Books & Ideas

On the Job: Debating Sex Work

May 14, 2014


A woman poses at a brothel in Amsterdams red light district. / Vittorio Sciosia

 

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work
Melissa Gira Grant
Verso/Jacobin, $14.95 (paper)

According to a well-worn saw, prostitution is a profession like any other, apart from being the oldest. But in her new book Playing the Whore, journalist, activist, and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant argues that sex work is not a profession at all, according to widespread perception. Instead, most of us—in the United States and abroad, women and men, feminists and otherwise—are attached to what Grant calls “fantasies of prostitution” in which sex workers are reduced to what they do when they are working: they are “essentially sexual.” Rather than play the whore only when they are on the clock, sex workers are whores through and through.

This fantasy motivates intrepid heroes such as the columnist Nicholas Kristof, who live tweets his raid of a Cambodian brothel and, in the pages of The New York Times, trumpets his purchase of several women’s freedom. In his narrative, prostitutes are victims—of their pimps, their johns, or their own false consciousness. Kristof is one face of a “rescue industry” that campaigns against international sex trafficking and seeks to abolish prostitution altogether. The rescue industry is unable to imagine that the sale of sex could ever be consensual and non-exploitative.

Another fantasy envisions the prostitute not as a victim but as a vector of contagion, threatening to spread disease and immorality. The prostitute must be kept under control. This imperative drives the policing of sex workers and those who are profiled as sex workers, even when they are not selling sex, and legitimates police abuse of sex workers and suspected sex workers, who are constantly vulnerable to surveillance, harassment, sexual violation, and incarceration.

A third fantasy assumes that workers involved in prostitution, stripping, and porn are passive, sexualized objects. When a sex scandal breaks, the media seek sex workers who will play to type as the glamorous, sexy call girl who reproduces titillating stories of her degraded past for a voyeuristic public. Grant relates with disgust how she and a colleague were approached by ABC to help “produce a ‘classy,’ ‘educated’ (read: white, conventionally attractive) escort” to tell “‘true tales’ of prostitution” for a special program on Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known as the D.C. Madam. And anti-prostitution activists stage debates about sex work, but without sex workers. Anti-trafficking activist Kathleen Barry once refused to debate a sex worker because “it would be ‘inappropriate to discuss sexual slavery with prostitute women.’” In debates over sex work, the workers themselves are usually treated as “mute icon or service instrument,” spoken about but unable to speak for themselves. In Sweden, for instance, anti-prostitution activists pushed for a law criminalizing the men who purchase sex—as opposed to the women they buy it from—“without any meaningful consultation with women who sell sex.” Despite more than forty years of sex worker activism across the United States and the globe, mainstream debates about sex work still take place largely without the input of those who perform it.

But sex workers are not simply figures in another’s drama. They make up their own narratives. As Grant notes, sex workers who have spoken out in defense of their work often have resisted the role of the victim by instead going to the opposite extreme and presenting themselves as empowered. A recent example is Belle Knox, the Duke University freshman who was outed on campus as a porn star and subsequently claimed, “Shooting pornography brings me unimaginable joy. . . . I can say definitively that I have never felt more empowered or happy doing anything else. In a world where women are so often robbed of their choice, I am completely in control of my sexuality.”

To Grant, the empowered sex worker is just as fantastic as the victimized whore. She argues that we need to dispel fantasies of prostitution altogether, to resist seeing sex workers as either wholly exploited or wholly empowered by the work they do. Sex workers, as workers in any field, like certain things about their jobs and dislike other things. Sex workers should have, with everyone else, the ability to voice a complicated and ambivalent relationship to their labors. “There must,” Grant writes, “be room for them to identify, publicly and collectively, what they wish to change about how they are treated as workers without being told that the only solution is for them to exit the industry.” They must be able to talk about their working conditions honestly and openly, without having to fit their experiences into someone else’s fantasy of prostitution, and without fearing police surveillance and incarceration in response.

But even Grant is not immune to the pull of fantasy. She makes potent arguments against victimization and control, but her demands on behalf of professionalism leave a false sense that sex work, because it is just another job, is unassailable. Pertinent avenues of criticism are foreclosed. In Grant’s imagination, we don’t ask what is actually good for women, we don’t ask why women predominate in sex work, and we don’t ask about which desires empower and which create harmful expectations that reinforce women’s vulnerability.

• • •

Grant urges us to “see off-the-clock sex workers as whole, as people who aren’t just here to fuck.” Sex workers have lives, lovers, families, desires, needs. Their work—much of which involves marketing, building Web sites, scheduling, communicating with clients, and managing money—is not reducible to sex. And not all those who perform sex work do so full-time, or even more than once or twice. Many have complicated work histories including both sex work and other forms of wage labor. If we can view sex workers as whole people, then we can also appreciate the agency exercised in their work.

Sex workers operate in a broader, structural context where “the labor market, the privatization of education and healthcare, and debt” help to explain why someone might find sex work an attractive option. Grant poignantly suggests that “vital information” about how to do sex work be made widely available so that anyone can access it, “should they ever be in the situation of explicitly trading sex for something they need.”

In other words, prostitution is not the result of a moral crisis but of a money crisis. Sex work may offer better pay and working conditions than other forms of available employment. In Cambodia, Grant observes, sex workers have allied with garment workers to “call attention to the poor conditions in the factories that make sex work a higher-paying, more attractive alternative.” And since structural injustices are often what drive people into sex work, sex workers have joined social justice movements of all kinds. The needs of sex workers, Grant claims, are the same as those of women in general: “to be legally recognized; to end discrimination in housing, health care, education, and work; to move freely in the world.”

Rather than isolate sex work from criticism, we can and should think about its impact on our culture.

Situating sex work in a broader context would also mean reintegrating sex work in neighborhoods. Grant wants to counteract the “gentrification” of sex work: the cleansing of red light districts such as Times Square and the purging of sex ads from widely visible Web sites such as Craigslist. Sex workers have been forced into private spaces and unfamiliar parts of town where abuse is more likely to go unnoticed. The networks that improved safety and enabled workers to share information have been disrupted.

The Internet provides new opportunities to build these networks, but it also creates avenues for law enforcement and anti-prostitution activists to police and attack sex work. And on the Web, the general public only sees the sex worker’s advertisements; we no longer run into her in the streets as our neighbor, thereby reinforcing the fantasy of perpetual whoredom. We are, Grant contends, “far less likely to ever meet a sex worker in the physical world and are more likely than ever before to learn everything [we] know about sex work from marketing copy written for sex workers’ customers.”  

• • •

In short, Grant wants us to see sex work for what it is—work.

Yet there is one important way in which Grant wants us to treat sex work differently than other kinds of work: she doesn’t want us to debate it. She writes, “Sex work itself and, inseparable from it, the lives of sex workers are not up for debate—or they shouldn’t be.” Elsewhere she argues that sex workers are not reducible to their work, yet here the two are inseparable. We cannot have a debate about sex work, it seems, without implicating the lives of sex workers. We cannot critically analyze the one without judging the other, thus we should have no debates at all.

Grant has good reason to be concerned that any discussion of sex work will slide into an evaluation of sex workers’ lives. The “sex wars” of the 1980s and 1990s posed the question of sex work in the stark terms of exploitation or empowerment: women who voluntarily participated in the sex industry were either the victims of false consciousness or icons of feminist sexual liberation, completely in charge of their own self-objectification. In either event, the debate was set in terms that encouraged outsiders to intrude voyeuristically into individuals’ lives to determine whether they were exploited or empowered: Did you really choose to go into this kind of work? And if you say you did choose it, can you prove that this was really a free choice? This kind of questioning, which some feminists encourage, is offensive and abusive, and it is entirely understandable that Grant wants to keep it off the table.

However, it is possible for us to debate sex work without intruding into the lives of sex workers. In fact Grant’s call for us to think of sex work as just another kind of work invites this kind of debate. One can criticize other kinds of work—say, police work—without necessarily judging those who perform it.

Rather than isolate sex work from criticism, we can and should think about the impact of sex work on our culture. Grant dismisses critics of the “pornification” of our culture as women who are afraid that the whorishness of sex work might rub off on them. Authors such as Ariel Levy are concerned about the “representational,” when they should be concerned about “the material and how it constrains and shapes our lives,” Grant contends. Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs (2005) is not without its flaws, but Grant’s is an ungenerous reading of the book and perhaps of all women who do not perform sex work, whom Grant accuses of fearing, and thereby fostering, “whore stigma.”

Levy’s concern, like Grant’s, is with the fantasies that shape our debates, activism, and policies. Specifically, Levy worries that our pornified culture teaches us to view a particular set of sexual desires—for exhibitionism, for big boobs and waxed pussies, for watching pornography—as the whole of sexuality. Far from liberating us to pursue a wide range of possible desires, our pornified culture instead encourages us to look and fuck like porn stars—to transform the fantasy of porn into the normality of life. While sex workers such as Grant may know the difference between having their own sexuality and “acting as if we share our customers’ desires,” Levy argues that young girls and women raised in what she calls “raunch culture” learn that sexuality is acting as if we share our partner’s desires.

Whatever one makes of Levy’s case, we shouldn’t disregard the ubiquity of pornography and the marketing of sex work on the Web, nor should we discount what this ubiquity does to individuals and to society. How are our sexual fantasies and desires shaped by exposure to porn, stripping, and other kinds of sex work? This is especially a problem for women: it is hard for women even to know what they desire, when the porn-star sexuality marketed as the norm involves women acting as if they share the desires of mostly male porn consumers.

The vision of sexual liberation implicit in Grant’s book is one of sexual license: sex workers should be free to pursue whatever kind of sex work they want, without interference from the state or from the rescue industry. As a corollary, consumers should also be free to purchase whatever kind of sex work they desire. Everyone should be free to have sex and be sexual however they wish, whether or not money is involved.

Yet this view of sexual license is at odds with Grant’s wish for us to see sex workers as affected by “the material and how it constrains and shapes our lives.” Grant wants us to recognize these “systemic forces,” but the more sex work is construed as one personal choice among many, the less likely we are to recognize just these forces.

If we were to unite the freedom to engage in and purchase sex work with an awareness of the material, the outcome would not be an end to debate but rather a slew of challenging questions. Is it possible to consciously consume sex work? To watch porn and yet be reflective about why this kind of porn, but not that kind, is arousing? To go to a strip club and enjoy a lap dance and yet be curious about what the pay and working conditions are for the performers? To pay for sex acts and yet be critical of a deeply gendered industry in which men are by far the largest consumers, while women and trans women are more likely to be the producers? Does sexual liberation entail a laissez faire attitude toward sex, or can it involve the freedom to critically, consciously, and intentionally explore pleasure and desire?

A peculiar feature of sex work, which loses salience when we take license as a synonym for liberation, is that sex work has not generated a consumer-based movement demanding ethical conditions, rights, and fair pay for workers. Most sex workers’ rights groups are organized by the workers themselves. While customers have at times supported these efforts—for example, some clients refused to cross picket lines when strippers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady attempted to unionize in the late 1990s—to my knowledge there is no broad-based consumer group demanding ethically produced porn, fair pay, or better working conditions for sex workers. Contrast this with consumer-driven locavore and anti-sweatshop movements. Why is the consumption of sex work different? Why aren’t consumers of sex work at the forefront of the movement for sex workers’ rights?

The easy answers to these questions are sexual shame and stigma. Many people who hire sex workers may not wish others to know it, for fear of social consequences, effects on their family members, or simply because they feel shame at paying for sexual services or for pornography.

But the answers may also be more complicated. Perhaps there is something about sex work itself that discourages or even prevents consumers from being reflective about the systemic forces underlying its production. Most obviously, sex work sells the fantasy of prostitution. A sex worker who is at one moment the object of a consumer’s fantasy and a whole person the next may not be appealing. Thus Grant’s wish may be impossible to fulfill without upsetting the industry she hopes to protect.

When sexual liberation means sexual license, there is no room to think critically about the production of desire and the sale of women’s bodies.

Consuming sex work may also promote a kind of self-centered consumer mindset in which the customer comes to expect that his desires will always be met. If I pay for sex, I can get exactly what I want. On the one hand, this may be liberating for the individual: it may mean fulfilling a desire. On the other hand, this may mean that consumers can shelter themselves from experiences that would trigger more critical reflection. If I use a Web site devoted to a particular fetish of mine, I can safely restrict my exposure to images and acts that fit my desires. But if I read, say, Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus (1977), I will encounter sexual vignettes some of which are arousing, others not, and still others profoundly disturbing. Think of this as parallel to a common critique of news consumption on the Web: rather than expand our access to different points of view and new information, it turns out most of us read online news that confirms our preexisting beliefs about the world. Consuming sex work may be similarly limiting, insofar as it enables the consumer to control the sexual experience.

When it comes to intimate relationships, the consequences of this controlled consumption of sex work may be significant. Someone who is used to being able to buy a fantasy may have difficulty negotiating sex with someone who is not being paid to act out his desires. Someone who is used to pornographic representations of sex may find the reality of sex with another person a disappointing facsimile. Someone who has learned that his sexual needs will always be met may be unable to meet a partner’s needs.

There are, thus, ways of consuming sex work that can keep us from reflecting on the nature of our desires, on how our desires are produced, on our relationship to sex industries, on the economic system that makes sex work a viable option, on the gendered character of sex work, and on the whole lives of sex workers. We need to reflect—as individuals, in intimate relationships, and in our culture more broadly—on whether and how we can consume sex work without shutting down our critical faculties. While there may be no simple answers to the questions surrounding sex work, foreclosing the discussion altogether is no answer at all.

Sexual liberation is best understood as the freedom to be curious about sex and about the broader economic and social context in which desire and sexuality are produced. It is the freedom to engage in pleasure as something to be indulged not mindlessly, but mindfully: observing our individual relationships to our bodies, to what turns us on or off, to what troubles us, and to how this may change over the course of our lives—observing all of this with curiosity.

If we view sexual liberation in this way—as a politically conscious activity, rather than as license to do whatever we like—we can adopt a critical orientation to sex work without stigmatizing sex workers or seeking to abolish sex work altogether. In fact consuming sex work may yield important opportunities to learn about the systemic forces that shape our lives and to reflect on how we can merge sexual liberation with a commitment social justice.

Grant repeatedly states that sex workers should “lead” any debate about sex work. To be sure, no debate about reforming, regulating, or abolishing sex work should take place without sex workers involved as full participants. We can and should ask questions about sex work, and we can and should ask these questions in dialogue with sex workers, sex work consumers, and those who neither perform nor consume sex work. Grant is understandably wary about the sex work debate, but she invites us to engage it in a different way: not as johns, but as fellow workers.

Comments

Interesting take on a vexing problem. From a legal angle, it seemed pretty cut and dried: criminalizing sex work is bad policy. Ferguson and Gira Grant agree on that.
But I share Ferguson's qualms about license. Just as there needs to be a movement pressing for sex workers' rights and protections, there needs to be another, perhaps intellectual rahter than policy-oriented movement, ensuring that we understand the distinction between license and liberation and critiquing the forms of desire produced by porn. It does sort of feel like we're damned either way.

<p><br type="_moz" />
Dance around the issue all you want.&nbsp; Young girls are enslaved and exploited.&nbsp;</p>

Meanwhile, upstairs in the C.ck and C.nt, the whole wide world of whoredom is being discussed.
"If we can view sex workers as whole people...", followed by some pious drivel about "the agency in their work" got an excellent belly-laugh out of me. My, how much have I missed. Perhaps whoring should be made part of general education.
"Sex workers operate in a broad, structured context..." blahblah  blahblahblah, etcetera..."help to explain...sex work...attractive option". My goodness.
"...vital info...how to do sex work...widely available...anyone access to it...etc...ever be in...situation...explicitly trading sex for something [you] need". 
Whoopee! Signed, your beloved pimp.
A good citizen is a well-informed citizen, obviously, and that is the citizen who engages in "consuming sex work..." And even in delivering such work.
You know, every discussion about prostitution always comes across as cringingly idiotic---and so it ought to be. Intimate human contact with a professional stranger strikes me as the ultimate in hypocrisy.
 

Sex work does not involve the "sale of women’s bodies" - or those of men or transgender persons either - it is an interaction between two (or more) people, much like any other personal service.

Upon reading Michele Ferguson's review, my first thought was "Could you be any more condescending?" Upon reading the author is a newly-minted feminist tenure-track academic, my next thought was "Par for the course".
There's not much to be said here. Melissa Gira has given an excellent and succint response over at her blog, stating all the reasons neither she nor any other sex worker do not need to justify herself the chattering classes -
http://melissagiragrant.com/the-debate-redux/
In general, the kind of shifting goal post that this article offers is the curse of any "debate" around sex work. Question the moral panic over pornography and sex work (for example, the largely-discredited claim, still much advanced, that pornography causes violence toward women), and you're told that you're ignoring the "real" issues of the plight of those in the sex industry, human trafficking, etc. Address the topic of working conditions of sex workers and sex work as a labor issue, and you're told that you're ignoring "cultural impact". Margaret Ferguson likes to rail against the supposed double binds presented by "choice feminism", all the while ignoring the fact that she's engaing in the latest in a long series of double binds and obfuscations that have long been thrown out by those "concerned" about sex work and the sex industry.
In other words, helping to keep a stacked and malformed debate stacked and deformed as ever. It is in this atmosphere that many in sex work activism have declared this a "debate" not worth having, and to continue with their activism with or without the permission of or the terms set by the chattering classes.
One other small point - Ferguson, with a straight face, disparages the worker-based nature of the sex worker rights movement in favor of the model presented by the consumerist "foodie" movement. Whatever there might be of value in a "debate" about the sex industry, that particular bit of obvious foolishness calls into question whether Ferguson has anything of value to contribute to it.

I wouldn't call "sex work" as freeing in any terms. 90% of the people in the sex trade have been sexually abused, 60% were in foster care without any family or social structure while the average age of entry is 12-13 years old. I don't believe any 12-13 year-old is at the point of choosing this "profession" but are strong-armed into it through force, fear, and coercion. Pimps prey on these women and act like they "own" them. That doesn't sound like the romanticized feminist roar of freedom that Grant gives us. I think this version of womanhood being paraded in front of us is a shame because it does nothing to actually bring value or opportunity to women. Instead, it further promotes this idea that choosing to objectify for sake of meeting a man's needs is somehow empowering. That isn't true empowerment at all; it's just playing for the crowd. A woman is truly empowered when they are loved (unconditionally), protected, valued, and treasured; this is how we were all meant to thrive. In the many of the cases of these "workers", they have never been able to experience any of this and it is for this reason that as a global culture we must stand for their freedom from this slavery.

 With respect to the average age of entry for sex workers being 12-13, Maggie McNeill (who is a former sex worker and Madame) debunked this claim on her blog awhile back.  Most research in this area is problematic, because it's difficult to get accurate research results in jurisdictions where sex work is criminalized.  Sex workers in criminalized jurisdictions are often reluctant to cooperate with researchers because they fear they will be exposed, arrested, and/or incarcerated.  This is probably one of the most insidious negative consequence of criminalization—it prevents accurate data about sex workers from being gathered.  This reinforces false notions about the lives of sex workers themselves.
As far as whether sex work is "liberating," the whole point behind Grant's book is that we need to stop trying to classify it as "either/or."  Sex workers become sex workers for a variety of reasons.  Many enter willingly and are comfortable with it.  Others enter under coercive circumstances and have bad experiences.  Still others have bad experiences despite entering willingly, but those experiences don't spoil the profession for them entirely.  Every sex worker has their own experience and their own voice—one consistently ignored by prohibitionists and academics alike.
If there's anything to take away from Grant's work, it's that Sex work isn't a monolith.  I've always felt that the most Feminist thing a person can do is just be wiling to listen to the lived experiences of women, and accept them at face value.  If a college freshman tells me that she enjoys doing porn and feels "liberated" by it, I'm going to assume that she does.  Other women would probably feel used or exploited, and I accept that too.  And that's the point: a choice for each individual woman, and a voice for each individual sex worker.  

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