Some thoughts on sex work and the marginalization of labor

I recently shared this article on Facebook:

melissa gira grant

“Melissa Gira Grant: ‘I got into sex work to afford to be a writer'”

It elicited a comment from a friend that I think isn’t all that uncommon when the issue of reframing sex work as work comes up.  I won’t quote the person directly but her point was essentially, sex work is exploitation, pure and simple, and you cannot separate the sex from the work.

I’ve copied my response below. I think it is a common reaction because this often feels like a two-sided debate. Either you criminalize all sex work, or you legalize everything and accept the negative consequences.  What I tried expressing below was that this view relies on keeping the focus on the sex itself, or rather, on our conflicted feelings about sex as both a necessary and a sinful act.  Many of the issues of abuse and exploitation in the sex industries are of the same kind found in any other marginal or unregulated industry.  They are fundamentally the abuse of the workers’ human rights by their employers and customers (with differing degrees of culpability).

This isn’t my area of expertise and so my response is necessarily lacking in theoretical clarity and specific evidence. I do however know several people who have been part of one of the sex industries at one point or another and I have known some great ethnographers (sociologists and anthropologists) who I think contributed to this perspective.  My take is by no means unique and these are common arguments, but tell me what you think?


ME: It is exploitation! It would be a false equivalency to say that the exploitation is no different than the exploitation involved in of all kinds of labor. However, the labor exploitation of sex workers is in large part responsible for some of the worst forms of sexual, physical and emotional exploitation of women (and some men) involved in sex work.

1) First, let’s clarify that the term sex “work” encompasses a variety of ways in which desire can be given material value. Most people assume that prostitution is the be all and end all of sex work. Some will throw legal sex work like stripping and pornography or quasi legal sex work like escort services and “senssual” massage into the mix. But sex work includes other forms of material compensation for desire. Domination is a common form that can involve the exchange of material resources for the enactment of desires, often without penetration, ejaculation/orgasm or the other somatosensory reactions we in Anglo-American cultures often use to define an act of sex. It also includes the entire “legitimate” modeling industry and one can argue mainstream Hollywood casting. The promise of sex and desire have been aspects of advertising at least as far back as the Gibson girls. So when speaking of sex work we are speaking of a form of labor (the exchange of desire in the form of sex, fantasy or companionship for material resources) that is intimately intertwined into our habits of consumption and identification.

2) These forms of sex work form a spectrum of legal status that seems to draw lines based more on our moral values about legitimate procreation and marital fidelity than the actually well-being and self-determination of the workers involved in this work. Why is the rampant incidence of eating disorders, child labor, coerced sex, undervalued labor and substance abuse in the modeling industry any more morally and legally acceptable than what occurs in prostitution. Legitimating some forms of sex labor while prohibiting others only on the basis that we find one of them icky isn’t good for either models or prostitutes.

3) Marginalization of even the legal sex work industry provides a cover for rampant abuse and illegal exploitation of the workers in that industry. This is as true of migrant farm labor as of sex work. Migrant worker conditions in many places in this country are little better than slavery, whether or not the migrant worker has a legal right to work or not. Similarly, the conditions of contingent labor that are just now making their way into most of our working lives, conditions that have turned workers from employees to independent contractors and thus eviscerated wages, salaries, benefits and security in the process, have long been an aspect of sex workers, whether working in legitimate or illegitimate industries. Decriminalising or legalizing and regulating ALL sex work (between consenting adults) is a first step to giving the government more control to focus on the industry and the conditions of voluntary emplyment, compensation, health and safety…But it is only one step. Just like the problems in migrant labor, many of the problems in sex labor come as a result of the fact that the men and women engaging in that labor are deemed marginal. At best they are all “victims” who need saving, at worst they are all “criminals” wilfully flouting the law. We don’t allow them any agency. And so it is easy to turn a blind eye to the really excessive legal exploitation they are undergoing. They are marginalized, and at the margins we tend to turn a blind eye.

4)None of this is to say that sex work is never problematic. It presents serious problems. But the criminalisation of some sex workers and the toleration of labor (and physical and emotional) abuse of others is not a way to solve those problems. It creates a situation that exacerbates them. Human trafficking, for instance, is an issue the government can’t begin to get a handle on in part because it has aboslutely no legal influence in the industries that promote it (like prostitution and parts of the porn industry). We needn’t condone the abuse of individuals’ rights just because accept sex work. But we need to take the focus off of the sex and put it back on the work. It is their status as illegal or marginalized laborers that puts sex workers at risk.

No big surprises-no actual discussion at Techie/Activist happy hour

You might want to read this before you continue:

Tech workers, activists clash at happy hour

The best part of this article on the San Francisco Chronicle’s web site today is that the heckling from the protesters is interspersed with the quotes of speakers.

Assuming it’s an accurate representation of the meeting one thing stands out. The activists seemed to be voicing concerns about the effects of gentrification on entire communities. However, most of the self-identified tech workers either spoke about a) how it wasn’t their personal fault or b) their own personal guilt at living in the city. They did not, it seems, offer solutions or arguments countering the claims of the protesters that it was their fault as a collective phenomenon.

I’ve tended to find many of the bay area activists I’ve met (especially in Berkeley and SF) to be both a little overlydramatic about their causes (regardless of how worthy I think the cause is) and generally more interested in hearing their own voice than in finding solutions. But here it sounds like ideas were being offered by some protesters and met with a shrug by some of the tech “representatives”. Maybe it was just very poorly moderated. Perhaps not surprisingly, it seems like people in both camps had very different agendas. Justified or not, if your only reaction to a structural problem you are at least vaguely a part of is “It’s not me!”. There’s not a whole lot to discuss.

Partensky, the Police and Public Apathy

Something is really smelling fishy about this alleged case of police misconduct by Paretz Patensky:
First, from what I can tell this incident occurred in January and apart from the Cory Doctorow diatribe there seems not to have been any media attention at all, not even the local outlets like the Bay Guardian that eat up anything that might embarrass Mayor Ed Lee. In fact, the Doctorow piece itself seems to be almost exclusively based on Partensky’s own account on Medium (written in the bizarre tone of the great white savior of SOMA):

Partensky appears to be a serial dot-com personality. A bit of a poster child for the new entrepreneurial type that has taken over the SF Bay in the past couple of decades. He’s been involved, according to his LinkedIn profile, in a number of ventures in biotech, health and good old consulting and “synergy”. Fine. No problem there. And no reason based on that to necessarily doubt him. And I’m not saying that Police brutality isn’t a problem in SF and other communities in the Bay Area. Just google the words police brutality and san francisco to get a taste of what I mean.

What I find odd is the notion that this treatment of citizens, normally reserved for people of color and the homeless, would suddenly and irrationally lash out at white middle class techies without some provocation or justification. And as we have only Partensky’s side of the story to go on for now, maybe we should reserve judgement.

Better yet, maybe we should ask why Partensky’s story is motivating so many people to outrage when this:

had very little effect. Ask yourself if you had known about these too if you would have realistically been as outraged and as motivated to retweet/share/comment so quickly. You probably should have, but if you didn’t, why is Partensky such a poster boy?

“What’s the harm?” you say? “At least we’re paying attention now.” You mean at least we’re paying attention FOR now. Let’s be upset even after Partensky’s story fades away. Let’s ask Ed Lee about why Partensky is the least of SFPD’s problematic behavior.

Day of the MOOC

Day of the Mooc poster from


There was an Academic Senate discussion scheduled this afternoon on whether the district should be adopting MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses).  I wasn’t going to be able to make the discussion but wanted to send a quick note to the AS President just to have my voice heard by someone.  It turned into something a bit more than a note though.  You might or might not find the topic interesting.  If you’re not aware, MOOCs are online courses from professors at reputable academic institutions but which are open to anyone.  They’ve been around for a while in internet terms, but they’ve made a number of headlines in the past year or so as more and more universities are looking at allowing their students to earn credit for taking these courses (as an alternative to actually offering sufficient sections of impacted courses) so that people can graduate on time.  Most notably, Governor Jerry Brown of our fair state of California has ordered the California State University system to explore this possibility further.  So aside from the troublesome public-private conflicts involved in such a venture, I had a few other points to make:


I’m an adjunct at Cañada College in the Department of Anthropology.  Regretfully, I won’t be able to make the Academic Senate discussion on MOOCs today.  However, I have several strong objections to the district adopting them.  I’m not certain if there will be an opportunity to air these objections, but I hope they can be shared in some way.
My first objection is, to some degree, from a purely self interested point of view. MOOCs are bad for adjuncts. It seems clear that the adoption of MOOCs will largely be made on the basis of cost savings and supposed “efficiency”.  Whatever other benefits MOOCs might or might not have, they will most likely result in a reduction of the at-will academic labor force because the most likely candidates for MOOCs are those intro classes that adjuncts commonly teach.  I realize that my employment prospects aren’t necessarily the strongest point to convince anyone not to adopt MOOCs, but it is related to a second and much more serious concern.
Second, MOOCs seem to feed into a perception that the purpose of an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree is simply to aquire “facts”.  Increasingly the line between facts and knowledge is blurred, and the very structure of these massive online offerings exacerbates this.  Qualitative evaluation of students’ abilities to not only recite or identify facts correctly but to put those facts together in appropriate, logical and novel ways to solve problems is nearly impossible when there are tens or hundreds of thousands of students to evaluate. Multiple choice tests are not worthless, but even when special care is taken in their construction (which mostly doesn’t happen) their ability to shed light on how students arrive at their conclusions is very limited.  
Third, MOOC’s by their very nature exacerbate the perception of Higher Education as a commodity exchange. Education is not a service which one passively consumes.  Ask yourself what it is a student is paying, or more accurately incurring debt for? They do not pay for their degree.  That must be earned. They (partly) pay for the overhead of the institutions they attend, yet they hold no share of ownership in those institutions.  In fact, as a service education is queer because instead of paying other people to do the learning for the student, the student is paying other people to do work!  They are not purchasing a good or a service, but rather access. Access to not only the facts of an education, but to the culture of enquiry, skepticism and problem solving that academic institutions engender.  I don’t care if my students can remember the difference between a tribe and a band five years from now, but I do expect them to walk away with some idea of how anthropologists approach problems and maybe just enough of a changed perspective on the world that they have something different to contribute to their future employers and their understanding of current events.  
Fourth, MOOCs reproduce the benefits of this kind of change very poorly. What students and many politicians have difficulty understanding is that the real value of a college education, the thing that makes a college graduate worth significantly more than non-college graduates, is that they have during their time as students changed significantly if sometimes imperceptibly. This change comes not from the facts that students have acquired, but from the inescable process of enculturation that humans undergo whenever they enter an unfamiliar community. Anthropologists understand that change to be the result of one of the most powerful forces for change in our species, social relations.  Social relations needn’t be colocal.  There is plenty of ethnographic evidence to suggest that online communities can be just as authentic and powerful for human beings as communities which share physical spaces.  However, MOOCs are not virtual communities. Community does not arise simply as the result of making an online forum available.  Many attempts to create online communities based on such “Field of Dreams” assumptions have failed. Classroom communities arise in part because of the presence and investment of the instructor in getting to know his or her class.  It is difficult enough to acheive this in classes at four-year institutions where intro classes can number in the hundreds, instructors have TAs and grad students to assist and they are colocal with their students.  How can MOOCs ever hope to capture that.  Enculturation happens most effectively through the interaction of humans with each other when those humans understand each other as unique persons rather than faceless crowds. There is an upper limit to the number of such persons an individual can hold in their mind and maintain regular interactions with.  Anthropologists disagree on the exact number, but estimates range from roughly 100-300.  MOOCs are unable to exploit this fact of our humanity to reproduce the change in perspective an education brings.
Fifth, MOOCs serve only one kind of learner.  I do think some individual students can excel with MOOCs.  They are most likely highly motivated, but also tend to be autodidacts. In fact, many of the courses offered have autodidacts and lifelong learners in mind. MOOCs might offer this sort of person a great deal. But how many of these people are there?  How many of your students would you describe as autodidacts?
Finally, MOOCs are new.  They are glamorous and shiny and appear to be the kind of “out of the box” technological solution we as Americans love. I am no luddite but I think we need to be cautious about the allure of this apparent “silver bullet” that higher education has been handed. If we adopt MOOCs now, before they have been tested, while they are still driven by hype and fad, and while their business models and longevity remain obsured, we could be making changes to the structure of higher education that will be very difficult to come back from.  MOOCs are unproven, value facts over knowledge, are structurally antithetical to the mission of Higher Education, and exclude many learners who would benefit greatly from the personal experience of the classroom or a small online course. Most importantly, MOOCs short-change our students.  We will be reduced to teaching them the raw facts of our disciplines and not what makes a college graduate valuable: thinking.
-David Leitner

CALL FOR PAPERS – AAA 2012: Imagined Crossings: Ethnographic reflections on new idioms of connection and the re-imagination of boundaries


Imagined Crossings: Ethnographic reflections on new idioms of connection and the re-imagination of boundaries

Idioms of “connection”, “networks”, and “flows” have become powerful metaphors in multiple socio-cultural contexts in both quotidian and academic life (see Barry 2001, Leitner 2012, Mattelart 1999, 2000, Riles 2000,and Strathern 1996). These categories are of methodological and analytical concern to anthropologists, but are also “native” categories of relating for many of our informants. Connecting disparate points in a social field is often represented as a seemingly self-evident value of democratic and liberal ideologies; the perceived ability of “networks” to transcend structural boundaries in social, political, economic and geographic spaces being but one chief example. This panel asks what this implies for our understanding of social life in a world increasingly portrayed as more “connected”; a world in which technologies, social relations, economic institutions and ideologies are increasingly portrayed as boundless and uncontainable. Taking these idioms primarily as emic categories, this panel seeks to explain the significance of “connection” for understanding social relations and personhood in a “connected” world. Continue reading CALL FOR PAPERS – AAA 2012: Imagined Crossings: Ethnographic reflections on new idioms of connection and the re-imagination of boundaries

Culture, Networks, Knowledge

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