Let’s admit it; the job does follow us home. Instead of protesting otherwise, we should claim the potential insight and knowledge of using what we learn and practice while working in our personal lives . While we rightfully contest the ways in which abolitionists frame us as the walking dead—victims who must disassociate to perform the labor (because no one else does that at work ever), brainwashed automatons with no agency—we should also challenge the proscriptive models for intimacy that these parties are covertly espousing through their wish for our extinction. Sex workers unsettle dominant cultural narratives about intimacy and romantic love. We may ignite a set of scorching critiques about these culturally under-examined realms; critiques that expose why abolitionist feminism is so attractive to many people who have no actual interest in the well-being of those in the sex trades.
Amongst ourselves, we talk about how to navigate relations with clients, third-party management, law enforcement, social service providers, and other sex workers. We theorize and debate how to conduct these relationships dependent on various aims. We call for people to become allies and try to provide a model for what that looks like. But how often do we talk about the messy experience of what it can mean and feel like to be a whore in the ‘private’ realm? What happens after we decide to disclose our status as sex workers to SOFFAs (significant others, family, friends, and allies)? How are our intimate relationships shaped by our experiences as sex workers? Inevitably, we experience and negotiate whorephobia in these relationships, so why don’t we discuss how working in the sex industry shapes our experience of intimacy? Perhaps because we fear walking into a trap set by those who are only too happy to look at our departure from social norms and pathologize us. If so, I challenge us: let’s talk about intimacy.
You fell in love with him partly because he was such a good ally. You never had to define terms for him or defend the work to him. He went out of his way to educate himself and others, he asked you about your work day, and he electrified your workplace by periodically bringing his swaggering butch self in to visit. Until one night, a long-brewing fight about the relationship explodes in a rage, and he pulls a Don Draper on you.
Were Don Draper, the rakish protagonist of Mad Men, ever to end up on the proverbial couch, it would quickly become apparent that the man has issues with whore stigma. The son of a prostitute, raised in a brothel, initiated into sex in a less-than-clearly-consensual way by a sex worker, and a patron, Don spends his life practicing the art of the sale (like, you know…us). He is haunted by shame about his past and this shame periodically leads him to whore-bash others and in so doing, rid himself of the threat of contamination. Like Don, your lover’s life is also bound up in sex workers, but that doesn’t mean he is immune to brandishing whore stigma. Loving Don Draper is a reminder that all relationships are shaped by the social context in which they are enacted.
Maybe it’s a family member to whom you’ve come out. Maybe it’s a family that has never had sex workers openly participate in it before, or, due to its socioeconomic location, strives to define itself in opposition to expressions of sexuality that are dubbed low-class or in poor taste. Maybe they can’t handle the news and respond by alienating you, expressing their disgust, and complaining about how much it hurts them to have to think about the repellent things you’re doing. Maybe after coming out they start to re-interpret every interaction with you through the prism of you being a “user.” If you accept some kind of aid from them, and also continue to set boundaries around how you want to be treated by them, you are now a calculating, hard-hearted, whore. You are no longer a member of the family who at times looks to others for material and emotional support, like most people do in families. This, despite the fact that it seems to be the other family members in question who seem to harbor expectations that material support comes with the mandate to perform the role of happy, dutiful daughter—even if it means swallowing whatever microaggressions are foisted your way. Talk about demanding clients.
The people you work with in non-sex industry jobs bring their own baggage. Maybe they talk to you as if they presume the ways they navigate intimacy and romance are the ways everyone does and should. Can you believe that he wants me to go to a strip club? Isn’t it awful that young women seem to want to emulate porn stars? Or, perhaps even more perniciously, they see friendship with you as a means to enhance their value in the romantic and sexual marketplace. By sheer virtue of existing in the same social sphere, they feel liberated to try on the transgressive, sexually defiant persona that is ascribed to you. I’m so broke I may have to have you pimp me out! I want a sugar daddy! Or, they hope to capitalize on your hard-earned knowledge. Oh, maybe you can give me some tips on ___(how to twerk/wear high heels/make my burlesque routine more authentic)? Somehow you give them permission to explore all the things they’ve been taught to see as dirty—performing high femme, patronizing sex businesses, treating sex and love as a site of ongoing negotiation—without ever doing the work to understand or challenge how stigma works to both fetishize and penalize sex workers for these actions. Sex workers are figures that holds so much symbolic weight that people are primed to see them through the lens of their own insecurities and anxieties around romance, sexuality, and intimacy. As their acquaintance, you are the perfect foil for working out all the ways they feel victimized and/or titillated in a cultural landscape that is only too happy to appropriate the trappings of commercial sexuality while denying sex workers human rights. To them, your worth lies in being the pawn that either upholds their value system or enhances their social value through picking through the fruits of your labor.
Sometimes our impulse when people let us down in this way is to act as if this is some irredeemable flaw in the person and the best thing to do is ditch them. Yet alliance is never a seamless process; it’s composed just as much by failings and missteps as it is by solidarity. Too many questions go unasked when we simply blame. It’s worth pausing to reflect on how our status as sex workers functions as a dynamic current between ourselves and those that try to love us. I want to consider these instances not as exceptional ones, but as illustrative of daily challenges sex workers face in navigating the domain of intimacy—in which they are explicitly singled out for sullying the way things “ought” to be. By sheer virtue of our position in the cultural imaginary, sex workers become a threat to dominant narratives of romance, intimacy, and familial love. We, in our big excessive heels, stomp all over the invisible lines demarcating intimacy and commerce in a society that desperately likes to pretend that the twain shall never meet. How exactly do we do this?
Contemporary global capitalism has entailed a “heightened commodification of intimacy that pervades social life.”1 While commodification of intimacy is not an altogether new phenomenon, its expansion in a time of globalization poses both good and bad consequences for different people. Economic sociologist Viviana Zelizer argues that this can produce new forms of social anxiety as “so many people imagine that if a relation is intimate, it cannot, and should not, involve labor.”2 Zelizer argues that this assumption stems from “two powerful fallacies:…‘separate spheres’ and ‘hostile worlds.’ Separate spheres notions claim that the world divides into separate spheres of sentiment and of rationality; hostile worlds beliefs say that contact between those separate worlds corrupts in both directions.”3 Thus, “hostile worlds” fosters the notion that boundaries should always/already be maintained between money and love, that care is inherently degraded through monetization, and that some things—such as sexual services—should not “be for sale.” Zelizer points to the ways in which intermingling of intimacy and the marketplace can rub against deeply held cultural beliefs about romance, care, and love that prefer to elide questions about the labor of reproduction or the acts of consumption entailed in such affective bonds. Despite the fact that our most culturally sanctified relationship form—marriage—comes with a whole slew of economic benefits and debates over marriage equality often revolve around either measuring the economic impact of gay marriage or pointing out who is economically disenfranchised in this campaign, many people still prefer to cling to the belief that what makes intimate settings unique is the “absence of economic activity.”4
However, sex workers know differently. Even if we understand what we’re selling as simply the simulation of desire, romance, or care, many people find commercial sex to be a good avenue for meeting sexual pleasure and human companionship needs. Being paid to entertain or care for others doesn’t preclude hoping to improve the well-being of one’s clientele. Sex workers do inspire, stimulate, heal, teach, and comfort in a day’s work. All relationships involve economic exchanges—but only a select few of these are legally and socially sanctioned. What makes these exchanges potentially exploitative is not that money moves through the same hands that remove clothing or stroke cock. Exploitation is not inherent to sex work but carefully cultivated and aided by criminalization, punitive immigration policies, global economic inequality, and social stigma
More importantly, some people see us as the
villains victims that pervert normative models of intimacy. The possibility that it may be “your nice husband or retired dad” visiting a sex worker produces discomfort and anxiety for many people.5 Secretly, this is what some abolitionists most fear and loathe about us. A need to assuage their bad feelings about sex work drives abolitionists to seek a world free of commercial sexuality—and not a world free of labor exploitation. So, what precisely, is at stake for abolitionist feminism?
While they claim to be motivated by concerns over gender equality and “capitalist commodification of one of the most basic aspects of our humanity,” proponents of abolitionist feminism often seek to evade the question of why exactly purchasing and selling sexual services has a direct negative impact on the persons involved. In doing so, they elide discussions about their own proscriptive models for eroticism and intimacy, and the significance of these models to abolitionist feminism. Porn studies scholars’ Clarissa Smith and Feona Attwood argue that contemporary anti-porn feminist campaigns rely upon a model of “healthy sexuality,” which is fundamentally “private rather than public, and clearly linked to love rather than to gratification.”6 These qualities “assume a proper purpose for sex” that coheres closely to a view of sex “as sacred” and that also maps discretely onto what anthropologist Gayle Rubin has described as the inner “charmed circle” of sexual values and practices.7 Lying outside this “charmed circle” are any commercial sexual practices. If love and romance have been culturally framed as something one freely gives, then to accept compensation in this arena is to violate the norms of good taste and morality. In this schema, abolitionist feminism draws its appeal through its ability to draw on and mobilize cultural disgust towards certain kinds of sexual performances, practices, and relations.
For instance, abolitionist feminists have highlighted the prevalence of anal sex, facials, and group sex in pornography as practices that mark the sex worker as “used goods.”8 These assertions suggest a tendency to read the widespread depiction and performance of certain sexual practices as threatening for precisely the ways in which it may interpellate non-sex working women into such acts in their own lives. In light of this, a kind of projection or displacement of “bad feelings” (disgust, anger, resentment, shame) onto the sex worker arises. They use us as a way to work out their own anxieties over romance and intimacy. And they don’t pay for their play.
This practice is troubling, as such defenses often spur untenable and deeply problematic projections about the other. They help foster rigid binaries in order to create an illusion of purity, difference, and distinction (e.g. good and evil, normal and abnormal, sinner and saint, monster and sanctified)9
In light of this, abolitionist feminism cannot be said to be motivated primarily by abstract concerns about gender equality or capitalism. Rather, abolitionist feminism equates certain ways of doing intimacy and having sex as emblematic of a more evolved or proper way of living. Furthermore, this model hews closely to standards by which white bourgeois culture has historically used to define itself as morally superior to the poor, the non-white, and the colonized. The end effect of such campaigns to “end demand” is that they reinforce dominant social norms about “proper” modes of sexual conduct and refuse to acknowledge the multiple ways in which people make intimate relations work for them.
Arguing for a pluralistic approach to valuing different ways of combining intimacy and money and pointing to the economic dimensions of relationships does not mean that intimate relations are only ever economic exchanges. Like all people, sex workers engage in complex deliberations and negotiations over how to combine economic exchange and emotional investment so as to create meaningful ties with others. We should strive to replace misconceptions about economics and intimacy with the understanding that the goal is not “therefore to cleanse intimacy from economic concerns: the challenge is to create fair mixtures. We should stop agonizing over whether or not money corrupts, but instead analyze what combinations of economic activity and intimate relations produce happier, more just, and more productive lives. It is not the mingling that should concern us, but how the mingling works.”10
We must all find our own particular routes through these minglings, dependent on our social location, what resources we have at our disposal, and the needs of our specific relationships. But if we want to attack the widespread popularity of abolitionist sentiment, we should take it upon ourselves to expose their underlying discomfort with the intersections of intimacy and commerce. In the end, we are the friends who can, and should, tell Don Draper, “Your whorephobia is killing you. Can you find another way?”
1. Viviana Zelizer, “Caring Everywhere,” in Eileen Boris and Rhacel Salazar Parrenas, eds., Intimate Labors:Cultures, Technologies, and the Politics of Care. (Stanford University Press: 2010), 270.↩
2. Ibid., 269.↩
3. Ibid., 270.↩
4. Viviana Zelizer, The Purchase of Intimacy, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005), 291.↩
5. Margaret Baldwin, “Strategies of Connection: Prostitution and Feminist Politics,” in Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography. (Spinifex: 2004), 302.↩
6. Clarissa Smith and Feona Attwood, “Emotional Truths and Thrilling Slide Shows: The Resurgence of Antiporn Feminism,” in Tristan Taormino, Celine Parrenas Shimizu, Constance Penley, Mireille Miller-Young, eds., The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure. (Feminist Press: 2013), 49.↩
8.Gail Dines, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality (Beacon Press: 2010), xxxvi.↩
9.Danielle Egan, Becoming Sexual: A Critical Appraisal of the Sexualization of Girls (Polity: 2013), 104.↩
10. Viviana Zelizer, The Purchase of Intimacy, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005), 298.↩