9 Apr 2014

Katha Pollitt, Melissa Gira Grant, and Sex Work

I read with interest Katha Pollitt's piece for The Nation, "Why Do So Many Leftists Want Sex Work to be The New Normal?", which was inspired by Melissa Gira Grant's controversial new book in defence of sex work, Playing The Whore (which I have already explored in length in this post). It's somewhat disappointing to see so many great feminists falling for pernicious myths about sex work, and I wonder what it is that's stopping them seeing past the often-trotted-out misconceptions about sex work, what it is, and what it means for gender relations.
Pollitt sets her thoughts up in the deeply unhelpful, divisive manner that anti-sex-work feminists seem unable to discard. Her first move is to sarcastically over-simplify the point that Gira Grant's book is making. "Now, selling sex is sex work—just another service job, with good points and bad—and if you suggest that the women who perform it are anything less than free agents, perhaps even “empowered” if they make enough money, you’re just a prude". Nowhere in her book does Grant say anything that could be considered a call for everyone to embrace sex work in the name of liberation, but anti-SW fems clearly feel so offended by the suggestion that they sanction a way of having sex that they personally deem unacceptable, that they feel the need to come out swinging with sarky comments like these.
Pollitt pulls out all of the anti-SW arguments, accusing Gira Grant of not saying enough about "the women at the heart of this debate: those who are enslaved and coerced—illegal immigrants, young girls, runaways and throwaways, many of them survivors of sexual trauma, as well as transwomen and others cast out of mainstream society." This assumes that anti-SW feminists have the right to set the terms of the debate, even when those terms are irrelevant and inaccurate. No one fights more loudly than sex workers themselves for  the right women and men to do sex work free from coercion, harm and stigma; the idea that you cannot believe sex work is a job if you also condemn the idea that anyone ever be forced into it is a massive red herring. Why should Gira Grant be obliged to be a spokesperson for trafficked women, when what she is talking about is consensual, freely chosen sex work? And if you're going to come straight back at me with "Well, it's impossible to untangle the two, sex work and trafficking go hand in hand", are you then also going to say that we should smash the restaurant industry to smithereens and make domestic service illegal, because both of those industries have a helluva lot of shady underparts where people (mostly poor, vulnerable women) are trafficked, exploited and harmed? If not, then you have to accept that defending a type of work does not entail that you spend all your time apologising for and advocating for those who have been abused in ways that are (sometimes only tangentially) related to that industry. Because it goes without saying that any 'job' where someone has their passport taken off them, is lied to, is locked in a basement and beaten, underfed, not paid or exploited is not a job at all, it's a terrible crime. So why do we insist that Grant not allowed to talk about sex work without having to constantly stop and remind us about those for whom sex is not a job, but a horrendous coercive nightmare? We wouldn't just be trying to derail her argument and demand that she justify herself in a way that anti-SW fems are never asked to, now, would we?
That brings to my next point, the inevitable idea that as long as some women are trafficked, no real consent to sex work exists. This, as Grant points out in her book, is a very dangerous argument to make, as it inadvertently supports the already-too-common idea that sex workers cannot be raped. If, against the background of a sexist society built upon male privilege, sex workers' choice to do their job is meaningless, then presumably so is their consent. If they are so brainwashed by the patriarchy that we don't believe their consent to do their job is 'real', then presumably the flipside, their withdrawal of consent to parts of that job, can't be real either. Feminists can't have it both ways. We can't say that we believe in women, that we trust women (one of the major pro-choice slogans), that women are worthy of a place in this world to make decisions, make changes and do important work that affects and shapes society, and then suggest that certain subsets of women are just too stupid to know when they're being conditioned by the patriarchy. It doesn't just hack at the very foundations of feminism, but it's also obnoxiously elitist. As Gayle Rubin once said of anti-BDSM  feminist writing "the erotic preferences of the writer seem to be presumed as universal". Pollitt and anti-sex-work feminists impose a similar assumption by treating sex as a sacred cow, a different, unique case. She rejects the idea that "all service work [can be] collapsed into one", and clearly thinks that there is a difference between being up to your arms in food grease for £4.50 an hour and performing oral sex for say, £80 an hour (I have done the former, in a pub kitchen when I was 20, while hearing about my colleague's sister doing the latter. I know who I felt was "the mug" in that particular situation). But that is simply her opinion. She sees sex as something different from baking bread, lugging hods of bricks about, cleaning toilets, changing incontinence pads on drooling people with Parkinson's (the latter being another job your writer has done). And I believe that's because at root, she holds a fundamental idea about how sex should be, which she is trying to impose on the rest of us.
Pollitt argues that what she objects to is the asymmetry of it all, the fact it's mostly men who buy sex and women who sell it. This, she claims, feeds into a culture of entitlement. And yes, this is something that used to trouble me too. Why, I wondered, if men can just buy sex, would they ever bother being nice to a woman when there's clearly no need for that effort? (When I voiced this to a sex worker on Twitter, she said something along the lines of "God, URGH, I hate the idea of someone 'being nice to me' just because they think it'll get them sex!"). Pollitt suggests that sex work sends out the message that "men are entitled to sex without attracting a partner, even to the limited extent of a pickup in a bar, much less pleasing or satisfying her". This is where I think a lot of anti-SW fems draw artificial lines. As I said in my piece about Gira Grant's book, "all sex, paid for or not, exists on a continuum". Is there really as much of a difference between paying for sex and the aforementioned "pickup in a bar" as Pollitt thinks there is? Can we guarantee that the man who goes out for a one-night stand has any interest in pleasing or satisfying the women he finds (if indeed he does find one), or is it safer to assume he probably just wants a quick fuck? And what of his female partner, do we assume that she is also interested in mutual pleasure and intimacy, or might she just be someone who wants to get laid? In a world of fuck buddies, friends with benefits, play partners, one night stands and a million other ways to have casual sex, it's clear that humanity strongly rejects the idea that there is one right or best way to do sex. And we have not got a shot in hell of assuring that all or any of these ways of making genitals meet involves respect, equality or even pleasure (although obviously one would hope that at least some of them do), because we cannot police the bedroom, and hopefully, as feminists, we have no wish to either. Yet according to anti-SW feminists, as soon as sex is paid for, and that transaction goes from male to female, that particular act of sex somehow becomes instantly wrong and a way of propping up the patriarchy.As I also said in my post, if we apply this thinking consistently, then "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?"
In my limited dealings with sex workers (mostly online, via Twitter, email and blogs), the issue of women buying sex has often been raised. Several sex workers have said to me that they believe the gender asymmetry of sex purchase has a lot less to do with the stereotype of male demand (and the accompanying icky idea of female unwillingness, this myth that women 'don't really like sex' and just do it to please men) and much more to do with the fact women are much more advantageously placed when it comes to finding casual sex partners. My male friends have unanimously told me how easy it is to be a single woman in a nightclub, as opposed to a single man. One is constantly policed, viewed as sleazy, desperate or creepy. The other is "just having fun". (And yes I know the ubiquitous creepy man in a nightclub who inevitably finds a way to wreck women's nights by sleazing on them deserves to be policed, but that is not the point I'm making here.) In my local area, single women can get into a swinger's club for £15 - for single men it's £35, if they're allowed in at all (some nights are listed as just "couples and single women"). We assume that we live in this society where everything defaults to men, where women and our lives and our bodies are constantly controlled so that we will fit a stereotype that pleases men. And yet, my intelligent, attractive, polite 29 year-old male friends will tell you that they do not experience a society that is out to please them at all. Instead they experience rejection, insecurity and fear of being perceived precisely as that "sleazy man". They find approaching girls difficult, awkward and riddled with potential for (sometimes extremely rude) rejection. They feel that the power is anywhere but in their hands.
As a slim-ish, young-ish, white woman with feminine presentation I have to acknowledge that on balance, it's pretty easy for me to go out and find casual sex, if that's what I want., and definitely easier for me than it is for my male counterparts. Even if I couldn't access sex so easily, I doubt I'd want to simply pay someone to pleasure me, but that's just me - it's not evidence that as Pollitt and anti-SW feminists assume, that women all desire this meaningful, 'connected', loving type of sex (and I don't, anyway - the very idea sends me to sleep). Plus, if Pollitt's assumption that we live in a society of male sexual entitlement, or that the existence of sex work props that up, is true, then why aren't all my male friends who struggle with girls just giving up and going to sex workers? Why are they still meeting women the 'normal way', forming relationships, going through the struggle of making connections, if all men are just supposed to want callous, uncaring, casual sex? And why do we assume that all sex work involves only the latter kind of sex, or that all non-paid for sex entails meaningful, tender encounters where both partners fully acknowledge each other's humanity? We do not have any grounds for making these assumptions other than our own prejudices. Which is why we should be listening to the likes of Gira Grant, a former sex worker herself, who actually has experience of the issue we are so blithely theorising about.
Pollitt is trying to throw sex workers a bone by saying "It’s one thing to say sex workers shouldn’t be stigmatized, let alone put in jail." However, she betrays the notion that she truly supports sex workers in any way by immediately going on to say "But when feminists argue that sex work should be normalized, they accept male privilege they would attack in any other area." So where exactly does that leave sex workers? Can't stigmatize them, but can't normalize them either. Erm... It doesn't seem particularly sisterly to sigh "Well, we'll accept that your work has to exist if we really must, and if it'll keep you out of jail, but I don't want to hear anyone saying anything good about it, nor do I want any slowing of our fight to ultimately end the profession you're in." It seems patronising and dictatorial.
None of us are going to live long enough to see the feminist utopia come to fruition, so ultimately none of us know what it's going to look like. Maybe it'll be a Marxist paradise where no one pays for anything - not sex or clothes or bread or writing (yo!). Maybe instead it'll be a gender-equal sexual free-for-all, where women and men, old and young, gay, straight, trans, able and disabled people sometimes have sex in exchange for something else, and sometimes have it for no reason other than pleasure, and no one gives a frig (several SWs suggested to me that they believed more women would pay for sex if there was less stigma and more ways to guarantee personal safety). But you don't get to dictate what this "most feminist" world would look like based on nothing other than your own personal prejudices. If you don't like the idea of sex work, fine. (Sometimes I really don't, either.) You don't like what (you think) the existence of the sex industry says about gender, or the effect you believe it has on relations between the genders. But til you can show me irrefutable proof that a woman accepting cash for sex is worse or different than a woman accepting an engagement ring worth thousands of pounds in return for nothing other than her sexual loyalty, or that one or both of those women are so disempowered by the sexist society we live in that their actions cannot be said to be feely chosen, you don't get to dictate that we can't say anything positive about sex workers lest we "normalize" them.

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