Two Ways Of Writing About Sex Work -The Toast

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writingThere’s been some good and thoughtful reporting over the Rentboy arrests over the last few days. From Graeme Reid at Human Rights Watch: connects male escorts to clients in the same way that Uber does for transport, or Airbnb does for accommodation. There are no middlemen, thus affording users control and autonomy over the services brokered through the website. The website connects consenting adults. None of the government statements about the raid have alleged any coercion or involvement of underage persons.

It is hard to see the harm done by, but it’s easy to see the harm done by the raid on society at large. The criminalization of voluntary, consensual sexual relations among adults is incompatible with the rights to personal autonomy and privacy – internationally recognized human rights that everyone, including individuals engaged in sex work, is entitled to. Criminalization creates barriers for those engaged in sex work to exercise basic rights and to seek access to justice, health care, and other available services.

From Melissa Gira Grant at Vice:

One of the Rentboy employees arrested was their social media coordinator. Another staff member’s tweets are quoted.

“Escorts are not just sex objects,” staffer Michael Belman is quoted as saying. “They are real people performing a valuable service.” He was also arrested on Tuesday, released on a $200,000 bond.

There are no future court dates set. Local news have secured their gay escort headlines, their perp walks, and their government-commissioned account of explicit homosexual sex. One defendant, according to advocates in contact with him, remains in custody as of this publication, though it is not clear why. Those who advertised on are now left potentially exposed, their listings in government custody, and for now are largely out of work. Rentboy was their hiring hall, a community center, one place where advertisers could manage their work and find one another.

Which is why, I think, it felt particularly jarring to see this piece on sugar dating by Taffy Brodesser-Akner over at GQ making the rounds yesterday! It is, at times, quite funny – I don’t think much of the “Regular Woman™ pays a short visit to talk to sex workers in a strip club/brothel/escort service, is astonished that some people pay for sex” genre, but as an individual entry in a relatively played-out series, it’s entertaining and well-written. And yet it has not sat well with me. There’s no there there.

Rich and Ilene met and had sex at his apartment that very night. But their arrangement seems more like a father-daughter relationship than anything else. She needs an interview outfit? They’ll go shopping for it together, and of course he’ll buy it. I ask if she realizes that one day she won’t be 20, and one day she’ll want to buy something without having to ask for it. She shrugs and says yes. He sighs. He didn’t realize they were going to be this honest with me.

This seems awfully shallow and insulting to me, asking a woman if she is aware that someday she will grow older than the age she is now. Probably most of the women involved in sugar dating make purchases they do not have to get permission for, and are able to plan ahead for them! It is not a very interesting or thoughtful question to ask.

Moments in the article are incisive and funny and made me laugh:

Thurston wanted sex, and he wanted eagerness about the sex. So one day when he was at the gym, he saw this old guy with a very pretty young lady, and when Thurston expressed confusion to his trainer, his trainer explained that the geezer was her sugar daddy and that the young fawn was his sugar baby.

Well, you could barely keep Thurston on a lat-press machine after that.

But it’s less funny to see that sort of blunt-force mockery turned on to people like “Kitten,” who “left home when she was 18 after a fight with her family over a boyfriend, and she wasn’t welcome back, not even after the relationship ended. She wound up in a program for homeless youth and lived in a shelter” or “Ilene,” who “who ran off from her controlling parents.” (Also, Ilene is now 20 years old and she’s a registered nurse and happily engaged to be married to someone she met through sugar dating; Ilene is efficient and gets things done and I would be very interested in reading a thoughtful, sincere article about her.)

Taffy’s defense, such as it is, is that since the women/man in question don’t refer to themselves as “prostitutes,” it’s fair game to gawk and make fun of them, which I strongly disagree with!

There are certain hallmarks to the “You Won’t Believe What People Do When They Receive Money For Sex” genre, and this piece hits a lot of them:

  • I was expecting [cheesy, twenty-years-out-of-date cliché] but found [actual human beings]: “There’s not even a measly garter belt or gross double entendre in sight. Instead, I get Rich and Ilene, both smiley, she with her freckles and dimples, he with his goofy laugh”
  • My work is real work, sex work is for lazy/entitled/maladjusted people who can’t cope with an actual job: “She looks across the table at me, the dummy who had to reschedule on her twice because of all the work I juggle, who has spent far more time and energy writing this story than a commensurate amount of blow jobs would require.”
  • The things these freaky people do, I had no idea they did them, and I feel qualified to describe the nature of their work and lives after spending a few hours among them: “I’m naive in general, but at this point in the story, I’m so much less naive than I’ve ever been…It’s been a long time since I began this story, and I have been exposed to no small amount of sociopathy, delusion, denial, and misogyny in the reporting of it.”

I don’t doubt that Taffy experienced a lot of misogyny and awful behavior, and it’s her descriptions of the sometimes-clueless, sometimes-selfish, often-entitled sugar daddies in question that often ring truest and made me laugh. But she focuses on personalities at the expense of systems, and never goes beyond the premise that people who get involved in sex work are stupid and shallow and unable to think for themselves. And I’ve seen that article many times before, and I’m not particularly interested in reading it over and over as new generations of middle-class women “discover” the fact that a lot of women and queer people and men exchange sex or dancing or videos of themselves or their underwear for money and plane tickets and food and gifts.

I can understand being uncomfortable with the idea and some of the realities of sex work; I have been uncomfortable about it myself, at various times in my life. But I don’t believe that the discomfort of someone who is not involved in sex work in any meaningful way ought to dictate the conversation. Or even be a part of it! You can just feel some discomfort and, you know, sit with that in a quiet room for a while, and then carry on with your life.

And I think there’s plenty to be said about how sugar dating, and other types of “soft” sex work play into new economic realities after the last recession – I’d love to read something that investigates what Reid brought up at HRW, how sites like Rentboy and Seeking Arrangements mirror the kind of weird, “everyone’s an employee” cultures of Uber and Airbnb. And, oh gosh, I absolutely believe there’s plenty to be said about how sex workers (male and female) have to manage male/client entitlement in an industry where they’re also often facing the threat of arrest or public exposure. I just don’t think this article accomplished any of those things!

Monday: She met the guy at The Charles Hotel and went back to his place. She gave him a blow job, and then she fell asleep for two hours. He woke her up to drive her home and said, “ ‘Oh, I have like $500. Is that okay?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah. Yes, that’s fine. Yeah, that’s great. Thank you.’ He’s like, ‘Okay. Here.’ Like, ‘I’ll talk to you soon.’ ”

Tuesday: She met another guy at the local seafood shack for shrimp and margaritas. They went back to her place, and they both tried on her clothes and she gave him a blow job. He left her $400. He’s married, but something something something—Tigress never got the full story. She still sees this guy.

Wednesday: This guy was really old, maybe 75. After sushi and a Viagra, they went to his house. He lay down on an ottoman and asked her to get on top. Eventually he had convulsions that were not unlike an orgasm, but something was off. He told her to leave. The next day he texted her from the hospital and told her he was breaking it off because she was “too crazy” for him in bed. $500.

Keep in mind it’s only Wednesday.

On the one hand, this is written in a really effective, humorous style. I get the point, which is “this job is unpredictable and very different from my, the author’s, job!” On the other hand, it boils down to A woman did her job for three days in a row, with a side of can you imagine giving two blow jobs to two different men in as many days? Which I imagine some of us can!

Tigress thinks she’s doing the smallest amount of work for the most amount of money, but if you talk to her, there is something off there, something not right in her bragging and eagerness.

I think that what is “off” there is that the reporter is approaching her subject with contempt prior to investigation. She doesn’t value the work that “Tigress” does and thinks she’s incapable of making the right decisions for herself, and she’s not truly listening to her. What’s “off” there is the whole conversation. What’s “off” there is everything.

There’s something especially disheartening about this piece coming on the heels of the Rentboy arrests, a little over a year after the raid on MyRedBook – when the people who work in the sex industry are facing arrest and loss of income and safety, it doesn’t feel very funny to read about how “Kitten Babypuss” looks like a “very beautiful Bratz doll.”

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