Cate is something of a renaissance sex worker and has held numerous interesting jobs in the adult industry. Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.
There’s been a big push in recent years to rebrand sex work “empowering.” When I tell people I’m a sex worker, one of the most common positive reactions is, “That must be so empowering for you!” It is, I guess. But the idea that sex work is always empowering is just wrong.
I’m empowered by being able to pay my bills and do fun things and buy pretty clothes, but it isn’t the sex part of sex work that is empowering. It’s the work part. Sex work is not intrinsically empowering any more than being a lawyer is intrinsically empowering. Sure, by definition it’s liberating to earn money for survival and even luxuries, but that’s pretty low on the liberation scale, any job that provides a living wage qualifies.
However, many people try to construe it primarily as empowering rather than simply a job. For example, tweets like this problematically glamorize (and over-simplify) what sex workers actually do:
Sex work is fun, exciting, liberating, empowering, sexy and a damn good job to choose if you wanna. #confessyourunpopularopinion
— Evalicious (@deliciouslybad) August 8, 2013
On a regular basis, well-meaning observers attempt to push away from the typical “prostitution is evil” opinion that much of our society holds, yet fail to recognize other factors that are less awesome. Another example: this article from The Guardian on sex workers in India. While it is very thorough and obviously a huge improvement over negative attitudes toward sex workers, it nevertheless ignores that in many newly industrialized countries, exploitation does occur.
In Cosi Fabian’s essay “The Holy Whore,” she depicts her own sex work as a sort of “empowering always!” career:
This seven-year experiment has paid off magnificently: by using pre-patriarchal models of female sexuality as a noble, even divine, power I have constructed a life that is extraordinarily sweet – and pertinent to all women. To say nothing of confounding most of our preconceptions around both female and male sexuality.
I have a couple of problems with the concept of sex work as liberating. Allow me to explain.