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Sex History: A Response To Rashida Jones And Her Critics

Rashida Jones at the premiere of I Love You, Man, at South by Southeast in Austin, in 2009. (Photo by Flickr user thomascrenshaw)
Rashida Jones at the premiere of I Love You, Man, at South by Southeast in Austin, in 2009. (Photo by Flickr user thomascrenshaw)

Rashida Jones, one of the producers of Hot Girls Wanted, a new documentary on the amateur porn industry, recently proclaimed that women do not derive pleasure from performing in porn. “It’s performative,” she explains, “women aren’t feeling joy from it.” She proceeds to ask, “What is the real cost [of performing in porn] to your soul and to your psyche?”

Sex workers are, by now, quite familiar with this kind of paternalistic analysis and “concern.” They quickly responded to the comments via social media, justly critiquing Jones for fetishizing authenticity. However, there were also the obligatory “sex work is just like any other job” comments, which I’m not so sold on. Although sex work is, of course, legitimate labor and should not be exempt from any kind of labor analysis, I’ve never been comfortable with the argument that selling sex is just like selling a latte. I’m also of the minority opinion that people really should love their jobs.

Responding to Jones’ comments, Kink Weasel tweeted, “Let’s apply that to other jobs: Does the checker at the grocery tingle at the thought of bagging groceries?” Similarly, Cathy Reisenwitz tweeted, “I’m sorry, barista. I need to give this latte back. I didn’t see any joy from you while making it.” The implication is that all service industry jobs are joyless at times; joy is not a measure of any job’s worth.

But I disagree. Preceding homo sapiens in the philosophy of evolution is “homo faber,” literally, “man the creator.” We are what we create, what we make. And if our creations are fundamentally joyless, that’s a problem. Especially if we are in the business of sex.  I will forever remember the first client who physically repulsed me. And although I’ve, coincidentally, also worked as a barista, I can’t say that the joylessness of barista life ever compared to the gut wrenching, soul rattling experience of blowing a guy whose vile smell and equally rancid demeanor remain etched in my mind’s eye.

I understand the desire to demystify sex as “just like [insert any vaguely uninteresting activity].” I really do. This political tactic takes sex—and sex work—out from under the veil of ignorance and stigma and puts it in its rightful place amongst the vast array of human experiences. It says, “Hey! These punitive policies surrounding the expression of sex should be made obsolete!” And it’s true, they should! But we’re not quite there yet.

Big Mother Is Watching You: The Swedish Model Goes Stateside

In the fifth installment of her column, Big Mother Is Watching Youa guide to prominent anti-sex worker activists and officials, Robin D.  outlines the major figures promoting the End Demand/Swedish Model phenomenon in the United States. 

When the Sex Purchase Ban passed in Sweden in 1999, prostitution was legal there. Proponents of the Swedish Model in the U.S. talk about “decriminalizing the women,” but implementing this model has never involved the removal of criminal laws against anyone. It’s mostly all talk. Several U.S. jurisdictions (Illinois, Colorado, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago/Cook County) have had laws branded “End Demand” pass. In none of these cases was any effort made to remove criminal penalties for sex workers.

Here are some of the key players involved in bringing the Swedish model to the United States:

Rachel Durchslag, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Hunt Alternatives Report Fund Author

Rachel Durchslag.
Rachel Durchslag

“I saw a film about human trafficking, and I was haunted. Then I found Chicago was a major hub for human trafficking. Once I realized my own city was not stepping up, I felt called to do something,” says Rachel Durchslag, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (C.A.A.S.E.) founder and Sara Lee heiress. But this tourist in human suffering couldn’t take it for long, and she didn’t have to. In 2013, she left her human trafficking work to practice Reiki.

Since her youth, Durchslag grappled with poor-little-rich-girl syndrome in isolation until, at a retreat for “young funders” (read: people with inherited wealth), she found peer support. “After I said my great-grandfather started Sara Lee, I felt this lightness that I don’t think I’ve really ever felt before then. That was the first time I had ever publicly said that, and all of a sudden it clicked, I didn’t do anything wrong to be born into this family, there’s nothing productive about me feeling continually guilty about being born into this family, but there is a lot that I can do,” she explained to 136 Radio. What she did was use her trust fund to start the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, a key player in the passage of an End Demand ordinance in Cook County in 2008. They have since done some good work in making progressive criminal justice reforms including the repeal of felony prostitution in Illinois, but they are unwavering in their continued support for the criminalization of sex work clients.

Durchslag has written for the Huffington Post about reading client forums. Like the Invisible Men Project does, Durchslag appropriates the suffering of victims of violence to justify policies that clearly make sex workers’ problems worse. She does so in a very prurient manner, both in the article above discussing a 2013 C.A.A.S.E. report she co-wrote on client forums and in the report itself, in which she stoops to quoting rape perpetrators describing their crimes on review boards, without regard for the wishes of the subjects of those reviews. This disturbing voyeurism is interspersed with discussions of relatively neutral topics, such as determining what’s on offer at spas advertising erotic massage. If workers weren’t getting arrested, go figure, maybe they could tell Durschlag what services they provide directly.

Durchslag also seemed to love to give other people like her access to her tourism of the sex industry. She invited colleagues and friends to participate in the publicity around a “human trafficking play” with the dehumanizing title Roadkill.

Shoplifting Safety: How Civilians Deny The Consent of Sex Workers

Mary Mitchell. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times, via Mitchell's Twitter feed)
Mary Mitchell. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times, via Mitchell’s Twitter feed)

Content warning: this piece contains discussion of sexual violence.

You may have read the recent editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times, an opinion piece in which Mary Mitchell argues that sex workers who are raped by a client are making a mockery of “real” rape survivors by even considering what happened to them to be sexual assault. Luckily, the majority of commentators discussing the editorial see it for what it is: a blatantly discriminatory piece of rape apologism. While the actual piece itself has been critiqued by multiple different authors and websites, the question of how sex work, sexual assault, and consent are related is a frequent topic in the discourse around sex work and its legality. Rather than stopping at simply declaring Mary Mitchell to be a peculiarly regressive quasi-feminist, it may be more helpful to examine the ways Mitchell’s views are actually in line with how most non-sex workers see our ability to consent.

Mitchell’s piece is filled with questionable reasoning and a variety of anti-sex worker phrases. She makes sure to allude to a victim narrative by mentioning “pimps” and “trafficking” (neither of which were present in this crime), but at the same time wishes to hold sex workers accountable for our own sexual assaults. Even more strangely, her qualifications of what deserves to be called “rape” (you know, “rape-rape”) seem inconsistent. She wants us to know that she doesn’t think women are responsible for their own rape if they “dressed too provocatively or misled some randy guy,” but seems to think that a man threatening a woman with a gun for sex is somehow not really sexual assault. What’s important for her is that we sex workers put ourselves in a situation which will obviously lead to sex: we’ve already consented by agreeing to take money. “It’s tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim,” she writes, because it’s clear the sex worker was going to consent anyhow. What is the difference between financial stability and not being shot to death, anyways?

It would be nice if Mitchell were the only person who thought this way, but unfortunately, the world is full of people with similar opinions. I’ve heard too many men joke, “If you rape a hooker, is it rape or shoplifting?” to read this as an isolated incident. And surely enough, there is at least one recent case where officials have dismissed sexual assault charges when a sex worker is the victim. In fact, the judge in that scenario, Philadelphia’s Teresa Carr Deni, used the same exact arguments that Mitchell did: calling the sexual assault of sex workers rape demeans real rape victims; it is actually more a “theft of services” (a direct quote from both Mitchell and the judge, incidentally).

Rather than an opinion held by particularly vicious bigots, I think this is actually a belief held by most non-sex workers, including many of our clients. Sex workers, in the eyes of many, are just people who are particularly lascivious, who get into sex work because they are that into having sex with lots of people. Almost every sex worker I know has a story of a client who thought that after one or two times of meeting, the sex worker would be willing to stop taking payment for their work; clients habitually try to barter us down on the presumption that we must be getting our own payment (in terrible sex). Even people who purport to be allies might hold this view: a non-sex worker who had worked on campaigns for decriminalization once asked me as I was heading off to meet a john they thought was particularly dangerous, “What is the thrill?”

In this view, our entry into sex work is a sort of broad consent: we’ve consented to whatever a client might do to us simply by being in the life. Any ability to individually consent to one round of sex is swept away, let alone the ability to consent to certain acts and not others. This is especially true for sex workers whose demographics are already highly fetishized as “always up for it,” like trans women or black women, and especially sex workers in both those demographics.

The P Word: A 101

(via Wikimedia Commons)

Though most don’t consider the word “prostitute” pejorative, it’s more damaging to sex workers than any other slur. There’s no true neutrality to be found in a word whose verb form Merriam-Webster defines as “to devote to corrupt or unworthy purposes.” But precisely because it is used in polite language, because of its patina of legitimacy, its harmful connotations can be used against us with impunity in the media every time a street sex worker is murdered and every time a sex worker in the public eye is outed. Every time this medico-legal term, used to justify our pathologization and criminalization for centuries, is utilized to label us, we are discredited subtly but effectively just that much more.

In a surprisingly insightful take for a non-sex worker, Lizzie Smith, Research Officer at The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health, and Society at Le Trobe University, wrote in the academic news commentary site The Conversation last year:

Referring to female sex workers as “prostitutes” in the media is not new, but it is a sobering reminder of how pervasive negative understandings of sex work and sex workers are. These understandings originate from various “expert” fields of knowledge including psychology, medicine, sexology, religious doctrine and various feminist perspectives, through which sex workers are positioned as dirty, diseased, sinful, deviant and victims. The term “prostitute” does not simply mean a person who sells her or his sexual labour (although rarely used to describe men in sex work), but brings with it layers of “knowledge” about her worth, drug status, childhood, integrity, personal hygiene and sexual health. When the media refers to a woman as a prostitute, or when such a story remains on the news cycle for only a day, it is not done in isolation, but in the context of this complex history.

When the Chicago Tribune described Indiana serial killer Darren Vann’s victim, Teira Batey, as a “prostitute,” it made it clear it was using this “complex history” against her as it detailed her past with police encounters and her family’s reports that she was a drug user. When the Irish Examiner called Kate Mcgrew, TV star of the reality show Connected, a “prostitute” after she came out as an escort, you can bet they also mentioned her “tight jeans and towering heels,” her “flamboyant” style of dress, even going so far as to say she looked “cartoon-like.” They may as well have called her a silly slut and been done with it.

The Role of Humor In Sex Worker Activism: Should We Always Be So Goddamn Hilarious?

(Screenshot of a tweet by PepperHeartsU)
(Screenshot of a tweet by @PepperHeartsU)

If you’ve been hanging out in the digital sex work community for long enough, you’ve learned a handful of things. One is that some men really like to interrupt your conversations uninvited to assume that you do your work for the sake of your sexual liberty, and to assure you that they’re totally cool with it. Secondly, sex work statistics are kind of like recipes and can be tampered with to fit the occasion of the person whose hands they’re in. And the third is that sex workers are really fucking funny. In the very likely event that I out myself one day in an effort to feed an ego that is starved for affirmation from strangers, I want to start by writing a book called Everyone Is Basic But Us: The Story of Some Funny Paid Sluts I Know From Twitter. I am currently accepting submissions for the collection.

I came across this brilliant satirical press release from Sex Worker Open University that pokes fun at the plans of Scottish Police to conduct “welfare visits” at the homes of sex workers as part of “Operation Lingle.” Putting aside for the moment that “lingle” sounds like a medieval wasting sickness, the plan itself was clearly a surveillance effort dressed up as charity. The response from SWOU instead suggests home visits for the 17,000 known police officers “plying their trade” in Scotland. It turns the tables on law enforcement and makes clear just how invasive and ridiculous such visits would be if directed at any other profession. It was one of many examples of how sex workers have used humor to their advantage when combatting the grave injustices and daily humiliations to which we are constantly subjected.

But in the same moment that I was applauding another job well done, I was reminded of a recent conversation I had with a civilian dude who loves Sex Work Twitter for its entertainment value. He isn’t a client (to my knowledge) and isn’t an activist, he just thinks sex workers are really funny. Seeing as I think of Sex Work Twitter as an impenetrable digital slumber party where we make fun of shit clients and antis, it hadn’t occurred to me that people outside of sex work or the surrounding debates paid it much mind. So if you were wondering what remarkable naivete looks like, add me on Snapchat and I’ll send a selfie. It made me wonder to what extent our movement is taken seriously when so much of our public discourse is decidedly unserious.