Have an Erotic Day: Producing Sex-Positive Feminism at the Lusty Lady Theater

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:50 AM
Thurgood Marshall West (Marriott Wardman Park)
Jayne Swift, University of Minnesota
Beginning in the 1970s, feminists became embroiled in a series of heated and protracted debates over the politics, practice, and representation of female sexuality, known as the feminist “sex wars.” While commercial sex is widely recognized as a primary source of contention during the feminist sex wars of the 1970s and 1980s, sex workers’ participation within and negotiation of the feminist sexuality debates has been under-examined. My paper demonstrates how sex workers have made significant, if often overlooked contributions to the feminist sexuality debates through the production of an embodied ethics of sex-positive feminism. Through oral history interviews with one-time employees of a historically significant sex business, and historical analysis of the literature and cultural ephemera of sex worker counterpublics, I illustrate how women used the material praxis of sexual labor to perform Foulcaudian “technologies of the self”. I argue that, as they negotiated the labor of performing feminine sexual subjectivity, sex workers elaborated alternative feminist approaches to and meanings for the disciplinary practices and cultural optics associated with female sexual subjectivity. Revising and testing feminist thought on questions such as gender performativity, the male gaze, objectification, and same-sex desires, sex workers opened up new interpretive and lived possibilities for feminine sexuality and subjectivity.