I am eighteen years old. I am at an all-female college in Cambridge University studying English literature with a tutor—Emma—who wears masculine, crumpled, badly fitting dark linen suits over grubby white T-shirts. She has floppy, brown, greasy, shoulder-length, dank hair. She never wears makeup. She has a flabby double chin and bad teeth. She is young, probably about twenty-six. It is rumored she is the youngest woman ever to have entered All Souls College, Oxford. She is incredibly clever, we are told on numerous occasions by incredibly clever people. I want to like her because there is something dazzling and brilliant inside her brain, and if I like her, maybe I can spark up those neurons in my own brain, will her brilliance into my merely competent mind. But whatever makes her intelligence heartbreaking on paper, admired in whispered words behind heavy, aged oak doors, adored in thick treatises on Renaissance literature, does not translate into her personality. However much I try to like her, she is just, to me, another posh white privileged female, in a university of posh white privileged females who like to talk as if they are doing groundbreaking work in equality by entering a predominantly male academic institution, ignoring the fact they all come from identical white socioeconomic backgrounds and have a habit of speaking for marginalized women as if they had been elected to do so. Privilege is always such a disappointment, don’t you think? We all wish for adversity in those we admire. Or maybe it is only people like me, Welsh girls with a chip on their shoulder, who want everyone to have suffered before they succeed.
My class partner is Sharma, a quiet Punjabi girl with a thick mustache and no neck. We are both social outcasts, her for being brown and from a comp school, me for being Welsh and from a comp school. We are academically behind everyone else. I know what onomatopoeia is but cannot identify a conceit. We gained entrance to Cambridge by pretending we knew everything, so I feel it inappropriate to ask. Or more likely we gained entrance to Cambridge because they needed more brown people and more Northerners from comp schools to fill the quotas. But let’s get back to the tutorial. We are talking about theories of literature. Feminist theory is mentioned.
“I mean, I get feminism. It’s pretty simple. You can’t argue with political, social, and economic equality for women, can you? But when it comes to literature, it seems a bit ridiculous—”
Eyes darken, a flash of something. Emma leans forward onto the edge of her seat.
“What do you mean ‘ridiculous’?”
Emma eyes me warily, and her voice is sharp, a knife edge trailing against my skin. But she smiles a little, a smile that is encouraging.
“I read that woman, Rebecca West, her reading of Ophelia as this slut that needed to be punished and shamed. It seemed a little extreme. I think Ophelia was just upset Hamlet didn’t like her. I mean, if that’s feminist theory, reading shit which isn’t there, it seems a bit odd…”
It has not yet occurred to me that my entire degree rests on reading shit which isn’t there, and theory is just the way you choose to read that shit. Emma doesn’t challenge me, nor does she enlighten me. She smiles the same smile, but there is a cold, dead smolder in her brown eyes, and she snaps at Sharma and me, and we leave early. It’s hot in the room, and the windows are steamed up, and I feel sweaty and uncomfortable and hungry, but I can’t afford to buy lunch. I’ll have to eat cereal again, and outside, the fen wind that bites through bone rattles the windows.
At the end of term, the Director of Studies calls me in for an assessment and asks me how I get along with Emma. I shrug.
“She’s cool. I like her.”
The DOS looks at me directly. It’s unusual for her to look you in the eye when she talks. Usually, she is thinking about The Brontës, and eye contact is fleeting and irritable, because your presence is distracting her from thinking about The Brontës. But this time, she is interested in me, and she is looking into my eyes because she wants to see something in me. When she finds what she is looking for, she seems sad. “I think you should read this,” she says.
She hands me a piece of paper. It is not so much a report or a dissection as an evisceration of my character. I am young, conservative, reductive, stubborn, arrogant, and prejudiced. She thinks I have a problem with women. I am a liar. It mentions a book I failed to return to the library. I forgot I had it, and had argued with the library for months, telling them to leave me alone, I didn’t have the damn book. Then I found it, embarrassingly, under my bed, and I couldn’t afford the twenty-pound fee they wanted to charge me, so I sneaked it back into the library and kept insisting I didn’t have it. The book was found yesterday, Emma has written on my report; it was obvious I had sneaked it back into the library. It was exactly the type of lying, antisocial behavior I would participate in.
I really can’t argue with that.
The DOS is still looking at me. “Well?” she says eventually, not angry but curious.
“Why would she write this? I mean, does she really care about the book that much?”
“I think she doesn’t like you,” says the DOS quietly.
“But—why? What did I do to her?”
The DOS looks at the paper and looks back at me. “I have no idea, but you obviously offended her.”
It is announced a day later that Emma will be leaving Cambridge and going back to Oxford. She never really enjoyed it here. Is more of an Oxford woman. The other girls in my class—all posh, all from the South, all went to private school, all white, all privileged—refuse to go to Emma’s leaving dinner in solidarity with me. It is touching. It is our fleeting moment of sisterhood. It is women bonding against injustice perpetrated by another woman. Or is it my fault for lying about the book and hating Rebecca West’s reading of Hamlet?
Emma leaves. Life goes on. A small incident, an insignificant one, but it is my first adult experience of political anger and its charged power, of being aware that I let someone or something down, and whether it was Emma or my gender, I cannot quite figure out. I wonder, often, if it was because I don’t understand feminist theory in literature and don’t like Rebecca West’s reading of Ophelia. I suppose it is now that I stop ever using the word “feminist,” because it is a word which—if used in the wrong context, if negated, if crossed, if misunderstood—is dangerous, and dangerous even to the tenuous solidarity of the sisterhood. It pit Clever Emma against me, and then it pit us girls against Emma. I suppose I see Emma as the gatekeeper to feminism, the guardian of its secrets, the woman who saw something rotten in the state of me and so rejected me from its folds. I might be entirely wrong. Maybe she just thought I was an obnoxious little cunt, regardless of my views on Rebecca West.
I think it is a fatal flaw to conflate fallible human beings with the lofty principles we espouse to make living in this fucked-up world a little easier, to give us all a little more hope, but I suppose I did that after my experience with Emma. If someone asked me if I was a feminist, I would pause a little, and say, “I suppose.” I suppose I did not want to be associated with an ideology which was so very judgmental, which could dismiss me because I disagreed with one way of reading a character in a goddamn Shakespearean tragedy. Of course I agreed with equality for women, but it seemed that feminism was far more complex and multifaceted than this. And because I could not claim the ideals of the feminist simply because someone far cleverer than I thought I was not one, I felt rejected.
A year or so later, I discovered the massive contradictions and schisms within different feminist schools of thought, and I felt better about not being able to say, “I am a feminist.” I found out that feminism, as a construct of white, educated, Western women—women like Emma—often alienates women of color by either failing to acknowledge their experience or by speaking for them in a spectacular feat of paternalistic irony. I found out that despite this, women of color—women such as those who wear the hijab and have been told by white, educated, Western women that they need to be emancipated from it—still call themselves feminists, because they believe in political, social, and economic equality for women. And yet, even knowing that these women have the strength and determination to overlook the problems in practicing feminism, knowing that they embrace its ideals and proudly say, “I am a feminist,” I still faltered when people asked me if I was a feminist. Something still stuck in my throat; something didn’t sound quite right.
Of course I believe in social, political, and economic equality for women, but as a woman of privilege, is it my main battle? Is it MY main battle? Do I see the world in terms of identity politics? My main battle has been with capitalism, which enables inequalities of all kinds—it is built on racism and misogyny and homophobia and the gulf between the rich and the poor. If you oppose capitalism, it goes without saying that you oppose sexism and that you want political, social, and economic equality for all people, and ergo that you are a feminist. Doesn’t it? Can I choose one without the other? Sarah Palin can. She claims to be a feminist while still espousing neoliberalism. The 26-year-old Christian woman I am Facebook friends with—a woman who has never had a job in her life, who purchased an Ethiopian child from an expensive Christian adoption agency and is married to a cop (a COP!)—says she is a feminist. The girl who called me a “happy hooker” in an online feminist magazine, who is meant to be “the most important female voice on the radical left,” says she is a feminist. So is my issue with feminism, or with political, social, and economic equality for women?
It has to be the former.
I avoided identifying as a feminist or not, but somehow, when my work became sex, it became something that people wanted me to take a stance on. They wanted me to “come out” as a strong, proud feminist, or to admit, like Katy Perry, “I am not a feminist.” But I did not. I never mentioned it. I did not because I knew that there would be white, educated, Western women who would disagree with me whatever I said, and I felt that feminism was theirs, not mine. I can only think about my alienation as an intersection between sex and class, because to me, intellectual feminism is dominated by white, educated, Western women who are of a different class from me. They are above me. They have a right to feminism, and they are the ones who call the shots on who is one or isn’t one, and you can argue with them, you can let them tell you who and what you are, or you can ignore them and go on your merry way attempting to deconstruct all forms of oppression, gender disparity included.
For a long time, as a sex worker, I went on my merry way and puzzled over whether feminism supported women in hijabs or denounced them as reinforcing sexism and patriarchy, whether feminism liked sex workers or hated them. It seemed, in about 2005, that feminists erred on the side of denouncing sex workers with agency, pitying those without agency, supporting the LGBTQ community, and saving women in Africa and the Middle East both from men and from themselves.
When I left sex work after my book came out, I abruptly stopped writing about it. I completely disengaged with the complexities and contradictions of that world. Partly it was that I’d written enough and that I simply wanted to write about something else. Partly it was that I knew if I didn’t just shut up, I would be painfully ossified into the role of “The Stripper” (capital T, capital S) forever. But I was also aware that staying in that world would require me to adopt a stance about something—about being female, about being a female sex worker, about feminism and sex work. It was a definitive stance that I felt unable to take because I was being told over and over by women who identified as feminists that working as a sex worker was not feminist, that my words and my experiences were not feminist—that I was not a feminist.
I was tired of endlessly explaining that sex work could be empowering and could be exploitative, but that most things in life could be either of these things as well. I was exhausted of being told that I had somehow “let the side down” by writing about the dark, sordid, empty, alcoholic hole that I had crawled into, steeped in loneliness and misery, pickling slowly into a preserved shrew. I was fed up with being held up by one set of feminists as a traitor to the cause, accused of personally contributing to the millions of sex-trafficked children across the world, of disrespecting women who did sex work through dire economic necessity, as if my own was somehow delusional. Then there were others who wanted me to say that sex work was positive, empowering, that it was feminism in its purest form. And of course, there were people all along this spectrum, who found my writing offensive or simply shit, or who thought I spoke to them, but very few could seem to understand that what I was writing about was my personal experience. I was writing about my personal experience and my subjective opinions as a white, educated, privileged female who worked in the sex industry, at first by choice and then by economic necessity.
I used to take my clothes off for money. I gave the occasional hand job to pay my rent in the sticky, hot Champagne Rooms of strip clubs in midtown Manhattan. A few times, I guided a man’s hand under the bedazzled blue nylon G-string to encounter my well-pruned, hairless muff, which, when parted, was hot and wet and worth an extra fifty. I sold a couple of blow jobs. I took my clothes off for drugs. My experience wasn’t empowering, but it didn’t fuck me up (I did that just fine on my own), and it was sure as hell something to write about. It didn’t involve well-thought-out safe practices, and it was more ad hoc and alcoholic than calm, more instinctual and messy than measured. It was not an example anyone should ever follow. It was much more than an episode in my life which somehow embroiled me in an argument that I didn’t know how to participate in about women and rights and feminism. It was so much more.
I wrote a piece in the Guardian on feminism which ended like this:
I’ve read the books, studied feminism’s history, seen the glossy pics of mutilated vaginas in Marie Claire magazine. The problem is, it just doesn’t affect me. Like most women my age, I’ll tell you I’m a feminist, but really, I don’t know what that means anymore, despite the all-girls college, despite the paper on gender theorists in my third year, despite the lesbian tutor, despite the years working in the sex industry, despite the fact I’ve been held up as its paragon or derided as its destructor.
I don’t know what feminism means in Britain in the 21st century aside from finding things that aren’t there, like liberation in a strip club and prejudice against a 1958 interpretation of Hamlet. And so I’m tempted to say that nowadays it doesn’t mean very much at all.
This was the wrong thing to say. The fight for political, social, and economic equality is, of course, not over, but the disparities are felt most cruelly by low-income women of color. Feminism is, for the most part, steered by Western women who are not low-income women of color and who espouse liberalism: the appropriation, domestication, and commodification of radical ideas. They are educated and white and privileged, like me, and they do not discernibly suffer from income inequality, unlike me. Most of them—yes, let me be glib here, let me make the sweeping generalization I have observed of the Feminist Gatekeepers—most of them went to private schools. They have friends and family in major cities who can put them up rent-free post-graduation. They don’t ever have to worry about childcare, because they have grandparents who can help them or a sufficient salary to pay for it or a husband with money. They dabble with burlesque because it is risqué, they decide Botox is antifeminist before they ever have any need for it, and they have no problem claiming to be feminists, not like I did.
What does feminism mean? I’m tempted to say it doesn’t mean very much at all. This was the wrong response, but it is what I felt. It is what I feel. For white, educated women of privilege, what does feminism mean? Does it mean the ability to speak for and on behalf of women of color and sex workers, refusing to engage with our own privilege? Does it mean very much at all if it can’t agree on what, exactly, political, social, and economic equality looks like? Does it mean anything if it can provide a smug platform from which one can judge another woman for being a sex worker or practicing Islam, if it can espouse neoliberal ideas which are complicit in other people’s oppression?
I said earlier that trading intimacies for hard cash did not make me more qualified to speak than you, but I lied. I lied, because now I think that because I was a sex worker, you should listen to me. I think that feminists should be prioritizing the voices of the very women it has elided for so many years: low-income women of color experiencing political, social, and economic inequality, those who are sex workers, those who are not white, Western, and educated. I think you should pay attention instead of dismissing us, glossing over us for that other educated white woman, the one who is in charge of feminism and its entrance exam. You need to pay attention, because if you don’t, we will lose this battle, you and I, despite being “sisters.” Are we sisters? I thought so. I thought we could say anything to each other, but it appears we cannot.
Sometimes it is about their wives, how their sex life is unsatisfying, how since the children came, things have changed, and they are lonely. They are lonely, and they seek my clean, soft, perfumed, hairless, white flesh for solace. They seem to implicitly understand a simple fabricated contradiction: I enjoy my job, but at the same time I need “saving” by a man. I do not enjoy my job, and I do not need saving. I do not enjoy my job because I am saturated in human misery, in loneliness. It comes off their skin in waves, not pheromones but desperation, a need for something, a need to fill this hole, cram something into it, sex, women, something, usually just sympathy and a touch, my sorrow, my sympathy, given in a fake gasp, a caress, a sigh, longing, and the release.
I stop writing about sex work. I stop writing about feminism. I don’t think about it that much until Katy Perry declares she’s not a feminist, and everyone either condemns her for not understanding what feminism is—politicalsocialandeconomicequalityforwomen—or declares that feminism has failed to “brand” itself in order to sufficiently appeal to young women, as if it is a marketable commodity that can and should be packaged up, shoved in a colorful outfit, and thrown onstage to sing racy number-one hits about last Friday night in order to attract today’s Girls-watching audience. Perhaps feminism should have a blog and a Twitter account, definitively decide the rules for entry, and set out their manifesto. Pornography: for or against? MTF trans women: friends or foes? Anorexic women: disgusting, pitiful, shallow victims of the media’s obsession with perfection? Obese women: empowered riot grrrls? Malala Yousafzai: the acceptable face of female Islam, but anyone else in a hijab (and especially those in purdah) are supporting patriarchy and inequality…
Is it a failure of feminism and its “branding” that I still cannot self-identify as a feminist? Am I merely a casualty of the feminist sex wars of the ’80s, or is it a failure in me, as a radical political woman, to look past the constant bullshit of feminists and strive towards its noble ideals: equality for all women?
I am active in the radical left scene, and when Violet, a fellow activist, finds out I used to be a sex worker, she befriends me and reveals that she is polyamorous, a stripper, and a prostitute. Violet is a big proponent of “sex-positive feminism,” and she wants my book to be light, breezy, unproblematic. She wants it to gloss over the dark side of our industry, being sex workers in the age of capitalism, because she believes we have a responsibility to break the stereotype of a sex worker. She wants to find in my writing, as a white, educated, Western woman, some kind of universal experience that can be held up as the holy grail of nonexploitative sex work with agency.
I fail again. I keep failing. Whenever it comes to women, I fail. I fail, and Violet is disappointed, because my book is not sex-positive and she can find no redemption for me. Redemption. Everyone wants us sex workers to repent and find redemption, even the sex-positive feminists. I should have been born with redemption; then I wouldn’t need to find it. I am so tired. I don’t argue. Violet is a feminist, you see. She is a white, educated, Western female sex worker who sees the world through the narrow prism of her identity politics. And me? I am so tired. I am so lonely. I am so miserable. I would like to walk into a bar, pick a man that I like the look of, call him over, and curl up, intimate, in his lap. Have his breath quicken, feel the hard press of his erection as my body brushes his, realize that it is not just a financial transaction for him, but that it is about sex, the longing for it, the forbidden nature of it, the elusive, bitter tinge, the throb, the ache, hollow and empty, a hole that can never be filled. I want him to want me, and I want to pay him to want me. I want to be on that stage, feel cold steel between warm thighs, watch flesh mist mirrored glass I am tempted to say that nowadays it doesn’t mean very much at all I want to press against a stranger’s body and feel myself lost in an embrace I paid for nowadays it doesn’t mean very much at all I can’t call myself a feminist very much at all because this is simpler. This is simpler. This has meaning for me. This tells me what I need to know.
It doesn’t mean very much at all.
Rumpus original art by Annie Daly.