Sex work: liberation or exploitation?


In 1975, more than one hundred prostitutes occupied a church in Lyon, France, to protest against police repression, issuing statements that they would stay until prison sentences against their members were lifted. The movement for what was then called prostitute’s rights may have been born from demands for sexual freedom, but its own demands were for freedom from police violence.

A cursoring glance at the sex work debate will swiftly reveal that the bulk of those clamouring for its criminalisation do not work within the industry. It is perhaps the near-universality of screwing that means many outside sex work feel they have a right to dictate how those within should be treated—socially, politically and legally. Melissa Gira Grant’s recent novel, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, seeks to interrupt a conversation about prostitution that for too long has given primacy those who have never experienced it.

Grant explores sex work’s location within the web of various employments to which people have complicated and differing relationships. All too frequently, anti-prostitution campaigns ignore the economic and social nexuses which drive people towards certain jobs, as well as negating the agency of those who undertake sex work because they prefer it to other occupations available to them. This approach patronisingly denies women the agency to use their bodies to sustain themselves, even in a society such as the UK where women are bearing the brunt of the budget cuts. It reinforces the whore-stigma by insisting that any other work must be more dignifying than sex work. It can even perpetuate patriarchal notions that women’s bodies do not belong to them, and so to demand a fee for sex from men is to construct an exchange of capital over what should be given freely.

Playing the Whore investigates and exposes how these mentalities lead to institutional violence against sex workers. Whether through the brutal police raids in order to ‘rescue sex workers’, the disproportionate number of arrests of gender-queer folk and people of colour on the basis that carrying condoms is evidence of sex work, or even the violence of naming someone a whore, the sex worker is held at bay, continually ‘othered’, through society’s rejection of their dignity. In many cases, sex workers’occupation becomes their identity, and anti-prostitution initiatives work to lessen the number of sex workers by removing the individuals completely. Grant writes, “We are using the policeman’s eye when we can’t see a sex worker as anything his or her work, as an object to control.” This conflation of identity and occupation allows for the dehumanising approach to sex work so often undertaken, even when masked with the humanitarian desire to ‘free the trafficked girls’.

Sex Worker Open University reports that after the December 2013 raids in Soho, a number of sex workers were taken to UK Border Agency detention centres, despite insisting that they had not been trafficked, and were in fact working voluntarily. Grant depicts similar centres from a US perspective, highlighting the fact that despite being called ‘shelters’, “the doors are locked, the phones are monitored, and guests are forbidden.”So-called ‘rescue missions’for sex workers instead reveal themselves as humiliating missions of control. At a Cuntry Living-organised panel discussion earlier this year, a member of the SWOU pointed out the correlation between the rise in anti-trafficking rhetoric and an increase in talk opposing immigration. It is certainly telling that far from finding themselves in a safe space, the ‘victims of trafficking’are bundled into detention centres or ordered to appear in court. It even is reported that during the 2013 raids, the police confiscated any money they found in sex workers’flats without a receipt, as ‘proceeds of crime’.

Grant later turns her eye to similar initiatives in Cambodia. Shortly before the visit to Phnom Penh she documents, the US had pressured the Cambodian government to take a stand against sex work, or else lose aid funding. This manifested itself in police raids and illegal detention of sex workers, sometimes for months at a a time. Reports of physical violence and sexual assault in these ‘rehabilitation centres’were rife, and it is established that at least three people were beaten to death by the guards.

Furthermore, although a study funded by USAID (renamed USRAID by many) found that roughly 88 percent of the 20,000 people sampled were not forced into sex work, the dominant rhetoric was that of saving victims of trafficking. Even taking into account the caution advised when examining data on sex work in Cambodia, it is difficult to reconcile this finding with the approach taken by the authorities. As Grant writes, “This fixation on control is what constrains our vision of sex work just as much as sex work’s clandestine nature.”Her examples in both the US and Cambodia emphasise the mania for control that characterises most outside engagement with sex workers: again, as sex work and sex worker have been conflated in the public imagination, control of the industry often means control of the physical bodies that enact the work.

Playing the Whore seeks to reclaim the sex worker back from sex work, to highlight the institutional violences that deny the personhood of many within the industry. Grant’s comprehensive investigation and analysis situates sex workers as agents of reproductive labour within capitalism, who are often unduly punished for their occupation— whether chosen or not. Sex work is often a last resort occupation, yet so are many low paid, low security jobs. Cleaners and factory workers are not required to undergo forced HIV testing, or ‘rescued’ in humiliating police raids. Until sex work is recognised as legitimate labour, prostitution will remain dangerous and marginalising, while whore-stigma is dangerous for any kind of gender equality. As Black Women for Wages for Housework wrote in 1977: “When prostitutes win, all women win.”