Sex Work, Without the Sex

In Playing the Whore, Melissa Gira Grant identifies a crucial point: talking about sex work is essential for advocating on behalf of sex workers, but inciting arousal distracts from real issues—and might prove an uncompensated form of sexual service.

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In the next few weeks, the Harper government is expected to make an announcement of their new legislation about sex work in Canada. Manitoba MP Joy Smith recently released a report entitled “The Tipping Point,” in which she writes that “prostitution [is] a crime that is inherently harmful to women and girls and therefore must be eliminated.” In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Smith said, “They develop these Stockholm Syndromes, where they get attached to their perpetrator. They get almost like they are brainwashed.” She was talking about the victims of trafficking in particular, but her comments speak to a more general perception of sex workers—that they can’t possibly know their own minds, or what’s good for them.

It seems as if the best way for sex workers to effect change would be to speak and write in detail about their personal experiences. But, as Melissa Gira Grant writes in her new book, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, whether readers, researchers, or legislators know it or not, their primary interest in what sex workers have to say is in their own arousal. Grant writes:

This is not a peep show. So I will not, for example, be telling my story, though the means by which I came to the story I am telling here is inseparable from my experience as a sex worker. My job here is to reveal through an exchange of ideas, not through the incitement of arousal—while also not entirely putting aside that I have skin in this game.

It’s a tricky problem: both the legislature and the public need to hear about the real experiences of sex workers in order to understand what kinds of laws will be useful, but for sex workers, talking publicly about their work can be another form of sexual service (for which they are not nearly as well compensated). “So often in telling sex work stories,” Grant writes, “the storytelling process itself is a form of striptease indistinguishable from sex work itself, a demand to create a satisfyingly revealing story, for audiences whose interest is disguised as compassion or curiosity.” Playing the Whore walks the line of an interesting contradiction, in which Grant is both speaking from a place of authority derived from her work in the sex trade, and refusing to provide details of that work for our entertainment.

It’s hard to read about sex without thinking about sex, even when we don’t mean to. The creepy note of arousal is present not only in the way we receive testimony from sex workers, but in the way we read news stories about rape and sexual assault. Why else would a website like Hollywood Life, which covers celebrity news, run a story with a headline like “Ariel Castro Terminated Multiple Kidnapping Victims’ Pregnancies”? In the article, we read that:

Michelle, now 32, was kidnapped by Ariel Castro in 2002. She, along with other victims Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus “told police they were tied up with extension cords, duct tape, plastic ties and chains after their abduction,” Detective Andrew Harasimchuk testified. “All three women told Detective Andrew Harasimchuk that they had been repeatedly raped “vaginally, orally and anally” during their captivity,” reports CNN. “The victims also said they had helmets placed on their heads before being sexually assaulted.”

Running down the right side of the article are links to other Hollywood Life stories, like “4 Hormones That Reverse Age-Related Weight Gain” and “Meet George Clooney’s Amazing Fiancée.”

In television shows, when a character reveals that he or she has been sexually abused, the revelation is usually accompanied by a few titillating details. Even in the jazz-hands world of Glee, when the blond cheerleader talks about having been abused by a friend’s brother when she was 11, the scene is painted in a way that some viewers would certainly find arousing: a sleepover, the unzipping of the sleeping bag, the touching all over. It’s not to say that the show’s creators intend to make this sexy, only that sexual material is sexy. Even when the point is that this sexual contact is unwanted.

For sex workers, as Grant writes, public inability to separate what a sex worker does (perform sexual acts for money) from what he or she is (a person with rights, needs, and the power of rational thought) makes sharing stories about workplace conditions unnecessarily difficult. Grant and other activists who continue to work in the sex trade are caught in the most overt version of a contradiction many women experience: it’s not wrong or hurtful to be thought of as a sexual being, but it shouldn’t colour everything you say or do in the public sphere. In the current debate, getting hung up on the “sex” rather than the “work” of sex work may result in legislators missing the point.

While reports like Smith’s are no doubt well-intentioned, her point of view—that all sex work is exploitation and violence against women—is not one that Grant shares. “Though this antiprostitution perspective claims to be more sympathetic to sex workers, it produces the same ideology as the usual distrust and discarding of them,” she writes. “Both claim that abuse comes with the territory in sex work. If a sex worker reports a rape, well, what did she expect?”

Grant does have plans to write a memoir about her experiences in the sex industry. But Playing the Whore is about changing how readers understand sex work. “Sex workers’ own needs,” she writes, “should be quite a bit more familiar to all women: to be legally recognized; to end discrimination in housing, health care, education, and work; to move freely in the world.” Readers—and legislators—may be curious about what it feels like to have sex for money, but that isn’t what should determine policy. Also, it may just not be any of our business.

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