Last September, a recently graduated co-ed, going by the pseudonym Natalie Dylan, decided to put her virginity up for auction on the Moonlite Bunny Ranch website. She has claimed that she is doing so for a number of reasons from social experiment to paying for graduate school. What’s interesting here, remarkably, is not that there actually exists a 22 year-old co-ed whose virginity is intact or that she is able to command $3.7 million for the opportunity to pop it. Instead, the ambivalence expressed both in the popular and feminist media have raised larger issues as to how we discuss women’s sex work and female sexuality. The media is fascinated, shocked and constantly debating whether or not this “poor girl” actually knows what she’s getting into, whether or not she’ll regret it. Would she regret it less if she lost it to a former beau in the back of a car or on a bed of roses or on her wedding night? Who knows and, honestly, who cares? I am not concerned with virginity. I don’t recall any fireworks, club invitations or a hardy handshake at the time the money-making capacity apparently went down a notch or two. I am instead concerned with this idea that sex work may be considered to be degrading and exploitative in all situations.
As with everything else in feminist circles, discussions around sex and sex work seem to orbit ad nauseum around this elusive notion of choice. Interestingly, unlike many discussions around choice, the most virulent debates do not hinge on who has the right to do what but actually on whether or not an individual may ever have the ability to choose to do sex work. For some, this is an absolute impossibility. During December session of the Transnational Network of Women’s Issues, which was held on the issues of trafficking and slavery, the two guest speakers illustrated the ambivalence towards choice in sex work perfectly. When asked to place trafficking and slavery within the global structures of power, Carolina De los Rios, a case a manager with the Polaris Project said that “Poverty is triggering this work…These women work to support their family. They feel trapped by immigration [status] and threatening …Initially they made the choice but after a while they don’t want to do it.” On the other hand, Jessica Leslie of Free the Slaves gave an example of quarry workers who had returned to the same type of work without the threat of debt bondage. She remarked that they had returned “not necessarily because they liked the work or wanted to do that kind of work but because it was a work they knew and knew they could do to survive… The question was not whether they chose to do a kind of work but whether or not they were in a situation of bondage… It is the circumstances around that type of work that make it slavery or not.”
The distinction made by Jessica, however, is not generally made in regards to sex work. While it is generally acknowledged that people do not go into quarry, domestic or other types of work associated with low-income communities because they like it, these types of work and workers are still discussed as having agency. Yet, sex work is generally discussed in terms of being forced by different factors, primarily poverty; I am assuming sex work done by women as it generally what the media assumes unless we’re talking about Senators or televangelists and transgender workers are mentioned rarely if ever. Except that sex work is not always done simply out of financial necessity. The example of Natalie Dylan and recent stories of highlighting higher-class escorts makes that clear enough. So, what distinguishes sex work from other forms of labor?
This whole discussion seems to go back to the public myth that there is something sacred about sex or at least that there is something more respectable about hooking up with a random stranger in a club as opposed to having regulars to pay the rent. Somehow the combination of SEX and MONEY breeds disaster, especially for women who might be doing so outside of a traditional marriage. If women were simply having sex in parked cars for free, like teenage caricatures, I wonder if there would exist as much of a police presence. Perhaps so, as much of the discussion orbits around these women either being fallen and needing to be saved or being burdens upon the community.
I asked Carolina to clarify what she had said before, wanting to know if sex work was inherently abusive. She said “Yes definitely…we believe that these women are exploited in the sex industry. Many of these women have been trafficked. Some never knew what they were getting into. They may have made the choice initially but then they were pretty much trapped and when they were not able to leave.” This may be true but are workers victims because of something innately degrading about the work or is it the working conditions as mentioned by Jessica? The dangers associated with sex work include rape, battery, low wages, poor working conditions, manipulation by pimps, and blackmail. These dangers are not caused by sex work but can be drawn back to either the immigration status of workers or criminalization.
Does the media obsess over victimhood in sex work because society still feels that “promiscuous women” don’t deserve services, respect or legal recognition of their labor? Or must women’s sexual fragility be rescued incessantly from the man in the shadows? It would seem that when it comes to conceptualizations of sex work, we have not yet departed from the notion that women’s sexual purity must be protected, that women are merely vessels to be exploited by hypersexual and predatory men. Such an approach to analyzing sex work and trafficking ignores the larger powers at work in these situations and actually reinforces archaic constructions of female sexuality that disempower women and demonize men. These constructions trap all of us.
Megan Foster, firstname.lastname@example.org