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.