Reorienting the discussion about sex work
We are Duke faculty members who engage in research and teaching related to sex, sexuality and sex work. The recent revelations regarding a Duke student’s decision to work in pornography have unleashed distressing attacks on her person, and we want to join with other members of the Duke community who have supported her against this onslaught of hate. These attacks include vicious name-calling, threats of sexual violence and outing her to family and friends. Many attackers hide under the cloak of anonymity, amplified by social media. While she is the current target, the toxic and derogatory words used to describe her are sadly familiar and part of a long history of shaming women involved in sex work. Our obligation as Duke faculty is to help shift the focus from moral judgment to an examination of the larger social issues at stake.
To that end, we want to highlight four persistent problems in current discussions. First, the moral agenda that accompanies the denunciation of sex work is built on a double standard that criminalizes the women who do sex work while ignoring the activities of the (largely) male consumer of pornography. A broader consideration of consumption is necessary to understand the gendered dimensions of the sex industry, not to similarly criminalize the consumer but to dislodge the ideologies about male and female sexuality on which the double standard is based.
Second, the assumption that women who use the language of pleasure and pride to describe their sex work are naïve is a patronizing denial of the authority usually granted to personal experience. It is doubly patronizing to assume that college students are too young to make their own decisions or to understand the complexity of sex as commerce.
Third, the blanket condemnation of sex work obscures the importance of considering the complex power dynamics engaged in all forms of sexual activity. A university intent on educating the whole person will engage the study of sex in ways that address the diversity of its social, economic and affective forms.
Fourth, the use of feminism to chastise sex workers betrays feminism’s own complex history of debate about women’s participation in the sex industry and falsely presents liberal pro-sex positions as the only available antidote to anti-pornography arguments. A fuller engagement with feminist scholarship would yield more nuanced perspectives on sex, work and agency.
It is our hope that members of the Duke community will join us in reaffirming the centrality of the university’s academic mission. As we see it, sex in any of its forms would not so easily lend itself to scandal if our critical ability to discuss it were not so deeply impoverished.
Diane Nelson, professor of cultural anthropology
Gunther Peck, associate professor of history and public policy
Pete Sigal, professor of history
Antonio Viego, associate professor of literature and Spanish and Latin American studies
Robyn Wiegman, professor of literature and women’s studies