On the Job: Debating Sex Work


Michaele L. Ferguson reviews Melissa Gira Grant's Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work in the Boston Review (image by Vittorio Sciosia):

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.

More here.