Author and journalist Melissa Gira Grant talks about sex work as work and the need to involve sex workers themselves when designing programs to “save” them or the communities where they work.
In conversations about sex work, we hear quite a bit about sex but very little about work. We all know that while there’s an awful lot of money in the sex industry, most of it is not in the hands of the workers. Likewise, while there is no shortage of moral diatribes on the implications of exchanging sex for money, there’s very little air time given to sex workers themselves to talk about the work they do.
When strip clubs are shut down in the interests of “improving” a neighborhood, what are the implications for the workers and those who rely on them? Is sex work always exploitative? Those are just some of the questions I asked Melissa Gira Grant when she sat down for an interview on GRITtv this month.
The kinds of stories that dominated the media – stories about violence, exploitation, stories about sex trafficking – got a greater hearing and pulled on people’s heart strings a lot more than stories about sex work as just a job that people did.
Grant has worked in the sex industry herself, she said, to subsidize her low pay as an independent journalist.
“We put such a double standard on sex workers to prove that they made an empowered choice, in a way that we don’t do about other service work that can also be quite exploitative,” Grant said.
“A better question might be, what kinds of power and control do you have at work? What happens when you need to take a day off? Can you choose the types of customers you’d like to see? Can you choose the kinds of safer sex that you want to have?”
Grant recently came out with a new book Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, which is available from Jacobin /Verso books. The video of this conversation is posted free, at GRITtv.org. To watch an excerpt, go to GRITtv’s YouTube page.
Laura Flanders: Let’s start with your subtitle: The Work of Sex Work. “Work” appears twice. You clearly care about the concept. What do you mean? What are you getting at?
Melissa Gira Grant: This is the most missing part in the conversations about sex work that I feel that most people want to have: For me, sex work is fundamentally a question of work. Not of crime, not of law and order, not even of oppression. This is something that people do to survive – like any other job. But for some reason, that is a very controversial claim, and that’s because of sex. People are very challenged by thinking about sex as a kind of thing that you can trade or something that you can commodify. I understand that raises all kinds of questions for people, but for sex workers, this is fundamentally about what they do to survive; it’s about the money that they need to live on. It is a question of labor and of rights.
You say early in the book that you have some skin in this game.
Yes. I have been a sex worker for ten years, doing different kinds of sex work in part because journalism is a really hard business to break into – and, in a way, this was funding my various unpaid and underpaid work as a journalist. I understand sex work as part of the mainstream economy. It is the work that people can do to support what they need to do when the money isn’t there.
“No one ever tried to rescue me from the restaurant industry when I was a waitress.”
Talk for a minute to those who are more on the receiving end of mainstream media, perhaps, who are really concerned that sex work is not anything that women go into freely, that it has a devastating effect on the women who participate and that can often lead to a lifetime of pain and suffering for the women involved.
The mainstream picture of sex work is actually what got me into journalism. The kinds of stories that dominated the media – stories about violence, exploitation, stories about sex trafficking – got a greater hearing and pulled on people’s heart strings a lot more than stories about sex work as just a job that people did. The absolute ordinariness of sex work as I experienced it was not represented in the media. Salacious stories, just to be blunt about it, would dominate the real-life picture of sex work as I knew it. So that was one of my inspirations for doing this book and doing this work.
There is also policy work. There was a story recently in The New York Times about how genius it was that some policy maker had figured out how to put strip clubs out of business in the Bronx by denying them liquor licenses. …
Right, and at no point do people ask, how do we know that strip clubs are dangerous for communities? Why is this the presumption that putting them out of business rests upon? There was no treatment in that piece in The New York Times that talked about the Bronx strip clubs of the dancers themselves and what impact this would have on their wallets. What they were going to do? Will there be another club for them to work at? I understand that the community has a stake in what goes on in the community, and what kinds of businesses are there, but sex workers are part of that community too.
There is a proliferation of feminist projects to save and rescue sex workers and very few projects that sex workers are leading that get nearly the same kinds of resources and attention.
Talk about what place this industry plays in the community economy, or ecology, if you will.
Sure. I think just to start with this conventional picture of sex work in the city, people have this image, I refer to this as the “prostitute imaginary” – this character, usually a woman, sometimes a woman of color, miniskirt, fishnets, boots, leaned into a car. We have seen this stock image in story after story. That kind of character ends up becoming the stand-in for how people think sex work actually operates, when in reality, because of forces like gentrification, because of the kind of policing that we see in cities, particularly, to talk about New York for a moment, the kind of racial and gender-based profiling that we see in policing, the people who are doing sex work who look like that character, that population is shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. Because that is who the police are most focused on. That’s where public attention is most focused on. We’re not focused on the vast majority of the industry that is actually operating behind closed doors.
The Elliot Spitzer part of the industry.
The Elliot Spitzer part of the industry, and everything in between. Like the mom-and-pop strip club that is off the highway or the porn theatre that is underneath the overpass. The idea of a red light district in the city is something that is almost extinct. I think that has as much to do with ideas of sexual morality and community standards as it does with economic development and who gets pushed out of a city and who is seen as desirable and who is seen as undesirable.
You write in your book about the many, many people who derive value from sex work. Like who?
Journalists, to be self-reflective for a minute. This is an endless topic for people to explore, but there is also the police: This is an avenue for policing. There are actually increasing funds available for vice policing because of concerns about human trafficking, so very often human trafficking operations are housed within the vice department, even though we know that human trafficking occurs in many different industries – but frequently the lion’s share of resources is going to anti-prostitution law enforcement. Then there is a third group that the anthropologist Laura Agustin describes as the “rescue industry.” These are folks who operate projects that are designed to remove sex workers from sex work and to offer them services, alternative employment. These are the promises they make; it isn’t necessarily something they are offering, but it is the service side of the industry.
What about people like [Brian Bates] the John TV guy?
This is a way that people can become notorious, right? It is a salacious story, and he can present himself as someone who is brave enough to tell the story. When I look at something like John TV, I see someone who himself is almost a part of the industry. His behavior is quite like an abusive person posing as a customer who is trailing after sex workers, trying to surveil them, trying to insert himself in their lives when that’s unwanted. It feels like the kind of predatory behavior that makes people very scared about the sex industry itself.
So let’s have you answer a pretty basic question. Is sex work necessarily forced work? Do women have free choice to go into sex work?
At what point are you going to consult with the people who are going to be most impacted by this policy? What kinds of power and decision-making do they have in the process?
It is a hard question to ask without thinking of all of the work that we do, that’s how I understand it. It feels like we put such a double standard on sex workers to prove themselves that they have made an empowered choice in a way that we don’t ask that question about people in other forms of service work that can also be quite exploitative. As my friend the labor journalist, Sarah Jaffe, said, “No one ever tried to rescue me from the restaurant industry when I was a waitress.” It’s an interesting question; its an important question. But it is a question that puts such a burden on sex workers to prove themselves, to prove that they are empowered, when I think the more basic question might be, what kinds of power and control do you have at work? What does it look like when you need to take a day off? Are you going to be penalized for that? Can you choose the kinds of customers that you want to see? Can you choose the kinds of safer sex that you want to have? Those are much more fine-grained questions and I think that they speak much more to the reality of sex work than these big picture ideas about empowerment and choice.
Where does the movement stand? In the ’70s and ’80s, there were organizations like COYOTE creating a union for sex workers on the West Coast. There have been organizations roughly defined as feminist organizations defending the rights of sex workers, but there has also been tremendous feminist backlash. Where are we right now?
The sex workers’ rights movement is older than that, even. Some people would put its roots back to Stonewall, even, the gestures of women like Sylvia Rivera, of Marsha P. Johnson, folks that were essentially funding gay liberation by hustling. There is such an interconnectedness of those two movements that I would say let’s go back a little bit further! The women’s movement in the ’70s thought of prostitutes in the symbolic way, you know, these are the women that are thought of as being the most oppressed amongst us all. But even in the ’70s, I don’t think that the women’s movement considered that sex workers were people with their own demands and had their own political projects, that they were the experts and they needed to be taking the lead. That’s the thing that I think is the most neglected right now; there is a proliferation of feminist projects to save and rescue sex workers and very few projects that sex workers are leading that get nearly the same kinds of resources and attention.
So what would you do? If you were in some kind of policy-making position, whether in policing or education or government, what would you like to see put in place to address some of the concerns you have raised?
People are still reliant on face to face relationships in order to actually share the kinds of information they need to stay safe because of the criminalized environment we are operating in.
I feel like that’s so above my pay grade! Here is what I would do if I was invited into a city planning meeting, if I were invited to give testimony on any number of these anti-prostitution policies that are multiplying across the country. Michigan right now is looking at 23 different anti-prostitution, anti-trafficking measures introduced since the beginning of the year. There is certainly a lot of opportunity to intervene. What I would say is, where are the sex workers in this conversation? At what point are you going to consult with the people who are going to be most impacted by this policy? What kinds of power and decision-making do they have in the process? Are they people that you consider yourself to be fixing and rescuing? Or are they people that you consider to be part of the community and part of the process?
But how can these women, and there are some men too and lots of trans people, how can they be part of a conversation when sometimes just being public is putting yourself at risk of being criminalized?
Even speaking out about sex work, outing yourself could be opening yourself up to different kinds of policing and other kinds of consequences. Even if it’s not the police, you might lose your family. You might become perceived as an outcast, even in the groups that you are a part of. Women’s groups, I remember being a part of in college: When I came out as a sex worker, that was it for some of those groups. So I understand the costs are really real. But there are ways that people could do outreach to sex worker communities. I think of harm-reduction projects that are active in many cities, folks that are doing syringe exchange, folks that are doing safer-sex outreach: These are people who have contact with people in the sex industry and can build relationships and help open up the political process so that sex workers aren’t stuck on the outside.
If you were doing one thing right now to help a young person, perhaps who is considering going into this industry – maybe to subsidize her journalism, good for her! What would you say? What would be your advice?
I would say find your community. Fortunately, with the internet, there are many more options for people who are completely isolated, who don’t know any other sex workers in their day-to-day lives, which is most people. You have an opportunity online to connect with people who are in the sex industry who can let you know that you are not alone.
Can you share information? How-to information on how to keep yourself safe online without getting in trouble?
It is our perceptions about sex work that marginalize and push people to the side, and that is what needs to be changed.
That is something that is quite risky. Because even in online communities where sex workers have created password-protected message boards for example to share information about dangerous customers, law enforcement has infiltrated some of those message boards as part of anti-prostitution policing. So the very measures that people take to stay safe can sometimes also expose them to criminalization. So, the internet might be a way to meet people, but people are still reliant on face-to-face relationships in order to actually share the kinds of information they need to stay safe because of the criminalized environment we are operating in.
So what do you want to accomplish with your book?
My point with the title is to say that this is a role. This isn’t a who you are. I think we think there is this line in the sand that people cross, where this is something you only do when you have no other options and no other choices, and once you do it, it marks you for life. The intervention I’d like to make on that is that that’s not necessarily true. There are so many people that do sex work that aren’t out about it and people will never know. It is not something that makes you an outcast. It is our perceptions about sex work that marginalize and push people to the side, and that is what needs to be changed. So if anything the intervention is on everybody outside of sex work to say this is what sex workers have to say about their lives, it’s time to listen.
Laura Flanders: Playing the Whore:The Work of Sex Work is just out from Verso Books. Melissa Gira Grant, thanks so much for coming in to GRITtv.org.