Harlotry: Sex Work Is Not “Empowering.” It Is Work.

Rosie the Riveter -- Sex work is not empowering

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.

Share This Post:
    • Samantha Escobar

      While I do think a lot of this comes from good intentions, it’s also misguided to automatically rebrand an entire occupation (and, in reality, if you’re pro-sex work reform, you should view it as an occupation) as inherently empowering or, really, inherently anything.

    • FormerSexWorker

      I agree with a great deal of this piece. I hate the idea that sex work *has* to be empowering OR degrading, with no grey area. Sex work *is* work, plain and simple, and while it can be empowering, it shouldn’t be expected to be so for everyone.

      What threw me was this:

      “Unfortunately, we live in a world where the definition of beauty is sadly narrow, and while everyone is someone’s type and there are plenty of successful sex workers who do not fit the young/thin/white mold, the reality of it is that it is going to be much, much harder for any sex worker who is not young and thin and white.”

      Perhaps this is true for what you’ve so narrowly defined as “sex work,” but I respectfully disagree with you. “Sex work” can encompass any number of things – prostitution, cam work, phone sex, domination, fetish work, etc. This might not all include P in V (or similar) sex, but it’s sex work none-the-less. From my experience, any woman can find lucrative work, it all depends on what line of “sex work” they’re in. Yes, not every woman can succeed as a high-end, Eliot Spitzer-level call girl, but there is work to be done in other areas that is just as much “sex work” as escorting or street work.

      Don’t get me wrong, please. I love this column. I think you’re doing great work and I look forward to reading it. But as a former sex worker who has dabbled in a number of the aforementioned types of sex work, I wanted to give my two cents.

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cate

        Oh dear. I in no way meant to suggest that any of those things are not sex work. Longtime readers will remember that I spent some time as a phone sex operator and that until recently when I got back to my kinky escort roots, I was a pro-domme at a Chicago fetish house. That said, phone sex, the least visually oriented field of sex work, is not very lucrative at all.
        I’ve had a couple of pretty unfortunate experiences where acquaintances who really didn’t fit the socially accepted standard of beauty decided to try out being sex workers for the empowerment, failed miserably and couldn’t figure out WHY, because they were so used to the narrative of sex work as one size fits all empowerment, rather than work.

    • Kay_Sue

      I don’t think any occupation, in and of itself, can be empowering. Period. It can contribute to feelings of empowerment, but that’s about it.

      I worked in retail management for a long time. There were days when I felt very empowered, as the “boss”, and days when it was such a drudge, when I had been a punching bag for so many different people and customers, that I just wanted to crawl in bed and cry. Those days were not empowering at all.

      It’s the nature of working, I guess, when you get right down to it. It’s kind of sad to see people try to lock women into an ideal for any profession.

    • KaluzaKlein

      I agree with this.

      I do think it’s important to point out that a lot of “sex work is empowering” talk is a direct response to people telling us we’re degraded victims and we hate our lives. That kind of bullshit robs us of our ability to talk about our work with any degree of nuance. I love my job, but I’ve had bad experiences, and I don’t talk about them for fear that they’ll be used against me.

      I think “empowerment” and “objectification” are both words that should be struck from the English language entirely.