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Sexual Union

Wendy Chapkis
Labor Pains: Wendy Chapkis--feminist, former UCSC professor and author of "Live Sex Acts"--offers up a controversial and thought-provoking take on sex professionals' working conditions and decriminalizing the sex industry at Capitola Book Cafe on Thursday.

Photo by Anna Valva

Feminist scholar Wendy Chapkis talks to sex workers about job conditions, decriminalization and the abuse they suffer at the hands of practically everybody, including feminists

By Traci Hukill

FOR A POTENT LESSON in calling a spade a spade, turn to page 127 in Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor. This is where Sandy, a former teenage street prostitute who used to wear a dildo and hang out with the transvestite hookers just so she could wear warm jeans in San Francisco's chilling winters, professes her disgust for the buzzing controversy surrounding her former profession.

"You know, when I read some of the stuff written by so-called 'feminist allies,' it feels like they are fighting over our bodies," she tells interviewer Wendy Chapkis. "It's like prostitutes are just these bodies who are somehow connected to something bad and evil or something good and on the cutting edge of revolution. They just turn us into symbols."

That's a stinging indictment of the dozen or so critical feminist voices crying out "yea" and "nay" to sex work and, in some cases, to sex itself in Live Sex Acts' first chapter. A dutifully diplomatic Chapkis, wary of her vociferous colleagues, quotes the reigning theorists of the day in a dense synopsis of the current climate around the issue of sex work's legalization. Radical anti-sex feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon are there, insisting that all sex is a form of rape and insufferable in any form. Sexual libertarian Camille Paglia retorts that sex is women's greatest source of power and prostitution the "ultimate physical reality" of sex.

Numerous voices chime in to fill the gap between these extremes, including those of Chapkis' own camp, the Sex Radicals, who think of sexuality as fertile ground for subversion and sex workers as legitimate laborers entitled to decriminalized status, fair wages and safe working conditions.

Then, to her credit, Chapkis stops talking and starts listening. In 20 transcribed interviews with sex workers from Amsterdam and Helsinki to San Francisco and Santa Cruz, distinct voices emerge and with them portraits of women who are variously shrewd, funny, happy and miserable about the work they do. Adult film actress Nina Hartley jokes that her "worst day at work is still better than the best day selling shoes at Kinney's." Annie Sprinkle likes to get out and turn a trick just for grins now and then. On the other hand, Grazyna, a Polish woman sold into the sex trade, describes rape, beatings and terror, and a Dutch window prostitute relates her horror the first time a condom broke with a John.

If one message unites these wildly diverse accounts, it's the call for protection of prostitutes and regulation of the sex trade. Whether women have chosen their work or been pressed into it, they need to be able to insist on condom use, demand fair payment and not be driven into a dangerous underground environment by the constant threat of arrest. Decriminalization is the first step, says former Santa Cruzan Chapkis, speaking from her office in Portland, Maine, and it may not be as unlikely as it initially seems.

"We've done it with homosexuality, in most states at least," she points out. "We did it with alcohol. We can do it with prostitution. "But the problem is what would replace it? The state might turn to the Nevada model ... , which in effect makes the state the only legal pimp around. That's not a step in the right direction."

Chapkis helped organize the "Don't Turn Pros Into Cons" coalition against the crackdown on Santa Cruz massage parlors a few years ago. When she hears about recent attempts by local neighborhood organizers to rid their streets of prostitution by recording alleged Johns' license plate numbers, she gently condemns what she terms police-encouraged vigilantism.

"On one hand I understand the [neighbors'] frustration about noise, rubbish, and cruising," Chapkis says. "On the other hand, I feel like it's an inadequate response ... because it's not going to stop prostitution. But it can destroy lives, break up relationships and get people fired."

Not the sympathetic response most people would expect from a feminist scholar. Clearly, the controversy around prostitution is a veritable wasp's nest of dogma and strong emotions, but Chapkis nevertheless approaches the subject honestly, fearlessly and from the only perspective that can lead to healing: the human perspective.

Wendy Chapkis will speak at the Capitola Book Cafe on Thursday (7:30pm). For more info, call 462-4415.

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From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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