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I recently read Lisa Duggan and Nan Hunter’s Sex Wars and Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore, both of which are giving me a lot of thoughts.

For white women in the middle class and above, one of the most potent forms of sexism has been pedestalization. In the nineteenth century, she was forbidden to vote lest she sully herself with politics, forbidden to have sexual freedom lest she give up her precious purity, forbidden to work outside the home lest she no longer be the domestic angel her husband cherished. In a 1980s amicus brief against a feminist anti-porn ordinance, Nan Hunter and Sylvia Law summarized several examples of twentieth-century pedestalization and the harm it caused to women:

Traditionally, laws regulating sexual activity were premised on and reinforced a gender-based double standard which assumed:

that women are delicate, that voluntary sexual intercourse may harm them in certain circumstances and that they may be seriously injured by words as well as deeds. The statutes also suggest that, despite the generally delicate nature of most women, there exists a class of women who are not delicate or who are not worthy of protection. [By contrast, the law’s treatment of male sexuality reflected] the underlying assumption that only males have aggressive sexual desires [and] hence they must be restrained. … The detail and comprehensiveness of [such] laws suggest that men are considered almost crazed by sex.

K. Davidson, R. Ginsberg and H. Kay, Sex-Based Discrimination 982 (1st ed 1974)…

For example, the common law of libel held that “an oral imputation of unchastity to a woman is actionable without proof of damage. … Such a rule never has been applied to a man, since the damage to his reputation is assumed not to be as great.

In the modern day, exposure to pedestalizing beliefs decreases women’s cognitive performance, people who pedestalize women are more likely to blame rape victims who don’t follow their standards for ‘proper’ behavior, and people who pedestalize women are more likely to believe women shouldn’t exercise their sexual autonomy by asking people out or initiating sex— to pick just three studies.

Pedestalization is one of the major ways that sexism continues to be reinforced in our society. After all, everyone would recognize that “women should stay home and take care of children because they’re too flighty and emotional to work” is bullshit, but “women should stay home and take care of children because women have a special emotional connection to children, and motherhood is the most important job in the world” slips past the radar. “Playing outside is for boys” is something the straw sexist in a movie says, but “little girls are so polite and mature, not rambunctious and rowdy like little boys” comes out of the mouth of the most ardent feminist. “These occupations are female-dominated because women suck at being in charge” is unthinkable, while “these occupations are female-dominated because women are so good at caregiving” is a routine observation.

How can it be sexist? It’s nice!

Of course, not all women have a special emotional connection to children or are good at caregiving, and not all little girls are nice and polite. There are two ways I’ve noticed that people deal with women who aren’t on the pedestal. First, they may conclude the women have been misled, taken advantage of: that evil men are forcing them to engage in the behavior that person doesn’t like. Second, they may conclude that those women are not really pure wonderful angels; instead, they’re evil and disgusting. In fact, the pedestalization of women is highly correlated with the degradation of women, both on a cultural and individual level. At first this may seem bizarre– how can you simultaneously believe that women are refined, moral creatures that men ought to sacrifice for and that women are horrible conniving bitches? Well, obviously, they don’t believe it about the same women.

Think about the classic Nice Guy ™. (Not to be confused with men who are merely sad about their romantic prospects and are called Nice Guys ™ because it makes feminists feel uncomfortable to admit that some people can’t get laid who didn’t do anything wrong.) He is often accused of being entitled to women’s bodies, but in my experience that’s usually not the case. Instead, the classical Nice Guy ™ starts by pedestalizing women: “women are wonderful people who will all choose whom to date based on solely their sterling moral qualities. All I have to do is be sufficiently self-sacrificing and chivalrous and I will find a girlfriend.” Once this doesn’t happen, he has two choices. First, he can go with the former strategy, and become a classic white knight: “clearly those guys who fuck her and never call are taking advantage of her, and I should rescue her from those evil men”. Second, he can become a classic Nice Guy ™ by choosing the second strategy: “sometimes women date hot guys who are jerks! It must be because they are deliberately seeking out jerks and not because, like men, they are sometimes blinded by a pretty face. Bitch.”

So how is this related to sex work?

The Mann Act was a 1910 act forbidding interstate transport of “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” The FACT brief describes:

Like the premises underlying this [anti-pornography] ordinance, the Mann Act assumed:

that women were naturally chaste and virtuous, and that no woman became a whore unless she had first been raped, seduced, drugged or deserted. [Its] image of the prostitute … was of a lonely and confused female. … [Its proponents] maintained that prostitutes were the passive victims of social disequilibrium and the brutality of men. … [Its] conception of female weakness and male domination left no room for the possibility that prostitutes might consciously choose their activities.

Note, “The White Slave Traffic Act: The Historical Impact of a Criminal Law Policy on Women,” 72 Geo. L.J. 1111 (1984)

Pretty clear example of the pedestalization of women which pretty clearly harms sex workers. However, the Mann Act had a perhaps unexpected outcome:

Over the years, the interpretation and use of the Act changed drastically to punish voluntary “immoral” acts even when no commercial intention or business profit was involved. See Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470 (1917); Cleveland v. United States, 329 U.S. 14 (1946).

The term “other immoral acts” was held to apply to a variety of activities: the interstate transportation of a woman to work as a chorus girl in a theatre where the woman was exposed to smoking, drinking, and cursing; a dentist who met his young lover in a neighboring state and shared a hotel room to discuss her pregnancy; two students at the University of Puerto Rico who had sexual intercourse on the way home from a date; and a man and woman who had lived together for four years and traveled around the country as man and wife while the man sold securities.

Note, supra, 72 Geo. L.J. at 1119

Society’s attempts to “protect” women’s chastity through criminal and civil laws have resulted in restrictions on women’s freedom to engage in sexual activity, to discuss it publicly, and to protect themselves from the risk of pregnancy. These disabling restrictions reinforced the gender roles which have oppressed women for centuries.

A law originally passed to “save” sex workers proceeded to condescendingly “save” all kinds of women who have never done sex work, but who didn’t act the way good girls were supposed to act. Stigma against sex workers was weaponized to police the behavior of women who had never done sex work.

In Playing the Whore, Melissa Gira Grant writes eloquently about how “whore stigma” harms all women:

“The whore stigma,” states Gail Pheterson in her 1996 essay of the same name in The Prostitution Prism, “attaches not to femaleness alone, but to illegitimate or illicit femaleness. In other words, being a woman is a pre-condition of the label ‘whore’ but never the sole justification.” Sex workers, along with many people who do not do sex work, are exposed to whore stigma for breaking with, or being perceived to have broken with, what Jill Nagle calls “compulsory virtue.” It’s a riff on Adrienne Rich’s “compulsory heterosexuality,” with which lesbians are made invisible. Whore stigma, Nagles writes, is “a mandate not only to be virtuous, but also to appear virtuous.” As with compulsory heterosexuality, compulsory virtue isn’t just about producing a set of behaviors (fucking men, being a good girl about it), but producing a system of social control (punishing queers, jailing whores). “One does not actually have to be a whore to suffer a whore’s punishment or stigma,” writes Nagle. Naming whore stigma offers us a way through it: to value difference, to develop solidarity between women in and out of the sex trade.

The analogy to compulsory heterosexuality, I think, is an excellent one. While compulsory heterosexuality has disproportionate effects on LGBA people– for obvious reasons– it affects everyone. In Rich’s original essay, “compulsory heterosexuality” is defined broadly, much beyond punishments for lesbian sex. It includes literal forced marriages and men raping women, in which women do not have a choice other than having sex with men. It includes denying women sexuality outside of heterosexual sexuality, ranging from poor or nonexistent sex education to prevention of masturbation to the Freudian elevation of the vaginal orgasm over the clitoral orgasm to literal female genital circumcision. It includes removing women’s options to live a life apart from men by criticism of ‘spinsters’ or denying them careers. It includes the idealization of heterosexual romantic love as the ultimate purpose of and greatest joy in life.

Of course, we observe that– because the majority of people are heterosexual– the majority of women who experience forced marriages, poor sex ed, the idea that heterosexual romance is the purpose of life, etc. are, in fact, heterosexual. Their lives are fundamentally shaped by compulsory heterosexuality, even though they’re heterosexual.

Similarly, many women’s lives are fundamentally shaped by compulsory virtue even though they are not and have never been sex workers. “Virtue” here refers not to morality but to a relatively limited set of issues, mostly related to drugs and sex. We’ve loosened up a bit since the Mann Act era: the virtuous woman probably has premarital sex (although never with someone she doesn’t love) and almost certainly drinks (although she doesn’t get too drunk, and she doesn’t take illegal drugs). Virtue has come to apply to particular sex acts, as well: anal is unvirtuous, group sex is unvirtuous, BDSM is definitely unvirtuous.

Compulsory virtue is closely tied to compulsory heterosexuality, of course. Denying women sexuality outside of heterosexual sexuality is, often, explicitly justified by the fear that it will turn women into sluts or whores (a distinction many fail to make). The circumscription of women’s options– as in the case of the Mann Act– is often justified by the same fear. And the valorized heterosexual romantic love is a virtuous love: sexually faithful and completely lacking in commercial aspects. (Even in Pretty Woman, she quits sex work when she meets her man.)

An unfortunate fact of failing to name whorephobia for what it is is that we miss who is most affected. Melissa Gira Grant writes:

There’s an echo of this in the popularization of whore stigma in a milder form as outrage at “slut shaming.” What is lost, however, in moving from whore stigma to slut shaming is the centrality of the people most harmed by this form of discrimination. There is also an alarming air, in some feminists’ responses to slut shaming, of assumed distance, that the fault in slut shaming is a sorting error: No, she is certainly not a “slut”! This preserves the slut as contemptible rather than focusing on those who attack women who violate compulsory virtue—for being too loud, too much, too opinionated, too black, too queer…

Slut may seem to broaden the tent of those affected, but it makes the whore invisible. Whore stigma makes central the racial and class hierarchy reinforced in the dividing of women into the pure and the impure, the clean and the unclean, the white and virgin and all the others. If woman is other, whore is the other’s other.

Because of this failure, feminism all too often embraces the pedestalization of women. I see this particularly in two areas. The treatment of rape and abuse all too often boils down to “those evil men are harming saintly (white) women!”, which erases male victims, female perpetrators, and women who legitimately did things wrong and were also abused and that doesn’t make their abuse okay. And sex-worker-exclusive feminism often has a frankly condescending pedestalized version of women in which it is completely impossible a woman could choose to do sex work of her own free will. Returning to the FACT brief again:

Finally, the [anti-pornography] ordinance perpetuates a stereotype of women as helpless victims, incapable of consent, and in need of protection. A core premise of contemporary sex equality doctrine is that if the objective of the law is to “‘protect’ members of one gender because they are presumed to suffer from an inherent handicap or to be innately inferior, the object itself is illegitimate.” Mississippi Univ. for Women v. Hogan, 458 U.S. at 725. We have learned through hard experience that gender-based classifications protecting women from their own presumed innate vulnerability reflect “an attitude of ‘romantic paternalism’ which, in practical effect, puts women not on a pedestal but in a cage.” Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677, 684 (1973).

Women will never be freed from the specter of compulsory virtue until the sex worker is no longer an object of fear or revulsion. We must, above all, honor the right of women to make their own choices– whether or not these are choices we happen to approve of. Until people have the freedom to take money for sex without criminalization or stigma, all other sexual freedom will be in danger. As long as liberals are concerned that women are being taken advantage of when they choose to do sex work, conservatives will be concerned that women are being taken advantage of when they choose to suck off a stranger. My feminism will be pro-sex-work or it will be bullshit.

 

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