Sex work is work. But it has at least something to do with one's sexuality, right?
So suggests a recent study out of La Trobe University, published in last month's issue of the journal Sexualities. The qualitative study, "'It gets very intimate for me': Discursive boundaries of pleasure and performance in sex work," was conducted by Elizabeth Megan Smith and involved nine women working in the sex industry in Victoria, Australia. Through storytelling and photography, the sex workers explored how they related to ideas around intimacy, performance, and pleasure. Specifically, Smith asked her subjects to talk about the sexual pleasure they experience at work and the meaning they make of it, and to visually represent how they related to and took care of their bodies. Smith then analyzed these images and narratives in relation to popular conceptions of sex work, as well as theoretical notions of gender, power, and performance.
On face value, the study doesn't seem so radical, but there's been little empirical research into how sex workers experience sexual pleasure, both on and off the job. Instead, feminist theory on the subject of women's participation in the sex industry has remained locked in a heated debate over whether sex workers are necessarily empowered by their work, or inherently exploited and coerced. Only recently have studies like this suggested that this decades-old focus on choice ignores the ambiguity of sex workers' daily realities.
I came of age in the midst of this debate, born in 1979, right around the time activist and self-described sex worker Carol Leigh coined the term sex work. As an undergraduate in college, I read radical feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Kathleen Barry describe prostitution as not a conscious or rational choice but rather, in nearly every case, the consequence of force, drug dependency, or extreme poverty, and therefore tantamount to rape. Others condemned sex workers for colluding in their own oppression and sexual objectification. (The clinical psychologist and sex work researcher Melissa Farley once famously referred to sex workers as "house n*****s.")
Sex-positive feminists fought back by describing sex work as a transgressive or subversive act. They argued that trading sexual services for money could be sexually liberating because it undermined moralistic views on sex and institutions such as heteronormativity and monogamy. Through their work, sex workers could find empowerment within a social structure that privileges men both sexually and economically.
After I started stripping my sophomore year, at the age of 19, I knew that, to a certain extent, this was true. Certainly, I hadn't been coerced into the profession, and I often enjoyed and experienced freedom at work (much more so than when I had, for example, worked as a checkout girl). But at times it was certainly true that I didn't always enjoy my work, and there are women who describe their participation in the sex industry as a result of circumstances other than choice, including literal or economic coercion.
We may look very sexy in corsets and all that, but to me personally it's become a work uniform, so I feel quite sexy in my flannelette pajamas.
In more recent years, the goal of the sex workers' rights movement has been to disassociate sex work from sex, and pleasure, in order to focus on sex work as a profession. Advocates working tirelessly to locate sex work in the realm of work focus on the ways sex work is similar to other forms of labor; this emphasizes the very real economic motivators behind an individual's decision to sell sex. However, less explored are the ways sex work is different from other service or hospitality professions. Advocates intent on talking about sex work as work reject conversations about sex and pleasure as irrelevant. But as current and former sex workers know, it can be more complicated than simply getting paid.
For starters, pleasure can be an aspect of work. One participant in Smith's study known as Kate described how, prior to working as a full service provider, she'd had difficulty experiencing sexual pleasure with men, so she'd anticipating sex work being something she'd have to endure just so she could make money. Instead, her new job surprised her when she found her very first client physically attractive: "This guy answers the door wearing nothing but a pair of skin-tight boxer shorts—he is soo hot! He is sooo hot! (laughing) Like I just couldn't, my jaw dropped, and I just thought, 'What are you doing calling me?! Like you must have a hundred girlfriends that would be very happy to come and hang out with you for the night.'"
Other clients, Kate said, were "not physically attractive to [her] at all but...so sweet and so lovely." In both cases, sex work presented itself as an opportunity to explore sexual pleasure liberated from emotional attachments and certain expectations that generally came with sexual relationships outside of work. To this point, Kate said, "The approach is very different [from sex in relationships], because when you are working you are going in there and you are not thinking about what's good for you and what works and whether you romantically feel like doing this...because you are not expecting to necessarily feel good about it. It actually [has] been much easier...I'm a little bit detached [in sex work] from that person emotionally. Maybe that makes it easier to sort of let go."
At the same time, other providers Smith interviewed framed sex work as an intimate, sensual act. Participants described friendships with customers, and having regulars who "[felt] like family." Sexual pleasure could be linked to emotional attachment as well. One participant, Melina, described her work as a "sensual sort of experience, you know, my kind of pleasure as well." For her, she said, "It's not so much just about getting off, or you know, release, it's really, it's about intimacy and sensuality."
Sex work was an opportunity, as one woman put it, to "learn with your clients what you love about sex and sexuality and relax." Her advice to new providers was "don't make yourself feel like it's a job."
This guy answers the door wearing nothing but a pair of skin-tight boxer shorts—he is soo hot!
But not all the women Smith interviewed felt this way. While feminism is slowly moving away from the For or Against debate on sex work, popular conceptions of the industry remain monological, and sex workers themselves are still at odds with the taboo identity imposed upon them by their jobs. Sex workers speaking and writing about their chosen professions do so all too well aware of the hostile, misinformed climate in which their words will be received.
Stigma, it has been well documented, can lead sex workers to create and maintain rigid boundaries between their personal and professional selves in order to feel protected. In order to resist appropriating negative understandings of themselves, Smith's study contends, some sex workers take a clinical approach and avoid all sexual desire and pleasure while at work.
These competing discourses inspired my own research (conducted in 2001 and published in 2010), where I interviewed sex workers in the US and across Europe about their lives and experiences. Like sex workers I spoke to, I had rules and "no go" zones that separated the personal from the professional. Condoms provided a meaningful barrier, not just physically but psychologically as well. Similarly, participants in Smith's study talked about dressing in costumes and manufacturing a "sexy" identity different from how they'd otherwise present themselves and what felt sexy to them. "I'm pretty sure, like, we find firemen sexy after about 4–5, but I bet they don't feel very sexy. Same way for a prostitute," one respondent said. "We may look very sexy in corsets and all that, but to me personally it's become a work uniform, so I feel quite sexy in my flannelette pajamas." Some sex workers attempt to make work a performance, and limit "authentic" sexual and psychological interactions to personal encounters, Smith says, as an effort to manage stigma.
I was this kind of sex worker, intent on making sex work nothing more than work, a job like any other. And yet, truth be told, as a sex worker I often broke my own rules, and boundaries were constantly shifting. When I worked as a stripper in Mexico, for example, I had a "no touch" rule I would break if I found the client sexually attractive and/or for more money. If I was interested in a client in a personal way, I pursued that relationship outside of work. Instead of embracing pleasurable sexual experiences, I often felt ambivalent, confused, and "unprofessional."
In an interview with me, Smith expressed some concerns that softening the argument that sex work is just work may lead to backlash and a potential re-stigmatization of the "happy whore." "However, not acknowledging the messiness and complexity of human relationships and bodies/pleasure can close off those other knowledges—potentially leading some women in sex work who experience sexual pleasure to feel internalized stigma about that," she said. This is basically what happened to me.
It's worth noting that if sex workers develop intimacy with their clients, and this can feel pleasurable, it follows that the opposite can happen. At least one respondent in Smith's study commented on how rude or disrespectful clients felt different in sex work contexts compared to those in other service or hospitality industries. Specifically, she used a hypothetical example of working at Telstra, an Australian telecommunications company, and getting yelled at by a customer, and then compared it to something similar happening in the context of sex work. "Because [sex work is] such a personal thing," she said, "they are right in your personal space, they're in your body. It leaves an effect."
We're past the argument that brothels are feminist bootcamps, and that sex alone is our key to liberation. But exploring sex workers' sexual experiences could lead to more empowerment, Smith says, both in the context of sex work and beyond. Smith's research comes from a third feminist perspective on sex work: one that frames women's experiences in the sex industry as neither inherently empowering or exploitative, safe or unsafe, "right" or "wrong." Instead, Smith says, "Sex work is a complex space where dominant and subjugated discourses mingle to produce myriad experiences traversing the exploitation/empowerment binary represented by the feminist sex wars."