“Do laws criminalizing prostitution violate the Constitution?” asks Yale sexuality scholar Joseph J. Fischel in his brand new essay. Spoiler alert: the answer is “probably.” Indeed, several sex workers and sex worker collectives have recently challenged anti-prostitution laws in lower courts. Citing the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas that gay sex cannot be criminalized, they have argued that commercial sex should be legal too. But even as judges remain unreceptive (often anchoring their disagreements in whorephobic mischaracterizations of sex workers), Fischel still encourages us to engage seriously with the “prostitution–Constitution” question, as he terms it. Doing so is important “not only in the hopes of appealing to a future judiciary,” Fischel writes, “but also in the service of a more expansive politics of sexual freedom.”
In an additional piece penned by Fischel in today’s reading list, he explores the contradictions at the core of pornography and its political economy. Reviewing four recent books, he shows how porn performers and artists possess a unique vision for what labor justice and erotic fulfillment could look like—but draconian regulations and exploitative work conditions mean they’re fighting an uphill battle.
Pornography is also explored in Lisa Duggan’s December 2021 essay “Me Too Déjà Vu.” Duggan suggests that the disagreements between feminists about what to think of porn occupies too prominent a place in how we remember the 1980s sex wars. Instead, a central component that is often lost in present-day recollections, such as Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex, was a debate over the politics of queer desire.
Duggan’s review was our second piece to explore Srinivasan’s book. In the first, Becca Rothfeld paired it with other works that explore the gap between sex that is good and sex that is virtuous. While Rothfeld acknowledges that consent is a matter of urgent ethical concern, she laments the erasure of female desire and agency in our conversations about sexual harm. “Sex that is merely consensual is about as rousing as food that is merely edible, as drab as a cake without icing,” she writes. “Even in our era of ostensible liberation, women face emotional and social pressures, both externally imposed and uneasily internalized, to appease men at the cost of their own enjoyment.”
Two additional new essays round out today’s reading list. Mark D. Jordan, Harvard professor of sexuality and religion, notes that what we can learn from Michel Foucault’s Confessions of the Flesh—especially its insights into Christian ideas of virginity and sexual sin—is complicated by the fact that the book was published against Foucault’s dying wish. “To want his last word on sexuality is to misunderstand Foucault’s dance with systems of power.” And in the reading list’s last essay, Francey Russell rewatches that scene in Basic Instinct and considers how the erotic content in films asks us to relate to the people on screen.