Despite the feminist movement growing considerably over the last 40 years, sex workers and sex work are still stigmatised and excluded from the activism and voice of mainstream feminism.
In my discussion of sex work, I am only referring to voluntary sex workers, sex trafficking is a separate topic that I will not discuss here. I am drawn to the topic of sex work because the sex workers that I know are strong, free, smart and autonomous women which typifies the kind of women I want to represent in my artwork.
So what does monster theory have to do with understanding sex work stigma in our culture?
Monster Theory emerged in academia in 1996, although loose ideas around the topic had been broached long before that.
In a nutshell the contributors to Monster Theory consider representations of monsters; beasts; freaks and fiends, within a cultural landscape as reflections of the cultural fears and unease that pervades a society and shapes its collective behaviour.
Our attitude to Sex Workers and the way they are treated in western culture is easily understood through monster theory when we break it down through the characteristics of power and victimisation. Female monsters and female sex workers share these characteristics, at least through outsider perceptions.
Unlike male monsters, female monster-hood is often a thinly veiled story of victimhood whereby the monstrous nature of the woman undermines her victimisation and shifts the blame away from her perpetrator.
So many female monsters are really victims and their stories being portrayed in this monstrous way then absolves the perpetrator- a similar dynamic with the female sex worker/male john relationship.
Monster Theory states that these monsters represent societal fears and unease. In a historically male dominated cultural landscape- it is clear then that the fear that these victim/monsters represent and soothe is the fear of facing their own violence and moral failings. By replacing the innocent victim with a monstrous woman, the male perpetrator is absolved of that self-scrutiny.
The mostly male writers from across all of history have fashioned female victims in to female monsters since antiquity. The story of the Sirens is a good example of this: Portrayed as coastal and ocean dwelling bird women, their song was said to entice men to their deaths by shipwreck on the rocks. They are evil seductresses who exist only to entrap and kill male sailors. But read another way- they are essentially bird women who live in what would be a natural habitat for an ocean bird, who sound so lovely in their singing that men will literally drown themselves trying to rape them. What if the Sirens were singing for their own pleasure? Then the male rapist is clearly the perpetrator. But in a society of men who wish to avoid self-scrutiny, the Sirens are evil female monsters, entrapping the helpless male.
The other common characteristic of the female monster is power. Possessing a natural or supernatural power that is uncontrollable by man. He cannot force her to submit or tame her behaviour because he is powerless against her. We see this narrative in stories like the biblical Lilith, or even Medusa (who embodies both the power and victim narrative).
How does this all relate to societal stigma around female sex workers? Sex workers are intrinsically linked to the themes of victimhood and power.
Hard-line feminists called SWERFs (sex work exclusionary radical feminists) believe that due to power imbalances and patriarchal structures that a woman can never freely consent to sex work, and that she is always a victim even if she does not see herself that way. Whilst this is an unsubstantiated and close- minded view, many men and women have unconsciously absorbed this message and see willing sex workers (distinguished completely from trafficking victims) as ‘unfortunate’ and ‘victims of circumstance’ at the very least, and often as outright victims regardless what the woman in question has to say about it.
And if these women workers are to be designated victims, the only perpetrator can be the male customers; a patriarchal system failing her; or a male family member who failed to ‘protect’ her from sex work. I posit, it is the fear of perpetrator responsibility that contributes to victimised or perceived female victims being pushed in to the realm of monster-hood.
The other side of the coin is of course, power. Even today in 2018, the average woman does not have complete autonomy over her finances and sexual expression. Therefore, the power that sex workers have that is ‘uncontrollable by man’ is sexual and financial autonomy.
When a woman has complete control over her sexual expression and finances she sits outside of the realm of behaviour that is considered acceptable for a woman- i.e. that she is submissive and easily tamed by man. It is these facets of her power that are distorted and subverted to make her monstrous.
When our culture represents sex worker women as evil, cunning, subversive and monstrous it serves two purposes for the patriarchal structure and its men:
1.It resolves guilt and absolves the male participant of wrongdoing against the female sex worker, as when she is under the mantle of monster-hood it is considered that she deserves any bad thing that may befall her.
2.It enforces behavioural control over non-sex worker women, stopping them from having sexual and financial autonomy by reinforcing the risk inherent to being considered monstrous.
When women support and contribute to sex work stigma, they are reinforcing and supporting a facet of their own control and oppression.
In my current series of work “Maybe the Sirens were singing for their own pleasure” I aim to bring these concepts of female monster-hood to the fore, to explore and breakdown the stigma around sex work and other instances where female autonomy or non-homogeny is considered scandalous and monstrous.