Melissa Gira Grant (Noah Kalina)

"Whore phobia" and Ashton Kutcher's creepy PSA: The problem with banning prostitution

Author Melissa Gira Grant on how prohibition endangers sex workers. And how pop culture misunderstands them

Josh Eidelson
February 25, 2014 10:30PM (UTC)

“[S]o long as there are women who are called whores, there will be women who believe it is next to death to be one or be mistaken for one,” writer and journalist Melissa Gira Grant writes in her forthcoming book Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. “And so long as that is, men will feel they can leave whores for dead with impunity.”

Grant, who formerly did community organizing around sex work and was a sex worker, spoke Friday with Salon about the case against banning prostitution, the ties between sex work, service work, and social media work, and the challenges of building a sex workers’ movement. A condensed version of our conversation follows.


You write that “Whore is maybe the original intersectional insult.” How so, and how does that shape sex work politics?

[The] thing that we miss when we talk about what sex workers call "whore phobia" is that this isn’t just about a form of phobia or fear or disgust that’s aimed at people who are doing sex work. There’s something else going on here. And that is "whore stigma". And "whore stigma" is something that doesn’t just apply to sex workers, it can apply to a lot of things…There are men who do sex work, people who are trans or gender non-conforming who do sex work, but it seems like the lion’s share of our cultural baggage around sex work is really aimed at women and that’s because of "whore stigm." That there’s a way that women who are perceived as too sexual…too cheap…All of these things refer to biases around race, class and gender. And it’s never just one thing…

I looked at the responses that women of color feminists, particularly black women, had to ‘slut walk,’ and found that really instructive. You know, saying that reclaiming your sexuality is one thing when you aren’t socially stigmatized as somebody who’s already a slut, that way that black women’s sexuality is socially stigmatized. But this is not just operating on "you’re an unruly sexual woman, you’re too sexual, you’re too slutty," but it’s always operating at the same time with our ideas about race and class and also gender presentation. Looking at how many times woman are policed on the street, accused of being sex workers, just for being in public while trans, and how widespread that phenomenon is. That’s what I mean when I say this is "the original intersectional insult." This is how actual people experience the flow of oppression in their daily lives. It’s not just about ‘sex work,’ it’s about race and class and gender.

Lots of liberal causes are about banning or restricting markets – having the state say you can’t buy or sell organs or buy or sell votes; you can’t buy or sell labor for $1 an hour; you can’t make putting up with sexual harassment a condition of employment. Are those projects in tension with making it legal to make having sex be a condition of employment at a job?

I look at it from a very different perspective, which is when we look at the kind of employment protection that people have available to them in other kinds of work, do sex workers also enjoy those protections? So if we criminalize sex work, if we don’t regard it as work, and we regard it as criminal behavior, then no, people are not going to have access to those legal remedies. Even forms of sex work that are legal, like stripping or pornography - it’s very rare that people who are engaged in that work can enjoy the same protections around a workplace that’s free of sexual harassment, a workplace where they can apply for worker’s compensation and say that they’ll be taken seriously…

So what I raised in the book is that criminalization is a form of regulation. And it’s a form of workplace regulation in terms of control and power in the workplace, and the workers’ circumstances [are] in the hands of the police. And there isn’t any opportunity for security and oversight in that situation. It’s incredibly difficult to monitor the way the police treat sex workers unless we actually have a way for sex workers to speak out. [Or] even getting statistics on law enforcement’s interactions with sex workers…


I look at the police as who we’ve institutionalized as ‘the boss’ when it comes to prostitution…Our impulses to create safe working conditions for workers are right on, but sex workers are asking for quite different things than people expect them to. So the kind of things that I often hear and try to address are, "Well, if sex work were legal then it would be taxed and regulated and licensed." And you know, looking at the example of New Zealand and Australia, which have adopted different forms of decriminalizing prostitution, they’ve also said: You know, there are certain social issues that will come up for sex workers when we have registry of sex workers that be available to other potential employers… This might be something that comes up if they’re hacked and they’re outed…When you have a stigmatized work force, you know, their needs as workers are going to look different. So that has to be taken into consideration as well.

What come highest on that list of needs in the conversations that you’ve had or the experiences that you’ve had?

It’s different from place to place….We’re one of the only industrialized nations that has this degree of criminalization of sex work…It’s pretty impossible to organize a workforce when you can’t come out about the work that you do for fear of…criminal repercussions…

The stigma around sex work makes it that much harder to be really honest about the needs of sex workers. Because very often people just rush to this conclusion that, well, you know, this is dangerous work, and so the solution for you is just to leave this work. And that’s not a realistic solution for people who rely on sex work to survive.


You note that reportedly the so-called “DC Madam” required her workers to put in writing that they wouldn’t have sex with customers. The prohibition of sex work – how does that affect the leverage that sex workers have in dealing with bosses and in dealing with the police?

Here is another example, not even necessarily for a criminalized workforce: In San Francisco, I worked very closely with St. James Infirmary [and was] hearing about the experience of our harm reduction workers [who would] go out to sex workers work places, where those were formal venues like strip clubs…or informal, meaning places where sex workers hung out…They had very different experiences depending on the places that they would go into…

They’re going out with discreet packages of condoms, lube and sometimes syringes…But in strip clubs, over and over they were turned away by management who would say: “No you can’t come in here, because sex doesn’t happen here.” They were concerned that if condoms were found in the workplace, that that would somehow open them up to, you know, police crackdowns or other kinds of repercussions from the entertainment board or whoever is regulating their business…


We’re actually putting people in dangerous situations because of the pressure of operating under these criminal systems—even people in legal work environments like a strip club.

You’ve observed at Jacobin that prostitution prohibitionists may “fear most of all…that prostitutes could be happy…” But you also argue in your book that “To insist that sex workers only deserve rights at work if they have fun, if they love it, if they feel empowered by it is exactly backwards.” How does the perception of sex workers’ happiness or discontent at work shape the politics around sex work?

Happiness too is something that I think we should define a little more broadly. Right? There’s one stereotype of the happy hooker, meaning someone who’s happy with every single act of sex work that they engage in, no matter what the circumstances are. When I talk about happiness in the Jacobin piece, it is in the context of also making political demands, and having your voice heard and having power. And, you know, that seems to be the part of the picture that’s almost absent…Sex workers' humanity is not contingent on their sex work experience. Sex workers' demands aren’t only related to what they’re doing in sex work - and that these are much more holistic issues than that…


Our labor rights essentially shouldn’t be - for any worker - contingent on whether or not we love our job…

On the one hand, we’re being told move into occupations we love and adore and, sort of, make sacrifices…in how we’re paid or how we’re treated. But on the other hand…sex workers are lined into categories: there are sex workers who love what they do and have choices and then there are people who are oppressed and poor…

Our legal approach to sex work shouldn’t differentiate between people who love sex work and hate sex work. People who hate their work - people who hate their work because it is dangerous - deserve rights equally with people who enjoy their work. In fact, [they] probably stand to gain a lot more from labor protections…

One of the pieces of that Jacobin piece that I love is when I’m talking to these young sort of whippersnapper evangelical Christians who are out at this protest against the Village Voice and are telling me - you know, without knowing anything about me - that 89% of prostitutes would rather leave their job and do anything else. So I just sit back and wonder: Well what’s the companion statistic for other workers?...If that’s the standard by which we’re going to judge people’s jobs, let’s think about it for everyone. You know, why is this work force the one we’re so concerned about protecting from exploitation?


You’ve also written, for Dissent, about the emotional labor involved in unwaged social media work. When it comes to emotional labor, how does understanding sex work help us understand other service sector jobs - or what takes place on social media – or vice versa?

One of the things that’s most absent from how we understand sex work is the emotional labor and the service component and also the digital component… The number of hours that an independent escort who advertises online and gets her own clients, uses her online media persona - it is not unlikely she spends as much time maintaining that online persona, answering emails, writing marketing copy for her website, taking new photos, engaging with people on social media—that digital labor is part of her sex work…

One of my last [retail] jobs was working at Godiva chocolates in a fancy mall in Boston. And no one ever tells you that part of your job is to be pleasant to people. It’s not really said, but it’s definitely modeled. And I find that incredibly undervalued. You know, what that is, to be pleasant and attractive. And there’s a slippage between the ways that women,  in particular, with service work are expected to present this very pleasing, non-confrontational and attractive thing, to how sex workers also have to modulate their emotion and their presentation from customer to customer. The way you really have to, sort of, find ways to connect with them that also don’t require you to expend all your energy, because it’s work. And that was something that I didn’t really appreciate until I saw it happening in sex work. …This is labor. The degree to which you "show up" in a work interaction, it seems like a social interaction; but you don’t even want your customer to think that you’re selling them something – [it’s] like you’re just having a conversation with them on the shop floor. I think it’s common to lots of different kinds of service work, not just sex work.

[When representing a unionized strip club at a national convention of the Service Employees International Union] the people that I remember having the most positive conversations with about stripping…were nurses and home health service workers. Like they totally got something about the physical labor, and bodily labor and intimacy…Those were the folks that I felt I had the most interesting conversations with about how, you know, what we’re doing is connected…There was no, like, “You’re strippers? What are you doing here?”


Last week I talked to Sara Ziff, who started the Model Alliance – this labor group for fashion models – who said that part of a model’s job is “to make the work invisible.” Is that true of sex work as well?

That feels very familiar. It varies from work to work—different workplaces to different workplaces, like I would certainly say in dancing. One of the things that [management] tried to put into the labor contract at the Lusty Lady [strip club]…was that it was a “fun job.” And the dancers pushed back on that..."We’re performing fun. That’s very different"…You can’t mandate that the workers have fun, and I think it was a moment of management themselves not understanding that there is a difference between the fun that they seek to produce, and the fact that that is something that is actual labor production…

One of the things that I’m most fascinated about in reporting about porn is...even in kinds of porn that’s represented as like empowering and authentic, that the porn performer’s labor in producing authenticity is sometimes obscured. No matter what the marketing copy says, that person is having sex on camera as part of their job… They showed up to do it on the clock and left other things that they’d rather be doing aside…

I think it’s so fascinating that that’s a selling point now—that these are real people doing real things. It’s like the audience doesn’t want to be reminded that that is work…


I just finished reporting a piece on a porn site in San Francisco where one of the producers was saying he gets feedback from members of the site saying things like “Oh, I feel so much better about myself seeing real people on the site, not just paid models.” Because one of the things that the site is doing is having open sex parties where people can come—just the general public who are vetted can come—and hang out as extras on the set and also have sex with each other…That has become a selling point as well: “There’s real people here.” And I find that offensive to the workers, to be honest. What’s wrong with recognizing that what they’re doing is work? Like, why are we questioning the fact that they’re getting paid. It’s almost as if if they’re getting paid, that it’s not real and that it’s fake.

You write in your book that “A housewife maintains her legitimacy by not seeking a wage, and a hooker breaks with convention by demanding one.” What does sex work reveal about how we imagine, value, and gender work?

I’m looking at the ways [in the ‘70s] that organizations that were representing the needs of housewives, like “Wages for Housework”, were actually some of the first feminist organizations to also stand with with sex workers shoulder to shoulder and say we have something in this together…[In contrast] some of the feminist articulation of gender and labor…around prostitution [comes from a place of] “Oh, why, the prostitutes are the ultimate oppressed, right? We’re all having to trade our sexuality to men for what we need.”…

The Wages for Housework way is that our labor power as people who manage a household, who care for the kids, who produced this experience of domesticity for this presumed wage earner who then comes home and can enjoy it - that is labor power. And wages for housework and recognizing housewives’ labor as labor wasn’t necessarily about just giving them a check. It was understanding that that labor is the undergirding of all labor…


We’re not supposed to commodify sex, just in the same way that we’re not supposed to commodify caring, we’re not supposed to commodify cooking in the household. Even though caring and cooking work outside the household - especially when it’s performed by men - you can be a master chef...

But there’s something about it happening in private - we’re not really supposed to honor that as work. That would take away from something that people are doing out of genuine love…[But] you can do something out of genuine love, and also really not want to do it that day...

Sharing sex with somebody is then seen as you sharing a piece of yourself. Like the way that we think of our sexuality as our identity and our selfhood – that bleeds into it…

It doesn’t match how people feel about sex in every circumstance. And I think that if you take it outside the realm of sex work, people might be able to pull that apart more easily, like, “Oh right, the kind of sex I have in this random hookup is not necessarily the same kind of sex I’m having with my committed partner; is not necessarily the kind of sex I was having as a teenager when everything was furtive and rushed and I didn’t necessarily get to enjoy it"…


But as soon as money enters into it, you’re not supposed to cross that line. And I think that has to do with gender…the idea that women’s sexual value is imposed by the outside world.

You call out Ashton Kutcher and Sean Penn for these public service announcements saying “Real men don’t buy girls.” Do you see that language – “buy girls” – as just a reference to the threat of forced sex work? Or does it also reveal something about how we see that connection between sex and selfhood?

There, when they say girls, what they would probably tell you is that they’re talking about minors—people who are actually under the age of 18…

That [ad]’s part and parcel of all of the kind of the different anti-prostitution campaigns that are really focused on criminalizing men, that operate from this premise that it would make it impossible for men to buy sex, then the sex industry will go away - [that] it's clearly male desire to drive the sex industry, not widespread forces of poverty, [or] just the job market in general outside the sex industry might also be a factor…Watching those public service announcements, it’s kind of creepy. You know, I look at them and I think: This isn’t about you guys. You’ve somehow taken something that’s actually deserving of attention, which is how do we address violence for people in the sex trade experience, particularly young people, and you’ve turned it into this story about your masculinity…For me it just reveals the bias underneath these campaigns, which is just we are setting up standards for gendered behavior and this is what good men and good women do and what bad men and bad women do. And I don’t think that’s particularly compelling way to frame the social justice issue.

What strikes you about the way we see sex work portrayed in pop culture? I’m struck the sitcom plots we see where our innocent protagonists accidentally bring home sex workers that they had no idea might be sex workers.

There’s something that’s operating there that you can tell who a sex worker is by how they look…It says more, I think, about people’s need to believe that sex workers are somehow completely separate from the rest of society, and I think that some of the anxiety that we’re looking at right now just as a culture, as the sex industry is diversifying and broadening, or perhaps as we’re able to see that it is actually quite diverse, more than we ever have before, the fact that it’s provoking like a category panic... "I thought that those people were on the bad part of town.”…I was just reading the Duke student paper piece about the Duke student who was outed for being a porn performer, and the reporter actually inserts herself several times to sort of interrogate her own biases, like “Oh, I couldn’t believe that she just looked like one of us!”…

If they look like me, then that’s something that I could be doing someday too.

Your book ends by considering the past few decades and the potential future of sex work organizing. What stand out to you as particularly effective tactics or particularly promising forms of leverage?

I think the shift I’ve seen over the last ten years is we’ve been moving away from these organizations that seem to be really reliant on one person’s visibility and oftentimes outside resources to keep something afloat…

I’ve seen a shift away from that in sex workers’ organizations towards really taking on practical and very time-honed tactics of community organizing—of building up their own resources and power as an organization or a group of people. You know, a lot of sex worker organizing isn’t particularly formal…

I see a lot of echoes with sort of [the] twists and turns in LGBT organizing, where there have been moments where LGBT organizing was like, “Oh no, we’re just like you. We want the same things that everybody else does…The only thing that’s different about us is our sexual orientation.” And there are definitely moments in sex worker organizing that feel like that similar thing, of what some people would say is “the politics of respectability,” of passing and assimilation. And then there are other moments where people are saying, “Actually, no, we are quite different, and we have different needs and that needs to be respected too. We can’t be taken seriously as people with demands only to the extent that our demands match what you think they should be.”…

A women of color, HIV/ AIDS project in new Orleans, called Women With a Vision…have been engaged in a long campaign to end the practice of charging people who are soliciting anal or oral sex for money - which are very common things to solicit in sex work…They were getting charged with this really I think Napoleonic-era law, again, for “soliciting a crime against nature.” …They were able to trace how that impacted women of color and trans women who were doing sex work because they were more likely to get those charges. And they were able to not only stop police from doing this - they were able to change the law, and they were able to get all of the people who have been convicted of this who then as a consequence, had to register as a sex offenders, off the sex offender registry. And it’s impacted hundreds of women…That isn’t a campaign about decriminalizing all prostitution everywhere. This was one particular thing that they were able to build awareness around in the community, bring people together who experienced this, and to find a way to put their voices at the center of their campaign, and then also bring in people who have way more resources than they did, like the Center for Constitutional Rights…and put it in the context of larger issues of police abuse and civil rights. So I’m seeing more and more of that kind of work.

Josh Eidelson

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