Love for Sale and Free Love

Carol Siegel

Flesh for Fantasy: Producing and Consuming Exotic Dance
R. Danielle Egan, Katherine Frank, and Merri Lisa Johnson, eds. (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2006)

Eros: A Journey of Multiple Lovers
Serena Anderlini-D'Onofrio (New York: Harrington Park Press, 2007)

[1] As I was once nervously hushed by my fellow graduate students for saying in the T.A. room, lest some too sexually sensitive—or excitable—freshperson heard me, the word "whore" is confusingly used to refer both to women who sell their sexuality and to women who give it away rather than bartering it for marital commitment. Almost exactly twenty years later, it seems little has changed and we still inhabit a strange atmosphere of repression, where not only the exercise of any sexual freedom other than the freedom to say "no" is denigrated as something that undermines feminist goals, but we are discouraged even from discussion of the dilemma of what to do with our sexuality other than guard it until we are ready to bestow it on a "life partner."

[2] I say this because while I have been at least moderately notorious most of my life, I have never gotten threatening telephone calls at work about anything I published other than my writings advocating decriminalizing sex work and my writings against the imposition of abstinence education on adolescent girls. But those frightening calls started flooding in after my publication of New Millennial Sexstyles in 2000. And the callers identified themselves as feminists, while denying that I had the right to call myself one. This echoed the criticism my work has often received from some feminist scholars who tell me in person at conferences and in writing in readers' reports that I'm not really a feminist because I believe that the most crucial issue for most women over our lifetimes is how free we feel to express our sexuality. I want to experience sisterhood, but I want to be true to my own experience as well. And my own experience makes it impossible for me to believe that sexual expression is some sort of side issue for women, no matter how many women say that it simply is not very important to them. What's a sex-positive feminist to do?

[3] For one thing, she can continue to read books by women whom the more mainstream world considers whores and whom many politically committed women would consider misguided, if not out and out traitors to the feminist movement. And she can continue to give careful consideration to othered feminists whose voices many would like to hush, even when she has little else in common with them. This is my project in this review. Unlike the authors I will discuss here, I feel unable to advocate either sex work or polyamory as practices that are likely to lead to heightened feminist consciousness or to female empowerment. But I am quite willing to entertain the idea that these practices are, nonetheless, as fully compatible with feminist philosophy as ungendered and nonsexualized practices, like for instance, gardening or clerking in a bookstore.

[4] Because all feminists know about sex work and seemingly have opinions, usually strong ones, about it, and because not all of us are conversant with the polyamory movement and it has received relatively little attention within feminist theory, I will begin with the book Flesh for Fantasy.

[5] The editors, who are also contributors to this book, begin by identifying themselves as "part of a generation of women currently entering the workforce as professors, researchers, lawyers, and other professionals who also worked during some part of our lives in the sex industry" (xi). "Flesh for Fantasy is devoted to destigmatizing the sex industry, illuminating the labor conditions of strippers, and revising the cultural connotations of exotic dance" (xxxii). It challenges the patronizing attitudes about sex work that have characterized most, but not all, feminist discussions until very recently. This said, many of the findings in the pieces collected this book are unlikely to challenge preconceptions of feminists of either the second or third wave.

[6] That strip clubs can provide "an ideal space for some men to access a fantasy of freedom, independence, and idealized masculinity" is hardly likely to come as a surprise to anyone (122), nor is it big news that the culture of the strip club derives from fantasies of what is just on the verge of possibility, i.e. men who have experienced difficulty attracting women or satisfying them sexually can fantasize that they are sought after and possess ideal virility.

[7] But what is new, radical, and interesting about this book is the extent to which sex workers' fantasies, discussed in great detail by the authors of the individual essays that comprise it, are seen as dreams that can be actualized, and in ways consistent with third-wave feminist ideals. Sometimes the claims advanced here stretch my credibility to the snapping point, as in the claim that selling her virginity on the internet could give a girl better feelings about her body than a more ordinary first sexual experience (I will return to this later). But mainly what I felt in reading the book was an unexpected shift in consciousness, from sympathy for sex workers for being among the women most helplessly vulnerable to sexist oppression to understanding that, for some strong young feminists with plenty of other options, sex work can be a career choice that brings happiness.

[8] Because of my own life experiences, as well as my research as a scholar of putatively deviant sexualities, I thought I knew a lot about sex work. When I was in my late teens, I lived for almost three years in San Francisco's Tenderloin, where I worked as babysitter to the sex workers in the same apartment building. Many were both hookers on the street and strippers in a the small seedy clubs nearby. I also met and became friends with more upscale sex workers later, performers in the North Beach clubs, call girls, girls who worked in fancy houses, massage parlor prostitutes, and lap dancers and peepshow girls in the new porn palaces, like the Mitchell Brothers'. My perception of sex work came from these women who were almost all drug addicts, had babies or small children they were desperate to provide for, were beaten and raped on a depressingly regular basis and forced to service club owners and their friends/clients. Many also had violently abusive pimps. So while I respected and liked the women themselves, I felt their life situation was pretty awful.

[9] By the time I began graduate school, my personal connections with that world had attenuated, and I began relying on feminist writings for information about it. Because of the preponderance of accounts that reinforced what I had seen first-hand, despite reading the work of feminists in the life, like Carol Queen and Shannon Bell, I remained convinced that sex work was still about the same as it had been when I last visited its milieu around 1981.

[10] As many of you may know, Around 1981 is also the title of Jane Gallop's study of the development of academic second-wave feminism. This is no coincidence. Although I worked politically to support the struggle of sex workers to legalize prostitution and to attain the protections extended to other workers, as well as basic human rights, it was in the spirit of harm reduction rather than affirmation of a free choice. I felt that sex work was a desperate response to inequality and that it went against the aims of feminism in that it put women at great risk of suffering abuse much more intense than they would face in non-sexual employment. After reading Flesh for Fantasy I realized a lot of what I thought about sex work has become just plain wrong. Or at least wrong if we are looking exclusively at women with other options.

[11] While I cannot write this review from any position other than that of a situated speaker with a history of her own, I think it's important also to place the issues engaged here in the context of a larger history of feminist philosophies, including contentions between them. Such contextualization is particularly important because the essays do very little to historicize the relation between sex work and feminism, until Allison Fensterstocks' "Stripper Chic: A Review Essay," near the end of the collection, which touches on feminist discussion starting with the 1987 collection Sex Work. But earlier background for analyzing the development of feminist attitudes still remains to be supplied.

[12] In my view, early second-wave feminist positions on sex work came out of the Marxism that informed this movement in its beginnings. To put it simply, the initially dominant second-wave feminist vision of the intersection of sex and economics under patriarchal capitalism was that women were forced by family, society, and law to subordinate their own sexual desires in order to turn their sexuality into a commodity, to be used either for the reproduction of children who would belong to the males who controlled the women or to provide sexual entertainment that would profit those males. In other words, like those of other workers, the bodies of female sex workers were used for the profit of others who occupied a higher place in the social order. Early second-wave feminists called marriage "legalized prostitution" because they believed that under patriarchal capitalism women were forced (by economic conditions such as lower wages, if not by more direct means) to give up sexual control of their bodies in exchange for some measure of economic security. Sex workers were often considered more free in that they openly treated the men they serviced as clients in a commercial arrangement and so did not have to pretend to love the men or to desire them. But all of this prostitution was set against—as its diametrical opposite—a concept of free love that naturalized sexual attraction and activities women undertook outside the financial arrangements dictated by capitalism. Many feminists of the second wave not only believed that sexual desire and activity could be separated from economic considerations, we also believed it was important to our own integrity and fulfillment in life to do so.

[13] Probably part of what has changed is that during the rise of feminism's second wave, women were generally dependent on relations with men to provide enough money to live comfortably. Even among the lower levels of the working class, where all women had to work outside the home, a woman's income was seen as ideally augmenting her husband's. The lack of adequate birth control and legalized abortion, combined with the lack of adequate protection from rape, created a situation in which many women had to choose between marriage or poverty, a situation made acute and tragic by the presence of dependent children.

[14] Certainly this choice seemed to be, and was, represented by high and low art forms as the major life-determining one facing women. Because women needed to marry in order to have even a modicum of financial security and men did not, and because marriages had to be made with consideration of the economics involved, women could not express sexuality in any way that could be considered free. The most common way for a woman to receive money from a man entailed her successful suppression of her own sexual desires to cater to his. Now, with the opening of skilled labor and professional jobs to women and equal pay for equal work mandated by law, that situation has changed. Women can undertake many kinds of work for wages, and sex work is beginning to look more like other kinds of work.

[15] Another influence on feminist attitudes about sex work was probably that, after feminism's radical beginnings, capitalism itself has been increasingly accepted by feminists as a necessary evil—or even seen as not evil at all. As feminists stopped reiterating the general sixties' radical opposition to "the system" and instead worked to help women enter and advance in the corporate world, feminism's opposition to sex work made less sense. If we are all inevitably alienated labor, simply body parts employed in the great machinery of capitalism, why not be vaginas (and breasts, and mouths, and anuses) instead of hands? Especially if by functioning as sexual body parts we could make much more money?

[16] In addition, as has been exhaustively discussed in academic writings, second-wave feminists opposed beauty culture and the concept of glamour because striving to attain and maintain a specific culturally-determined standard of beauty was seen as oppressive to women in two ways. First, it meant that men would decide our worth based on our appearances rather than accomplishments or character. Second, it meant women would be more deeply vulnerable to advertising than men, constantly faced with a sense of physical inadequacy that would drive us into compulsive consumerism, making us even more vulnerable to the economics of patriarchy, more dependent on men's superior earnings, and more alienated from our own bodies. Now many third-wave feminists have rebelled against that vision and are engaged in reclaiming beauty, fashion, and glamour as women's proper concerns, as they attempt to detach them from their traditional function as guarantors of value in a male-dominated economy.

[17] The second-wave distinction between female and feminine is now blurred, if not treated as a mistaken idea derived from the naturalization of some aspects of gender difference and the demonization of others. Beauty culture is reclaimed by many women as a field of play for women. So where we once had a dichotomy with women's naturalized sexual pleasure on one side and on the other, posited as its direct opposite, women's subjugation to patriarchal capitalism through commodification of the use of female body parts, we now have a field of play in which nothing is marked as natural and every sexual experience can be offered for sale.

[18] Added to all this is the issue of women's physical safety. Prior to the middle period of the second wave, when feminists fought to detach legal treatment of rape and domestic abuse from questions about the victims' sexual morality, as determined by patriarchal standards, women who sold sexual access to their bodies in any other way than through legal marriage were generally considered to have forfeited legal protection. They were available to be preyed upon by misogynists who could beat or rape them without legal consequences. Thus sex workers were likely to be the objects of repeated assaults and likely to need pimps to provide enough protection to help them at least survive.

[19] As Fensterstock points out, at the end of the 1980s all of this began to change. Strip clubs were reinvented and mainstreamed as "gentleman's clubs" staffed by "[l]ovely, refined naked ladies," who often saw themselves as exemplifying "sex-positive feminism" (194). The clubs offered them a place where they could receive affirmation of their desirability without having to worry about being assaulted because they seemed immodest. A statement by Susan Bremer is so frequently reiterated by the others that it could be considered the refrain of the book: "the biggest draw is the money" (52). For example, Fensterstock tells us she keeps with it despite problems because "this is the most immediate way of getting money" (74), while the contributor who seems most unhappy with stripping, Shelley Manaster, concludes one essay, "I make too much money to seriously consider swimming back" (18).

[20] Flesh for Fantasy pushes the reader to understand sex work in a post-Marxian way, within the context of a culture that accepts capitalism as indestructible and omnipresent, but that considers gender equality under capitalism possible. All the essays contend that as the times have changed, allowing women more protection from gender abuse, sex work has changed, too. All the sex workers in the collection seem to have the sort of expectations that most women in the industrialized first world and above the "underclass" do nowadays, and that would have seemed utopian or unworldly to most women prior to the mainstreaming, and often legislation, of some basic feminist ideas in America in the 1980s. That is, they expect some legal protection from sexual abuse of all kinds encountered on the job. According to these accounts, it seems they often get it.

[21] Yet it is often hard to tell if the expectations of these women come from the actual conditions of sex work today, or whether they have these expectations because they are almost all, self-admittedly, from the privileged white middle-class. I was, for instance, amazed by Merri Lisa Johnson's account of her shock at seeing "middle-class [fraternity] boys as aggressors," and finding herself "afraid of [a] cop" (184-85). She attributes these new and disturbing perceptions to being "categorized as a stripper or whore, [so that] they were no longer the ones who would protect me" (184). In her view, "our cultural devaluation of stripper lives left me feeling unprotected by the usual network of social controls" (178). As a working-class girl born in the early 1950s, as soon as I entered puberty I learned that middle-class males, along with the police, were invested with such superior societal power that if they could catch hold of me, they could use me pretty much in any way they chose, and be themselves protected from repercussions. Fraternity boys I knew of only as notorious rapists who preyed on lower-class girls without restraint. My only protections were my father and other decent working-class men, my own vigilance, and the community of other sexual/gender minorities, including feminists.

[22] Others in the collection express visions of the possibility of male sexual privilege and abuse of it much more like what I describe above. E. Danielle Egan, also from the working class, tells of men who "treat dancers as easy targets" for their misogynist aggression (26). Bremer discusses the unpleasant necessity of "tolerating invasive advances" if one wants to make living as a stripper (46). And Miss Mary Ann talks of finding employment in a club that stood out because the strippers "weren't required to suck the boss's dick in exchange for employment" (216).

[23] Katherine Frank provides a useful corrective to the idea, that might otherwise result, that strip club patrons are barely controlled would-be rapists with her well-researched argument, "Observing the Observers." She concludes that far from being "bastions of male power," strip clubs are spaces designed to allow insecure men to enact a "public performance of desire for a woman" (137, 134). I did not find her essay, "Keeping Her Off the Pole? Creating Sexual Value in a Capitalist Society" as reassuring, however.

[24] In this essay she plays with the idea that it might be a good thing for her "own daughter to sell her virginity on the internet" (208). Her reasoning is that if the girl saw her virginity as a commodity of considerable monetary value she could "negotiate" its loss to her benefit, whether that meant earning the "down payment on a house," demanding dates, romantic treatment, and presents, or "at least requir[ing a boyfriend] to make some attempt at providing her with sexual pleasure as well" (208-209). While I agree with Frank that it is important that "young girls feel that they own their own sexualities," I do not see this as "The issue" here (209). Instead one of the things I consider of primary importance when it comes to young women's virginity is that they refuse the antiquated patriarchal concept that it gives them a value that will be lost after their first sexual intercourse. But even more important is that they understand their first sexual experiences, like all those that follow, as being about their own sexual pleasure, by which I mean physical excitation and orgasm, not the pleasure of affirming their attractiveness, getting male attention, or making money. Frank explains that girls today are pressured into early sexuality "for nothing more than a bit of attention," and contrasts this with her learning, through stripping, "that my sexuality was tangibly valuable. Economically valuable. What I had given away for free, I learned, men were willing to pay for, and quite highly" (206; emphasis Frank's).

[25] My response to this is so what? I hope that despite the dismal omnipresence of capitalism, young women will continue to have the capacity to enjoy sex in and of itself, simply because it makes their bodies feel good. Couldn't this, rather than becoming a sex worker, be seen as a viable alternative to having sex one does not really desire simply to please a male?

[26] Rather problematically, many of the essays describe sex work as the only apparent way to address gender inequality. Fensterstock is most direct about this in generalizing her introduction to stripping as resulting from a frustrating "four years of women's studies" that make "you just know that something uneven is going on and somebody should pay up" (64). In a later essay, she asserts that "it simplifies and strips the fear off of the confusing concept of your body existing in an intricate system of value you did not design … to just say … I'm the ultimate mainstream hetero fantasy girl. This is what you encourage me to be and what you punish me for being, I think. Now pay me" (200). Johnson says that being a stripper made it possible for her to experience sex as "simple beyond the cultural script of emotional obligation or proper feminine restraint" (164). The society of other strippers enabled her to reject the "sex-hating" idea that promiscuity comes from "low self-esteem" (164). I have no objection to women taking this route to healing the harm done by a sexist and anti-sexual society.

[27] But sex work is certainly not the only route out of internalizing sexism. And the book would be stronger if it more clearly recognized that many of us successfully resist sexism and find our pleasure in other ways that we find just as satisfying. Reading Manaster's depressing account of the nights when, as one of thirty-eight girls in a club where "the [lap] dancers circle the men, repetitively, desperately asking for dances," with her self-confidence fading as "the ratio of rejection [goes above] sixty to one" (9), I can't help thinking of the discos I loved in my twenties where the ratio of unescorted women to men was usually around one to twenty and there was no possibility of rejection, even when I approached men far more attractive than I was. Of course, I wasn't charging them to dance with me, nor was I after anything but my own pleasure. I did get that, though—every time. And the experience led me to understand that women who refuse to participate in the dominant gender system are so rare and sought after that we can often achieve great power to set the terms for expressing our sexuality.

[28] Perhaps in the end it comes down to differences in desires, which feminism definitely should do more to recognize. For some women, from whom I feel we have heard too much already, sexual pleasure is inextricable from romantic love. For others it is bound up with familial love, deep friendship and trust, or respect and admiration. For others it must entail a sense of transgression, exploration, or adventure. A smaller number need to feel stimulated by the physical beauty of their sex partner. Still others experience sexual pleasure as physical sensation, tout court. And some, as this book makes clear, find making money with sex aphrodisiac. Although I do not, I still feel the appeal of Johnson's assertion that, "sex radical feminism proposes an economy of plenty—we do not ‘use up’ our sexuality by displaying it at the strip club. We do not render it cheap. We do not trade our self-respect for a sweaty dollar. There is always more where that came from" (161).

[29] I can well imagine Serena Anderlini-D'Onofrio nodding in agreement with that last sentiment. Her lively and entertaining fictionalized memoir, Eros: A Journey of Multiple Loves, could also have been subtitled, A Journey of Inexhaustible Sexual Energy. Like the authors of Flesh for Fantasy, she is a feminist academic, in her case Professor of Humanities at the University of Puerto Rico. She is also a major force in publicizing and advocating for the bisexuality/polyamory movement. This memoir is definitely a part of that advocacy, as it traces the growth into a particular and unusual sort of feminist, of her thinly fictionalized autobiographical Italian heroine and first-person narrator over nineteen years lived mostly in academic communities in the United States.

[30] She is a belated sexual revolutionary, arriving in the U.S. in 1981, twenty-seven years old and newly separated from her husband and small daughter, "part of the first generation of Italian women who embarked alone on our journeys to the New World" (3).

[31] At first her relationships are fairly conventional in structure, as she seeks male mentor-lovers and lets boyfriends decide what the rules will be. Her only real departure from traditional gender relations is in her passion for an androgynous man willing to be "completely subject to [her] gaze" (40). But over time she gains the courage to pursue sex with other women and to insist on open relationships. She transforms herself from a protégée of male intellectuals into an erotic teacher and in the process discovers her own America and feminism, where her previous concepts of what is appropriate to women fall away.

[32] Her biggest epiphanies occur through her involvement in San Diego's bisexual community. Rather surprisingly to me, at least, she writes that "As a second-wave feminist in the 1970s, I aimed for the goal of separating feelings from erotic pleasure. But the feelings would persist, and in the early 1990s I came to enjoy group sex partly as a way to reconnect feelings and erotic expression in a polyamorous way" (97). Along with many other veterans of the 1970s San Francisco sexual liberation scene, I have always considered group sex a technology through which people strive to free eroticism from the usual emotional attachments, to enter a realm of pure, impersonal sexual sensation. To me it inhabits the same Deleuzian zone as glory hole sex, a plane on which contact between body parts does not have to signify at all. But to Anderlini-D'Onofrio it is a spiritual contact zone where love flows untethered by societal expectations or cultural constructions of gender or morality.

[33] No matter whether or not we would like to spend time with Anderlini-D'Onofrio in a California hot tub, I cannot imagine the person so sour that she would not find her world view attractive and endearing. It's as if love is always just beneath the surface of human relations, awaiting a chance to break through and flood over everything in its environment. Her enthusiasm for all imaginable body types helps tremendously to build this mood. She appreciates conventional beauty and comments approvingly on athletic bodies, but middle-aged and older bodies are also erotically intriguing to her. She explains her choice of her most intimate partner, a heavy-bodied older woman with dropping breasts, by stressing her love for "fat people, lovers one could touch profusely and with benefit" (116). She seems quite capable of inhabiting areas of desire for which other people have contempt without any need to justify herself. Implicit throughout the book is her view that if we could only free ourselves from the fear of being criticized for our sexuality, we would begin to find the whole world a source of erotic delight.

[34] How could anyone not like this philosophy? It's better than that of the magically healing saint of sexuality played by Deborah Kerr in Night of the Iguana, who only remains undisgusted by anything human, but not necessarily aroused by it. But is it feminist?

[35] The book ends with a blissful account of a love affair with a man who intends to "save" her from her lesbianism, a project she regards with fond amusement. A section of the book is devoted to essay-letters to her daughter through which she hopes to impart her passion for free sexual expression as well as her ardent belief that this is the royal road to political liberation, the end of imperialism and terrorism.

[36] I began to think of an argument I had recently had at a conference with a much younger feminist. She told me emphatically what I have heard so often in recent years, that the sexual liberation movement had failed because it only enabled men to exploit women. I tried to draw on the authority of experience to no avail. Then I tried to get her to elaborate on what she considered exploitation to be. Finally, I surrendered, as I always do in such discussions, to the disturbing truth that feminists, perhaps like all people grouped together by shared political goals, have irreconcilably different concepts of eroticism, desire, and satisfaction that make it impossible for us to agree on what constitutes sexual freedom. Maybe all we can do is to keep on providing each other with reality checks about what it is possible for others to want and feel. Maybe this rather painful process of re-opening the question of what female bodies can mean sexually to those of us who have them is feminist in a very basic way. If so, these two books certainly further that process.