexual autonomy and respect for our consent, conditional or not, is ultimately what sex workers' rights are based on.
Miss Lydia: I don’t know that we can sufficiently guarantee every individual’s safety, security and personal boundaries from being violated under a system that has consistently dehumanized and stigmatized sex workers while exonerating men from respecting other people’s space and bodily autonomy. This is important to note due to the need of many sex workers to conceal or separate their professional life from their personal life out of fear of incrimination or victim-blaming.
However, I believe we can continue to strengthen and expand the support systems we have that both recognize violations and violence while supporting and legitimizing our experiences. Honestly, I do not have specific examples of these systems outside of the Sex Workers Outreach Projects and social media, and sex worker networking. The work that I see being done to support women in the sex industry is mainly from other women-identified sex workers on a smaller, local scale. If there is something bigger out there, I don’t know about it.
Melissa: I don't know that "rape culture" is all that clarifying in any context. I prefer "patriarchy" or "white supremacy" or "transmisogyny" or "anti-queer violence" or whatever is going to most accurately describe the power dynamics at play in oppressive, coercive shit. And I do believe that supporting sex workers' rights throws a solid stiletto in the cogs of patriarchy et al, whether or not you believe in patriarchy et al.
Margaret: We must support porn workers who make all types of porn, even if what is depicted doesn’t sit well with us. Feminist porn is out there, and much of it is great, but workers must often choose roles to pay the bills, not to advance art or culture. That does not mean that we cannot criticise themes and tropes of male dominance in porn, but we must be very careful that we do not give support to those who clamour to oppress and criminalise sex workers. Second wave feminists, along with many other liberals who would promote carceral solutions to social ills, critique the content of porn as a leading edge to pernicious arguments that would end in the criminalisation of porn performers and sex workers. It is my view that the defence of sex worker rights is central and should be foremost in feminist and socialist interventions into porn.
Michelle: We can start with the simple question of why our definitions of work typically fail to contemplate sex as labor? Because we’re trained to recoil at the link between sexuality with material interests? Maybe we instinctively resist linking the banality of work to the the realm of intimacy or carnality? By centering the worker’s experience in the marketplace for commercial sex and assorted byproducts, we gain a different perspective on the commodification of sexuality, connecting the product with the social relationships – or the artistry, or the violence – that created it.
If we can accept that the worker isn’t property, but a porn film she helps create has market value, then we start to get a more visceral picture of what that transaction looks and feels like from the point of production rather than consumption (whether you’re a direct customer or just consuming the politics of debating porn). The other spheres where porn dwells – art and politics, are similarly fraught with anxieties around money, whether earning a living from such a subjective practice exploits or validates, ennobles or corrupts labor.
As a sex worker, performance artist, and feminist I am constantly wrestling with my own conceptions of the labor I perform. Do y’all think we can understand porn and sex work as art, and performance (i.e. as something that takes a cue in its narrative from reality but also constructs a narrative removed from reality)?
Cathryn: From my own experience I can't make the leap to call sex work art, since my sex work has always existed as a way to survive under capitalism, but for me it's definitely performance. I've primarily been a prostitute and fetish provider for the duration of my career, which means my job is essentially to fulfill fantasies. While obviously my body and actions exist in the physical world, my sessions are no more real than a movie is. My orgasms aren't real, the things that I claim turn me on aren't real, my attraction to my clients is, most of the time, not real.
Melissa: Yes, yes! This is so critical, and this is what makes porn and camming and to an extent stripping so different from other forms of sex work. Sex work that involves selling a piece of media as the product needs its own set of considerations, leadership, theorizing, etc. and we're lucky those do exist. They also need not promise some liberating quality to the media itself to be valid. (Even people who make bad, boring, or whatever art deserve good working conditions.)
Miss Lydia: Yes we can and we do. People have been performing, filming and generating income through sex work by combining it with art in a wide variety of areas. Whether it happens to be erotic dancing, fantasy phone sex, consumer porn movies and clips, BDSM scenes, or in adopting or constructing a custom personality while escorting- this all requires creative and artistic ability. Many folks may not even consider their work to be related to an art form, however, they most certainly are implementing the skills required to formulate an experience. Art can and is an experience as well as a tangible object(s). The intangible experience that art and sex work create is, intrinsically, the absence of reality and, yet, borrows from our realities. (ex. fantasy phone sex has limitless possiblity outside of reality that involves both an imaginative narrator as well as the receiving party’s ability to interpret the narration as they see fit- like reading a book and imagining the characters/environment/colors/emotions/etc.) BDSM scenes also create this space for art and experience with sensory deprivation, rope bondage, role plays that defy age, circumstance, legalities, practicality). Also it [performance] can be exaggerations of reality that do not currently exist or cannot ever exist between artist and audience but is entirely possible/believable.
Margaret: There is art, skill, and competence in porn performance, and in any sex work. I engage in performance whenever I see a client, but if I were called on to perform in porn, I wouldn’t do nearly as well as a professional performer. Their work is an entirely different set of skills, and porn performance is, despite stigma, a skilled craft.
The evaluation of porn as an art is, to me, quite foreign; I rarely watch porn, or any television at all. As an outside observer I know that porn is a vibrant and relevant art form, and it’s important to support those who innovate and pose stark and provocative questions in that medium. It’s also important for porn consumers to understand that what happens in porn is drastically different from ordinary sex, or even the commercial sex or kink that other sex workers do.
I’d like to further this line of discussion regarding pornography as a performance practice. How do these different levels interact or intersect with each other: sex work and performance? Art, enthusiastic consent, intention?
Cathryn: Despite the fact that my sessions aren't real, my consent is no less important. What complicates this, of course, is the work aspect of sex work. In my capacity as a laborer it would be possible, but economically unsound, to consent only to the things I actively want. Because of the performative, unreal aspect of sex work, insisting on enthusiastic consent is impossible, which is part of why I have trouble with the whole concept of it being necessary for an encounter to not be exploitative.
At work I have a lot of sex I really would rather not have, if given the option. I perform a great deal of actions that, if offered the same amount of money to not do them, I would never in a million years perform. I think this is true for most sex workers, no matter what kind of sex work we are involved in. I think it's very easy to say, "Well, sex that you don't really want can't be consensual," but that's overly simplistic and ignores the ability of sex workers to give our conditional consent in order to meet a certain end, as well as erasing the fact that our labor is just that.
Melissa: [Really hard to answer... gonna defer to working artists here.]
Margaret: To me, the promotion of the rights of porn performers is central. In all kinds of porn - from the most feminist, queer porn to the roughest, most offensive mainstream clip - porn performers are facing abuse, low pay, being screwed out of money, harassment, and rape. Banks shut their bank accounts and online merchants like Paypal close their accounts and confiscate their funds. Police and other front line services disbelieve them, stigmatise them, abuse them or even arrest them when they seek redress from abuse on or off set, just because of their work. If these injustices are not righted, the existence of feminist porn - often unpaid, often standing apart from the main body of porn, sometimes not paying its performers because they are making “art,” cannot, no matter how good it is, counteract them.
A project such as this aims to center the leftist feminist politics of its contributors. So from this end, how do we cut against male dominance and gaze in porn and highlight consent (in other words making it more feminist in character)? Also does that then put the narrative outside the realm of mainstream culture (therefore making it avant-garde or at least countercultural)?
Cathryn: As a prostitute I have really complicated feelings about cutting against the male gaze in porn, since I think a lot of that comes from prioritizing female pleasure, or at least the performance of female pleasure, a trend that is already happening to a degree. That's great and in theory I support it, but it comes with the unfortunate consequence that clients of in-person sex workers try to prioritize our pleasure. I'm sure there are some escorts out there who appreciate this, but I am really not one of them.
I've been doing sex work for almost eight years now, and I've definitely noticed that in that time, female pleasure has become much more of a priority in porn and with it, my clients have been much more absorbed in the idea of getting me off. This means that I get subjected to a lot more terrible oral, more of them want to suck on my nipples, and generally I have to do a lot more work to ignore or suppress physical sensations that I just do not want to feel, whether because of genuine pleasure which, in the context of labor, I find completely sickening or because of generally unpleasant sensations from dudes being awful at sex.
Melissa: Consent happens behind the camera, first and foremost, no matter what you think you see in a video file. That's where these campaigns need to start, or else they run the risk of becoming just another marketing tactic.
Miss Lydia: This is a fabulous question and is equally overwhelming to try and answer in a concise manner. Those with the power, resources and financial abilities to market art and film are predominantly men. Many of those men identify as heterosexual. How do we cut against that besides boycotting or choosing not to participate? We do what the internet has given us the tools to do: make it or offer it up ourselves. It may be considered “counterculture” or “avant-garde” for much more time to come, but continuing to create art and porn that is indicative of our desire for both realities and fantasies that are ours is absolutely necessary to our own personal and political liberation. We must create it and be aggressive about it since we already know that male dominance won’t give it to us. (#misandry)
Margaret: The most important thing is to combat rape culture, which is something that men have to do. This work may involve taking a hard look at the porn men watch, but far more important is the reckoning that men have to do in the way they treat women, day by day, minute by minute. Porn under capitalism will not reflect consent until men learn consent, and they will not learn that in isolation. We need a movement that challenges social relations and capitalism with one voice.
Michelle: What defines our relationship to work – whether it’s a job we do with passion or out of desperation, doing it for the love or for the money or for sheer survival – isn’t just what is done or produced but how the act of work mediates power. Insisting that an industry like porn is inherently coercive or predatory not only ignores a worker’s agency but actually erases a whole realm of rights and power that labor entails. And within that realm, so exposed yet invisible, the right to safety, bodily integrity, and respect on the job can’t be reserved only for those individuals, or for those jobs, of which society approves. The right to dignity is the one absolute standard we need to insist on in a world where motives and desires are constantly mixed.
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Finally, one of our contributors chose to elaborate on some of her views which seemed at odds with some of the others. I don’t think we should read Cathryn as throwing up her hands, nor is there anything defeatist in her conundrum. Instead, her honest, experientially-conditioned final thoughts represent exactly the sort of Gordian knot which mandates more of this sort of dialogue. Perhaps the strongest constant thread through the above is the need, the desperate and absolutely non-negotiable desire for the workers themselves to voice and berth the necessary frameworks for positive change. As she says, it’s a personal issue, but one on which her life and livelihood, and those of others, directly depends. As such, the potential quagmire of consent, dignity, art, and survival as boldly reflected in the experience of sex workers is one that ought to concern us all. Sex workers are workers. Our struggle is the miner’s canary for a morass of labor, sexuality, and human rights, utterly irrespective of any imposed moral judgments on our trade.
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Would y’all care to elaborate on the collective representation as workers, decriminalization of the trade, radical enthusiastic consent as a practice or any other topic that you feel is neglected in the broader conversation?
Cathryn: Obviously, this is a personal issue, and I don't think that my discomfort with the consequences of the lessening influence of the male gaze in porn is a good reason to stop that, but because I'm unable to separate my experience from this, I really have no answers. I think partly to avoid this kind of bullshit it's really important to frame porn as performance outside of reality, but that becomes complicated with issues of consent, because if porn is not real, it's easy to say that therefore the rules of reality (such as consent) don't apply, which obviously does no one any favors. Basically this is a very long-winded way of saying I have no answers for this question.
These questions begin this dialogue. It’s a discussion that must be revisited and expanded upon bringing in more voices and ideas to shape a body of thought that puts the lived experiences, art practices, and labor of sex workers first. There were many more people invited to participate in this segment, and for a number of incredibly valid reasons were unable. They and more must be apart of a larger project that will grow from this. We must become more representative, and create more spaces for sex workers in all facets of the trade and industry.
Whereas we realize it would be almost impossible to encapsulate the diversity of the population which makes up sex workers, I further recognize, as noted in some of the responses above, the need to represent workers whose experiences vary according to color, age, practice, gender identification, and a variety of other, more industry-specific categories. While this group did admirable work in representing a variety of perspectives of and about sex workers, the expanded project will humbly seek to include a vastly broader representation of the enormous heterogeneity of sex workers.
This piece includes edits by APH
Brit Schulte is a founder of and former editor for Red Wedge. She is working toward Master’s degrees in Art History, Theory & Criticism as well as Visual Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a marxist activist, sex worker, writer and performer. She has been published in The New Abolitionist and SocialistWorker.Org, and has been performing burlesque for seven years.
Cathryn Berarovich is a career prostitute, occasional writer, and Chicago's only solid gold trashcan. Her work can be found on The Gloss, as well as in beds across the city.
Melissa Gira Grant is a writer and journalist covering sexual politics, technology, and human rights. Her reporting and commentary has appeared in The Nation, The New York Times, VICE, Wired, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Dissent, among other publications. She is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work and lives in New York.
Michelle Z. Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times and Dissent magazine, and associate editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of “Asia Pacific Forum” on Pacifica’s WBAI and Dissent‘s “Belabored” podcast, and studies history at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix based in the South West of the UK. She is a contributing editor of Salvage. She is a New Statesman blogger, and her writing also appears regularly in the Guardian, and Cosmopolitan. She writes on sex work, sexuality, gender, and many other labour issues.
Miss Lydia is a Chicago based queer feminist activist and current student working toward a Bachelor of Science in Social Justice and Women's Studies. She has been involved in the BDSM, fetish and kink community and sex work for over 10 years.