A thank you note to ‘carceral’/’sex-negative’ feminists

second wave

When I was being raped by my father in the ’70s, I searched for a reason not to commit suicide. I found one in second wave feminism. The heroes of the second wave provided a vision of myself as powerful and as capable of changing my life. When everyone around me claimed that rape was just a part of being a woman (like unwanted pregnancy) and that being spat on and bullied by one’s husband could not be avoided (because “that’s just how men are”), I watched these astounding feminists prove them all wrong.

Second wave feminists fought to make marital rape a crime and won. They fought for tougher domestic violence laws and for state funding for shelters where women could go to escape violent partners. They fought for the passing of rape shield laws, which protect rape victims from the cruelest form of slut-shaming: being cross-examined on the witness stand about their sexual histories. They fought to define and enforce sexual harassment laws, which gave women the tools to fight harassment at work and in school. Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program; Title X, a federal grant program dedicated to providing low income women with family planning services; and Roe v Wade all came to pass under their watch.

Second wave feminists showed me that women didn’t have to be passive, that we could stand up, fight back, and demand justice. These heroes paved the way for the Violence Against Women Act in the early ’90s, which gave law enforcement 1.6 billion dollars to investigate and prosecute sexual and domestic violence. The passage of VAWA led to a 70 per cent decrease in non-fatal intimate partner violence, and a 60 per cent decrease in domestic violence homicides.

The activists of feminism’s second wave transformed our culture into a bigger, safer, and freer space for women than I had ever dreamed possible.

As one of millions of survivors who were saved by this movement, I am stunned and heartbroken when young women who have reaped so many benefits from the second wave dismiss key components of their elders’ hard work as “carceral” and/or “sex-negative.”

“Sex-negative” feminism is a slur applied to anti-sex industry feminists by both MRAs and feminists who are proponents of “sex work.” Anti-sex industry feminists are accused of being “sex-negative” because we believe sex should always be mutually pleasurable and non-exploitative. We oppose the sex industry not only because it destroys the lives of vulnerable women (and children), but because it promotes the idea that women and girls are objects of consumption to be purchased by men.

“Carceral feminism” is used to define any feminist who believes the criminal justice system should protect and serve women who are victims of rape and other forms of male violence (although many of us, myself included, are opposed to incarceration for non-violent offenders). Those who present themselves as anti-“carceral feminism” believe, one supposes, that victims of gender violence should avoid the criminal justice system, and that rapists and batterers should not be criminally prosecuted.

These individuals stand in opposition to “carceral feminists” such as U.S. Representative Gwen Moore, who bravely stood before her colleagues in Congress and told her devastating story of living through child molestation, rape, and battering. She revealed these horrors, publicly, in order to support the passage of the “carceral” Violence Against Women Act. The bill was opposed not only by anti-carceral feminists, but by conservative groups such as the Family Research Council, the Eagle Forum, the US Council of Bishops, and Concerned Women For America — all of whom claimed that VAWA was a feminist attack on family values.

Despite apparent political commonalities, those opposed to so-called “carceral feminism,” because of their pro-sex work stance, actually have more in common with libertarians than they do with traditional conservative Republicans. Libertarians, like “sex-positive” feminists, view prostitution as the voluntary sale of goods, with women being the “goods” in question. Since you cannot sell or rent anything you do not own, when a woman rents out her bodily orifices, she is “claiming ownership” of her body. Renting out one’s anus for penetration is what passes for female empowerment in both the libertarian and pro-“sex work” communities. This may be why “anti-carceral”/pro-“sex work” feminists seek not only to protect rapists and batterers from prosecution, but to protect pimps and johns as well.

A few months ago I watched an anti-carceral/pro-sex work feminist on MSNBC defend the inherent harmlessness of prostitution. This woman has a doctorate in Hollywood romcoms (I’m not kidding) but seems to have mistook Pretty Woman for a documentary. She opposed the Nordic model, which decriminalizes prostituted women but criminalizes their exploitation by pimps and johns. Feminists like her oppose the Nordic model even though it has led to a 50 per cent decrease of sex trafficking in Sweden. And in Norway, where the Nordic Model was also adopted, rape and physical violence against prostituted women has been cut by half, and emergency room visits by the prostituted has been cut by 70 per cent.  (This is based on research done by ProSentret, a Norwegian pro-legalization group). And as always happens with the Nordic model, sex trafficking in Norway has rapidly declined. By contrast, the decriminalization of pimps and johns, has led to an explosion of sex trafficking in countries like Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands, with no corresponding reduction of violence against prostituted women. Tragically, pro-sex industry/anti-carceral feminists refuse to allow concern for trafficking victims to get in the way of their enthusiasm for “sex work.” Depressing statistics and the shared experiences of trafficking victims are spoiling the fun for those who benefit from the industry.

Just as the fossil fuel industry attacks those who speak out on climate change, the multi-billion dollar sex industry attacks those who speak out against sex trafficking. Author and activist, Rachel Moran, recently made public her horrific experiences as a prostitution survivor, only to be “defamed, slandered, threatened, physically confronted and screamed at” by the pro-legalization lobby. As Moran stated, “I’ve had my home address, bank details and personal email circulated amongst some of the most seemingly unhinged people, who have tweeted me portions of my home address in a clear we-know-where-to-find-you style threat.” The silencing tactics used by pro-sex industry activists are strikingly similar to those used by MRAs (who also support decriminalizing pimps and johns).

As heartsick as I am over the blindness and naivete of those who attack anti-exploitation feminists as “carceral,” I am given great hope by the newest wave of feminist activists rushing up behind them. The young feminist leaders who give me faith in the future are Malala Yousafzai, June Eric Udorie, Yas Necati, Rose Lyddon, Kat Banyard, Meghan Murphy, and the stunningly brave women who take a stand against gender violence throughout Asia and Africa.

But the young feminist who gives me the most hope is my daughter.

She is “sex positive” in that she is anti-sex industry, and is not the least bit afraid to speak up when she sees the Emperor has no clothes.

My daughter knows that prostitution is beneath her dignity as a human being and beneath the dignity of all human beings.

My daughter knows it’s a lie to claim “sex work is the same as any other kind of work”, and she knows the people who make that claim are fully aware that they’re lying.

My daughter knows that her nipples will never be “free” so long as they are distorted by the pornographic gaze.

My daughter knows that men’s violence against women is just as serious as police violence against the community, and that the justice system must prosecute both.

My daughter does not define herself in opposition to second wave feminism, but in support of preserving and fulfilling its goals.

As a survivor of traumatic abuse, I am deeply grateful to the so-called “carceral,” “sex-negative” feminists who showed me how powerful a woman could be, and helped me create a life for myself within which I’d never have to doubt my humanity again. But most of all, I’m grateful that my daughter has never even had to question her own.

Thank you so very, very much.

Penny White is a radical feminist freelance writer living in San Francisco. She has a master’s degree in psychology with an emphasis on childhood sexual trauma, and has worked for over 10 years as a case manager/peer counselor for mentally ill people living in poverty. Penny is currently a volunteer at The Gubbio Project in San Francisco, which serves people of all ages and abilities who have no homes. Follow her @kindsoftheart.

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  • Zhompo

    Libertarians and third-wave “sex positive” feminists are as bigger cancer on society as each other. The causes of both negatively impacts on women, and both work to progress systems that repress women. Thank you Ms White for writing this.

    • mklo

      The biggest cancer are MRAs, please don’t fall into the trap and blame other women, and accuse them of being worse when there is literal terrorist organization MRAs. If they ever get some kind of power women are going straight to concentration camps, they accuse radical feminists and say they are Feminazis, and ironically Nazi title suit then the best.

      • radwonka

        Libfem also harass, doxx, silence, scare, send threats and defame radfem everyday (and that alone should be denounced more, it shouldn’t be acceptable). So yeah, even if men benefit from it, as patriarchal bargains libfem also get some significant benefits (ie their important place in the media, universities, etc). Their main target/obsession has always been radfeminism, not patriarchy, so, yeah we’ve the right to blame them for that especially since they have co-opted MRAs/liberal rhetoric.
        They’re adults, not children.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Liberal “feminists” has also worked to no-platform feminists, slander us, have us fired from our jobs, etc… It’s important to remember, of course, that these aren’t feminists at all, despite their claims…

    • Sabine

      This is the whole point, yes: liberal feminists are NOT feminists!!!!!

      • Meghan Murphy

        Yes exactly. Feminism: A real thing, not just a malleable word.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Just one group has tried to co-opt feminism in order to push sexist ideas…

  • Meghan Murphy

    And considering the pop culture has embraced the sexist ideas of ‘sex positive’ feminists (because they are neoliberal, pro-capitalist ideas that support objectification, as mainstream media does), they have far MORE influence than MRAs, who most people kinda just see as a joke.

    • andeväsen

      I think most self-proclaimed left wingers see MRAs as a joke but non-political people and centre-right governments (leaning towards anti-feminist) can be swayed by their rants – in the absence of a clear feminist voice.

      The UK has its first baby MRA minister for justice now: http://leftfootforward.org/2015/05/he-thinks-feminists-are-obnoxious-bigots-meet-your-new-justice-minister/ …In the corridors of power no less. Makes it hard to sleep at night knowing the sort of legacy he will leave behind.

      • Sally

        Thinking about it recently, it seems to me that anyone who is opposed to actual feminism (radical feminism) is necessarily an MRA. If you’re opposed to the liberation of women from and destruction of patriarchy, you are essentially advocating for the rights of men to possess, abuse, rape, kill etc women because that’s what is happening under patriarchy and you are just allowing it to happen by not at least speaking out against it in the name of radical feminism. This is how I view it. You’re either a radical feminist or an MRA (although you can also be someone who just simply doesn’t know anything about feminism and is learning, so I do think some people get a pass for that). You can call yourself a liberal feminist, a sex positivist, whatever, you’re still just a plain old misogynist MRA if you already know what radical feminism is but you oppose it.

        • andeväsen

          “so I do think some people get a pass for that”

          Most people don’t know what radical feminism is. Most people manage to support patriarchy as a default setting rather than in an actively switched on way.

  • andeväsen

    Prostitution occurs due to poverty. It also occurs as a direct result of male supremacy in which sex is defined as a unilaterally beneficial act of body invasion by a masculine subject of a passive object.

  • andeväsen

    Absolutely. Upholding the pretence that women’s bodies are holey objects like coal, tin, heroin, coffee, t-shirts, iPods is part of the patriarchal narrative constructed about sex. Men’s bodies are human bodies. Women’s bodies are holey objects like other objects.

  • andeväsen

    I know right? Do they want to make them sit on the naughty step instead.

  • Sine FourEx

    I didn’t know much about coal mining, but I thought there were complex business, technical, economic, social, political and pollution issues involved. I got the impression that it is very capital intensive and is heavily regulated requiring permits and whatnot. I seem to remember reading somewhere that mining was a skilled job, requiring some training and qualifications, and was relatively highly paid. There was something about mines displacing people and encroaching on indigenous land and stuff and shit.

    I don’t think coal mining involves fucking strangers, but I’ve never been down a mine, so who knows.

    I’m not interested in a job in coal-mining myself, It’s just not my cup of tea. I would never burn coal but I respect the rights of everyone to burn as much coal as they like. Keep the government out of our fireplaces I say.

    I have followed some miners on Twitter, they educated me and put me straight on a lot of things. All the complicated stuff goes away if we just let people get on with what they want to do. Can we never learn from history? Nothing is ever perfect so why bother trying, like it’s so obvious.

    I now have strong opinions on the matter and will voice them at every opportunity.

    (It might be better if you read this in the smug, condescending tones that Amnesty people adopt.)
    – Nobody should tell miners what to do with their bodies.
    – If a boy wants to be a miner, who am I to have an opinion.
    – He can mine under my house if he wants, there should be no regulation.
    – Government should keep out of the mining business.
    – Government must ensure safe working conditions for miners.
    – Mining is empowering
    – No miner ever got Black Lung in Greenland.
    – Don’t conflate mineral extraction with mining.
    – Irregular migrant miners have the right to work in mines
    – Employers should be free to employ minor miners in unregulated mines
    – Unatsbo in Bolivia fights for the labour rights of minor miners
    – Damned government telling people what to do
    – Mining has existed for aeons
    – Women work in mines too, so there
    – What about the trans men of colour miners, think of them.
    – Stop showing boys mining for blood diamonds, it’s miner porn
    – Oh my god, look at the picture of a dust covered man, typical
    – Keep the boys safe.

  • Rachel


  • Rachel

    Yes! I’m so glad you found Rad Feminism, and subsequently that you are still here. I’m sorry for what you went through {hug}.

  • Meghan Murphy

    The problem is a patriarchal, misogynist culture. Not MRAs — a fringe group. Do you see what I mean? It’s not as though I don’t think MRAs ar horrid, it’s that you’re offering them too much power and treating this small group of men as responsible for the culture we’ve been living in for centuries. Male violence is not a new phenomenon.

  • andeväsen

    Very true. Prostitution is never a standard. Never sets a bar. Politicians don’t talk of “Joe the prostitute” and his workaday mundane concerns.

  • andeväsen

    Coal miners sell coal to power stations and export markets. Miners in the coalfields individually extract the commodity and constitute one key part of the collective operation -including overseers, transporters, administrative staff and corporate bosses – which is focused on selling coal, the commodity.

    Unionising coalfield workers has resulted in an improvement to working conditions and health and safety. If health and safety regulations were properly applied to prostitution, ‘workers’ would wear full body virus protective suits and goggles. See http://www.logosjournal.com/2014/watson (thanks to a commenter here for that link). This hasn’t happened in the presence of supposedly strong sex workers’ unions in the developed countries where purchasing sexual ‘services’ is legal.

    Prostitution, if framed as a ‘service’, could be compared to jobs in the service sector rather than to the primary sector. However despite being a heterogenous sector, prostitution has almost nothing in common with service sector jobs. In no other job is it mandatory to agree for another person to have a biological reaction by invading parts of the worker’s body. Hairdressing, bartending, nursing, banking and answering the phone at a call centre are more similar to each other than they are to prostitution.

    • lagattamontral

      Coal mine OWNERS sell the coal.

  • polina

    Ok thanks I didn’t know that.

  • polina

    Yes, thanks to everyone for such great answers:)

  • amanda fiona

    If it’s any comfort, I think the idea is that coal mining is dangerous & so is prostitution. But unlike mining, we don’t need prostitution & so pimping & being a customer of prostitution should be banned.

    • Jackal

      The trick is that prostitution doesn’t *have* to be dangerous. The fact that everyone assumes that a person who sells their time and skill to give blowjobs has to just expect that people will abuse, harass, shame, and kill them is just another way people act like societal bullshit is some kind of inevitable law of nature. We need to examine *why* prostitution is dangerous. Our society sexualizes the hell out of women, and hates sex. That’s the problem, everything else is just a symptom.

  • Jackal

    I am one of those people who thinks that a person has the right to take money for sex if they want to, but how the fuck someone can call themselves a feminist and hate on the Nordic model, I do not know.

  • Jackal

    Just because our current prison system sucks ass is no reason to keep the TWO FUCKING PERCENT of sentenced rapists out of it.

  • lagattamontral

    I’m a second-wave feminist; a friend of mine worked at the first refuge for battered women in Montréal and I volunteered for the centre (but did not work directly with the women sheltering there). I fought for abortion rights and pay equity, and organised a union in a pink-collar ghetto, and for sexist oppression as a criterium for claiming refugee status (the famous case of the young Saudi woman). I’m also an ecosocialist.

    Being from Québec and having worked at a labour confederation here, I have more experience on the subject of asbestos mining than coal mining. For many years, trade unionists thought asbestos could be “made safe” by better practice, but this has been proven untrue and the industry has been shut down, or practically so.

    Ecosocialists oppose industries that are harmful for the environment, their workers or both. We also call for “conversion” and compensation policies ensuring the the people working in such fields do not bear responsibility for them and be consigned to penury. This means monetary compensation, retraining and creating “green” jobs in fields that actually help the environment and the community. Personally I think exactly the same applies to people exiting prostitution. It is also the main shortcoming of the Canadian law, voted by a Conservative majority government, which provides a mere pittance in terms of financial support, counselling and retraining for women (and other people) trying to leave prostitution.

    Coal is a fossil fuel. Many think it is a particularly polluting form thereof, but I won’t discuss that here. We say we have to exit fossil fuel dependency. I’d be inclined to view it in a similar manner as sexual exploitation. And yes, it does create PTSD if workers, their families and communities have witnessed multiple disasters, big and small. Yes, poverty and a lack of hope leads people into many harmful industries, including the one we are discussing here – the global sex industry.

  • radwonka

    Exactly. Socialization is an explanation, not an excuse. Same goes for males: they rape because of culture/socialization and it still doesnt make it OK. Libfem who promote harmful misogynistic norms should be held responsible. They literally destroyed our movement (males didnt even had to do anything). Even Dworkin called them “collabos”. I cant stand it when feminists say “they are too brainwashed and too dumb to understand what they are doing”, like, they need to realize that libfem are adults who know what they are doing, they have free will, they are openly pro patriarchy and dont give a fuck about Liberation. Its just like conservatives women who oppose abortion: they dont care about women. Its sad, but its the truth. Thinking that if we treat them as brainless children is going to change them is truly naive (and we should have other priorities than that).

    The concept of socialization is often used to defend people who hurt, but strangely NEVER people who didnt do anything wrong or people who are brave enough to question socialization and become gender/culture non conforming. That alone is proof that it is just a poor excuse here. And I really have no time for abusive people, including women. I really hate it when feminists play this “she just lost her brain” card. Thats just the most pathetic excuse ever, and it literally has the power to justify abuse.

  • polina
  • Jackal

    Prostitution is not always a last resort. I know people for whom it is a first choice. The fucking is not the problem, it is everything around the fucking. Why does fucking automatically mean your work is evil and degrading? I’m not talking laws, I’m talking societal attitudes.

    • Meghan Murphy

      “Why does fucking automatically mean your work is evil and degrading?”

      You’re missing the point. There is an imbalance of power in the situation of prostitution. And when it comes to sex, we understand coercion and exploitation to be abusive, when it comes to sex. If you understand why rape is harmful, you should understand why prostitution is harmful.

  • Meghan Murphy

    So you understand that sex is different than, say, serving a cup of coffee, right? Unwanted sex, coerced sex, forced sex is traumatic, why? Women in prostitution are not engaging in sex acts with johns because they desire them — they are doing it because they need the money or have no other choice. This is coerced sex. Why are you advocating for sex that one person wants but the other does not? Do you not understand how this is comparable to rape?

    • srh1965

      And you have missed the point as to why carceral feminism is the wrong answer. Why do women the world over feel they need to resort to selling sex? Poverty and inequality, which are promoted endlessly by the USA in its own borders and everywhere else. Carceral feminism deliberately evades this, relying instead on the courts which are about as fair as slavery.

      • Meghan Murphy

        Oh lord you really have not been paying attention, have you? All we do over here is talk about the factors that lead/force women into prostitution. This is why we say it is NOT a choice, that ‘choice’ under duress — ‘choice’, when it’s a matter of survival — is not a true choice. When a woman is poor and vulnerable, a man paying her for sex is coercion.

        If you actually listened to our analysis instead of the ignoramouses of Twitter, you’d know how ridiculous you sound.

  • srh1965

    There are a lot of reasons to be a feminist and not to support the themes of this vicious and thoughtless article. Such as:
    – carceral feminism is allied with right-wing, conservative movements
    – it results in women being victimised along with their abusers
    – it involves the police and the criminal justice system, which will never be on the side of women, the poor or of black people
    – it diverts attention and activism from the deeper roots of violence against women, such as economic inequality and neoliberalism
    – does America not have enough people in prison?

    There are plenty more.Read Elizabeth Bernstein.

    • Meghan Murphy

      The Nordic model is a socialist model, smarty pants. The only one, in fact. I am a socialist. That said, this does not mean I don’t believe feminists should work to make the judicial system hold men to account for their violence/exploitation.

  • Meghan Murphy

    But radical feminism is not in any way ‘hard right’ or conservative. You clearly don’t understand feminist analysis.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Are you also advocating to decriminalize murder, as well as rape and domestic violence? So long as there is a criminal justice system, feminists will advocate to make it work for the oppressed, as best we can. This does not mean we do not support or work to come up with alternatives.

    I don’t understand why you think it would be better if we left the criminal justice system to its own devices.