The choice that’s not always a choice

Last week, a traveling pro-life display came to Sacramento City College, setting up shop in the middle of the campus quad and holding court for two days. The group that organized this display, Project Truth, uses images of dead fetuses, lynchings, and murdered Holocaust victims to make the case that abortion is an act of genocide. (Yes, they really say that.) We had been warned that they were coming, and many of us (myself included) voiced our concerns about their presence to the college administration.

Who invited them?

Why are they allowed to show those disturbing and offensive images?

What if people get upset or traumatized? Are we prepared to handle that?

Can’t we just tell them they can’t come here?

This is the response we got from The Powers That Be:

“Anyone with any message can come to our campus. They’re protected by the First Amendment. The only way we could keep them off campus is if their images were pornographic.”

Hearing that, the wheels started turning inside my snarky little brain. Hmmm. What if I decided to host a campus screening of Annie Sprinkle’s Amazing World of Orgasm (which, by the way, is marketed to college campuses)? Or Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn? What if I showed the film Live Nude Girls Unite! (which my campus library owns, by the way), a film that follows the unionizing efforts of the female dancers from The Lusty Lady? What if I invited sexologist Carol Queen to come to one of my classes to show her “ex-ed” (explicit educational) videos? Apparently those films could be banned from campus, the speakers could get kicked out of my classes, and I could get into Big Trouble.

Why images of murder are acceptable on a college campus, but sexually graphic materials are not, points to the lightning-rod volatility the issue of pornography in our country. And the queer community, in many ways, has been at the epicenter of this issue.

I’m brought back to the mid-1990s, when I was a graduate student living in the San Francisco Bay Area. By day, I was working as a research assistant for Diana Russell, a feminist researcher whose work focused on violence against women – and who herself was a fervent anti-pornography activist. At the time I worked for her, she was writing a book titled Dangerous Relationships: Pornography, Misogyny, and Rape. My job involved, among other things, writing descriptions of pornographic (often graphically violent) images that had previously been included in her full-picture version of the book, Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm. It was unpleasant work, to say the least.

By night, however, I was exploring the Bay Area queer feminist community, which dovetailed in many ways with the newly-emerging sex-positive movement. This movement, which featured people like Susie Bright, Annie Sprinkle, Carol Queen, and Patrick Califia-Rice, encourages open sexuality with few limits, embracing all forms of sexual activity and expression – including pornography and other forms of sex work. From a sex-positive perspective, the fine line between empowerment and victimization involves the critical importance of informed consent – if a woman chooses to work at a sex club, or if she chooses to act in a porn flick, that is absolutely, unabashedly her right. Many of the events I attended in the mid- to late 1990s had a sex-positive flavor, and increasingly I felt like I had a split personality. The Diana Russell-style lesbian-feminism that was helping me pay my way through graduate school was in direct conflict with the community – and the empowerment – I was finding through the Susie Bright/Carol Queen-style queer sex-positive feminism.

There’s more than one side to this issue within the LGBTQ community, though. While sex-positive feminism lends a perspective that many (including myself) find refreshing, there are numerous research studies that paint a much more sobering picture of sex work in the queer community. Consider these studies:

  • Researchers from the Public Health Institute in Oakland studied 573 transgender women in the San Francisco Bay Area with a history of sex work. According to their 2011 report, half had been physically assaulted, and more than a third had been raped or sexually assaulted.
  • In a 2010 study of street-involved, drug-using youth, researchers at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver found that, compared to heterosexual youth, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were significantly more likely to engage in “survival sex work” – meaning that they exchanged sex for money, drugs, or other commodities. Moreover, in conjunction with their survival sex work, LGB youth exhibited elevated HIV risk behavior, compared to their heterosexual counterparts.
  • In a 2009 UCSF study, out of 151 transgender female youth ages 15-24, 67% had engaged in sex work at some point, and 19% reported being HIV-positive. Lack of social support, low levels of education, homelessness, and drug use were all significantly correlated with sex work.
  • A 2008 study of transgender women of color involved in sex work indicated that, based on their responses in focus groups, prostitution and other forms of sex work didn’t necessarily feel like a “choice.” Some were undocumented immigrants who, fearing deportation, felt as if they had no other choice. Some experienced barriers to other forms of employment due to racism, sexism, and transphobia. Most had no support from their families or their ethnic and cultural communities. All of them were aware of the significant risks associated with sex work, but knew that the immediate benefits outweighed the risks.
  •  A 2007 study that investigated the experiences of gay men in the porn industry documented the low earnings of these actors. Because gay porn actors earn so little through their film work, according to this study, most turn to other forms of sex work, like prostitution or stripping, in order to survive economically.

Physical abuse. Sexual abuse. Economic exploitation. Frankly, none of this sounds really like a “choice.” In order to make choices in life, we have to have options. When no other options exist, you fall back on the last resort – which, for many LGBTQ people (especially transwomen and people of color), involves some form of sex work.

But what if other options DID exist? What if fewer LGBTQ youth ended up homeless in the first place, because their families were accepting and embracing? What if all LGBTQ youth and young adults felt safe in their school environments, increasing the likelihood of getting a high school diploma, or graduating from college? What if an inclusive form of ENDA was in place, and a demonstrated commitment was made to end workplace discrimination against LGBTQ people? If those protections were in place, undoubtedly a world of options would open up. Would sex work end up on the list as one of the viable choices?

For some, maybe. For many, probably not. Either way, the buzzwords that come to mind for me are “safety” and “informed consent” – hallmarks of the sex-positive movement. Without those, we cross the line from empowerment to victimization.


Filed under intersectionality, LGBTQ youth, psychological research, racism, San Francisco, sexism, transgender, transphobia, violence

6 responses to “The choice that’s not always a choice

  1. Gary Hollander

    It struck me immediately that we get lulled into calling anti-choice programs “pro-life” when they clearly are not. For four decades reasonable people have been misinformed about situations because the policital right and religious absolutists have controlled our thinking by controlling our language.

    “Anyone with any message can come to our campus.” We do all have the right to our own opinion, but we don’t have the right to our own facts. Project Truth is neither about life nor truth, whatever their opinion. The facts do not support their claims.

    • Hmm . . . controlling our language . . .that gave me food for thought, and the fact that phrases like “pro-life” sneak into our language and sound so innocent, moral, and upstanding, when in fact there’s a lot of “anti” in their movement.

      Now, Gary, if you would please go to the administration at my campus and tell them the basic difference between fact vs. opinion, I’ll buy you lunch. 🙂

  2. It turns out that rats do explore other options that don’t involve self-destructive behaviors when given other options, and if left no other options they will voluntarily use drugs until it kills them.

  3. Regarding some data:
    “Researchers from the Public Health Institute in Oakland studied 573 transgender women in the San Francisco Bay Area with a history of sex work. According to their 2011 report, half had been physically assaulted, and more than a third had been raped or sexually assaulted.”

    To be clear: those are very near the statistics quoted for /all/ trans women, nationwide. The rates of physical and sexual assault of trans people in SF/Bay are distinctly lower than in other states.

    So to insert a sardonic happy ending: it turns out that reality is actually a lot worse than this!

    • Probably true, although we don’t know without the data. However, it’s definitely fair to say that San Francisco has a high concentration of LGBTQ people, and a much-higher-than-average number of supports/resources for that population – so you’d think that attitudes towards LGBTQ people in the Bay Area would reflect the best-case scenario. Very scary, if you think about it.

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