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.
“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.”
Great article. Thank you for contributing.
hmmmm…. where to start… how to start….. Ok well this started out because of the publicly made comment from a producer of a film…. not a sex worker or porn star… so apparently this persons comment has warranted time and space in the media, what because this person has money…. does this person work in porn? ever worked in porn? What is this person making the basis of their comment?
Now as to the comment – if you have not worked porn and i mean worked it (not behind the camera, on the set, makeup, setup, etc) you have no basis or right to comment for a whole group of people. It would be kind of like telling everyone what a cat thinks, says, does, when you are not a cat!
Ok I could go on and on but those are the two thoughts that started this comment in my head…. so I guess I will leave it at that….. or next I will be …… oh what will I be?…. hehehehe
I agree completely. I just don’t think an adequate critique of Jones’ whorephobia is, “sex work is just like any other job!”
A thought-provoking article, but I guess I was waiting for the punchline that didn’t come. Yes, sex is more culturally significant and emotionally involved than serving coffee, so sex work is a bigger deal than being a barista. So what would be a better model or analogy?
Home health care aide, nurse or nursing assistant, therapist, massage therapist, that kind of thing imo. Idk if the author would agree or not.
I have so often said that sex work and nursing are super similar! Especially working as an L&D nurse, it’s emotionally and physically intimate, our sex organs are involved, there’s a forced and immediate relationship between the worker and the patient/client. I really need to write/think more about this.
What’s disturbing is that this was clearly written by an educated woman who still, even though educated, is reduced to allowing those that have money to buy and assert power exploit her body simply because they can. Now, if an educated, articulate woman, is forced to be subservient to men who can buy ‘her’, what is there to be said of non-educated women? What is the state of womanhood today?
LOL! This is sarcasm, no?
Also, why have you put my pronoun in quotes? Are you not convinced that an educated whore might also be a lady?
This is quite possibly the most unnecessary comment I’ve ever read on this site.
It should be featured in its own post for its hilarity.
To me, sex work is a lot more like being a therapist than being a barista, but everyone has their own perspective and experiences. Still, it IS a job and with that comes all the good and bad of having to work for a living. I think this is the point that most sex workers want to make, and the point that people like Ms. Jones misses when they insist we absolutely LOVELOVELOVE our work or it’s not valid (or we’re not valid, or both).
Sometimes it’s straight up therapy. One of my clients spends about an hour each time just talking about his childhood and processing the ways in which he feels emasculated, his shame around his desire to be dominated, etc. The other hour he spends being beaten 🙂
Thanks for writing this. I have two issues. First, the dig at “invasive regulation” can be easily coded as libertarian and neoliberal, especially when so many feminists consider porn–wrongly, in my opinion–to be of concern to all women. Which gets at the second issue. I don’t like the comment raised by Sophia Seductions. Just because one is not a porn actress or actor means they have no right to an opinion? I’ve never been a foot soldier but I am entitled to an opinion on war. Many women feel that porn has implications–some positive some negative–on them, regardless of their position in life. It certainly has an impact on the way sex roles play out generally. So to wall of the legitimate critic as someone who must have first-hand experience as a paid sex worker seems like a problem. Experience is different from knowledge, without devaluing either. People should have a “voice” to the extent that issues impact them. And just because one is not a sex worker does not mean issues of the industry don’t effect them, just as society is packed by how teachers work, or bankers work, or lawyers work. I’m for worker power and worker organizing. But I’m not for shutting people down by saying their input is illegitimate because they have not (eat, perhaps) been a sex worker. It’s true that I don’t like people telling me how to do my job (I’m a teacher) but we live in a society where my job matters to lots of people outside my industry.
As I hope I made clear, I see sex–as work or otherwise–as something special. I am responding directly to the tendency of some activists to claim that sex as work is just like any other form of labor. Because sex–again, as work or otherwise–is so personal, so bodily, so full of diverse human emotions and experiences, I don’t think it’s appropriate to regulate it in the ways other forms of labor are regulated. I have many other supporting reasons for this position that are neither libertarian nor neoliberal, including being a mother. That the state has the power to take away my child because of my sex work is a testament to the uniqueness of my work. I find it largely inappropriate for the same institution that sanctions violence against me to also act as my regulator. That’s not to say regulation and decrim can’t exist simultaneously. Indeed, regulations a la the legal brothel system can coexist with decriminalized sex work and many sex workers find regulated work to better suit their needs.
To revisit your foot soldier analogy– I’m totally on board with the comparison if foot soldier is akin to sex worker and war is akin to patriarchy. I am passionately and vehemently anti-war, just as I am passionately and vehemently pro-soldier. I would never attempt to speak for a soldier or claim to be an expert on her experiences, her needs, her mental health, etc. It’s also worth pointing out that war necessitates soldiers, not the other way around. So if you’re negatively impacted by porn (or war), perhaps a good place to begin your critique is with patriarchy. And one fantastic way to bring that hammer down is by supporting sex workers.
Jamie, what I think Sophia Seductions meant was not just people having opinions on sex work, but opinions on the assumed thoughts of sex workers themselves. People outside of sex work can have opinions on how it effects them personally, because that is their personal experience. The problem is when they have an opinion on people they don’t know, refuse to listen to, and weren’t in a similar circumstance themselves, and try to tell others what they think, despite not being one. That’s a problem.
Incredible article! The entire web site is a revelation. 🙂
Smart, relevant, articulate and passionate. This is sex ed at its finest!
[…] Jones also succeeded in doing was exploiting these girls herself with a film that is more interested in her agenda of demonizing porn and sexual immodesty than telling these girls’ stories. She also made a film whose promotional materials are […]