Recently, someone submitted the following comment to my site:

Do you consider yourself a feminist? If so, how do you justify supporting BDSM and prostitution? These are practices oppressive to women and opposed by the feminist movement.

My first thought was to just type madly in response; then I considered whether I should delete the comment and be done with the matter. But I reminded myself that being a writer of smut, however well-crafted that smut may be, is bound to attract this sort of reaction, and that how I respond (or not respond) is rather important. I checked in with some online friends and acquaintances, and decided to compose this missive.

Let me first begin with the last portion of this person’s statement, claiming that sex work and BDSM are “opposed by the feminist movement.” Really? Which “feminist movement” are we talking about here? The reality is that feminists, like any other grouping of human beings, have rarely been entirely unified. Even on the issue which galvanized modern feminism – votes for women – its organizers divided over strategies and priorities; and after women’s suffrage was achieved, they splintered further over every issue and question put before them.

So yes, self-declared feminists actually disagree with one another over a number of concerns, including issues of erotic expression. But the one thing on which we agree (or, at least, I hope we would) is that every woman ought to have the power and the right to choose what is best for her own life. Others would say that the goal of feminism is equality between men and women, but “equality” may take many forms, including equal deprivation and degradation. So I would say that feminism is about achieving equality by lifting women up, and expanding women’s rights and choices so that gender is no longer a barrier to fulfillment and freedom.

Now, the author of the above comment has asserted that BDSM and prostitution are “oppressive to women”; and, because I’ve expressed support for people to engage in these on a consensual basis, this individual thus questions my right to call myself a feminist. Well, I could easily point out that many other self-declared feminists have expressed support for both voluntary adult sex work and consensual BDSM, including some leading scholars and organizers, but that might be seen as an appeal to authority. I could even point out that the National Organization for Women first passed a resolution calling for decriminalizing voluntary sex work in 1973, and in 1999 reversed its anti-BDSM policy after years of education and discussion, but I am sure that some feminists would simply dismiss NOW with the same ease with which they would dismiss myself and other feminists who disagree with them.

So, why don’t we get to the heart of the matter? The commenter alleges that sex work and BDSM are “oppressive” in some way. “Oppression” is defined as: “the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel or unjust manner.” Now, coercing anyone to engage in any endeavor, no matter how innocuous, would meet that definition, and therefore would be oppressive. But what if someone chooses to engage in an activity? Further, what if one group of people decide to deprive another group of said choice? How would freely choosing to engage in sex work or BDSM, and taking reasonable precautions to assure mutual safety and enjoyment for all concerned, qualify as “oppressive” by definition? Conversely, how could using legal and social pressure in an attempt to prohibit other individuals from doing so be anything but burdensome at the very least, and even encourage cruelty and injustice?

The arguments I have heard are basically rooted in conflating voluntary sex work with coercive sex trafficking, and consensual BDSM with sexual violence and degradation. Let me first address the issue of BDSM with a very simple analogy from a friend of mine: BDSM is to sexual violence what aikido is to a barroom brawl. Just as the practitioners of aikido engage in their martial art with a deliberate mindset, and take precautions to reduce the risk of unintended injury, so those of us who engage in BDSM follow a similar approach. To the outsider, both aikido and BDSM may appear “violent” on the surface – but look more carefully, and you will find a more sublime reality. Now, if you find BDSM personally distasteful, you need not engage in it, just as you need not enter into a same-sex relationship if you are heterosexual. But should personal preference be grounds for denigrating a group, or denying them the freedom and joy to live and love as they choose? If so, then wouldn’t Betty Friedan’s attempt to purge the National Organization for Women of lesbians be as justified as current efforts to discredit and exclude BDSM women from feminist groups?

As to the contemporary crusade against sex work, some would insist that they are not really against sex workers, but against all those horrible men who ensnare and enslave and purchase them (forget that men also work in the trade, and that some clients are women), and that their efforts are about “ending demand” by punishing the users while “rescuing victims” of the sex trade. Now, I am completely in favor of laws and policies against the enslavement of any individual. But I am also against creating unnecessary laws which lump willing practitioners with those enslaved, which is why I oppose the Swedish model. Sweden and other countries have long had laws against involuntary servitude, so why the need to create new laws which target one line of work and conflate it with trafficking? The International Labor Organization estimates that 21 million individuals are victims of trafficking, one-fifth of these in sex trafficking. Why not use the Swedish model’s logic to address the remaining four-fifths of trafficked victims? Let’s make it illegal to hire maids, chauffeurs, nannies and other domestic servants, to prevent the millions who are imprisoned as domestic slaves around the world! And for those who claim to be engaging in this work willingly, even happily? Well, how could anyone be happy doing such menial tasks in someone else’s home? Besides, there’s a greater good to be considered …

Almost a century ago, another crusade promised to do away with violence against women and other social ills by prohibiting commerce in another supposed evil: alcohol. Not only was this an abysmal failure, but it added even more misery with organized crime and societal hypocrisy. Indeed, the regimen of regulation and education that followed the repeal of Prohibition has been far more effective in reducing problem drinking, while allowing those adults who choose to enjoy beer, wine and spirits in moderation to do so without harm. And if some choose not to imbibe, or are required for reasons of health to abstain? They are also free to do so. Shouldn’t we likewise find an equitable medium with regard to sex work, and begin by actually listening to those who willingly provide erotic service to others? It would seem to me that listening to these women and men, and extending to them the same rights and protections which other workers have fought for, is more in keeping with the spirit of feminism’s ideals.

For more information and discussion, please consider the following:
The S&M Feminist: Best of Clarisse Thorn by Clarisse Thorn
Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry edited by Frédérique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander
Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture by Carol Queen
TEDx Video: The Laws that Sex Workers Really Want by Juno Mac, Sex Worker Open University