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.
All human experiences are historically situated. Acknowledging the historical and social context of any human endeavor is important because it increases human compassion and empathy. We know blackface is offensive and hurtful, for example, because we know its history. We also know the history of pathologizing language, which is why we no longer use it to describe differently abled people. We take history into account when analyzing everything from belly dancing to underwear and sex isn’t any different. Sex, too, has a history.
Sex has played a significant role in the creation stories of almost every single culture. Consider Daniel Engber’s article on virginal births, in which he relates that most religious patriarchs are said to have been born of a virginal mother. The emphasis on female sexual behavior (or lack thereof) as a testament to purity and virtue is one of the most sustained grand narratives of all time. So to say sex is “just like” anything else is misguided.
That’s not to say sex is meaningful for all people or that sex means the same thing to everyone. It’s not even to say that sex is necessarily at the heart of all sex work! But it is to say that even meaningless sex (or eroticism or intimacy) exists within a context, and that context happens to be rabid historical sexism and entitled ideas about particular bodies.
So when I hear sex workers compare our work to making lattes, I feel as if significant aspects of my labor have been swept under the rug. I’ve sucked as much dick as I’ve made lattes, which is to say countless dicks, and I assure you, while the two jobs may have their similarities, they are not interchangeable. Performing for male fantasy (which is what most sex work consists of) is not the same as performing politeness (or any other mind numbing social performance associated with the food industry). Working as a barista isn’t historically situated at the intersection of sexism and poverty, for one. And while all service industry work requires some form of emotional and/or body labor, no one is using lattes as a weapon of war. No one is trying to take away the fundamental human rights of baristas simply because making coffee is their preferred yet constrained choice of labor in a largely racist, sexist, and classist system. Furthermore, if we as a movement decide sex work is just like any other service industry job, we must also concede, then, that invasive regulatory laws like those mandating condoms in porn are appropriate.
That sex work is a more viable option than other forms of work for poor people—mostly women—globally is indeed relevant. Patriarchy and capitalism create vast, gendered discrepancies in wealth, leaving little else in the way of work for disenfranchised people worldwide. To say that cafe labor could just as easily have ended up being impoverished women’s most viable option is silly. It’s not just by happenstance that sex has become a lucrative commodity. Identities are wrapped up in sex. Cultures are founded on it. Peoples are united through it. Sex is a kind of a big deal.
Jones’ critique of inauthenticity among female amateur porn performers is not a serious political platform from which to condemn the sex industry. However, the increasing joylessness of labor worldwide should ring warning bells in the hearts of activists, particularly for those of us who deal in intimacy. Our servicecentric global economy ensures rich folks have unfettered access to the bodily and emotional labor of the poor, and it is flippant to assume that doesn’t affect sex workers more than baristas. Sustained joylessness in sex is certainly different than the joylessness of steaming up lattes. And we shouldn’t ignore people who point that out.