Interview with Hürriyet (Turkey)

Melissa Gira Grant in Hurriyet

I was interviewed by Mehmet İren for the Turkish paper Hürriyet on Playing the Whore and the politics of sex work.

(You can read my unedited answers in English below.)

How did you decide to work and stop working as a sex worker?

Have you ever had a disturbing experience during your time as sex worker?

How long were you doing sex work in general?

I was expecting conclusions based on your own experience as a sex worker in your book. Instead it’s political, more like a manifest. What was your motivation for the book?

I’ve been working as a freelance writer and journalist for over a decade. It’s interesting to me, that you haven’t asked me any questions about my work as a writer, as this is a book drawn from my criticism and my reporting. The labor of this book is writing and reporting and research, not sex work. Yet you correctly understood that the motivation of the book is to expose the politics of how we understand sex work. It’s not a memoir. So why would you expect it would include autobiographical stories about sex work?

One of the main feminist arguments against prostitution is that man is driven by a belief that he has the right to access women as a commodity because he sees women as his inferior. Would you agree?

There is no one feminist analysis of sex work. In Playing the Whore I describe how American feminists in the 1970’s did not seek to abolish prostitution, but to find common cause with sex workers and to support sex workers in their political organizing. It’s only been in the last decade or so that mainstream feminists have sought to use law enforcement to abolish sex work and to remove sex workers from their jobs, which they say is for their own good. And of course, many sex workers who are feminists vehemently oppose this, and find this attitude towards their work and their rights to be what places them in an inferior position.

You suggest us to concentrate to ‘work’ instead of ‘sex’. But still, isn’t there a problem in relationships where the social roles are clearly defined by a cash transaction?

That’s to look at sex work from the perspective of an outsider. For sex workers, this is what they do to earn a living. It’s work. No sex worker understands herself or himself completely or solely through their job. Most people would resent this idea, that they are fully defined by their work. Sex workers are no exception.

There are many it girls and it boys in porn. They’re writing columns in Salon or Daily Beast, they have interviews in magazines like GQ. Do you think sex industry, especially porn, became somehow glamorous?

You mustn’t confuse the interest of a handful of publications in giving space to sex workers to write for them with “glamorizing” sex work. (And — speaking of “glamorous” work — despite being well-known names, those publications also pay far less than sex work does. Any sex worker who writes for them is taking a pay cut.)

What do you think about the coverage about sex workers on mainstream media?

It’s mostly lazy, but I can’t entirely blame writers. Editors have a narrow way they tend to want to cover sex work. You only need look at the usual photographs that run with sex work stories — headless women on streets at night — to understand how cliched most media on sex work is. The media is responsible for creating these faceless stereotypes of sex workers. They must be more critical, or at the very least self-reflexive about the power they hold. It’s getting better. Sex workers routinely speak back to media who misrepresent them, and sometimes get results. It’s laughable now that any reporter can pretend to have greater access to sex workers’ stories than the general public can just by looking at social media. This is why I don’t report only on sex workers, but on the policy makers, police, and press who create danger in sex workers lives.

You claim feminists getting wrong the prostitution. You don’t consider yourself as feminist than?

I’ve been a feminist for most of my life. Certainly before I did sex work. Which is why it’s quite painful to see how mainstream feminism has rejected sex workers. But then, when some feminists don’t listen to sex workers and value their expertise, no, it should not be surprising that they don’t understand sex work. But that obscures what’s really happening: it’s not that some feminists don’t want to understand and listen to sex workers, it’s just that they think — even those who have never done sex work — they understand better than sex workers do.

Is there really a ‘choice’ for all sex workers?

Ask me that question again about writing professionally. Did I have a ‘choice’ to accept money for my writing? Surely I could have continued to write for free. Who am I to commodify my most valuable intellectual labor? How am I to be sure I’m not being exploited? What’s a choice, accepting too little money for a story or not doing the story at all? Ask me about ‘choice’ as an author promoting a book. Do I turn down an interview when most of the questions are cliched and personal and inappropriate, or do I do the interview anyway because publicity is important? Work always presents us with a range of unappealing choices from which we must choose. That’s not a problem with sex work. That’s the problem with work.

For example in my country there is no other work for transgenders. If you are a transgender in Turkey you can be a sex worker or nothing (%99 at least. a few exceptions with one of them being the most famous ‘diva’ of the country but this doesn’t change the general rule anyway). How can they choose in these conditions where they are not even considered legal persons?

For trans sex workers, who face employment and social discrimination, yes — in many places they are over-represented among sex workers. That’s an issue of anti-trans discrimination. They face additional stigma. But further stigmatizing sex work as something “only people without choices would ever do” doesn’t help people with few choices. You need to fight discrimination, not fight sex work.

“No one ever wanted to save me from the restaurant industry.” Do you think there is no difference between serving coffee to someone than you don’t choose, and sleeping with someone you don’t choose?

I’ve never served coffee to anyone for pay. Which is why I don’t presume to know what people who do work in the service industry need. Whereas countless people who have never sold sex believe what sex workers need, without trying to find out from them directly, is to be rescued from sex work.

What should be the ideal politics about sex workers?

Listen to, believe, value, and give resources and power to sex workers. As an activist said at one of my book events in London, understand that any answer you have, sex workers have already come up with it, and they either found it lacking or simply lacked the resources to make it happen. The “answers” and ideal politics are out there. Too few people are listening.

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