On The Work of Sex Work

A little over eighteen months ago, I published a book entitled Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. In it, I relate the cultural fantasies we hold about sex work and who performs it. I call these collectively, the prostitute imaginary. I identify those people who most gain from these fantasies, and how they put them to work for themselves to marginalize, contain, and discipline sex workers’ livelihoods, bodies, and self-representations. In particular, I nod back to theorists of sex work like Jill Nagle and Gail Pheterson, who explained in the 1990’s how the character of “the prostitute” as narrated by outsiders is used to alienate any woman engaged in sex work from the production of her own image.

I have done, in these months, dozens of interviews in print, radio, television, and for online publication. I have written thousands of words in the service of advancing these ideas (that is, the sale of my own). My work has received international critical attention; I have given invited talks on the subject in half a dozen countries. I have used my platform to debate politicians and confront NGO’s, used my journalism to expose human rights violations, and I bring a deep and interdisciplinary knowledge of the current research to my criticism. I am one of the most recognized and original thinkers on the subject. On this, there is little dispute. I have also encountered – mostly from other journalists – all manner of presumptions about my own body, what it has done, and what it is capable of. I have had to defend my ability to do this work as I have carried it off masterfully.

Since I first published and was paid for a piece of writing on sex work more than ten years ago, I have performed these two jobs: the work of writing, and the work of carving out a space for that writing (and its sale). I have watched as, at least once each year, a news cycle winds up concerning sex work, for a time attaching a more recognizable name to an issue few value: the DC Madam, Eliot Spitzer, Craigslist, Backpage, the Secret Service, Nicholas Kristof and Somaly Mam, Amnesty International. Though I do this work daily, in these moments of media flash I am introduced to writers, journalists, and producers who are have only just arrived on the topic, and who I will never hear from again. I understand the paucity of newsroom resources these days – the disappearing of newsrooms themselves – and that any good reporter is going to sniff out those who have more to offer her than her colleagues close at hand, to turn and churn out copy before she is on to the next. I am sympathetic, though these days, I am unmoved.

I turn down more of these requests than I accept; the ratio is likely 5 to 1 in favor of no, a decision necessary to keep my time to myself to pursue my other research and writing interests. Perhaps my apparent success makes other writers and reporters think I have ample time to direct them to books (buy my own), related texts (bibliography appears in my own), subjects to interview (use the internet). Worse, sometimes they think I owe it to them. They are incorrect.

To the writer at the well-known web explainer outlet who asked me to offer critique of his article, after I declined to be interviewed, who told me “no one else” at his website had an interest in sex work, I would direct you to your own archives, which contain – among other things on the subject – an interview I gave several months ago.

To the young feminist making the Sunday show rounds, who emailed me less than twelve hours before her next appearance seeking to “pick my brain,” I didn’t reply to you, intentionally. If you didn’t take it on yourself to read the stories I had sent you earlier in the week, I am not going to make time for you by phone.

To the network television producer who wanted me to introduce her to sex workers from Craigslist so she could tell their stories, and who told me “It’s not work I’m asking you to do, it’s an introduction, and a way to shed light on an important and under-reported issue,” I know it is important and under-reported; that’s why I do my job. The time has come for you to do yours.

Not only from these three incidents, but from what they say about this moment in this media economy: I am on my own kind of strike from doing anyone else’s work on sex work. I will not answer your requests. I will not give you interviews. I will not be a token on your program. I will not direct you to resources. I will not introduce you to subjects. I will not do work you are paid to do. I will not do work which has value to those who employ you. I will not do work which has value to those who place advertisements around your work. I will not, and if you ask me to more than once, I will direct you to the following, now published for you to refer to in the future and to share with your colleagues, too:

To acquire my time from my own writing, research, and public speaking, my consulting fees on the subject of sex work begin at $1000.

Best of luck in this business,

Previously: Dear Producer
Follow-up: Reactions to My Strike Notice

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.

On Biographies

The Atlantic’s CityLab: How D.C. Finally Stopped Punishing Sex Workers for Carrying Condoms

CityLab: Washington, DC

The Atlantic’s CityLab is publishing a series I reported while on book tour, on sex work and policing in America. My second story covers policing and discrimination in Washington, DC:

In some District of Columbia neighborhoods, the Metropolitan police pass out business cards decorated with a rainbow-hued row of condoms. “Individuals are allowed to carry as many condoms as they want,” the text reads. “There is no ‘three condom rule.'”

“People can’t believe it,” says Darby Hickey, a sex worker rights and trans rights activist in D.C., who is currently working for a member of the D.C. Council. “They take photos of the cards,” she tells me. “And they’re like, ‘you can’t believe what I just got from the police, check this out’ and they text it or they tweet it – trans workers, sex workers, people who get profiled by the police.”

New York Times: The Price of a Sex Slave Rescue Fantasy


These are the women whose stories are not told in an anti-trafficking fund-raising pitch. Some of the “victims” whom Ms. Mam said she saved then attempted to escape from her shelters, only to have her claim to the press that they had been “kidnapped.” She later apologized for a 2012 speech before the United Nations General Assembly in which she asserted that the Cambodian Army had killed eight girls after a raid on her shelters.

Ms. Mam’s stories were told in interviews with journalists including Nicholas Kristof, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times. She attracted high-profile supporters: There were benefits thrown by Susan Sarandon; Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook chief operating officer, is on the advisory board of her foundation. Ms. Mam’s target audience of well-off Westerners, eager to do good, often knows little about the sex trade. It doesn’t require much for them to imagine all women who sell sex as victims in need of rescue.

The Price of a Sex Slave Rescue Fantasy, my op-ed for The New York Times, appeared Friday, May 30, 2014. Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, called for Kristof to offer a full explanation for his coverage of Somaly Mam.

The Debate, Redux

Margo St James - Amnesty for All Prostitutes
photo: Margo St. James with members of Wages For Housework, San Francisco City Hall, 1977 (from the Coyote Howls newsletter)

In my book Playing the Whore, I devote a chapter to addressing the typical limits of “the debate” on sex work:

The sex work debate, no matter how sedate and sympathetic its interlocutors claim it to be, is a spectacle. It attracts an audience with the lure of a crisis—prostitution sweeping the nation!—and a promise of doing good by feeling terrible. Sad stories about sex work are offered like sequins, displayed to be admired and then swept off the stage when the number is done. As a treat, the organizers may even decide to invite a token whore to perform.

I conclude:

Sex workers should not be expected to defend the existence of sex work in order to have the right to do it free from harm.

In a recent review of Playing the Whore published at the Boston Review (to which I was invited to respond by an editor), a critic grossly overstates my assessment of the state of the sex work debate, claiming I wish for no one to debate sex work at all.

This same critic has previously charged that when sex workers raise issues of stigma and abuse against sex workers, they do so to lure the public into a “honey trap.”

I don’t wish to devote much more labor to the topic of the debate, as I have already given it enough in my own book, which I hope others at the Boston Review have read (and if not, perhaps their readers will). My withdrawal from this particular form of debate on sex work represents not a rejection of all free and open debate on the issue, but an attempt to put my labor in service of one that actually lives up to those honorable qualities.

To confine or even prioritize our public discussion of sex work to how it makes those who do not do sex work feel about sex work – or, more coyly, to debate how sex work impacts “our culture” – is to cede debate to its narrowest and all too typical form: to debate the other without their participation, with little regard for how they may benefit (or for how they may face the consequences).

Such a small debate, in this case, serves to reprise the exclusion sex workers face in wider political discourse. It’s also woefully over-tread ground. As writer and prostitute Charlotte Shane noted, “Right. The biggest problem with sex work is how no one will criticize it.”

Instead, I invite those who find purpose or meaning in this debate – of what sex work means to the people who do not rely upon it – to continue it amongst themselves if they must.

I can only hope they understand why I find it more timely and necessary to debate nearly anything else regarding sex work: why we abandon the regulation of sex work to law enforcement; why we do not more loudly demand accountability when members of law enforcement abuse sex workers; why more of us do not support transgender women and gender nonconforming people profiled and harassed by law enforcement as sex workers; why it is that those who face criminal records for their alleged involvement in the sex trades are overwhelmingly women of color, transgender women, and poor women;  why even after forty years of their own organizing do we not consider sex workers’ rights to be labor rights; or even, if you insist, why some people find their own feelings about sex work to matter more than the persistent, systemic, and almost entirely socially-sanctioned stigma against sex work and, by unqualified extension, against sex workers, which puts their well-being and their lives at risk every day.

For those seeking that more complete debate, they may be pleased to find a new volume devoted to the subject.