Debating the work of sex work

Melissa Gira Grant responds to questions from Estelle Cooch about her work and her understanding of sex work today. Sex work has become the subject of heated debate within feminism. That debate is highly polarised – so much so that the two sides even tend to use different terms, “prostitution” and “sex work”,  for the topic they are discussing. Melissa Gira Grant’s book Playing the Whore takes issue with what she calls the “prostitute imaginary” – a series of stereotypes including those of the sex worker as a woman degraded, or in need of rescue. She focuses instead on the material realities of sex work as a job, arguing that criminalisation is the main problem that sex workers face. Grant takes issue with feminists who focus, for example, on trafficking – where they work with state agencies to “rescue” sex workers.  There are also sharp disagreements between the two sides on broader issues, such as whether sex work is inherently degrading for women, and whether sexuality in general is one of the spheres where women are most oppressed.

Photo: Jannica Honey
Photo: Jannica Honey

Can you explain the ideological importance of the “prostitute imaginary” for those who might not have heard that term before?

I use the phrase “the prostitute imaginary” as my own shorthand for the collection of myths, fantasies, half-recalled facts, biases, and melodramas projected onto the lives of sex workers, to the exclusion of sex workers’ own lives, and their own production of a narrative of their lives.

It’s less a psychological thing than a way of making the production of these narratives visible, and of pointing to who is most often rewarded for producing them (usually, not sex workers).

One key refrain in your book is that “sex work is work”. Could you expand on how that distinguishes your argument from the traditional feminist hostility to sex work (and the sex industry) and from the “sex positive” counterarguments that framed these debates in the 1980s?

Sex positive feminism took hold in the 1990s in the United States, and should be understood in its moment as a way of asserting some value for sexuality within the feminist project.

It also comes to prominence after the work of American feminists Gayle Rubin, Carole Vance and others, who sought to bring a feminist analysis to sex that didn’t rely only on using gender as a way to read and theorise sex. But sex positivity, like mainstream feminism, doesn’t offer much by way of theorising labour. There have always been feminists producing a politics of labour, of course, but their work is often sidelined within mainstream feminism.

I don’t think it’s possible to draw bright lines to distinguish these approaches as you laid them out; even what’s shorthanded as “traditional” feminist opposition to sex work was not uniform (one example: the super mainstream National Organization for Women in the United States once voted to decriminalise prostitution). All these strands of feminist thought on sex work – what we see now as pro and con – are more connected than our limited histories of the feminist movement make apparent. We do a disservice to feminists to collapse them or polarise them.

Where I enter into all of this is as a gracious beneficiary of feminist work that’s come before. But it wasn’t until I got outside of feminism that I developed a politics around my own labour, that’s for certain. And that came from the sex workers’ rights movement. “Sex work is work” is not my refrain; it’s the movement’s refrain.

Some might say the book relies heavily on the acceptance of standpoint theory (that sex workers have the best understanding of sex work) – what do you think about this?

If a reader doesn’t particularly trust sex workers to be experts in their own lives – something I draw from harm reduction, actually – then, no, they probably won’t find much to support their beliefs in this book.

You suggest that sexualisation is not degrading or empowering, but value neutral. Isn’t this a problem insofar as it’s women’s bodies that are overwhelmingly treated in this way (although men are more sexualised than they were, gay men particularly). Can sexualisation not contribute to the idea that the most significant thing about a woman is her body?

I don’t really suggest that; in fact, I think the whole category of things called “sexualisation” is so unstable, we can’t say very much about it. What we can say, however, is that this idea that some activities “sexualise” people and should be avoided, or made subject to surveillance, is a useful political project for those who otherwise don’t find much support for their social control agendas. To denaturalise sexuality is part of the feminist poject. Or should be. Or as I put it on Twitter this week in response to these body-horror tropes about bad sex and bad women: “Dick sucking has no intrinsic meaning.” Neither does putting a price on it.

Personally I found Playing the Whore really useful for highlighting the reality of sex work (the suburban dungeon for example). You mention one case of a peep show being unionised – is this common? Has it been more common in the past? 

It’s not common for sex workers’ workplaces to organise as formal trade unions, no. The Lusty Lady in San Francisco, which was unionized as an open shop from 1997 until its close a few years ago (and a worker owned co-operative since 2003), is one example of workplace organizing. Labor organizing in the sex trades takes diverse forms and rarely looks like a typical trade union: from informal harm reduction and outreach efforts led by sex workers, to banding together across sectors of the industry to document human rights abuses.

Trade unions themselves are changing, and maybe this is of benefit to sex workers, as their forms of organizing will be more likely to be recognised as labour organising alongside, for example, how domestic workers or other service workers organise. One huge shift is among sex workers who primarily know other sex workers online and have little offline contact with other sex workers in the course of their work. For them, the internet has become their shop floor.


The interview was originally published in the Autumn 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine


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