Sex work as a magnifier of consumer capitalism

This week I presented on sex work in this conference stream. My co-author and I aimed to highlight a context we felt was important but often missing from debates surrounding sex work:

  1. Patriarchal capitalism – how capitalism disadvantages everyone but in terms of gender particularly women because their labour is often unrelegated, they earn less and are in fewer positions of power (see below infographic).
  2. Consumerism – the heady pressure to spend and spend more. Spending gets you healthy, wealthy, corporately-beautiful and successful, we’re told.
  3. Beauty tyranny – the marketplace where women are valued if they are corporately beautiful (young, slim, White etc) over women whose bodies are deemed “deviant” (fat, old, Black etc).

“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round in its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison” (Wollstonecraft, 1792).

We argued that this particular cultural context, that we are all subject to, means women have more work to do (e.g., beauty work, relegated labour) but less gain relative to men. When viewing this context then it can be seen how sex work (with it’s perceived higher earnings, flexibility and openness to any background) becomes a viable option relative to jobs traditionally open to women.We were not moralizing over sex work or any job in capitalism. After all, we’re all in this cultural mix, like or loathe it, we have to deal with it (for now).

We argued that research (here) which showed sex workers earned more if they were corporately-beautiful, had a graduate degree and White skin demonstrated how sex work was a part of the above cultural context. Finally we finished that the disproportionate feminist and societal attention around sex work all too often occurs to the expense of the scrutiny on this context. Instead, when contextualized it becomes clear that any measure to improve the life of women more generally will benefit the life of the sex worker (e.g., the Basic Income)

Some criticisms to our presentation were raised and I’d like to fully address these here:

  • What about men? 

Because women are the majority of sex workers (something like 97%) and my co-author is a female sex worker our presentation only focused on women. However we believe much of this context also disadvantages many men (e.g., men increasingly face beauty tyranny too).

  • Why are you saying consumerism makes sex work more acceptable? 

There is still a lot of stigma around sex work and yes sex work has existed long before our heady consumerist culture. However, as noted in research presented earlier in the day: many sex workers work because “they just want to earn money”. This isn’t just to pay for a basic living (food, water etc) but also to pay for all the materials that consumerism tells us we need. So in this context, a Living Wage isn’t enough when we’re all told we need to afford the latest iPhone 5 or designer outfit. Sex work’s relatively higher earnings to other jobs suddenly becomes an appealing avenue to realize these promises.

  • It’s not the 70s anymore – why all the talk about patriarchal capitalism? 

As one critic pointed out power does not necessarily operate in a top down manner and people do resist power systems. Why all the talk about patriarchal capitalism then – it’s not the 70s?

There is a tendency in academia to ‘postmodern wash’ – to use any example of resistance or parody of power structures as evidence that that power structure does not exist (Gill, 2008; Bordo, 1993). Resistance may indeed occur but it is a struggle, it does not necessarily overthrow power structures and indeed can often be subsumed by them (e.g., advertising’s co-option of subverts).  So whilst our description of these concepts may have been simplistic just because a critique isn’t perfectly phrased why must we, as Rosalind Gill (2008, 434) says: “throw… the proverbial baby out with the bathwater”? Why would women as a group not have the same job opportunities, earn the same or be sex workers at the same rate as men if patriarchy wasn’t relevant? Why do people take jobs that they sometimes do not like if not for capitalism? Among sex work at least, these concepts are extremely relevant.

Final thoughts: Privilege in the academe

The response to our presentation I think provides a very useful springboard to reflect on how privilege works in academia. For example, it was suggested that if we presented this at a feminist space next time or because the co-author was a sex worker if she had presented we would have been much better received. But how would this be engagement if the response levied depends on who the speaker is instead of what the argument is? Further must feminist informed research be relegated to feminist-disclaimed spaces? Does sexism not exist outside of these spaces and is it not everybody’s responsibility to challenge?

More broadly,  how might being male and middle class relate to our understanding of patriarchy and capitalism as not being problems? Or how might privilege in general serve to emphasize certain voices in  debates over others (academics over sex workers; men over women etc). How can we all challenge these privileges?

I am very grateful for the hard work by both organizers in bringing this session together. It was an extremely informative day. I hope this post, if not persuades, at least clarifies people to our argument.

A note from my co-author and whorey-mate

I don’t apologise for the usage of inflammatory P terms such as Patriarchy and Prostitute. The latter is often covered in such spaces under the euphemism (yes I said it) of Sex Worker. I don’t overly object to that kind of phraseology, but I personally would not feel the need to attach other occupations (Doctor Worker, Waitress Worker, Academe Worker) with the title because to me, the fact that prostitution is an occupation as opposed to an aberration is bloody self-evident. Personally, I like Prostitute. It’s a strong word; it cuts at the tongue. Sex Worker to me is not a new way of situating lay-for-pay within the occupational stratum, but part of a politicising of (often) someone else’s life as a part of a Libertarian project that likes to calls itself Sex Positivity. Quite frankly, when a non-Prostitute refers to me as a Sex Worker, I have to suck down the same bile that I’m sure Rebecca Solnit had to when a Man Explained Things To Her.

As for Sex Positivity, quite frankly I resent a terminology that often seeks to shut down any criticism – however circumspect – of prostitution, pornography or other related practices. As though if you find any aspect of the economic bartering of sexuality, as logic would define, as Sex Negative. If I’m honest (and this is a deeply personal affectation) I’m often Sex Indifferent. Or, after a decade of wonky willies, hard to reach prostates, sweaty ball bags, faecal speckled neon pink arse jewellery, porn orchestrated pseudo-lesbianism, red swore bottoms from leather paddling and other of the paraphernalia of the Psycho-Neuroticism of Commercialised Sexuality, I’m actually Rather-Have-Cup-of-Tea-And-Watch-Question-Time-Positive.

But that of course, is just me.
I was incredibly reticent about going to the recent Human Geographies conference. As a Prostitute, I find the kind of life I lead has often been the dribbled-over object of the posturings and politicisations of other interested parties. Policy makers, media reps, and yes, academics. In theory, those from all angles want to welcome in sex industry workers to share in the discussion, however it seems to be under the condition that you say what they say. That you support what they think. Rachel Moran is the poster girl for the radical feminist notion of Prostitution as an inherent violence against women (whose authenticity is disputed, I find rather sinisterly, by the Sex Pozz Posse). Brooke Magnanti is the rather more glamorous poster girl and High Priestess of the values of sexual commercialisation. She is slim, blonde, educated – everything that gave her a financial and social premium as a sex worker (as delineated by the recent Economist article).

I don’t think prostitution is inherently violence against women, or devoid of any consent as a result of poverty. But I certainly do not think either, that it is the moral apex of the gendered human achievement. Yes men sell sex too. But let us be clear, it is men who almost exclusively buy it. If that wasn’t the case, the sexy social media operative, Adultwork, would be filled with heterosexual men getting paid to get their end away with a litany of bitches on heat (have I offended anyone yet?).

So to Patriarchy. Men pay for sex and women sell it for two reasons; firstly, until recently in history women were hugely economically dependent upon men. Secondly male sexuality (or the form it supposed to take) has been privileged within the cultural consciousness and female sexuality has been considered at best, a non-entity. Even though women have legislative equality, actual equality and conceptual equality of mentality, seems to not want to catch up. Anyone who wants to dispute that, wants to spend 10 years taking pay to pretend you enjoy the poking of flaccid appendages, and are able to achieve orgasm straight forwardly with either rough manual clitoral handling or no clitoral handling whatsoever. Lie back and think of England. And the rent.

I don’t apologise for the usage of the word Patriarchy and I don’t think it is some bizarre, lesbiotic concept dreamed up by Wiccan hungry and hairy Feminazi’s who make potions by the moonlight. And, you know, like, totally hate men. Even the ones they deceitfully profess to love. It is quite simple. All of the authors of our contemporary institutions have been men. Religion, Parliament, The House of Lords, Corporations, Legislation, the Media, Academia…the whole piccalilli. Subsequently still now the authors of our culture are predominantly men, and when women do hold intermittent positions of power, their job is to submit themselves to the party line, or do it so well they out butch the boys. Margaret Thatcher anyone…?
Anyone who denies or ignores this as an irrelevance, to me is sticking their coffee soaked, porn-crusted postmodern brains in the sand. But do you know what? That’s their prerogative. But I am a Feminist. And a Prostitute. And without the interventions of the patronisations of the sneering middle class, I haven’t needed psychotherapy for being able to handle those uncoordinated kettles bells at the same time. Well, not much. Because to me there is always a demarcation between the personal and the political. I no longer feel the need to pretend that my job empowers me, or to feel gratification at the validations of the fickle fancies of men. I’ve grounded myself in the feminist sand. I don’t think it is great. Or awful. It mostly just tolerable.

But politically, prostitution to me is an example of the dominance of a masculinised script of sexuality which – guess what – I don’t think particularly benefits either men or women in the long haul. In fact, the huge split between men as buyers and women as peddlers, for me helps to prop a modernised wall between genders, and supports a rigidity of sexual identities that to some extent only the BDSM, trans and queer communities, seem to be able to creatively dilute.

A patriarchal identity convinces men that they deserve dominance, not empowerment. It gives men a sexual script that propagates notions of aggression and potency, not mutuality and passion. When men struggle to be their own Commander and Chief of a convincing erection or who can’t ejaculate during intercourse, they are masculine failures. Of course all egos are fragile. That is their nature. But as a Prostitute is was my job to bolster the egos of my male customers and to ignore, and at best, protect my own. Not easy when the Internet age has allowed for a Bro’s Against Ho’s script to be extrapolated on Punter’s Forums, wherein hobbyists often mercilessly coyote the bodies and attitudes of advertised Prostitutes. It is not enough to show up, be paid, take the dicking, you have to pretend you enjoy it now too. Whether you do or don’t.

So for me, the hard work is not the sex itself, but the emotional labour. Women’s (I stress) popular culture is obsessed and driven by emotional and lifestyle labour. Magazines, movies, music in popular culture is awash with ways and means to ‘improve’ womanity. How to be better looking, a better person, how to have better relationships, better gardens, how to make better organic chicken pot pie. Male popular culture does not seem so equally inclined in the processes of pleasing, but in the process of being pleased. Whether by fast cars, hard sports, loose women or the ignoble banality of a Jason Statham movie. As a young woman of 18 when I entered into prostitution I was already becoming well versed into the language of people pleasing, after an earlier adolescent shaven headed, liquor soaked revolt. In a sense prostitution was an answer for me. It was a statement that said, “… if I have to be this people pleasing, hot to trot bastion of inequity, then I may as well be paid relatively handsomely for it’. As opposed to the other ‘Jobs for the Girls’, such as care and services industries and domestic labour, that equally are designed for women to care for the needs and wants of others but are more poorly reimbursed or indeed totally financially unrewarded.

I’m a pragmatist. I don’t support the Nordic Model, not because I worry about the criminalisation of customers but because I am not convinced it will help the workers in the industry. I don’t support the picketing of lap dancing bars or lambasting of its workers any more than I support the picketing of abortion clinics. Protest, please, but not at the cost and on the doorsteps of the people who are already in some respects disempowered by social ostracisation. But just as do think prostitution needs to be seen within a wider picture of labour that submits to social hierarchies and limits the choices of the poorest in society, that does not mean that I think that giving blow jobs and making beeping noises in Asda are tantamount.

Sex does not necessarily need to be spiritualised but we cannot hide from the fact that it has a deeply inclined relationship with our, particularly classed and gendered, social and personal identities. If we are to fully normalise prostitution within culture we will have to (if it exists in its current form, more or less) challenge concepts of monogamy and fidelity (it is no secret that large amounts of customers are ‘attached’ men) and have an open discussion about the currently deceitful operations of polysexuality. We will also have to be at peace with the idea that it is right and fine for men with money to purchase the emotional and sexual labour of women without her reciprocal desire being in place and whatever the long or short term affects might be. We will also have to be a peace with our perpetuating vision of womanhood as oppositional to masculinity and an operational object of the latter’s gratifications.

And after ten years riding the game, I’m just not certain that is something I am actually peace with.

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3 thoughts on “Sex work as a magnifier of consumer capitalism

  1. I don’t believe that any of the speakers on the day were subscribing to ‘sex positivity’, rather a body work/ labour process theory that wants to situate commercial sex as work, (no judgement being made on whether commercial sex is ‘good or ‘bad’) but rather framing paid sex as a transactional exchange of sex for money or goods. In this way, therefore opening up a space for the plethora of lived experiences, whilst being adamant that those who engage in commercial sex should have rights and be protected from both symbolic and physical violence.

    It also holds that unpaid sex is not exploitation-free, as both forms of sex take place under the same system of patriarchy.

    As for terminology, most scholars and activists use ‘sex worker’ to be respectful. As a former lap-dancer I detest the term ‘stripper/, but I understand why it is widely used, it is just my preference that I am called a former lap-dancer, not a stripper.

    To accept commercial sex as work is not to remove it from the capitalist system under which all labour takes place, but rather to see it as labour, not inherent violence or something which we must punitively fight against.

    • I’m not entirely sure how what your saying is anything different from what we have been saying.

      Yes prostitution as labour.
      Yes worker’s rights for prostitutes.

      My particular interest in the way language is used to delineate the politics of commercialised sex goes broader than the conference. My criticisms of the staid examinations of such an event was merely a starting point to talk about my feelings on the game, more generally.

  2. Reblogged this on In Permanent Opposition and commented:
    Yes. We are supposed to just pretend structural inequality doesn’t exist because people have drunk too much post modern coffee and now have brains stuffed with ennui and fear of sentiment. Its all OK now, dude.

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