This article examines how, in the public eye, the hooker became happy. Extending Sara Ahmed’s concept of the “happiness duty,” the article explicates how sex positivity has inaugurated “respectability” politics within sex worker social movements. The author argues that sex worker social movements have sought to change public debates about commercial sex, vis-à-vis an antistereotype strategy that reimagined the sex worker as a sex-positive feminist, distinguished less by her critical politics of pleasure and more by the implication that she freely chooses and finds happiness in her work. Emphasizing happiness has allowed sex workers to become legible as political actors within preexisting terms of liberal citizenship. This strategy, however, has effectively affirmed the cultural logics of the “rescue industry” and poses significant challenges to cross-class, -racial, and -age solidarity among those in the sex trades. To make this argument, the author analyzes original oral history interviews and sex worker cultural production associated with the Lusty Lady theater. A historically significant and recently closed commercial sex franchise located in San Francisco and Seattle, the Lusty Lady serves as a unique access point for understanding sex worker social movements, as it was a central institution in sex worker counterpublics. This article enhances analyses of sex worker social movements by considering how sex positivity has both cohered and constrained sex worker social movements.
Toxic Positivity?: Rethinking Respectability, Revaluing Pleasure
Jayne Swift is a lecturer in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota. A public scholar and activist, Swift is working on a book project entitled, “Lusty Ladies: Sex Work and Sex-Positive Politics, 1970–2013.” You can reach her at drjayneswift.com.
Jayne Swift; Toxic Positivity?: Rethinking Respectability, Revaluing Pleasure. South Atlantic Quarterly 1 July 2021; 120 (3): 591–608. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-9423071
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