A warning: This is going to be an article about sex, sex work, and feminism, but it's not a "101" type of issue. It's instead about the subtle ways in which arguments which seem reasonable can be subtly, but dangerously, wrong.

This comic gives a straightforward way to think about the question of whether someone is being "sexually empowered" or "objectified." It explains the two as a duality, with one being good and the other bad, and the difference is all about power and consent.

The problem with this comic is that it's both right and wrong. The right part of it is fairly obvious, but the wrong part is subtle and can be insidious. It has to do with the ways in which the comic talks about how consent can be deficient, influenced by things like financial need. It suggests (correctly) that any consent can ultimately be deficient -- but it focuses this on the consent of the "provider," i.e. the model or sex worker or simply a person Dressed In A Certain Way. In doing so, it creates an insidious implication that the consent of anyone doing this is more deficient than other people's consent. That's a "magic wand" sort of argument that lets people argue that any claim of empowerment is actually false, an argument which has very nasty real-world consequences.

One easy way to see the problem is to notice that the same argument this author applies to sex work applies to anything else. Consider this quote:

"Many of those who enter the sex industry as a provider may not be entirely doing so because they want to. There are a number of factors, including poverty level, race, and assigned sex. Providers of commercial sex often face enormous discrimination and criminalization, which also puts power in the hands of others besides the providers themselves."

That's a great argument for why all the sex workers are actually being trafficked (a common argument used for increased criminalization of their customers, incidentally, which ends up having most of the same net effects on sex workers as criminalizing them), while coming with a wonderful out to explain away any sex worker who disagrees: "they're just privileged enough that it doesn't happen to them." But repeat that same sentence while talking about, say, agricultural laborers:

"Many of those who work in tomato fields may not be entirely doing so because they want to. There are a number of factors, including poverty level, race, and assigned sex. Migrant laborers often face enormous discrimination and criminalization, which also puts power in the hands of others besides the providers themselves."

This statement is no less true. In fact, it's true of nearly any kind of work, and that's the key to what's wrong here: it singles out sex as being somehow different, a situation in which consent is always potentially deficient. 

This cartoon doesn't, to its credit, take its arguments and actually pull them to that extreme. It sets up the arguments which can be used to argue that all empowerment is really objectification, and arguments which are routinely used by others to do that, but it doesn't make the claim itself. However, by framing the discussion this way, it sets that up.

The actual flaw is in the dichotomy it suggests between "empowerment" (which is good) and "objectification" (which is bad). You should be suspicious from the first frame, which talks about the power of the "looking" person and the "looked at" person, because power isn't a single axis -- which is exactly what the comic shows later on, as it talks about financial power, cultural power, sexual desire, and so on. 

In any real situation, each side will have some power, and the tradeoffs individuals are making are going to be complex. The sex worker may need the money, but he could also be working construction. His client seems to have the power in the relationship, but any business provider knows that the customer's power isn't actually absolute.

To be clear, I'm not saying that there is always a balance: power imbalances are real, and they absolutely occur in sex work, just like they occur in every other aspect of life. And criminalization and shaming of sex workers make those power imbalances much worse: in fact, if you wanted to analyze the real consequences of US laws on sex work, you could summarize them as being optimized to maximize the vulnerability of sex workers, in favor of anyone who has the power to get them arrested, exposed, and so on.

Which is to say, there's a real power imbalance here, but it has nothing to do with the intrinsics of sex or sex work, or even with deep things like culture: it's something society has deliberately chosen to create.

So what's a more accurate way of describing this? It's to realize that "empowerment" and "objectification" aren't opposites, but things which happen at the same time. Empowerment is about a person having agency and control over their life; objectification is about a person being viewed not as an independent subject, but as the object of a sentence, a means to someone else's ends.

The model may be empowering herself, acquiring a source of income that she can control and developing her own independent sexuality; at the same time, the man watching her may be entirely in his own world, collecting pictures of women and fantasizing absolute control over them, while shaming the women in his life for not looking like them. Which of these people is empowered? Which is objectified? 

The answer is that it's both. This means that we don't get any nice, simple lessons like "porn is good!" or "porn is bad!" which we can use to have rallies and change laws and so on. Instead, we get the real complexities of human life.

There are definitely useful calls to action here, but they're not the simple ones. If you want to do something useful:

* The structural power imbalances which affect workers everywhere are real and significant dangers to our society. Sex work is work: most of the problems are the same. The problems which create deficiencies in consent have huge social and economic costs; cf recent studies like

* There are many structural problems specific to sex work. Laws which criminalize it cut sex workers off from legal recourse altogether. Laws which treat sex work as a "scarlet letter" -- e.g., putting professionals at risk of losing their children to CPS if their employment becomes known -- are even worse. Policies which shame it -- e.g., refusals of payment processors to touch anything remotely related to sex -- again force sex workers into situations where they're dependent on unethical side providers. Political organizations such as RedUP (http://redumbrellaproject.org/) and SWOP (http://www.swopusa.org/) are actively working to fix these issues. Importantly, these are organizations of the actual people involved, not of people coming in to "rescue" them from their lives without actually asking if that's what anyone wants; organizations like that need our support.

(Disclosure: I am a donor to, and supporter of, both of these groups, and encourage others to do so as well)

* And objectification, while not directly tied to this, is something you can directly change about your own life. See https://plus.google.com/+YonatanZunger/posts/TbCgDWPkBGW for more on that.

Thanks to +Carrie Canup for the link.
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