Or: Repeating History: “Feminist” PhDs & Activists Silence Women They Are “Saving”
I am troubled to feel the urge to address the recent actions of the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault (ICESA) when their mission and work is urgently needed in Indiana. The state’s statistics indicate that the rape of high school girls is second highest in the nation and that only 18% reported their rape (WFYI), Indiana has inadequate laws and policies to support survivors (RTV6), in 2015 at least 70,000 rape kits weren’t tested (IndyStar), across our country there are 321,500 people raped or sexually assaulted every year (RAINN), and since the #MeToo viral campaign last week it is likely folks are more aware than ever of how many people they know have experienced rape, assault, and/or harassment (The Root).
Regardless of their good work, we must discuss the organization’s frankly disturbing take on what it means “to use a feminist lens”.
For those unaware, ICESA is hosting a 2-day free training this week titled “The Harms of Pornography: A Feminist Framework”. Hosted in downtown Indianapolis, ICESA says “Join us to learn about the harms of pornography through a feminist lens this coming October!” and the link describes the sessions and speakers, including “a panel discussion featuring feminist scholars and experts” consisting of Dr. Rebecca S Whisnant (University of Dayton, professor – Philosophy), Dr. Robert Jensen (University of Texas, professor – Journalism)*, and Lisa Thompson (National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Vice President – Education and Outreach; this panelist operates from a Christian morality framework as does the organization so it is an…interesting addition).
*Edit 10/23/17: A bit of research on Robert Jensen reveals he engages in transphobic actions and listed alongside other academic TERFs. His inclusion to this event is even more insulting now.
Local feminist activists are angry about this event. As posted on Facebook, a protest against the training is taking place on Tuesday from 12-2pm at 450 Ohio Street outside the event. In the evening, a panel discussion featuring actual sex workers representing We Are Dancers USA (instead of people who just research sex workers) will speak on “Rights Not Rescue – Resisting A Single Narrative” at Butler University from 5:30pm-7:30pm, sponsored by Global & Historical Studies and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. These events are being organized by Cassandra Avenatti on behalf of Queering Indy and Dr. Beloso (Butler University – Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies)
What happened next is what led me to write this blog post, because I am sure some of my fellow higher education professionals plan to attend this training and they deserve a fuller picture of this social issue.
Dr. Mahri Irvine (Anthropology background + Adjunct Professorial Lecturer, Critical Race, Gender and Culture Studies Collaborative – American University) is the Director of Campus Initiatives at ICESA and has done a lot of research within the IU system (my alma mater). She also wrote the most condescending letter titled “ICESA Statement in Response to Harms of Pornography Protest October 2017” that immediately made me wonder if she/ICESA knew what feminist theory was (as the event says it is from a feminist lens) and question how someone teaching in a critical studies department could write something so insulting. Everyone makes mistakes when they are doing justice work, and I just hope Dr. Irvine and ICESA recognize their mistakes here.
So what did ICESA do so wrong? Let’s start with the event itself:
- Pornography is a nuanced topic that ICESA decided to steamroll with a machine built out of Indiana puritanical morality.
- “I don’t think that word means what you think it means” as Inigo Montoya (Princess Bride) would tell them. Pornography is a V A S T industry. There is a lot wrong with it(!), but also there is a lot wrong with every industry (tell me why I work in a field that is predominantly women but men hold the majority of leadership positions and myself and women I know experience sexism at work?). Also, did y’all know that there are multiple branches of pornography, including feminist pornography (porn done by women creative teams for women viewers)?
- What feminist lens are is ICESA using? One from 1953? Your program is designed in such a way that I do not see any resemblance to contemporary feminist theory and activism.
- The National Center on Sexual Exploitation was invited to speak on the panel. This is the same organization founded by Christian leaders and originally named “Morality in Media”. The literal top victories on their website include: “Stopping a bill in New Hampshire that would have fully decriminalized prostitution” (which only HARMS sex workers, please do the research), “Ending the sale of pornography at U.S. Army and Air Force exchanges” (“please put your life on the line, but making sure you don’t have porn is so important we need to spend resources on this lobbying”), “Marsh supermarkets removal of Cosmopolitan from checkout lanes in its more than 80 stores” (EYEROLL), “Resolutions declaring pornography a public health crisis passed in four states” (again, what a waste of resources). While I see they are doing some good (on sex trafficking and child sexual abuse), this puritanical organization gets a seat at the table and actual sex workers do not?!
- Speaking of…the disability rights movement created “nothing about us without us” and it aptly fits many underrepresented and marginalized communities. ICESA thinks PhDs know more about sex work than actual sex workers. Folks, if you want to ally right – you need to let folks personally experiencing the issue lead the conversation. Currently, you’re garbed in a dingy white cape of savior mentality and it is not a good look.
‘But, Niki’, you may say, ‘ pornography IS bad’! Again, the conversation is nuanced.
- The porn industry is so complex and there are many negative societal effects. But it is clear that not ALL porn is bad and honestly? ICESA is using a heteronormative lens by neglecting the differences with [queer-produced] LGBTQ+ porn + neglecting to discuss porn not featuring a cis woman and cis man and engaging in sexism by not realizing/ignoring that not all porn is made by and for cis men.
- Read this to start off with (sorry, readers with PhDs, you’ll have to get a gist of how some porn can be feminist with an online article like us peasants) an article by Everyday Feminism titled “What does Feminist Porn Look Like”.
- Umm, queer woman-centered porn produced by queer femmes exists! Literally, I found this in my first Google search and its listed in the article above.
- Check out Crash Pad Series. Description: CrashPadSeries is based on the 2005 feminist porn award-winning ‘best dyke sex film’ The Crash Pad about a clandestine San Francisco apartment where lucky queers share its key to rendezvous for wild sex. Adult filmmaker Shine Louise Houston brings to the web her unique cinematic direction, hailed for its honest depiction of female and queer sexuality. It can be hard to describe this site, since what you’ll see here may vary. Our queer porn casts ‘real life’ couples who identify as dykes and lesbians, femme, masculine of center (boi, stud, tomboy, AG, and butch) and can be cis or trans women, trans men, people of color, people of size, older queers, and people with disabilities (including neurodivergent). Performers choose what they want to do on camera, so it’s common to see things like safer sex, role-play with onscreen check-ins and communication, strap-ons, kink and BDSM, orgasms and aftercare”
- Did you know the Feminist Porn Awards exists? The co-creator Chanelle Gallant wrote a HuffPo piece this year that explains the history of the awards, the criteria of what is “feminist” porn, and what they got wrong by missing the chance to include fair labor issues for women in the field.
- Read a pro/con of why porn is/is not feminist by Ms. Magazine to gain different perspectives.
- Sex work (a term that covers the broad expanse of work involving sex and sexual activities) in general is actually seen (I have met folks and I have read articles) as empowering for some people or at the very least just another job like any other. Due to systemic racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, and classism, certain populations of people have difficulty obtaining a job and/or a job that pays a living wage. Sex work is sometimes a work that is chosen. Unless your critique of porn is also addressing these ‘isms and capitalism, then it feels more like moral policing than a desire to help make this world better.
Now we must review the “ICESA Statement in Response to Harms of Pornography Protest October 2017” to better understand their mentality.
Here’s where, to me, it jumps out as condescending, demeaning, and just rather ignorant.
- Paragraph 1, line 1: “It has recently come to our attention that a group of pro-pornography/pro-prostitution activists..” – huh what now? If you are using a feminist lens – especially a CRITICAL feminist lens, drop this ‘prostitution’ business. It’s called ‘sex work’. The year is 2017. It was this word that leapt out at me and, to me personally, discredited the organization and people associated with it. If you propose that this two-day training is using a feminist lens but you can’t keep up with feminist terminology that respects the people personally experiencing the issue? Then I don’t think you are the right folks to lead this conversation. At all.
- I know Indiana gets the trends later than the coasts, but “sex work” has been used by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) for years and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO) all use “sex work” as well.
- As Australian sex worker and Political Science PhD student Elena Jeffreys says “”The term ‘sex work’ has been and is an important tool for sex worker movement solidarity building. When used as an umbrella term, ‘sex work’ is useful to ensure inclusivity in organising, policy and service delivery endeavours. The way in which the sex worker movement has adopted – and continues to fight for appropriate terminology educates the world that sex work is work. The term also unites all sex workers, by definition, under a common banner. The term ‘sex work’, and the history of the term, has a huge impact on the way the sex worker movement fights today.” (see more of her research here; definitely read “Sex Worker Politics and the Term “Sex Work” because all of us who are not sex workers need to understand that sex workers have been writing and advocating about/for themselves for decades+!)
- Paragraph 2: “…pornography industry is inherently exploitative…” Please go read all the resources above and also talk to women and genderqueer/trans/non-binary people who work in the industry.
- Paragraph 2: “…We recognize that some individual people, including women, financially benefit from this industry and therefore, they may believe that they have been empowered by it. However, the financial empowerment of a few individuals is not enough of a reason for us to support an industry that intentionally promotes violence and misogyny” This is so incredibly condescending and ICESA is truly out of their element here (see: all my previous points). Also, please realize that this exact same thing about EVERY FIELD that exists because our culture is inherently violent and misogynist.
- Paragraph 3: “We are also excited that some students will be attending this event, because this training will give them a chance to learn from a variety of experts who have spent extensive amounts of time studying the negative social and health impacts of pornography.” The mistake is you are bringing folks with all the same mindset to teach students. There is not diversity of thought, just your ‘all porn bad’ agenda.
- Paragraph 4: “In addition to academic research on this topic, we have heard from colleagues as well as friends that porn has an extremely detrimental impact on intimate relationships.” I cannot take researchers seriously when they tell me their friends agree with them (how does one cite this in APA?). It sounds necessary to expand one’s circle of friends to encourage critical thought on complex matters. I am happy to make new friends, and love coffee meet-ups.
- Paragraph 4: “For example, many women and teen girls feel obligated to act out scenes from porn in order to please their male partners, or they feel pressured to watch porn with their male partners as a “normal” part of their relationships. Clearly, these are situations of sexual coercion and violence, because no one should be forced to engage in sexual activities when they have not given genuine consent.” First, please cite this. I am unsure how many women feel obligated to act our scenes from porn. Also, unless their partner is actually coercing them to do sex acts from porn, this is not an example of sexual coercion or violence. There is a difference between someone feeling obligated (internal push) to act out something on tv, compared to someone asking/demanding/begging (external push) to do so. This viewpoint is quite inaccurate, will confuse folks who are still trying to understand concepts around coercion, and are not fitting for ICESA.
- Paragraph 4: “…pornography has become such a normalized part of life that many women and teen girls feel pressured to engage with porn or behaviors that have been promoted in porn (like anal sex)…” Okay, so this is what we call kink shaming. And trust me, people would know about anal sex even if porn didn’t exist. I have a wide online network of women from many diverse backgrounds and one started a facebook post on the topic of anal sex – surprise! Many women actually wanted to/or did and enjoyed anal sex with their male partners.
- Paragraph 4: “The ICESA team is extremely proud that our agency has decided to address such a “controversial” topic, because it would have been much easier for us, as an agency, to stay quiet about this issue and avoid any potential conflicts with people who disagree with us.” If ICESA were to host an event on this topic and invite guests from multiple backgrounds (academics and sex workers) with multiple perspectives, then that would be something to be proud of. Instead, ICESA is actually avoiding conflicts with people who disagree with them by not inviting them to have a voice at the table.
- Paragraph 6: “If a protest will be held, hopefully it will not distract our attendees from the educational goals of our event.” *cringes* Actually, wouldn’t it be better to engage with the protestors and, ya know, actually have a dialogue? Wouldn’t that be a great educational goal?
- Paragraph 7: “We welcome pro-porn industry activists at our training” No you don’t. Otherwise your language and descriptors for these activists would be much more respectful.
- Paragraph 7: “Hopefully some of them will decide to attend so that we are all operating from the same evidence-based research when we engage in conversations with one another.” But literally someone working at a Christian-centered organization (NCSE) without an academic research background is at this panel but actual sex workers are not! And you are only sourcing from one area of academic opinion and not others. So how evidence-based is this? And more so, this sentence is just so arrogant. ICESA presumes they are operating from the best form and hope to have their critics tag along and learn, rather than them learning from their critics in mutual cooperation and community work.
- Paragraph 7: “…so that we can ensure a safe learning environment.” But safe for who? The ideas that will be thrown around at the training may actually harm sex workers.
The bottom line is: Just because a person has a PhD doesn’t mean they are not ignorant. One can research all they like on a topic, but if they do not have the personal experience (and also do not have personal relationships with those who have those lived experiences since every experience with a social issue is different), then they will never be a true authority. And that is okay. None of us can be true authorities on every single aspect of life. That is why it is imperative to work in solidarity with individuals who personally experience the social issue and allow them to lead the conversation.
I will say, I do appreciate when the open letter says “ICESA is committed to preventing sexual violence and making Indiana a safer place, which means that we have decided to facilitate difficult conversations about the role that porn plays in sexual violence” in the fourth paragraph – we need to have these conversations. I, and many others, just extensively disagree with your framework.
In summary, this event is not feminist and its framing of pornography is incomplete. I hope folks go to protest and I hope folks at the event have dialogue with the protestors. I hope ICESA will think deeply and critically on their framework and their words in the statement, and I hope they apologize to sex workers for how this has been handled. But most importantly, I hope ICESA understands where they went wrong, learn from this, incorporate what they learned into their practice, and keep continuing to do important work in Indiana. We need it.
And one more thing – if you really care about sex workers and want them to not be exploited, support advocacy work for fair labor conditions. Check out this rad guide: “No justice, no piece! A working girl’s guide to labor organizing in the sex industry