‘You Don’t Fucking Know Me’: Unraveling Erotic Autonomy in Patty Jenkins’ ‘Monster’

Sarah Wagoner
5 min readAug 14, 2023

Tw // rape, child sexual abuse

Sex work is one of the discourses within feminism I have not publicly aired my opinions out fully, as it is one of the few in which I understand the complicated nuance radical feminists attempt to bring to light, even if I think they fail. The case of Aileen Wuornos, and the film which depicts it, is a strong example of why I do find complications within the discourse, even if I land on support of sex workers, as well as the notion that sex work is work and we must treat the violence against sex workers as a labor and feminist issue.

First and foremost I support sex workers because of my belief in erotic autonomy. To some extent, the hierarchical nature of gender dynamics, and hegemonic social standards, makes nearly all sexual dynamics questionable in the realm of consent. How much power does someone need to have versus your own before you can fully consent without the fear of their exertion of power over you? Erotic autonomy accounts for this question by providing a way in which to critically consider what autonomy and consent we have to spare. Erotic autonomy is the consideration and deliberation of power dynamics within sexual spaces as well as the cultural and historical context of said dynamics, offering a space for consent to arise within the confines of one’s environment. The term has largely been utilized by Black, pro-sex work feminists, who argue that the majority of sexual encounters for Black women are already dangerous for Black women, but it is also denying Black women’s autonomy and personhood to deny them the right to consensual sexual encounters. Black sex workers also note how sex work is often an act of survival, but it can also act as a statement of bodily ownership. So within this cultural environment, I see issues with denying people autonomy by erasing sex work as a category for autonomy.

But the radical feminist argument is that all sex work is rape. It is fairly easy to dismiss this argument, but I want to genuinely engage with it. There is truth to the idea that sex as a survival tactic is ultimately an act of rape, as the person cannot willingly consent without putting their own life in danger. In fact, this common in marital rape, as a spouse will likely be thrown onto the streets, beaten, or killed if they revoke consent, or they will at least have the threat of these violences. But survival sex work relies on this same idea, often. Particularly for sex workers who began as underaged workers, such as Aileen Wuornos.

Wuornos was homeless after her father died by suicide and her siblings turned her away after the conception of her as a ‘whore’. In her case, she only knew sex work and the objectification of her own body as the way to obtain money, and thus survive. So, if she did not want to have sex with a John (and she could not consent to any as a child), she could not allow herself to do so, as it would be the end of her life. To be fair, I think all participants in the sex work debate could agree that child sexual labor is rape, as child sex is rape regardless of form. But here, I will concede that even if we consider Aileen’s sex work only within her adulthood (which I think is somewhat a fool’s errand), it ultimately relies upon survival wherein it is all that she knows. Here, we must remember the core of erotic autonomy.

Erotic autonomy does not simply state that sex work is always fine because someone utilizes their body for financial gain, in a world where people would use them anyways. Again, it relies upon critical consideration. Seeing as Aileen came of sexual being while being sexually exploited, compounded with her severe mental illness, we can say that she was stripped of erotic autonomy from the beginning. Growing up in an atmosphere wherein the only value one has is their sexual appeal (particularly as a child) creates an illusion that their sexuality is not their own. This is even highlighted as until she meets Selby, Aileen has allegiance to heteronormativity despite later having a lesbian romance. Considering she does not reconsider her sexuality until that fateful meeting, it is not a stretch to apply this consideration to her utilization of her body.

From the film’s opening monologue, this is also hinted, as Aileen notes her obsession with women’s beauty standards and the idea that if she could just impress the right men, her life would be perfect. Her lack of awareness of the cultural property that is the woman, that is sexuality, shows that she could not have made a critical decision, even as she grew up. So, yes, the sex work she engaged in can be categorized as non-consensual because she did not have the information needed to consent. However, it is also not helpful to utilize her life, and the lives of other non-consenting sex workers to argue that survival sex work and sex work itself is always non-consensual.

While survival sex work generally is created out of desperation, it is unhelpful and inaccurate to paint the phenomenon with a wide brush. This rhetoric relies upon an assumption that sex workers do not critically think about their position before entering the field. It similarly, often depends upon erasing the other sexual trauma of sex work. By painting all sex work with this larger brush, the awareness sex workers attempt to make about their experiences with rapist customers often goes unnoticed, or they are victim-blamed in the process, as they are told that their job IS a sexual assault against themselves. While I think some radical feminists are well-meaning in this rhetoric, I find they can be reckless in thinking about how to approach the conversation by distilling the issue to a digestible argument rather than the complex matter it is.

We should not be in a position where we have to question whether anything is rape. Rape should not exist of course, but when it does it should be easily identifiable and actionable against, but it rarely is. Above all, I find the best we can do is not to attack the lifestyle or circumstances of their victims, but to open conversation on how people, especially women, hold autonomy, how they can use it, and how others abuse it. If anything, I find erotic autonomy to be a helpful framework because it opens that door.

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Sarah Wagoner

Literature Major, GWST Minor, Graduate Student, She/Her, focus on politics in media, Professional email: sarahwagoner6@gmail