This post is an extension of comments I gave at GeekGirlCon’15 on a panel focused on the feminist potential of Mad Max, Fury Road. I was honored to share the panel with Kristine Hassell, Elsa S. HenrySarah Mirk, Anita Sarkeesian, and Jennifer K. Stuller, who in turn spoke passionately about the film’s representations of WOC, women of size, disability, the hope of ecofeminism, violence as a mistaken feminist strategy, and women as heroes. These perspectives have helped layer my own understandings of Fury Road, as well as to appreciate the diversity of feminist experiences and interpretations of the film. Below is an elaboration of my comments on the panel, focusing on my argument that Fury Road is ultimately an updated White Christian man’s fantasy of being a “good” man in the context of White feminist politics.



IMG_3755 (1)
Max convinces Furiosa that she is on the wrong path; she and her tribe of women should go right back to where they began.

After the May 2015 release of Mad Max, Fury Road (a dystopian sci-fi/action film starring Tom Hardy and Charleze Theron, in that order), the U.S./Anglophone blogosphere erupted around the film’s uses and/or misuses of feminism. Men’s rights activist Aaron Clarey called for a boycott of Fury Road because he saw it as a “feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick”; in the subsequent fury many feminist writers heralded Fury Road as worthy of feminist support, while others offered mixed and even negative reviews.

Much of the positive excitement centered on the Theron’s co-starring role as Imperator Furiosa, who in the words of Natalie Wilson is “a gender-queer, disabled, bad-ass feminist hero who proves that heroism has no one gender, no one body type, no one sexuality.” Yet many others voiced disappointment about the use of “scantily clad models” to portray the former wives/sex slaves (rescued by Furiosa from the evil dictator, Immortan Joe). And in one particularly scathing review, Eileen Jones also mocked the film’s “essentializing Earth Mother nonsense about women,” as well as Eve Ensler’s praise that “(a)ll the women in the film maintain their inherent woman-ness.” (Ensler – of “Vagina Monologues” feminist celebrity status – was a consultant for Fury. More on Ensler’s politics later).

I share some, but certainly not all, of these feminist praises and critiques. Theron’s role as Furiosa – a tall, bald woman warrior with sculpted shoulders and a prosthetic arm – offers viewers a beautiful view of gendered and human variability. I am delighted to see the portrayal of Furiosa’s former Matriarchal tribe, the Vuvalini. A mainstream Hollywood film respectfully depicting a lesbian-feminist-separatist’s fantasy of a vulva-centric tribe lead by wise women elders?! In addition I appreciate Furiosa’s relationship with Max, which builds slowly from animosity to peer-based respect and is free of romantic innuendo, despite Max’s puppy dog eyes and full lips. Max also does not demonstrate any sexual interest toward anyone in the film, including the stunning “sex slaves.”

But from my queer, intersectional, post-colonial perspective, I also have several additional reads of the film. For example, the criticism around “scantily clad models” is for me a (White feminist) red herring for a much deeper problem in the film: the deployment of the sex slave trope. And during my first viewing of the film I nearly shut it off after the first 30 minutes, as it was all about men screaming, abusing, chasing, and killing and each other. (Not my idea of a good time). I also find the film’s ending to be problematic. When Furiosa and her victorious women warriors return to the Citadel with the body of the evil dictator, Immortan Joe, a crowd of grateful minions shout to the White men and boys above, “Let them up, let them up!” The women heroes are then literally pulled up into power by White men.  In contrast, my fantasy ending of the film would involve the large bodied women in the Citadel (some of whom appear to be women of color, and all of whom were formerly used for their “mother’s milk”) taking over the controls to lift up the other women.

Yet ultimately it is Fury’s White and Christian order – swept in under the conservative (AKA “liberal”) agenda of White feminism – that turns my simultaneous admiration of and impatience with the film into political critique.


For anyone who has seen Fury Road, I am stating the obvious that the film is very, very White.  All of the dozens (hundreds?) of boys and men in the film appear to be White. And as if the film is not White enough, the bodies of many of the boys and men are actually also painted white. There are fewer women than men in the film, but at least three women with names and spoken lines can be visibly recognized as (light skinned) women of color. 

And yet, much of the mainstream (White) feminist discussion of Fury Road has underplayed the film’s racial politics. As Nashwa Khan writes:

Witnessing white feminists find ways to make themselves feel better about this lack of diversity in a movie they really want to love points to a larger problem. A big part of feminism is race, but these self-imposed blinders suggest that as long as a movie appeases white feminists, they will not question in solidarity why we women of color are absent.

Khan’s critique highlights the problem of feminist discourse that omits anti-racist critique and fantasizes the struggle as being between cis women and men (holding race constant). In other words, this type of feminism (AKA White Feminism) prioritizes the concerns of White (economically secure, heterosexual, cisgender, mainstream, Global North) women.


As with many Hollywood films, the plot of Fury Road incorporates several familiar Judeo-Christian symbols and cultural narratives. In this case the film features themes of redemption and witnessing, as well as crucifix/savior metaphors.

Redemption: Along their journey in Fury Road, Max and Furiosa both state that they are looking for “redemption.” For Max, it is possible that the redemption he seeks is due to guilt about not saving his young daughter who has apparently died (but who haunts him throughout the film). Clues about Furiosa’s need for redemption are more opaque. (Did she engage in unholy sexual or violent practices after being stolen as a child?). But from a Christian perspective explanations are unnecessary: all are considered to be born of sin and hence in need of redemption.

Witnessing: When Christians speak of “witnessing,” they do not mean that they just watched something happen. To “witness” means that one spreads the word to as many people as possible about how one was personally saved by Jesus’ sacrifice.

But in order to demonstrate the importance of good/God witnessing, the film first illustrates examples of bad witnessing. Namely, the practice of War Boys maniacally yelling “Witness me!” before sacrificing themselves for the evil cause of Immortan Joe (who reassures them that this will allow them to the afterlife of Vahalla and live again.) Christian writer Brett McCracken interprets the War Boy sacrifices as a reference to radical Islam’s suicide bombers, and I concur. (I also see reflections of the death of Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi in the mob celebration and maltreatment of Immortan Joe’s body after his death).

MM they helped us
Furiosa reassuring the Vulvalini leaders that the Max and Nux are “reliable.”

This theme of witnessing, in the Christian sense of the word, begins to be practiced after Furiosa introduces Max and Nux (the former War Boy who has now switched teams) to her Matriarchal tribe, the Vuvalini. The matriarchs ask: “The men – who are they?” Furiosa reassures them that: “They’re reliable. They helped us get here.”

But the importance of witnessing good/God men is most obvious in the climax of the film when Nux sacrifices himself to kill Rictus Erectus (AKA Big Dick) — the only viable surviving son of Immortan Joe. In an emotionally powerful scene, the camera focuses on longing looks between Nux and his love interest, Capable (one of the former sex slaves, riding in the war rig ahead). Nux points to Capable, whispers “witness me” and then deliberately crashes his rig, killing both himself and Rictus Erectus.

In contrast to the crazed “witness me!” yelling by the War Boys, Nux’s words are not an order. But they are also not an ask. Capable (i.e. a woman capable of loving a flawed man in seek of redemption) is required to witness his sacrifice and hence his redemption as a good man.

Witness me(n)
“Witness me”: Nux’s last words to Capable before sacrificing himself so that others may be saved.


While most of the film’s critical attention has been placed on Furiosa and Max, for me it is clear that Nux and Capable are the soul of Fury Road. The film gestures toward the possibility of Max being a savior (at one point his hand and head are pierced with a long sharp object). But in the words of Capable, it is Nux who has the “manifest destiny.”  As she later witnesses to her tribe of women: “he’ll be bringing us home, bring back what was stolen, as he’s meant to.”

Film critic Scott Beggs Nux is one of the few (apparently) secular reviewers who noted Fury Road‘s religious themes, calling Nux “a genuine Christ figure” because “he seeks death, wrestles with his doubts, recognizes that his god has forsaken him, and then sacrifices himself so that all of humanity can have another chance at redemption.” But what he and the other religiously-informed reviewers tend to miss are the how the Christian themes intersect with contemporary sexual politics.

For me, the moral of Fury Road is this: Women (specifically, White Feminists) must give credit to good White men who renounce their former evil ways. If they do so, together they may return stolen women/sex slaves, defeat the monster men, and lift womankind up into safety and security.


As I have written elsewhere, Hollywood stories about “sex slaves” have weight beyond just the box office — they actually end up reinforcing ideologies that can justify policies which focus on marginalized women, including sex workers, as being in need of rescue by organizations run by White feminists and Good White men.

It is thus not surprising that Eve Ensler, of Vagina Monologues fame, has used the film as a platform to dispense hype about “sex trafficking” as well as heap praise on director George Miller. In an interview with Time Magazine, Ensler describes Miller as a feminist, and explains that her consulting work for the film involved discussion about “sex trafficking in America, which is rampant.” (For a critical academic perspective on Ensler’s claim, see Ann Jordan’s “Fact or Fiction: What do we really know about human trafficking?”).

Given Ensler’s stature as a feminist spokesperson, is also important to note that she (as well as Charleze Theron, and several other Hollywood celebrities) signed a petition that opposed Amnesty International’s historic and important move to work for decriminalization of sex work.

Finally, imagine if this story was centered on White supremacy rather than patriarchy, with POC cast as slaves who are required to witness White people’s sacrifices and redemption, and then rely on more White people to lift them into power. Unfortunately, such a storyline is not difficult to imagine. As Brittney Cooper observed in the controversy over the 2015 film Selma (dir., Ava DuVernay), when Hollywood stories shift the gaze away from White heroes, racist backlash happens.

A (Fury) road for White men’s redemption

After now “witnessing” Fury Road several times, I have come to appreciate much about the film. (In addition to my earlier praise,  I am drawn to Fury Road‘s powerful visual and musical aesthetic). At the same time, the unsettling political undercurrents for me are bright as day. In the opening scene of Fury Road Max explains that he was once a cop, a road warrior in search of a righteous cause; similarly, the current End Demand (anti-prostitution) movement offers policemen and others a morally righteous mechanism to distinguish Good from Bad men. While both Fury Road and the End Demand movement provide the public with gripping tales of sex slavery focused on Good vs. Evil men, neither narrative addresses the sexist, racist, and hyper capitalist ideologies and policies that contribute to war, violence against women, exploitation of labor and natural resources, extreme inequality, and mass incarceration. Nor are such morality tales typically very useful for broad based movements for economic, racial, and sexual justice. On the other hand, both Fury Road and End Demand give Good White men the hope for blessings from Capable White feminists, which in turn further secures their position at the top of a remodeled White supremacist patriarchy.











Does it matter when popular stories about “sex trafficking” are based on half-truths, junk science, and/or religious beliefs? Given that many people are interested in the issue of human trafficking in general and human trafficking in the sex industry in particular, it is critical that we face the consequences of stories told in the name of rescuing girls and women.

Since the passing of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), stories of human trafficking have been well integrated into the American cultural imagination. While there are now many more reliable scholarly resources on human trafficking today then there were at the turn of the 21st century, many individuals still derive most of their knowledge about human trafficking from sensationalistic media stories about so-called “sex trafficking.” [i]

In the United States, mediated stories of human trafficking of sex workers vary around specific contextual details of who, when, and where, but they consistently portray the same messages about why and how. Hollywood action-adventure characterizations of victims and villains are deployed; complex structural problems are squeezed into personal morality tales; and the stories are then used by anti-sex work politicians and activists to justify heightened forms of criminal punishment. While the stories may have popular appeal, evidence suggests that more criminalization actually hurts all sex workers across the continuum of privilege and oppression.

The argument I will make here is organized around the following interrelated points:

  1. We must critically interrogate dominant stories told about people in the sex industry. (There are numerous examples, but I will focus here on the content and impact of recent feature length film in particular, The Abduction of Eden);
  2. Such stories justify the criminal punishment system via rescue/capture methods as an avenue for social justice (this includes laws being proposed right now in Washington State);
  3. Because the criminal punishment system has a long history of destroying the lives of poor people and people of color — including those of sex workers — academics and activists concerned about people in the sex trade need to rethink this entire set of dominant stories and strategies.

1. Demonizing tales
While there are a plethora of sensationalized media stories about coercion, abuse, and trafficking in the sex industry one recent story – Abduction of Eden (AKA Eden, released 2012) – provides a powerful blend of Hollywood and Biblical tropes. This in combination with the promise that Eden is a “true” story makes it a productive one for understanding the relationship between American cultural storytelling and political policies about sex work and human trafficking.

Eden is a feature length film directed by Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths derived from the allegedly true story of Chong Kim. The protagonist (actress Jamie Chung) – a naïve 17 year old girl with hard working, Korean immigrant, Christian parents – is kidnapped and brought to a warehouse/jail with dozens of thin, young, feminine, cisgender, and (mostly white) girls who are forced to stand obediently in line wearing identical white underwear-tanktop sets. The protagonist’s (now renamed “Eden”) first assignment is on a BDSM porn set; she sobs as her hands are handcuffed and pulled upward. At her next job Eden attempts a dramatic escape; bloody and screaming she runs into a suburban backyard with white women drinking white wine (they don’t call the police and Eden is recaptured). We learn that Eden’s best friend in the prison/brothel was stolen at age 13, and when her friend gets pregnant and gives birth, her baby is also stolen and sold. A message portrayed in Eden is that when girls disobey or simply grow too old for the work (20+ years of age) they are executed. The film also implies that this sex trafficking operation is part of an international network directed from outside the US. Although the external controller is never named, there are Russian men working for the operation and Dubai is frequently mentioned. This includes a scene where the drug-addicted supervisor (Vaughn/Matt O’Leary) threatens Svletlana (Naama Kates), a blonde Russian woman with being sent back to Dubai, where she “can get dicked by donkeys all day.”

If these themes are not enough to convince the average American viewer that the world of sex work is pure evil (relying on enslaved cisgender girls enacting forced BDSM porn and probably dictated by an international network of men from Russia and the Middle East who have sex with donkeys), the film hits home the message with multiple Biblical references and metaphors.

This includes the obvious metaphor about the Garden of Eden. It also includes a scene where God appears in the body of a tall white deputy named Ron Greer (Tony Doupe). When Greer questions the corrupt, murderous federal marshal Bob Gault (Beau Bridges) about his possible role in a double homicide, Gault/Bridges looks upward with fear in his eyes and says: “Lord. How are your leads coming?” When Greer informs him that his cell phone activity was picked up near the scene of the crime, Gault replies: “I’ll be damned.” Greer responds: “Well I surely hope not.

Beau Bridges in a screen shot from Abduction of Eden. Bridges is a devout Christian who reportedly refuses to accept roles that take the Lord’s name in vain, when he says “Lord” and “I’ll be damned” – I think we should assume that he means it literally http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beau_Bridges
Beau Bridges in a screen shot from Abduction of Eden. Bridges is reportedly a devout Christian who refuses to accept roles that take the Lord’s name in vain. So when he says “Lord” and “I’ll be damned” I think we should assume he means it literally.

What Eden viewers may not be aware of is that there are many counter-narratives to the “truth” claims of such messages. For example:

  • While there are certainly degrees of coercion or lack of choice found in all jobs especially unregulated or informal economy labor including the sex industry, the portrayal of a warehouse of dozens of kidnapped teenage girls being forced to be prostitutes is simply not consistent with reliable data about the experiences of contemporary sex workers, especially as practiced in the U.S.
  • Individuals representing a spectrum of genders, sexes, races, ages, social classes, sexual orientations, and body types work as sex workers.
  • BDSM is a consensual sexual lifestyle choice for many people as is participation in pornography – but both of these activities have long been demonized by conservative feminists and religious groups. The stigma and fear of BDSM and porn can thus be used as an easy tool to invoke shock and horror from people who are morally opposed to both.
  • Despite narratives about international “sex trafficking rings,” critical criminologists describe trafficking in the sex industry as better described as “crime that is organized” (rather than “organized crime”).[ii]
  • Eden was produced and consumed within a broader U.S. cultural context where fictitious claims about “sex trafficking” are common, ranging from grossly inflated and unreliable global estimates, to debunked claims that the Superbowl creates an uptick in sexual slavery, and statistically untenable assertions that the “average age” of women entering prostitution is 13-14.[iii]
  • As it turned out, none of the content of Eden was based in truth. In June of 2014 multiple investigators into Chong Kim’s story found that she lied about the everything.[iv] Kim was investigated and charged for fraud by a variety of anti-trafficking organizations.[v] But Eden still had several years of celebrity adoration before this news broke.

Initial mainstream responses to Eden
Even before its official release, mainstream (non-sex worker and non-allied) audiences and critics went wild over the story of Eden. While many found the performances impressive and the action-adventure storyline gripping, what sealed Eden’s critical success was that people believed that this story was true. Feminist and women’s groups, churches, and film festivals sponsored screenings; awards were given, local anti-sex work/trafficking politicians were featured, people became enraged en masse and were motivated to join the crusade. The text of Eden folded seamlessly into the curriculum of U.S.-based anti-sex trafficking efforts with its images of taped mouths, chained wrists risen toward the heavens, “in our own backyard” and “stolen innocence” messages, and the idea that the average age of sex trafficked girls in the U.S. is age 13. The true story of Eden appeared to be an American anti-sex trafficking activist’s dream come true.

Even mainstream/secular journalists converted to Eden’s cause, infusing their reviews with Judeo-Christian language and imagery. David Schmader of the progressive Seattle based periodical The Stranger called Eden “a miracle.”[vi] James Rocchi of MSN Entertainment described Eden as “a rewarding, righteous example of how fiction can tell the truth.”

In June 2014, the “true story” sex trafficking film, Eden, was exposed as having no basis in truth. In September 2014 the official website for Eden was still claiming that the film is based on a true story. By at least early February 2015 the website had completely vanished. Director Megan Griffiths, Producer Colin Plank and others affiliated with the film have given no public explanation or apology for the fraudulent story, their strange silence about the controversy, or the disappearance of their website.

Anti-sex work apologists may try to explain away the embarrassment around Eden (as well as other high profile “sex trafficking” stories)[vii] as just an anomaly, or as a few people stretching the truth for a good cause. But Eden is just the visible cultural iceberg of a story that has already become embedded into U.S. policing practices.

2. Context of U.S. policing & criminalizing policies
Part of the reason for the success of Eden is that it was preaching to an American choir that already had the why and the how part of the story in place. It also complemented dominant approaches to end trafficking in the sex industry that feature coercive “law and order” methods where participants are either forced to be rescued/reprogrammed or captured/incarcerated. The rescue side is led predominantly by well-meaning (and mostly white) middle-class women and men (Christians, social workers, feminists) attempting to “save” cisgender girls and women from sex work. The capture side is directed by (predominantly white) men in policing agencies (police, FBI, Homeland Security) who capture girls and women for rescue and men for punishment.

The dynamics between the rescuers/rescued and capturers/captured can also underscore racist power relations. To borrow from Gayatri Spivak’s famous phrase, “white men are saving brown women from brown men”[viii]: Anti-sex trafficking crusaders are often white men and women saving (all cisgender) women from (black and brown) men.

However, we are now in a cultural moment – thanks in part to the Black Lives Matter movement – where many white middle class people are collectively and finally having an epiphany around the reality of police brutality, mass incarceration, and criminalization of everyday life for poor communities and communities of color.[ix] But what many people have not yet made the connection on is how these same principles need to be applied when evaluating the war on trafficking.[x] This war combines many of the same strategies from the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” (targeting “urban gangs,” people of color and immigrants) to create even more invasive policing and surveillance mechanisms of marginalized people’s everyday lives.

This brings me to the current legislative climate in Washington State: the location where Eden was produced. Washington is currently facing several new state legislature bills intending to create more criminal penalties for clients of sex workers[xi]. The bills are largely generated and coordinated from the desk of Washington State senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who is a long time supporter of state level anti-trafficking legislation.

An earlier anti-trafficking bill (also sponsored by Kohl-Welles) resulted in harsh felony punishment for domestic “traffickers” in Washington State. The first individual sentenced under this new law in 2009 was a 19-year-old African American man working as a pimp/manager/boyfriend to a group of young African American women in West Seattle.[xii] He sits now with many other young men of color in prison, many of whom were first incarcerated under the failed and racially discriminatory “war on drugs,” and now also increasingly incarcerated in the name of the war on “sex trafficking.”

With Federal and State punishments now locked in for “traffickers” in Washington State, the new set of proposed state laws are now set on the clients as part of the “end the demand” approach (AKA the “Nordic Model”). The idea is that if men are given harsh enough criminal and social punishments for buying sex, then they will stop trying to buy it. This is a popular idea with contemporary anti-sex work activists despite the fact that:

  • there is no reliable empirical evidence to support that this approach is helpful for reducing harms to sex workers,[xiii]
  • leading global health experts oppose any form of criminalization in the sex industry due to the health harms it poses for sex workers,[xiv]
  • sex worker activists and advocates have consistently documented the harms of criminalization and policing on the well-being and human rights of people in the sex industry,[xv]
  • these policies criminalize sexual interactions between consenting adults, and:
  • more criminalization ≠ social justice.

Is there a connection between sensationalist “sex trafficking” stories such as Eden and policies that hyper-criminalize the sex industry? I think there is. Not only do these stories serve as a popular master narrative around the sex industry; in this case the critical acclaim for Eden (and its director, Megan Griffiths) is also intertwined with the success of Kohl-Welles’s push for increasingly harsh anti-sex trafficking legislation in Washington State. At a May 2013 screening of Eden, Kohl-Welles was featured as an expert on sex trafficking; Kohl-Welles subsequently supported the Motion Picture Competitiveness Bill in Washington State, which directly benefits filmmakers like Griffiths. In October 2014 Griffiths spoke in support to Kohl-Welles’ re-election.

3. Work with sex workers, not against them
Many progressive individuals and communities aspire to support the war against trafficking, and want to trust that laws that criminalize men actors will help girls and women who are coerced, abused, or trafficked in the sex industry. However, evidence from global health and human rights researchers consistently show that more criminalization hurts all sex workers across the continuum of privilege and oppression.

Because of the harms of criminalization:

  • We must insist that the voices of a diverse range of sex workers be included in all panels and policy discussions that impact them.[xvi]
  • It is time for class- and race-privileged individuals to examine their own complicity in supporting sensationalistic stories and moralistic rescue/capture policing strategies.
  • People concerned about exploitation in the sex industry should join activists working for the labor and human rights of people working in the sex industry. This includes opposition to criminalization of consensual adult sexual exchanges.
  • Rather than seek to punish individuals who are already marginalized, and/or punish people for engaging in adult consensual sex, it is time to work with sex workers against systemic punishment, criminalization, and institutional exclusion of women, people of color, poor people, trans* individuals, undocumented people, and homeless youth – many of whom rely on the informal economy including sex work.

If you care about improving the lives of people in the sex trade it is time to advocate for a greater diversity of sex worker stories and perspectives on how to first discuss and then solve coercion and abuse in the sex industry. There may certainly still be space for religious beliefs and metaphors in this wider diversity of stories and plot lines. However, if one truly listens to the bottom line perspectives of sex workers around the world, it will become clear that we need to look beyond the criminal punishment system for solving social justice issues.


References and further readings:

This essay is an extension of an argument that I made in an earlier publication, which was featured as a dialogue/debate amongst experts on human trafficking: Lerum, K. 2014 (Winter). “Human Wrongs vs. Human Rights.” Contexts.

For the fourth New Year’s Eve in a row, Sexuality & Society brings you its (highly subjective and mostly North American/U.S.-centered) list of top ten sexual stories of the year! This year’s stories are full of shreds of hope and resolve for finding allies in the ongoing effort toward sexual justice and a large dose of old-fashioned us vs. them political fights. (Just a heads-up that we won’t be bringing you the story of Princess Kate and her topless photos, but we were amused/bemused at how much press that story received).
For a walk down sexual memory lane we encourage you to (re) check out our lists for 2009, 2010, and 2011 as well!
1. Susan B. Komen foundation defunds breast screenings at Planned Parenthood.
Although we are used to high profile conservatives attempting to put Planned Parenthood out of business, this story of pink-on-pink malignment caught most of us in Sexual and Reproductive Justice circles by surprise. The Komen Foundation’s decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood due to anti-abortion sentiment in Komen leadership resulted in enormous public outrage, lack of subsequent support for the Komen foundation, and eventually a reversal of the decision. It remains to be seen how well the Komen Foundation will be able to recover, especially given the critical documentary about Komen entitled Pink Ribbons — which was coincidentally released just after the Planned Parenthood defunding debacle. In contrast, public support for Planned Parenthood seemed to grow stronger than ever:
“The silver lining is that more people than ever are aware that Planned Parenthood provides breast exams, and we’re seeing more people calling us today to make an appointment,” Tait Sye, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood, told HuffPost. “Politics should not get in the way of women’s health, and people respond powerfully when they see politics interfering with women’s health.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/01/susan-g-komen_n_1247262.html
2. Anita Sarkeesian vs. the (online, sexist, and sexually abusive) trolls.

When Feminist Frequency blogger and media activist Anita Sarkeesian announced that she was going to start a new project to address stereotypes of women in video games, some male gamers responded with vicious online attacks:

Sarkeesian, who runs the video blog Feminist Frequency, became a target of abuse—including rape and death threats—last May after launching a Kickstarter fundraising drive for a project promising to explore sexist gender tropes in video games. 

“I love playing video games but I’m regularly disappointed in the limited and limiting ways women are represented,” Sarkeesian wrote. “This video project will explore, analyze and deconstruct some of the most common tropes and stereotypes of female characters in games.”

In response, Sarkeesian was hit with what she calls a “cyber mob” from angry male gamers. Hundreds of abusive tweets flooded her Twitter feed, threatening violence and sexual assault. Vandals attacked her Wikipedia page, plastering it with explicit sexual images, violent images, sexism and racism. Someone even created a video game where users were invited to “beat the bitch up” and punch a digital version of Sarkeesian’s face until it became battered, bloody and bruised. 

Sarkeesian fought back, chronicling the harassment on her blog and speaking to dozens of news outlets. She’d originally set a humble fundraising goal of $6,000. But after the torrent of abuse received widespread media attention, donors flooded her page. Sarkeesian finished the Kickstarter campaign with nearly $160,000, or about 25 times what she’d asked for.  (http://www.dailydot.com/culture/anita-sarkeesian-ted-talk-misogynist-comments/)

3. Chick fil-A hates Gays, er…”supports ‘Biblical’ families.”

Chick fil-A — an Atlanta based company known for their fried chicken sandwiches– went public with its official disdain for those who live outside of the institution of heterosexuality by donating money to organizations fighting gay marriage. As with the Komen public relations debacle, this story was met with protests and boycotts against Chick fil-A, including critical public statements made by Boston mayor Thomas Menino, Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel, and San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee, and a decision by the Jim Henson Company (AKA the Muppets!) to cease all business partnerships with Chick fil-A. (Meanwhile they may have gained some new customer loyalty from social conservatives).  

Chick fil-A did eventually announce that it would cease to fund anti-gay organizations, but its president has remained firm in his stance that he still doesn’t like the gays…

… Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy doubled down on his company’s anti-gay stance yet again, re-iterating the restaurant chain’s support of “Biblical” families.

“Families are very important to our country,” Cathy told NBC affiliate 11 Alive. “And they’re very important to those of us who are concerned about being able to hang on to our heritage. We support Biblical families, and they’ve always been a part of that.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/25/chick-fil-a-business-thriving_n_2016864.html)

Given the enormous diversity of family forms in the Bible, it’s surprising that Chick fil-A representatives have not yet
clarified which “Biblical” families they DO support …(don’t forget that traditional Biblical families are full of polygamy and inclusion of concubines). Regardless, it’s clear that Kermit, Miss Piggy, and their fans stopped going to Chick fil-A for their lunch break

 4. Florida A & M drum major hazed to death; push for an end to hazing on college campuses.

Hazing — and subcultures emphasizing violence and conformity to traditional gender roles on U.S. College campuses — hit the news in 2012 with the death of Robert Champion, an African-American out gay male drum major, and who had made his opposition to hazing openly to his peers. While Champion died in 2011, this story makes our top ten stories for 2012 due to its ongoing media attention and its major impact on institutional transformation at Florida A & M and beyond.

Rober Champion died as a result of hazing in Nov. 2011

Robert Champion died on Nov. 19, 2011, after a ritual called “crossing bus C,” in which band members are forced to walk through a line of band members who are each kicking or punching the person walking by. He began vomiting, complained of breathing difficulty, and later died. Initially, his band mates claimed that they had no idea, according to according to the Palm Beach Press. His parents later told reporters that witnesses had come forward and said that their son was hazed for being gay, or ironically, for being against hazing rituals himself. (http://www.advocate.com/crime/2012/05/03/13-charged-hazing-death-gay-florida-am-drum-major )

The tragic incident resulted in several arrests as well as a newfound commitment by Florida A&M administrators to end the practice of hazing in University sponsored programs. Meanwhile, just before posting this story here, on Dec. 30, 2012 a scathing report was released by the Florida Board of Governors inspector general’s office which “concludes that the school lacked internal controls to prevent or detect hazing, citing a lack of communication among top university officials, the police department and the office responsible for disciplining students.” (see http://www.ebony.com/black-listed/news-views/famu-ignored-hazing-rules-before-robert-champion-death-981)

5. Sandusky goes to prison for child sexual abuse; Penn State officials condemned

The Penn State football sexual abuse scandal made our top ten list for the second year in a row. While individual-blaming solutions have prevailed (sending Assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky to prison for life; toppling the statue of former head football coach Joe Paterno), the evidence is clear that the sexual abuse that happened must be understood and addressed also within the context of big ten football and Penn State. As part of the effort to cast a wider analysis on the situation, scholars of sport and gender continue their critique of Penn State as an example of masculinist sport cultures [for example, see: Cooky, C. (2012). Success without honor: Cultures of Silence and the Penn State Scandal. Cultural Studies/Critical Methodologies, 12, 328-331]. In July of 2012 a blistering report was also released by Louis J. Freeh, former FBI director.

The report is unwavering in its condemnation of the university’s two highest levels of leadership: the president and the Board of Trustees. “By not promptly and fully advising the Board of Trustees about the 1998 and 2001 child sexual abuse allegations against Sandusky and the subsequent Grand Jury investigation of him, Spanier failed in his duties as President,” the report says. “The Board also failed in its duties to oversee the President and senior University officials in 1998 and 2001 by not inquiring about important University matters and by not creating an environment where senior University officials felt accountable.”

The most powerful leaders in the university concealed facts and failed to protect children, primarily because they hoped to “avoid bad publicity,” the report finds. But other factors contributed as well, according to the committee. Specifically, the report blames “A culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.” (http://chronicle.com/article/A-Guide-to-the-Penn-State/132797/_

6 & 7. RAPE. RAPE. RAPE.

The practice and politics of rape of women continued to lead the headlines in 2012. So much so, that we’re giving it two positions on our top ten list. #6 goes to the ongoing “war on women” (reported also in our 2011 list) being waged by key U.S. conservative politicians. Instigators of this war include the Republican party’s 2012 Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who referred to rape as simply another “form of conception.” (This attempts to legitimize complete opposition to abortion, including for teenage victims of rape and incest. see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-slansky-/paul-ryan-said-something-_b_1832377.html.) GOP Senate Candidate, Todd Akin also attempted to play definitional magic by telling the public what a “legitimate” rape was, and baffled scientists and progressives alike when he claimed that women’s bodies could prevent pregnancy the case of rape. An interesting chronology of such arguments has been put together here for all of us to read given that this type of thinking is certainly not new: (See: http://www.theblaze.com/stories/why-does-todd-akin-think-rape-victims-dont-get-pregnant/)

#7 Goes to the political fury that is currently erupting around harassment and rape of women in India — with most urgent attention being placed on the case of a young woman who was brutally attacked and gang raped for hours and died of assault-related injuries.

The woman, who has not been identified, has become a symbol for the treatment of women in India, where rape is common and conviction rates for the crime are low. She boarded a bus with a male friend after watching a movie at a mall, and was raped and attacked with an iron rod by the men, who the police later said had been drinking and were on a “joy ride.”

She died Saturday morning in Singapore, where she had been flown for treatment for the severe internal injuries caused by the assault. She had an infection in her lungs and abdomen, liver damage and a brain injury, the Singapore hospital said, and died from organ failure. Her body was flown back to India on Saturday.

As news of her death spread Saturday, India’s young, social-network-using population began to organize protests and candlelight vigils in places like the western city of Cochin in Kerala, the outsourcing hub of Bangalore and New Delhi, the capital. Just a tiny sliver of India’s population can afford a computer or has access to the Internet, but the young, educated subset of this group has become increasingly galvanized over the New Delhi rape case.( http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/30/world/asia/india-rape-delhi.html?_r=0)

Less publicized but also on our minds is the case of another young Indian woman who was recently gang raped; she committed suicide after being pressured by police to either drop her criminal charges or marry one of her attackers. We expect to be hearing much more from Indian human rights activists on this matter in the coming year.(see: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/28/world/asia/rape-victim-commits-suicide-in-india.html)

After all that dire news we will end with three more uplifting stories:

8. Movement to ban “gay conversion” therapy for minors in California.

The move to end the practice of reparative therapy (AKA Gay Conversion therapy) has made some movement in California. Governor Jerry Brown supported a new bill to ban gay conversation therapy for minors; however, the bill is currently blocked. On the Friday before Christmas (Dec. 21) “A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to block the law, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, pending a decision on its constitutionality.” (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2012/12/gay-therapy-ban-placed-on-hold-in-california.html).

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed legislation prohibiting a form of therapy aimed at changing a minor’s sexual orientation from gay to straight, the first law of its kind in the nation, officials said Sunday.

Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) introduced the measure based on his belief that so-called conversion therapy isn’t based on science and is dangerous.

“This bill bans non-scientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide,” Brown said in a statement. “These practices have no basis in science or medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.” (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/california-politics/2012/09/governor-jerry-brown-gay-therapy-minors.html)

Story to be continued in 2013….


9. Same sex marriage continues to win.

Cultural representations of same sex couples also proliferated in 2012, including stories and photos in Here Come the Brides published by Seal Press. (disclaimer: Sexuality & Society co-editor Kari Lerum has an article in this book).

Gay marriage makes our list yet again this year, this time with wins in Washington, Maryland, and Maine. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme court agreed to hear two cases (one from California, one from New York), challenging state and federal marriage laws which exclude same-sex couples, and U.S. President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to finally publicly support gay marriage. (Sexuality and Reproductive justice advocates in the US and abroad also breathed a sigh of relief when Obama was re-elected to serve as US President for another four years).


10. Free Condom Machines to be installed in Philadelphia high schools 

And our final story for the year involves a new development in Philadelphia: Condom dispensers in high schools! We commend Philadelphia school officials for including this as part of a pragmatic and non-shaming approach toward reducing STI rates for Philadelphia teenagers.





Happy New Year from Sexuality & Society! Thanks to all the activists, scholars, and practitioners working toward sexual and social justice; may 2013 be filled with your stories!

Warm regards, Kari Lerum and Shari Dworkin

When the Obama administration took office on Jan. 1, 2009, many scientists and scholars were hopeful that empirical evidence would play a greater role in defining a range of domestic and international policies, ranging from justifications for war, to global warming, to sex education, to policies about human trafficking. The hope was that the administration would turn away from making decisions that were rooted in ideological agendas and make decisions that were informed more directly by reliable empirical data. To some extent, this has been the case. [E.G.: see the State Department’s (remarkable) response to evidence of human rights violations against people in the sex trade].

However, when it comes to directly criticizing the State Department about its international policies — even using solid empirical data —  it is probably inevitable that the State Department machine will kick into defense mode. And this is what is happening now in response to Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, for her book Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo which is based on her ethnographic research with bar hostesses in Tokyo. The State Department argues that women who are similar to those Parreñas included in her study need to be “rescued.” Parreñas’ research suggests otherwise, and adds to the mounting evidence which indicates that calls for “rescuing” adult women are simplistic, not based in reliable evidence, and are ultimately harmful to the women who allegedly “need” to be “rescued.”

Parreñas’ more complicated and empirically-grounded analysis puts a wet blanket on widespread popular discourse about “sex trafficking” — a “victim/rescue” narrative that many critical feminist, human rights, and labor scholars critique as a colonialist, patronizing, (ironically) sexualizing fantasy of White Knights swooping in to rescue helpless women. Parreñas’ work also provides yet another push to the State Department — and other all parties interested in alleviating human trafficking — to ground their approaches in rigorous data collection, as well as analysis that addresses labor and migrant rights in the context of global economic inequalities.

See below for Nina Ayoub’s story which briefly summarizes Parreñas’ findings and the State Department’s response:


Scholar’s Views Rile State Department

November 10, 2011, 9:00 pm

By Nina Ayoub

The author of a new scholarly book from Stanford University Press has become the target of criticism from an unusual source: the U.S. Department of State.

In recent weeks, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, has received media attention for Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo, a book about Filipina women working as bar hostesses in the Japanese capital. Bloomberg News ran excerpts of her work. She was called the “literary lovechild of Barbara Ehrenreich and Naomi Wolf” by Zócalo Public Square, which said the book will “inspire indignation for reasons you didn’t expect.” Parreñas also was interviewed onThe World, a program of Public Radio International. Following that broadcast, the State Department asked—essentially—for equal time.

The issue? Parreñas was highly critical of the ways in which State Department policies on international sex trafficking characterize the women who are the focus of her book, minimizing, she says, their individual agency as migrant laborers, and seeking to “rescue” them and regulate their lives in ways that Parreñas argues may leave them worse off.

On November 4, Alison Kiehl Friedman, deputy director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons was interviewed on The World to “clarify U.S. policy on sex trafficking.” She told the host that “we agree with Dr. Parreñas that there is exploitation inherent in what is going on, and we agree that not all the people there are trafficking victims. And we agree that there needs to be more done to get unscrupulous labor recruiters out of the system and better protect migration flows. Where we disagree is that somebody can go in, have a personal experience for a couple of months, and categorically say these people weren’t sex-trafficking victims, and somehow calling some of them sex-trafficking victims is worse than ignoring their exploitation and trying to address it.”

In an e-mail interview, The Chronicle asked Parreñas for her response. Is she surprised at the public attention her research is getting from the State Department?

“As a scholar who is committed to ‘public sociology,’ that is, sociology that aims to transcend the academy and reach a wider audience, I couldn’t be anything but pleased that policy implementers have given attention to my work,” she writes. “Unfortunately, they seemed to have also misinterpreted the work.”

Parreñas adds: “I do wish that the U.S. State Department gave greater attention to the evidence-based research on human trafficking by scholars such as myself, and others including the anthropologist Denise Brennan, the legal scholar Dina Haynes, and the anthropologist Tiantian Zheng.” The department does not, she charges. Instead, they “insist on making unsubstantiated claims on human trafficking.”

What the sociologist is chiefly calling “unsubstantiated” is the Trafficking in Persons Report, which the State Department describes as its “principal diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments” on the subject. She is critical of the State Department, she says, for not fully accounting for its methods, as well as for its informants and sources. “The TIP Report would get an F if it were a  social-science-research project.”

Parreñas says she is fairly sure that her critics at the agency have not yet read her book. “Otherwise, they would not be able to dismiss my methodology as ‘having a personal experience for a couple of months.’” she writes. As a qualitative sociologist, she used a varied set of methods, including “in-depth interviews with hostesses, brokers, club owners; participant-observation both as a customer (in nine clubs) and as a hostess (in one club primarily); archival research; and interviews with government representatives in both Japan and the Philippines. I spent not just ‘a couple of months’ but a total of 11 non-continuous months in Tokyo to conduct my project.”

Unlike Friedman and the TIP Report, she says, “all the claims that I have made about the situation of hostesses—a group they say are ‘forced into prostitution’—are based on evidence, i.e., concrete interviews with migrant Filipina hostesses who I made sure represented a diverse group.” The women included “those who are college educated and those who are high-school dropouts; some work in high-end bars and others in low-end bars; some undress in the club where they work and others never sit next to a customer at a club when at work.”

Speaking on the radio of the Filipina hostesses, Friedman, the State Department official, used an analogy she said her boss was fond of. “I think that focusing on how they got there and whether there was any initial consent to travel is really beside the point,” she told The World. “It’s almost like criminalizing driving to the bank robbery, but not the bank robbery itself.”

In her e-mail to The Chronicle, Parreñas counters: “As I explicitly described in the interview, the work of hostesses is not prostitution. Instead, the work is to flirt professionally with customers.”

Friedman, notes Parreñas, “said we should not focus on how one gets to commit a robbery, but to focus on the robbery. This statement just goes to show that she chooses not to consider the circumstances of people’s lives and the particular needs that arise out of those circumstances.

In the case of hostesses, she says, “these women are often from the poorest of the poor in the Philippines. We cannot understand why they do hostess work unless we consider the structural contexts that have shaped their lives.” Those who prefer they not become hostesses, she says, should work on easing the structural inequalities that limited their choices and made hostess work the best of bad options.

“But let us say I agree with Friedman’s boss,” she adds. “Let us look at the act of bank robbery. Let us disregard how they got there. In this case, we would look at the act of hostess work. We would actually see that the work is not prostitution but professional flirtation. Professional flirting could be performed in a variety of ways—via showing acts of care such as spoon feeding sensually, dancing on stage (clothed or unclothed), singing, verbal teasing. I would ask Friedman—what is wrong with professional flirting? What is so different between professional flirting and working as a waitress in Hooters?”

“Yes, I would say let us look at the act of ‘bank robbery’ or the act of ‘hostess work.’ If we were going to do it accurately, we would actually rely on evidence to know the specifics of that ‘bank robbery.’ We would perhaps realize that the robber walked away with three pieces of mint candy from the bank and not wads of cash. If one looks at the TIP Report,one sees that the U.S. Department of State provides no evidence related to working conditions. So it is questionable if they know anything about the ‘bank robber.’”

Commenting on Friedman’s statement that “compelled service is frequently misidentified as consent,” Parreñas says that the official is “cloaking the problem of human trafficking. She is looking at the surface and not the structure.” Most migrant workers, she says, are not free laborers. They are often guest workers whose legal residency binds them to a sponsoring employer. This leaves them in a highly unequal relationship of dependency. This, she writes, would apply to farm workers in North Carolina, non-immigrant-visa domestic workers in Washington, D.C.; likewise, domestic workers in Singapore, or the kafala system in the United Arab Emirates, or au pairs in Denmark, or migrant teachers in Baltimore.

“Eminent scholars such as Carole Vance and Ann Jordan have expressed their puzzlement over the obsession of the U.S. State Department on sex workers as well as their conflation of sex trafficking and prostitution,” says Parreñas. She says that the department’s “over-obsession with finding ‘prostitutes’ who are ‘sex trafficked’” has led them to misidentify migrant Filipina hostesses. “Hostess work is not a euphemism for prostitution,” says Parreñas. Yet, she claims, the U.S. Department of State, “without evidence,” misidentifies the hostesses as not just prostitutes but women “forced into prostitution.”

This misidentification is a “setback,” she argues, “because it has eliminated the jobs of tens of thousands of women, many of whom are now living in poverty in the Philippines.” This shift, the book indicates, occurred when Japan changed its visa policies on “Filipina entertainers” in a way that conformed with U.S. preferences. The scholar also cites the research of her Ph.D. student Maria Hwang at Brown University, where Parreñas taught before going to the University of Southern California. Hwang has found a sizeable number of Filipina hostesses displaced from Tokyo working as migrant sex workers in Hong Kong. Hwang’s research, says Parreñas, shows us that “falsely rescuing them from prostitution has actually forced them into prostitution.”

Her student’s finding “tells us that it is very important that the U.S. Department of State only provide evidence-based research in their reports. Not having evidence-based research could backfire on them in more ways than one.”

Parreñas will continue her research on migrant labor. She says she is preparing a second edition of her 2001 book, Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration and Domestic Work (Stanford), which compared Filipina migrant domestic workers in Rome and Los Angeles. She is conducting new research in both cities to update their situations. She also has a new project that will compare the experiences of domestic workers whose legal residency in a country binds them to a citizen sponsor employer, meaning “that they cannot quit their job unless they are willing to be deported.” She will compare domestic workers in that situation in Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.


Original story posted here: http://chronicle.com/blogs/pageview/scholars-views-rile-state department/29694?sid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en

See also human rights law professor Ann Jordan’s prolific scholarship on this issue, including her article here:  http://www.fpif.org/articles/sex_trafficking_the_abolitionist_fallacy

Other related Sexuality & Society stories:




I’m happy to say that I’m now also a contributer to Ms. Magazine‘s blog. My first article there is a review of Burlesque, the musical film starring Cher and Christina Aguilera. The original article can be viewed at this link. I’ve also inserted its text below (without the internal links and Ms. Magazine‘s pretty formatting):


Burlesque Is So Gay. And That’s A Good Thing.

December 2, 2010 by Kari Lerum

When I worked as a strip club waitress, part of my job was to look out for troublemakers: people entering the club with an intention to harm the dancers. OK, it wasn’t officially my job (that was up to the managers and bouncers), but as a feminist, an ally, and also friend to some of the dancers, I felt it was my unquestionable duty. The worst of the troublemakers? Undercover cops–guys who would enjoy a lap dance and then slap their pleasure provider with a ticket for indecency.

Now, more than 10 years later, as a tenured professor, my job has expanded to analyzing sexual-social systems and all forms of sexual policing. This is why I’m interested in not just Burlesque itself, the new musical film starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, but also the film’s sociocultural context, including the chorus of negative reviews.

Even before Burlesque’s Thanksgiving release, reviewers were sharpening their knives, eager for a kill. Not since the mid-90s releases of Showgirls and Striptease–both of which were given Golden Raspberry Awards for the worst in cinema–have reviewers been so eager to tear a movie and its (sexually unapologetic, dancing, woman) protagonist to shreds.

Post-release, most reviewers have followed a standard formula: Compare Burlesque to Showgirls; make fun of Christina Aguilera; declare the film a miserable failure. Below is a sampling:

• The headline for Marshall Fine’s review in Fox News exclaims: ‘Burlesque’ not just Bad, it’s ‘Showgirls’ Bad.’ Fine organizes his review around ridicule of Christina Aguilera:

There’s nary a surprise to be had, except for Aguilera’s apparent misconception that she has acting talent.

• Catherine Shoard’s review in the Guardian concludes “Two divas, one stage – you do the maths,” with the apparent assumption that no stage, or film, is big enough to fit more than ONE larger-than-life female (and unapologetically sexual) protagonist.

• Mary Pols’ review in Time judges Aguilera not against her co-star, but against other women who have played similar roles:

Aguilera, making her dramatic debut, is far from a great actress, but compared to Elizabeth Berkley [Showgirls] or Spears [Crossroads], she is a veritable Nicole Kidman [Moulin Rouge].

(Note that of the three films, only Moulin Rouge, which ends with the death of the prostitute/dancer protagonist, is implied to be “good.”)

• Finally, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune ridicules not just the plot and the acting, but delivers the final cut: “The whole movie amounts to an I-will-survive anthem.” A curious denigration, as Gloria Gaynor’s mega-hit single “I Will Survive” is a recognized anthem for the women’s movement, the gay movement and HIV/AIDS survival.

With these critiques in mind, I took my partner and brother-in-law to see Burlesque on Thanksgiving weekend. Burlesque has a familiar plot for US audiences, full of underdog themes: A sweet, talented small-town protagonist moves to Hollywood to pursue her dreams. She faces initial hardships (can’t get a job as a singer or dancer), but her path is altered when she meets an intriguing character (in this case the character is a place, a magical neo-Burlesque theater). The protagonist meets opposition from the theater’s boss (Cher) and a rival performer, but through her determination and raw talent works her way into a top singing/dancing position.

Our immediate reaction? Pure, easy pleasure. Burlesque is a light, sometimes cheesy, visually gorgeous, sexually tame, feel-good film. A perfect Disneyland-for-Adults distraction for the Holidays. Cher and Aguilera have the kind of voices that make your hair raise, out of not horror but out of delight. Technically, it gets right some elements of both classic burlesque and the neo-burlesque scene, but it’s also a montage of styles borrowed from American Idol, Pussycat Dolls, and Las Vegas showgirls. Worthy of an Oscar? I’ll leave that up to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science–but I won’t be surprised if costume design is in the running.

What then accounts for the cutting reviews of Burlesque and Aguilera? What grand community or artistic standards does this film, or Aguilera, violate? Is there really no place for a fluffy, feel-good, aesthetically pleasing film during the holidays?

Then again, maybe I’m a bad film cop, and Aguilera is just an irredeemable actress, deserving of that ticket for indecency. At least her voice isn’t in question; perhaps her policers would ease up if she simply became the voice of a cartoon character, like the Rapunzel figure in Disney’s new holiday film, Tangled. As it turns out, Burlesque and Tangled have much in common: both were light musical romances released around Thanksgiving, both feature pretty, young, blonde, female protagonists and tall, dark-haired mother figures. Indeed, reviewers like Marshall Fine (who could barely spit out his disdain for Aguilera in Burlesque) seem quite taken by the “tale of the girl in the tower with the long, loooong hair.” According to Fine: “Disney’s new film manages to be romantic, musical, moving–and outstandingly funny. Don’t skip it.”

There is an intriguing similarity between Marshall’s enthusiasm for Tangled and reviews of Burlesque coming from gay or gay-friendly sources. Sara Michelle Fetters from Seattle Gay News writes:

But just because there are no surprises doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of cheesy cornball fun to be had by watching Burlesque. Aguilera is fairly charming as the star-struck ingénue, while Cher and Tucci (playing the requisite Gay best friend with an answer for everything) could do this sort of thing in their sleep and make it somehow worthwhile. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I never felt terrible about sitting in my theater seat. Heck, most of the time I was reasonably entertained, going along with the flow even if every fiber of my being told me not to.

Mick LaSalle, writing for SF Gate, is unabashedly enthusiastic about the film:

Burlesque is irresistible from its first minutes, and over time it creates a whole atmosphere, not only onscreen but within the audience. It’s big, perfectly cast and entertaining in every way, but more than that it feels like a generous public event. See it with other people. See it with a crowd.

Much more can be said about the film’s web of inside jokes and gay cultural references and the fact that Cher and director Steve Antin were (at different times) long-time lovers with media powerhouse David Geffen.

But ultimately, here is where Burlesque goes “wrong”: While trashed for being too predictable, it is actually not predictable enough. Unlike most other contemporary Hollywood (fictional) films about sexual, dancing women, our protagonist is a “good girl” who is sexually expressive but suffers no negative consequences. She is not forced to choose between innocence and sensuality, good girl and vamp. She, and everyone else at the club, gets to have it all. The club is not a hotbed of despair, corruption, and exploitation. The tall dark mother figure, a sexy burlesque dancer herself, is not a villain. Rather, as a club owner she is fiercely loyal to her employees; her club is their family. Women employees ultimately stick together, survive and thrive. Gay employees are loved and integral to the club. No one dies.

I have a strong suspicion that it is all of this–more than the soft dramatic tension and cheesy lines–that most mainstream film reviewers really can’t stomach.

Sexuality & Society welcomes this guest post from Karen Rosenberg, who holds a Ph.D. in Women Studies and directs the Writing Center at the University of Washington Bothell.


It has been more than 15 years since The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Since becoming law on Sept. 13, 1994, VAWA has provided billions of dollars to bolster the criminal legal response to violence against women, provide services for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, and increase protections for battered immigrant women. 

I got into anti-violence work in VAWA’s infancy and continue to wrestle with the questions that brought me to the movement in the first place. These questions include: Why is there so much violence in intimate relationships? What kinds of activism are most effective for reducing this violence? What role should the state play in regulating (reducing violence in) romantic relationships? What role should the criminal legal system play? What role should our communities play?

Working as a legal advocate in a mainstream anti-domestic violence program in the mid-1990s, I saw VAWA as unquestionably good. Finally, there was federal recognition that violence against women is pandemic, and serious, and worthy of public attention. Federal dollars–billions of them—were going to every corner of the country.  

I worked on several projects funded with VAWA dollars. I collaborated with cops and prosecutors to design trainings and improve the criminal legal response to domestic violence. I began to see fewer cops saying “we don’t get involved in domestics,” or telling violent husbands to “take a walk around the block to ‘cool off.’” I helped women navigate the legal system and advocate for their interests and the interests of their children. I brought the concerns of battered women to policymakers. And every few years, when VAWA came up for re-authorization, I contacted my senators and urged them to continue funding VAWA. I saw these changes in the criminal justice and legal systems as the unquestionably sweet fruits of feminist activist labor.

It wasn’t until I interviewed feminist activists in the course of my dissertation research on responses to violence against women in Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia, that I realized that the larger social justice picture was quite a bit more complicated. One activist I interviewed had a particularly powerful critique of VAWA:

“…At first we’re like VAWA has both good things and bad things.  But then I really understood the bad things about VAWA and understood that it was part of…this big, gigantic, monstrous crime bill and inside of this crime bill was where we got…the bullshit around three strikes and mandatory minimums and things that were devastating to our communities.  So if you ask me now whether or not we should have supported VAWA given the money that came to programs and given the general attention that was put on violence against women, both of which are good, I say ‘no.’ (Seattle feminist activist)

Soon after transcribing these words, I began to do some homework. I learned that VAWA, indeed, was part of a massive crime bill. Though then-Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) initially introduced VAWA as a stand-alone bill in 1990, it did not command the necessary support to pass. After 4 years of lobbying and revising the legislation, Congress folded it into a comprehensive crime bill. As legal scholar Rachelle Brooks explains, embedding VAWA into a comprehensive crime bill “…placed many feminists in the awkward position of mobilizing around a measure with which they did not agree.” She goes on to say that:

“…the symbolic act of consolidating VAWA in the Crime Bill means that the legislative system grouped domestic violence with other violent crimes and has framed it as a criminal problem.  By associating domestic violence against women with other criminal acts the state can ignore the many other roots of this violence” (Brooks 1997: 79).

Indeed, a look at the budget for the initial VAWA legislation reflects this commitment to the law and order response: over half of the funding—almost one billion dollars—was allocated to criminal legal system remedies. This was a significant infusion of money into criminal legal organizations and contributes to the perception in the US that cops and courts are intimately involved with and the primary responders to domestic violence. The budget also gave significant funding to social service remedies, most notably battered women’s shelters. However, even this funding helped bring the CLS into women’s lives and communities. Much of the VAWA funding required women’s anti-violence organizations to work collaboratively with CLS agencies (such as many of the projects I have worked on).

Another problematic aspect of feminist support for VAWA—which has received even less attention than the problems with the de facto support of a far reaching crime bill—is the removal of the Racial Justice Act from the final version of VAWA. The proposed legislation would have given inmates of color additional avenues to appeal death sentences. Feminist acquiescence to the removal of the Racial Justice Act led to the all-too-familiar feminist prioritization of gender over race. As Brooks comments, by supporting the final version of VAWA embedded in the crime bill “…feminists implicitly endorsed both the removal of the Racial Justice Act…” as well as the racism in the CLS (Brooks 1997: 80).

Where does this leave us now, nearly 16 years after the initial passage of VAWA? While I am acutely aware of the limits of advocacy within the criminal legal system, I do think it makes a difference that the key players in the criminal legal system receive training and tools to intervene in cases of intimate partner violence. As a result I do not regret my support for VAWA.  I doubt that so much attention, and so many resources, could have been dedicated to address violence against women in the 1990s outside of a law and order frame. 

However, as we approach the 16th year anniversary of VAWA, I believe that activists should continue to rethink violence against women outside of a law and order frame, and make connections between interpersonal violence and other forms of violence (the 2001 Incite!-Critical Resistance statement is a powerful expression of the connections between interpersonal violence and state-sponsored violence). I am inspired by the work of local activist groups exploring community-based responses to violence against women that deemphasize the role of the CLS. This work has included, for example, organizing groups of friends who share information about what’s going on in their intimate relationships to counteract the isolation that often accompanies abuse and creating community dialogue about the impact of specific acts of abuse. Here in Seattle, two groups at the forefront of this work are Communities Against Rape and Abuse and the Northwest Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse.

VAWA was born of compromise and the tensions that were present at its inception—the focus on gender at the expense of race, the over-reliance on the CLS—are still very much with us. At the same time, the sustained attention and resources directed toward the problem of violence against women has been genuinely helpful in many ways. The critiques of VAWA that activists and academics have developed over the life of VAWA move us powerfully ahead – pointing us toward the importance of community involvement and the dangers of relying too heavily on cops and courts to change a culture that fosters violence against women.


Karen Rosenberg directs the Writing Center at the University of Washington Bothell and has been involved in anti-violence against women organizing for over 15 years. She earned her doctorate in Women Studies from the University of Washington and her research explores the contradictions inherent in using the criminal legal system to regulate intimate relationships.

Referenced and recommended sources:

  • Brooks, R. (1997).  “Feminists negotiate the legislative branch: the Violence Against Women Act.”  In C.R. Daniels & R. Brooks, (Eds). Feminists negotiate the state: The politics of domestic violence (65-82). Lanham: University Press of America.
  • Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. (2006). Color of violence: The Incite! anthology. Cambridge, Mass: South End Press.

We welcome this guest post from Jayne Swift, who is currently a graduate student in Cultural Studies at the University of Washington, Bothell and an employee of the Seattle Lusty Lady Theatre.


In the 1970s, U.S. manufacturing jobs were decimated, with thousands of workers losing what had once been well paid and valued jobs. It was a deindustrialization crisis that would come to be remembered as a national loss.  Many saw it as a sign that Americans were losing their birthright to work that is fairly compensated and unionized; work that produces a sense of pride, identity, and community. 

If you have spent any time within the Seattle Lusty Lady Theatre lately, you would hear similar, albeit scaled down, testimonials from Lusty Lady workers. But unlike the massive public outcry around automotive plant closings, few outside the workers of the Lusty Lady seem to care about the historical and economic impact of Lusty Lady labor.

To be sure, as Carly Chillmon mentioned in her recent post on Sexuality & Society, many DO care about the loss of the Lusty marquee. The marquee should be missed as a beacon of Seattle’s bawdy past. Yet, the public focus on the marquee also masks the reality of actual people labouring and loving inside. For almost three decades, the Lusty Lady was more than a job to countless employees—it was our GM plant, our place.

Book cover for "The Lusty Lady," by photojournalist and Lusty Lady worker, Erika Langley (1997).


I have known I wanted a place in the Lusty Lady world for a very long time. When I was 17 and first saw the Lusty Lady while on vacation in Seattle, I was enthralled by the robed women standing outside, smoking, talking to each other, seemingly unmoved by the (potentially hostile) stares of passers-by.  I wanted to know more about this place and these women.

Shortly thereafter I realized I had already knew something about this place and these women. I grew up in a feminist-intellectual home and was an avid consumer of texts that explored questions of feminism, gender, and sexuality. In particular, I sought to understand the feminist sex wars and the fierce battles over pornography and prostitution they engendered.

Like many of my “third wave feminist” ilk, I discovered a burgeoning field of literature that articulated what might be called a “sex-positive” vision of sex work; anthologies that featured the voices of sex workers discussing their work on their terms. The Lusty Lady was a recurring feature in many of these texts—used as a site for sex workers to think through the value of their work, articulate experiences of sex work not often validated in the larger world, and sometimes organize to serve their own best interests as workers and people. Indeed, a cursory look at U.S. sex worker literature[i] reveals the Lusty’s significance to the growth of the contemporary sex worker rights movement. The battles to unionize the San Francisco branch of the Lusty (dramatized in the 2000 film Live Nude Girls Unite!). the memoirs published by Lusty workers, and the uniquely female management made the Lusty Lady a rich site for theorizing commercial sex cultures and producing a sex worker feminism.

Image from the documentary film, "Live Nude Girls, Unite!" (Dir. Juilia Query, 2000).


Throughout my undergraduate years I studied the Lusty from afar as something akin to a feminist destination, something I might do with my education and training in Gender/Sexuality Studies. After finishing my M.A. in Women’s Studies at the University of Iowa I moved to Seattle and got up the courage to pursue what, quite simply, had become my dream of working at the Lusty Lady.

For the last several years that dream has structured and animated my life. Like all jobs the Lusty involves its share of drudgery, and more than many jobs a host of emotional and physical challenges. Yet, unlike a lot of other jobs I’ve held (in and out of the sex industry) the Lusty has consistently demanded that I grow on an embodied ethical and intellectual level. The Lusty is the space in which I was able to claim the term sex worker and feel prepared to defend my worth. Every day at the Lusty presented an opportunity to reflect upon some of my central intellectual preoccupations, including: the performativity of gender, theories of objectification, feminist agency and resistance, the production of desire and power, queer theory, the intersections of labor, feminist, and local history and struggle.

It might seem odd to some, but the Lusty made me a better thinker and scholar. Perhaps just as important, the Lusty also forced me to examine and change myself on a more grounded, personal level.

At the Lusty, I learned that there were all kinds of beautiful bodies and personas. I learned that being desired and being able to desire are not contingent upon achieving a pernicious beauty standard. The Lusty taught me—in a way that no therapy or degree could—that my body was mine and I had better find a way to feel good and strong in it in order to survive. In doing so, the Lusty also taught me to look customers, men, in the eye and find a way to show up to their desires and needs when they asked for them respectfully—and stand up to them when I was disrespected. The Lusty reaffirmed my commitment to honoring other people’s erotic selves and gave me a tangible venue in which to perform that commitment. The Lusty taught me that one’s work could be good for others as well as me, that I had a right to be treated fairly and respected, and that I need to pursue the respect I want. Perhaps most importantly, the Lusty challenged me to reconceive of and enact the thing that feminists once called “sisterhood.” 

My Lusty sisterhood grew not out of consciousness raising groups but out of my grounded working conditions: the Lusty required employees to find ways to work alongside each other, often across multiple lines of social difference. The physical and social structure of the business, instead of breeding the competition found in many other legal sex businesses, inculcated workers with a sense of collectivity and common purpose. As my co-worker Wildflower puts it,

“much like a contrived women’s support group…we share the most tender and raunchy parts of ourselves. Something about being naked, playing a role and entertaining the gents keeps things light enough to share some heavy challenges.”

Indeed, the workers of the Lusty often express a bond with each other simply due to our shared love for this place and what is has given us. My experience of the world tells me that it is rare for people to describe their workplaces in terms that another co-worker, Lux, does as the place where she “grew up”:

“It was a safe place for me to be unconditionally loved, a place where it was alright for me to be me, a place no matter what I did I would be accepted.”

Gypsy, another co-worker, reiterates this theme of kinship. For her the Lusty was the site of a unique and “incomparable connection with female co workers/”family.”

I probably could have espoused it, but until I actually became a Lusty Lady I don’t think I really understood what people—feminists often—meant when they talked about the need for sisters, allies, family. 

Home, family, erotic temple, feminist teaching ground, support system, or as Lux put it, “place of belonging”—these are the organizing narratives and metaphors we (the workers) often use to describe and explain our experience of the Lusty Lady.  No one is arguing that it was a perfect place; a utopia. However, many of us, myself included, are currently charged with trying to make sense of this time, place and labor we have shared with each other. We want the world to understand the Lusty’s powerful and at times beautiful resonance in our lives and our grief about its ending. The loss of this place—a local institution which employed countless people over three decades, inspired its workers, and at times brought women together in a world that often profits by driving us apart—matters, whether or not you’ve ever dared to set foot inside it.

I can only hope that when we close our doors in June we are greeted by other mourners, all those who care about sex workers, standing respectfully on the other side of the marquee.


Jayne Swift was lucky enough to take her first baby steps in six inch heels at the Lusty Lady theatre and is currently completing an M.A. in Cultural Studies at the University of Washington-Bothell.

Referenced and recommended works:

[i] See:Brooks, Siobhan “Dancing Towards Freedom” Whores and Other Feminists, Ed. Jill Nagle  Routledge: 1997.

Dudash, Tawnya. “Peepshow Feminism,” Whores and Other Feminists, Ed. Jill Nagle  Routledge: 1997.

Eaves, Elisabeth. 2002Bare: On Women, Dancing, Sex, and Power. Knopf.

Funari, Vicky “Naked, Naughty, Nasty: Peep Show Reflections” Whores and Other Feminists, Ed. Jill Nagle  Routledge: 1997.

Langley, Erika. 1997. The Lusty Lady. Scalo Zurich-Berlin-New York.

Queen, Carol. 1997. Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of a Sex-Positive Culture. Cleis.

Last week Iceland made history by becoming the first European nation to abolish strip clubs — made effective by passing a law that makes it illegal to profit from the nudity of employees. The law will take effect on July 1, 2010. What is perhaps even more unusual on a global scale is this law is being reported as a NOT a result of religious, but of feminist influence. Julie Bindel in Guardian UK writes:

Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, the politician who first proposed the ban, firmly told the national press on Wednesday: “It is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold.”

Bindel continues:

According to Icelandic police, 100 foreign women travel to the country annually to work in strip clubs. It is unclear whether the women are trafficked, but feminists say it is telling that as the stripping industry has grown, the number of Icelandic women wishing to work in it has not.

This news (all of it: that strip clubs will be banned and that mostly foreign women work in those clubs) came as a surprise to many including me. But then again, my only experience of that country comes from a short layover in Reykjavik a few years ago on my way to Oslo. From my window airplane seat I looked down on a landscape unlike any I’d ever before witnessed, a fascinating result of glaciers, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. At the Reykjavik airport in my jetlagged state, I looked for Bjork and wondered if perhaps the plane had mistakenly landed on the moon.

"The Road Home to Reykjavik" wallpaper, from HDR Landscape Wallpapers


Now that Iceland is back on my radar (and I’m not currently jetlagged), I thought it would be a good time to take a better look and to investigate how and why strip clubs are being banned on this North Atlantic island. Bindel’s Guardian UK article credits the triumph of feminism, calling Iceland “the world’s most feminist country.” I’m intrigued by what does appear to be a very strong showing of feminist abolitionist (anti-sex work) sexual politics. But I’m also curious about how the demographic context — including the sex and race/ethnicity of migrant laborers — may be influencing this current abolitionist stance.

First, a look at indicators of gender equality in Iceland. According to the 2007 Global Gender Gap Index (published by the World Economic Forum), Iceland ranks fourth in the world in providing equal economic, political, and health standards for women and men. The current prime minister of Iceland is a lesbian woman, the world’s first openly gay leader.

Iceland Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir


For some feminist commentators these cultural and structural factors explain how strip clubs became ousted from Iceland. After all, aren’t all feminists and lesbians opposed to the commercial sex industry?

Because the answer to this question above is “no,” I’ll move to another line of inquiry: Might other, demographic, variables also be encouraging this abolitionist stance?

Let’s look at who lives in Iceland. According to Statistics Iceland, the population of Iceland has decreased for the first time since 1889:

On 1 January 2010 the population was 317,630, compared with 319,368 1 January 2009. The population decrease is due to a record negative net migration in 2009, while the natural increase (births less deaths) was 1%.

In other words, people are leaving Iceland, and those who are staying aren’t having many babies. The TOTAL population of Iceland is LESS than the population of most major US cities, and comparable to the population of many Carribbean and South Pacific islands (see list of world populations by country here). The vast majority of people in Iceland live in the Reykjavik area (120,000 in the city proper.)

(Side note: Reykajavik is a small town. It’s not usually a good idea to work as a stripper in the same small town where you grew up. Things quickly get uncomfortable when your brother, uncle, friend, former coach, and dad show up. If you are an Icelandic woman who wants to be a stripper, go elsewhere!)

Given Iceland’s decreasing population, it makes sense that immigrant workers may be needed in many occupational sectors. Indeed, there has been an increase in citizenship granted to immigrants:

“The largest number of those who are granted Icelandic citizenship come from Europe. In 2009 the majority of those originated from Poland (153) and Serbia (76). Asians are the second largest group, with 106 who had formerly a Philippine citizenship and 51 Vietnamese.” (Statistics Iceland).


Click on the graph to see a larger version


This pattern of immigration from Europe and Asia is not new, at least within the past few decades. As seen in the graph to the right, since 1991 there have been relatively stable (and low) patterns of immigration from Europe, Asia, the US and Africa. What has changed however since 2001 is an increase of immigrants from Europe.

It is interesting that in the news coverage of the strip club ban (which has mostly replicated the Guardian UK article quoted above), the topic of “trafficking” is mentioned. What is curious is that there does not appear to be any direct evidence for women being trafficked (forced) in to Iceland to work in strip clubs. If there is, it’s not being reported. Instead, readers are left with comments such as Julie Bindel, who writes:

“I have visited a strip club in Reykjavik and observed the women. None of them looked happy in their work.”

Not exactly reliable evidence of trafficking.

And so I am left once again with the suspicion that this ban isn’t about protecting workers from being trafficked. It’s about the tensions that arise over immigration; it’s about a conflict over the meaning(s) and use(s) of sexuality; it’s about not recognizing sex work as labor, and hence not assuming that sex workers deserve basic labor rights. It’s also about a lack of reliable research which, at minimum, investigates the experiences of people in the industry. Visiting a strip club and thinking that people don’t “look happy” doesn’t count.

Some people, the majority perhaps, cannot imagine ever choosing to be a sex worker. Since they cannot imagine it, they assume that they must be forced into it (and thus either must be saved or punished). Some people also believe this about gay people.  It is no coincidence that the GLBT movement has long fought for freedom from arrogant attempts to “save” and/or punish them.  Thus I find it more ironic than understandable that a lesbian Prime Minister has decided to outlaw the sexual and occupational choices of others.

For more reading about the misdirected politics of anti-trafficking and anti-sex work policies, see Laura Austin’s recent article on the South Africa preparing for the World Cup.

Last Tuesday, Feb. 9, I learned of a Facebook fan page dedicated to “Killing your hooker so you don’t have to pay her.” As a sex worker ally, sexuality scholar, and someone invested in the humane treatment of all people, I became dedicated over the next 24 hours to shut that page down. I immediately reported the page to Facebook administrators, and encouraged all of my Facebook friends to do the same. On Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 1:26 pm (PST) when the site was still up, I posted the following to my Facebook friends:

This was the image for the Facebook page, "Killing your hooker so you don't have to pay her." The group Sexinpower.com inserted the word "Fail" on it to illustrate the failure of this fan page.


“In less than 24 hours, I have seen the FB site dedicated to “killing your hooker” increase from 17,500 fans to now more than 22,000. Please join me in kicking this FB group out of our community; report it to the FB directors. This group is in clear violation of FB rules, including: 6. You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.7. You will not post content that is hateful, threatening, … etc”

Many other sex worker activists and humanitarians across the globe were simultaneously doing the same work. By Wednesday at 5 pm (PST), just over 24 hours after I learned of the site, and just days after its creation, Facebook administrators deleted the site. For Facebook, this was not a matter of “free speech”; it was a matter of a clear violation of their community rules. (Hate groups and bullies all of kinds are free to proliferate on the internet, but are not welcome on specific community membership cites such as Facebook).

Unfortunately, I fear and see that this is just the beginning of hate-speech pages on Facebook. Because Facebook allows anyone to set up an account, and because (at least for now) it seems that Facebook administrators are not pro-active in monitoring hate groups, everyday Facebook users (people like me who would otherwise be taking breaks from work to post about their kids or their cats) have found that they have an ethical obligation to also watch out for and report Facebook hategroups.

The group Feministing.com is one such group that this week has found itself to be one of these reporting the abusive, hate-filled page. As might be expected, those behind the “killing your hooker” fanpage are not happy about the critique. Here’s one quote from the “killing your hooker” folks:

“The worthless CUNTS over at Feministing are reporting you because they think they are the policemen (oops policePERSONS) of the internet. Let Feminist cunts know what you think about their crusade to silence all free speech they deem “inappropriate.” (see article in Carnalnation.com)

These slurs against women and feminists are as old as misogyny and a common tactic for diverting attention away from serious, grownup critique and dialogue. The issue of “free speech” is one that is incredibly important, but it is a principle that is always constituted and negotiated within particular parameters. “The internet” is a broad space that allows all (and hence not a true “community”), but Facebook is a smaller space with particular rules.

Carnalnation.com (the group reporting on this story above) is a community that is very much dedicated to freedom of speech and expression, but it too is absolutely opposed to the inclusion of hategroups in the Facebook community. In their mission statement Carnalnation states that:

In our view, fear and disdain of all things sexual have led to a society that too often vacillates between impulsive titillation and compulsive repression. Such extremes can only have a negative impact on our physical, psychological, and social well being.”

Carnalnation.com is encouraging its readers to report hategroups such as “killing your hooker,” and has found that there are “232 (Facebook) groups that currently have the words “dead hooker” in them.  (Dead Hooker Storage, Accidentally Pissing On A Dead Hooker, and A Dead Hooker A Day Keeps The Doctor Away are just three of them.)” Feministing.com is also reporting that “killing your hooker” now has simply morphed into a new Facebook fan page (still live as of this writing), entitled “GTA taught me that if you kill a hooker, you get your money back.” (note: GTA here stands for Grand Theft Auto, a video game.)

According to today’s Sydney Morning Herald the creator of “killing your hooker” has been identified. Who was the creator of this page, Gary Ridgeway?

(Gary Ridgeway, AKA “The Green River Killer,” is serving a life sentence for the murders of 48 women, most of whom he picked up on the streets of Seattle/Tacoma as prostitutes. After his sentencing Ridgeway admitted to a “career” of murdering 71 women.)

No, the source of “killing your hooker” is an Australian boy described as a “Catholic school student”:

A Catholic school student has been “dealt with” after he set up a Facebook page that appeared to advocate killing prostitutes. … The principal of St Laurence’s College in Queensland, Ian McDonald, confirmed a student from the school had been disciplined over the creation of the page.

“It has been sorted out and the boy has been dealt with,” Mr McDonald told AAP on Friday.

Ian McDonald, the principal of the private Catholic school (which at least one Australian newspaper describes as “elite”) went on to underscore that:

“This didn’t happen at the school, but does highlight the fact that we really need to educate the students about the dangers on the internet.” (emphasis mine).

In this logic, the magical, uncontrollable “internet” is the problem, as opposed to cultures that support (or do not directly challenge) the violent degradation of entire groups of people.

Case in point: In one of the several online groups discussing this case today, “Middie” complains about people taking this issue too seriously:

There are so many sites going against this. Jesus people, take a fucking joke. Do you realize this is based on the game GTA? I know the guy that did it, and i’m pretty sure he didn’t make it for real life hookers. By the way, hookers are illegal, so they have no fucking rights in my eyes. (emphasis mine).

Dear Principal McDonald: please note that that “Middie” is probably one of your students. These attitudes do not come to exist in a cultural vacuum. The culture of your school is what you need to be concerned with, not the “internet.”

Dear “Middie“: your point brings us precisely to the larger problem of a lack of support for the human rights of all, including sex workers. And although prostitution is actually LEGAL in parts of Australia (where you apparently currently reside), your point illustrates the need for clearly articulated and enforced sex workers rights in Australia and elsewhere.

Principal McDonald, parents, internet and sexuality scholars and activists, please do not blame “the internet” for sites like this; we must investigate how our own assumptions promote (or stay silent on) everyday acts of cruelty.



In addition the obvious humanitarian need to oppose the degradation of any group of people, many public health scholars emphasize the importance of reducing stigma for sex workers. Here is a link to a recent blog post by Dr. Petra Boynton, on Sex workers, Stigma, and Barriers to Health.

ABC news recently featured a story about “Pure Fashion,” a U.S. faith-based program that leads 14-18 year-old girls “through an eight-month course in which they are encouraged to ‘dress in accordance with their dignity as children of God.'” The eight month course ends with a “‘purity preserving’ fashion show.”

The obsession with, monitoring of, and handwringing over girls’ (sexualized) appearance is of course not new, but this particular iteration comes from an ironic source: a fashion model and former Miss Georgia, Brenda Sharman. Sharman may be preaching “purity” but she also understands that her message will be considered more hip if she can dissociate from conservative and/or mainstream culture. Hence, Sharman is on a mission to reframe “pure” girls as “radical” girls:

Brenda Sharman: model, former Miss Georgia, and founder of Pure Fashion.
Brenda Sharman: model, former Miss Georgia, and founder of Pure Fashion.


“The idea with Pure Fashion is very countercultural,” said Brenda Sharman … “It takes a girl who is brave and gutsy…This is not for the weak and wimpy girl … to say, ‘I’m different, and I’m going to preserve my innocence and virginity,’ that’s a girl who’s radical!”

Scene from the Pure Fashion catwalk
Scene from the Pure Fashion catwalk


The problem is, radical, counter-cultural movements are supposed to challenge and pave new ground. In contrast, the leaders and proponents of Pure Fashion look to conservative established models for their inspiration. They are mothers, fathers, and church leaders who are deeply disturbed by the sexual displays (assumed to be impure) of their unmarried daughters. This may be a radical backlash to signifiers of sexuality or the de-coupling of sexuality and reproduction, but it’s not radical.

Concerns about sexually expressive girls and women is common amongst groups whose cultural and religious norms privilege men and/or believe that men and women have naturally different physical capabilites and personalities. As Shari Dworkin and I argued in a recent article,

“(c)ultural and religious traditions that privilege men always require intense regulation and surveillance of girls’ and women’s sexuality. In these contexts, the moral and social ‘worth’ of girls and women is based on their sexual availability, creating a good virgin-bad whore dichotomy. This tradition is thriving in many aspects of U.S.  culture, including the movement for abstinence-only education, virginity pledges, purity ball, and so on” (Lerum and Dworkin, 2009b).

It is clear that “Pure Fashion” can be added to the list of cultural institutions that support a hierarchical segregation between “virgins” and “whores.” For example, one mom who sent her daughter to “Pure Fashion” expressed her desire for men to look at her daughter in the same way that she looks at her daughter, as “pure and beautiful and innocent”:

“I don’t want her to be distracted by men. So I kind of don’t want men to look at her at all, not notice her,” Tina said. “But I recognize that they will, so I just want to make sure they look at her in the way that I see her, which is pure and beautiful and innocent.”

But conservative religious parents aren’t the only one sounding the alarm horns; many feminist and feminist-leaning academics and professionals are also concerned about sexy and sexual girls. This is because mainstream media appears to create the opposite problem of conservative religion: that is, rather than telling girls and women that their worth is based on their lack of sexual availability, the media appears to “tell” girls and women that their worth is based on their widespread sexual appeal and availability. They may leave God and purity talk out of it and they may not send their daughters to Sharman’s fashion reeducation program, but secular, feminist, and academic critics are still dismayed by girls who dress “sexy.” Indeed, it has become common for people across lines of politics, religion, and profession — at least in the US — to shake their heads in dismay over the increasing “sexualization” of girls, women, and of culture. This perceived shift in mainstream US culture is almost uniformly seen as harmful, something to critique and work against. It is in this cultural context that the American Psychological Association formed a task force on the Sexualization of Girls and wrote a highly publicized report (APA Task Force report on the Sexualization of Girls 2007).  (See below for the APA’s definition of “sexualization”).

In contrast to the APA task force and conservative religious groups, we think it is a mistake for scholars and activists to automatically assume that sexualized images and appearances are harmful to girls and women. We critique the methodological, empirical, and epistemological foundations of this argument in great depth in a recent article (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009a), but here I focus on just one point: how the concern about “sexualization” misses the boat on sexual health. While the APA task force briefly discusses what they consider to constitute “healthy sexuality,” we argue that the term “sexual health” is much more useful for social justice, feminist, and public health scholars/activists:

… we suspect that an ideological gulf may exist between the APA’s (2007) concept of healthy sexuality and the more widely recognized concept of sexual health. For one, the APA’s version of healthy sexuality seems to rely on the existence of a sexual partner: (‘‘intimacy, bonding . . . shared pleasure . . . mutual respect between consenting partners,’’ p. 2). In contrast, the concept of sexual health is often explicitly tied to a rubric of individual sexual rights (some of which may apply to both children and adults). Originally developed by the World Association for Sexual Health and now widely recognized (and modified) by other organizations including the World Health Organization, the concept of sexual rights may include the right to sexual pleasure (not necessarily with another person), the right to emotional sexual expression (including self-sexualization), and the right to sexually associate freely (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009, p. 259).

We further argue that “(s)ounding the alarms on sexualization without providing space for sexual rights results in a setback for girls and women and for feminist theory, and is also at odds with the growing consensus of global health scholars (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009, p. 260).

While the APA task force report virtually ignores sexual health, statistics about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are widely embraced and utilized by conservative religious groups. The following quote comes from Brenda Sharman, director of “Pure Fashion”:

“If you are too steamy in your bikini, you will become a part of a statistic,” Sharman told a roomful of 40 girls at the Atlanta conference. “By the age of fifteen, 76 percent of teens are involved in a sexual relationship. What do we expect, really, when so many girls have displayed their bodies to the world? … For the first time teen girls have the highest gonorrhea rate in the nation, teen boys have the second. Approximately 400,000 teens have abortions every year. And according to UNICEF, half of all new HIV infections occur in young people 15-24.”

Of course, Sharman’s use of these statistics is alarmist and conflated (e.g., the UNICEF statistics are GLOBAL, reflecting more about conditions of access to contraception, early marriage, and/or extreme poverty than whether or not a girl has access to a bikini!), but it is also clear that conservatives are using them to shore up a particular theory of sexuality (i.e. bad things happen when girls get sexy). For critical scholars of sexuality, justice, health, and inequality, these statistics illustrate points and questions around a very different set of assumptions. We leave these interpretations to the conservatives at our own peril.


The APA task force defines sexualization as a condition that occurs when a person is subjected to at least one of the following four conditions:

  • 1) a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics,
  • 2) a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy
  • 3) a person is sexually objectified – that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making, and/or
  • 4) sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person          (APA Task Force, 2007, p. 2)


Bibliography/Recommended Reading: