Friday, October 30, 2015

Sex Work: Not All Created Equal

In all my grown-up years on the planet, I’ve met precious few adults in my orbit who haven’t been grateful when they’ve had steady, fulfilling well-paying jobs. Right-wing conservative bloviating notwithstanding, most people I’ve met  - and most whom I haven’t, I suspect -  would rather earn a steady paycheck by their own sweat, talents and capabilities than subsist on the social safety nets put in place by agencies and governments admirably concerned about averting people’s personal disasters.

Moreover, here in the US as in numerous other places around the globe, there’s a long-standing belief that one’s ability to earn a living ought not to be limited by anything other than an individual’s talent, creativity, business acumen and personal grit so long as other people and society at large are unhurt by one’s money-making endeavors. In fact, the durable spine of any capitalist economy is pretty much dependent upon this notion of a vibrant, flexible, creative free market powered by individuals’ willingness to work hard and play by a normative set of rules.

That said, when it comes to sex work and the people who engage in it, the flinty fist of a yet-puritanical culture pretty much continues to stigmatize the sort of flexible free-market minded pragmatism that can be characteristic of sex workers.

And the truth is this: Sex positive feminist that I am, I’m wholly unwilling to demonize and or condemn the entire broad category of economic entrepreneurship we call “sex work.” On the contrary, if we allow ourselves to peel back the layers of social stigma concerning sex work, it becomes ineluctably clear that immense differences exist within the issue and that taking a narrow, one-eyed approach isn’t at all fair here.

But before you gasp in horror at my assumed lack of concern for the untold legions of sexually exploited women, children and, yes, men who’ve fallen victim to predatory pimps, clients and law enforcement institutions, let me employ a ham-handed analogy to render my meaning transparent: An apple isn’t a pork chop. Just because both are edible and provide an array of vital nutrients, they’re fundamentally different in meaning, substance and method of acquisition. Aside from providing vastly differing sets of nutrients, apples grow on trees - relatively benignly. Pork chops, on the other hand, depend wholly upon the slaughter of one of our closest related species in order to appear on the menu.

Similarly, in the arena of sex work, I stand firmly in condemnation of the pimps, human traffickers, sundry related predators who prey upon and objectify the weak. The poor. The disenfranchised. The destitute. The powerless. The beleaguered women, men and children who are compelled into sex work and held in its grasp by violence, corruption, predation and substance abuse.

On the other hand…

If living an empowered life is about anything at all, it’s about being able to make informed, empowered adult choices about our lives and our bodies. It’s about staying in touch with our holistic selves.  So long as we do no harm to others, it’s about gathering all pertinent information at our disposal, thinking critically in weighing our options, and acting ethically and humanely in operationalizing our choices. It’s about taking responsibility for what we do, protecting ourselves and others in the world community and finally, leveraging our creativity, intellect, flexibility, power and agency in the most responsible ways we know how.

Regular readers of this blog know quite well how firmly I argue for the vital importance of self-determining and reinforcing our positive, ever-evolving relationship with our sexual selves. From that perspective, adults who engage in sex work of their own volition – that is, un-coerced by outside parties are making a conscious choice as valid as any other, so long as the activity does not involve the exploitation, coercion, or victimization of others. 

I’ve sometimes spoken with groups wherein courageous participants reveal past (or present) engagement in some form of sex work. From providing phone sex for money to providing “lap” dances - gyrating their bodies against the laps of seated clients in strip clubs and the like for cash - to working as escorts, dominatrixes, or in prostitution, for many working alone, that is, without the so-called “protection” of a pimp or madam, sex work provided a way to pay for college or support their children while setting their own work hours, and retaining their total earnings. Beholden to no one, these women and yes, some men, saw themselves as creative, smart, empowered entrepreneurs ethically and carefully providing their clients with services that are perpetually in high demand.

Is sex work for everyone? Clearly, of course not, no more than every person who’ll bite into an apple and enjoy it will also like pork chops equally well. The textures are different. The tastes, the aromas. Not to mention the pathways they must take from their natural states to our plates. And as far as the sources of coercion are concerned, it’s not just the predatory loathsome – the pimps, pedophiles, human traffickers and their ilk – who force people, who would otherwise not do so, into selling sex. And surely, the obvious needs highlighting here as well: Poverty itself is a pimp like no other, coercing and exacting its pound of flesh with venomous precision.

But let’s not be disingenuous in this. Setting aside the notion that people only engage in sex work because it’s the only source of income they can find, there are lots of intelligent, insightful, self-determining, attractive people who proactively and responsibly choose to engage in sex work for a wide variety of reasons, including but not limited to, its lucrative potential.

It’s hardly a new phenomenon either. We know from the historical record that ancient civilizations around the planet boasted brothels. Back then, entrepreneurial older women, whose paid occupation it was to sexually educate young men, were held in lofty esteem.

Even now, in the few progressive locales where sex work has been decriminalized, the women and men who work in the trade have finally garnered some of the protections of law and access to necessary health care.

At the end of the day, there’s power in self-direction; there are agency and freedom in having the ability to make our own choices. Despite the ongoing air of social stigma, the reality is that more than a few folks as well have used the proceeds from sex work to fund master’s degrees and Ph.Ds. To start other, more “mainstream” businesses. Pay off mortgages. Buy health care!

In spite of all that, of course there are many who argue that sex work always demeans the sex worker. That regardless of the circumstances, it renders her/him powerless. Objectified. A social pariah. A pawn.

But in a culture such as ours, wherein financial wealth is routinely conflated with power and control, the counter-argument of course, is that it’s the buyer of sex who surrenders control, since he - or she - is the one in the exchange who blithely surrenders the cash.


photo credit: <a href="">Plateau Irvine@arthur-jarreau</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

photo credit: <a href="">Red Light Secrets: Museum of Prostitution</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

photo credit: <a href="">Hameenkatu, Tampere, Finland 25-08-08</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

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