Our Feelings Aside, Sex Work Is a Labor Issue
Melissa Gira Grant is a writer and freelance journalist covering sex, politics, and the internet. In past lives she has worked at a feminist foundation, been a member of the Exotic Dancers’ Union, and co-edited a book with me back in 2010. Her latest book, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, is not a juicy memoir, and it is not a debate about whether sex work should or shouldn’t exist. Instead it challenges the myths we perpetuate about sex work, and examines how our ‘feelings talk’ and theoretical debate can be a distraction from the more immediate labor and human rights issues that sex workers are actually dealing with, and dying from, all the time.
I read this book very quickly, and then spent days afterwards turning it over in my head. It made me feel like I was back in school and having my mind blown apart — in a good way. I was nervous to interview Melissa because well, the book is about how badly the media botches sex worker coverage, plus having ‘feelings talk’ be off the table is always tough, but we ended up talking for hours on a park bench in the East Village, on the first nice day of the year. My mind: still blown, my feelings: acknowledged, but not overindulged.
You talked a lot in the book about consent, and that was really interesting to me, all of the boundaries you draw in sex work, way more explicitly than in regular sex-sex, and often more explicitly than in straight jobs.
Right, there’s a time boundary, first of all. And then maybe once a client has an orgasm “things are done” boundary. Those are the most basic. “Our time is up and if you want me to stay, well, you can pay me more,” sort of thing.
It is interesting the amount of power and control and coercion that people want to ascribe to customers, but in many peoples’ experience they’re coming in with a lot of boundaries that the customers have to adhere to, and the biggest coercive factor is just money. For instance will you put up with a more annoying or less respectful customer just because you also need to be paid, which is something everyone faces.
And that’s your decision.
Yeah. And I think that’s what interesting about the casual sex work, where it’s people who are doing it to supplement an income. They have something stable, and so the kinds of work they’re doing is not as answerable to that.
And then you also have an on-the-books job.
Oh yes I wanted to ask you about taxes. Is that the issue with being outed for a lot of people — the IRS?
Well, everyone has different things that they’re concerned about. For some people, an audit is a lot more frightening than having your family find out. But it really depends from person to person.
But the thing is — and I don’t even know where I first heard this, I don’t think it was in relation to sex work, I think it was in relation to the mob — the IRS doesn’t really care what laws you broke to make your money. They just want their cut.
So you can estimate your income and pay your taxes, no matter how you made your money. And in fact it’s to your benefit to do so. You’d just do your normal 1040-EZ.
So it’s not as complicated as freelance writing!
Yeah I mean, you’re definitely not gonna get a bazillion 1099s from people.
Wait, so would you start a corporation?
Some people might if they are making enough money, but that also might incur a different set of liabilities since corporations have a certain public face, and your customers could try to figure out your legal name, since customers don’t usually know your legal name and who you are.
There are people I think who are making enough money to justify that level of organization, but I think for a lot of people it’s paycheck-to-paycheck cash. And cash is also a huge, huge part of it. Just the idea that you can get paid same-day. Even before you do something, that you get paid up-front, just the reality of what that kind of income is.
So if you really need money like, today…
Right! You can go work at a strip club, you can work a shift that night — you can walk in off the street and do a shift and then go home with a few hundred dollars.
And you don’t have to go stand in line at a check cashing place where they take 20%.
Nope. No. I remember in SF when I worked at the clinic people were getting more aware of day laborers’ rights, and that was much more in the consciousness. And I noticed that, Wow nobody’s freaking out about the dudes who are doing construction work who stand out on the corner every morning, hoping someone will hire them, hoping they’ll get paid by the end of the day. No one gets as concerned about that the same way they do sex workers.
It’s hard to even call it the informal economy because it’s such a huge part of the economy it’s almost like the economy that people don’t want to talk about, the economy that makes the ‘regular’ economy possible.
Right. Though I know there are plenty of pro-capitalist sex workers out there.
Capitalism works for them.
Yeah or it does temporarily. I think it’s like a survival mechanism for some people, within a really screwed up system. And I think that’s how work functions for a lot of people — there are these tradeoffs. I mean there are always tradeoffs, no matter what it is that you do. And the drawbacks of the ‘real’ economy or the ‘good’ economy are some of the very things that make sex work attractive to people.
The fact that you can get paid immediately, that you don’t need a degree —
That you’re your own boss!
Yeah! That you can set your own hours, you know. And it just becomes so pragmatic. And that’s why all of the stuff that people want to talk about feels like such a distraction. I remember someone who told me they got into sex work because they wanted to hold onto their social security benefits because they had a disability. And if they worked the minimum wage jobs that they could get they would lose their benefits but if they worked under the table doing sex work, they could hold onto their benefits, and they also had the kind of job where if they needed to really take a mental health day they could, and not be penalized for it.
They wouldn’t be fired.
Yeah. So that’s real. That’s the stuff that deserves more attention. What if everyone who had mental health issues had access to what they needed to take care of themselves, what would that do? That would just be a huge intervention right there that has nothing to do with sex work.
Just a quality of life thing.
Yes. Though I do think there will always be sex work, I think there will always be a commercial element to sex that either is about enjoying a performance that isn’t otherwise available to you, or hiring companionship that you don’t otherwise have in your life. I think that’s something that’s quite persistent.
So even if it was decriminalized and destigmatized?
Yeah, I think that it’s something that people would continue to want and also want to offer. And maybe different people would be doing the work. Maybe the only people who would be doing the work would be people who were really jazzed about it.
Though that’s not to say you have to be jazzed about it in order to be respected. I think that that’s one of the drawbacks of the kind of sex positive way of talking about sex work. It’s not that sex workers do sex work because sex work is groovy and awesome and they’re good at it and they just can’t wait to share it with the whole world. There’s a business element to it.
I think that’s where a lot of the fantasies from outsiders come from.
Yeah, people want to believe you’re either a total nympho or you’re totally victimized and the reality is often somewhere in the middle.
And either way, it’s an othering, distancing thing.
Right. A way for people to affirm the idea that, ‘Oh, nobody like me could ever do that.’
I remember being 16 or something and declaring to my friends that my dream job was to be a prostitute because you get to have SEX for MONEY! And it doesn’t feel like a job!
Yeah you just get to hang out and be pretty! Because no one tells you you’re going to have to spend four hours a day answering emails from idiots.
So the actual reality of the work is about much more than the sex?
So much more. And like even if someone is really attractive, the emotional neediness, and the emotional caretaking that comes with it is something that is so exhausting.
Having to put on a happy face can be a lot more work than just giving someone a hand job and going home, and whether that’s for money or for love or for whatever, being present for somebody requires a whole different kind of set of emotional skills and energy, than just physical and sexual activity.
Oh yes, I remember in the book you compare the labor of it as similar to caretaking or therapy. That resonated with me, as a former nanny —
Right, and nobody would ever say to you, ‘How could you ever take care of your own child-to-be because you used to sell your nannying.”I don’t know if you’re a fit mother because you used to charge for that. Clearly you must be broken!’
Your nanny hands have been soiled with money!
Yeah but it is that similar thing where you don’t love the kid, at least not at first, and you’re performing empathy, you have to sort of get it up in a motherly way. I mean, poor choice of words, but.
Yes! And it’s so gendered. No one frets about dads this way. And no one frets about male sex workers in this way. No one says, ‘Oh their relationships will be ruined!’ You know, it’s really about what our expectations of femininity are. You’re just supposed to always give love and never expect anything in return.
And never put a price on it.
And it’s just so natural to who we are, the idea that we would actually de-naturalize that by putting a dollar amount on it —
Freaks everybody out.
Yeah it’s really scary. Though I think in childcare it’s different in that women have realized that the utility of hiring child care allows them to you know, lean in or whatever.
Right, there is definite fretting but it’s obviously nowhere near.
Hmm, maybe if women hired sex workers to have sex with their husbands for them then it would be okay somehow!
Oh my god. Or even just hired someone to gaze into your eyes and act interested for an hour.
I mean, isn’t that how therapy works — with the time boundaries that are what let it thrive and exist?
And you’re supposed to really respect those boundaries, and there are patient-therapist conventions. Whereas I think the sort of subtle therapy that happens with like your hairdresser or a bartender, where the rules aren’t really there but there’s sort of an unspoken rule like, you’re supposed to bullshit and chit-chat. Which I find really stressful as the person paying for the service —
— I just want to be there and have my quiet time!
But until you’ve had that kind of service job you don’t understand that the being nice is the job.
That’s what people are really paying for.
Yeah, I remember reading memoirs about stripping in college, and that was the shocking thing. I think I went in expecting them to be about like, “Oh I got so turned on.” But in reality it’s more about carefully manipulating the position of your body so as to avoid undue contact with people, or the things you think about while you’re dancing that distract you from whatever is going on because work is boring and we all daydream at work.
It’s not sexuality, it’s a performance of sexuality. It’s not the same as, and it doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on you, what you like to do —
And on your relationships, and what you do when you go home after work.
Not necessarily, no. It may or may not, like all work, it’s good to have a sort of separation.
Yeah, a healthy separation.
Yeah, did you see the Stoya piece in the Times? Where she was like I’m a multifaceted person and I have this name because that’s my work identity. It almost made me wish everyone could have a work name, so you could put that person away at the end of the day.
Yes. And as we have this whole meta-conversation about whether we should be moving more toward using our real names online — it’s funny because that identity management, we don’t stigmatize it there. Whereas with sex workers it’s like Ohhhh,
What are you hiding?
Exactly. ‘Oh you must hate your job so much that you have to like dissociate yourself from it.’ But the thing is, most people do! The idea that your entire individual identity is based on your work identity is something that is relatively new.
And troubling, I might add.
Yeah, you’re always on, you’re always at work, you’re always expected to be a ‘representative.’ And you’re not paid for it.
At the end of the book you address the media’s tendency to engage in “feelings talk.” And I definitely felt implicated in that. I want to sit here and talk about it with you and intellectualize it and ‘make sense’ of it. But your point was like, Well, while you’re sorting out your feelings about this and what it all means, people are disenfranchised and being killed and imprisoned, and that’s the more immediate — like, put aside your feelings about sex work. It exists and it’s happening and —
And it’s not about your feelings! Which is a really painful thing in some ways because I’m not saying your feelings are invalid. Your feelings are important but they’re more important to you than they are to sex workers, and they’re certainly more important to you than they are to the police. Or to policymakers. So while it’s hard to say, “I validate your feelings and yet I’m not gonna do anything about them –”
Right, like, ‘I’m not saying you’re coming from a bad place — but your feelings are not my #1 concern –’
Yeah! And no matter what motivates it, these are all different ways of not actually listening to sex workers.
People have been buying sex long before capitalism, long before we lived in cities, even. This is a very old practice, and why it exists and whether or not it should is a much bigger question to think about, and I don’t it should take up too much of our time when there are all these more pressing things. Things that are also hard to talk about, but let’s give them some space, too.
Or we could just talk about dudes fucking but like, who cares. I don’t care.
Yeah so what IS our call-to-arms? Basically when I’m reading this book and talking to you all I can think is, “Okay Melissa, just please tell me what to think and how to do it right so I don’t look like an asshole.”
Right. I know. I mean, it’s so it makes me sad how unsatisfying it is for some people, not all people, to hear, Listen to sex workers is the call-to-arms. They’re like, that’s it? That doesn’t feel like a thing. And it’s like, no that is a thing.
And rather than focusing on how you can change sex workers and their lives, think about the peoples lives you actually do have the power to change. People, particularly if they do feel like they’re progressive or politically-minded, they probably are part of some kind of something that does have an impact on sex workers’ lives. Whether that’s you know they volunteer at a domestic violence shelter or they volunteer at a clinic or they know somebody who works in public housing — they have some connection to some institution that actually does impact the lives of sex workers, and they have they’re in a position to ask questions and notice things within that institution.
Sex workers don’t need you to change them, and it’s so basic but it’s so important. Most people do just want to be left alone to do their job and get their money and get on with their lives. That’s the thing at the end of the day, you don’t really need to get in the way of that, you need to just make sure that people are safe.
We really want to consume this easy, inconvenient truth-like sign this petition kind of answer, but there isn’t anything like that.
It’s more complicated.
Or it’s more personal!