Mireille Miller-Young – Can the ho’s speak? Black sex workers and the politics of deviance, defiance and desire
How can we begin to understand the lives of sex workers when our analyses of sexual labor remain limited by a multiplicity of borders? The feminist debates of the last thirty years have usually centered around discussions of sex work as labor versus exploitation, and sex workers as agents or victims of violent abuse. These either-or analyses tend to foster binary thinking about sex, sexual exchanges, and the role of sexuality in all of our lives. Moreover, they do little to deconstruct the complexities of gender, sexual, and racial boundaries, invisibilities, and silences in society.
Sex workers themselves cross the most taboo borders: those of public and private, illicit and licit, economic and social relations. They are often made scapegoats for critiques of the commodification of intimate relations under neoliberal global capitalism generally, and the commerce of women’s sexuality specifically. Sex workers expose the hidden operations of the sexual economy to both produce and transgress borders—of nation-states, races, classes, castes, and cultures—as they negotiate their everyday survival, mobility, and sexual autonomy through the strategic deployment of sexual labor.
My interests have focused on how black women in the US sex industries approach sex work and how they are represented as racial-sexual commodities through the pornography media industry. Not only do African American women in US porn represent the transgression of the color line through the image of their racialized sexuality and the fantasies of cross-racial (especially black-white) sex, they also trouble the gendered and racialized boundaries of belonging in the black community and the larger national body. In light of the historical mythification of all African American women as deviant, hypersexual whores, black women who use hypersexuality to earn a living, express themselves, or explore sexuality are seen as problematic, and are therefore silenced. This essay considers how we may rethink our analyses of black women’s sex work as abused or perverted by hypersexuality and the commodification of sex. What borders may be revealed if we trouble the silence and allow the whores—or “ho’s”—to be heard? Can the ho’ speak?
Dwight A. McBride, in his essay titled “Can the Queen Speak? Racial Essentialism, Sexuality and the Problem of Authority” argues that racial essentialism “legitimates and qualifies certain racial subjects to speak for (represent) ‘the race’ and excludes others from that very possibility” (p. 364). McBride’s work analyzes and critiques how African American gays and lesbians are so often written out of discourses about “the black community”; they are understood as discursively separate from and outside of whatever constitutes authentic (read heteronormative and respectable) blackness. In a similar way racial essentialism defines black “ho’s” (normally lumped together, they include street prostitutes, escorts, exotic dancers, phone-sex workers, video vixens, skeezers, superfreaks, chickenheads, golddiggers, and many others) as existing outside of black moral respectability, and thus the black community itself.
Black ho’s are not as invisible as gays and lesbians in homophobic black cultural discourses about “the black community”—often because of their symbolic valiance as representing multiple crises (such as “black matriarchy,” teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, welfare, the materialism of black youth culture, the limits of black feminism)—but they are similarly derided. Derided for their willing engagement with sexual commodification, these sexual minorities are often constructed as between, not entirely powerless victims, and blameful agents of false consciousness. For many, it’s better to be a “bitch” than a “ho’.” They are seen as embarrassing and retrograde to the black progress narrative; they lend legitimacy to negative stereotypes about black women, and they make the “real” black community look bad.
Because black “ho’s” have been written out of discourses of “the black community” or have been read as embodying the problems of contemporary black womanhood, we are missing an opportunity to understand and illuminate the choices and self-articulations young black women today are making about their sexualities. Moreover, we are glossing over the significance of capitalism and commodification as it defines all black bodies as subaltern, from sex workers to service workers, entertainers to academics.
Recent scholarship on the commodification of black women’s sexuality has focused on their representations and participation in hip hop culture, especially hip hop videos. T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting’s Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women (2007) considers how young black men and women of the hip-hop generation experience sex within our consumer-oriented media culture. Sharpley-Whiting unpacks how the so-called “twin myths” about black women —“hypersexuality and easy accessibility”— shape the terrain of their lives and render them “too hot to be bothered.” She questions how the women’s movement has allowed black women to pursue sexual autonomy in new ways, yet the trafficking of their sexuality within the corporate, transnational hip-hop industry functions to reproduce them as stereotypical objects “rendered fair game for rape and sexual assault” (p. 58). She writes:
The sad irony about the notion of “choice” and “autonomy” for us black women who choose to appropriate and project the twin myths whether as rap artists, “video ho’s” or Jane Does … is that the choice is never fully ours, and thus the sexual freedom is illusory. … Black women’s sexuality in the marketplace of hip hop—in this instance, the supine or prostrate variety—is then devalued and heavily discounted. (p. 66)
Sharpley-Whiting’s work powerfully illuminates the complexity of black women’s sexual subjectivities in light of the many powerful economic, political, and social influences of hip-hop and contemporary black sexual politics. Within historical contemporary cultural production in the US black women’s sexual choices and self-articulations are complicated by the multiple stigmas and abuses that devalue, commodify, mystify, appropriate, and violate their sexual integrity.
I agree that the ways in which black women are constructed through representation as hypersexual, hyper-accessible, and devalued contributes to their subjugation. I also believe that the fact that so many women still engage the media and culture, and find it compelling, and even instrumental to their subject-formation or as preferred spaces of labor or pleasure, means that we must look carefully at how we as cultural critics, in naming the desires of others as illusory, or somehow false, contribute to the understanding that representation, consumption, and desire may be good versus bad, or other binary valuations.
Hence, if we only focus on how some representations are injurious and damaging to our sense of progress or integrity, we might miss reading the unknowability, ambiguity, and creativity of black women’s dynamic sexual desires, fantasies, and pleasures. This is not to discount in any way the structural issues of sexism and violence as they are reproduced constantly in pornography, the sex industry, or hip-hop; it is to propose that we take seriously how and why black people are finding their own legibility in these forms, and how they fashion themselves through and against hypersexuality and deviance. I’m suggesting that even though black women are stereotyped, and indeed in many ways mistreated, this does not mean that we should call into question their power for sexual choice or autonomy as they participate in the sexual economy. And if we do, do we not risk denying them the very agency we seek to provide?
Yet what do we mean by agency in the context of hegemonic capitalism? Sharpley-Whiting seems to argue that a when black women are complicit with sexual commodification—as soon as they enter the marketplace, they lose any possibility for “real” sexual autonomy and “freedom.” But where can we locate a liberatory space for sexual freedom and autonomy for black women outside of the marketplace, outside of dominance? How can black bodies exist outside the market, when they have historically been slaves, the most valuable commodities in early America? Can we necessarily extricate ourselves from continuing to be interpolated as commodities as we live in our bodies every day? Is there visibility for black bodies that can be constructed completely external to dominance?
As racial essentialism reads black women who commodify themselves as outside of proper or respectable blackness, the tendency seems to be a misreading of commodification as a “choice” rather than as a structure that hegemonically defines all black subjectivities. If black women negotiate power through self-commodification it is because dominance defines their legibility, even for themselves. I think it is important to point out that the stigma of sexual commodification has elided a conversation over the productive aspects of women’s labor in the sex industries, including the pornography industry, within black feminist cultural criticism. Considering the marginalization of black women’s labor in low-level service sector jobs, and the feminization of poverty globally in the late twentieth century, we should begin to ask how their labor in the sexual economy indicates black women’s attempts at survival and mobility, as well as self-care in a Foucauldian sense.
The policing of women’s sexualities within the black community –through the “politics of respectability” and the silencing of black sexual cultures— means that, sexual self-fashioning remains taboo, especially because commodification is equated with objectification, rather than subjectivity. Implicit critiques of these women are bound up in assumptions that it is, first, morally wrong for a woman to use her sexuality as a commodity (because it is sacred or only to be given as a “gift” in the context of love, romance, or heterosexual marriage, for example). Second, because of the history of racialized sexual coercion of black women—whose bodies were considered property by legal and economic institutions in the Americas— black women should protect their sexualities from the exploitations of the marketplace. Yet as Luise White suggests in The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi (1990) sex work is not a capitalist social relationship because capitalism has commodified sex, but because it has commodified all labor and relations. Moreover, as women participate in the sexual economy, they “reproduce” themselves and their families. This self-reproduction may be seen as radical in the context of a political economy organized around their annihilation.
Deborah Thomas’s research on working-class Jamaican youth culture offers “radical consumerism” as a way to understand how for some minority subjects “consumption is a creative and potentially liberatory process” that works through rather than against or outside capitalism (p. 43). In addition, Robin D. G. Kelley’s work underscores the ways in which selective appropriation of self-commodification is both strategic and creative in its engagement with capitalism. African Americans have mobilized self-commodification through the transformation of leisure, pleasure, and creative expression into labor. This “play-labor” is not necessarily resistant to hegemonic institutions of power, nor is it meant to be. It is one strategy by which young people, women, minority subjects, the working-class, and others may navigate the political economy by using their corporeal resources (pp. 45-46). Black women sex workers transform what Kelley defines as “labor not associated with wage work—sexual play and intercourse—into income” (p. 73).
Through my research on black women in the US porn industry, I have been developing the paradigm of “illicit erotic economy” as a way to articulate how subjects symbolically and strategically reproduce themselves through the commodification and manipulation of sex. Following the work of Sharon Harley on black underground economies of the early twentieth century, illicit eroticism is a way to understand how black subjects labor in the sexual economy. Reflective of African Americans’ historical use of underground, illegal, and quasi-legal economies—from prostitution to drug dealing to gambling— sex work offers black women who are marginalized in the US/transnational economy ways to survive and prosper. More than a continuation of survival skills, illicit eroticism is an attempt to refigure the logic of sexual respectability and normativity through the promotion of self-care through self-commodification. Black women in hardcore pornography transgress multiple boundaries as they mobilize their outlaw, racialized sexuality as vehicles to reproduce themselves.
Finally, I would like to conclude with a few thoughts about the boundary breaking implications of deviance and of pleasure. Cathy Cohen argues that we must queer our studies of black culture in order to understand how the most “deviant” groups (such as poor single mothers, the incarcerated, queer and transgender people of color, HIV+, and I would add sex-worker populations) seek out the “basic human goals of pleasure, desire, recognition, and respect” as they live “counternormative behaviors” (p. 30). Her argument is not only useful for scholars of black sexual cultures, but all those working in feminism and critical sexuality studies and organizing around sex worker rights. So much feminist research and activism has focused on formal political movements and the social politics of respectability, it has elided and actually re-pathologized the lived experiences and political culture of the deviant, and missed out on conceptualizing how deviant practices and identities can be “transformed into conscious acts of resistance.”
I am interested in challenging ideas that fix hypersexuality as always already repugnant, and sexually commodified subjectivities as bankrupt. Perhaps we can read these oversexed bodies in another way. The realm of sexuality embeds complex power relations in which the subaltern subject is often conquered and colonized. However, sexual practices, exchanges, and representations are rich with possibilities for self-actualization and empowerment. Exploring illicit erotic economies is one way we can better understand how sexual subjects self-fashion and refigure themselves according to the values and practices of radical consumerism, play-labor, and counter-fetishization. In the wake of dominant markets that perpetuate capitalist, racist, and hetero-patriarchal narratives of racialized sexuality, we must create sexual subjectivities that counter respectability politics and embrace the radical potential of hypersexuality to transpose our sexual borders.
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