- Category: Fighting Oppression
- Published on Monday, 5 August 2013
- Written by Mistress Magpie
I am a longstanding member of the BDSM community, and I work for myself as a professional dominatrix, occasional web designer and social media consultant. I am also a lifelong socialist, and have been involved off and on with groups in the International Socialist Tendency since I was about 16 years old. Recently it occurred to me that I might have something useful to contribute towards socialist thinking about sexuality, feminism and how socialists should relate to moral issues. What follows is not an analytical document; I'm not practised in the rigorous analysis required for scholarly writing. It's meant as a beginning of a conversation about how sex workers and socialists can connect productively, and describes my initial, tentative thoughts.
I have been thinking for months about writing this; having followed the story of the rape accusations in the SWP and the shameful behaviour of the Central Committee, I was inspired by the formation of the International Socialist Network, and have decided to join. I want to rekindle my links with the amazing campaigns against war, poverty and Islamophobia that were at the centre of my past, activist life. I am also intrigued by the free-flowing, organic debate that took place on Facebook and elsewhere online during the crisis, and would like to see if I can contribute to this as the new organisation moves forward.
But as a public-facing figure in the BDSM community and as a sex worker, I must be open and honest about my identity and my values when I do my activism. I am glad that the Network is a place where I can be a sex worker who also wants to fight against the bedroom tax, or deportation of asylum seekers, and I will not be hounded out, or marginalised, or shamed. Socialism and feminism have a hell of a lot to offer me as a sex worker. I'm a white, educated, cisgendered female in my thirties. I've worked in offices, kitchens and shops, and have encountered my share of sexism in the workplace. In my experience, none of these jobs can compare remotely to the barrage of sexist garbage I encounter daily when I do my job.
On one hand, the nuts and bolts of my job offer me countless opportunities to feel objectified and degraded by crass, sexist people. Many of the people who call me are not serious BDSM or fetish enthusiasts; they're people who find me in an adult directory and see me as a fantasy-doll, a living version of the characters they see in porn, not an experienced and safe professional. Like any freelancer, I deal with countless time wasters and no-shows, but it's lots worse for sex workers and I am sometimes scrambling to pay my bills.
On the other hand, I get slammed by the moralism of the state and society giving me unequal rights and limited access to services. Although professional domination is not, in itself, strictly illegal, I get a whole set of special problems with the state. First among these is the risk to my safety. Sex workers often have delightful and kind clients, but there is always a risk of encountering a dangerous or unstable client. There is no regulator, union or guild to provide a means for screening, and clients, in their turn, have no universal or reliable way to evaluate the safety and quality of the service sex workers provide. Police are often indifferent to the safety of sex workers and clients, and the essential health services, both NHS and charitable, that provide disease screening are ravaged by cuts.
Then there are the vicissitudes of running my business as a sex worker. I'm registered for tax, but I need to be careful what I claim as a deduction because sex workers get audited way more often. I might want to get a mortgage or rent premises to set up my work-room, but no bank is going to touch me. It's harder for me to get access to credit, and when I try to advertise my business, I can only do it using a ghettoised set of websites and publications (to be further marginalised when David Cameron's Great Internet Porn-Wall goes up) that are ill-regulated and try to gouge sex workers and prey on their vulnerability. I am a type of actress, an entertainer; I work unsociable hours and if I am injured, there is no insurance for me, and if I try to sign on, I have every chance of encountering a Job Centre, already decimated by cuts, that is even more unsympathetic than normal.
This marginalisation makes sex work a reactionary world. There is little class consciousness – sex workers are fragmented and compete ferociously with each other, although there are many highly effective, community-minded sex workers that warn each other about dangerous clients and share information for screening, making all of us safer. Sadly, very few charitable organisations and government agencies are there to support true, class-conscious solidarity work among sex workers.
Even if I weren't a sex worker, I would still be catching shit for being a member of a sexual minority. State and social moralism mean I face further barriers for being a BDSM practitioner who is polyamorous – doctors, police, teachers or nosy neighbours may wonder if I am an abuser, or abused, or a member of a cult, or a criminal, or subject to the symptoms of a mental disorder. There are no laws against discrimination based on sexual minority status, and discrimination can be severe in practice, ranging from open public mockery right up to the loss of jobs and custody of one's children.
And I am one of the lucky ones. I am privileged by class and status, and have experience and internet literacy that allows me to largely bypass these advertising sharks, at least when it comes to doing my own photography, text, websites and profiles. I am a dominatrix, which means I offer BDSM only, not sex, so my disease risk is much lower than that of an escort, although I am still at risk from dangerous or unstable clients. I speak English and I am not an undocumented migrant worker or a trafficked person, and I work for myself. I truly love my job, in which I can bring my passion for BDSM to people; it is mostly a joyful and uplifting experience for my clients and for me. My job is as secure as I can make it, through my patient hard work, and I have no boss or pimp. I have no children and am thus spared the terrifying and common possibility that my children may be taken away by a moralistic social services department, or grassed on by a vengeful ex or a nosy neighbour.
The biggest reason I feel lucky is that I was raised a socialist. The socialist analysis of capitalism, and socialist arguments for the liberation of women, give me a context for the sexism and moralism that stand in the way of me earning a living. They also give me a blueprint for practising my politics in the context of my profession and my membership of a sexual minority.
As a student, I learned about revolutionary socialism and studied the history of Marxist ideas, and the various attempts to bring about revolution, intently. I believed we were all fighting for a communist society, a society whose intimate family relations would bear no resemblance to the oppressive, patriarchal clan or the nuclear family designed for the factory's convenience. Enforced gender roles, enforced monogamy and male supremacy would be gone. Perhaps I have read, and thought, incorrectly about communism for my whole life, but my understanding of communism has always included equality for all of us, and boundless creative opportunity for each of us in a post-scarcity world. I always imagined there would be room for alternative lifestyles in a communist society, and for many years, I developed these two interests in parallel.
So imagine my sense of anger and betrayal when I watched the tragic disintegration of the Scottish Socialist Party based on a News of the Screws attack piece asserting that SSP leader Tommy Sheridan frequented sex clubs. The libel of the scab press was disgusting, but understandable given that they are a well-known enemy of the working class. The reaction of many within the party, using so-called "feminist" arguments to unleash a moral attack against Tommy from within, broke my heart. Moreover, I was glad when the SWP stood by him, but always understood that Tommy, whatever he had or hadn't done, had certainly gone along with moralism by acting as if going to a sex club was something to be ashamed of.
In the heated debates of the time, I never raised this point. Like Tommy, I had internalised the shame around sex that permeates much of socialist politics. Much high theory was talked about sexual liberation but, in practice, socialists would take on the moralist proprieties of the least progressive voices within society. As has been extensively discussed, the recent crisis in the SWP was only the tip of the iceberg. In trade unions, in activist coalitions and in socialist parties themselves, young women have been condemned as licentious when senior male figures coerced or even raped them. Punishments for these rapes were small or nonexistent, and survivors of rape and coercion were often marginalised and expelled. As my interest and involvement in kink grew, I decided to leave politics. I'd like to say it was a brave boycott, but it was a decision born of shame; I did not want to bring my friends and comrades into disrepute or distract attention from the essential causes of the day.
My self-expulsion had some reason behind it; the wholesale acceptance of capitalist moralism has made leftist groups and political leaderships particularly vulnerable to sex-based smears and scandals. After each sex-related scandal, leftist groups have an opportunity to think through their approaches to sexual mores; sadly the response is usually to rehearse tired pronouncements on the rights of women, and to beef up those aspects of moralism that pertain to the perceived safety of women at meetings and functions, rather than to undertake the thorough conceptual housecleaning that is required. This moralism polices desire – particularly the desire of women – and stifles discussion of sexual diversity, creating an ominous silence about sex.
Moralism excludes more than kinky people; if we have a culture of avoiding talking about sex in our groups and parties, our silence means that mainstream values are assumed in that sphere. And mainstream values, of course, are expertly reinforced by the capitalist world around us. No matter how many pamphlets about Rosa Luxemburg we sell, that silence means that we’re bringing in discrimination from the outside world into any area of party life, or discourse, that touches on sex. So, at least in matters that touch on sex, those groups that benefit from privilege in the capitalist world – men, heterosexuals, cisgendered, monogamous, vanilla – get at least the same level of privilege in our socialist parties that they get in the world outside the left, and non-privileged groups are similarly disadvantaged. In practice, this means that we lose, or never recruit, activists from these non-privileged groups over time.
This loss is a shame and it deprives our ranks of potentially talented people. It makes some form of sense when a Tory or Labour politician is disgraced after an affair or a fetish is disclosed; although the ruling classes routinely excuse themselves from moral strictures, both of these parties like to promote themselves publicly, on occasion, as the defenders of 'traditional British values'. We socialists should not so judge our own, and when a newspaper announces that one of us has been to a sex club, we should laugh, and shrug, and carry on campaigning.
Socialists also need to spend some time thinking about moralism around sex. The language and symbolism involved in lots of kink, fetish, and swinging activities can be staggeringly politically incorrect. Certainly, many of the themes and tropes evident in sexual fantasies can echo degradation or force, or reinforce gender stereotypes (sometimes, even as it inverts them). Yes, the roots of our desires may sometimes be planted in the soil of oppression and injustice. But so are the roots of marriage, property ownership, the use of an automobile, and the wearing of shoes made in a sweatshop, all of which are common amongst socialists. Aside from organised boycotts, socialists should put their energy not into the conversion of individual lifestyles, but into systemic change. We march alongside everyone from devout Muslims to anarchists at a demonstration, and we respect everyone's right to a private family life, so long as everyone's rights are respected.
Progressive people who take up kink and fetish sometimes feel horror and self loathing at the things that turn them on. If you are one of these people, I can offer you the wisdom that came from my years of a twisted, worried stomach, and hopefully spare yours: Your sexual desires need not reflect your politics, certainly not in a crude or unmediated way. You can be the most effective, learned, dedicated socialist and campaigner in the world, and get turned on by the idea of dominating someone, getting dominated, watching giant women step on helium balloons, etc. You can even have a violent rape fantasy, or be into getting humiliated and being called names that, outside a context of conscious, negotiated and ongoing consent, would be completely unacceptable. None of these things, in themselves, should give you philosophical pause in your self-examination any more than would a devotion to a particular style of music or a sincere love of gangster movies.
As socialists, we defend in one breath the right of a woman to wear a head scarf, and in the next breath we fight for a teenage girl's right to the HPV vaccine. We should also defend sexual diversity, and educate ourselves in its politics. So educated, we have the opportunity to support each other and to foster a culture where people feel free to pursue their desires, keeping progressive ethics and values in mind.
When we engage in moralism, we engage in value judgments about each other using a system of values designed by our oppressors. These values create a silence around sex in our families and communities. That silence is the friend of the market, which offers many options to an isolated person. Some of these options are ethical and involve freely consenting people; others are not. When we abandon moralism, when we put silence aside and have the capacity to talk openly about sexual desire, we simultaneously create a safe space for socialists to discuss desire and an organic, continuous opportunity for us to talk about how to explore our desires in ethical and progressive ways. If socialist groups abandon moralism, those of our members who wish to will more likely choose ethical ways to explore their desires and kinks, such as safety-conscious sex clubs; the public fetish, kink and swinging scenes; or an independent and safe sex worker, rather than resorting to a risky affair, a carelessly chosen, trafficked sex worker or an exploitative strip club or massage parlour.
It is important to have a nuanced approach, too, to sex workers in our political engagements with them. I am an independent sex worker who loves my job but I am all too aware of the many thousands of women, children and men who work unwillingly as sex workers, through force and poverty. Fighting for the decriminalisation of sex work and advocating an end to moral judgment of it would be a good first step in bringing socialist ideas to sex workers and ending trafficking. While it is unlikely that a mainstream union would presently accept sex workers, reaching out to existing safety-orientated groups and the authors of websites that collate safety information for sex workers might be useful initial steps for sex workers interested in organising such a union.
I am glad to join the Network, filled with optimism that we can finally have an organisation where there is a space for me as an out member of a sexual minority and as a sex worker - a space where my experience is not only accepted and valued, but can help to create a dialogue. I look forward to that dialogue, and to helping to develop a socialist understanding of sexual diversity.