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  • Whores in the Religious MarketplaceSex-Positivity's Roots in Commercial Sex Cultures
  • Jayne Swift (bio)

In late 1976 the Church of Venus opened its doors at 1414 First Avenue—"sandwiched" between adult bookstores and theaters on what, during the 1970s, was colloquially known as Seattle's "Flesh Avenue."1 Before it even opened its doors, a columnist for the Seattle Times, curious about the descriptor "Church" on a street known for sin, would begin chronicling the organization's purported mission.2 Founded by local adult business entrepreneur Ron Peterson (who was principal owner of the adjacent peep show, the Amusement Center), the Church of Venus distinguished itself from its neighbors through its professed spiritual commitment to sexuality as an arena of self-enrichment and a force for social good.3 Specifically, the Church sought to spread the word of "sex-positivity" to publics lacking a robust ethics from which to affirm the value of sexuality untethered from the family form, reproduction, or romantic love. The Church quickly achieved local notoriety for its ethics of sex-positivity and its mission to create both public and commercial spaces for the practice of sex-positivity.

How did a small iconoclastic community come to disseminate a view of sexual commerce as a tool for facilitating spiritual growth and healing? And how was their sex-positive vision situated within a changing historical paradigm by which sexuality was increasingly seen as an aspect of selfhood that individuals should deliberately, conscientiously cultivate? In this article I argue that people in the sex trade were primary developers of sex-positivity and that sex-positivity was a political resource for challenging their criminalization and marginalization. For the purposes of this article, sex-positivity refers to an ethico-spiritual framework that critiqued the rigid regulation of sexual practice by dominant institutions and the state; affirmed sexual exploration as a site of personal and collective meaning making; argued that this exploration was often constrained by socially entrenched, dogmatic moralities; and promoted sexual freedom through the development of physical infrastructure [End Page 93] and alternative communities. Emboldened by the greater visibility of commercial sex economies in city centers during the 1970s, people in the sex trade deployed sex-positivity to redefine commercial sex, perhaps paradoxically, as a space for the production of caring sexual exchanges among strangers in a market-based society understood as simultaneously sexually and spiritually impoverished.

Reconstructing the Church's history through legal records, press coverage, its presence in popular culture, and oral history interviews with those who offered legal testimony on the Church's behalf illustrates how people in the sex trade came to disseminate new ideas about the value of sexual labor and its place in US society, via sex-positive ethico-spiritualities. Unsurprisingly, the perspectives of male entrepreneurs, reporters, and court officials are most accessible, but women were also involved in the Church as crafters of its mission, performers interpreting and enacting its mission, patrons, and (real and fictionalized) advocates. These sources, reflecting the shifting but still potent terms of racial politics in post-Fordist cities, are also quiet on the subject of race. However, religion, and specifically Christianity as a national norm, is omnipresent in these sources. In the post-Civil Rights era, religious morality may have functioned as a seemingly race-neutral term for exerting racialized social control over the public sphere and workers in informal and illicit economies. Across these disparate sources and over a period of years, Church participants espoused an ethics of sex-positivity to audiences (such as the press, police, and judges) who were often baffled by and hostile to it. A historian can never truly know what was in the mind of their subjects, but what emerges from these sources and stakeholders is a clear and consistent defense of sexual labor on the basis that those performing it were non-traditional experts providing a sexual service that held spiritual and ethical value, and they thus had legal rights. The history of this specific counterinstitution evinces how people in the sex trades, in the face of public suspicion, sought to redefine the social value of sexual labor via a distinctive sex-positive worldview, which they assembled from new religious...


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pp. 93-125
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