Blogging “Yes” Day 22: Control in Sex Work and BDSM

For day twenty two of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read a conversation entitled “Who’re You Calling a Whore?: A Conversation with Three Sex Workers on Sexuality, Empowerment, and the Industry.”  The sex workers in question are Susan Lopez, Saundra, and Mariko Passion, and the conversation focuses on various issues of power, control, and empowerment in sex work.  As I was reading, I found myself drawing a lot of parallels with BDSM, especially when it comes to female control and empowerment, and I thought I’d comment on those here.

In both sex work and BDSM, I think many people’s initial assumption is that these are spaces where women have little power and control.  Many people think of sex workers as desperate individuals, lumping in sex workers with trafficked women.  As the sex workers in this conversation point out, sex work is a job like any other.  It may not be a fully independent choice, but working itself isn’t a choice for most of us either.  Sex work can be empowering and give women control because it involves rules and negotiations–for example, in strip clubs where men aren’t allowed to touch or engage in sexual acts with the women, or in the case of highly paid escorts who can investigate their clients and set limits on activity.  Though sex workers may adjust their limits for financial need, they often have more power than women in an everyday sexual interaction, where background checks are less than commonplace.

Similarly, BDSM might be viewed by some who aren’t familiar with that scene as a place where women often have little control over their sexual interactions, but anyone who does understand how BDSM works knows that this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Women, whether dominant and submissive, can explicitly negotiate what happens in a scene, and unlike “vanilla” sex, there are no built-in expectations.  It’s not a problem to say, for example, that spanking is okay but not penetrative sex, that kissing is off the table, or any other personal limit.  This setup can be empowering to all women, and especially survivors, but is often misunderstood.

Of course, when things do go wrong, both in BDSM and in sex work, misunderstandings from the general public can be a problem.  The sex workers in this conversation note that sex work being stigmatized often creates a perception that sex workers cannot be raped.  When a customer attacks a sex worker, or goes beyond her stated limits, or ignores a “no,” some may argue that the sex worker, having put herself “in this position,” cannot establish non-consent.  Similarly, rape in the BDSM community may be looked at according to the standards of those outside the community and either ignored or assumed.  There are both cases of practitioners being charged when consent was established and cases of rapists getting off because consent was assumed in a BDSM context.  In one British case, for example, a group of defendants argued that they did not legally rape a woman because her husband told them that her “no” wasn’t real, but rather part of a game of consensual non-consent.  Any BDSM practitioner would know that this was fishy without pre-established safewords and negotiations, but at least one court ruled in the defendants’ favor.

About Avory

Avory Faucette is a queer feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Zie graduated from the University of Iowa with a JD in 2009, focusing on international human rights and gender/sexuality issues in the law. Hir current work focuses on queer identity, policy, and marginalized identities under the queer umbrella. As a genderqueer person, zie comments frequently on non-binary identity, transgender and genderqueer issues, and media coverage of these populations. Zie also speaks at colleges, universities, and events on transgender and queer issues and conducts trainings on related topics.

Posted on April 27, 2010, in rape, sex, sexuality and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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