… and she never, ever looked back …

I discovered today that vibrators were originally invented for medical use. An excellent article in the Guardian describes the history of the invention of the vibrator, in the context of an interesting new movie called Hysteria, which gives a fictional account of the life of its inventor.

The vibrator, it turns out, was invented before both the electric kettle and the vacuum cleaner, but was originally intended for use by doctors, who found the task of administering “pelvic massage” to treat women’s pervalent hysterical states far too tedious. The article reports:

The pelvic massage was a highly lucrative staple of many medical practices in 19th-century London, with repeat business all but guaranteed. There is no evidence of any doctor taking pleasure from its provision; on the contrary, according to medical journals, most complained that it was tedious, time-consuming and physically tiring. This being the Victorian age of invention, the solution was obvious: devise a labour-saving device that would get the job done quicker.

This labour-saving device was very quickly miniaturized, and soon was being sold direct to the patient, saving doctors the tiresome but financially rewarding task of bringing their patients to orgasm. It also appears that the readers and writers of women’s magazines at the time were aware of more than just the medical benefits of these devices:

For the next 20 or so years, the vibrator – or “massager”, as it was known – enjoyed highly respectable popularity, advertised alongside other innocuous domestic appliances in the genteel pages of magazines such as Woman’s Home Companion, beneath slogans describing them as “Such delightful companions”, and promising, “All the pleasure of youth… will throb within you”. In 1909, Good Housekeeping published a “tried and tested” review of different models, while an advert in a 1906 issue of Woman’s Own assured readers, “It can be applied more rapidly, uniformly and deeply than by hand and for as long a period as may be desired.”

So, in the 19th century Doctors had a lucrative side business as, essentially, a type of sex worker, and in the early 20th century it was acceptable for women to order a vibrator from any magazine, and to use it for its curative properties. I guess they discussed them at their tea parties … as Maggie Gyllenhall, actor in the upcoming movie, notes, it’s a little weird that

 100 years ago women didn’t have the vote, yet they were going to a doctor’s office to get masturbated

Strange indeed. Imagine what Rush Limbaugh would say if Obamacare mandated that service to Catholic healthcare providers …

There is, of course, a serious side to this topic. The movie is based on a book and some publications by an academic, whose career appears to have been threatened because she showed an interest in the history of the vibrator, and it appears that there is some resistance in academia to understanding this aspect of the history of psychiatry. It might seem trite on the surface, but the development of psychology and psychiatry is intimately connected to the efforts of doctors to define women as mad and inferior, and hysteria played a central role in the development of a lot of modern theory. Examining the history of the vibrator also means getting a better understanding of just how deeply held the beliefs of doctors at the time were. This notion of “hysteria” wasn’t just some fictitious silliness from one of Freud’s texts, but clearly influenced widespread medical practice, and a whole industry thrived on the treatment of this non-existent condition. It’s worth noting that this labour-saving device was invented and popularized before several important household appliances, so it wasn’t just a trivial sideline in the industrial revolution. Yet there is almost no scholarly research on either the device itself, its relationship to medical practice, or what the existence of this industry says about the pervasiveness of the pernicious notion of hysteria in the 19th century. The article finishes by noting this point:

If the story of the vibrator tells us anything … it is that men have been determined for millennia to deny the most obvious truth about women’s sexual requirements. Explanations for this collective denial have ranged from profound fear of female sexuality to sheer laziness. Either way, Maines says, “The constant from Hippocrates to Freud – despite breathtaking changes in nearly every other area of medical thought – is that women who do not reach orgasm by penetration alone are sick or defective.” Western society has steadfastly preferred to pathologise around 75% of the female population as frigid, hysterical or, as the Victorians liked to say, “out of sorts”, than acknowledge the inconvenient truth that coitus might not be entirely satisfying to women.

The thing I find astounding about this aspect of the history of sexuality is what it says about men’s attitude towards sex, and particularly their lack of interest in the female body. Sure, playing with vibrators is fun, but all that sticky stuff down there is an enjoyable and essential part of a full sex life, and I would have thought that most men who have a genuine interest in and desire for the female body would naturally gravitate to the sort of playfulness that renders vibrators (largely) obsolete, and certainly one would think that through just simply playing around in a natural way, men would have worked out what women like, and would see it as a natural thing. But no, somehow for centuries they all managed to labour under the false notion of the vaginal orgasm, with all the confusion and blandness such an ideal introduces to sexual intercourse. Did they not notice? Were they not concerned? What were they doing? How could they have been satisfied? Reading about the advertisements in women’s magazines of the time, I can’t help thinking that despite their inferior position and straitened circumstances, women had worked out what was going on long before men, and for all their freedom of expression and exploration, it is men who have been the repressed ones for most of history. Which just goes to show that the people with the most social power are not always the ones best equipped to use it …

Big Bang Theory has some amusing and interesting insights into the world of nerds and physicists, and the way it depicts the social standing of nerds in America seems very familiar to an Australian viewer. But like most American shows, when it moves on to talking about relationships and gender relations, it’s a whole new world. Because the show presents an outsider’s view of the social relations of ordinary people, it can be quite brutal in its honesty about what I assume are standard American cultural practices, and when it talks about “dating” and relationships I truly find myself wondering: is America really this crazy? So, this blog post is a plea for my American reader(s) to enlighten me about American “dating” culture: is it really so hard for you guys, and is America really that conservative?

This isn’t a problem limited to just Big Bang Theory, either. Watching Friends, I’m struck by the pointless dufusness of the men’s behavior, the knee-jerk “I’m not gay”-ism and the puerile sex jokes that speak of writers uncomfortable with their own and others’ sexualities. Then there is the hideous conservatism of Sex and the City, that bills itself as being all about a new generation of liberated women, whose liberation boils down to … giving out blowjobs for nothing as if this were daring (and of course settling down for the older rich guy at the end[1]). There is the strange and juvenile way that Richard Castle loses his train of thought any time Kate Beckett implies that she might once have done something racy. Or the way that the women in Buffy all fall over themselves to prove how they’re not “sluts,” and perfectly attractive women in even vaguely gothy outfits are routinely referred to as “skanks” – and this from a supposed feminist. But the good thing about Big Bang Theory is that it’s not just reproducing social norms: being a story about outsiders who sometimes try to fit in, we see them on both sides of the fence. Sometimes they engage in the standard mating rituals of the American male, and then sometimes – as in the outstanding episode where Leonard and Penny decide to be “just friends” – they take on those standard rituals.

In that episode, Leonard and Penny go out for a meal as “just friends,” and Leonard takes great pleasure in forcing Penny to pay for everything she consumes, because that’s what friends do. But the clear reason he takes pleasure in this is that, normally, he would be required to pay for everything.

Is this normal in America? When you go on a date, is the man supposed to pay for everything? I was confused about this, finding it really hard to believe that such a backwards ritual could apply in the modern world, especially in a country so supposedly open-minded and equal as America; and after all, television doesn’t depict life just as it is, but often as the writers would like to imagine life should be, so maybe it’s fake? So I did a bit of online research, and I worry that the show might be telling the truth. This Irish website gives tips to Irish men dating American women, and after “don’t get drunk” the number 2 tip is “pay for everything.” This (admittedly more than a little obnoxious) Guardian opinion piece ponders why American women expect to be shouted everything, even when they earn more than the guy (and blames it on that crappy book The Rules); and this dating advice website corroborates another part of Robert Kelsey’s point about American dating tips – that you shouldn’t “make yourself too available,” which is apparently a delicate American way of saying “don’t have sex when you want to.” I found a website by girls seeking advice about dating French men, too, and the top complaint by the women there seemed to be that their Frenchie doesn’t text them every 10 seconds to tell them how great they are – like maybe he’s got a life, or something[2]. The strong implication I drew from these sites is that American women are high maintenance, requiring men to buy them lots of stuff and constantly tell them how great they are[3]. Also something that a lot of people trying to get by in America seem to notice is that the concept of “dating” is unique to Americans. The dating tips website even talks about this as an identifiable social mode:

Whether you are new to the dating scene, are reentering the dating scene, or are a serial dater, you can use dating tips and advice

Well clearly I would need dating tips and advice, since I’ve seen many scenes but I’ve never heard of a “dating” scene. And what is a “serial dater”? Is that maybe someone who just can’t get a root? In Australia, we don’t “enter the dating scene,” we meet people and if we like them and they like us we have sex with them, and at some point we discuss whether maybe we should stop having sex with other people (although often this is just assumed, or just a touch too delicate so we just keep on doing it until we move in together[4]). If someone is meeting a lot of different people of their preferred sex for dinner and drinks, their friends will say “ooh, he’s getting a bit isn’t he?” or “well she’s certainly enjoying her single life” but no one would say “I think Sheila’s dating again…” What a strange concept. Also, if Sheila is meeting lots of different Bruces, one can be fairly certain that most of those Bruces are expecting her to pay half of the bill. She is not, after all, an escort girl, so it’s not like dinner is a business expense. In fact, quite a few Australian women I have known would feel uncomfortable about the implied expectation of having a man pay for your dinner and drinks. How horrible would it be if a woman paid for my dinner and drinks, but I didn’t like her and didn’t want to see her again? I’d feel like a cheap fraud.

Finally, one night I had a long conversation with my (good-looking, well-adjusted) American (Californian[5]) flatmate about this, and he told me that California girls are really complex, and that trying to become entangled with one is a real pain in the arse: not only do they expect you to pay for everything but the whole “dating” thing is a complex job-interview-like assessment, in which your current and future prospects and all you “have to offer” them is on the table. And you know they’re “dating” various other men – openly! – so that you know you’re competing, kind of bidding for a tender or something. I suppose it fits with the rest of the world’s image of Americans as having kind of commodified themselves, but to me the thought of going out looking for a root as being some kind of investment or marketing strategy is quite horrible.

So my question to my American reader(s) is: is Big Bang Theory right? Is it true that men have to pay for everything and women mustn’t fuck on the first date? Do you really openly admit to your dating partner – through the very use of the word “dating” – that you’re seeing other people in the same context, and kind of taking applications …? Just how cold and calculating do you think people are in their assessment of their dating “partners” in such a context? And are American women as complex and princess-y as your dramas suggest? I’ve never had the good fortune of “dating” (or anything else!) one of your Amazonian women, so your culture is foreign to me. So please do enlighten me! If I were Leonard dating Penny, and I refused to pay for her ice-cream, would that be a faux pas? And if so, what do you think of these strange rules? And have you considered moving to Australia, where the women are beautiful and fun and simple and sweet and, quite frankly, easy?

fn1: At least, that is what I’m led to believe happened – I don’t dare watch the show too much for fear my head would explode from the sheer horribleness of the main characters, not to mention the intense pain brought on by the concentration required to pretend that these hideous brides-of-skeletor are actually pretty women who are capable of sexual enjoyment (though admittedly, all their sexual enjoyment seems to come from giving blowjobs and then telling each other about it, so maybe this last part should make sense).

fn2: spent working hard to pay for the next date, maybe?

fn3: I think there’s a Monty Python scene about this, involving Death and a salmon mousse.

fn4: This is a slight exaggeration, but you get my point, I’m sure.

fn5: Actually, is it possible to be Californian, good-looking, and well-adjusted at the same time? Maybe I missed something!

Continuing my series of posts on sex work, public health and feminism, I turn my attention now to the modern feminist response to sex work. First I’ll outline a common strand in modern feminist responses to sex work and pornography, which I think it should be pretty obvious contrast with the public health approach I described previously. In subsequent posts I will discuss the use and abuse of the contentious issue of “sex trafficking,” and then I will close this series by discussing what I think all this says about modern feminism’s relationship with ordinary women, with reality-based policy-making, and with the ways in which society has liberalized in the past 20 years.

Prohibition and Pornography

The first great feminist incursion into the sex work debate in modern times was the great pornography debate of the 1980s, when Andrea Dworkin and Catharine McKinnon became active in attempts to both ban pornography in several states, and contributed to an inquiry established by Ronald Reagan to inquire into the “harms” caused by porn. Dworkin and McKinnon are probably the two most famous radical feminists involved in the anti-pornography campaigns of the ’80s, and had a huge influence on the debate. They are often characterized as having teamed up with christian conservatives in their contribution to the 1986 Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, and the methods used by the movement they represented, Women Against Pornography, were fundamentally illiberal.

The Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography ultimately led to the publication of the Meese Report, a highly controversial document that found many negative effects of pornography, and infamously associates pornography use with rape and child sexual abuse. It also gives a hint of how the anti-sex work feminist movement was prepared to treat women in the industry. In Chapter 4, which describes the way in which women are treated in the pornography industry, we find the following introductory discussion of their methods:

we have not had the power to issue subpoenas summoning reluctant witnesses to appear; thus all information at our disposal was presented to us voluntarily or obtained through our review of materials on the public record. In addition, the severe time constraints imposed on our work were particularly damaging in this area because, as discussed earlier, this aspect of the pornography “industry” has received only the scantiest attention in the past. We, therefore, did not have the benefit of knowing from the outset what were the most likely avenues to discovery of pertinent evidence about activities that are largely underground. Finally, both the difficulty of locating witnesses and the pressure of time meant that we were not able to spend substantial time in cross-examination of their testimony or in background investigations to corroborate their statements.

In the end, this inquiry just did some convenience sampling of a sub-culture that was under attack in the US and whose female participants are generally seen in … well, in less than positive terms by most members of the community (especially in the 80s!) So is it any wonder that from amongst their extremely biased sample they find that the industry is seedy and dangerous and in need of reform? This is a constant problem in the modern feminist approach to sex work: in a society where anyone who enjoys or seeks out casual sex or selling sex is derided as a slut, a fool or an enemy of women, it’s no wonder that the accounts that surface from this industry tend to be one-sided and self-exculpatory. Who wants to be reported in a national commission of inquiry during a conservative era as a loose woman whose morals are so poor that she enjoys fucking strangers for cash? These women either don’t come forward, or lie.

Which isn’t to say that the industry wasn’t dubious in the 70s and 80s, but the natural public health response to a dangerous working environment is to set up a regulatory and occupational framework that will ameliorate the risks. However, the radical feminist approach to porn was to attempt to get the industry banned, and this proceeded with efforts at municipal level. Because the first amendment protects free speech the movement attempted to redefine pornography as a form of sexual harassment and to pass civil laws that would enable women to sue makers and distributors of pornography on civil rights (rather than censorship) grounds. Hearings were held into the laws, and the process of these hearings is described in Mckinnon and Dworkin’s book In Harm’s Way, which is reviewed here and seems to present a fundamentally dishonest depiction of what actually happened.

Not only is this a fundamentally illiberal approach to pornography and the sex industry, but it shows that the anti-pornography movement are willing to cut deals with any unsavoury characters – including Ronald Reagan’s christian conservative movement – to get their goals. We’ll see this again in later responses to sex work, when we see the way the anti-sex work movement has sided with the US State Department to use coercive methods to impress its preferred “solution” to sex work’s public health risks on developing nations. Perhaps more seriously from a feminist perspective, the 10 years of this movement’s activities in the US fundamentally divided feminists from the pornography industry, denying them a chance either to influence women-centred pornography or the depiction of women in porn aimed at men, and separating them from an industry which represents the natural consequence of second wave feminism’s greatest achievements: the liberalization of sex and the discourse about sexuality. So it was that from the 1980s onward pornography headed off down an increasingly misogynist and extreme path, at least in the West, and feminist influence over its development was lost. Now that the internet enables widespread porn delivery this is obviously a significant loss for feminism – instead of beaming pro-feminist images of sexual behavior into every teenage boys brain, Larry Flint’s degenerate cultural progeny are face-fucking them into misogynist oblivion. These activists also created a dominant discourse in feminism (and much of popular culture) about the destructive influence of porn that is almost completely groundless. This is not a great cultural legacy, and it certainly doesn’t create an atmosphere which is conducive to accepting and non-judgmental approaches towards women who work in what – in infectious diseases terms – is a very dangerous industry. While there is a sex-positive feminist movement, it is new and less influential on modern cultural attitudes towards porn due to the legacy it fights. We’ll return to the debate between these movements when we look at what this legacy of anti-sex work activism means for the relationship between modern feminism and young women.

Feminism and Sex Work in Sweden and the UK

While Dworkin and Mckinnon were active in the USA, a similar movement – influenced by similar people – was also growing in the UK. It’s most famous member, Sheila Jeffreys, staked her colours to the mast very clearly in the 1970s when she wrote a pamphlet declaring that all heterosexual feminists should eschew heterosexual sex and become “Political lesbians.” For feminists like Jeffreys, any woman who has sex with a man is a traitor. This makes sex workers quislings, the worst of traitors, and as a marginalized minority obviously easy front line targets in an ideological battle clearly aimed at changing the nature of the relations between the sexes. Her colleague and protege, Julie Bindel, is an anti-sex work campaigner in the UK with significant public influence through her journalism (she writes for the Guardian), who was deeply involved in a highly controversial and biased report for the POPPY Project, that presents an unscientific and potentially unethical review of sex work in the UK. Even though subsequent police action showed that many of the claims about trafficking and forced sex in the British sex industry were highly flawed, the campaigning of this group was instrumental in convincing the then Labour government to introduce a Swedish-style law on sex work. This law criminalizes the purchase of sex where the person selling it is working for someone else, on the flawed assumption that any sex worker who is working for someone else is (to use the radical feminist term) being “prostituted” (or “pimped,” as it’s more commonly known).

This law is similar to the Swedish law, which criminalizes the purchase of sex but not its sale. These laws are based on the soothing fiction that by banning the purchase of sex but not its sale we can drive sex work out of business without punishing sex workers, only the men who visit them. These laws also have an explicitly moral, rather than public health agenda, as described by their architect[1]:

In Sweden, prostitution is officially acknowledged as a form of male sexual violence against women and children. One of the cornerstones of Swedish policies against prostitution and trafficking in human beings is the focus on the root cause, the recognition that without men’s demand for and use of women and girls for sexual exploitation, the global prostitution industry would not be able flourish and expand.

This article also mentions trafficking a lot, and includes some entertaining assertions about the Dutch sex industry (apparently Dutch job centres recommend brothels as work options for unemployed women!)

So, the Swedish laws were introduced to prevent men purchasing sex, on the assumption that the view that women are commodities to be consumed is at the root of discrimination against women. This is a classic case of attacking the easiest symptom rather than the problem. If the problem is an attitude towards women which enables commodification, attacking the market place is no good – you need to attack the attitude. Unless the purchase of sex is common amongst all Swedish men, all that will happen is that it will target only the most extreme representatives of this attitude. And given most men don’t purchase women, how can we be confident that this commodification of women is the root cause of the non-purchasing men’s sexist attitudes?

Both of these countries have acted to prohibit the purchase of sex but not its sale. Does this materially change the nature of sex work, help women leave the industry, protect women from trafficking and forced sex slavery, or make them safer? The opinion of most sex worker representative organizations is that it has the opposite effect: it drives sex workers back to a system of working individually, in rooms by themselves or on call-out jobs rather than in brothels, without security guards or drivers. It certainly doesn’t protect women from trafficking or sexual slavery, since these activities are illegal everywhere regardless of the status of the sex industry. The laws will only help women leave the industry if they are being forced into it in the first place (assuming the laws work in the way they are intended). But here the laws are driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of how the industry works and of what women want. Even with the best will in the world, you cannot drive women out of the sex industry, because it pays well. The only way the sex industry will disappear is if society can find a way to make men not want to purchase sex, and the surest way to do that is to attack all the other aspects of our screwed up system of gender relations that makes seeking casual sex such a complex and one-sided affair (I’ll have more to say about this when I review Big Bang Theory). Until then, men are going to want and need to pay for sex, especially if they are busy, traveling, disabled, or just plain ugly. Women, too, buy sex, and this fact alone presents a big problem for feminist approaches to the sex industry. It’s not going to go away until we restructure the nature of our non-commodified sexual relations, and this is happening very slowly (and, I hope to show later, the very feminists who oppose the sex industry also have very reactionary opinions about non-commodified sexual relations).

From a public health and public order perspective, though, the main problem with these laws is that they drive women back into sole-trader arrangements, where they are vulnerable to rape and theft, and where their decisions about safe sex are driven by their own personal circumstances, work practices, and vulnerabilities rather than by the kinds of workplace policies, union rules and sense of shared responsibility that are most likely – in every area of employment – to change attitudes towards safety. It will also encourage people who are interested in running brothels – which are highly profitable businesses – to seek weaker, more vulnerable women who they can hide and who have little recourse to the law. That is, illegal immigrants. It also encourages police corruption (since sex workers and brothel owners need to get the police off their backs, and it’s the time honoured way). This is particularly tragic for women in the UK, because the UK police are extremely corrupt and there is no political will at any level to restructure the force to make it robust against corruption. When the Police Commissioner is willing to accept a gift of a five week massage holiday here from a media organization that had been hacking murder victims phones, paying police for private information on citizens, and even hacked the Prime Minister’s phone, what chance is there that ordinary police will turn down the odd back-alley shag from a girl who needs a break at work? None, I’d say. The Labour Party was willing to leave policing a law involving young women and sex to a police force that allowed its under-cover police to form sexual relationships – and have children – with activists they were supposed to be spying on. This is a recipe for corruption, and these laws will simply mean a return to the bad old days of vulnerable women being exploited or, at best, working in high-risk settings for lower pay and/or predatory criminal organizations.

Sex Workers as Tools for a Political Goal

The architects of these laws have made clear that they think the structure of modern sexual relations is wrong, and that they see sex work as the ultimate expression of the dysfunctional nature of modern sexuality. Often, they see commodified sexual relations as the problem – including but not limited to the idea of marriage as prostitution – but unlike the union-influenced and socialist feminist politics of Australia and of the earlier second wave feminists overseas, they don’t see the commodification of sexual relations as a result of distorted economic models. It is a hallmark of radical feminism that flaws in all other economic and social relations are believed to derive from the model of gender inequality, and so radical feminists don’t believe that problems like sex work can be solved through changing labour relations (whether radically, as in the case of feminists influenced by Marxism, or through the institutions of civil society, as in feminists influenced by the politics of the labour movement[2]). Instead, they see sex work as the most vulnerable link in a chain of social structures where women are dominated by men, and through public policy they see an opportunity to attack the underlying structures of the sexual relations of our society through attempts to abolish the sex industry. Unlike the prohibitionists of previous eras, they see prohibition as an opportunity to change the moral under-pinnings of gender relations, rather than to protect the moral fabric of existing society; but in both cases, they see public health, and laws affecting sex workers, only in terms of its relevance to the moral debate that concerns them. This means that they instrumentalize sex workers as a tool of public policy in the pursuit of their own moral goals, rather than treating them as fully independent people deserving of dignity in their own right. In my final piece in this series I will attempt to show why I think this similarity is not a coincidence, and derives in both cases from an inability to accept different perspectives, especially those of poor and non-white women. But first I will digress a little, to discuss the problem of sex trafficking. Things can only get more controversial from here …

fn1: Ekberg, G. The Swedish law that prohibits the purchase of sexual services: Best practices for prevention of prostitution and trafficking in human beings. Violence Against Women. 2004; 10(10): 1187-1218.

fn2: Sullivan, B. Feminist approaches to the Sex Industry. Proceedings, Conference on Sex Industry and Public Policy. Australian Institute of Crimonology, 6-8 May 1991. Available online (with many other interesting links) here.

Continuing my series of posts on sex work, public health and radical feminism, this post will attempt to describe the public health issues surrounding modern sex work, and some common public health responses to it. For the most part I will be talking about developed nations; for a variety of reasons, different conditions pertain in the developing world, and the public health response there is more complex. But as we shall see, sex work in the modern era presents some unique problems, and the majority of modern responses to them have been based around pragmatism and public health, rather than moral hygiene concerns, and in this sense modern responses – even in poor and conservative countries like Bangladesh or Indonesia – can be very different to those we previously presented from 100 years ago.

Sex Work in the Modern Era: The Problem of HIV

Until the early 1980s it was looking like sex work as a public health problem had become largely irrelevant. With the discovery of effective tests and treatments for syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia the major public health problems “caused” by sex work seemed to be under control.  Of course, all of this changed when HIV entered the scene – in the early 1980s for the developed world, but much earlier in Africa – and suddenly sex workers were cast back in time, to the bad disease vectors of old, transmitting an incurable and deadly disease.

HIV is a classic example of how an infectious disease can survive in a community even though the majority of people are not engaged in the risk behavior that underlies its spread. Because it is asymptomatic for years, a small group of people can spread the disease through high risk behavior without even knowing they have it, and if this group of people is stigmatized and their reasons for getting or transmitting the disease make them subject to discrimination or public coercion, they are much, much less likely to get the voluntary screening that is needed to prevent the spread of the disease. In the absence of open coercion – which, in the case of sex workers, has been shown to be an ineffective public health measure for over a hundred years – some other tactic was needed to ensure that the disease did not become entrenched in this population.

In the early 1980s, HIV was a genuine emergency, and it’s instructive to look at what happened in Africa in order to see what happens if the disease goes unchecked in the general community for too long. In the absence of a treatment, and knowing that the disease is asymptomatic for years, the public health community in the developed world recognized that a new approach to sex work was going to be needed: there was no time for moral panics and placing our hopes in the ability of our moral leaders to force women out of the industry, and men out of purchasing sex. Instead, in the UK, Australia, Canada and much of Europe, a new approach was tested that was based on, essentially, bringing sex workers in from the cold.

The Modern Public Health Model for Sex Work

The modern public health response for sex work is built around multiple strategies, working at multiple levels of society and the health system, to ensure that traditional cultural, structural and economic barriers to seeking health care – and specifically, sexual health care – were removed rapidly. The main components of this model were:

  • Sex worker empowerment: Unlike the rest of the population, sex workers have absolutely no reason to want to have sex without a condom. There’s nothing in it for them, in general, and most of the reasons for condom-free sex in such an environment are structural. Where women are underpaid, under threat of violence, or unable to successfully negotiate with clients, condom-free sex happens. Where they are well paid, supported by management in protecting their health, and free from the threat of violence, they inevitably use condoms. This effect is even stronger if they are connected to a community of sex workers, so that everyone in the industry knows that in relenting on condom-only sex rules, they make everyone’s job harder. These gains are partly (and only partly) achieved through self-empowerment, the establishment of unions and representative organizations like the Scarlet Alliance, who can advocate for sex workers’ workplace safety inside and outside their workplace, and help sex workers to work together to ensure workplace safety. These were set up early in Australia, and have been very effective campaigners for the rights of workers
  • Legal changes: ultimately the best way to ensure the safety of women working in the industry is to legalize it, so that the industry shifts from the control of gangsters and thugs to a more standard business model. Legalizing (or decriminalizing) the industry enables government and health authorities to monitor conditions in brothels, to gain access rights, to vet the criminal histories of those who open brothels, and to ensure certain hygiene standards. It also removes the workers themselves from the oversight of the police, so that they go from criminals to civilians, and thus gain greater police protection. It also enables governments to set certain basic standards of criminal culpability on managers and workers alike. But most importantly, it enables sex workers to report crimes against them to the police, to openly employ security guards and receptionists, and to change the balance of power between worker and client – a key component in enabling the worker to enforce safe sex in the ultimately private portion of the business transaction.
  • Specialist services: it’s still common for doctors and nurses to be quite judgmental about promiscuity and sex work, so it’s important that if a worker is getting regular tests – monthly or quarterly, for example – or sex work-specific health care, she can do it in an environment that doesn’t discriminate against her on the basis of her work, and that understands the specific conditions of her work. While sex work is illegal (as it is in, e.g. Indonesia) it’s also important to have specialist services that have a “special” arrangement with the local police (these arrangements are actually quite realistic goals in a functioning civil society). Workers know that they can visit these services and have no fear of being harassed by or turned over to police. If a worker won’t visit a health service for fear of discrimination, mistreatment or legal trouble, she won’t get an HIV test. For much of the history of the HIV epidemic (until recently, in fact) there has been no personal benefit to the person with HIV of getting an early HIV test, since there was no treatment and it’s asymptomatic. Why go to the trouble of a test just to protect the broader community, if the broader community is telling you you are a worthless whore?
  • Practical law enforcement changes: Even where sex work is illegal, police can be convinced to look the other way, to treat sex workers leniently and with discretion, or to allow sex work under certain conditions. For example, in Sydney, Australia, there was a long-standing agreement between health and law enforcement officials that two streets in Kings Cross were acceptable locations for street-based sex work, even though it was illegal. There were also certain “safe houses” where women could take their clients, that the police only entered with good reason. Women working in these locations could be (reasonably) guaranteed safety from police harassment, and were working in highly visible and regularly-frequented zones – offering some protection against trouble. The police would also come to know these women, and would cooperate with local health services in finding them if they were needed, or getting them suitable emergency support. The first lesson of the era of HIV is that police do not need to be the enemies of people from whom they are supposedly protecting society.
  • Outreach and education: Having established these arrangements with police, health agencies can successfully run outreach programs to offer education, safer sex support, medical and drug treatment referrals, and basic social welfare advice. In the case of stable brothel-based workers this outreach can be minimal – a sex worker representative visiting a brothel once a month to check that all is going well, for example – but there is a sinister under-belly to the sex industry, of drug-addicted women and illegal migrant workers, who need a great deal more help.
  • Drug treatment services: This sinister underbelly involves women doing sex work to make money for drugs, and it’s well accepted that these women are at much greater risk of both violence and unsafe sexual activity than their non-addicted colleagues. They often work in the street, in extremely dangerous settings, under the influence of drugs, or in states of desperation. The best way to change these women’s lives is to get them into drug treatment, and this is also probably the best way to reduce the risk of the spread of HIV by these women – who are also at higher risk of getting HIV through injecting drug use. Again, for these women drug treatment services have to offer appropriate care that doesn’t drive them away due to their “vice.” It’s possible to imagine, for example, a “moral hygiene” focused drug treatment service that will not offer treatment to sex workers or “loose women.” The vicious cycle of drug abuse and sex work will ensure that these women will never get into treatment under such conditions. Fortunately, such drug treatment services largely don’t exist in any significant numbers anymore.
  • Practical public health interventions: Dispensing condoms, a weekly “ugly mug” bulletin that alerts street-based workers about potentially dangerous clients, sexual health clinics being open at times that suit women who work, outreach workers who understand the industry, courses on basic negotiation skills for women at work, are all practical public health interventions that may make a difference to how women work. But these interventions won’t work in isolation, and there’s limited evidence that they work in many settings: this is because the primary drivers of risk amongst sex workers are structural, and largely out of the control of the individual women in the industry.

The other, largely unresearched benefit of all of these services, in my opinion, is that they offer exit rights to women in the industry. It’s much, much harder to force women into sex work – either economically or through the vicious tools of the illegal immigrant contract – if the law enforcement, health system, and industry structure is designed to offer women essentially the same rights at work as they would have if they were working in a restaurant or an office. This ensures that only women who are capable of making a choice to work in the industry will stay in it long term, and these women will no doubt be much more capable of protecting their sexual health than women who don’t want to work in the industry and can’t get out. I’ll return to this aspect of the debate later, when I contrast this decriminalization model with the abolition model favoured by radical feminists. But first, let’s look at a success story under this model.

Australia: A Decriminalization Success Story

In 1984, when HIV reached Australia, sex work was still illegal and the industry was very much unregulated; but coincidentally with the arrival of HIV, in New South Wales (the most populous state) the Parliamentary Select Committee Enquiring into Prostitution had been commissioned, and recommended changes to the laws, including a movement towards decriminalization and the establishment of specialist services; the first (and only) such service was opened in 1986 at the Kirketon Road Centre. Sex worker representative bodies were established in 1987, and further legal changes happened slowly over the following 10 years. By the time I entered the public health field in 1995, it was well-established that sex workers were at lower risk of STIs than non-sex workers, that there had never been a case of HIV transmitted by a sex worker in Australia, and that sex workers were at higher risk of STIs from their non-commercial partners than their commercial partners. This was despite the fact that a large number of street-based workers were also injecting drug users, and at elevated risk of HIV. Subsequently, the law further improved as did the law enforcement agencies after the Woods Royal Commission into Police Corruption (approx. 1996); by the time I left Australia in 2006 it was virtually impossible to have commercial sex with a minor (something that was quite easy in 1986), and rape and violence against sex workers was taken very seriously by police, and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. It was also extremely unlikely that police would be able to get away with corrupt dealings with drug dealers or sex workers, due to legal changes to the treatment of these crimes and also due to a significant cultural change in the police force. Now, brothels in NSW are licensed by their relevant local council, brothel owners are vetted for criminal records, and brothels are subject to regular inspection. This gives councils sweeping powers to investigate and force the closure of suspected illegal brothels.

As a result, the public health and legal environment in New South Wales is vastly improved: for sex workers, their clients, the unsuspecting partners of those clients, migrant women who might have been tricked into appalling situations, and drug-using women working the streets. HIV remained confined to the drug using and homosexual populations, and the main drivers of diseases like chlamydia remained (much more intractable) young, high-risk non-sex working heterosexual people[1].

The Feminist Antecedents of Legal Reform

Much of the impetus for decriminalization of sex work came from the “second wave” of feminists: that is, women like Germaine Greer, Marilyn French, Simone de Beauvoir, and female parliamentarians of the 1970s. With the Second Wave of feminism came recognition that promiscuity could be acceptable, and a move to reduce the risks that women faced in taking control of their own sexuality: date rape, violence, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) began to be seen as unreasonable risks for women to run in exploring a sexuality that, by the 80s, was generally recognized as their own to control. Part of the recognition of women’s right to control their own sexuality was their right to use it as they saw fit, and a body of political theory developed that saw prostitution as a type of work like any other, rather than a vice or evidence of a moral failing. Most of this feminist understanding of prostitution also drew on the keen understanding women like Marilyn French had of the very real economic and personal challenges facing women in the 1970s[2]: with work opportunities still very restricted, and many women having limited access to education, prostitution came to be understood not just in terms of its moral dimension, but as a form of empowerment within the restricted economic choices women faced in this time. Now, of course, the situation for young women is very different, but for a young woman aiming for independence in the 1970s, financial and employment opportunities were limited; sex work was seen by feminists as a legitimate response to these pressures, and moral judgment of it seen as representing more the failings of the system and the patriarchy than the moral failings of the individual women.

Of course, theory about decriminalization didn’t develop in isolation: at the same time the drug decriminalization movement had flirted with legalization and harm reduction had begun to be understood as a public health theory, and there was also a strong gay rights movement building in many countries. Second wave feminism was often focused on very pragmatic things, and it was only natural that from this brew they would develop a theory of the decriminalization of sex work, and it was a distinctly feminist campaign that culminated in the Prostitution Act in NSW (1979, I think) that led to the initial (4 year long) experiment in decriminalization. This was partially reversed in 1983, but remains a significant feminist victory and marks a clear break from the moral panic of previous eras when faced with sex workers and public health. Of course other countries were trying the same things, and the growth of sex worker representative movements in the 1980s also guaranteed that the combined feminist/public health goals of decriminalization would spread around the world. Perhaps this stuff wouldn’t have happened so fast if not for the pressures of the early HIV era; but regardless of the public health pressures, the role of feminists in establishing the groundwork and theory of decriminalization needs to be recognized.

In the next post, I’ll try to show how radical feminists view sex work and promiscuity, in contrast to the second wave. You’ve made it this far – stick around!

fn1: Some readers may be confused as to why I care about chlamydia, which many people think is harmless, like a kind of common cold of the genitals. In fact, chlamydia is a scourge: it is often asymptomatic, and causes most men no significant harm; but if undetected in women it can lead to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, which is very nasty and can cause infertility or increased risk of ectopic pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancy is a devastating condition for an expecting mother (it invariably leads to miscarriage) and can be fatal if undetected. Amongst all the public health problems facing the world, chlamydia is no doubt far from the worst (or even very bad) but it’s still a nasty, unnecessary little blighter and the sooner we can get rid of it the better.

fn2: It can be bitter stuff, but I strongly recommend reading Marilyn French if you want to get a clear, powerful description of the very different circumstances facing women in love in the 60s and 70s compared to now. It’s well written, tough and uncompromising, and helps to give a sense of the passions that drove this wave of feminism – and how far we have come.

Continuing my series of posts on sex work and public health, I thought I might take a brief look at some of the historical debate over sex work and public health. Sex work can be a major risk factor for the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and the sex industry can play the role of a classic “high risk” group in epidemiology, maintaining a pool of individuals with some disease and spreading it to low risk groups through sexual contact. This is a well-recognized aspect of the epidemiology of infectious disease, and isn’t in and of itself a stigmatized or morally compromised position for a part of society to occupy. Travelers are a high-risk group for the spread of influenza, prisoners for TB, and children for a range of infectious diseases. But the particular form of the risk that sex workers engage in – sexual – and some of its historical “victims” (that is, the types of men who purchase sex from sex workers) have been of sufficient concern to the authorities that sex workers have attracted a great deal of moral opprobrium for their behavior. Public health interventions of various kinds have been advocated in modern societies since at least the 1870s, and historically have tended to instrumentalize sex workers as a risk group: that is, they only see the health of sex workers through the prism of the harm they may “do” to others, and don’t consider the health, welfare or rights of these women in and of themselves to be of much (or any) value. Examination of the approach to public health in previous eras can be instructive: it helps us to understand the types of political and moral forces that are brought to bear on those who might put the rest of the community at risk through their “immoral” behavior.

Sex Work and the Future of the Nation

Sex work entered the national consciousness in the UK in the 1860s, after the Crimean war. Returning soldiers, and soldiers in camp during and after the war, were targeted for business by, and very frequently visited, sex workers. Gonorrhea and syphilis became serious public health issues, and in this era neither were treatable, so attention naturally turned to prevention efforts. With soldiers who contracted these diseases being rendered unfit to serve, there was a genuine fear that the soldiers’ actions might lead to such a high rate of disease as to compromise the fitness of the army. The UK Government established a commission to investigate the problem in 1864, and debate on the issue became quite public. In 1870, the Daily Telegraph wrote in an editorial:

the question can be suppressed no longer – that it concerns the very life and future history of the nation, and must be carried, as is our wont, before the tribunal of national opinion.

With this, the Telegraph decided to confront the issue of prostitution as it was then imagined: not just as a public health issue, but as an issue that affected the future of the nation. Somewhat hyperbolic, one might think, but the British Medical Journal (BMJ)  in the same year showed were the leadership of the medical profession stood on the importance of the issue of sex work and the national good:

Shall we find that, by the control of prostitution, we shall have irretrievably lost in morality and gained not at all in health?[1]

This letter was written in response to proposals to introduce controls on prostitution. These controls would largely have consisted of mandatory health checks for soldiers, proposals to educate them in hygiene and safer sex, and possibly also some extremely punitive measures targeted at sex workers (including, possibly, the right for police to “inspect” any woman considered to be a possible worker). The concern of the correspondent was not just that these measures might prove useless, but that by even so much as considering education of soldiers about the risks of sex with sex workers, Britain would have given up something of its moral core. Merely admitting that ordinary men visit sex workers, and that this could not be stopped, was seen as a potential moral scourge. One imagines that these “prostitutes” must have been a truly terrifying force for evil, that even to speak their name in the presence of soldiers would so corrupt them as to lead to the “irretrievable” loss of some moral value – and with it, we shall see, physical decay.

Nationalism and Sexual Health

There was a strong nationalist aspect to debates about sexuality and sexual health during the period of empire, and a fear that the failure of proper moral controls on certain segments of society would lead to a failure to check

that dire disease, syphilis, which is, more than any other disease, undermining the human constitution in this and other countries[2]

He linked the physical decay associated with this disease directly to the moral decay of prostitution and “immorality.” But the effect of the disease on the national constitution was not believed to be due to its debilitating physical effects alone; the weakening of the nation as a whole that comes about through “moral decay” was also of great concern. In amongst multiple letters to the BMJ describing genuinely terrifying levels of STI infection (up to 20% in one cohort during world war 1), we find doctors such as John Armstrong, who asked in 1921,

Shall we preach indulgences and recommend appliances and disinfecting agents, and so call evil good? By these means we might possibly, but not probably, stamp out syphilis, but the remedy would be a hundredfold worse than the disease, inasmuch as it would lead to a universal physical weakness and degeneracy unparalleled in history[3].

Here we are now 50 years from the original debate over the Contagious Diseases Act, and yet still correspondents to the BMJ are presenting the epidemiology of syphilis as inseparable from the epidemiology of moral decay. In the intervening 50 years they had won world war 1 despite all these supposedly weakening measures, and 50 years of (at least) considering preventive measures and education in the army had hardly led to the debilitation of the nation. And yet … moral degeneracy was still seen around every corner, and even were the medical consequences of it to be stamped out, the moral decay that might result from a policy of permissiveness towards promiscuity and sex work would surely destroy the nation.

The Importance of Moral Enforcement

If this were not enough evidence that the public health benefits of pragmatism were in this time considered very much secondary to the moral interests of the body politic, consider this further editorial piece from the BMJ in 1884, after the passage of various Contagious Diseases Acts in the UK, which included punitive measures against sex workers and a variety of public health measures targeting sex workers:

The reformatory side of the question has not been fully and fairly recognized by those even who have pleaded the sanitary side. Without compulsion in some form or other, there can be no repression of this disease, and, without moral reforms, compulsion would not be tolerated[2].

The “compulsion” here referred to includes the right of police to stop and enforce medical investigation of any woman suspected of sex work, and the continuing abolition of sex work itself (with punishment for the women involved). This editorial makes it clear that morality cannot be separated from public health when talking about STIs, and that prevention of disease in this era was considered impossible without the right of “compulsion” over those who might be affected. The “moral reforms” referred to here are attempts to reinforce existing moral strictures on sex out of marriage and promiscuity – a return to traditional values was considered essential to support willingness to prosecute ordinary women over sex work, and to introduce nationwide measures against sex workers and those who visited them.

Moral debate on prostitution at this time was not entirely one-sided, though even medical men who took a more humane or enlightened approach to the benefits of public health intervention could sound quite judgmental by modern standards, not to mention hyperbolic. Again, from the BMJ of 1869:

My private opinion is, and I hope to have it supported by you, that the discussion of these matters by medical men has now satisfactorily shown that the Contagious Diseases Act is but a division of a still larger question-Prostitution, which, again, cannot be discussed, much less settled, without our possessing considerable knowledge of the kindred questions of Illegitimacy and Infanticide

Whether the nation will ultimately accept these Acts, and the benefits obtainable from their operation, or not, one thing is certain, the condition of our streets after nightfall will no longer be allowed to be a national disgrace: moreover, “The Ladies’ Anti-Contagious Diseases Association” now admits that the condition of their fallen sisterhood requires investigation, and they take blame to themselves for having so long neglected it. To conclude, I think you will agree with me that, as public feeling is now fully aroused to the necessity of investigating these questions, professional men must be prepared to take their part in the discussion; and Government must look to surgeons to carry out the preventive and sanitary measures which our special knowledge may recommend for the alleviation of the sufferings of women who are often more sinned against than sinning[4].

[Emphasis in the original].

This more enlightened view of the public health benefits of intervention still supports extending the punitive measures of the Contagious Diseases Act to the civil population, and refers to sex workers as “fallen” women. While it might be progressive for its time, it still admits of a need to control and change sex workers, and denies them agency or the right to control their workplace or their own future. At the time, with most STIs untreatable and the “situation” on the streets of London seen as urgent, this coercive approach to public health may have been appropriate, but it set the tone for much of the following 100 years of debate on STIs, sexuality and public health in the medical profession. This tone is perhaps best summed up in the policy statement of the National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases, which, writing fully 50 years after the initial Contagious Disease Acts were passed, stated the following in its policy:

As by far the most important cause [of STIs] is promiscuous sexual intercourse, the question cannot be dealt with apart from social and moral factors … The action of public-health authorities in dwelling in their publications on the medical prevention of these diseases, to the exclusion of moral considerations, is deprecated.[5]

Thus it was still well-accepted medical orthodoxy in 1921 that public health interventions based on education, information and the practice of safer sex were to be ignored in favour of punitive and moral measures. While debate on this was far from settled, we can see the debate has followed this tone and failed to settle on a compromise between morality and hygiene for more than 50 years. Is it any wonder then, that even after syphilis had become just another treatable disease – in the modern era – doctors continued to insist on the importance of fighting immorality in medical practice?

Beyond Sex Work: Illness and Pregnancy as Moral Enforcers

There is an underlying tenor to much of the early correspondence on STIs that suggests they should be seen as the natural consequence of moral decay or that the prevention, through encouraging “immorality,” is worse than the disease. But although implicit in the published statements of these early physicians, they never manage to come out and say that the terror of syphilis could act as a deterrent to immorality[6]. Once the second wave of feminism had reared its ugly head, however, things got a little more heated in the medical literature. Consider this (not uncontroversial) piece from 1971:

Venereal disease being no longer a penalty it is not a Deterrent… if this new understanding and tolerance of an immense human problem is not to land us in one huge jumbo-jet hop from barbarism to decadence then new attitudes to the physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects of personal intimacy must be born.[7]

In this article the role of STI as moral enforcer is clearly stated. This link between promiscuity and disease was being researched in the 1970s, out of fear that the pill would lead to an explosion in STI prevalence, and the role of the pill in removing restraints to “barbarism” was seriously considered, but this opinion piece is one of the clearest statements of an underlying moral panic: that without fear of the negative consequences of sex, people would just get on with enjoying themselves. We’ll come back to this theme in later episodes of this series, because while the second wave feminists were very much in favour of liberalization of sex work laws and the breaking of boundaries on sexual behavior, their radical feminist successors have in common with Dr. Wigfield and their christian fundamentalist fairweather friends a desire to create “new attitudes to the physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects of personal intimacy.” Until the advent of HIV, when gay men entered the spotlight, sex workers and promiscuous women – often casually intermingled in the traditional view of “immorality” – were the ones who were most likely to be the victims of these experiments in returning to old social values[8]. We will see this casual elision of categories (of women, and of behavior) and the return to moral themes of 30, 50 or 100 years ago frequently in even the most modern debates over sex work, and we will see that those worried about “immorality” are very quick to place public health and the physical welfare of women behind their deeper moral concerns, and that it is always sex workers and poor women who suffer first and most from attempts to reverse the flow of sexual liberation. We will also see these nationalist and moralist themes return to the debate, though they may take on new and more modern forms, being confused with issues about European integration, globalization, trafficking in people, the objectification of modern sexual relations through capitalism, and the “pornification” of society. But fundamentally they derive from this same animating principle: that the welfare of people engaging in consensual acts, and the public health risks arising from same, are of secondary concern compared to the pressing need to prevent some form of moral slippage. It is, in essence, the conflict between liberalism and authoritarianism, in the most personal of spheres.

1: Drysdale C. Correspondence, British Medical Journal; July 23, 1870

2: Nason, J. An address on sanitation in some of its aspects, moral as well as general. British Medical Journal; July 5, 1884.

3. Armstrong, J. Correspondence, British Medical Journal; November 11, 1922

4: Acton, W. Correspondence, British Medical Journal; April 2, 1870

5: National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases. The prevention of venereal disease: statement of the national council. British Medical Journal; March 26, 1921.

6: I have a memory from long ago of an editorial in the BMJ where a doctor openly advocates leaving syphilis untreated as a deterrent to others, but much searching has failed to turn it up, so I can only conclude that it was a figment of my imagination. But there is a nasty letter in the 1895 BMJ from a woman advocating leaving syphilis untreated in pregnant women, for vaguely eugenicist reasons.

7: Wigfield, AS. Attitudes to Venereal Disease in a Permissive Society. British Medical Journal, 1971, 4, 342-5.

8: And it’s no surprise that once HIV entered the scene – even in 1987 – we had letters to medical journals from surgeons arguing their right not to treat those who engaged in “voluntary sexual perversion or mainline drug abuse”

Because one day, I aim to sue for injuries incurred having sex at work as well!

Weighing in at 55kg plus hair, in the Blue Corner...

Apropos of nothing, here is the website of one of the brothels that operate in my local suburb, Kado Ebi. I walk past this brothel (actually, it’s a soapland) on my way to my favourite restaurant, Bloomoon, or when I’m passing Kichijoji’s hammock cafe[1]. It says a lot about the attitude towards sex in Japan that a brothel can be situated opposite a fashionable cafe for dainty young women. I suppose it also says a lot that the brothel has a website, multiple branches, a search facility to match you to your favourite “princess” (including by blood type), pictures of the inside of the brothel on the website, and an announcement saying that the brothel doesn’t employ kyakuhiki, that is, touts. This is what happens when you decriminalize sex work (I think in Japan all forms of non-penetrative sex are completely legal as sex work, though I could be wrong about this).

But what really confuses and intrigues me about this soapland (besides the name, which I think means “corner shrimp”) is that, in addition to providing the much-needed service of an all over body wash and wank for 6000 yen (about$US60), it also has a sign out the front advertising its boxing school. That’s right, this soapland is running a boxing school, which is somehow connected to the soapland and is advertised via a sign on the wall outside: “We’re looking for students!”

Who thought it would be a good idea to connect their boxing school to a brothel? Is it a school of fighting for the local pimps and touts? Is there some deal where the girls who work at kado ebi get to stay trim in the boxing gym, maybe beating up their clients? Maybe they thought it would be easier to provide ring girls if the boxing gym is inside a brothel… do they share bathrooms? This phenomenon is genuinely and completely a mystery to me. Guesses or suggestions as to what’s really going on here much appreciated. Also, my partner’s moving to Tokyo in a month, and she’s been doing a bit of boxing with a group of handsome Korean boys in Beppu. Should I recommend to her that she take up boxing at the Kado Ebi gym? She does like host hair, after all …

fn1: Passing this cafe is a classic moment of being able to appreciate the strangeness of Japanese women. There they all are, sitting daintily eating and drinking and chatting on their hammocks, everyone swaying slightly, heads bobbing about as the hammocks move slightly. It’s a picture of cuteness – the cafe is always completely girl-only, girl-focused, with these girls all talking very intently to each other in a very civilized way, swaying daintily on their hammocks. It’s like the hold of some fantasy anime pirate ship…

Guess who's cumming to dinner?

Despite the many controversies that beset it, 300 is a very impressive queer cultural critique. I was sitting in a bar last night watching the ending, and mulling over how brave the director was to attempt a mainstream blockbuster movie focussed so strongly on the cultural politics of homosexual relationships. To the best of my knowledge it’s the only mainstream blockbuster movie ever made that lookd directly at the confused politics of sexual relations in the queer world. While on the surface, on a trivial reading, it’s a piece of visually stunning warporn, the director very cleverly used this warporn both to lure in mainstream heterosexual audiences, and to model the socio-sexual relations of the gay bathhouse. Basically here we have a movie that uses battle scenes to recreate the visceral chaos of a gay sauna, and to investigate the complex relations of dominance, submission and manipulation that exist between “tops” and “bottoms” in this world, or at least in this world as its cultural stereotype is understood by most queer critics.

The battle scene-as-sauna is a powerful and unique contribution to cinema. The gangs of faceless men in the background, struggling and sweating, the chaos and the intense physicality of battle, when eroticized in the unique style of the movie, are a brilliant analogy for the sexual milieu of the bathhouse. Others have struggled with ways of representing homosexual activity that don’t offend the mainstream, but the battle scene conveys all the essential elements of sex in a culturally acceptable way, without any transgressions. We have sex as death, an age old image that everyone understands; we have a “battle” conducted entirely with piercing weapons; and we have the slaying of another, so often characterized as the pinnacle of masculine responsibility, as a metaphor for sexual conquest, also so clearly construed as a masculine role. The moment of death as orgasm, the petit mort of everyone’s experience, the exhaustion of the fighters after a hard “battle,” and the image of war as expression of self… what is this but warporn as porn?

Nowhere is this war imagery more usefully exploited than in the climactic scene, where we see also the heart of the movie’s queer cultural critique. The key to the movie is to understand it as a metaphor for the deployment – and ultimately the frustration – of power by a “bottom,” represented in the form of the Persian emperor, to undermine the will and strength of a “top” (Leonidas) and of “tops” as independent men (the Spartans). For those unfamiliar with this politics, let us put it simply. In many popular imaginings of gay sex, both straight and queer, the world of gay men is divided into two types: “bottoms,” who are fucked; and “tops,” who fuck them. Fundamentally this is based on a misogynist construction of women as fucked and man as fucker; in the classic misogynist imagery, women have “power” that they can deploy in the form of seduction, to undermine the will of the man and to set him on a path – they are the power behind the throne, Lady Macbeth, using their feminine wiles in a way that the misogynist construes as infinitely more powerful than we mere men possess (control of the state, the family and the means of production) – all these things fall to the wayside at the sight of a perfect arse, in the misogynist construction of woman-as-betrayer. As old as Genesis[1], this misogynist trope also infects the imagery of the gay “top” and “bottom,” with the “bottom” seen as “having the real power” through their ability to seduce, deceive and manipulate.

In 300 the director deconstructs this vision of the “bottom” as deceiver, and a clear judgment is made on the true state of power relations between the fucked and the fucker. The Persian Emperor – the ultimate (or nadirical?) “bottom”, manipulates hordes of men in the bathhouse (battlefield). They fuck (kill) each other in vain attempts at conquest, all to try and protect their claim to him, or to stake a claim thereon. The Spartans here are construed as tops, while the faceless Persians are merely other bottoms, deployed by the ultimate bottom as objects to be fucked (killed) in his attempts to bring the “tops” to accept his power. Ultimately the Spartan’s efforts are futile – no matter how many they fuck (kill), they must ultimately exhaust their strength. But at this moment, instead of seeing them bow to the superior manipulative power of the “bottom,” we see his power rejected ultimately – it is shown to be false and shallow, based as it is on the weakness of others rather than the strength of self. The two “tops,” finally exhausted by their orgy (battle), look to each other in exhaustion, and declare their undying love for each other. Then one of them – Leonidas – draws himself to his feet for one last effort. Bringing forth his cock (spear), he hurls himself at the hated “bottom”, and shows his true feelings for the manipulator. The tip of his weapon rips off the Emperor’s decorative chain and slashes his cheek, splattering blood across his face. In 300 we understand, immediately, that blood symbolizes cum, and so we see at the end of the movie the cumshot in which all modern porn must end. The “tops” have shown their undying love for each other and at the last one of them expresses his contempt for the “bottom” in the traditional way – with a cumshot. And so the Emperor’s victory is shown to be hollow, to have been achieved only through the public display of his own sexual humiliation. At the last, the “top” chose independence and another independent man, and showed the bottom to be nothing but an object of scorn and sexual degradation.

Is this not a powerful critique of a style of sexual relations? And all conveyed within a visually powerful, strongly homoerotic movie that is at times stirring, exciting and poetic. Though many will disagree with the interpretation of sexual relations shown in the movie, I think we can all accept that as cultural critique, it is unparalleled in its intensity, ingenuity and power. A  masterpiece of subtle social critique deployed through completely unsubtle images, and presented in such a way as to achieve mainstream success. I can only hope that it will inspire other queer cinema to emerge from its “indie” lacuna and into the limelight!

fn1: though probably not as old as Phil Collins