“Whore is maybe the original intersectional insult,” writes journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant. In her new book Playing the Whore, part of a series by Jacobin writers published by Verso Press, she explores the sex industry from the perspective of the workers themselves. That includes strippers, porn performers, and prostitutes, whether they work on the street, in clubs, or even at home as independent porn performers. What she found was unnerving: the roots of anti-prostitution in racist and anti-immigrant policies, the connection between ’70s anti-porn feminists and so-called humanitarian rescue projects, the disproportionate amount of profiling of and violence against people of color and trans women in the sex worker community, and the fraught struggle towards decriminalization. She also found inspiring stories of resistance, such as the story of Monica Jones, a black trans woman and sex worker whose court case illuminates many key labor and human rights abuses that her fellow workers often face.
Over coffee in the West Village, I spoke with Grant about her research and the complicated fight to get people to recognize sex work as work.
What was really interesting, to me, was how you opened the book with the police. And you had said, “This isn’t about policing sex. It’s about profiling and policing people whose sex and gender are considered suspect.” So can you talk a little bit about that – how people might think, “Oh, the customers are the most violent force,” but it’s really the police?
When you look at the actual police, it becomes really obvious that the police are actually using sexuality to profile people who already are considered outcasts. You see how disproportionately it’s women of color – mostly black and Latina women – and trans women who are profiled. It’s really clear that this is sort of sexuality being operationalized in service of this other agenda.
The rhetoric around what you’re talking about with clients, that’s where I think it does feel more about policing sex and morality. It’s the idea that it’s something wrong that someone would never do. And people get caught up in that and can’t also see that demonizing those people or policing those people also has ramifications for people who sell sex. And that, because of the gendered way that the laws are enforced, the negative effects of policing, the violence that can go along with policing, are still going to fall on the side of women and people who are already marginalized. I think that’s why talking about it as policing sex is sort of missing the mark. Because that’s so caught up in sexual behavior rather than issues of rights and freedom and due process under the law.
On the Radio Dispatch podcast you said, “There is sex in the Champagne room.” So I wonder, what are the different types of sex work you’re talking about in the book, and how is it mitigated by the venue? Can you talk about those nuances?
There’s a variety of ways people’s work is organized. That’s defined by the venue you’re working in, the people who might manage that, or whether you’re managing things yourself. Those determine how much power and control you have, and the work that you have, and what your relationships with customers are like.
For instance, there are very few places where you could openly work together with other sex workers and run your own business and not run afoul of the law. There are very few places where you can legally advertise explicitly what you’re going to be doing. That’s one of the things in the U.S. that’s makes “no sex in the Champagne room” a business model: The reason that exists is because you can’t openly talk about sex because then you’re doing a kind of prostitution, according to the law – even though the club owners can then turn a blind eye and allow it to happen.
The different kinds of ways that the work is organized – that can create problems for sex workers. So if it were legal, could club owners continue to create these environments where dancers feel like they have to do more than they really want to do? It would look really different if people could talk openly.
You say in the book that some workers prefer to do –
Some would never want to have their photo on a website or never want to work in a strip club because who knows who could walk in. It’s different for everybody what those risks look like. That’s what’s striking about street prostitution versus the prostitution that’s happening at a strip club. On the street, you’re probably more likely to hold on to all of your money. Whereas in a strip club, they expect you to tip out the management and pay your fee so you could work that night. Or you can be a freelance escort on the Internet and just get your clients yourself; it might not be as steady work, but at least you’re getting all of the money. So there’s a lot of variety.
What’s behind this whole fixation with whether or not sex workers are empowered? Why is that even an issue?
Some of it just seems like a liberal fantasy. The same reason people want their fair trade coffee or whatever. I think that’s a minor part of it, this desire to have fair trade porn.
I think the bigger thing going on with the empowerment question is that it’s a way to pick away at sex workers’ agency. One of the reasons I react so strongly to it is I feel like it’s a way to pit sex workers against each other. To say that there are these empowered sex workers over here and people who aren’t sex workers are going to decide what empowerment looks like. It’s rarely a vision of empowerment that’s articulated by sex workers themselves.
And then to say that another group is like a voiceless victim that’s disempowered and underprivileged and marginalized and we have the right as non-sex workers to speak for them, too? It doesn’t actually change anything! It’s still outsiders saying they’re going to speak for everybody. And so it seems like such a non-starter to get lost in this question of who’s empowered.
You had spoken with The Awl about how the sex workers’ struggle ties in with the Do What You Love myth written about in Jacobin. Can you talk a little bit about that?
There are parts of entrepreneurial sex work that sometimes even make me think, “Wow, you’re sort of doing the Do What You Love thing.” You’re sort of saying, “I’m a sexuality coach and I’m helping people find their authentic selves!” I’m fine if that’s your marketing schtick; there are totally people who need to hear that. But it is sort of unsettling when I’m hearing the Do What You Love thing from sex workers. Well, you kind of are living the far reaches of Do What You Love, if you truly love sex.
It’s funny because I was reading your book, and I was drawing so many parallels to freelance writing, to the extent that some people write for fun and some people write for money, and that changes your notion of your writing because now this is your job. So, similar to sex work, you’re choosing exactly what gigs you will do for how much money.
I think it’s a reasonable parallel to make. There’s also a similar opaqueness to it, having to figure out how you make a living as a freelance writer. You have to have mentors. You have to have people who have done it before you who can lift the veil and show you how it’s done. There’s also a certain shame about talking about money. That’s why Who Pays Writers? was so genius.
It’s the full-time freelance class, which is more than full-time, right? It ends up being your whole life, and the separations between leisure and work become even more blurred in ways that I think sex workers are stigmatized and shamed about.
How does the sex workers’ struggle tie in to other labor struggles? Are sex workers uniting with other laborers? What’s the movement like?
I’ve seen interesting things in the domestic workers’ movement that, I think, mirror a lot of the same issues that sex workers are dealing with. And I wonder if there’s an opportunity there for more collaboration. I don’t know what that would look like. But when I hear the kinds of issues that domestic workers raise about not having a lot of control over their hours and schedules, breaking the shame of what they do for a living – their work is seen as not real work because women are supposed to cook and clean. “Isn’t that kind of fun, living with a family and taking care of their babies all day?” So having the ways that they have to demand that their work is recognized as work, I think, is a really strong parallel.
And what I see in things like the National Domestic Workers Alliance is they’re saying the way that we’re going to have our work recognized as work is not waiting for people to figure that out but through us demanding that it is. And I think that is a really strong parallel with sex workers’ rights. I don’t know how those movements are directly supporting each other, but I think that there’s potential for that.
Can you talk a little bit about #notyourrescueproject?
I was there when it started, but I did not start it. [laughs] The gist of it is, even in the most progressive-minded attitudes towards sex work, there’s this idea that the sex work is the problem to be fixed. And that the solution that you need as a sex worker is to leave sex work. And it was a riff off of #notyourasiansidekick. So, similarly, you’re not going to just objectify me and treat me as this add-on; I’m somebody with a voice and an agenda of my own. And I thought that was really powerful.
I think the conversation was with Suey Park, who started #notyourasiansidekick. I think someone who goes by @blasianbytch on Twitter, her name’s N’Jaila Rhee, I think they started it in a conversation with each other. Then another sex worker named Molli Devadasi, she jumped in. And @pastachips, who’s a sex worker from Scotland, jumped in. And I kind of got in conversation. And it just took off.
I think I can be quite cynical about online activism. I’ve watched people have that moment – “Oh, Internet activism! It’s going to be the new hotness!” but it’s just another thing; it’s not the answer. But then this thing took off! It got mentioned on Al Jazeera, it got mentioned on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show. Belle Knox used #notyourrescueproject when she was tweeting about how she was getting harassed at Duke for being a porn performer. That was pretty remarkable for me that this thing crossed over from literally four sex workers in a conversation on Twitter to that.
I think it’s still going. I don’t keep track of it, but it gave people a way to tag dumb news stories and respond to anti-prostitution campaigners.
Like a Nicholas Kristof type?
Yeah. And there was a backlash against Amnesty International going on at the same time because they’ve been going through this consultation internally about what their stance on sex worker human rights will be. And a draft paper leaked in January that said that they’re intending to support decriminalization and to say that criminalization in sex work facilitates human rights abuses. Which is pretty remarkable because this is only the second time a big human rights organization has taken a stance. Human Rights Watch recently did as well. So I think that would be huge if they both came out and said that.
But then there was backlash to that from anti-prostitution activists describing what they were doing as legalizing pimping. Which is not what it’s about if you’ve read their consultation. So #notyourrescueproject folks were really using that to respond, saying, “Actually, who really matters are the people who are directly affected by this. You can’t come and rescue ourselves from ourselves. We actually support Amnesty, thank you.” So people would use that hashtag as a way to organize their response to the backlash.
I did also want to talk about decriminalization. So I wonder whether there are other countries that have interesting models that the U.S. should be looking at, in terms of legalizing sex work?
I think it’s hard because we have very few federal level laws that relate to sex work. Most of the anti-prostitution laws or laws that criminalize things associated with prostitution are state-based. So there’s no single, D.C. policy that could address everything. And that’s something that makes it a little unique.
Also, we have this whole history where, even if we stopped at decriminalization in the way that, for example New Zealand has or parts of Australia, we would still have to reckon with all of that history of policing so that the police won’t then just pivot and say, “OK, well we’re not going to arrest you for prostitution, but we’re going to arrest you for disorderly conduct.”
A lot of people say, “Decriminalization will lead to destigmatization.” I think that that’s true. There’s only so much that a criminalized group of people can be public about and start to change public opinion. But the policing issues are deep. Questioning police – that’s very hard for people to confront. I don’t think this is just about a change in social attitudes.
Earlier, you had mentioned anti-porn feminists. So I wanted to explore that rift in feminism, these anti-porn feminists. It seems like it goes far beyond slut-shaming, so can you talk a bit about that conflict?
There’s the rift now, and there’s the rift back in the day. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, what had been quite a marginal, anti-porn orientation of some feminists started to stand in for the entire feminist stance on sexuality. Not even commercial sex, but any kind of sex. Porn became this metaphor for understanding sexuality and the only publicly acceptable feminist stance on porn was an anti-porn stance. And then that kind of fell apart through the ’80s and ’90s where porn was more and more thought of as media not as sex – and a form of media that was protected by the first amendment.
But the same people who were really sort of the forerunners of the anti-porn feminism then just pivoted to anti-prostitution projects. So that’s what Catharine MacKinnon, the founders of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, and Equality Now turn their attentions to. In a way, it sort of took them out of the public eye in the United States. And now they reinvented what they were doing as humanitarian work overseas.
Their focus at that time was Southeast Asia and trying to describe what they started to call sex trafficking, which hadn’t really been talked about that way before. They created this new vocabulary around it that let them step in as the experts who could solve the problem. And I think it’s striking that it’s the same players.
And in a way, they brought the fight back to the United States. That understanding of trafficking is very much in the popular understanding here. So you’ll get even people like Nick Kristof saying things like, “People think it just happens over there, but it happens here, too!” And that rhetorical construction only exists because they went over there and brought their understanding of what that was to other countries in a way that seems like a traditional colonial project. And then they brought it back to the United States.
It’s a universalizing picture of trafficking, and it also resembles a very universalized picture of porn, where there’s no respect for differences or nuance in different people’s experience. The way that some people think all porn is rape, then all prostitution must be rape. I think that’s something that stands in such contrast to any other kind of feminist stance on sex or the body. People are supposed to have autonomy to define their own experiences for them. I mean, can you imagine a domestic violence movement that relied on a premise that all marriage was violence? Sex workers speak out, but there are very few people who do porn or sex work who are in a position of power to be credibly listened to.
So both of those things happening at the same time, the stigma around prostitution and sex work that have kept people with those experiences outside of the mainstream of feminism. And then the mainstream of feminism taking on this anti-trafficking concern with a momentum that the anti-porn thing never quite had.
Basically, this goes beyond ideology and feelings. This manifests in who gets money to do what. I’m not so concerned about people’s individual feelings about porn or sex work. I feel like that’s people’s personal feelings. But when that intersects with assigning credibility, funding projects, and passing policies, that’s where it becomes a public concern. And that’s where sex workers are so absent.
So…a lot of bleak stuff here. Is there anything going on in the sex workers’ movement that gives you hope?
Yeah, absolutely. The thing that’s most on my mind right now, there’s this court case on Friday of Monica Jones, who’s a black trans woman from Arizona. She was protesting this project called Project Rose in May 2013. And Project Rose describes itself as an arrest alternative. Police go out, pick up people for prostitution, handcuff them, and bring them to this church where the social workers tell them if they accept the services, then their charges won’t be filed. But those services are already available. You don’t actually have to be arrested in order to get the services. So it’s literally using law enforcement to get people into services. But if sex workers aren’t going in for the services, then maybe there’s something wrong with those services.
And in fact, Monica had gone through one of those programs when she had been arrested. And then 24 hours after the protest, she herself was picked up and brought to the program. And because she had already gone through it, she was deemed ineligible.
So they filed the charges against her, and she didn’t even find out until three months after that. In September, she got a summons saying that she’d been charged with manifesting prostitution. What that means is she waved or beckoned to a car and/or asked a police officer if they were a police officer, because those are behaviors that they say only women engaged in prostitution would do.
So there’s so much wrong here. That case seems to illuminate all of these different issues: rescue projects, the collusion between social service workers and the police, the vagueness of the laws, the ways that she was targeted.
She’s been targeted by police three more times after that arrest for things like walking to a bar or having a conversation outside with a friend. So the ongoing harassment of her, as a trans woman, as someone who’s been profiled as a sex worker, basically everything is going on inside that case. And the fact that she’s out and fighting it is phenomenal.
Grace Bello is a lifestyle and culture reporter based in New York. She has been published in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, the New York Daily News, Tablet, Time Out New York, The Awl, The Hairpin, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @grace_land.