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“There Can’t Be Numbers:” An Interview With Laura Agustín, Part 2

Yesterday, we posted Part One of an interview with Sex at the Margins author Dr. Laura Agustín. Today we present our second and final segment.

It’s incredibly common now to see abolitionists argue that when prostitution is legal, as it in Amsterdam, trafficking only increases. What does the most current research actually suggest? 

Everyone wants this thing called research to prove one position or another, but it can’t. Even if there were enough funds to do massive studies with a range of methodologies and amazingly objective researchers, the target is impossible to define and pin down. It’s the same problem as with numbers, the fact that the subjects of interest are operating outside formal networks. Of course you can have small ethnographic studies that provide real insight into particular people at a certain time and place, but those studies cannot prove anything in general. And certainly not about legal regimes, as in the quarrel over which causes more exploitation.

Over a very long period we may come to understand the effects of a regime like the Dutch, but it is too early now. I did research in Holland amongst people concerned with how the policy was working in 2006, when it was already clear that offering regulation only brought part of the sex industry into government accounting. Businesspeople interested in operating outside the law continued to do so; many escort agencies and other sex businesses refused to register; migrants not allowed work permits came and worked anyway and so did people facilitating their travel and work, and, in many cases, exploiting them. None of which proves that the whole system ‘increases trafficking’. You cannot even coherently discuss an increase in trafficking when there are no baseline figures to compare with. On top of which agreement about what everyone means by the word trafficking simply does not exist. This goes for both the Dutch situation and the Swedish – claims about trafficking going up or down cannot be proved. 

An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey As A Surrogate Partner (2013)

An-Intimate-Life-Cohen-Greene-Cheryl-9781593765064An Intimate Life might not exist if not for The Sessions, last year’s Oscar-nominated film fictionalizing the experience of sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene and her client Mark O’Brien. From the blurbs by actors Helen Hunt and John Hawkes to the book’s pictures of Cohen Greene posing next to the stars, it’s obvious the publishers were guessing most readers would come to the memoir through the movie. I hope it finds a wider audience than that, though, because it could have a big impact on the lives of the sexually misinformed, anxious, and ashamed. Through a combination of vignettes about several of her clients and the recounting of her own sexual awakenings, Cohen Greene offers a blue print on expanding one’s sexual life. As one reviewer on Amazon wrote, “Thank you from my heart and penis.” Sounds like something one of my guys would say.

Awesomely, Cohen Greene opens the book with her number of sexual partners (900) but perhaps less awesomely, she follows that immediately with an explanation of why she’s not a prostitute. I admit that I’m probably a little oversensitive to this, but what is she trying to say exactly? Does she think there’s something wrong with being a prostitute? You don’t come around these parts blowing that horn, Madam. While I imagine Cohen Greene is not someone who would sneer at or shame prostitutes, it’s a little suspicious that she so regularly wants to distance herself from us. For her, the difference in our work is “significant”:

  •  prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, while surrogacy is new
  •  intercourse is not the majority or totality of the interaction
  •  her ultimate aim is to “model a healthy intimate relationship”
  •  she’s focused on resolving problems and achieving goals rather than simply providing a sexual experience

Her favorite metaphor is that going to see a prostitute is like going to a restaurant but going to see a surrogate is like attending culinary school, the implication being that prostitutes don’t teach their clients anything.

Part of me gets it. But another part of me thinks she might not know many escorts.

Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005)

I can’t quite say I disliked Female Chauvinist Pigs—though as a sex worker I feel like I should, as it grossly misunderstands and oversimplifies my industry. Author Ariel Levy discusses how women’s participation in modern “raunch culture” is a step backwards for both feminism and the sexual revolution. While earlier generations focused on sexual freedom as related to pleasure and intimacy, the supersexualized post-Girl Power years seem to be more about sexual commodification and performance. As Levy says, “The glossy, overheated thumping of sexuality in our culture is less about connection than consumption.”

Levy brings up good points about the way that mainstream society has appropriated the sex industry, and how women have began imitating the douchiest of men in their objectification of one another. She talks about misogyny within lesbian and trans communities, and some of the general failings of the modern feminism and the sexual revolution. “Raunch” poses as a result of  both movements, but actually betrays them. According to Levy, “This is not a book about the sex industry; it is a book about what we have decided the sex industry means … how we have held it up, cleaned it off, and distorted it.”

I agree with the general assertions in Female Chauvinist Pigs: L.A.-style hetero porn culture (which has seeped into mainstream Hollywood culture) has messed up our heads and sex lives. Looking and acting like a sex worker, without actually getting paid, has become hipper than ever. I find this particularly irritating for actual sex workers: it devalues what we do as work and performance, rather than the acute narcissism and approval-seeking that’s fashionable in pop culture.

Girl, Undressed (2008)

afouler3 by Caty and Red

12/9/2013 update: Yesterday, several commenters pointed out that speculating on the author’s trauma history was inappropriate of us. Upon reflection, we agree that this was specious and unnecessary, and apologize deeply for doing so.

Red: I love stripper memoirs; I buy them all indiscriminately and hope for the best. Strippers are like my family, people I love and hate and get driven crazy by but keep returning to. So you know I read Girl, Undressed when I found a copy at Powell’s. And I hated it. When Caty asked if I wanted to co-review it, I got giddy at the idea of sharing my outrage. Is there anything more fun that being righteously furious with a friend?

For those of you who haven’t read it, Girl, Undressed follows Fowler on a dank and seamy voyage, to places only “the ruined” (her term) can sink. She stumbles around early 2000s Manhattan, a weary traveler promising a glimpse at a New York not “vacuum-packed and delivered to your tastefully decorated abodes via HBO… there’ll be a sad lack of shopping expeditions to Bergdorf’s to punctuate each chapter’s end.” In other words, Fowler is not Carrie Bradshaw (but then who is) and I’m also gathering that she’s not writing this for me or her sisters-in-degradation/fellow strippers.

We <3 $pread

A couple $pread magazines.
A couple $pread magazines.

In honor of International Sex Workers’ Rights Day, the Feminist Press is releasing a retrospective anthology of $pread Magazine today.  Current and former Tits and Sass co-editors got together to write about our nostalgic love for the magazine and the way it’s inspired our work.

Bettie, Tits and Sass founding editor emeritus: $pread magazine was walking (gracefully) toward its end when I was a bouncing baby ho, but, gee, what an amazing lil era. For a generation of workers who were lucky enough to see it begin I imagine it felt like what starting Tits and Sass felt like: Exhilarating, frustrating (deadlines are for nerds), and always eye-opening.

Sex worker-created media is a fascinating thing. It’s a lot like us, right? Sometimes hard to pin down, intelligent, always changing, and steady spilling tea you didn’t even know you were thirsty for. This book is as important as the magazine itself and I wish you could still get back issues! $pread existed to remind us that we have to keep telling our stories. No one else can do it for us. Even if they are constantly trying.

Also, $pread taught me that I should pay my taxes, so thanks for keeping the IRS off my ass.

Catherine, Tits and Sass founding editor emeritus, former $pread editor: I remember the first time I heard about $pread, in an article in Bitch, during an era when feminist publications didn’t cover sex work politics with nearly the frequency they do today—or, at least, didn’t include sex workers’ own voices, rather than speaking for us. I had already begun stripping in San Francisco, but was somewhat unfamiliar with the term “sex worker” or the burgeoning media movement. The Bitch article had me fascinated, and I soon found my own copy of $pread in my local indie bookstore.