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Recognizing Work

Sex work has been made mainstream, but its recognition as real work still awaits.
Sex workers protest in Toronto. (Photo: metrix_feet/Flickr)

Sex workers protest in Toronto. (Photo: metrix_feet/Flickr)

“Feminist sex workers have been excluded so many times from feminist discussions,” author Jill Nagle said upon publication of her first book, an anthology on sex work. “So this time we’re not knocking on the door, asking to be included, to have the name of a workshop changed or a special panel included for us. We’re doing the book ourselves. We don’t have to ask to be included. We’re including ourselves.”

That was 1997. The book Nagle edited, Whores and Other Feminists, not only declined to knock on that door, but made the case for demolishing it and the exclusion it stood for. Now, in 2016, after hundreds of books, high-profile policy fights, and the endorsement now included in nearly every story on sex work — Amnesty International’s support for its full decriminalization — it is officially no longer news that sex workers speak for themselves.

“Whores … are the dykes of the nineties,” Nagle offers in the book’s introduction, quoting from a letter she wrote to Ms. after the magazine ran a roundtable on feminism and pornography without featuring porn performers. Whores, she elaborates, are “the lavender menace whom it’s still considered okay to ostracize.” This is one of the central themes of the book: The feminist possibility in the identity “whore.” Some contributors explicitly argue that being a sex worker is a sexual identity.

“I also question the efficacy of a protest that measures its success, to a large degree, in how its participants feel about themselves.”

Whores and Other Feminists was published by the academic press Routledge, which Nagle said was always her first choice — “I didn’t want to go with a mainstream house because I didn’t want them to exploit the subject matter. I wanted this book to be taken seriously as an intellectual work.” That didn’t keep it from being stocked in those feminist, sex-positive shops popping up across the country in the ’90s, some of the few places one could reliably find books on sex work in those years. The then-newish may have also helped Whores, like a number of titles on stigmatized subject matter that a book buyer might not want to purchase from an actual human being behind a cash register. All this boosted its audience outside the academe.

Like many ’90s-era sex workers finding their own politics, often in absence of a face-to-face community, Whores was hugely influential on me. And it continues to influence me: When I wrote my own book on sex work, Playing the Whore, I used Nagle’s coinage “compulsory virtue” — something she borrowed from Adrienne Rich’s classic “compulsory heterosexuality” — to talk about the stigma fueling opposition to sex workers’ rights.

By the time I picked up Whores, I had been a sex worker for several years, and I’d also been through the sick, sad wringer of what passed for academic and feminist “debates” about sex work — at the campus women’s center, in women’s studies seminars, among local lesbians and other queer women. But I had been speaking without knowing many other sex workers, with the exception of a few other young women I’d shared stages or sets with — not places where we were explicitly talking politics. Whores appeared in what, compared to the online sex work community today, was almost a void. It provided a chorus of competing and shameless voices.

Which is why it feels like such a shame, now looking back, that I am finally reading the responses from some other sex workers at the time of the book’spublication. In The Women’s Review of Books, historian Lauri Umansky compared the way her one-time co-workers at strip clubs in Boston’s Combat Zone understood their labor with the ways the book’s contributors tended to portray sex work, as an outlet for their sexual identity and expression. “Sexiness, not sex, was the commodity we handled,” Umansky wrote. “And work was work. We might enjoy the applause, but we never celebrated the job for allowing us to ‘explore our sexuality.’ Orgasms on stage? Leave sex at home, we would have said, and let the money come — to us, from the customers, period.”

Umansky offered what still read like fresh challenges to the now-cliched conceptions of sex work as sexually empowering. “I also question the efficacy of a protest that measures its success, to a large degree, in how its participants feel about themselves,” she wrote in 1997. “With a few exceptions, the women here speak of inner revolutions, as measured in accretions of self-esteem and sexual fulfillment.”

In Whores, sex positive feminism is offered as an alternative to the strains of feminism that exclude sex workers. If sex workers could argue successfully that sex work itself wasn’t counter to feminism, but was an expression of both their sexuality and their feminism, they thought this would be a way to challenge all those suspect claims of sex workers’ false consciousness, their inability to understand how damaging a sex worker “really was” to the cause. It was a strategy that also made some good sense in the ’90s, the heyday of sex positivity.

But as Umansky suggested, and other sex workers have echoed, it doesn’t have to be the only strategy. And it might be a losing one.

“[T]he promotion of pleasure and sex positivity within the sex industry and as an element of sex worker rights activism, is proprietary to a small but very vocal group of people, namely: white, cisgender women who are conventionally attractive, able-bodied, and have some degree of class and educational privilege,” writer, former sex worker, and activist Audacia Ray wrote in the plainly titled essay “Why the Sex Positive Movement Is Bad for Sex Workers’ Rights.”

“People like this — people like me — are central figures in the American sex worker rights movement, and often claim sex positivity as a key vehicle for claiming rights and making progress,” Ray added. I returned to her words over the last few weeks, as sex workers and their allies responded to two recent cover stories about sex work, in both New York magazine and the New York Times magazine. Even in media that aims to “humanize” sex workers or portray them in a positive light, overwhelmingly it is the stories of white, cisgender women that are front-and-center, and whose stories are told for them (no matter what they may have told reporters, or what reporters choose to include, or what editors may elect to cut) through the lens of their sexuality.

Sex workers thus positioned as “empowered” are then positioned against those who are portrayed as disempowered or abused. That fantasy of sex work — an extension of the virgin/whore dichotomy, but one for dividing women regarded as types of whores — certainly sells. It reduces the politics of sex work to personal choices: how and why one became a sex worker, and how one feels about those choices. The dichotomy is also easy to build a mainstream news story around, with two opposing sides and easy-to-cast characters.

In reality, Ray wrote, “people who don’t like sex, or don’t like having sex with strangers, or aren’t sexually oriented toward the gender of the clients they see, or don’t like doing sexualized performances, work in the sex industry every day.” By framing sex work as primarily a kind of sexual expression, and sex workers’ rights as linked to how much power and control they have over that expression, sex positivity, Ray argues, will exclude more sex workers than it will include.

One way to effectively disprove this false dichotomy of “empowered” and “abused” sex workers and dismantle that exclusion is to shift our focus from the sex to the work. Umansky, the historian and former dancer, offered just that in response to Nagle and her contributors back in 1997: “Sex workers not only perform sexual acts that challenge sexual norms; they perform these acts in exchange for money, outside the confines of accepted intimacy, and sometimes quite publicly. Doing what they do as work is what most clearly transgresses the boundaries of the ‘normal.’” To put the slogan on it, sex workers’ rights are workers’ rights.

Today I read Nagle’s powerful introduction to Whores as an accounting of all that remains undone. “Polarization, whether in a relationship or in a political movement,” she wrote, “often develops a life independent of the issues to which it attaches; the energy used to construct and maintain such polarities can exceed the argumentative context.” Whores was premised on challenging the feminist polarization about either being “for” or “against” sex work. But fighting sex workers’ rights out on those terms puts a politics of sex in front of what could be a politics of sex as work.

Whores and Other Feminists resisted politely asking for admittance, but through its success, it has become a kind of a door itself, marking just one approach to fighting for rights. For the sex workers’ rights movement today, as some predicted years back, an embrace of sex positivity is not enough: There must be more than one threshold for sex workers’ acceptance. Now that some feminists have finally taken notice, there’s never been a better time to press on further, to demand even more.