Thursday, March 6, 2014


"As if sex work is only work if it’s 'good' work, if we love to do it"

Melissa Gira Grant's written a wonderful long piece at the Nation about how much is elided when sex work is seen as an arena of morality rather than labor:

These are four of the most visible forms of sex work—porn, stripping, domination and escorting—and each offers a distinct environment, [but] it’s not uncommon for workers to draw their incomes from more than one of them. It’s about more than maximizing their earning potential; it’s also a way to negotiate the varying degrees of exposure and surveillance that come with each venue. For every escort who would never give up her privacy by working in a strip club, there’s a stripper who would never give up her privacy by working in porn or having her image posted online, and there’s a porn performer who would never have sex for money outside the context of a porn shoot.

[...]However, as distinct as the work and their environments may be and whatever the dangers of lumping them together, there is a political usefulness in calling all of this “sex work"... To do so is to insist that those who do sex work, in all of their workplaces and in varied conditions, deserve the rights and respect accorded to workers in any other industry. The portrait of street-level prostitution as it’s on display in media accounts—a woman, most often a woman of color, standing in a short skirt and leaning into a car or pacing toward one—is a powerful yet lazily constructed composite. As the lead character of the prostitute imaginary, she becomes a stand-in for all sex workers, a reduction of their work and lives to one fantasy of a body and its particular and limited performance for public consumption. Sex workers’ bodies are rarely presented or understood as much more than interchangeable symbols—for urban decay, for misogyny, for exploitation—even when invoked by those who claim some sympathy, who want to question stereotypes, who want to “help.”

She covers "rescue" organizations and "advocates" whose income comes from taking away sex workers' income stream, and I found this statistic particularly interesting: "One-third of brothel workers had never done any other kind of sex work before, but rather came to it directly from 'non-sexual service work.'" It's a great read down to the last sentence, on the conflation of integrity and the willingness to fake thrilling affection for your everyday job:

To insist that sex workers only deserve rights at work if they have fun, if they love it, if they feel empowered by it is exactly backward. It’s a demand that ensures they never will.

12 Comments / Post A Comment


This piece is so great. I'm totally guilty of not quite getting sex work in the past, but I've realized the "but you wouldn't be doing this if you didn't have to" mentality is so destructive. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't have to! Lots of people have jobs where they're capable but not completely enthusiastic, and that's just the nature of work.


@Jaya So then do all the arguments about enthusiastic consent and that people should only have sex with people who want to have it with them not apply to sex workers, then? How is that not turning them into second-class people?


@Jaya It does apply to sex workers! If sex is your job you may not have the same enthusiasm as if sex is something you do with someone you're in love with (or however you do it), but that doesn't mean lack of enthusiastic consent. Sex workers should absolutely be protected against abuse, assault and discrimination (you know, the way we have workplace discrimination and abuse laws). Agreeing to exchange services for money ideally means consent, and sex workers should have the right to turn down any prospective client, and have that decision be protected.

I think this ties into the fact that sex is obviously something humans do for leisure and for work, which can't be said of many other professions. There have to be different set ups if you do it for work, but that doesn't mean the same protections shouldn't exist.


Articles like this always bring this quote to mind:

"If ‘sex work’ is really a free choice and something that is ‘liberating’ , why aren’t men chomping at the bit to do it and dominate that ‘career option’ and crowd women out of it, like they do with other good-paying jobs?… NO woman fights to become a prostitute against all odds. She is prostituted when the odds beat her."
-Jacqueline Homan (Without Apology)

isabelle bleu

I am verry looking forward to reading this on my lunch break.


Pretty much, and I mean that as a former stripper/website model - it really isn't a long-term job, it is a job full of much worse feminist compromises than the other service sector work I do now (not considering plastic surgery for one thing!) - for all the "oh no strippers are so self-confident! you learn so much about different kinds of beauty working there!" I learned my managers were racist pricks that were happy to encourage unhealthy dieting and pocket money from working moms for made up offenses. Or to tell women with back or foot problems they'd be fired if they didn't wear the requisite 6" or higher heels. And I worked at a lot of different places. I don't think that if there had been sufficient economic opportunities for 19-year-olds far from home with unemployed live-in boyfriends I would have chosen it. At least for as long, at least putting up with the abuses of so many. And not to say other service jobs don't have lots of abuses, but is that really a good argument for defending the sex industry?

I think that in a world with sufficient opportunities, we'd probably still see burlesque or other displays of sensuality/sexuality that are not money making. It is not that I'm opposed to women being sexual in a public way, but I'm wary of insisting that there's no difference between the sex industry and any other industry, and that feminists should not criticize it or want to see it gone. And I have a feeling that positive changes are going to result in making it much less profitable, which is really something I'm okay with.


@TenyaLuna Hi, can I high-five you please?

chickpeas akimbo

@klemay there are plenty of men in sex work, it's just that their clients are men. I suspect this is an issue of demand, not supply. Women and men, both selling sexual services, cannot substitute for one another, because the client will tend to prefer one or the other based on his sexual orientation. Men literally cannot crowd women out of this market because the demand is not there for them, by nature of them being men.


@chickpeas akimbo Why take it for granted that only (or predominantly) men will and must be the people buying sex? What is it about women that prevents them from being buyers in the sexual marketplace?


@klemay Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree with that quote. If sex work is so great, why is it that so many people are forced/coerced into it?

chickpeas akimbo

@Divert Here are a couple of reasons why women don't buy sex:
1.) No scarcity. Plenty of dudes giving it away for free, so no need to purchase it. Historically, this hasn't been the case for women and sex -- women's sexuality has been much more closely regulated by legal, religious, and social systems.
2.) Social pressure. Men who buy sexual services from women (or men) may get a little side eye, but women who do so will be seen as pathetic, unfuckable, etc. Women may chose to forgo purchasing sex rather than risk the social consequences of doing so.
3.) Safety. Many women would not feel physically safe purchasing sexual services from a stranger, especially since the transaction generally takes place privately.
4.) Risk. Related to points 2 and 3, women generally assume more risk from a sexual encounter, including the risk of pregnancy, STDs (receptive partners are at higher risk for HIV, for example), loss of social standing.

You'll note these are all, essentially, market conditions, not qualities inherent to women. Market conditions can change; women could become 50% of the consumers of sexual services. (I would guess that women consume pornography, which for the most part avoids these issues, in much greater numbers than we consume "in-person" sexual services such as escorts, strip clubs, massage parlors, etc.)

In economic terms, in the marketplace for sexual services, women and men are not substitute goods for the vast majority of customers (some bisexual men being the exception, perhaps.) That is, if the price of buying sexual services from a woman increases, consumers will not simply shift their consumption to buying sexual services from men. Men cannot enter this market in large numbers because there's little to no demand for their services.

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