Astra Taylor’s forthcoming book The People’s Platform, about who has power and who gets paid in the age of the Internet, mentions the following quote about the virtues of “open-source” (read: unpaid) labor from Internet guru Yochai Benkler:
“Remember, money isn’t always the best motivator. If you leave a fifty-dollar check after dinner with friends, you don’t increase the probability of being invited back. And if dinner doesn’t make it entirely obvious, think of sex.”
That quote, unsurprisingly, is from a TED Talk. The talk’s audience chose to reflexively laugh rather than actually think about sex or about work. It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone in the audience that there might be times when you make dinner for friends and expect in return only to hear boring stories and bad jokes, and other times when you serve strangers and expect in return to be paid, and that it is possible to maintain dignity and basic rights in both situations. And it certainly doesn’t occur to anyone that a similar dynamic might hold true for sex.
This has, however, occurred to Melissa Gira Grant, whose new book Playing The Whore considers sex work as work—or, rather, as a catchall term for many different kinds of work (“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.”)
Sex workers, though, face one obstacle that most of the rest of us don’t: self-appointed rescuers.
Grant’s concise but exhaustively researched book makes a convincing case that police action against sex work—even when intended to “rescue” sex workers and even when ostensibly targeted against the people looking to buy sex rather than sell it—achieves little beyond enabling police violence and harassment. (One appalling fact among many: “In New York, the practice of using condoms as evidence of prostitution is so routine that the supporting depositions used by cops upon arrest have a standard field available to record the number of condoms seized from suspected sex workers…. Sex workers refuse condoms from outreach workers, and from each other, as a way to stay safe from arrest.”)
Sex workers are entitled to the rights that all workers have or should have, not least among these the right to hate your job without having it taken away from you. With typical bracing lucidity (the book is a model of excellent nonfiction prose, infinitely better than that of one of Grant’s primary targets, columnist-cum-Mighty-Mouse Nicholas Kristof), Grant decries the fact that “sex workers must prove that they have made an empowered choice, as if empowerment is some intangible state attained through self-perfection and not through a continuous and collective negotiation of power.”
Perhaps removing the stigma from sex work will help us all think more clearly about work and life; this is why Grant draws the connection below between her book and Miya Tokumitsu’s recent dazzling Jacobin essay, “In the Name Of Love,” which pointed out the dirty secret in the culture-wide dictum to “Do What You Love”: “It hides the fact that if we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.”
Anything less than doing what you love is supposed to be “whoring yourself out.” So we work for free, or for much less than we’re worth, because we’re not supposed to think of ourselves as workers.
Jacobin is putting out three excellent books on how to think about work—the others are Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust, a collection of introductory essays to contemporary thinkers, and Micah Uetricht’s Strike For America, about the profession of teaching. I’ll be talking to the authors of each, as to well as to Astra Taylor, whose work is related by theme if not by publisher.
I recently spoke with Melissa Gira Grant over coffee in Chelsea.
You talk a lot—it’s the subtitle—about how sex work is work.
Right. Which should not be a controversial claim, but continues to be, across the political spectrum.
While I was reading your book, I was thinking a lot about what work is exactly. It seems society defines it as almost everything that isn’t sex work.
No matter what we do, sex is the non-commodified part of our lives. And how often, when people do work they think is lousy or beneath them, they say: “Oh I’m not going to whore myself out. I wouldn’t prostitute myself.” Sex work becomes a repository for people’s anxieties about work. It’s a way for people to talk about exploitation, and lack of workplace protection, and violence, and capitalism. But there are so many people who are interested in making a critique of capitalism through sex work but aren’t interested in making that critique of capitalism in general.
There’s a quote in the book about a sex worker who says: “I don’t even like writing about this, because I don’t like having any attachment to anything that I do for money. I don’t want have to make that such a part of my identity.” But when it’s stigmatized work, if you want to defend the value of that work, then you can sound like the Sheryl Sandberg of sex work: “We all just have to bend over and do our hardest.” I want people, no what their relationship is to sex work, to be able to have access to control over their job, and not feel disenfranchised just because of what they do for a living. That extends so much further than sex work, far beyond the scope of the book. But that is where I’m leading to. We need to have these conversations about how our work defines us.
There’s such a through-line from “Do What You Love” to sex work, and that’s part of why this produces so much anxiety. It commodifies the thing you’re not supposed to commodify. This is the same time that we’re being asked to change our relationship to our jobs. “Pursue your passion! But not THIS passion!” At a certain point it becomes incoherent. Why is this the one thing we’re not allowed to put a price on?
And why do you think that is?
I think a lot of it is sexual and racial purity. Very complicated to unpack, but the idea is that a woman’s worth is between her legs. That doesn’t mean that she gets to decide what she’s worth. It’s the metric that allows others to decide what she’s worth. And when she takes control and says, I’m going to put some boundaries around this and decide what this means for me, that’s the verboten activity. It’s not necessarily the sex, it’s saying “I’m going to decide what this means for me,” rather than absorbing what it means from without.
And the racial purity stuff—when I started digging through the history of the white slave trade panic of the last century, I found that the early anti-prostitution campaigns from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were really wrapped up in these fears of ethnic minorities, and these gross stereotypes of scary pimps. Sometimes they were Jews, sometimes Chinese, sometimes French. And there was also a lot of fear of black males and black male sexuality, that that was going to corrupt their daughters, and that’s why you get, during the rise of Jim Crow, the creation of the white slave panic.
Anti-trafficking is still fixated on sex trafficking rather than trafficking in all industries. They still play into that imagery, those tropes of scary pimps, and it’s almost always a code for black men. The posters feature young white women with shadowy men behind them. There’s one image I’ve seen over and over of a white woman and a black man standing behind her, and you only see his hand over her face. I wonder whether this is a reverberation of that original white slave panic, and what that says about where our anxieties are right now about race and gender.
On a recent Citizen Radio interview, you and the hosts talked about Taken.
I have never actually seen Taken, but I have done lectures about sex work and had people who were supposedly my opponents in these debates bring up Taken and movies like it. I’ll say: Here’s some data from Human Rights Watch, here’s some data from sex workers’ rights organizations, here are some numbers on different kinds of violence that sex workers experience, and then they’ll say: “In the movie Taken….”
It’s very powerful, these narratives of who is a victim, who is a perpetrator, who is a savior. It’s this triangulated narrative that’s very appealing because it’s very simple. It allows people to draw these firm lines and to individualize systems of violence that are much bigger than any particular person.
It’s so much harder to say: how many of these are young people who left home because it was an abusive home, or because they were queer and they got thrown out? When we have statistics on homeless youth, that forty percent of homeless youth are queer, and we know that homeless youth are particularly vulnerable to trading sex for what they need to survive, and don’t have a lot of control. That’s not a problem of scary men, that’s a problem of: Where else are these kids supposed to sleep? What else are they supposed to do? It’s so much more appealing to say that it’s men’s demand for young people to have sex with, rather than to look closer to home: Why don’t you want that queer youth shelter in your neighborhood? Or: why is our mayor prioritizing this level of mass surveillance in New York, rather than creating shelter beds for young people who are very vulnerable?
Obviously the police come off terribly in the book. But you think that there is a role for the state?
I approach the police with the same perspective as the harm-reduction organizations that I lean on to help me understand how the police work: can you do harm reduction on the police? We’re not dismantling the police as an institution tomorrow—that’s not going to happen. So are there things that you can do to chip away at the entrenched institutional biases in policing that view sex work as a problem to be solved? Whether as victims or as criminals, sex workers are viewed as a problem population that needs to be fixed, rather than as members of the community.
The LGBT community in DC has been quite forceful in trying to hold the police accountable for things like profiling people for walking while trans—something that impacts a lot of sex workers—or the use of seizing condoms and using them as evidence of prostitution. It’s going to be local work that will help.
There was a huge victory in Louisiana. In the book, I talk about women, mostly black women and transgender women, being picked up for what would normally have been routine prostitution charges, but, because what they were soliciting was oral or anal sex, they could be charged with the law that prohibits crimes against nature, which is a felony, and, until recently, a sex offense. After Katrina, there were all these women on the sex offender registry as a result of this. Grassroots efforts there were able to organize not just a community response but also a lawsuit, they drafted and passed a new law to prohibit this, and they retroactively got all of those folks off of the sex offender registry.
When you look at who is most vulnerable to police violence as a sex worker, it’s a lot of queer people and a lot of trans people. And people of color across the board.
That’s not a conversation about sex work, but it’s so obvious to me that this is what this is about. This isn’t a debate about how we feel about people exchanging sex for money. It’s about how we should be treating people who are already very vulnerable, and how are we creating this category of the exploited that’s relevant to some people’s experience but is certainly not relevant to everyone’s experience. What I see happening more and more is that law enforcement doesn’t make this distinction. They say they’re doing a trafficking investigation, but they end up arresting adult women who were escorting and were not coerced in any way.
Do you think it’s possible for sex workers to talk about their own experiences without it becoming a peep show?
Absolutely. It depends on the venue in which they’re doing it. The work that this organization that I talk about in the book—called Red Umbrella Project—is doing, they’re entirely independent media, they produce their own literary journal, they produce their own documentaries, they have their own open mic night, their own storytelling program, so people who want to learn the skills to tell a story have the opportunity to come and do that together.
I’ve gotten to the point where at least once a week I get an email from a documentary filmmaker who says: “I want you to introduce me to sex workers for my film.” I categorically refuse. I respond that I prioritize productions in which sex workers are involved, so if not, then I’m sorry.
It’s pretty basic controlling the means of production. No matter how good the intentions of a particular reporter, they’re working within the context of editors and publishers and expectations as to how the story is going to get shaped. Anyone who wants to tell a story of sex work through the traditional media needs a lot of support to do that, but also needs a lot of power to do that.
Could you talk about where you see sex work in the constellation of leftist thinking and these other books that Jacobin is putting out?
I did an essay for Jacobin called “Happy Hookers,” where I went to a demonstration outside the offices of the Village Voice, targeting Back Page. There were all these young whippersnapper evangelical youth. They were rent-a-protesters brought by the anti-prostitution organization putting it on. I talked to them. I talked to them as a reporter, they knew nothing about me. One said: “do you know that eighty-nine percent of people in prostitution would rather do anything else?” And I had this moment where I looked around and thought. As I write in the piece, it’s almost like Richard Scarry’s “Busytown.” Hmm, what about the Mister Softee guy? What about the receptionist over there? Why is this a question we ask only about this particular kind of work? Where’s the comparative analysis for other kinds of work?
And so what? Okay, so people would rather do anything else. Then what? What does that mean? It doesn’t necessarily mean that we should offer them another job. They might have other needs that this job is better at meeting. I just finished Janet Mock’s fantastic book Redefining Realness, and she talks about working in a mall in high school. She was also trading sex on the streets of Honolulu. She knew it was a ridiculous bargain to have to either go out and see one person for twenty or thirty minutes and make the same amount of money that she would make in a night or a week at the mall job. That’s the verboten thing, and that’s what extends across Jacobin. There is a shared worker identity across what people are doing. How is our value read through the lens of our value utility as a worker?
It wasn’t really until the last few years that I felt like I was getting a lot of capacity from people on the left to have this conversation about sex work. Progressives who were interested in talking about sex work were usually feminists, and it was usually an incredibly complicated conversation, and wrapped up in conversations about the value of sexuality and gender and femininity. So to be able to flip that and address this with people who are usually wrapped up in issues of labor has been really illuminating. It’s been really positive. I have a piece coming out in Dissent sometime later this year about a porn company. It’s probably the most BDSM content that Dissent has ever published. But it’s about how this company organizes its labor. The fact that that piece is there, and it’s not just about pornography but about the reality of a porn worker, and how this work is understood and sold and who profits—it’s a much more nuanced piece than I could have dreamed of doing even just a few years ago.
Do you think that Occupy Wall Street has played a role?
For sure. I met all these people there. The first day I met [Jacobin editor] Bhaskar Sunkara and [Dissent editor] Sarah Leonard was at the sixth-month anniversary of Occupy, about half an hour before everybody got arrested. It has certainly coalesced a group of people who have very different interests. John and Molly Knefel were stand-up comedians who found their voices as journalists. Molly Crabapple’s art had never really addressed politics until that moment. We were all spending time together and thinking through—well, we didn’t really have time to think these things through while it was happening. It was more: stop at Molly’s house, recharge your phone, get some coffee, get back to the park to see what was going on, email everybody at the end of the night to see if they got home okay. It’s those people I still consider—I wouldn’t say my intellectual community, because that doesn’t really properly address how much time we spend together drinking whiskey and shooting the shit. But it’s exciting.
There are people and friendships that I solidified. One of the days that was most horrifying but also brought people together was the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. Both John Knefel and Molly Crabapple got arrested that day. When I looked around at who was with me outside of One Police Plaza waiting for them to get out of jail that night, those are still the people who are my closest friends, and also the writers whose work I’ve learned the most from. That feels like the bonds in the sex worker community, the people who very literally have your back, the people who will put themselves in harm’s way and will take risks for you. It builds a different kind of bond that’s not just about being colleagues.
It’s interesting that you say, “Have your back,” because Kristof seems to want to have people’s backs.
I don’t know that that’s what he wants to do. It’s fascinating to me that feminism is happening now through these branded projects: Kristof’s Half the Sky, Sandberg’s Lean In. The vibe I get from that is not “I have your back,” but: “I’m going to retrieve these poor people’s voices and amplify them.” And not problematize what that means. Whose voices are shared and what stories get told. Kristof himself gets a lot of social and real capital from being the vehicle for that. I don’t want to be like that. I’m always thinking of ways in my work to move sex workers to the front, and I don’t think that that is his project. It’s always Nick Kristof at the front, perhaps with a sad brown woman standing next to him, perhaps with his wife standing next to him. I question how much that is about him versus the work itself.
I worked at a feminist foundation for two years when I first moved to New York. I was getting my legs in freelancing and had a day job. Our project was to get money from large foundations that didn’t typically want to fund grassroots organizations, and get it out to them. If we were successful, we would pack up tomorrow and go do something else, because we had succeeded. Writers don’t really roll that way. There’s always something else. But that’s how I orient myself. The space between a branded product yourself—and sex work helped me understand branding and marketing in a way that J-school probably doesn’t—but there’s the tension between that and the work itself. When do you just get the fuck out of the way?
Blogging felt like where journalism was going to go was putting the “I” back in every story. I prioritize other people’s lives and stories that are not represented by the mainstream media. It’s about those lives and stories. It’s not about me. Where I’m present is in what I decide to cover.