The Sexual Politics of Carol J. Adams

In failing to approach feminism from any kind of materialist base, failing to take race, ethnicity, class into account in determining where women are at sexually, many feminists have created an analysis of sexual oppression (often confused with sexuality itself) which is a political dead-end. —Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years

I'm concerned that The Scavenger, an online self-described "progressive" magazine, is uncritically promoting the 20th anniversary edition of Carol J. Adams' Sexual Politics of Meat. By promoting her book, The Scavenger is perpetuating the dominance of the anti-sex worker, anti-trans, affluent White normative feminism offered by Carol J. Adams. In this respect, there's some sort of cognitive dissonance going on here when The Scavenger promotes Adams, whose work is based almost entirely on the assumed given vilification and misrepresentations of sex workers, while publishing another article opposing the vilification of sex workers.

In the preface to the 20th anniversary edition, Adams explicitly reaffirms her commitment to the obsolete middle-class White centered ideology that informs "the work of radical feminists of the 1970s." This feminist community Adams situates herself in includes women such as Robin Morgan, Mary Daly, Janice Raymond, and others who, like Adams, have built their careers on Othering and attacking sex workers and trans women, although Adams is more discreet in her contempt for the latter.

Adams uses the trope of "the pornography of meat" to suggest that all sex work is analogous to the slaughtering of other animals' for their flesh and vice versa. In effect, sex workers of all types become Adams' very own objectified "absent referent." That is, by invoking things like "Live Nude Lobsters" and "turkey hooker" in order to conflate sex workers with slaughtered nonhuman animals, Adams in effect erases and silences sex workers. The lobster ad tells us nothing about the lives of adult dancers, and neither does the tool for moving a turkey's corpse tell us anything about what it is like to be a prostitute. Yet Adams exploits this trope in order to make generalizations about all women's oppression, which means making absent the specificity of sex workers' lived experience and daily reality so that she can make overreaching references that center normative affluent White women like Adams and her target White middle-class audience.

In the preface to the the 20th anniversary edition, Adams asks us to "Imagine the day women walk down streets and are not harassed, stalked, or attacked." She then goes onto say, "Imagine the day when women and children are not sold into sexual slavery or prostituted or pornographed." Yet the very conflation of selling sex with "sexual slavery" contributes to street harassment, stalking, and attacks of real women—although not the women of the normative White femininity that I'd wager Adams and her readers most likely prefer to imagine.

In the latter sentence quoted from her preface, Adams erases the agency of women and youths who work as prostitutes or model for sexually explicit media, reducing them to inherently exploited and victimized Others. Most sex workers, and especially those in the international sex worker justice movement, do not refer to themselves as "prostituted" or "pornographed." The suffix "-ed" is specifically used by anti-sex worker theorists like Adams to erase sex workers, to refer to sex workers as an absence—that is, as an "absent referent."

This in effect marginalizes the voice of sex workers while centering Adams' own privileged, normative misrepresentation of a universalized (middle-class White) woman. While exploiting sex workers for her ideological and rhetorical ends, Adams never addresses the real factors that most greatly contribute to the harassment, stalking, and attacks against women on the street. Nor does she specify those women who are disproportionately targeted by street level harassment, stalking, and attacks.

One of the greatest factors contributing to gendered street level violence is the vilification and criminalization of sex workers. While Adams mentions how Mayor Guiliani consumed other animals' flesh after 9/11, it is worth noting how Mayor Guiliani used "quality of life" laws to vilify and criminalize sex workers, as well as any women who are presumed to fit the profile a sex worker. The expansion of laws criminalizing sex work have greatly increased how women who walk down streets are harassed, stalked, and attacked—since these women are actually being profiled and targeted for violence by the police. And if women are being harassed, stalked, and attacked by the police due to the increased vilification and criminalization of sex work, how safe are these women going to be in general? Not very!

Those women harmed most by the vilification and criminalization of sex workers are going to be sex workers themselves, not privilege normative women like Carol J. Adams and her fan base. Next hardest hit are non-prostitute women who nonetheless also live and work on the streets. Immigrant women, women of color, poor women, and/or trans women are also disproportionately targeted whether or not they actually work as prostitutes.

For instance, in my New York neighborhood there is a significant population of immigrant trans women who are targeted by police and police sanctioned harassment, stalking, and attacks institutionalized via the vilification and criminalization of sex workers. Some, but certainly not all, of these women work as prostitutes in order to survive. Yet, to varying degrees, every trans woman in the neighborhood is made a target because of the institutional sanctioned vilification and systematic criminalization of sex workers. Along these lines, while it is well known that trans people are disproportionately harassed, stalked, and killed in comparison to cis (nontrans) people, if we take a closer look at the demographics we see that almost all trans people who are killed are trans women, usually trans women of color, and likely to have sold sex at some time. Yet this extremely significant intersecting reality of what it means to be a woman walking down the street and be harassed, stalked, or attacked is completely erased by Adams simplistic and biased misrepresentation of sex work.

It is offensive that Adams bases the premise of her work on the conflation of sex work and the slaughter of other animals. Through this trope Adams erases and silences sex workers making them into an "absent referent" for the presumed universalized oppression of all women, which actually centers affluent, White normative women. By invoking sex workers as the quintessential representation of women's exploitation, Adams perpetuates the anti-sex worker ideological beliefs that presume by the very nature of what some women do to make ends meet that they are inherently, and justifiably, Other. This in turn perpetuates the harassment, stalking, and attacks that Adams claims she opposes. However, by using sex workers as intellectual fodder for her theory while denying them their voice or even basic respect, Adams is in fact exploiting sex workers for her own ends. It is this exploitation of sex workers that I believe forms the sexual politics of Carol J. Adams' work.

[ETA: While The Scavenger has also published an article by a vegan, feminist erotic performer, it's worth pointing out that in the preface to the 20th anniversary edition Adams' book she makes such a woman an impossibility by explicitly framing her as being in opposition to "a life of integrity that you can live when you recognize women's equality."]

I appreciate how this post

I appreciate how this post does an excellent job of making these connections clear. The next time someone wants to know why I do not endorse Adams' work, I will add this post to the list (along with your other cogent posts on the topic).

Let's not pretend that what theorists like Adams say about sex work doesn't have real implications for people in the world. There is nothing theoretical about how earlier this month, Dana "Chanel" Larkin, a Black trans woman who was engaging in sex work was murdered by one of her customers. Transgender woman murdered on Milwaukee street.

As you have pointed out to me, anti-sex worker sentiment is integral to the ideas put forth in Adams' The Pornography of Meat. I think seeing your full analysis of the anti-sex worker foundations of that book would be enlightening.

Re: The Sexual Politics of Carol J. Adams

You cant make blanket statements such as 'Sex workers do not refer to themselves as "prostituted" or "pornographed"', because some do, so you are doing the very thing that you are accusing Adam's of doing - silencing these women's voices.

Sex Worker ≠ 'Prostituted'/'Pornographed'


Thanks for your comment. I can see how that sentence may have been confusing as originally written. I certainly didn't intend to make an statement that spoke for all sex workers.

There is a difference between what I'm trying to say and what Carol Adams says about sex workers. Adams certainly is making a sort of broad categorical imperative type statement about all sex workers. That is, under Adams rhetoric and discourse anyone who trades sex for something they need or desire is a sexual slave who is "prostituted" or "pornographed." This is the a priori thesis from which Adams basis her work, which leave no room for considering sex workers' own experiences or lived realities.

Admittedly, I'm talking about sex workers as a group, but only to the extent of communicating that as a whole sex workers most certainly do not refer to themselves as "prostituted" or "pornographed." In fact, many sex workers are vehemently opposed to this sort of rhetoric and discourse, and have eloquently described how harmful and objectifying these terms can be. Yes, some individual sex workers might refer to themselves as "prostituted" and/or "pornographed." It wasn't my intention to say that no sex workers ever have or ever will refer to themselves in those terms. Rather, I simply wish to point out that these are inappropriate term for referring to sex workers categorically and as a whole, as Adams and other anti-sex worker theorists do.

That is, my intention is to dispute Adams' troubling and problematic unconditional categorization of sex worker in ways that erases and silences most of sex workers as a group. I certainly wasn't attempting to create another unconditional categorization to replace Adams' own objectifying categorization of sex workers. In hopes of making thing a little clearer I've changed the sentence to better reflect what it is I'm trying to say.

Re: Sex Worker ≠ 'Prostituted'/'Pornographed'

Although I also find it frustrating, I feel it's sometimes necessary to make generalisations (when they are the norm) to get the point across. The finer details can always be debated about later.

I have been a sex worker for almost eight years. I have worked and travelled extensively throughout Australia. I have also travelled and worked overseas, including parts of Asia.

I have met and worked with so many sex workers from so many backgrounds with such diverse experiences that I can't even attempt to make a generalisation about them. Except this.

I have never met anyone who referred to themselves as 'prostituted' or 'pornographed'.

Now, I'm not narcissistic enough to claim because I haven't met someone who referred to themselves in this way that they don't exist. But it is not the norm.

The norm is sex workers expressing frustration, disbelief, disgust, sadness and anger that non-sex workers refer to us in this way.

The norm is that our voices are silenced and the lived experiences of sex workers globally are denied because 'once ten years ago such and such heard something to the contrary'.