When Did Sex Work Become Less Stigmatized Than "Menial" Labor?

Today on Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory focuses on the recession-driven upswing among women who become sex workers. This time, she finds, it isn't always the women on the margins of the economy who are going there: it's those in the middle-class.

Clark-Flory writes:

Mike of A&M Studios, a producer of X-rated video chats, says: "A couple years ago, we'd have a lot of strippers or people who might be on meth — a lot of shiftier people." He continues, "Now we're seeing performers who are more educated and used to working on a regular schedule. There's been a shift to a very different class of people." Much as his phrasing gives me chills, it isn't just a cliché that women with limited job opportunities often turn to sex work.

The difference in these dark days is that middle-class advantages, like a solid college education and professional work experience, don't offer the same level of protection that they once did from being pushed to make such a choice. Not to mention, it's easier now to make the decision because the Internet has bulldozed the barrier of entry into the sex industry.

Clark-Flory talks to three women who turned to sex work: Marie, a former manager at a car rental place; Jennifer, a bookkeeper; and Alicia, a former nutritionist. All of them turned to sex work after being unable to find work in their (white collar) fields; none of them initially considered filling out job applications for blue collar or menial jobs.

Alicia, who stopped her sex work after getting a job as a waitress, realizes it seems a bit off.

Looking back, Alicia found that calculation didn't exactly compute: "Sometimes I'm like, Dude, why didn't you just get a job at McDonald's? It's a paycheck," she says, slipping into the second person. "But you were at a point in your life where you had zero money to put food on the table. You had to do what you had to do. It's a survival thing."

She describes her sex work, as Jennifer does, as a source of shame — but, Clark-Flory points out, she considered it less shameful than so-called menial labor.

And, according to Clark-Flory, it supposedly pays better. Given Maria's situation, that seems questionable.

"Boob play," "pics of kitty," "topless housecleaning" and "hypno role play." The list, scribbled in a lined yellow notebook, is followed by a double-underlined figure: $725.

In a state that complies with only federal minimum wage laws, a minimum wage job worked 40 hours a week for 20 days at a rate of $6.55/hour pays $1,048; in California, where the rate is $8.00/hour, the pay is $1,280. Marie could, actually, be earning more money at McDonalds.

Clark-Flory sees the allure: people she interviewed for the story encouraged her to get involved; an advertisement she placed on Craigslist netted response after response. But the reality of sex work — the shame, the risk, the limited rewards — trumped all the sales pitches from potential pimps and johns alike.

But the recession reminds us that there are few quick fixes, and there is no get-out-of-jail-free card. For the women I spoke with, sex work was like bailing water out of a leaking boat: You stay afloat, so long as you don't stop.

If you work for minimum age, you might live hand-to-mouth, but at least it's only your hand, and you don't have to risk your relationships, your health or your (clean) record to feed the mouth.

Going down in the downturn [Salon]

Related: Minimum Wage Laws in the States - January 1, 2009 [Department of Labor]