Sex Work, Political Power, Marxism and Hookernomics: A Conversation

Melissa Gira Grant is a writer and activist who spoke yesterday at a panel on sex work and feminism at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy's 2010 Reproductive Justice Conference. Before she spoke to them, though, she spoke to me.

Megan: A long time ago on Twitter, you and I had a long conversation about feminism and sex work, and why it was really important for mainstream feminists to be more inclusive in this regard. And I wanted to get back into that, because I think, and know in my own life, that there is a very natural reaction to feel like sex work and feminism are not really that compatible, between sexism and trafficking and misogyny.

Melissa: Right, and there's more politically at stake right now, maybe more even than there was in the 70's and 80's during the sex wars, for feminists in regards to sex work. There's a new wave of laws coming down on the state level — two in process right now in Illinois and in DC — that would further criminalize sex workers in the guise of "ending demand" for sex work

Megan: Ah, yes, because all these years that it was legal totally increased demand.

Melissa: It's critical for those who have political power as feminists, whether that's as a lobbyist, an organizer, a media person, to listen to sex workers — that this call to "end demand" does little to improve our lives.

Megan: And I think that this is the crux of the matter: do we as feminists want to improve the lives of the women involved in sex work? Or do we want to criminalize a practice that is regarded as rooted in sexism, regardless? Because, I think we all rationally know that criminalizing sexism doesn't eliminate it. Just ask any woman who faces pay inequity or sexual harassment.

Melissa: Right, these laws do little to shift the conditions of patriarchy and sexism that impoverish women, throw up barriers to opportunity for women. We can't say, "Boo Lily Ledbetter," but we know, on the ground, these laws don't play out how we intend.

Megan: And while it's important to protect women and men who are caught in sex work when they don't want to be, criminalizing women and men who choose to be doesn't assist them, and doesn't change the market for sex work.

Melissa: So we're sort of stuck, as feminists in the US — unless we actually listen to folks in the work and meaningfully consider how we build political power for sex workers and anyone who is involved in commercial sex, no matter what they call it.

Megan: I would agree, but I think it's important to have criminal penalties for traffickers and people that coerce men and women into sex work. And I think it's important to ask how do we really work to minimize demand for the commoditization of sex, and women's bodies?

Melissa: I don't think there's anything we can do within the legal system to address the commodification of sexuality. And I'd really want to unpack that phrase — that notion.

Megan: I agree. You can't address a thought with a law.

Melissa: But I'd take it a step further than you — criminalization doesn't help people who are involved in commercial sex through coercion either. We had a rhetoric in the early days of working against violence against women, that police were not always allies in ending domestic violence. Why now do we trust cops to protect us? Especially when we see, in communities of color and for folks who are transgender and gender non-conforming, that cops are incredibly racist and incredibly violent towards folks in the course of arrest

Megan: Well, I think a more interesting question is why do we feel we need the police to protect us from sex workers?

Melissa: And who exactly needs to be protected "from" sex workers? Often it's litter and loitering people are angry about. Or, more generally, people are unsettled by being encountered with poverty — especially on the sidewalk of their nice new condo, with the husband inside they don't want to imagine buying blow jobs outside.

Megan: This is actually something I've been wondering about, particularly when it comes to feminism. Often, when I read feminists talk about sex work, I get the very distinct sense that they feel the need to protect themselves and/or their relationships from sex work. I feel, more and more, that so much is set up and structured around the idea that women are in competition sexually.

Melissa: We don't have a lot of politicization around or even discussion around the fear of competition sexually. So instead we displace that fear onto the women we've been raised to fear, or on getting mad about Brazilian waxes or whatever. But that totally strips away any thinking we could engage in around power dynamics, and class.

Megan: (Let alone race and sexism and misogyny.)

Melissa: No one really wants to go there. I really do think most of this anti-prostitution, end-demand stuff is rooted in unchallenged classism within feminism.

Megan: I think it is not remotely unfair to say that, in many ways, there is a lot of unchallenged classism in official feminism.

Melissa: It's not just virgin/whore, but a very specific class connotation within that construct.

Megan: Because a whore, of course, needs the money, whereas a virgin has the economic option to maximize her marriage potential, which is just another form of sexual commodization.

Melissa: Right, and if you can see it with establishment feminists — Laura Agustin gets at this in her book, Sex At The Margins — feminists need money too. Feminists who do research, write books, work the conference circuit, feminists who starts orgs to "save" sex workers — they are working, too. They are laborers in an industry intimately connected to sex work, too.

Megan: I mean, when are women not working? At home, in the job market, in feminism and out? It's just what is monetarily valued or not.

Melissa: I want feminists coming up into the movement and its establishments to consider that — who profits from the anti-trafficking movement? And saving-type work is good work.

Megan: I want to be clear, here, though: neither of us wants women or men coerced into the sex industry, or to be unable to make the choice to get out of it. I think both of us agree that the people that profit off of coerced sex work should be liable for that.

Melissa: No one would question you morally there. But this is so frustrating — why do we have to continually say, "we are against coercion" — if we want to suggest that the tactics of some feminists don't make sense to us? I really think it's a false binary — no one is for coercion, or trafficking. And in the sex worker rights movement, most of what we talk about isn't "pro" sex industry. It's about challenging structural violence, racism.

Megan: But I think when the debate is framed in a certain way — as you said, around "saving" people — it's important to acknowledge that there is coercion and that it needs to end. I think an important medium-term goal for both feminists and sex workers is to make sure that sex work is full of, say, Ashley Dupres.

Melissa: I really hope none of my comments make me appear to want a world full of young women who are stalked by CNN and retire from the business to become NY Post sex advice columnists. I think that's a huge dodge there.

Megan: I didn't mean it like that (and the harassment she faced was terrible). I meant more that she chose to be in sex work.

Melissa: Right, maybe? I mean, how can we know? The choice/coercion divide is really more complex than that, and it doesn't change anything about how shamed she was in the media.

Megan: True, it was a reductive statement on my part. I just meant it in the sense that her story is well-known and she says she chose sex work. But I think part of the shaming comes, again, from the idea that no one would really "choose" sex work.

Melissa: Stigma and criminalization are common to all of us, whether we're in sex work through choice, circumstance, or coercion. And you are doubly bad if you do choose it. We reserve sympathy for those who are "forced."

Megan: Not just sympathy, but empathy.

Melissa: It's a double standard that also doesn't have much resemblance to people's working lives. How many people, in any job, truly choose it? How many of us have agency, power, and control in our working lives? I think this is classism, again — this not wanting to talk about how economic choice is complex. Money is just as dirty for us to confront as sex, even as feminists — maybe especially as feminists.

Megan: I think people like to believe they make choices about to whom they sell the labor and the products thereof, when the market power, actually, is all in the hands of the buyer. Because, otherwise, we're all just selling bits of ourselves.

Melissa: And they like to think maybe it's totally different when you're naked

Megan: (Also: it is very clever of you to sneak the M**xist theory into this!)

Melissa: Ha, I'm such a lousy Marxist, I'm still practicing hookernomics.

CLPP 2010: Feminism And The Rights Of People Involved In Sex Work And Street Economies [Feministing]

Related: Melissa Gira Grant [MelissaGira.com]
Melissa Gira Grant [Tumblr]
2010 Reproductive Justice Conference [Civil Liberties & Public Policy]

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