Last month, we talked about Kamala Harris’s then-fresh bid for the 2020 presidency. Since then, we have seen four other women declare their intention to run--an historic number that many say doesn’t feel like that big of a deal, considering.
Considering: the political climate, the war on women’s rights, the #metoo movement, the era of the pussy hat.
But not all groups of women are being treated equally in the 2020 race to the feminist top; markedly, all women who announced their candidacy are pro-FOSTA/SESTA (not just women, Cory Booker also supported the bill, disappointingly), leaving sex workers out in the cold.
While many of the totems of this particular political landscape are wholly unfamiliar to us, the mainstays of anti-sex worker legislation that sweeps consensual work with sex trafficking are, unfortunately, a tale as old as tales themselves. SWERF and TERF (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist and Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, respectively) politics do not, and haven’t ever, had room or capacity for nuanced conversations about sexuality and the sex industry (check out our last article for more about our problems with Kamala Harris).
Gloria Steinem's Crusade Against Pornography
One glaring example we can draw from our not-so-long ago history is the case of Gloria Steinem’s crusade against pornography, wherein she and other frontrunner feminists used Linda Lovelace (star of the 1972 film Deep Throat and author/source of several autobiographies) as a pawn for that cause.
“There can be no ‘equality’ in porn, no female equivalent, no turning of the tables in the name of bawdy fun,” wrote feminist author Susan Brownmiller in her 1975 book Against Our Will, a groundbreaking treatise on sexual violence. "Pornography, like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women, to reduce the female to an object of sexual access." Most condemned porn as a form of misogyny, something to be fiercely fought, even annihilated.
Pornography, according to its critics, did nothing to liberate women sexually, since it wasn't about sex but power and control. As Susan Brownmiller later wrote in a 1979 editorial, “the feminist objection to pornography is based on our belief that pornography represents hatred of women.” from That Time Feminists Tried to Outlaw Pornography.
The Anti-Porn Movement Used Providers As Pawns
The anti-pornography movement, Andrea Dworkin’s concept of all penetrative sex as violent, and Gloria Steinem’s stint as an undercover Playboy bunny are all infamous, but what is lesser known is the way the industry used sex workers as stooges for anti-sex worker agendas.
“Katherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and Diana Russell in particular used Linda's testimony to suggest that all women in porn could expect to be forced into prostitution or raped at gunpoint. This meant we did not get to hear about the women doing sex work who had experiences that were positive, or even mundane. All porn was bad, and here was Linda to prove it. Delighted by the fame of its new supporter, the anti-pornography lobby conveniently overlooked the fact that Linda's testimony was one of a battered wife, not a critique of the sex industry.”
from Lovely Linda.
When Linda Lovelace died in 2002, she was known as a porn star turned feminist (‘feminist’ here being synonymous with anti-sex work), a puppet who endorsed anti-pornography agendas she didn’t necessarily know she agreed with--one of the many complications of a life of gaslighting.
“Fighting porn was key to preventing sexual assault and rape, anti-porn feminists argued. While social scientists did not agree on whether or how porn contributed to rape at the time, anti-porn feminists thought the link was obvious,” wrote Sam Meier.
"FOSTA" Is The New "Porn"
Presidential candidates aren’t going to touch the issue of differentiating between sex work & sex trafficking with a ten foot pole because of the pre-existing Venn diagram--meaning, in this instance, the moment of overlap in this issue where conservatives and SWERF politicians (like Harris) agree. And in an era where liberals are increasingly falling right-of-center in order to moderate the wildly-swinging wiles of Donald Trump’s megalomaniacal temper tantrums, rocking the boat in order to save the lives of sex workers just straight up isn’t going to happen.
Not only are representatives squeamish about discussing the sex industry (especially in today’s sanitized media), but they also aren’t about to go out swinging for sex workers when A) there are mass calls for accountability around sexual violence and harassment across every industry in the U.S., and B) there exists no clear delineation in political discourse for differentiating between trafficking and sex work done by a consenting adult - that discourse does not exist now, save for niche communities who are the most affected, and it did not exist in the heyday of the 1970s anti-porn movement.
“Even after losing the war, it is clear that Morality in Media and supporters of a government crackdown on pornography will soldier on." As Lynn Comella, associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told ThinkProgress: “As long as pornography exists there will be groups that oppose it and devote enormous amounts of energy to eradicate it. That much, history has taught us.”
Morality in the Media has morphed and shape-shifted in recent years, and is not the institution it once was. However it’s become abundantly clear that FOSTA/SESTA is the new porn. And on that front, every candidate has a stance.
Let’s hope that 2020 offers plenty of room for hindsight.