Let’s Call Sex Work What It Is: Work

Let’s Call Sex Work What It Is: Work

Let’s Call Sex Work What It Is: Work

Villainizing sex workers won’t improve their lives. Basic labor rights will.


This article is adapted from Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, by Melissa Gira Grant, published by Verso Books as a part of the Jacobin series.

There is no one sex industry. Escorting, street hustling, hostessing, stripping, performing sex for videos and webcams—the range of labor that falls under the umbrella of “the sex industry” makes speaking of just one sometimes feel inadequate. To collapse all commercial sex that way often risks conjuring something so flat and shallow that it would only reinforce the insistence that all sex for sale results from the same phenomenon—violence, deviance or desperation.

In many ways, the sex industry is just a part of the larger “informal economy,” that shadow marketplace of workplaces with varying degrees of regulation and legality. In the informal economy, those industries operating under the most intense criminalization, in the least understood sectors, have methods of organization and convention that are kept intentionally private, discreet. The workers of these industries are confined to a “floating city,” as sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh describes it in his book of the same name, imagined as existing outside the confines of more legitimate society. But it would seem that the informal sector’s many scholars, who have mapped the labor of trash pickers and street sellers, counterfeiters and smugglers, have failed to give sex work its due—because it is criminal, because it is service work and, in many cases, because it is work gendered as female.

I’ll describe just a few of the workplaces that these observers of the informal economy have almost entirely overlooked. One is a commercial dungeon—which is in reality just a house on a residential block in a suburb of a major American city, connected by public transit to its central business district and those who work there. This is not a marginal place, nor is it a place marked by transgression. It’s only called a dungeon so that clients seeking the services of those who work there can know what to expect—versus, say, a massage studio or a gentlemen’s club. There is no one held in chains but those who pay to be placed in them, and even then, only for an agreed time.

In a dungeon a client can expect that several workers will be available on each shift, and some of these workers will want to do what he wants to and some won’t. A receptionist will take his call, or answer his e-mail and assign him to a worker based on what he’d like, the worker’s preferences and mutual availability. Some dungeons might post their workers’ specialties on a website. They might also keep them listed in a binder next to the phone, the workers each taking turns playing receptionist, matching clients to workers over their shift. After each appointment the worker would write up a short memo and file it for future reference should the client call again, so that others would know more about him. The dungeon is informal only to the extent that the labor producing value inside its walls isn’t regarded as real work. There are shift meetings, schedules and a commission split based on seniority. Utility bills arrive, and are paid. Property taxes, too. In some cases the manager would give discreet employment references. And sometimes people were fired.

There was one group of people who did perform unwaged work in the dungeon: the many male “houseboys” who would telephone, at least once each day, to ask to come and clean. The women who worked in the dungeon knew that managing these men’s slave fantasies was itself a form of work, but when they could just turn them loose on the dishes, the worst they would have to do is check later to see if anything untoward had happened to a glass or fork. It was never meant as a commentary on the years of feminists’ arguing over the value of housework, but it still could feel deeply gratifying that the houseboys were made to understand their only reward would be the empty sink.

This—the notes, the bills, the dishes—is the look inside a dungeon you’ll get when you work there, not when you’re paying for it.

On an opposite coast, there was the college town escort agency “run” by R., who really was just the one who paid for the ad in the back of the paper each week and the mobile phone that customers would call after seeing the ad. The women who shared the ad and phone line paid R. a share of each half-hour or hour appointment they got through the ad, which meant they didn’t need to be around all the time to pick up the phone or give any information about themselves to the newspaper that ran the ad. They just showed up at the motel room or house where they’d meet their customers. Every once in a while a woman would call the phone number, wanting to work with them, and R. would meet with them in a coffee shop. If they decided to work together, she’d train them on all of this. Some of the women took turns answering the phone and booking appointments, and after they learned how to manage that, they’d end up going off on their own.

And there was M., who modeled for a few “shemale” websites. This was not a term she used to describe herself, but she made most of her money escorting men who were fans of those sites to sex parties held in clubs and other semiprivate venues—whether or not they had sex, which they did sometimes. The websites were ways to advertise herself as a date for hire without having to pay to be featured in online escort ad directories, and when the customers would e-mail her as fans, they could make plans to meet up. M. would make it clear that she would be paid for their meeting as well. A friend of hers was busted when an undercover cop contacted her through an overt online escort ad, made an appointment, and then arrested her in her own apartment, also taking her phone and her laptop. M. wasn’t as fearful of having an encounter with police at the club.

And there was C., who ran a porn site out of the apartment she shared with her boyfriend. In addition to modeling for her own porn, she also recruited others from the online forums she posted in, or through friends who knew what she did for a living. When a model came to C.’s apartment to shoot, the only contact she’d have with anyone associated with the porn site was C., who also acted as photographer. C.’s work computer was her personal computer; her workplace was her living room—a couch, a photo backdrop, her DVDs and her cats. Sometimes she ran out of money to pay for models and would just shoot herself until more memberships came in. Sometimes fans would ask her to visit them in other cities and pay for her to fly out and shoot models there. The money could be unpredictable. She used to work in a strip club to supplement it.

Though these are four of the most visible forms of sex work—porn, stripping, domination and escorting—and each offers a distinct environment, 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, chancing that someone she knew would come in, 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.

These are also only anecdotes drawn from sex workers I’ve met and worked with over the last ten years in the United States. Each involves some work online and offline. Each caters to customers in a specific way, and with its own conventions: websites sell photo sets and memberships; escort services set up appointments; clubs charge entrance fees and sell drinks; and performers sell stage shows and private dances. Each sell takes its own skills, has its own hustle, its own downsides.

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,” while also insisting that it varies considerably over time and place. 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, for example, 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.”

The character isn’t even representative of all the street-soliciting sex workers she stands in for. When considering the practice of street-based sex work, sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein observes, “it is important to recognize the extent to which the practices and meanings of sexual labor varied in the different prostitution strolls” that she studied, even in the same city. Some of this sex work can be more accurately described as trade or barter, Bernstein writes, “self-organized, occasional exchanges that generally took place within women’s own homes and communities.” She distinguishes this from “the sexual labor of ‘career’ streetwalkers,” in which “commercial sexual exchange was conceptualized as ‘work’ that resided in the public display of the body.” You find this echoed in the research of Chicago’s Young Women’s Empowerment Project, a grassroots organization made up of women and girls of color who have been or who currently are involved in the sex trade. They’ve adopted the descriptor “sex trades and street economies” to recognize that, for their community, trading sex for what they need to survive isn’t necessarily understood as their “work,” and that it occurs alongside other informal labor, such as hair braiding or babysitting.

The sex industry is varied and porous throughout. Consider its other most visible outpost in America: the legal brothels of rural Nevada in the few counties where prostitution was never fully criminalized, and where strict regulation and isolation are employed to make it tolerable to the public. There, according to The State of Sex, a recent study conducted by Barbara G. Brents, Crystal Jackson and Kathryn Hausbeck, 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.” Three-quarters of those they interviewed move between “straight work” and sex work. “Selling sex,” they write, “is often one form of labor among a variety of jobs.”

When we say that sex work is service work, we don’t say that just to sanitize or elevate the status of sex workers, but also to make plain that the same workers who are performing sex work are also performing nonsexual service work. In her study of Rust Belt strippers published in Policing Pleasure: Sex Work, Policy, and the State in Global Perspective, Susan Dewey observed that the vast majority of the dancers—all but one—at one club in upstate New York had worked outside the sex industry, and “many had left intermittently for low-wage, service-sector work elsewhere before returning with the recognition that they preferred the topless bar with its possibility of periodic windfalls from customers.” For the dancers who Dewey surveyed, it was the work outside of the sex industry that was “exploitative, exclusionary, and without hope for social mobility or financial stability.”

Opponents of the sex industry, from the European Women’s Lobby to reactionary feminist bloggers, like to claim that sex workers have the audacity to insist that their work is “a job like any other.” By this, it’s safe to say, anti–sex work activists are not simply agreeing with sex workers that the conditions under which sexual services are offered can be as unstable and undesirable as those cutting cuticles, giving colonics or diapering someone else’s babies.

What sex work opponents actually have in mind when they cringe at the idea that sex work could be “a job like any other” is that sex work does not—and cannot—resemble their work. When anti–sex work crusaders think of “jobs,” they’re thinking of their more respected labor administering social projects, conducting research and lobbying. To consider sex work to be on the same level as that work breaks down the divisions that elevate some forms of labor while denigrating others.

The real message of anti–sex work feminists is, It’s the women working against sex work who are the real hard workers, shattering glass ceilings and elevating womanhood, while the tramps loll about down below. As political theorist Kathi Weeks notes, to call a woman a tramp is to judge the value of a woman’s sexuality and labor. Every tramp, she writes in The Problem with Work, is “a potentially dangerous figure that could, unless successfully othered, call into question the supposedly indisputable benefits of work”—and home and family, and women’s commitment to all of it. When sex workers are “rescued” by anti–sex work reformers, they are being disciplined, set back into their right role as good women. This isn’t just the province of large NGOs; one-woman rescue missions have popped up online and in megachurches, projects that claim to support themselves through the sale of candles and jewelry made by rescued sex workers. These jobs may technically exist outside the sex industry, but without a supply of rescued workers, there would be no cheap labor, no candles—and there would be no projects for the rescuers to direct.

As feminist anarchist Emma Goldman noted in 1910, our society’s panic over prostitution does little for actual sex workers but does quite successfully “help to create a few more fat political jobs—parasites who stalk about the world as inspectors, investigators, detectives, and so forth.” The loss of sex workers’ income was and continues to be anti–sex work activists’ gain.

Opponents even take sex workers’ jobs when they win. Socialist feminist activist and antiracist campaigner Selma James, in her essay “Hookers in the House of the Lord,” documents the closure of a successful grassroots sex workers’ legal project in London in the eighties, so “feminist lawyers and women from the anti-porn lobby” could create their own without having to actually employ the sex workers who started this advocacy. “What we are witnessing before our very eyes is the process whereby women’s struggle is hidden from history and transformed into an industry,” James writes, “jobs for the girls.”

These demands on sex workers’ labor, while it is simultaneously devalued, is why we still insist that sex work is work. But this should not be confused with uncritical sentiment, as if sex work is only work if it’s “good” work, if we love to do it. Being expected to perform affection for our jobs might feel familiar to sex workers—management at San Francisco’s unionized peep show the Lusty Lady tried to insert language in their contract that the job was meant to be “fun,” which the dancers refused to accept. 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.


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