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.

The first is both very simple and very complex: not everyone is physically equipped to do sex work. 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. The fewer boxes you are able to check on your potential cover girl form, the more difficult it’s going to be to succeed. This is not a thing people talk about when they get up on the “sex work is empowering” bandwagon. When sex work is held up as some sort of gold standard of female sexual empowerment, the positives are usually limited to those of us who at least roughly fit the socially accepted definition of pretty or sexy or whatever you want to call it.

In addition to all this, the idea of sex work as vehicle for empowerment reeks of unexamined privilege. People do sex work for many reasons, whether it’s as a last resort or because sex work is a career that provides flexible hours and high earning potential. I’m a sex worker for a couple of reasons. I started in the industry so young that it basically ruined the idea of a straight job for me. And I could probably get past the feelings of degradation that come with other service jobs, but there are days, especially in the winter, when I’m so depressed I just need to stay in bed all day. You can’t do that and work a straight job. Even people with more obvious disabilities get fired for calling into work more frequently than is deemed acceptable, and these are people who actually have things visibly wrong with them. I appear healthy, because physically I am. Mental illness isn’t real illness, so far as most employers are concerned. You’re depressed? That sucks. Have you tried thinking positively?

Instead, it’s better to view sex work as Kelly J. Bell said in this essay for Student Pulse:

While many members of society view sex work as immoral and degrading to women, I argue that sex work is essentially just work, and that it is not necessarily harmful to women.

It’s just work. And just like a job in construction can be dangerous to your back, muscles and bones, it’s a job that comes with its own risks.

Sure, I chose sex work. No, I don’t hate it. Yes, a lot of the time I really love it, but I’m lucky that this job which fits my needs is also frequently enjoyable. Not everyone has that luxury and there are plenty of sex workers who chose their work freely but don’t love it–some who may even hate it–but keep doing it because it is the job that best fits their physical, mental, or scheduling needs. Do those sex workers feel empowered by their jobs? I doubt it. Do the people who turn to sex work because they literally have no other options feel empowered by their work? Probably not.

As I said earlier, it’s the income that comes with sex work that is empowering, not the sex, but the people who I’ve spoken with who equate sex work with empowerment seem to entirely ignore the work of it. It’s the gritty reboot of the slut walk, sexual reclaiming 2.0. Like the sex work tourists I wrote about a few months ago, the women (and it’s usually women) who tell me sex work is empowering often don’t care about removing that stigma, nor do they particularly prioritize removing the laws that allow us to be denied housing, arrested, harassed, raped, and even killed. To them, the social view of sex workers as cool, dildo-totin’ outlaws just makes the industry more appealing.

The last, and probably most unfortunate part of the concept that sex work is always empowering 100% of the time, is that it directly plays into both the whorearchy and the happy hooker story. The respectability politics at work are staggering! Because sure, sex work is always empowering 100% of the time, unless you’re one of those street walkers–you know, the low income, often non-white, frequently non-gender binary people who apparently don’t even deserve the term “sex worker.” Those people don’t get to be empowered because there are other factors besides sexual exploration at work in their choice to become sex workers. Sex work is always empowering 100% of the time unless you’re one of those junkie whores, then it’s not empowering at all. God forbid a sex worker use their work to finance a drug habit, because there is a sexual interaction with her clients, that junkie whore is obviously totally different from the lawyer who might represent her if she gets arrested, the very same lawyer who uses his law career to finance his cocaine habit.

Nothing is that black and white. Even a dream job—and really, sex work basically is my dream job—has its not-so-great days. Most prostitutes don’t work because we want to fit in; we work because we need to pay our bills and live our lives. Equating sex work with empowerment completely ignores the fact that all sex work is, on one level or another, survival sex work. It does all sex workers a disservice when this frequently difficult, often illegal, industry is reduced to nothing more than a trophy for owning your sexuality. It ignores our labor and reduces our struggle. I love my work. I love being able to live alone and pay my bills and for the most part do what I want, but to say that my work is empowering only because I suck a bunch of dick to earn the dollars I pay my rent with ignores my labor, and that is pretty much the opposite of empowering.