The Handmaiden's Handbook

Jemima at Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar wrote a very thought provoking post about sex-worker-exclusionary feminism. In my estimation, it’s exactly right, and needs a signal boost.

The problem with “porn made them do it” is that as an argument it is no different from the drink, the short skirt or the high heels made me do it. It is a transference of blame from where it belongs, on the rapist, to an external object. This transference is called rape apologism and should surely apply to the excuse of porn as much as the excuse of drink or clothing? The idea that young men ignore consent and sexual boundaries because of something they have seen in porn seems to have become embedded in our culture, with no one challenging it.

Picture this; someone asks a young man why he thinks a consent violation was acceptable. He replies with the excuse that allows him to duck moral culpability, “I saw it in porn.”

Feminists like Dent are actually providing people who chose to abuse (and ignoring consent is always a choice) with a ready-made excuse. “It;s not my fault, the porn made me” and we all nod and say its very terrible and the abuser needs not change in any way.


Patriarchy, as we all know dislikes women who are in control of their sexual agency. It really dislikes women who demand payment for something historically men have demanded (often by force) for free. Sex workers are othered, excluded shamed and stigmatised because if women were allowed to be in control of their own bodies, they might all start denying access to those who abuse, who use, and who wont pay. Without women to produce the next generation of workers capitalist patriarchy would fail. Blaming sex workers, be they workers in porn, clubs or brothels for the behaviors of abusive men is firstly a warning. It is a warning to the “good women” that if they step outside the sheltering arms of patriarchy they too will be fair game. It’s a dialectical moment of such tension, those women who have sought full control of their own bodies under capitalist patriarchy (and under CP control and autonomy are only recognised if one can commodify something) are the women who must have that control and autonomy removed, often by the state or its instruments.*

It’s this sort of exercising your own insecurities on others, acting as enforcers of the patriarchy by blaming its victims for the patriarchy’s perpetuation, that runs directly contra the sort of humanist feminism I would like to see spread. Sex-worker-exclusive and trans-exclusive feminism both have elements of transferrence, blaming patriarchy on a smaller subset of the group being victimized by patriarchy. It is damaging and it is inhumane and it is disturbing that anyone with any pretensions at having a more perfect, more egalitarian way of looking at society would attack a small subset marginalized group in service of improving the lot of the larger (but still marginalized in other ways) group.

As a sidebar, it’s also sad that Jemima was so let down by Grace Dent in the post — which you should really read in its entirety. Don’t rely on these (representatively insightful) excerpts to give you the whole of the argument. It is for this reason, this repeated disappointment in people, that I make any support of a person’s philosophy contingent on not later discovering they have shitty views on some other part of reality. You’ve seen this recently, very publicly, from me, and I know some of you recognize how awful it was from my perspective (even while others incorrectly think I was a sniggering malevolent, or a preening and arrogant ass). Coming to blows with people who are otherwise right on a lot of things, whom you’ve come to trust to be able to take criticism for what it is, about the thing they get wrong is an often devastating thing to have happen.

We often say around these parts, though, “no more heroes”. Make your support for any person’s ideas — me included, obviously — contingent on not discovering that person has other distasteful ideas. Do not let yourself become subject to the halo effect where a person being right about one thing means you’ll defend them to the death when they’re wrong about something else. If they’re wrong, speak up. If they’re being harassed, fight the harassers, but don’t stop speaking up about the ways the target caused splash damage regardless. If you keep your criticism focused on behaviours, rather than the person, you may never even get through to the person doing the damage, but people will recognize you as being on the side of angels.

The Handmaiden's Handbook

12 thoughts on “The Handmaiden's Handbook

  1. 1

    Seems a common theme in some circles, such as saying muslim women who reclaim their headscarves as a feminist statement that they cannot do that. Because the great white feminism has determined that cannot now or ever be a feminist statement, amen. But then a white feminist poses nude (Lena Dunham) and suddenly to the same group it’s an amazing statement reclaiming nudity and women’s bodies from the patriarchy. Not saying it wasn’t a feminist statement, it was, but they don’t afford the same courtesy to marginalised groups that are not like them. Trans women, sex workers, muslim women, etc, etc. We need a name better than TERF or SWERF as it intersects with more than those marginalisations, authoritarian feminism? They certainly are not “radical”, despite often assuming the moniker imo.

  2. 2

    I will certainly *not* refuse to support a person’s good ideas because that person has other, bad ideas. This kind of insistence on ideological purity tears movements apart.

  3. 3

    That’s nice, Zeke. So which standards are you willing to walk by? Perhaps supporting Dawkins unequivocally against those dratted feminists who keep saying he’s saying stupid stuff, because he’s right about evolutionary biology, as an example?

    I will not support a person’s bad ideas because they have good ones. That sort of halo effect compromises everyone’s principles and hurts people who need help and will be the true death of any movement.

  4. 4

    If all we care about is ideas, as people like Dawkins claim… then what do we need Dawkins for? Why do I need to tolerate his rampant bigotry and casual ignorance on nearly every subject, because I agree with him on one subject? A subject that he didn’t invent or contribute any significant ideas to, BTW.

    People who defend bad behavior by saying “ideological purity” are really asking for special dispensation for the bigotries that don’t bother them so much.

  5. 6

    Kinda off topic but I definitely see the value in not being too strict on adherence to a platform. It’s easier to build coalitions, to form communities of resistance, all that good stuff. But you can’t just decide certain aspects of a person are off limits to criticism or that others in your coalition need to tolerate them. It isn’t so great a good you can jettison every other concern.

    Anyway it’s cool to see Jem’s writing getting boosted.

  6. 7

    While I totally agree that it’s wrong to blame sex workers for sexual assault, I don’t buy the rest of the argument completely.
    There is a difference between saying “Sex workers are to blame for other people sexually assaulting somebody” and saying “our current media landscape is fucked up and the way sex is depicted in mainstream porn is misogynistic and consent is ignored and that is bad for our society.”
    If you think the second argument is bullshit, why do you then support Feminist Frequency? After all, if misogynist depiction of women and interaction with women in games was irrelevant to actual behaviour in the world, why bother?
    Why would feminists bother about giving children good sex education that covers consent and what is and isn’t consent if those messages don’t matter?
    I think it’s very problematic that children get to watch hardcore porn at a very young age and that their ideas about romance, sex and consent are formed by completely horrible depictions of those things. And not just because of porn, but also because of the neverending depiction of abusive behaviour as romantic in mainstream movies, especially highschool movies. If victims of domestic violence tell us that it was hard for them to recognise what happened to them as abuse because they had been taught that this is romantic, that they blamed themselves because of 1000 versions of “if you’Re good enough he will change”, do we call them silly and laugh at them? Why do we criticise 50 Shades of Grey?
    But that is a VERY different argument from “it’s sex-worker’s fault” and “porn made me do it.”
    Obviously we don’t blame people in other professions that way. We don’t blame people who make guns for mass shootings or wars. We don’t blame people who work in cigarette factories for lung cancer. That people do this to sex workers shows their misogynistic streak and their rape apology and I totally agree with Jemima on that.
    I also agree that it’s not an excuse or defense, especially not a legal one. You’d also not let somebody off the hook who ran a red light because they got the idea from GTA. That is on a personal, 1to 1 level.
    My argument is a larger, cultural one. How do we create consent culture? What are the reasons why we don’t live in a consent culture, what are the messages, who sends them? And I’m not letting porn off the hook there. I’m not letting the rest of society off the hook either.
    I also think the case for “sex work is revolutionary because it gives women control over their bodies” is overstated. People being able to do sex work is similar to other historically excluded groups being able to get paid. It is an important step. But sex work isn’t new, it’s been called the oldest trade in the world. Its conditions have varied greatly over time and place and its conditions vary greatly NOW. Many sex workers do NOT have control over their sexuality because of abusive systems, or very limited control because of economic pressure. Within capitalist society they are among the most vulnerable workers, because of stigmatisation and because of the unique caracteristics of their job.
    Women having choice, and being able to engage in sex work safely and legally, that’s indeed a move forward, but it’s not a revolutionary moment.
    I fully support sex workers’ rights, I fully support decriminalisation and destigmatisation. It is feminist to support women’s right to make their own choices and to do with their bodies as it pleases, but please don’t try to sell me the replication of the most misogynistic messages and mechanisms as feminist.

  7. 8

    @Gilliel, I agree your second quote is not at all bullshit, clearly it’s fine to criticise porn or sex work,I didn’t read Jemima disagreeing with that second argument though. [Sarkeesian paraphrase] It is possible and even necessary to criticise the more pernicious and problematic elements of porn and sex work… but not porn as a whole, or sex workers as a whole. The cause, or problem isn’t porn in of itself or sex workers themselves or the existence of sex work. But anti-porn swerfs certainly don’t frame their criticism that way, they are blaming the wrong thing, women rather than a patriarchal system that is the primary cause of the problematic elements of porn and sex work?

    Ultimately Jemima is a sex worker so I don’t think she’s unaware of the issues in the profession. I don’t think she’d disagree with your comment, but I may be wrong.

  8. 9


    I think you’re arguing a point different from what Jem was. Jem is pointing out the root cause of violence isn’t as simple as “watching BDSM porn made me think it was ok to rape women.” She’s specifically talking about porn here. You’re pointing out “women are conditioned from a young age to accept abuse while men are conditioned that abusive behavior is accepted” which isn’t limited to just media. It goes into religious upbringing, family life, social norms, environment…

    So I think you may be arguing past each other.

  9. 10

    It seems to me that the biggest problem with the quoted article is that it’s a huge example of a false dichotomy fallacy. Boiled down, the argument sounds like this: If it’s true that exposure to violent pornography can make young men more likely to rape, then that would mean that rapists could use exposure to violent pornography as an excuse. But we know that there is no excuse to rape. Thus, violent pornography must be blame-free.

    To see why this is a false dichotomy, let’s look at a more clearcut example. I think we can feel fairly certain that Dylan Root was heavily influenced by reading racist literature. However, if Root’s lawyer were to attempt to say at his trial “My client isn’t responsible for his own actions because he read Stormfront and other racist writings,” he’d be laughed out of court. If we were on the jury, I’m sure we would all rightly agree that Root was 100% responsible for his own actions no matter what he chose to read. But we would NOT conclude that, because of this, writing racist hate-literature is perfectly ok and morally neutral. We’d be comfortable with arguing that Root was responsible and thus guilty, but writing racist literature is ALSO reprehensible.

    I don’t want to actually argue that this means porn is bad — I won’t weigh in on that. I just don’t like to see it defended with bad logic.

  10. 12

    I kinda feel like people are mistaking the argument here. The way I read it, Jemima was cutting down the specific argument that porn causes (and therefore excuses) sexual violence — that sex work is bolstering the patriarchy and sex workers are unwitting rubes and/or complicit in their victimhood. Arguing against this doesn’t mean that Jemima is therefore arguing that consumption of porn has zero effect, or that there is no pervasive mistreatment of women as sexual objects in media (because there surely is). It’s possible to hate for instance male gaze (which assumes the viewer is “default”, e.g. straight male) in media, without being anti-porn or anti-sex-worker.

    The phrase “it’s more complicated than that” comes to mind.

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