Monday, December 17, 2012

The Language Of Opprobrium

Ah, a classic image of cisgender heteronormative faux-sexual-oppression framed as a trasngressive power fantasy! Image source:

Well, bopping around on AlterNet I found an interesting article on why the sex positive movement is bad for sex workers. It was a difficult to read article though, because it was larded pretty heavily in the language of feminist academia. Fortunately, I've enjoyed working my way through dialect ever since "Huck Finn" so I was able to slog through it.

It's kind of OK on Alternet to use such language,where you have a sympathetic audience, some of whom can navigate the language. But damn, it's DANGEROUS language to use out in the mainstream, because it's LOADED with bad connotations.

Take "cisgender." I had to look it up. You know what it means? Someone whose gender and identity reflects the gender they were born to. In other words, cisgender means "straight." I'm pretty sure is was created as a match to "transgender." And that's fine. Except in public discourse. There, it raises hackles, because it SCREAM "wealthy white feminist sexuality studies academic preaching down to the masses." It raised MY hackles, and I'm a progressive. (Well, more of a working class progressive.) I had to read the whole article with my teeth bared and hair standing up on the back of my neck, resisting the impulse to bite the author.

The author, Audacia Ray, is pretty much a feminist academic nowadays (she used to be a sex worker). And she's a good honest thinker, but damn, she couches her thoughts so thoroughly in academo-speak that it was hard to work out what she said. If you've read the article, or tried to, you know what I mean.

Here's what I think Ray actually meant to say, translated into normal-speak (or something like it): "Emphasizing sex positivism for sex workers may have the unintended consequence of excluding or marginalizing sex workers who have been economically or otherwise coerced into sex work, who do not find the experience all that positive. Most sex workers and former sex workers who advocate sex positivism are wealthy upper middle class white women, or might as well be, and we tend not to "see" the problems of poor or minority women, who are the ones who tend to get coerced. Their issues are valid, and must be addressed, but there has been a reluctance to do so on the part of sex positive sex workers because anti-sex-worker forces have used the issue of coercion as a way of marginalizing all sex work, claiming that virtually all sex workers are trafficked, or might as well be. We have to find a way to address the issues of coerced poor and minority sex workers and not allow the anti-sex-worker forces to use such people as a club with which to destroy the rights of sex workers generally."

I think that's pretty close to what she meant. Here is one of the paragraphs Ray actaully wrote:

However, the promotion of pleasure and sex positivity within the sex industry and as an element of sex worker rights activism, is proprietary to a small but very vocal group of people, namely: white, cisgender women who are conventionally attractive, able-bodied, and have some degree of class and educational privilege. People like this – people like me – are central figures in the American sex worker rights movement, and often claim sex positivity as a key vehicle for claiming rights and making progress. Arguably, some progress has been made, especially in the area of cultural engagement and public awareness about the struggles and humanity of people in the sex industry. The fact that the phrase “sex worker” appears regularly in news outlets when the subject is covered is a testament to this progress. Though offensive slang still publicly brands people in the sex industry, the awareness of the preferred terminology has certainly grown. But despite the progress, there are many barriers to justice. One of these barriers, the one that this essay explores, is sex positivity.

If you wanna engage the public, Ms. Ray, you have to speak their language. Hell, I agree with your message, but I had to work to understand it, and I'm a smart boy, I am. Good luck with the crew that gets their news from TV. I can see Bill O'Reilly smirking knowingly at his audience every time you use the word "cisgender" or "heteronormative" or "cultural engagement." You might be well advised to avoid using such terms outside the realm of academia. The people who undestand it already agree with you, you need to address those who don't.


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