17 Feb 2014

Melissa Gira Grant's Playing The Whore - An Alternative Perspective

I read with interest feminist journalist Sarah Ditum's review of Melissa Gira Grant's new book, Playing The Whore: The Work of Sex Work. As a regular book reviewer, and a feminist who regularly writes about the politics of sexuality, I chased down a review copy of this book myself and spent much of my Christmas holidays immersed in it. As a sidenote, it may be worth mentioning that I've tried to interest several major UK publications in a review of the book, and have only had non-committal or disinterested responses, or no response at all. This may well be a coincidence, but I don't think it's a massive leap to suggest that the subject matter of sex work still has the power to unsettle.

And nowhere does it unsettle more than in the feminist community, where the lines over the ethics of sex work are drawn so bitterly that admitting ambivalence feels like confessing to a serious character flaw. But I am ambivalent, as my earlier writings will tell you. I'm uncomfortable with a movement that demands I either unequivocally support the purchase of sexual services or condemn it as a socially-inscribed misogyny. I'm uncomfortable with the choice between supporting Bindel-esque views of sex workers as unsalvageable traitors to the women's movement, and having to quash any qualms I might have about sex work for fear of being shouted down as 'whorephobic'. It's important to mention here that I am also not a sex worker, and if you feel that renders my voice in this debate redundant, that's fair enough and you're welcome to stop reading. However, all that said, I do still want to answer back to some of the things Sarah Ditum says in her critique of Gira Grant's book.

From the outset there appears to be an anti-sex-work agenda that means instant hostility to Gira Grant's theory that sex work is work, and needs to be treated thus. Ditum seems immediately irritated that Gira Grant is not interested in discussing demand and hence placing the focus on men - the faceless, definition-less mass of 'the men who buy sex' (always men, and always cisgender and heterosexual), who anti-sex-work feminists spend a lot of time talking about but only within the strict parameters of condemning, loathing or at best pitying those men. Gira Grant does mention men, but as a counterpoint to the women (and men) who accept money for sexually servicing them - "The demand for victims, as anti-sex-work activists describe it, is driven by men's insatiable desire - not by sex workers' own demands for housing, health care, education, a better life, a richer life."  Grant is making the point that we focus on 'male demand' at the expense of seeing sex workers as full people with agency, and I agree with her.

Ditum's statement that "while it’s true that money provides motivation for sex workers, sex work can only be work if someone is willing to pay for it" seems so mind-boggling obvious that I wonder why she thinks it's even worth mentioning. Substitute any other job in that statement and it just seem facetious. "While it's true that money provides motivation for bakers, baking can only be work if someone's willing to pay for bread and cakes." "While it's true that money provides motivation for nurses, nursing can only be work if someone's willing to pay for care." What exactly is so outrageous about the idea of providing a service for money in a capitalist society - unless you think that sex is somehow different, somehow a sacred cow, and unless you assume that sex is something that is never 'paid for' in other forms anyway?

Unless we already have a skewed view of sex as something that is harmful to women, something that women never enjoy or freely choose and something that is a form of domination, why the hell does it actually matter if someone sells it, any more than if someone sells their art, their writing (hello!), or  their skills as a pilot, photographer or care worker? I say this as someone who has previously written that I'm "uncomfortable with the notion that a man can buy entry to a woman's vagina, anus or mouth, and find it difficult to defend sex work beyond believing that it should at least be made safer for women." I do question a society that encourages perpetual female sexual availability and the accompanying pressures heaped on women and their bodies. However, I hope I'm clear-eyed enough to see that my own personal discomfort may a) be borne of puritanical beliefs about women, sex and the female body that perhaps I need to dismantle, which is no one's job but my own and b) that my own personal discomfort with the idea of sex being purchasable is not, on its own, justification enough for hating on sex workers or legislating in ways that make their lives more difficult.

The assumptions that Ditum makes about the men who buy sex seem grounded in very little but her own prejudices: where, exactly, is her proof that "the punter is driven by a belief that he has the right to access women as a commodity because he sees women as his inferior, and he finds erotic gratification in a relationship where the social roles are clearly defined by a cash transaction"? Does that mean that every man who buys dinner for a woman and then has sex with her afterwards gets his kicks not from the sex, but from the impact on his credit card that two nice steaks will have? Does that mean that men whose wives do not work in order to care for children are secretly high-fiving themselves at 'owning' the 'commodity' of their wife's body every time they have sex with her? I don't consider myself someone who has a high opinion of the human race at large, but when I read the words of anti-sex-work and anti-porn feminists, I feel like a perpetually grinning Pollyanna by comparison, so low is these women's default opinion of men and all that motivates them. As someone who used to be vehemently anti-sex-work and disgusted by the idea of any man who paid for sex, I have had to do a fair bit of evolving when I found out that men I knew well - both friends and lovers of mine- had paid for sex in the past, and that women I was good friends with - wives and mothers amongst them - had been paid for sex (and even liked doing sex work!). You become a lot less absolutist and lot less quick to judge when you see both sex workers and their clients as real people, rather than a faceless mass of exploited women and evil, exploiting men. That, to me, is the important message of Gira Grant's book, but one that's not going to be acknowledged by those who are determined to paint the male 'demand' for sex as the root of all evils.
To say that Gira Grant "sees nowhere for women to fit other than in the sexual market" is disingenuous - Ditum seems to be accusing her of this simply because she dares to suggest that all sex, paid for and not, exists on a continuum (also, it seems a bit rich to criticise the author for mostly giving time over to examining the position of women and sex in society, in a book on sex work). I personally think Gira Grant is spot-on to say that much like in the Victorian era, women are unfortunately still guilty of 'othering' sexually transgressive women, in order to elevate their own view of themselves. As long as we can say we are not like those women who sell sex, we can feel smug, legitimate, enlightened. We're not exploited, we're not victims of the patriarchy. Which brings to mind Margaret Hunt's words when responding to anti-S/M feminists - "The argument that there is no free choice in the world is never all-inclusive. It always admits of the existence of a small group which is morally superior to the corrupt mass." Sex workers, S/M lesbians, and heterosexual women who consume pornography or participate in BDSM are apparently this 'corrupt mass', lacking the ability to step outside their patriarchal conditioning and 'see the light'. The feminists who judge them, however, are apparently entirely free of social conditioning - ergo Gail Dines' criticism of porn must be objective, not in any way based on her own personal prejudices, her distaste for certain sexual acts or her total failure to imagine that any woman might enjoy them, or any man might participate in them for reasons other than misogyny.
Gira Grant's book certainly isn't perfect, and as Ditum points out, is guilty of inconsistency in places. It does feel like a fairly slim volume in the light of the gargantuan nature of the industry it is talking about, but my sense when I finished reading it was that Gira Grant is deliberately steering us away from our usual obsessions - she doesn't describe all the filthy goings-on in the sex industry just so we can disapprove of them, she doesn't lay out her own experiences for the reader's titillation, nor does she focus on or harangue the men who go to sex workers - precisely in order to highlight exactly what is wrong with those preoccupations. Nowhere have I seen more obsession with (and more graphic, triggering descriptions of) supposedly degrading sexual acts than in anti-sex-work and anti-porn writing. Nowhere have I seen more assumptions that women are brainwashed idiots and victims, to such a degree that I feel many misogynists would find much with which to agree, than in the same writing. And yes, I have also read the reviews on PunterNet (which are nowhere near as horrifying as the carefully selected phrases on the incredibly biased and propagandist tumblr Invisible Men would have you believe), and even though I know I'm going to be met with a furious blaze of hatred from anti-sex-work feminists for saying this, I mostly found that 'punters'' comments were pretty reasonable. They did not enjoy sex with women who seemed frightened, rushed or bored. They gave high reviews to the women who appeared to enjoy what they did and took their time. Now, if we see sex work as the inevitable result of male entitlement to the female body then of course we're going to see this as terrible evidence that women are paid to fake pleasure for men's benefit. But as Gira Grant reminds us "The presence of money does not remove one's ability to consent," - unless we are going to also condemn every bartender who smiles as they serve a drink to someone they think is a jackass, or a doctor who listens patiently to someone they consider a whining hypochondriac, as mindless dupes of capitalism too.
If, like Ditum, you  consider "prostitution a wrong because it places all women within an economic structure that prices them sexually", I doubt you will be much persuaded by Gira Grant's book. As a big old lefty hippy at heart, I would love to live in a world where nothing, including sex, was judged by monetary value, but as my post on writing for free will tell you, I acknowledge the reality that we all exist under capitalism and as such have to use our skills to pay the bills. While we live under this structure, I believe in enabling all of us to make the best of this often-shitty world regardless of class, race, gender and sexual identity, and I don't believe that the demonising of one very specific way of having sex helps anyone. Simplistic narratives which conflate consensual sex work with abuse, exploitation and trafficking, and deems any man who has ever exchanged something of economic value for sex as no better than traffickers, coercive pimps and rapists, and which frame sexuality as a simple binary of the dominant and the dominated (with men always in the first position and women always in the second), also don't help anyone, least of all the women (and it's usually viewed as women, as I've said before, correctly or incorrectly) who anti-sex-work feminists are trying to 'protect'.
I'll end this with probably my favourite quote from the book. "Sex workers should not be expected to defend the existence of sex work in order to have the right to do it free from harm. There must be room for them to identify, publicly and collectively, what they wish to change about how they are treated, without being told that the only solution is for them to exit the industry. As labor journalist Sarah Jaffe said of the struggles at her former job as a waitress, "No one ever wanted to save me from the restaurant industry."



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10 comments:

Iamcuriousblue said...

'As labor journalist Sarah Jaffe said of the struggles at her former job as a waitress, "No one ever wanted to save me from the restaurant industry."'

Well, now that you mention it....

http://www.prole.info/ar.html

jane doe said...

I had to re read the bit where you said you were not a sex worker, cos other than Sarah Wooley I have never read a piece by a UK non sw feminist who actually seems to get it before. Thank you so much for writing this piece, these conversations, about patriarchy, about not having to like sex work, about harm reduction are had all the time by sex workers, maybe a *good* woman saying them means someone will listen!

Catherine 'Chas' Scott said...

@Iamcuriousblue

That's a very interesting link! I don't think it detracts from the original point though. The restaurant industry is renowned for its shitty treatment of female workers, yet there is no faction of the feminist movement given over to its abolition, nor does anyone suggest that we 'end the demand' to eat in restaurants as a solution to food service workers' poor working conditions.

@Jane Doe

Thanks! As you can see, my viewpoint has certainly evolved over the years. I think a lot of this has been due to coming out as a feminist involved in the BDSM scene, which is something that definitely precludes me from being able to call myself a 'good' woman (ugh!). It's made me sympathise a lot more with women who are patronisingly labelled brainwashed/suffering from false consciousness for practising sex in a way that other women find distasteful or unappealing. It just seems utterly backwards for any feminist to come in waving a sword and trying to 'save' other women from what they deem exploitation, without stopping to ask whether those women actually want to be saved.

Dominic said...

The point regarding demand could perhaps be put something like this: hospitals do not exist because some people desire to be nurses, but because there are sick people. Hospitals could not exist if there were not also people who, needing to earn a living, found nursing an acceptable and perhaps rewarding way of doing so. But those needs are not the reason why hospitals exist. If no-one ever got sick, there would be no hospitals.

Similarly, lap dancing clubs do not exist because some people desire to lap dance, but because there are people who want lap dances (and are able to pay for them). There could not be lap dancing clubs unless there were people who, needing to earn a living, found lap dancing an acceptable and perhaps rewarding way of doing so. But those needs are not the reason why lap dancing clubs exist.

It is possible to imagine that in a future society where no-one had to work in order to live, there would still be hospitals. Some people would choose to be nurses, because they and the society around them valued the work that nurses do - "value" here being measured in terms of social and self-esteem, and the feeling that one is doing something worthwhile with one's time by attending to the needs of sick people.

So the question is, could the same motivations exist for lap dancing? Can we think that society at large would value the work that lap dancers did, such that people would do it without a wage motive, simply for the sake of social and self-esteem and the feeling that one was doing something worthwhile with one's time by attending to the wants of men who patronise lap dancing clubs? If not, then a wageless society could not contain lap dancing clubs: only the wage system - which acts as a form of ubiquitous coercion in our society as it is now - would make it possible for such establishments to operate.

Now, for some people it seems transparently obvious that this must be the case - that the work of sex work is without social value, and that no-one would do it were it not for the coercion of the wage system. In order for this view to be upheld, the desire of some men to pay for that work must be seen as illegitimate, extra-social - unlike, say, the desire of sick people to be nursed, or that of theatre-goers to experience catharsis through pity and terror.

Dominic said...

(continued)

It seems to me that the point of view of Melissa Gira Grant, amongst others, is that the willingness of some men to pay for sex indicates the presence of a desire which is not in itself illegitimate, and which it is therefore acceptable and worthwhile to work to satisfy. The reason society at large doesn't recognise this desire as valid, or the work of sex workers as valuable, is that we have a problem of some kind about sex ("outdated religious morality", or something like that). It's unfair that sex workers should be stigmatised because of this.

The point of view of many feminists is that the willingness of some men to pay for sex indicates that there is something wrong with the way they see women - perhaps not all women, but certainly the women they will pay to have sex with. To recognise their attitude as valid is to endorse the very misogyny which enables and motivates male violence against sex workers. To see the work of sex workers as valuable and legitimate is to accept that it is normal and acceptable to see some women in the way that men who pay for sex see those women. This is a line that cannot be crossed.

So it comes down, in a sense, to how forgiving one is prepared to be of men with money who like to amuse themselves by spending it on having women perform sexual services for them. If one has an attitude of social sympathy towards such men, if one feels that one could be one of them or that it's not so terrible for someone else to be one of them, then it's possible to see the work of sex work as having some dignity and utility. If one regards them as dreadful misogynist bastards who should all be castrated, then it's difficult to see the work of sex work as anything other than wage-coerced and subservient - because who would work to please such men for anything other than money?

Catherine 'Chas' Scott said...

@Dominic

All valid points. I think it's also important to note, as I do in my post, that sex doesn't necessarily divide into strict binaries of 'paid for' and 'free'. A man who was recently divorced just told me (not without some bitterness) "It would have been cheaper to just hire a prostitute for 10 years". He obviously saw his marriage and its subsequent breakdown as costing him greatly, both financially and (quite obviously!) emotionally. It's a slightly facetious example, but as I say above, why do we draw a line between paying for dinner/gifts/a house/someone to stay at home and perform childcare while you go out to work in exchange for sex, and a more cut-and-dried transaction? Early feminists were not afraid to point out the similarity between marriage and prostitution, with the only difference being (as you say), social legitimacy.

As Grant herself says,"Hookers and housewives ... are too often considered rivals, occupying opposite sides of one economic circle, two classes of women who earn their living from men's waged work... Caretaking and sex should be offered freely, we're told, with genuine affection and out of love. A housewife maintains her legitimacy by not seeking a wage, and a hooker breaks with convention by demanding one." Both family values advocates and some feminists seem to view placing value on sex as a horrific thing to do, but we unconsciously do it all the time in this society (another example is how we accord different sexual partners specific terms - 'fuck buddies' and 'friends with benefits' occupy very different value brackets to 'wives' and 'long-term partners) and it seems silly to deny this, or assume that this is in itself automatically harms all women.


Interestingly, some of the sex workers I have spoken to say they would do what they do for free, if it were possible - I feel quite similar about writing, but capitalism isn't going to allow me to survive on fresh air and positive tweets. But I think it's an interesting counterpoint to the assumption that sex work is so dreadful that only the money makes it bearable. These same sex workers have also protested the erasure of women who pay men or other women for sex (and men who pay other men), from the narrative. Several of them have said to me that they believe more women would pay for sex if it was not stigmatised or seen as unsafe.

Ultimately none of us are ever likely to know how true this is, because a society where women can freely express their desires safely and free from policing by both conservative and liberal elements still seems pretty far off.

Dominic said...

why do we draw a line between paying for dinner/gifts/a house/someone to stay at home and perform childcare while you go out to work in exchange for sex, and a more cut-and-dried transaction?

I don't think we do, though; I think the line is drawn between sex as most people want it to be - a form of collaborative enjoyment undertaken because everyone involved wishes *to have sex* - and sex as a token in a transaction where only one party really wants to be having it and the other is indifferently faking an interest in order to get something else that they want.

There's a line which comes from some SW advocates which says that all sex is transactional really, and SWs are just explicit about (and in control of) the terms of the transaction. I think this is false - in fact, it sounds to me like a rationalisation.

There is a class of people for whom sex is almost never something you trade for something else you want, and almost always something you do because you feel like it, because that's reason enough (and because not feeling like it is always reason enough for not doing it): they're called men. Belonging to that class, seeing sex in the way that membership of that class enables you to see it, is what men call sexual freedom.

Men don't regard being able to set a price for their sexual services as a way of exercising and reinforcing their autonomy, because they don't start out from the position that you're going to have to have sex you don't want anyway so you might as well get paid for it.

Maybe I'm wrong - I'm a bloke, and I've never had it any other way - but that seems to me to be a kind of freedom worth wanting. I would certainly feel very aggrieved if someone tried to take it away from me.

Catherine 'Chas' Scott said...

Obviously as a feminist, I believe in sex being mutually consensual and 'collaborative', but to assume that sex between a sex worker and her client can never be so, or that all non-paid-for sex is always so, seems deeply unrealistic, and quite offensive to sex workers. This is what I mean by an unjustified divide. Are we really to believe that the type of sex
"where only one party really wants to be having it and the other is indifferently faking an interest in order to get "something else that they want" only ever takes place between SW and client, or that the couple is always male-female, or that the person who doesn't 'really want' the sex must always be the woman?

MGG speaks to this in her book when she says "The presence of money does not remove one's ability to consent." The SWs I've spoken to echo this, and have all asserted that they feel empowered to turn down clients or acts with those clients according to what they themselves are comfortable with. I've spoken to a lot of non-SW women who can't say the same of their sexual experiences with male partners. As MGG says "There is much that sex workers do in their work that they will not enjoy doing, and yet they do consent and have legitimate reasons for doing so." Our societal view of sex as something that has to be framed with love and affection seems to me to be the only reason that we attack SWs (for possibly 'faking' pleasure in their work) but we don't critique waitresses for cheerfully serving customers whose faces they'd actually rather splat with a large custard pie. Or, as MGG says - "We judge sex workers' authenticity by far higher standards than we might, for example, judge the connection we might have with a favourite bartender, a hair stylist or even a therapist".

I'm somewhat troubled by the assumption that sex workers do what they do because "you're going to have to have sex you don't want anyway so you might as well get paid for it." This erases agency from sex workers, implies all sex work is tantamount to, or is, rape, and that women feel so disempowered by rape culture that our choice is as bleak as, get raped or get paid for sex. Another MGG quote would go well here - "When anti-sex work activists claim that all sex work is rape, they don't just ignore the labor; they excuse the actual rape of sex workers. If men can do whatever they want when they buy sex, the rape of sex workers, of those who are thought to have no consent to give anyway, isn't understood by opponents as an aberration but as somehow intrinsic and inevitable."

You also don't seem to consider that there are men who set a price for their sexual services, and feel happy and empowered in their work?

Yes, the freedom to have sex when and how you want it is certainly worth wanting. But I disagree with the statement that another woman's decision to sell sexual services somehow erodes my freedom as a woman who doesn't. I used to feel differently, and sometimes wondered why any man would ever bother being nice to a woman when he could simply pay a sex worker to service him. But I've since come to realise (not least because a sex worker laughed in response "GOD, the last thing I'd want is someone being 'nice' to me in order to get sex!") that that assumption not only removes agency from a sex worker, who has as much right to say no to that man as I do, but it also implies an incredibly low opinion of men. Glasgow Sex Worker (who tweets at @pastachips) has a wonderful blog post here debunking the myth that the existence of sex work stops men from respecting women - it definitely gave me pause for thought.

http://glasgowsexworker.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/objectification-many-swears/

Dominic said...

Obviously as a feminist, I believe in sex being mutually consensual and 'collaborative', but to assume that sex between a sex worker and her client can never be so, or that all non-paid-for sex is always so, seems deeply unrealistic, and quite offensive to sex workers. This is what I mean by an unjustified divide. Are we really to believe that the type of sex
"where only one party really wants to be having it and the other is indifferently faking an interest in order to get "something else that they want" only ever takes place between SW and client, or that the couple is always male-female, or that the person who doesn't 'really want' the sex must always be the woman?


So, no; the distinction I'm trying to draw out is simply between the transactional and the non-transactional - rather than specifically the paid or unpaid. In the transactional model, I do something not because I want to do it - not because it is itself a good that I desire - but because I can obtain some other good by doing it. Of course much of our social life is transactional and involves give-and-take of various kinds; and give-and-take doesn't exclude the possibility of enjoyment on both sides, or presuppose that either side is in desperate need.

I also don't conflate sex that one doesn't want with rape: one can consent to sex that one doesn't want (i.e. that is not itself a good that one desires), and consent in transactional scenarios is not automatically less meaningful than consent in non-transactional scenarios (it depends on the external factors bearing down on the transaction).

However, I think many people do see sex as exceptional, in that unwanted sex - and hence all transactional sex, except in the lucky case where I *also* want sex for its own sake - is something to which they have a very strong aversion. The claim that sex work is inherently traumatising derives its plausibility from this aversion: one can imagine that one would have to "dissociate" from any repeated activity that one found strongly aversive, and that one would in the long run be damaged by such activity.

Not everyone has this strong aversion to unwanted sex, of course, but I think it's at the bottom of most people's feeling that sex must be wanted in order to be acceptable, and that transactional sex means giving up something one would be unwilling to give up without significant external pressure.

Lins said...

This is a great review. I read PTW last week and my conclusions were exactly the same as yours! MGG has been speaking at universities/book events all over the UK and I'm really hoping more feminists will read it and reconsider their views. I for one am taking it as a discussion topic to a feminist group soon...