The Language of Selling Yourself

by Lolo de Sucre on September 27, 2011 · 29 comments

in Activism, Prostitution

Sex writer Melissa Gira Grant published a piece in the Guardian last week questioning the rhetoric of anti-sex work activists—particularly Ashton Kutcher, who’s been collaborating with wife Demi Moore in a highly publicized “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” campaign. (Kutcher and Moore’s “activism” has been discussed previously in several other Tits and Sass posts, like this one, this one, and this one, to name just a few.)

In her article, Grant deconstructs the myth of clients “buying” prostitutes instead of exchanging money for labor. Sex workers don’t “sell our bodies” any more than pro-athletes, construction workers, ballerinas or models do. We use our bodies for labor; they’re not “things” that clients can purchase. To buy something implies a permanent change of ownership. After several years of being a prostitute I find that I still very much own my body—despite all the men who have allegedly “bought” me. 

Grant adeptly argues that the language of buying/selling a human being as opposed to compensating a person for labor inherently dehumanizes, more than the exchange itself does:

The problem is, real people buy sex, and real people sell sex. The numbers on how many people are involved in the sex trade are notoriously hard to gather, or trust, but there is one constant: buyers are not buying people. When politicians, social service providers and celebrity philanthropists insist that sex workers are selling ourselves, they engage in the same kind of dehumanisation that they claim johns do to us. When they claim that men can buy us, they rob us of our power and our choices.

I obviously couldn’t agree more. The only people I can think of who literally sell their bodies are paid organ donors. To imply that I’m constantly being sold and repurchased is far more objectifying than the consensual exchange between myself and my client, where prices and boundaries are determined by me.

After reading Grant’s piece I came across this rebuttal by feminist blogger Meghan Murphy, who appeared to quite willingly miss the point. She begins: “According to Melissa Gira Grant … your body is no longer connected to your existence as a human being.”

Our bodies are obviously very much connected to our existence as humans, and I’m certain Grant, and all sex workers, would agree. In my work, I happen to employ my body (and mind, believe it or not) in labor that enhances my quality of life. This doesn’t make me an object for sale. Buying an hour or two of sexual entertainment is not the same as buying a person.

Murphy disagrees. She harshly demonizes clients in her piece, claiming that we need to “educate the public about how … women are human beings and that it [is] not acceptable to treat them like objects.” She states that there are “millions of men in this world who like to hold power over women” and “get off on treating women like garbage.”

Now, I’ll admit I’m the first person to talk shit about my clients, but I feel deeply protective over the men whose dollars have sustained me when I hear such horrible accusations thrown their way. I’ve never in my life been “treated like garbage.” Well, at least not since I last held a corporate job. Clients get too attached, some have questionable hygiene, right-wing political beliefs or bad fashion sense, and more than a few leave our session with an obnoxiously inflated ego, which I take partial responsibility for.

Those are about the nastiest things I have to say about them, though. Murphy’s assumption that they’re consistently abusive and treat me like garbage is deeply insulting, to my clients, of course, but also to me. She assumes I’m regularly putting myself in dangerous and degrading situations, and that I’m too stupid to make positive, conscious decisions for myself. These assumptions about my stupidity and weak character degrade me much more deeply than my work ever has.

The point flies over Murphy’s head, who mistakenly summarizes Grant: “From now on, pointing out oppression makes you the oppressor. Pretend that oppression is actually empowering, and you, friend, are now empowering the previously oppressed.” Murphy seems to believe we should allow herself, and other anti-prostitution activists, to inform sex workers how we should feel about our work. We should feel exploited, she argues, because, “A man knows you need the money and so he takes advantage of that need by paying you to use your body. And that’s how exploitation works.” Could that argument be made of most other types of labor, that your client or employer is exploiting you because they know you need money? Or is it inherently degrading for women to have sex?

Murphy then criticizes Grant, an accomplished activist and former sex worker herself, for having garnered  her information on anti-prostitution activism from “just from having watched CNN and from following Ashton Kutcher on Twitter.” Murphy feels much more qualified to speak on the matter because she has “actually spoken to people who do desire to end prostitution.” It’s delightfully fitting that she doesn’t claim here to have spoken to sex workers; to do so would grant legitimacy to the voices of people whom Murphy has decided are merely objects for sale. To speak with other people, who are not sex workers but who have decided what’s best for us—is there anything feminist about that?

Murphy concludes her piece:

 I also believe that when a man buys a girl or a woman to have sex with, that girl or woman is a human being. And whatever he does to her body, he does to her, as a human being. Sex is attached to the body and the body is attached to the human.

Grant’s point on the rhetoric of being bought and sold, as opposed to the reality of being a laborer, was apparently completely lost. Yes, Meghan Murphy, my body is attached to a mind, and a pretty competent one at that. One that’s decided that movie stars and politicians can’t decide what my profession should be, or determine how it degrades me. Working for a living does not equate to being bought.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Julia September 27, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Excellent piece. Thanks for your takedown. As a feminist, I resent Murphy’s position that selling sex = degrading for women. Denying sex workers any agency and voice and as you say assuming they are forced into it/desperate/stupid is insulting.

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Charlotte Shane Charlotte Shane September 27, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Melissa’s piece was clear and astute; it takes a lot of disingenuous work to so egregiously misconstrue what she said. Way to go, Meghan Murphy.

One point that I think it important to make in connection with this piece and Melissa’s is that the whole “selling yourself/selling your body” language plants the seed for the sex work as slavery trope that prohibitionists love. Most civilians have heard this term used in connection with prostitution so many times that it’s just a natural step to say “oh right, prostitutes are sex slaves because they’re selling themselves” (as opposed to selling their time or selling a sexual service.) The “slavery” language then lends a lot of credence and historical righteousness to people like Melissa Farley, who say that’s what they’re against. How can you argue with someone who wants to “abolish slavery”?

Weird how now one talks about footballs players selling themselves, or construction workers, or miners, when all of these professions emphasize and require the person’s body to execute (often grueling and damaging) physical tasks.

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Mary Tracy September 27, 2011 at 2:47 pm

There are actually lots of people who talk about “labour”, in all its forms, as selling a person. I am one of them. When I’m at work, my body is not my own.

The call centre worker has to ask permission to go to the toilet when doing their job. Their voice is not their own, their hands are not their own, their actions, words, thoughts are not their own. And their time is not their own.

I think Marx covered this pretty well. Which is why a lot of people oppose the concept of labour in all its forms. In other words, “hiring” a person to do anything is akin to buying them, even if it’s just for a short while, and therefore it’s intrinsically immoral.

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Charlotte Shane Charlotte Shane September 27, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Very few people who use the “selling yourself” language for sex work use it for all other labor situations, or for any other labor situations. That’s because it’s not a larger critique of capitalism, it’s some type of moral agenda. If all labor is “selling your body,” sex work does not need to be singled out over any other job.

I disagree that someone’s thoughts are not their own just because they’re working. My mind never turns off, and my mind cannot be owned regardless of whether I’m working a straight job or with a client intimately.

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Mary Tracy September 27, 2011 at 4:28 pm

What is wrong about having a moral agenda?

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Charlotte Shane Charlotte Shane September 27, 2011 at 5:17 pm

I didn’t say there was anything wrong with it.

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suzyhooker suzyhooker September 29, 2011 at 2:02 am

I agree that there’s nothing wrong with having a moral agenda. But, Mary Tracy, using disingenuous language dehumanizes sex workers. If someone believes prostitutes to be victims, they’re doing nothing to empower them by falsely claiming that they’re *things* for sale. Feminists who are concerned for women in prostitution should pay them the respect of talking about their work and lives with more accurate language—and you can do this without even taking a pro-sex work stance.

Jessie Nicole Jessie Nicole September 27, 2011 at 3:29 pm

I’ve been so busy spreading this on every channel I have that I almost forgot to thank you directly for this excellent piece of writing! Meghan Murphy (and most of her commentariat) have made it perfectly clear that they aren’t interested in listening to sex workers or acknowledging that anyone could consensually work in the sex industry. It’s a fundamental disagreement that negates any conversation improving safety or other working conditions. So thank you again for this piece. The language of “selling yourself” is insidious, and infects far too many conversations about sex work. I certainly never felt like I was selling my body, let alone my whole self. Adopting the language of slavery to describe all sex work is despicable to me, and insulting to both those of us who willingly (and enthusiastically!) choose sex work and even moreso to those who are forced into it.

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mumtaza September 27, 2011 at 3:54 pm

I do see this as being intrinsically linked with the capitalist idea that what one does for money constitutes one’s entire identity. In the straight world you hear all the time, “I sold myself to the highest bidder.”, “I sold myself out.”, etc. Even the fact that it’s acceptable to start a polite conversation with “what do you do (for money)?” always blows my mind. I do not define myself by my job, at all. I have done myriad things for money and I have been the same person while doing all of them. I do feel it’s important to point out the capitalist BS inherent to this discourse.

But that is not to derail of course. There’s another concentric layer of hell involved in the “buying” women language which is totally objectifying. They are though, the capitalist idea that one is what one does for money and the idea that sex-workers are being bought and owned by clients, totally connected.

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Charlotte Shane Charlotte Shane September 27, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Not derailing at all. I would love to see a post on T&S tackling the non-sex working worker’s use of the word “whore” as in “I whored myself out” or “I feel like a whore” meaning they took money for doing something they acutely didn’t want to do, or disagreed with ethically…but I don’t think I have the patience to write it myself.

Also, I apologize to Suzy for commenting so much on her post. But this topic riles me up! I’ll shut up for a while now.

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Jessie Nicole Jessie Nicole September 27, 2011 at 6:42 pm

In a similar move I’d like to apologize for dominating the twitter conversation with Meghan and Mary Tracy. I get riled up as well.

I think both the conversations about sex work and language and sex work and capitalism are larger questions to be looked at. Another phrase that was popular for a while was “whoring it up” for dressing scantily when going out. It was actually a favorite of mine while I was working because I meant it literally and it was an inside joke with myself.

But anyway, these discussions are far from over. But I’m really excited to see where they’re going.

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suzyhooker suzyhooker September 29, 2011 at 2:16 am

Don’t be sorry, you two both add a lot to the conversation, so thank you!

And thanks to your clients for letting you talk, it’s so kind of them to let their property (that they purchased!) speak every now and then. ;)

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Robin D Robin Dunn of SWOP Denver September 27, 2011 at 4:19 pm

I think this was a good piece overall and I agree with your main points, but I do take offense to one thing. You imply that someone who regularly puts themselves in dangerous or degrading situations is stupid. Now, I feel like I’ve done just that in the past, and I think it was a somewhat compulsive reaction to trauma combined with less than ideal (read: pretty desperate) life circumstances, not something that made me less intelligent than other sex workers. I’m signing this with the name I use for sex workers rights activism because I want to stand behind these words fully.

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suzyhooker suzyhooker September 29, 2011 at 2:20 am

I certainly didn’t mean to imply that anyone working in less-than-ideal conditions is stupid, and I certainly don’t feel that way.

But I get a bit indignant when anti-sex work activists dehumanize me, and I do think it’s impossible to fully respect another person’s intelligence/competency when you’re talking about them like an object.

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Charlotte Shane Charlotte Shane September 29, 2011 at 9:29 am

Right. It’s infantilizing to imply that women (or sex workers at large) can’t be trusted to make their own choices whether those choices are “good” or “bad.” (Since those words change depending on one’s perspective.) Everyone needs to make their own mistakes, and no one can live a life without them. So it’s not just about being treated like we’re stupid by prostitution prohibitionists, but treated like we’re not adults who deserve to live our lives in any consensual way we choose, regardless of how unappealing or irrational it looks to someone else.

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Mike September 27, 2011 at 5:32 pm

In regards to language, I particularly liked when you pointed out that “the only people I can think of who literally sell their bodies are paid organ donors”. Normally to donate is to give an item away, but the act of selling an organ, egg, or sperm is donating.

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Lilly Muse September 29, 2011 at 12:53 pm

I agree, I find the term “donation” annoying and insulting. I use it about half the time. It implies that my service is not worth a solid rate and that I am so desperate for money and/or the sexual attention of my clients that I will take whatever they’re willing to give me. Excuse me, no, I’m offering a discernible service and have real expenses that need real amounts paid to them. If I simply gave my utility company a “donation,” I would be sitting in the dark.

Of course on the flip side, the fact that I am totally at will to alter my rates at any time is a privilege that does not come with regulated work. Ahh the nature of duality.

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Elle Elle September 27, 2011 at 8:57 pm

I love this.

If a person is raped, has their “body” just been “taken” by another person? No, their body still belongs to their self (although it has been abused.)

If a person exchanges money for sex, has their body just been taken? No, their body still belongs to their self, it was just a trade.

I’m glad some people are trying to change the language that affects our society into maintaining these silly beliefs.

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June September 28, 2011 at 2:10 am

Fantastic article, thank you!

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Lilly Muse September 28, 2011 at 11:33 pm

Yes, it seems Ms. Murphy has finally given the world an example of true irony (we’ve been pining for one since Ms. Morissette messed with our heads back in ’96). As Suzyhooker addresses, it is Murphy herself who is treating sex workers as objects, looking right past us and going on to make two dimensional assumptions and judgments that do not serve us. She fails to consider that the choice to sell sex is informed and deliberate, and instead implies that anyone who buys is exploiting, and anyone who sells is being exploited. This mentality does nothing more than remove the power from our hands. Whether or not this is her intention, I’m pretty sick of the idea that prostitutes let themselves be raped for money. Is there no possible way we could enjoy it physically, emotionally, financially?

If I were to actually “sell myself” in the stereotypical anti-prostitution way, I imagine I would be giving up not only autonomy over my body but all mental and spiritual capacity as well: desires, boundaries, ideas, pleasures, goals, style, hustle, etc. And as any good sex worker knows, that would just be bad business. Most clients, at least the clients I want to see, essentially pay to be in the company of a dynamic, affectionate, sexually empowered female. They pay to experience MORE of a woman’s self, not to shut it up for an hour or two. They want to be received, guided, in many cases challenged, and a listless puppet with a pussy is not going to fulfill that desire. If it did I think the sale of “Real Dolls” would far surpass that of live sex workers (while I have no solid numbers on either, I trust that is not the case).

I probably get to be MORE myself than loads of people I know with straight jobs. They have to wear hideous uniforms or uncomfortable suits all day, whereas I get to wear amazing lingerie and be naked. They have to repeat particular phrases and pitches, try to “upsell” awful products, and grit their teeth if a rude customer bitches at them, whereas I take full responsibility for my customer service approach. Even when I get requests for things that I might not otherwise do, I will try them if they interest me and appreciate them as opportunities to expand my own experience. Even if I am not really into something particular, I may still accommodate my client if I find the desire non-threatening. This is where my professional evaluation must kick in. If I truly object to something, I simply won’t do it. If I lose a client in the process, I’m positive I’ve never lost myself.

Of course there are those that want to dominate, to blindly take, to abuse, and likewise there are sex workers who do the work not from a place of power and joy but from desperation and fear. Even those of us who work from a powerful place can get into scary situations, and it is that fundamental sense of our own self-worth that gets us out of them. If that were ever for sale we would not be here chatting lively in defense of our work. We would be–and pardon me–totally fucked.

As with anything, there is more than one side to the story, and the powerful and joyful side should get a fair shot at representation. I believe Murphy’s static arguments are detrimental to not only sex workers but the feminist cause in general.

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Sequoia September 30, 2011 at 8:15 am

Hi Suzy, love this piece but I also feel like this article is very specific to american escorts. When I worked in the states, I didn’t feel as if I was selling my body in that type of verbage either but since having been working here in AUS in their legal brothel system I very much feel like clients are renting an organ for a time, its not every client but the vast majority.

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Melissa Gira Grant October 2, 2011 at 2:21 pm

You guys, thank you! That’s all.

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Caroline October 22, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Wow, great article. Before coming across this blog, I’d never considered the perspective of sex workers. You make some really, really good points, all of which I think need to be heard and voiced, especially because, as you say, there are many societal misconceptions about sex workers, their bodies, and their choices. You really get that message across, awesome job!

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