I have only occasionally paid for sex work.
At a library booksale, I purchased a copy of The Magus intending only to read the racy bits. At a comic shop in California, I bought a bundle of Playboy magazines from the 1970s. After reading an interview with the Erika Lust, my spouse & I watched some of her company’s short films. While traveling in India with friends, we visited a health center and each purchased an Ayurvedic massage.
For the massage, each of us was taken to private rooms and told to change into rather skimpy thong underwear. Then a trained professional – a man for the males in our group, a woman for the females – rubbed our bodies with a blend of oil and spices, carefully kneading our muscles. There wasn’t the sort of rhythmic, focused attention that I imagine to be a component of “happy endings,” but midway through I began to fret about what I would say if that was the sort of massage that I’d inadvertently purchased.
Worrying left me even more tense after the massage than before it started. Whoops.
Although, after we had all showered and reconvened in the lobby, my friend who’d convinced us to try ayurvedic massage regaled us with a story from his childhood. His parents were Indian, and massage was a totally normal part of their culture. And so, during a family vacation to Mexico when my friend was fourteen, his mother purchased a massage for him at one of the tents near their beach.
Midway through, the masseuse wrapped her fingers around his oiled penis and rapidly pumped back and forth. My friend was alarmed but, as a naive adolescent, didn’t know how to make it stop. So he assumed that the easiest way to get through the experience was to close his eyes and think of things sultrier than England.
The masseuse cleaned off his belly. He sheepishly exited the tent. His mother asked, “Was it a good massage, beta?”
He averted his eyes and mumbled, “yup.” Most teenagers act embarrassed and cagey around their parents all the time, so she didn’t realize anything was wrong.
She would have been outraged to realize that she had hired a sex worker.
Sex work is a slippery concept, though. In the process of writing this essay, I tried to come up with a definition; I failed. You could reasonably argue that all massage therapists are sex workers. Patrons are nearly naked; there’s a whole lot of lubricated skin-to-skin contact; a body is used as conduit to satiation.
A number of other professions fit most of the definitions of “sex work” that I came up with. In strip clubs, lap dancers rub against a patron’s body in order to produce orgasm. After pregnancy, many women visit physical therapists who help them regain bladder control; a worker rhythmically curls her gloved fingers inside the patron’s vulva. A model might pose for Playboy – or even the Victoria’s Secret catalog – knowing that young men will climax while gazing at her image. An actor in a pornographic film engages in sexual contact for money; so do police officers.
A writer who drafts an erotic story is arguably a sex worker, too. The experience is enjoyed asynchronously, but the exchange of titillating words can be a form of sexuality, and a patron can certainly reach orgasm.
In practice, these people are unlikely to face legal consequences for their sex work. Because the term “prostitution” is so nebulously defined, prosecutors and judges get to decide what counts.
Even for full-fledged, both-parties-shuck-their-clothes, somebody’s-parts-enveloping-somebody-else’s-parts types of sex work, certain people slide right past the law. Many clients look like prosecutors and judges – wealthy, white, and male – so it’s easy to feel sympathy for them. Hasn’t the bad press already hurt this man enough? And, he’s a pillar of his community! We’d cause too much collateral damage by locking him up!
Instead, we punish people who are already marginalized. Poor people, Black people, brazen women, LGBTQ folks, undocumented immigrants, drug addicts … they elicit little sympathy from our prosecutors. Go ahead and lock them up. Fine them. Deport them.
Juno Mac and Molly Smith have written an excellent book, Revolting Prostitutes, documenting the actual results of our laws against sex work. On the topic of nebulous definitions, Mac and Smith write that, in England (where sex work itself has been decriminalized, but every measure that would allow sex workers to keep themselves safe is illegal):
The definition of brothel-keeping is so capacious as to easily facilitate the criminalization of sex workers: a brothel can be any place where ‘more than one woman offers sexual intercourse, whether for payment or not’ or that is ‘resorted to for the purposes of lewd homosexual practices’. In other words, a flat-share where both housemates regularly have casual non-commercial sex could theoretically count as a brothel under British law.
Vague and misogynistic, this is exactly the sort of language that leads to injustice. Police officers haven’t been raiding the apartments of college kids who choose to fool around with their classmates; instead, they use this law as another tool to oppress undocumented immigrants.
It should be no surprise that carceral feminists and sex-working feminists have such difficulty even discussing this topic. We disagree not only on the solution but on the problem: for carceral feminists, the problem is commercial sex, which produces trafficking; for us, the problem is borders, which produces people who have few to no rights as they travel and work.
The solutions we propose are equally divergent. Carceral feminists want to tackle commercial sex through criminal law, giving more power to the police. For sex workers, the solution includes dismantling immigration enforcement and the militarized border regimes that push undocumented people into the shadows and shut off their access to safety or justice – in other words, taking power away from the police and giving it to migrants and to workers.
Mac and Smith acknowledge that there are valid reasons to dislike the existence of sex work. But there is a danger – if we are too focused on the risk that society might view women’s bodies as objects to be bought and sold, we might lose sight of the real problem.
Most sex workers don’t like their jobs. They sell sex because they need money.
When we devote resources to the criminal justice system instead of the social services that people need, we make the problem worse.
We are not here to uplift the figure of the ‘sympathetic’ client, nor the idea that any client has a ‘right’ to sex. We are not here to prioritize discussion on whether the sex industry, or even sex itself, is intrinsically good or bad. Nor – as we will unpack over the course of this book – are we uncritical of what work means in a context of insatiable global capitalism and looming environmental catastrophe.
In the sense that we wish to see an end to all work, particularly the gendered and exploitative nature of prostitution, many sex worker activists are in fact ‘sex industry abolitionists’. As the English Collection of Prostitutes have said, ‘Ultimately we are organizing for an end to prostitution … When women are able to claim back the wealth we helped produce, the economic conditions which have forced millions of people everywhere to sell their mind, body, time, and skills in order to survive or improve their standard of living, prostitution will no longer be there.’
[Anti-prostitution feminists] position work in general as something that the worker should find fulfilling, non-exploitative, and enjoyable. Deviation from this supposed norm is treated as evidence that something cannot be work.
‘It’s not work, it’s exploitation’ is a refrain you hear again and again. One feminist policymaker in Sweden told a reporter, ‘Don’t say sex work, it’s far too awful to be work.’ Awfulness and work are positioned as antithetical: if prostitution is awful, it cannot be work.
Anti-prostitution feminists and even policymakers often ask sex workers whether we would have sex with our clients if we weren’t being paid. Work is thus constantly being re-inscribed as something so personally fulfilling you would pursue it for free.
Indeed, this understanding is in some ways embedded in anti-prostitution advocacy through the prevalence of unpaid internships in such organizations. … The result of these unpaid and underpaid internships is that the women who are most able to build careers in the women’s sector – campaigning and setting policy agendas around prostitution – are women who can afford to do unpaid full-time work in New York and London. In this context, it is hardly a surprise that the anti-prostitution movement as a whole has a somewhat abstracted view of the relationship between work and money.
Work may be mostly positive for those who can largely set the parameters of the conversation, like high-profile journalists. However, this does not describe reality for most women workers or workers in general (or even many journalists).
Most workers suffer some unfair conditions in the workplace and would not, as a rule, do their jobs for free. Work is pretty awful, especially when it’s low paid and unprestigious. This is not to say that this state of affairs is good, or that we should accept it because it is normal, but nor is it useful to pretend that work is generally wonderful and exclude from our analysis the demands of workers whose experience does not meet this standard.
Mac and Smith would love to live in a world where no one felt the need to sell sex. Barring that, they would like to see sex work become less exploitative, and they offer concrete policy suggestions that would help. Their proposals are reasonable – and very different from the laws that our predominantly wealthy, white, male legislatures have been passing.
Even in Sweden – where we first saw the “Nordic model,” which ostensibly decriminalizes the act of selling sex while punishing buyers – sex workers are harassed by the police. There has been no amnesty for women who sell sex because they are barred from other forms of employment by their immigration status.
But, even if the police chose to pursue only buyers, these laws would still harm sex workers. If any person involved in a transaction is considered a criminal, the transaction will be dangerous. Sex workers subject to the Nordic model are unable to take basic safety precautions, and so they are hurt by these laws.
Similarly, U.S. bills that were ostensibly passed to protect women have instead caused worldwide harm. Mac and Smith write that:
SESTA-FOSTA [which shut down websites like Backpage for trafficking concerns] censored a huge number of advertising platforms at once in spring 2018, rendering sex workers in the US and beyond more precarious, broke, and desperate almost overnight as their source of income vanished. SESTA-FOSTA increased the power of clients and would-be managers, as sex workers scrambled to find work in any way they could.
One client wrote, ‘I definitely think this will end up being a win for hobbyists [habitual clients] … prices will drop because providers [sex workers] will not be able to pull in new customers and have to take whoever they can get. Specials [such as sex without a condom] will become more prevalent … They will have to act friendlier and not have the luxury of turning away clients any longer.’
[Note: clarifications for terms like “hobbyists” and “specials” were provided by Mac and Smith.]
It could seem paradoxical that these laws, which ostensibly aim to fight exploitation, instead make exploitation easier and more prevalent. But ultimately it is not a paradox: reducing sex workers’ ability to connect with clients always increases scarcity and makes workers more vulnerable.
When we try to suppress demand by passing laws that punish people who buy sex, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous. When we try to suppress demand by shutting down advertising platforms, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous.
We’re doing the wrong things.
Politicians are targeting the wrong sort of demand.
In economic terms, the demand for sex work is relatively elastic. Fooling around is fun; it isn’t necessary. When the price goes up – because sex workers raise their rates, because there’s an outbreak of STIs, because the transaction is criminalized, because there’s a cultural norm that people share their sexuality only within the confines of a church-sanctioned marriage – most people will have less sex.
By way of contrast, the demand for a safe place to live, food for your children, or medicine are all inelastic. When you’re fleeing the ravages of climate change or militarized gang violence, it doesn’t matter how much it costs. That’s why our immigration policies have been failing – by policing our borders, we’ve raised the price of migration, but we haven’t addressed substandard living conditions in people’s home countries.
Instead, we are making people’s homes less safe. Both the colonial legacy and ongoing carbon pollution of places like the United States and wealthy European countries have led to droughts, government corruption, and drug-sale-funded violence around the world. We have a moral obligation to help the people whose homes we’ve ruined; instead, we’re treating them like criminals.
I’ve written previously that a global wealth tax used to fund a guaranteed basic income would be the best solution to many of our world’s problems; Mac and Smith also conclude that:
To make sex work unnecessary, there is much work to do: winning rights for freedom of movement, labor rights, access to services and to work without threat of deportation, employment alternatives, better welfare provisions, cheaper housing, support services for single mothers, and so on. If everybody had the resources they needed, nobody would need to sell sex.
Revolting Prostitutes is an incredibly well-written, deeply researched, important book. It deserves to be widely read – certainly by everyone who purports to care about feminism, immigration, or human rights.
I worry, though, that some readers might be turned away by an ad hominem attack. Many authors have careers that inform their writing; I’ve never seen these mentioned in our local university’s library listings before. Wouldn’t it be enough to list “Author: Smith, Molly” with no clarification?
Misogyny dies hard.