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Prostitution in Film

Introduction (by David Austin):  In March 1995, a WMST-L subscriber asked for 
recommendations of videos that might help class discussion of prostitution.  
[NOTE: The resulting recommendations appear in Part 1]  Among the responses 
was one from Priscilla Alexander, National Task Force on Prostitution and 
Columbia University School of Public Health, in which she recommended several 
videos that had been the focus of a dispute, during Fall 1992, at a University 
of Michigan student-run conference on prostitution.  Ms. Alexander said that 
Professor Catharine MacKinnon of the University of Michigan Law School had had 
a central role in 'censoring' those videos.  Professor Pauline Bart,
who attended the Univ. of Michigan conference, disputed this description 
and gave a different account of Professor MacKinnon's role.  One of the 
videos not shown at the conference was by Carol Leigh, aka 'Scarlot Harlot',
entitled _Outlaw Poverty, Not Prostitutes_.  I wrote to Carol Leigh to ask 
for her comments on Professor Bart's account.  This file contains Carol 
Leigh's response, and is archived here with her permission.
David Austin (david_austin  @  ncsu.edu)

Regarding the censorship or the PORN'IM'AGE'RY:
Picturing Prostitutes exhibit at University of Michigan Law
School, below is my account of the contents of the exhibit
(with which I am very familiar) as well as the events that
transpired, as I heard them.
Carol Jacobsen told me that she was asked by the students
to put an art exhibit together about prostitution for the
conference (ultimately titled) Prostitution: From Academia
to Activism at the University of Michigan Law School. She
told the students that she was very hesitant to participate
because she knew that many prostitutes' perspectives would
not be welcome by people who were aligned with Prof.
MacKinnon's (who was on the staff) point of view. The
students insisted that Jacobsen's work would be welcome.
The writer writes:
>The students just asked Prof. MacKinnon if she thought it
>a good idea to show a film about prostitutes talking about
>prostitution and Kitty said that seemed fine to her.
It must just be the way the writer framed it, but it seems
odd that students would have to ask a professor if it's a
good idea to show a film about prostitutes talking about
prostitution in a conference about prostitution...that seems
Anyway, the exhibit that Jacobsen put together entitled
PORN'IM'AGE'RY: Picturing Prostitutes included a video
installation by Jacobsen, my film OUTLAW POVERTY,
NOT PROSTITUTES, a 1992 American Film Institute
award winner, about prostitutes' rights- and several others
including an excellent work, The Salt Mines, about
homeless transgender prostitutes in New York, two works
by Randy Barbados which included interviews with male
and transgender prostitutes and Veronica Vera's Portrait of
A Sexual Evolutionary, which I describe below.
The writer, who was involved at the time, presents the
misleading account of the contents of the censored exhibit
>The film, while starting off about poverty and
>homelessness then became ordinary hard core or at best
>medium core pornography. Once in a while it would cut to
>a woman who said she was a prostitute by choice.
The above characterization of "the film" is twisted and
trivializing. The exhibit was a powerful statement by a
feminist artist which included an array of excellent (and
award winning works) by other artists including sex
workers. As a matter of fact, Jacobsen's video, "Street Sex,"
about street workers in Detroit, is one of the most powerful
works I've ever seen about the violation of women's rights.
Jacobsen's latest work, "From One Prison" funded by
Women in Film Foundation, documents the stories of
women who killed their abusers in self defense. In other
words, Jacobsen is a remarkable artist and one of the most
righteous feminist artists of the decade.
So, the exhibit was comprised of 1) an installation which
included one video (Street Sex) and 2) a screening of five
separate works which were assembled on one video tape
shown in a separate screening room.
>When the film was shown the women at the conference
>who were former prostitutes (at least most of them) said the
>film upset them and they thought it left them vulnerable to
>physical attack, or something like that.
"Something like that" is right! Obviously the writer is
unclear about the exact reasons for the censorship. The
writer goes on to say that this precipitated the separation of
that part of the exhibit
>they didn't want it shown together with the rest of the
>display. The students then decided to put it in a separate
>After the lunch break, at which time I had seen the film,
>the filmmaker rose from her seat and said she was going to
>take all her films back because the film was being shown in
>a separate room...
No! It was not about showing the work in a separate room!
The students had removed the compilation tape and wanted
to omit it. Jacobsen said that she would not take the exhibit
apart and leave the video/installation part up.
So the writer is wrong in that Jacobsen wasn't protesting
that they rearranged her show into separate rooms, which
she had done herself, she was protesting because the
students wanted to exclude the compilation videotape!
I know that this was a complicated situation and the writer
didn't quite get it, which makes sense because it was
complicated. Basically, the writer seems to feel that the
censorship was misrepresented as being initiated by
"Kitty," as some call MacKinnon.
I agree that some of the reportage has given too much credit
to MacKinnon, Dworkin, Giobbe and Stoltenberg (all of
whom I have heard mentioned in various accounts of the
process of who decided to take -or steal?- the tape from the
exhibit first.) Obviously the "anti-porn elders" have much
to do with inspiring and supporting this censorship, but
personally, I think it's important to recognize that the
censorship was done under the auspices of a student run
event, and that the students are taking responsibility for
Certainly the University has some responsibility in the
situation, as was indicated by the settlement. But I do
emphasize the 'free choice' of the students. To deny this
deprives the students of 'agency.' In fact, the ironic parallel
is that: the way the students have been portrayed as blindly
following or manipulated by rhetoric of their elders is akin
to the way prostitutes rights advocates are portrayed as
having false consciousness, not thinking for themselves,
etc. To me the more frightening truth is that there is an
entire generation of young people/students who are more
than willing to continue the marginalization, censorship and
stigmatization of those sex workers who will not climb on
the anti-porn bandwagon.
>while starting off about poverty and homelessness then
>became ordinary hard core or at best medium core
>pornography. Once in a while it would cut to a woman who
>said she was a prostitute by choice.
I don't know what the writer means with her implication
that the film (which was a compilation of different works)
consisted of pornographic images interspersed with people
referring to prostitution as a choice. Apparently that's what
she saw or heard. The writer's portrayal of the *supposed*
film seems like evidence of the twisted reportage
concerning women expressing various perspectives on
prostitution. None of the five pieces interspersed women
claiming their involvement was a choice with scenes of
homelessness and poverty. Rather, this was a collection of
different works addressing different aspects, experiences of
and perspectives on the sex trade. The truth is, the situation
is complex and disturbing, defying MacKinnon's (or
anyone's) monolithic analysis. But censorship of the images
presented by sex workers is not the answer.
This exhibit as a whole was particularly powerful in that it
represented a range of perspectives in regard to class, race,
gender identity and attitudes of the sex workers. The Salt
Mines was about homeless prostitutes. _Outlaw Poverty,
Not Prostitutes_, mine, referred to issues of poverty and
included a discussion of choice as it related to prostitution.
(One woman said that for some prostitution was choice, for
some force. A prostitute from Brazil expressed concern that
the omission of the aspect of choice was sometimes used to
railroad advocacy for rights of those within the business.
One clip was by a woman from Thailand which compared
prostitution with factory work, noting the lack of choice in
both cases.)
Portrait of a Sexual Evolutionary is an autobiographical
piece about Veronica Vera's career in the sex industry, and
the only work which contained any explicit imagery. Vera
certainly emphasized the choice and positive aspects of her
work in porn, and her sexual explorations in general. The
"hard or medium core pornography" referred to by the
writer were clips from movies she had made with Annie
Sprinkle, still photos she'd posed for that she felt expressed
positive aspects of her sexuality...etc.
Someone who is particularly frightened by that imagery or
who has had bad experiences (as, obviously, many have)
would be upset and frightened by these powerful images.
The writer implies that former prostitutes inspired the
removal of the video as they felt their safety threatened. I
have read in some accounts that some former prostitutes
feel that the material increases their vulnerability, as (I
think...not sure): - People who are attracted to the material
or who have been involved in making it will be violent
towards them.
- The material inspires abuse of women in general, and
might inspire abuse at the location of the conference.
- Porn images = hate propaganda
I don't know what to say about the above. I'm sure the
conference could have been billed as an anti-prostitution
conference, with honesty about the exclusion of a particular
perspective. The problem was that Jacobsen had already
told the students that she felt that diverse opinions and
experiences within the sex industry would not be welcome.
Perhaps the students did not like some of the images in one
particular piece (probably Vera's) within the tape. I have
heard, and from the above account, I get the impression that
the students did not single out Vera's work, but targeted
what they might have seen as a combination of
pornographic images and pro-prostitution propaganda. As I
had heard, but never understood until reading the above
account, Vera's piece was not singled out, but the tape was
simply removed from the room. I could never believe that
the students did not single out Vera's piece. But now I
It's funny to me because, when I made OUTLAW
POVERTY, I specifically chose to omit all questionable
language and images so that it could be shown in all
contexts, so I sort of imagined that the censors might say
"Well, Veronica Vera's tape is too bad, but Carol Leigh's is
okay." I really never understood this. From this tale in
retrospect, in this writer's account, citing Jacobsen as the
film maker, I get the impression that, perhaps, the censors
may not have viewed these works as distinct pieces, which
seems like they were missing something...to say the least...
(Ironically, the anti-porn people were right about adverse
effects of pornography. Apparently the images frightened
and confused them so much that some (including this
writer?) were not able to distinguish between separate
pieces, and the fear eventually led some to violate the rights
of the artists through censorship. So, in from a very twisted
perspective, pornography caused the censorship. I know
there must be people who think like this!)
Anyway, the next day Jacobsen saw that the tape was
removed, thought it had been stolen and replaced it. It was
after she replaced it that she was told that the students
removed the tape because of the pornographic imagery.
Basically, there are several stories circulating about the
process by which the students arrived at their decision.
Some even say a man, John Stoltenberg, was the instigator
of the censorship, although I don't know. I assume the
students arrived at this decision on their own, but were
inspired by MacKinnon's perspective. I also heard that the
speakers/other participants in the conference were
previously kind of heavy handed, dictating to students
exactly who was and who wasn't welcome at the
conference, threatening that they would not participate if
certain people were invited. What I heard was that some
students mentioned that this seemed wrong, like an type of
"blackmail," but they ultimately went along with it.
Whatever... MacKinnon officially approved of the students
actions (according to what I read in several accounts
including Strossen's _Defending Pornography_.)
When the students told Jacobsen that they took the tape,
Jacobsen said that they couldn't take her exhibit apart like
that. The video/installation and compilation video were part
of one piece. It was clear that the entire exhibit would have
to be removed rather than censored.
Jacobsen was very, very upset. She had already been
sensitive to the fact that many voices within the sex
industry were censored with a variety of excuses. (To me it
seems unfair to omit images/information by a sex worker at
a University conference on prostitution because other
people-even former sex workers- are upset by, or feel
vulnerable because of these images.)
Obviously, the pivotal point here is that some conference
participants read the imagery in a negative way (as 'hate'
material that should be omitted)...My perspective is, yes,
there are all sorts of cultural subtexts in sexual imagery that
can refer to male dominance/female submission, violence
against women, etc. For me, almost all sexual imagery
reverberates with women's oppression in a sexual context.
Sexual representation does mirror the problematic realities.
On the other hand, many find power, strength and comfort
in sexuality and sexual expression. At this point women,
(and Vera, particularly) tell us how they do just that. It's
very depressing that some women (and men, obviously)
choose to censor and denigrate those of us who are
basically telling how it is for us.
And I basically come back to the point that Jacobsen was
hesitant to participate because she was concerned about the
tendency to censor voices. So...
As she had been very resistant to participating in the
conference in the first place, but was convinced by students
who said they wanted some diversity, Jacobsen felt like she
was right in the middle of an example of some treacherous
form of censorship. She went on to tell her story and make
her point to others, to make people aware of this
I am very glad that Jacobsen did make a point of this. It is
very rare that women speak up in support of women who
are participating in the sex industry. I thought it was
completely outrageous to hold a conference about
prostitution activism without including anyone from the
prostitutes' rights movement. Indeed the real agenda was
anti-prostitution activism. Anti-prostitution feminists
support only those who come out against the business
(those who change, rehabilitate, reform) but there are
thousands of us who work in various aspects of the sex
trades who don't see it that way for ourselves.
Our voices should not be trivialized or censored, although I
get the idea that we are, by some, characterized as having
false consciousness, or being traitors. To me this seems like
a big problem, and I am glad that Jacobsen let people know
about what happened at this conference.
Being a prostitute myself, I am most concerned with
punitive treatment of those of us who either want to (or just
do) continue working in the sex trades. I am concerned that
women consider us and our perspective disposable. I
understand that some feminists see themselves as protecting
those who are most victimized by the sex trades, but I think
they should take another look at who they are omitting and
censoring are a result of this.
In light of the 'Scarlet Letter' phenomenon, in light of the
history of the condemnation of 'bad women,' to me it seems
a little too easy to cast out those of us who choose to
remain out there on the sexual frontiers, exploring sexuality
ands creating imagery about our explorations.
Carol Leigh

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