I was at Viviane’s tea party for the NYC pervert community last Sunday when Audacia Ray mentioned that she was going to be on the Brian Lehrer show the next morning, debating with a member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) about sex work.
“Oh, really,” I said, eager to show off my naÃ¯vetÃ©, “I kinda thought that NOW had gotten smarter about that stuff.”
Apparently not. Although NOW officially takes the stance that sex work should be legalized, the New York State chapter has recently sponsored legislation that increases penalties for patronizing a prostitute, and is engaged in a campaign to get newspapers and magazines to refuse advertising from escort agencies and massage parlors. This all happens under the guise of fighting “trafficking.”
I am, in general, a supporter of feminism. Our gender roles are a complete mess, and we need to keep questioning them. My problems with feminists usually arise when they stop asking questions about gender and instead become gatekeepers against inquiry into gender. NOW and the Ms. Foundation have, despite much good work, traditionally acted as guardians of middle-class morality in certain areas, such as pornography and sex work.
Dacia does a great job, as usual, of putting forth an alternative, radical perspective on sex work. Although trafficking is an atrocity and needs to be dealt with seriously, it’s often used as cover for a barely-suppressed horror of sexuality and a paternalistic attitude towards poor people of color. I find that there’s a very visible difference between the philosophies of those who see sex workers as pitiful things to be rescued (e.g., Nicholas Kristof) and those with a more layered view of sex work. For the former, the emphasis is on the word “sex”; for the latter, the key word is “work.” To talk about the realities of prostitution or stripping, whether as an individual choice or as forced exploitation, we have to approach it as a labor issue, not a failure of sexual morals. Work is something that we all understand. We don’t like it, but we do it every day, and a lot of us wind up getting screwed. That part is happening more and more as corporate power becomes more hegemonic and the protections that we gained through so much hard work and organizing turn into ash. The story of most Americans in the workplace is this: no union, no health care, no vacation, and little, if any, right to sue when our employers’ abuses get to be too much to bear.
But no matter how much shit we take in the straight workplace, we can always think of ourselves as better off than a whore or a stripper, both morally and materially, because even the legal kinds of sex work are only barely so, and just doing it makes you disposable in the eyes of a lot of people.
If there’s ever going to be a humane solution to the problems that come with sex work, we have to legitimize the work itself and see those as labor issues, not moral ones. The fact that the woman on my favorite porn video is working in shitty conditions is a problem in the same way that it’s a problem that my shirt was made in a sweatshop by underpaid, abused workers. Both are realities of the society that we live in. Both need to be taken seriously, but the reality invalidates neither the use of porn nor of shirts. In a way, the average American worker is in a situation much closer to that of sex workers than they like to admit; too many Americans have accepted that their bosses can do whatever they want with their lives and livelihoods, and passively allow themselves to be trafficked by the corporate hierarchy.
The major point that Audacia made in her discussion with Brian Lehrer is that the NOW plan is a very, very bad one because it doesn’t do anything to address trafficking as such; it targets both voluntary and involuntary sex workers, and drives the ones who need help further underground. What NOW is proposing is much more effective as a strategy to protect mainstream moral sensibilities: out of sight, out of mind. She also points out that Amsterdam, rather than increasing punishments against johns, has had great success with using them as a resource to identify women who don’t want to be there. The American model of vengeful law ‘n’ order plays well in headlines and serves the reputation of politicians, but in the end does bupkiss for any of the people who matter.
You can listen to Audacia on the Brian Lehrer show in the player below, or download it at WNYC.
Resources for sex workers’ rights: