Working it: Sex work as labour

Do we view sex workers as less than?

| May 22, 2014
Working it: Sex work as labour

Playing The Whore: The Work of Sex Work

by Melissa Gira Grant
(Verso Books,

Disclaimer, borrowed from Autostraddle:

Playing the Whore encompasses various sexual behaviors that are included in the term "sex work," but it's important to note that a distinction needs to be made when discussing the labour of sex workers that we are not talking about sex trafficking, in which women are kidnapped, coerced and forced into sexual activity. Although our choices are informed by our experiences -- economic needs, personal life, socioeconomic and moral background and access to education among them -- the sex work we're discussing in this piece is that in which sex work as a form of labour is one of those choices.

Sex work is not sex trafficking, is not sex slavery, is not sexual assault (although sexually violent crimes are historically endured by sex workers and ignored when committed against them). Kidnapping, assault and rape are already crimes, and they don't cease to be crimes in the context of sex work; any discussion of sex work here considers those acts criminal and outside the routine experience of sex work, much like bank robbery is outside the normal experience of working as a bank teller and not inherent to the experience of bank employment. To make that distinction is important, and I am making it now.

Melissa Gira Grant's Playing The Whore: The Work of Sex Work is a slim, gorgeous text. The sleek cover design and packaging of the book -- printed by Verso, a New York based radical press -- playfully hints at the subject matter, which the author herself has remarked remains controversial despite the simplicity of the mantra: sex work is work. It is a legitimate form of labour. It can be precarious, it can involve working in conditions that are disempowering or less than ideal, but in spite of all the anxieties projected onto it, sex work is no different than other forms of labour in this regard.

Gira Grant argues that the many, many, different forms of sex work -- cam work, porn, stripping, phone sex lines -- are a growing part of a service economy that has come to define the post-industrial age.

At it's core, Playing The Whore is a lucid look at the many social facts and conditions that structure the trade of sex for money (or other things) and, critically, define the people who engage in these alternative economies.

The book comes as one of a series, commissioned by Jacobin Magazine and billed as "short interrogations of politics, economics and culture from a socialist perspective." The other two texts in the series, which is marked by a continuity in cover design that echoes the clean, gorgeous design of Jacobin itself, deal with capitalism in crisis and the struggles of the Chicago teacher's union.

The book is split up into subsections with titles like "The Prostitute" and "The Police" that don't feel as much like successive chapters in an essay as they do different entry points along one, continuous panoramic sweep that lays bare the historical, social and economic construction of the sex work landscape. Gira Grant knows her subject matter and knows it well.

In fact, in the beginning of the text -- and any reader familiar with the author's previous body of work knows this already -- Gira Grant explains to the reader that she was involved in the sex trade in some capacity. She gives little other information, simply because she believes -- and she's not wrong -- that the sex worker's story is not one that is consumed primarily to inform, but to scintillate.

It is of course important that the author be able to speak to the lived experiences she is interrogating in her text. Arguably, it grants her legitimacy. But as Gira Grant goes on to explain, the "prostitute" is a social construct, a hollowed out image, recast over time and space to serve the social purposes of those peripheral to the sex trade who wish to impose various moral, legal and social controls over the industry.   
The idea of control or regulation may sound appealing to some, but when taken with Gira Grant's well-researched claim that the social construct of the prostitute has changed with technology, culture and geography, it becomes apparent that sex workers themselves have had minimal control over their public image, the myths and narratives around their labour -- particularly the binary of either loving sex work or being exploited.

Sex workers are being silenced and buffeted around by our various mythologies and social constructions of what they do.

A key myth that Gira Grant highlights is that sex workers are Other. We keep sex workers at a distance by reducing them to the voyeuristic, peepshow-like moment in which they are arrested, leaning into a car soliciting someone. The entirety of their person is reduced to this scintillating moment: the prostitution bust.

We come to see prostitutes as off-in-the-distance; they take on a sort of unreality because who they are in the popular imaginary is so far from the lived truth of being a sex worker. Rather than our neighbours, family members, friends and community members, sex workers become myth by virtue of the prostitute construct.

By designating the sex worker as an elusive character, rather than one that is all around us, we lose sight of what exactly sex work is. It's work. And we all work to stay alive.

Gira Grant dedicates time in the book to what some have termed the "rescue industry" -- an economy entirely parallel to sex work, run by feminists and like-minded individuals dedicated to "abolishing sex work."

For Gira Grant, this presents an interesting contradiction in terms. Abolishing sex work is not the same thing as ending "prostitution." Sex work has been around forever, but because the archetype of the prostitute only emerged relatively recently in history, the moral industry surrounding ending sex work once and for all, is itself fairly new.

Gira Grant compellingly underscores the uncomfortable fact that those who labour in this industry are able to eat because they are invested in wresting control of the sex work narrative away from the workers themselves.

In her discussion of anti-sex work feminism, Gira Grant also highlights a key concept that feminism seems to have missed acknowledging in the leap to condemn "slut shaming." And that's what Gira Grant and others have termed "whore stigma." Modern iterations of feminism have condemned sex work and the idea of sexualizing or objectifying oneself as negative not just for that person, but for all women.

By assuming that sex workers are literally "selling themselves" rather than offering a service, some feminists are able to claim that sex workers have destroyed their "self" in the sense that they have hollowed themselves out and the value of their sexuality has become degraded to the point that it symbolically effects (and objectifies) all women. 

When you think about it though, what women do with their bodies (and make no mistake, discourses around the bodies of sex workers presume female-bodiedness), particularly in terms of expressing sexuality and sexual agency, remains equally objectionable despite the occupations of those women.

The difference between behaving like a "slut" and like a "whore" is the exchange of money or goods for sex. As long as women aren't making a living from sex, feminism remains indefatigable in their defense.

Somehow, whores have been left out of the protective bubble that "slut shaming" offers. Perhaps -- and this isn't something we'd ever want to admit -- we tend to view whores as less than women.

Gira Grant lays all of this bare, and more. Her writing is sharp, persuasive and comes at a time when it is sorely needed. If you're interested in hearing more of what she has to say, order a copy of the book here and be sure to check out her interview with VICE's Reihan Salam here.


Muna Mire is an organizer, writer and a Black girl from the future. A recent University of Toronto grad, she is a member of the editorial board of {Young}ist, a young people-powered media start up. You can find her freelance work at Bitch, Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. Her interests include progressive politics, movement building, postcolonial literature, feminisms and speaking back to The Man.



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