Grant 14 (Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work by Melissa Gira Grant Melissa Gira Grant is an American freelance journalist. She is author of Playing the Whore and Take This Book and co-editor of Coming and Crying)
There’s two distinct but overlapping strands of activism within the movement for sex workers’ rights. One is concerned with changing the conditions of the sex trade itself. Its internal campaigns focus on improving workplace conditions, on workers’ rights. Its external campaigns target institutions outside sex work that impact sex workers—and police and health care providers are highest on that list. The other strand is primarily concerned with changing conditions outside the trade to impact the lives of people who do and who used to do sex work, or people who are profiled as sex workers. Tire first strand, which is more vocally identified with sex workers’ rights, may be more likely to argue for decriminalization in policy and building the political power of current sex workers to control the terms of their work. The second strand, which may not outwardly identify as a sex workers’ rights movement, may be more likely to argue for an end to criminalization as it’s experienced in its community’s daily life, and in building the capacity of current and former sex workers individually and collectively to define their own lives. These strands of the movement converge and go their own ways, but their common purpose is to value and believe the experiences of people who sell sex, to insist that it is not sex work that degrades us but those people who use our experiences to justify degradation. Outside the United States, where some sex workers’ movements emerged aligned much more closely with labor, health and human rights causes than feminist movements, these strands might look quite different. To an extent, necessity has bred an intersectional movement, one that offers the potential for so many connections: to migrants’ rights, to informal and excluded workers’ organizing. To the degree that sex workers can find safer spaces to come out in other movements, those connections can be fostered into something powerful. And to the degree that stigma and criminalization makes that frightening, sex workers will be more occupied fighting for survival alone than in finding solidarity. Solidarity—not support. This is what’s absent in even well-meaning “support” for sex workers: a willingness to direct that support at those people who have the power to change anything about the conditions of sex workers’ lives. And this is where we lose: endless, circular conversations about how sex work makes you feel (if you are someone who has not done it) that serve only to stand in for taking action. Your feelings about sex work do not make much difference to the vice police working tonight. Be bolder and look closer to home. And if you must have your feelings, take them to people who will listen: neighborhood associations, health clinics, labor unions, domestic violence shelters, queer and women’s organizations—your own people, whoever they are. Rather than narrow in on sex workers’ behaviors, turn your questions outward. What are these people doing that might harm sex workers? Why not help them, rather than sex workers, change their behavior? Just as suspect as too much feelings talk is the impulse from those who have never done sex work to offer up their own standards by which they wish it was regulated. For people who have never so much as talked about taking their clothes off for money they have a lot of ideas about how others should do so. What is needed long before any kind of proposals for sex industry regulation can be made is a recognition that under criminalization, sex work is regulated—by the criminal and legal system, by cops. Even for sex workers who work independently and without any kind of management, cops are management. The first step in talking about meaningful standards for sex work is to make space for sex workers to lead that process. That will not happen so long as law enforcement are on sex workers’ backs. Likewise, sex workers don’t want others rushing in, however well meaning, to be the new boss. Sex workers are used to being excluded from developing the policies that rule their lives. Here are a few I’ve heard most often, and from all political corners, that continue to miss the point. • If only it were legal, we could tax them. Which ignores all the taxes currently paid by sex workers on their income and on what they purchase. • If only it were legal, we could test them. Never mind that sex workers already have an economic interest in maintaining their sexual health, that STI and HIV rates among sex workers have more to do with their ability to negotiate safe sex (itself constrained under criminalization) than with how many partners they have. Or that the global health community considers mandatory HIV testing to cause people to avoid health professionals, increasing their health risks. And that by the standards set forth by UNAIDS and the International Labor Organization, forcing someone—no matter what their occupation is—to be tested for HIV is considered a violation of human rights. • If only it were legal, we could register them. You might say we expect such protocols of other businesses, but as a culture we have yet to dignify sex work as any other business. Forced registration just looks like policing by a different name to sex workers. Those who refuse to register wall form a new underground.None of these proposals—even if they weren’t so foolish—are mine to make. It’s not my job, and besides, I’m not sure we’re ready if we can’t yet answer one question: In what way do any of these proposals serve sex workers? Here’s my only proposal, because it is long overdue: If only sex work were not criminal, sex workers could do so much more for themselves, and for each other. But why should we wait? There’s no reason to wait for all these attitudes to change, for whore stigma to somehow fall away, to make room for another way, whether that’s amending the law, ending sex workers’ status as outlaws by other means, or by something more and yet unimagined. To hope that all those others who are occupied by their obsession with us—by the prostitutes in their fantasies—to wait for them to change and accept sex work as work and sex workers as full agents in their own lives before we take the lead? They won’t.It’s through our demands, our imaginations, that we will.