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.

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