Modesty's Oppression & Humanizing Sex Workers

Some time ago, I came to believe that God's purpose for my life is for me to be vulnerable and open. Since then, I have worked towards this purpose. I've talked about my identity and my life. However, there are a number of things that I'm quite passionate about that I've not properly shared because of my fear of judgment from fellow Christians. Yet, if I want to be obedient to God, then I must overcome that fear. To that end, today I would like to talk about two general categories of things that I'm passionate about: some of the problems that come from modesty norms and the wellbeing of sex workers.

"The Cult of Female Modesty"

"The Cult of Female Modesty" is what the British Economist Victoria Bateman calls the social/cultural belief that a woman's worth is found in her bodily modesty. This is a reductionist and dehumanizing belief, and it is related to a pernicious idea that nudity, sexuality, sex organs, and sexual intercourse are naughty, dirty, rude, nasty, and/or even inherently sinful. One need only look at slang like "doing the dirty" (for sex) and "naughty bits" (for genitals) to see this reflected in language.

It is my understanding that the negative view of these things has its roots in ancient Greek dualism. This form of dualism (which probably wasn't limited to the Greeks, to be clear) claims that the physical is inherently sinful or evil, while the spiritual and mental are inherently good. As such, it denigrates the body and its pleasures. To my sorrow, Christianity has often absorbed this concept, despite it being incongruous with the religion due to Christianity's claims that God invented the physical—including physical pleasure—and Jesus's incarnation in a physical body.

At the same time as women are being told to cover up to gain value in the eyes of society, women's bodies are prized for their beauty, and they're told to display them—but not too much, lest they lose their worth! What a nightmarish tightrope to walk.

The combination of these things has several significant consequences. In no particular order, they suppress women's sexuality by forcing them into the "gatekeepers of sex" role, cause derision and stigma for sex workers and nude models, cause the female genitals to be thought of as particularly shameful, and cause natural emotions and feelings to be seen as perverted. There are more consequences (many which matter greatly, such as violence against women who violate modesty norms), but these are the ones I want to look at here.

The Gatekeepers of Sex

Consent is important for any intimate relationship. Vital to this is the ability to both require consent as well as request it. The idea that women are the gatekeepers of sex complicates consent a lot. This is because socially, they are forced into the role of not wanting sex, even if they do. This results in a suppression of natural sexual desires, but it also mucks up consent—a woman's "no" is seen as playing into the hard-to-get role that society expects of her, because otherwise she's seen as a slut—a loose woman with no morals, easy but ultimately not a prize. (Ugh, that's gross to write.) Naturally, this also makes it hard for women to seek consent, because men are cast in the role of those who want sex and seek it out. This also causes problems for men who are sexually assaulted by women, since that seems a lot like a rabbit successfully hunting a wolf. (Predator/prey dynamics in sexual relationships are a related and equally gross problem.)

Nude Models, Naked Art, and Pornography

First of all, I would consider pornography art, even if I would also consider some of it banal or aesthetically unappealing. I also dislike lust-based marketing tactics, but that extends beyond pornography. While fine nude art does tend to be somewhat elevated over pornography in the popular consciousness, online censors draw little distinction between the two—perhaps in words, but rarely in deeds. Part of the issue is the line between the two is grey and murky. While this is especially true for photography or other still imagery (such as paintings or sculptures), it also applies to things like performance art.

Because of the subjective nature of the line people draw between fine nude art and pornography, those who are featured in it are often derided, especially the women. I mentioned Victoria Bateman earlier. She is a strong voice decrying the distinction society draws between women who earn a living with their minds versus those who earn a living with their bodies. Sadly, those in the latter group are often seen as stupid or intellectually inferior, which is a major falsehood that I would love to see come to an end.

The Proper Term is "Vulva"

I sometimes wonder how many people know that the correct English word for the external female genitalia is "vulva". Slang abounds, of course (from furry creatures like pussy and beaver, to words seen as quite rude), but even those who are trying to be correct will instead often mistakenly use "vagina" (also known as the birth canal, the vagina connects the cervix—which leads to the uterus/womb—with the vulva).

I've often felt like a false equivalence has been drawn between the male genitals (penis & testicles) and female breasts. This relegates the vulva to an even more secretive place. Associations with shamefulness are also why some languages call the vulva "shame lips"! Even when full-frontal female nudity has made it into movies, merkins (basically pubic wigs) are typically used to make sure nothing can be seen of the vulva itself.

The result of all of this is that many women don't know what "normal" looks like for a vulva. They often don't know their own anatomy, and lack self-confidence. Even worse, both men and women can be conditioned by pornography into thinking a vulva should look a certain way. Some organizations are trying to combat this (here's an example), but it's hard to do when images of vulvas are strongly censored, not to mention the shame/censorship associated with the words "vulva" and "vagina". (The Vagina Museum has struggled with this latter issue, and has also struggled to find spaces to rent due to this.)

I want women (and men, frankly) to be educated on the anatomy and variety of vulvas. I want the shame lifted. I want people to know proper terms and to be able to use them easily and without discomfort or embarrassment.

Attraction Is Not Perversion

I think the naked human body is beautiful. I think genitals (especially the vulva, because I'm a heterosexual man) are beautiful. I like looking at things I find beautiful. Does that make me a pervert? I don't believe so, but I also feel like society says the answer is yes.

It seems to me that society casts natural attraction as lust, and being honest about it as perversion. I don't think either of these are true (I have a lot to say about lust—enough so that it'll be getting its own article sometime in the future—but for now, I've learned that it is a disease of the imagination that is only at most related to attraction). The consequence of calling normal things lusts and perversions that aren't is that you make everyone into a lustful pervert. This either suppresses normal sexuality or effectively forces it into lustful perversions.

I'll explain using a metaphor. Imagine if liking the smell of roses was associated with trespassing. In other words, those who express liking the smell of roses are assumed to trespass onto others' property so that they can smell other people's roses. You are faced with two choices here. You can either speak up about how you like the smell of roses, in which case people will think you're a trespasser, or you can stay silent or lie about enjoying the smell of roses. Further, smelling roses on the edge of someone's property ends up getting lumped in with trespassing, even though you aren't actually trespassing. What would you do? Some people might think of themselves as trespassers simply because they innocently smelled some roses or just happen to like the scent! Other people would avoid smelling roses at the edge of properties, and so on.

I feel like the way we treat attraction and curiosity about the human body is a lot like this. A big consequence of this is to make people uncertain of how to healthfully express their attractions. It also hampers education—natural curiosity can drive many to seek answers online (and fall right into pornography, which is not designed to properly educate about sexual matters—watching porn to learn about sex is like watching Fast & Furious to learn about driving) because they don't feel comfortable or able to discuss what they're feeling or are curious about.

Sex Work Is Work

Sex work includes a variety of things which mostly fall into the categories of sexual entertainment and prostitution. Because I'm most familiar with the challenges pornographers and prostitutes face, I want to talk about those (as opposed to other types of sex work, which I'm much more ignorant about). I want to talk about these challenges because I care about sex workers as human beings. While I do want them to know Jesus (and think the American church at large has done an extremely effective job of pushing sex workers away from Him), I want to show them human kindness regardless as best I can, because I care about them; so too does God.

I think it is important to first address something most forms of sex work have in common (aside from the enormous piles of social stigma and potentially lost relationships if their job is discovered), which are concerns about coerced sex work. While the most blatant example of this is human trafficking, which is a horrendous crime and abuse (which I will address more when discussing prostitution specifically), another serious issue are those who feel financially forced into sex work. Many women feel like entering into sex work is their only means of survival. One thing we can do to help these women is to address poverty, but also to address stigmas against those who have done sex work. If we give them human dignity and allow them to move on (if they wish to stop doing sex work—there are those people who do genuinely love what they do), the world will be a better place.

Consider for a moment the point of view of someone in poverty. Which is better? To be forced into backbreaking labor, poor working conditions, and the fear of being fired? Or to make porn online and possibly earn more money than with the "standard" job? For many, the answer is the latter, but they'd never have to ask themselves those questions if we addressed oppressive working conditions and the exploitation of desperation. In other words, if we all sacrificed to reduce poverty.

To be clear, I'm not insinuating that all sex workers feel financially forced into it, nor that all who initially felt like they were dislike sex work. There are plenty of sex workers who do genuinely like what they do, or that intentionally chose the job. There are some who saw sex work as a way to pay for higher education, and chose to do it during that time. Whatever someone's reason for choosing to start doing sex work, for choosing to stop doing it, or choosing to continue to do it, that person deserves to be shown human dignity and respect.

Pornography

I am here focusing more on smaller, independent, online pornography creators. Larger studios have their own share of problems, I'm sure, but I know little of them. Also, I believe indie porn creators are incredibly important because the performers have a great deal more power there to set and maintain boundaries. I do think there are a lot of abuses that occur in the creation of some pornography, and while I'm sure not all smaller creators are devoid of those abuses, many will have balances of power that favor the performers themselves. In this regard, it is not unlike my own primary industry of game development. The larger studios are known for abusing staff with things like crunch (working extremely long hours to try and get something done by a set deadline), there have been numerous scandals of sexual harassment and discrimination, and so on. Not all smaller studios are better, but there are more of them, and smaller studios are better able to remember the humanity of everyone involved.

From what I've seen discussed online, the biggest problems porn creators face are based in uncertainty: uncertainty about content platforms, avenues of advertising, and especially payment processors. For an example of the first and third of these, look no further than the statements earlier this year (2021 for future reference) that OnlyFans was going to ban pornography after it became well known for it. This felt like a betrayal, but also part of a pattern, where a platform will get big off of the backs of porn producers, then give them the boot once the platform wants to go mainstream. In this particular instance, OnlyFans claimed that the reason for the announcement was due to pressure from payment processors. This sort of uncertainty is all too common, and it makes for a stressful environment.

There is also the difficulty of advertising. Like many people who have a tight budget, many independent pornographers go to social media to market their work (and as someone who is himself trying to become visible through social media, I'm here to inform you that it isn't easy). However, most social media is hostile to pornography itself—not that pornographers should be giving away their work for free anyway. (Relatedly, competition with free porn or demands for free samples are, of course, always a frustration, not to mention piracy of their work.) Pornographers (and even nude artists and nudists!) can find their accounts banned for uncertain reasons, even when nothing they posted broke a site's terms of service. Shadow-banning, where an account still exists but its ability to show up in new people's feeds is suppressed, is another huge issue, especially since it can be hard to tell if the reason posts aren't performing as well as previous ones did is because you've been shadow-banned or because people just aren't resonating with your content. On top of all of this, pornographers often don't get to benefit from organic marketing, like word of mouth, because people aren't often telling their buddies about that awesome pornographer that they should totally subscribe to or buy content from.

To be clear, my position on pornography is relatively neutral. My more specific thoughts belong in that future article I mentioned previously about lust, so look forward to that piece.

Prostitution

Most prostitutes will tell you that they want decriminalization, not legalization. This is because legalization implies heavy regulation and taxation. This is bad, because it adds overhead and complexities that create more space for a black market to exist. While I would never recommend someone become a prostitute or hire one for the usual sex services (I have no issue with hiring a prostitute for other things they might have skill in, such as photo editing—they are people and can have multiple skill sets, after all), I nevertheless support this push towards decriminalization. I support this because I believe it is the best way to improve prostitutes' lives. (I do think there should be a legal minimum age to be a prostitute and restrictions on advertising, but I think both of those are things that prostitutes should have a strong say in.)

There have been a lot of ideas for "soft" laws that partially ban prostitution, but all of them have downsides. The one I'm most familiar with is the Nordic model. Under this model, selling sex is legal, but buying it isn't. This might sound good, but it actually makes the situation worse because it empowers those clients who by necessity must be willing to break the law, since prostitutes must rely on them for their livelihood—it basically hands those clients a big pile of financial leverage. It also often has clauses against pimps and brothels, both of which can easily cause problems. Laws against pimping can easily catch significant others or relatives in the crossfire (if, for example, the prostitute is driven to a location by that individual). Laws against brothels often prevent prostitutes from living together or supporting each other.

Another important argument here is that we want the black market for prostitution to be as small as possible, because it reduces the space that human trafficking can occupy. I'm under no illusions that it can ever be fully wiped out (bad clients who can't get a prostitute otherwise will seek them out, for example, as will those looking for underaged prostitutes), but the less space available for black markets, the better, in my opinion. Also, if prostitutes no longer have an antagonistic relationship with the police, then they are able to have a positive one. I imagine they'd be in a position (at least to some extent) to notice potential human trafficking victims and help them in some way or another. I'm confident that prostitutes are as revolted by human trafficking as most people are. We do have to be somewhat careful here, though, because many prostitutes are somewhat migratory—they travel from place-to-place to book different clients. This can look like human trafficking to the uninformed.

Another difficulty prostitutes have to deal with are booking websites being shut down. This makes it harder for them to safely find clients—and this is very important! Prostitutes don't want to work for an abusive client (and when the police will arrest the prostitute, you'd better believe they aren't going to be getting a call from a prostitute when their client turns out to be abusive), and often rely on each other or websites to screen clients.

Decriminalization would empower prostitutes to help support each other, for them to build bigger support and safety networks, to get help from the police, and to overall be safer. For a bit more on this topic, check out this Twitter thread. The short version? Anti-prostitution laws push prostitutes into more dangerous territory and put them at greater risk, and many of them don't feel like they have a viable alternative for work. Why should we care? Because prostitutes are human beings. It's that simple.

Humanize, Humanize, Humanize

I want to invite you to join me in an existential humanity-seeking exercise.

The way this works is to first focus on your own humanity. Consider your consciousness and the sum of your past experiences. Recognize the quintessential essence of yourself, at the core and foundation of your being. Once you've got that, think of someone you really like. Recognize that they have their own version of that quintessential human essence which you first recognized in yourself. Consider the miracle of their consciousness, as amazing a miracle as your own. Realize the existence of their experiences, their hopes and dreams, their fears and worries—you needn't know what they are, simply that they are. Recognize their humanity, a mirror of your own. Then extrapolate to people you don't know, people you hate, and to everyone on this planet. You may indeed find it easier to do these steps, now that you've read them, with your eyes closed. I know I do.

I find this exercise equal parts terrifying and wonderful, compassion-building and grief-inducing. I can recognize the core of love, and the pain that results from the cruelty we humans do to each other. It is a powerful exercise, and inevitably sorrowful, for one can perceive through it the grief of humankind.

When you see someone you dislike, whose behavior you disagree with, I implore you to try and remember to use this exercise to humanize them.

We are told again and again to dehumanize others, either by making them inferior to us, or by making them superior. Either way, we make them less than fully human. We are able to hate them or idolize them. We cannot do either of these things when we humanize them. If I may get spiritual for a moment, I believe God wants us to humanize our fellow humans, to recognize the us in them. Satan wants to divide us, to create divisions, to make us despise or idolize our fellows. The Devil wants us to not recognize the humanity of others so that we may assuage our consciences when we act cruelly towards them. For is that not at the heart of sin?

A Final Word

My desire is to humanize others, to show them the kind of love God has for them: a personal love that recognizes the complexity of what it means to be human. I'm tired of artifice that separates us. We hide ourselves—it is my belief that clothing serves as a metaphor, that as we hide our bodies with clothing, we hide our souls from each other—for fear of the pain of judgment and rejection.

Ultimately, I want a world where nudity is more accepted. Such a world feels gentler to me somehow, like we're less put upon to pretend we're something we're not, where we don't have to hide who we really are, and where we can see each other more plainly, more honestly. I want art to be able to freely incorporate nudity without it having to be eroticized, sensualized, or sexualized. (In today's culture, what's the point of including nudity if you aren't doing those things? It's pure ratings downside.) I want a world where people know their own bodies, what they look like, and can feel confident in them. I want a world where people don't have to hide genitals and sex behind slang. And yes, I want a world where sex workers are able to operate in confidence that they won't be shut down or feel powerless before a moralizing mob that condemns them in daylight and consumes their work in moonlight.

May we all show each other some kindness. Thank you for reading.

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Comments

  1. Complex topics. Certainly in the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve covered their nudity after disobeying God, it showed they were covering their sinful nature. I do feel in a lot of climates, I wear clothes for comfort - warmth or protection from sun. Supporting my breasts some is more comfortable than their hanging. I do agree that it would be nice if our bodies were accepted as natural without eroticism.
    I would like to read a definition of pornography = is the portrayal of sexual subject matter for the exclusive purpose of sexual arousal. Nakedness in sculpture, paintings & photos for art sake is OK to me. Purposely arousing people or showing actual sexual activity is not OK to me. It feels dehumanizing.
    Prostitution feels wrong to me, but who does it hurt? I would mainly make illegal that which is hurting someone. As long as there is sin in the word, there will be a demand for prostitution.

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  2. Also curious how things are in places where prostitution is legal like Las Vegas

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  3. I guess that was God's original plan as the first people were not clothed until they sinned

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