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Book Summary: Playing the Whore – The Work of Sex Work

Playing The Whore (2014) busts the myths still surrounding the topic of sex work and explores how and why society continues to shame the chosen profession of the sexually liberated. Unfortunately, society’s attitudes and laws often endanger, rather than protect, those who work in the sex industry. Discover why that is and why it’s time to change our perspective on one of the oldest professions in the world.

Book Summary: Playing the Whore - The Work of Sex Work

Content Summary

Genres
Who is it for?
What’s in it for me? Challenge your views on prostitution and sex work.
Rather than protecting prostitutes, the police often make a sex worker’s life more dangerous.
Attitudes toward sex work improved in the 1970s, and positive work continues on an international level.
When making laws or discussing the morality of sex work, those in the profession are unfairly sidelined.
The illegality of prostitution has led to a dangerous hypocrisy that puts the lives of sex workers at risk.
While society would prefer sex work to remain invisible, the court of law defends advertising it.
The moral judgment of women’s sexuality is linked to sex work and women are also responsible for slut shaming.
Sex workers are often much more empowered and independent than we think.
Final summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Overview
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award
Video and Podcast

Genres

Social Sciences, Politics, Government, Sex, Labor & Industrial Relations, Business Encyclopedias, Feminism, Sexuality, Sex Work, Gender, Sociology, Social Movements, Social Justice, Philosophy

Who is it for?

  • Sexually liberated people tired of being judged
  • Conservative people curious about the opinion of a sex worker
  • Social workers looking for a different perspective

What’s in it for me? Challenge your views on prostitution and sex work.

Have you ever heard the word “whore” employed as a compliment? Probably not. Often called the oldest profession in the world, prostitution has always been deemed amoral, something you would only do if there were no other choice. But this attitude relegates sex workers – real people who, like all of us, deserve respect and consideration – to the periphery of society.

Our moralistic views on sexuality have left sex workers behind. They’re forced to live in the underbelly of a society that grants them no rights, putting them at even more risk than that intrinsic to the profession.

Let’s take the sex worker’s perspective for a change, and see what it’s like to play the whore.

In these summaries, you’ll find out

  • how the police often pose the biggest risk for prostitutes;
  • why legislation passed to protect sex workers has the opposite effect; and
  • that current US police methods limit the possibility for sex workers to have safer sex.

Book Summary: Playing the Whore - The Work of Sex Work

Rather than protecting prostitutes, the police often make a sex worker’s life more dangerous.

Society often sees things as black and white. It’s often assumed, for instance, that the police will work to keep all people safe from harm and that all prostitutes are criminals. But reality is rarely so clear-cut.

Often, the work of police ends up making the lives of prostitutes less safe.

According to a 2003 survey by the Sex Worker’s Project, an organization that offers legal and social support for sex workers, over two-thirds of sex workers in New York City are harassed by police, usually on a daily basis.

On top of that, 30 percent of sex workers have received violent threats from police officers and most feel that they can’t depend on the police to help them out when clients become violent.

For example, after a prostitute was gang-raped, the police refused to investigate and, due to her profession, didn’t consider her worthy of protection.

This attitude results in many emergency phone calls from prostitutes being ignored by police, and, as a result, many sex workers have simply given up trying to call for help.

And the statistics on the mistreatment of sex workers by police only get worse from there.

In 2005, the Sex Worker’s Project found that 14 percent of the interviewed prostitutes in New York City were victims of police violence. Further, 16 percent reported that police officers had attempted to initiate sexual activity.

These problems aren’t restricted to New York City.

In West Bengal, a survey of 21,000 sex workers revealed that the overwhelming amount of violent attacks on prostitutes were committed by the police, not clients.

This debunks one of the most common myths of prostitution: that clients present the greatest risk. In actuality, the police often pose much more of a threat.

Attitudes toward sex work improved in the 1970s, and positive work continues on an international level.

If you’ve seen Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Fantine in the film Les Miserables, then you’re familiar with how prostitution was once seen as a person’s last resort. When Fantine does become a prostitute, after losing her job, she also becomes an outcast from nineteenth-century French society.

Thankfully, things have improved since then.

In the wake of the sexual liberation of the 1960s, prostitutes saw many positive changes.

Pop culture from this time presents some of the first positive portrayals of prostitution: In 1971, Jane Fonda won an Oscar for the movie Klute, in which she played an independent and empowered call girl.

Not long afterward, a prostitute published her experiences in a book that made it to the top five of The New York Times Best Seller list. It was aptly titled The Happy Hooker, though imagining such a person is difficult, even today.

All of this coincided with the birth of the sex worker’s movement and, in 1973, the launch of the first US prostitutes’ rights group, led by Margo St. James.

Two years later, in Lyon, France, prostitutes organized a sit-in protest at a church to fight against the unfair prison sentences that some of their colleagues were facing. (Street prostitution is still illegal in France, but, today, discreet sex workers are no longer arrested.)

These days, one must turn to international bodies to see the active work being done to fight for the rights of sex workers.

For example, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and several United Nations committees, including the UN Human Rights Committee, have repeatedly called for the decriminalization of sex work.

Their attitude is supported by the International Labor Organization, which officially recognizes sex work as legitimate employment and helps protect workers from discriminatory practices, such as forced HIV testing.

They also require that structured benefits like social security and health insurance be in place, just as they would be for any other profession.

When making laws or discussing the morality of sex work, those in the profession are unfairly sidelined.

If you were tasked with improving the working conditions of IT consultants, the first thing you’d do would probably be to seek out the opinions of some IT consultants. Sex workers, however, are rarely asked for their opinions.

There is an ongoing debate about the morality of prostitution, but, when sex workers speak up, their input is routinely dismissed.

The debate is led by intellectuals, politicians and moral leaders, people who are generally more concerned with their own image and rhetorical ability than with the lives of sex workers.

For example, anti-prostitution activist and sociologist Kathleen Barry was a prominent figure at the first world conference on human trafficking, in 1983. But she refused to consider the position of Margo St. James, founder of COYOTE, a prostitution rights group. (The letters stand for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics.)

Absurdly enough, Barry believed that prostitutes couldn’t have a valid opinion on sex trafficking since they would have a biased and positive view of their profession.

This lack of representation can also be seen when laws are made regarding sex work.

In 1999, Sweden passed a new anti-prostitution law without consulting any sex workers. Before it went into effect, it was illegal to sell sex in Sweden, but the new law targets customers, making it illegal to buy sex, an act now punishable by imprisonment or fines.

While some celebrated this as a victory for feminism – a shift of the blame from the female sex workers to the male clientele – the new law is criticized by those in the profession.

After all, clients are now justifiably scared of being arrested, which makes them harder to come by. It also makes the initial act a tense affair, with clients in a rush not get caught and prostitutes having to make snap decisions about whether a client is safe, or intoxicated and potentially dangerous.

Intended to protect prostitutes, the law actually makes sex work riskier.

The illegality of prostitution has led to a dangerous hypocrisy that puts the lives of sex workers at risk.

In the brothels of yesteryear, conditions weren’t great for prostitutes: their lives were oppressively controlled and they were blatantly exploited. But, in addition to all this, they were often also protected by a matron or headmistress who managed their affairs.

Today, however, especially in countries where prostitution is illegal, prostitutes receive little protection from their employers.

A typical high-class escort agency will often make sex workers sign a contract promising that they won’t have sex with their clients.

This is the kind of dangerous hypocrisy that happens when prostitution is criminalized. Since the agency needs to make sure it can’t be held criminally accountable, it shifts the responsibility for what might happen with the client onto the sex worker.

In order to maintain this innocent appearance, agencies are unable to develop policies to protect their workers, such as teaching them how to negotiate the terms and conditions of a date.

As long as prostitution is illegal, this kind of moral hypocrisy can even result in women in possession of condoms coming under suspicion.

It may sound ridiculous, but as recently as 2012, police in major cities such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have used condoms as evidence that a woman might be a sex worker.

If police were suspicious of a woman’s activities, they could take her into custody and search her home and belongings. And if they found enough condoms, they could justify this as evidence of prostitution.

Ironically, this only discourages actual prostitutes from using condoms, making their work even more dangerous by putting them at risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, not to mention unwanted pregnancies.

According to police policy that is still in use in New York City, it also means that any woman who has regular, protected sex with one or more partners could be suspected of prostitution.

While society would prefer sex work to remain invisible, the court of law defends advertising it.

Many people turn a blind eye when confronted by a homeless person asking for spare change. Similarly, prostitution is something a lot of people would prefer not to see.

In this way, society is more concerned about how visible prostitution is, rather than how safe the prostitutes are.

For example, the humanitarian group Equality Now recently petitioned The Village Voice to stop publishing ads for escort services featuring the naked bodies of women.

The Village Voice responded with a compromise: it now requires sex workers to post ads using a simple headshot photo that clearly shows their face rather than a sexualized or full body picture.

Since sex workers generally prefer to be anonymous, this makes advertising problematic. Even if they find a way to satisfy this demand, interested clients are far less interested in a headshot photo than a seductive nude picture.

This sums up much of what people are truly concerned about when it comes to sex work: they don’t want to be confronted with the realities of sex in our society; they somehow feel that making it visible will corrupt the societal morals.

And yet, according to the rule of law, sex workers have a right to advertise.

In fact, many states tried to ban such ads but were rejected by the courts: In Washington state, a bill that sought to suppress sex ads was eventually annulled. According to the judges, the bill was worded so broadly that, had it passed, all online speech could have been construed as illegal.

Likewise, in Tennessee, a law to suppress the advertisement of sex trafficking was rejected. It too was deemed overly general, since the term “sex trafficking” could have been used to target any offer of sex services.

The moral judgment of women’s sexuality is linked to sex work and women are also responsible for slut shaming.

If you’ve seen the TV series Sex and the City, you’ve seen how pop culture might embrace a sex-positive attitude toward women. This is but a minor advancement, however, since society still tends to pass negative judgment on women with an active sex life.

This moral judgment of women is closely associated with people’s feelings toward sex workers.

Just consider those who suggest that women who’ve been raped were “looking for it” by dressing or behaving in a certain way.

This attitude was reinforced in 2006 when Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti lectured a group of university women on how they should dress so as not to be victims of sexual violence.

According to this logic, wearing a sexy outfit makes you a whore, and whores shouldn’t be surprised if they get raped.

This, of course, is extremely offensive logic, and in 2011 women organized the first SlutWalk protest in Toronto. They advocated for sexual freedom and the right to wear the clothes of their choice without shame.

However, the sad truth is that many women also reinforce this moral judgment, categorizing women as either wholesome or whorish.

For example, if a woman is called a slut, her friends might argue, “No, she’s definitely not a slut.” These friends may mean well, but such a defense implies that there are other women who indeed are slutty.

What they forget, and other people fail to realize, is that someone who is labeled a slut or whore may actually be a sexually liberated woman, a person who rejects the oppressive idea that women must be virtuous.

Rejecting such old-fashioned ideas is just one way to be sexually liberated. If someone decides they want to use their sexuality to earn money, there is no reason that this decision shouldn’t also be respected.

Sex workers are often much more empowered and independent than we think.

As we’ve seen in the previous chapters, it can be difficult to shake outdated modes of thinking. And this includes the idea that sex workers are victims forced to work in an unhealthy environment.

The reality of sex work is sometimes the exact opposite. In some places, it’s the workers who have the power over their clients.

This is how things operate at a discreet residential mansion with close connections to the business center of a major US city.

Here, a very specific kind of sex worker awaits clients with open chains and handcuffs, in rooms that are often referred to as “a dungeon.”

According to the strict rules of business, clients specify the services they wish to receive, but the sex workers have the final say in approving or vetoing these services. A receptionist then assigns the client to the sex worker who is willing to fulfill his or her desires.

In these scenarios, the sex worker is in the dominant role, while clients are the submissive ones, often literally tied down or restrained.

What’s more, many clients also enjoy being coerced into the role of houseboy and made to tidy up the mansion. Inverting the patriarchal, as much S&M does, women dressed in leather and stilettos order their houseboys around, offering appreciated punishment when they fail to do a good job.

Further contradicting misconceptions is the fact that many sex workers are young and independent entrepreneurs. In fact, one of the author’s friends uses her apartment as a base of operations to run a porn website and make short videos.

While she often models for her own videos, she also uses online forums to recruit friends and acquaintances to take part. And as her membership increases, she can expand her business, bringing in more models, taking more expensive photographs and filming more elaborate scenes for the site.

As we can see, the world of sex work is far from being a black and white affair.

Final Summary

The key message in this book: Being a whore is not an insult; it’s a right. Whether one chooses to do it for pleasure or money, being a sex worker is a valid choice that a sexually liberated person can make. Unfortunately, due to unfair legislation, misguided moral judgment and gender inequality, sex workers don’t enjoy the same human rights that most of us take for granted.

About the author

Melissa Gira Grant is a writer, journalist and former exotic dancer. She advocates for human rights, especially the rights of sex workers, and does voluntary work for gender equality organizations and sex work groups. Her articles have been published in The New York Times and The Guardian.

Melissa Gira Grant is a writer and freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Glamour, the Guardian, the Nation, Wired, and the Atlantic. She is also a Contributing Editor to Jacobin.

Melissa Gira Grant | Website
Melissa Gira Grant | Email
Melissa Gira Grant | Twitter @melissagira

Melissa Gira Grant

Table of Contents

Cover
Title Page
Copyright
Epigraph
1 The Police
2 The Prostitute
3 The Work
4 The Debate
5 The Industry
6 The Peephole
7 The Stigma
8 The Other Women
9 The Saviors
10 The Movement
Acknowledgements
Further Reading

Overview

Recent years have seen a panic over “online red-light districts,” which supposedly seduce vulnerable young women into a life of degradation, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s live tweeting of a Cambodian brothel raid. But rarely do these fearful, salacious dispatches come from sex workers themselves, and rarely do they deviate from the position that sex workers must be rescued from their condition, and the industry simply abolished — a position common among feminists and conservatives alike.

In Playing the Whore, journalist Melissa Gira Grant turns these pieties on their head, arguing for an overhaul in the way we think about sex work. Based on ten years of writing and reporting on the sex trade, and grounded in her experience as an organizer, advocate, and former sex worker, Playing the Whore dismantles pervasive myths about sex work, criticizes both conditions within the sex industry and its criminalization, and argues that separating sex work from the “legitimate” economy only harms those who perform sexual labor. In Playing the Whore, sex workers’ demands, too long relegated to the margins, take center stage: sex work is work, and sex workers’ rights are human rights.

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

“I recall my file of e-mails from reporters, academics, filmmakers, and activists who want me to introduce them to sex workers so that they can tell their stories, or organise them, without an understanding that they -we- are also reporters, academics, filmmakers, and activists, and are doing it ourselves.” – Melissa Gira Grant, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work

1

The Police

“An attractive blonde walks into a Fargo hotel room,” it begins, “followed by a mustached man in a black leather jacket. He asks what brought her to town.” The blonde in the low-slung jeans is about to sit down. You can just see her shoulder and the back of her head.

In another room, a man looks at a woman with long dark hair. She’s seated across from him, wr; apped in a robe or a shirt. It’s hard to see in the glare of the bedside lamp. He stands and slips off his boxers. He asks if she would let him see hers. She drops the robe or the shirt from her shoulders a few inches, then excuses herself to go freshen up.

“You’ll be satisfied,” a third woman says. “This is my job.”

There’s always a television, and it’s playing a western, or the kind of old Hollywood picture with men dancing in topcoats and tails. In front of the flat screen, two women are cuffed. He’s ordered them to sit for questioning.

As he reaches for one of the women’s wrists, the man in the cop uniform says, “We’re just going to lock these cuffs, so they don’t get tight on you.” She asks, “Can I ask what I did wrong?”

“I’m not gon[na] lie,” writes a commenter under one of the videos, “… i jacked off to this.”

Though they resemble amateur pornography’s opening shots, you will not find these videos by searching YouPorn, PornHub, or RedTube. They’re published at JohnTV.com, which boasts “over sixty million views.” JohnTV is the project of “Video Vigilante” Brian Bates, who since 1996 has been trailing women he suspects to be “prostitutes” and “hookers” and shoots videos of them with men he tells us are their “johns.”

JohnTV posts are sorted into sections: Busts, Stings, and Pimp Profiles. These start with a mug shot—usually of a black man—followed by his name and criminal allegations. Bates claims he “often works with patrol officers” and members of the “Vice Unit on cases involving human trafficking.” He also goes solo, trailing people on streets, in parked cars, wherever he finds people he considers suspicious, attempting to catch men in the act and the women with them. For Bates, the camera isn’t just a tool for producing evidence: It’s his cover for harassing women he believes are selling sex, pinning a record on them online even when the law will not.

Bates didn’t shoot the six videos from Fargo. “This is the first time JohnTV has come across videos of this sort,” he gushes on his blog. “Usually these sorts of videos only appear on television after being highly edited by television programs such as COPS.” These six unedited videos are embeds from a North Dakota news outlet, where they ran with the headline, “Watch Local Prostitution Stings Unfold.” But they weren’t produced by reporters. The videos were created by the Fargo Police Department.

There’s so much to watch in the long minutes between negotiation and interrogation, and it repeats—the nervous customer asking if he’s going to get “full service” or if she “upsells,” the undercovers’ rehearsed excuses that they “just need, like, a five-minute shower” while they call for backup, then the sudden, crashing appearance of black vests and ball caps and guns drawn on undressed people, who are told to bend and kneel and spread their arms.

Prostitution stings are a law enforcement tactic used to target men who buy sex and women who sell it—or men and women who the police have profiled in this way. These days, rather than limit their patrol to the street, vice cops search the Web for advertisements they believe offer sex for sale, contact the advertisers while posing as customers, arrange hotel meetings, and attempt to make an arrest from within the relative comfort of a room with free Wi-Fi and an ice machine down the hall.

Whether these videos are locked in an evidence room, broadcast on the eleven o’clock news, or blogged by a vigilante, they are themselves a punishment. We could arrest you at any time, they say. Even if no one is there to witness your arrest, everyone will know. When we record your arrest, when you’re viewed again and again, you will be getting arrested all the time.

In the United States, one of the last industrialized nations which continues to outlaw sex for sale, we must ask: Why do we insist that there is a public good in staging sex transactions to make arrests? Is the point to produce order, to protect, or to punish?

No evidence will be weighed before the arrest video is published. Even if she was not one before, in the eyes of the viewer and in the memory of search engines, this woman is now a prostitute. As so few people arrested for prostitution-related offenses fight their charges, there is no future event to displace the arrest video, to restate that those caught on tape didn’t, as one of the women arrested in Fargo said, “do anything wrong.” The undercover police, perpetually arresting in these videos, enact a form of sustained violence on these women’s bodies. Even with a camera, it is not immediately visible.

To produce a prostitute where before there had been only a woman is the purpose of such policing. It is a socially acceptable way to discipline women, fueled by a lust for law and order that is at the core of what I call the “prostitute imaginary”—the ways in which we conceptualize and make arguments about prostitution. The prostitute imaginary compels those who seek to control, abolish, or otherwise profit from prostitution, and is also the rhetorical product of their efforts. It is driven by both fantasies and fears about sex and the value of human life.

The sting itself, aside from the unjust laws it enforces, or the trial that may never result, is intended to incite fear. These stings form just one part of a matrix of widespread police misconduct toward sex workers and people profiled as sex workers. In New York City, for example, 70 percent of sex workers working outdoors surveyed by the Sex Workers Project reported near daily run-ins with police, and 30 percent reported being threatened with violence. According to “The Revolving Door: An Analysis of Street-Based Prostitution in New York City,” when street-based sex workers sought help from the police, they were often ignored.

Carol told researchers, “If I call them, they don’t come. If I have a situation in the street, forget it. ‘Nobody told you to be in the street.’ After a girl was gang-raped, they said, ‘Forget it, she works in the street.’ She said, ‘I hope that never happens to your daughters. I’m human.’ ”

Jamie had an incident where she was “hanging out on the stroll … these guys in a jeep driving by … one guy in a car threw a bottle at me … I went to the cops [who told me] we didn’t have a right being in that area because we know it’s a prostitution area, and whatever came our way, we deserved it.”

Police violence isn’t limited to sex workers who work outdoors. In a parallel survey conducted by the Sex Workers Project, 14 percent of those who primarily work indoors reported that police had been violent toward them; 16 percent reported that police officers had initiated a sexual interaction.

This was in New York City, where the police department is notorious for violating civil rights in the course of law enforcement, but look globally, where violations of sex workers’ rights by police are also common—and well documented. In West Bengal, the sex worker collective Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee surveyed over 21,000 women who do sex work. They collected 48,000 reports of abuse or violence by police—in contrast with 4,000 reports of violence by customers, who are conventionally thought of as the biggest threat to sex workers, especially by campaigners opposed to prostitution.

Police violence against sex workers is a persistent global reality. As the economy collapsed in Greece, police staged raids on brothels, arrested and detained sex workers, forced them to undergo HIV testing, and released their photos and HIV status to the media. These actions were condemned by UNAIDS and Human Rights Watch. In China, police have forced sex workers they have arrested to walk in “shame parades,” public processions in which they are shackled and then photographed. Police published these photos on the Web, including one in which a cop humiliated a nude sex worker by pulling her hair back and brutally exposing her face to the camera. When the photo went viral, the outcry reportedly prompted police to suspend these public shaming rituals, though they continue to make violent arrests and raids.

One could hope that the photos and videos like these could make the pervasiveness of this violence real to the public. But to truly confront this type of violence would require us to admit that we permit some violence against women to be committed in order to protect the social and sexual value of other women.

Violence’s Value

I’ve stopped asking, Why have we made prostitution illegal? Instead I want an explanation for, How much violence against “prostitutes” have we made acceptable? The police run-ins, the police denying help, the police abuse—all this shapes the context in which the sting, and the video of it, form a complete pursuit of what we are to understand as justice, which in this case is limited to some form of punishment, of acceptable violence.

As I was working on this book I was invited to give a presentation to law students and fellows at Yale University. In my talk, I described these videos. Afterward, as I stood in the door about to leave, several students approached me individually to say that they thought my presentation would have been more persuasive if I had prefaced it by stating my “position on prostitution.”

“Do you need to know if I oppose prostitution,” I asked these students, “before you can evaluate how you feel about police abuse, about a persistent pattern of denying justice to people labeled ‘prostitutes’?” Are these videos to be understood only as documents of an acceptable form of violence, to be applied as a deterrent, to deliberately make prostitution less safe?

My presentation remains, with this addendum: these students taught me to see how narrowly and insistently people can focus their opposition to what they understand as “the system” of prostitution, so much so that even police violence against sex workers is collapsed into that system, how this violence appears inevitable. The stigma and violence faced by sex workers are far greater harms than sex work itself, yet this is illegible to those who only see prostitution as a self-enforcing system of violence. For them, prostitution marks out the far reach of what’s acceptable for women and men, where rights end and violence is justice. This is accepted as the cost of protecting those most deserving of protection. Opponents of sex work decry prostitution as a violent institution, yet concede that violence is also useful to keep people from it.

The Fargo videos invite the public to witness this violence against sex workers, a criteria we don’t admit to using to define their existence. Here we see evidence of their lives only as they are put on display the last critical minutes of a police tactic meant to exert control over sex workers’ abilities to move in public spaces, to make a living, to determine the conditions of their labor. These videos capture and relay the moment—an agreement made and money exchanged—that is nearly universally understood as defining prostitution, though it is also marked here with the particulars of the indoor, Internet-powered sex trade: Two people going behind closed doors, seated on floral bedcovers, and counting bills before getting down to business—and before the cuffs go on. In the prevailing view, this is the moment to which nearly all sex workers’ lives are reduced.

As seen from a motel room in Fargo, North Dakota, those lives are worth comparatively little to the public until they pass in front of the policeman’s camera.

The Carceral Eye

This is the social act to which the prostitute is reduced: the moment cash is handed to her; the moment she makes an agreement. It’s not a coincidence that this is what the law is most concerned with. In most cases, it’s not necessary for police to observe a sex act in progress in order to make an arrest. In fact, in some countries, like Canada and the UK, the sex act itself is not illegal. What is illegal in many jurisdictions is the “communication for the purposes of … solicitation” or even, “loitering with intent to solicit.”

Prostitution is, much of the time, a talking crime.

Prostitution is, much of the time, a talking crime.

In some cities, it’s a walking crime. In Washington, DC, cops have the leeway to arrest people congregating in groups of two or more if they are doing so in areas decreed by the chief of police as “prostitution free zones.” In Queens, New York, transgender women report in significant numbers that they cannot walk freely in their own neighborhoods—from their apartments, to the train—without being followed by cops, who accuse them of being out “working”—whether they are or not. “I was just buying tacos,” a transgender Latina woman from Jackson Heights told Make the Road New York. “They grabbed me and handcuffed me. They found condoms in my bra and said I was doing sex work. After handcuffing me they asked me to kneel down and they took my wig off. They arrested me and took me away.”

Sex workers and anyone perceived to be a sex worker are believed to always be working, or, in the cops’ view, always committing a crime. People who are profiled by cops as sex workers include, in disproportionate numbers, trans women, women of color, and queer and gender nonconforming youth. This isn’t about policing sex. It’s about profiling and policing people whose sexuality and gender are considered suspect.

It’s not just that police need to appear “tough on crime,” to follow orders and keep certain people off the streets through harassment, profiling, and arrests. Appeals for stepped-up vice enforcement come not just from command but from feminist corners, too. Take the relatively recent swing in antiprostitution rhetoric, the assertions of even mainstream women’s rights organizations that rather than arrest those they call “prostituted women,” police ought to arrest “the johns,” “the demand.” This is how we find the National Organization for Women and Equality Now on the same side as those who commit violence against sex workers: cops … This is how we come to have a female prosecutor such as New York’s Nassau County district attorney Kathleen Rice celebrating the arrest of 106 men for allegedly buying sex in a single month—and leaving out of her press conference the arrests in that same month sex of twenty-three women for allegedly selling sex, omitting their mug shots from the blown-up poster board that was at her side in front of the news cameras. Women are still getting arrested in the course of busting johns.

District Attorney Rice is a near perfect model of what sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein describes as “carceral feminism,” a reliance on the law-and-order power of the state to bring about gender justice. Rather than couching crackdowns on sex work as fighting crime, now some feminists appeal to the police to pursue stings against the sex trade in the name of gender equality. We can’t arrest our way to feminist utopia, but that has not stopped influential women’s rights organizations from demanding that we try.

This is how District Attorney Rice is able to claim that when she arrests men she is “going after the demand,” but when she arrests women she is only “getting them into services.” How, exactly, is someone who is most used to having the police threaten them, or demand sex with them in exchange for not being arrested, then supposed to trust the police in any way, let alone to connect them to services which are already freely available? Is it that impossible to imagine there is a better party for reaching out to sex workers than the police? Have we so internalized law enforcement as the go-betweens, the regulators, and the bosses of sex workers that we can’t imagine prostitution without them?

We are using the policeman’s eye when we can’t see a sex worker as anything but his or her work, as an object to control. It’s not just a carceral eye; it’s a sexual eye. If a sex worker is always working, always available, she (with this eye, almost always a she) is essentially sexual. It’s the eye of the hotel room surveillance video but applied to our neighborhoods, our community groups, and our policies. Even the most seemingly benign “rehabilitation” programs for sex workers are designed to isolate them from the rest of the population. They may be described as shelters, but the doors are locked, the phones are monitored, and guests are forbidden. When we construct help in this way we use the same eye with which we build and fill prisons. This isn’t compassion. This isn’t charity. This is control.

When we look at sex workers this way we produce conditions in which they are always being policed. “Criminalization” isn’t just a law on the books but a state of being and moving in the world, of forming relationships—of having them predetermined for you. This is why we demonize the customer’s perspective on the sex worker as one of absolute control, why we situate the real violence sex workers can face as the individual man’s responsibility, and why we imagine that all sex workers must be powerless to say no. We have no way of understanding how to relate to the prostitute we’ve imagined but through control.

This fixation on control is what constrains our vision of sex work just as much as sex work’s clandestine nature. I want to remove these constraints and move beyond the imaginary. What follows is not a promise of some new reality beyond the fantasy for hire that sex workers engage in but the slow circling around of a more persistent fantasy, and its end.

2

The Prostitute

I challenge you to distinguish a naked prostitute from any other naked woman.

—Henri Leclerc, attorney representing

Dominique Strauss-Kahn (2011)

Controlling the sale of sex is not as timeless as we might imagine it to be. Commercial sex—as a practice and an industry—as well as the class of people within it are continuously being reinvented. So many methods of punishing what’s thought of as sexual deviance persist, imprisoning “sodomites” and “fallen women,” for example, even as the names we give these dangerous characters shift with time. Some say the danger began to drain out when the outcast whore gave way to the victimized prostitute at the end of the nineteenth century; since the middle of the seventies, “prostitution” has slowly begun to give way to “sex work.” It’s this transition from a state of being to a form of labor that must be understood if we’re to understand demands that sex work is work: how it came along; what goals it serves; who drove it; who contests it; who it benefits. The most important difference is that the designation of sex work is the invention of the people who perform it.

This is why I’m not so interested in what people think of prostitution: It doesn’t really exist anymore. The person we call “the prostitute,” contrary to her honorific as a member of “the world’s oldest profession,” hasn’t actually been around very long. The word is young, and at first it didn’t confer identity. When prostitute entered into English in the sixteenth century it was as a verb—to prostitute, to set something up for sale.

The word whore is older, old English or old German, possibly derived from a root that’s no longer known, and dates back as early as the twelfth century BCE. There were countless people whose lives prior to the word’s invention were later reduced by historians to the word whore, though their activities certainly varied. Contrary to King James, there was no whore of Babylon. There were no prostitutes in Pompeii. No one, not in old or new Amsterdam, worked in a red-light district until they were named as such toward the end of the nineteenth century.

It’s the nineteenth century that brings us the person of the prostitute, who we are to understand was a product of the institution that came to be known as prostitution but was actually born of something much broader. Prior to this period, anthropologist Laura Agustín explains in Sex at the Margins,

there was no word or concept which signified exclusively the sale of sexual services … “Whoring” referred to sexual relations outside of marriage and connoted immorality or promiscuity without the involvement of money, and the word “whore” was used to brand any woman who stepped out of current boundaries of respectability.

At the same time that we see a new kind of woman in the character of the prostitute, we also see the invention of a new kind of man, the homosexual. But just as sexual relations between people of the same gender of course preceded him as constructed in this period, so too was the identity of the prostitute applied to a much older set of practices, and for parallel purposes: to produce a person by transforming a behavior (however occasional) into an identity. From there a class was marked that could now be more easily imagined, located, treated, and controlled by law. This is the character laws are made for: a fantasy of absolute degradation who is abandoned by all but those noble few who seek to rescue her.

And—to the dismay of prostitutes and homosexuals, and to those of us who are both—we have not left this period. The late nineteenth century made criminals of the people, not just of the practices of sodomy and the sale of sex. In the late twentieth century, outsized fears of AIDS led to the levy of social and criminal penalties against these same people. These penalties were not against all people who engaged in same-sex sex or in selling sex but against those who were most visibly different and most easily associated with other forms of deviance.

We would be wise to remember that the raid on the Stonewall Inn one June night in 1969 would not have become a police riot were it not for the street-hustling transvestites (as they then referred to themselves) who resisted when threatened with arrest, who tossed coins and bottles back at the police. Still, the same people, the queens and the butches and the hustlers who kicked off gay liberation’s most celebrated battle—one that has so surely and safely ascended the ranks of civil rights history that it found its way into President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address—are those most likely to experience police harassment in the neighborhood around Stonewall to this day.

We—and especially people who sell sex—have not yet fully departed from this period.

I was born in the same year and in the same country in which sex work was invented. “In 1978,” writes Carol Leigh, a sex worker activist, artist, and author, in her essay “Inventing Sex Work,”

I attended a conference in San Francisco organized by Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media. This conference was part of a weekend of activism featuring Andrea Dworkin and an anti-porn march through North Beach, San Francisco’s “adult entertainment district,” during which the marchers embarrassed and harassed the strippers and other sex industry workers in the neighborhood.

A march like this could only be construed as a feminist activity if they believed that the people they targeted had in some way directed or requested such a protest. They would have to conclude that these marches were somehow distinguishable, to those workers, from the vice raids that targeted the same businesses—their workplaces—that the marchers were protesting against. Or the marchers would have to tell themselves that they simply knew—better than the sex workers—what was in their best interests.

Carol Leigh understood that by attending this conference as a prostitute she could confound some of these assumed divisions within feminism—that the prostitute who would be discussed in the conference room would herself be absent. This presumption was a profound departure from the prevailing feminist theory of the day: Politics proceed from women’s own experiences. Which women, though? Women in the sex trades were not the first to challenge their presupposed absence (for not being out) and simultaneous inclusion (for being part of the universal class of women) in a largely white, cisgender, middle-class, and heterosexual room of their own.

People who sell sex, and the women who sell sex in particular, are not absent from these rooms, and as Carol Leigh attests, themselves bear witness to the politics of exclusion perpetuated by other women who don’t understand that they share sex workers’ concerns. “I found the room for the conference workshop on prostitution,” she continues,

As I entered I saw a newsprint pad with the title of the workshop. It included the phrase “Sex Use Industry.” The words stuck out and embarrassed me. How could I sit amid other women as a political equal when I was being objectified like that, described only as something used, obscuring my role as an actor and agent in this transaction? At the beginning of the workshop I suggested that the title of the workshop should be changed to the “Sex Work Industry,” because that described what women did. Generally, the men used the services, and the women provided them. As I recall, no one raised objections.

Carol Leigh realized that she had not been alone. “One woman, another writer and performer, came up to me after the workshop to tell me that she had been a prostitute as a teenager,” recalls Leigh, “but was unable to discuss it for fear of being condemned.”

As women lined up at conferences like these in the second wave of feminism to demolish caricatures of female subservience—the innocent daughter, the selfless wife—the wretched prostitute is one myth they refused to denounce entirely. Even “compassionate” feminists like Kate Millett, herself in attendance as prostitutes crashed another, earlier women’s conference in New York, wrote of them somewhat sympathetically in The Prostitution Papers. However she “failed to understand the issue,” writes historian Melinda Chateauvert. Millet believed “that the prostitute’s ‘problem’ (as she saw it) could be solved by ‘some fundamental reorientation in the self-image of the prostitute,’ [that] prostitutes could be rehabilitated through feminist consciousness-raising.” That sex workers might be capable of doing this on their own, without guidance from their sisters, that their demands might extend to far beyond “self-image,” was still unimaginable.

A Politics of Sex Work

It’s impossible to come to a politics of sex work without referring back to the prostitutes and the whores who came before them, all the characters who populate the prostitute imaginary. This explains why the politics of sex work are persistently framed as a woman’s issue, though not all people who do sex work are women. Men are only present as pimps or johns or, more recently though no less problematically, as buyers and, strangely, not simply as customers or clients—perhaps because sex workers prefer these terms. When women in the sex trade are imagined, they are presented as objects of those men’s desires or violence. Men who work in the sex trade are rarely considered members of the same occupation.

Transgender women who sell sex are presented in media accounts only in stereotype, and they often aren’t understood even by sympathetic campaigners in relationship to other women in the sex trade. While there has also been a long history of gender nonconformity in the industry, it being one reliably available form of income for people who face discrimination in other forms of employment, gender nonconforming people in the sex trade are nearly invisible to those outside sex work. Anti–sex work feminists, meanwhile, don’t see sex work as a place for any woman. It is telling that many feminists who wish to abolish all forms of sex work, like The Transsexual Empire author Janice Raymond and author of The Industrial Vagina Sheila Jeffreys, refuse to accept that trans women are women. They appear to believe that those engaged in sex work are not yet capable of being real women.

What we should also bear in mind when considering any study or news story that purports to examine prostitutes or prostitution is that many who are described with these terms do not use them to describe themselves. When many researchers and reporters go looking for prostitutes, they find only those who conform to their stereotypes, since they are the only people the searchers think to look for. If sex workers defy those stereotypes, that is treated as a trivial novelty rather than reality.

Even today, in the course of their work it is uncommon for sex workers to refer to themselves as such with their customers. Sex work is a political identity, one that has not fully replaced the earlier identifications imposed upon them. Phrases such as “sex worker” and “people in the sex trade” are used here, the better to describe all of the people who sell or trade sex or sexual services. “Prostitute” appears primarily to refer to its historical use; if I am speaking of someone in the sex trade in a period before the phrase “sex work” was invented, I will most likely not use it. In contemporary contexts, I will use the words “prostitute” and “prostitution” when they are used by others; for example, by those who describe themselves as prostitutes or who describe their politics as antiprostitution.

Use of the phrase “sex work,” then, like those that preceded it, is unevenly and politically distributed. Sex workers may be referred to in the literature of public health, for example, but that is due to their own advocacy, and in particular of those who pushed back early in the AIDS era against the notion that prostitutes were responsible for the illness, an update of earlier health panics—syphilis, VD—in which many saw the bodies of prostitutes being considered little more than “vectors of disease.” Outside of sex workers’ own political networks, the shift to “sex work” is most complete in the world of AIDS, at least linguistically, though in putting policy and funding into action, fights do remain. The production of sex work has not gone without significant and persistent contest.

Sex workers can be found taking up the most public space within their own cultural production: ads, Web sites, photos, videos. Here’s where sex workers are most directly involved in creating their own images, informed by competing needs for exposure and discretion. Confined to media channels that haven’t censored them outright, this media is meant for customers. It would be a mistake to read such advertisements and other marketing as complete representations of sex workers. They are not meant to convey life off the clock.

This hasn’t stopped antiprostitution social reformers from using them as evidence of the conditions of sexual labor. They don’t understand such marketing as intentionally glamorized, even as the so-called glamorization of sex work is something that greatly concerns these campaigners in other forms of media. (Responsible for making sex work attractive to potential sex workers, according to antiprostitution activists: the movie Pretty Woman, the television show Secret Diary of a Call Girl, and what they call “pimp culture” in hiphop. Not as responsible, apparently, are: the labor market, the privatization of education and healthcare, and debt.) All their emphasis on the pop culture depiction of the prostitute allows those opposed to sex work to keep their fight within the realm of the representational.

For a time it felt as if the fight might not be a long one: In the United States in the early seventies, sympathetic portraits of prostitutes entered the mainstream alongside an increased visibility of commercial sex as part of city life and tourism. It was 1971 when Jane Fonda took home an Oscar for her role as a bohemian, independent call girl in Klute, and a firsthand account of prostitution, The Happy Hooker, arrived on the New York Times bestseller list the following year. Also at the opening of the decade, after a series of court rulings appeared to relax prohibitions on “obscenity,” the cities of Boston and Detroit became the first in the nation to explore licensing adult entertainment businesses. Times Square, then the most cinematic red-light district in the world, had not yet completely expelled them along with the hustlers and working girls who made it famous.

These were also the years recognized as the birth of the modern sex workers’ rights movement. In 1973, the American activist Margo St. James launched the first prostitutes’ rights organization, Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE), to oppose the criminalization of prostitution; in 1975, more than one hundred prostitutes occupied a church in Lyon, France, to protest police repression, issuing statements that they would stay until prison sentences against their members were lifted. The movement for what was then called prostitutes’ rights may have been born from demands for sexual freedom, but its own demands were for freedom from police violence.

It was these groups that laid the foundation for Carol Leigh’s invention of the phrase sex worker, and through their networks of activists and allied organizations that “sex work” advanced. In the first decade of this century, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and several bodies within the UN called for an end to the criminalization of sex work; these included the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, which was created by the United Nations Development Program for the Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS, an independent commission. The International Labor Organization recognizes sex work as labor and discrimination against sex workers—including forced HIV testing—as a violation of their labor rights. Human Rights Watch recommends the decriminalization of sex work. The World Health Organization recommends that “all countries should work toward decriminalization of sex work and elimination of the unjust application of non-criminal laws and regulations against sex workers.”

All this isn’t to say that with increased visibility sex workers’ lives have unilaterally improved, that these recommendations have been adopted without struggle (if they have been adopted at all), or that a new focus on sex work as work has meant an end to the social phenomenon of prostitution.

In the not-quite-forty years that have passed since the invention of sex work, the public’s fascination has only found new avenues for fulfillment, even as people involved in the sex trade have taken charge of their own depiction. Just as sex workers have taken up more public space in which to work and speak, each opportunity stands in contrast to the imaginary roles they are cast in. Prostitutes are still, for many people, just what’s at the other end of the peep hole—or the handcuffs. As Anne McClintock observed in her 1992 essay “Screwing the System,” “The more prostitutes are obliged to speak of their actions in public, the more they incriminate themselves.” A prostitution arrest doesn’t require actual sex (not that this stops police from pursuing sex themselves), but rather, only communications for the purpose of committing prostitution. If sex workers’ speech is where whole lives are made criminal, how does that carry through to public demands to make sex workers’ lives visible and relatable through “sharing our stories”?

McClintock argues, with reference not only to specific treatment in the courts but throughout sex workers’ lives, that this is precisely the point of soliciting their testimonies: “By ordering the unspeakable to be spoken in public,… by obsessively displaying dirty pictures, filmed evidence, confessions, and exhibits, the prostitution trial reveals itself as structured around the very fetishism it sets itself to isolate and punish.” Sex workers are to understand that they’re outsiders and outlaws for selling their bodies, and yet what’s called for in relaying their stories is the repetition of that sale, and to a much broader public than they encounter in their work.

Sex workers are called to give testimony on the nature of their work and lives in ever more venues: in secret diaries; on cable specials, opposite the “disgraced” politicians who hire them; to social workers, psychotherapists, and other members of the helping classes; and inside tabloids if they—or the ginned-up scandals created around them—have made headlines. Very rarely does sharing anything in these venues serve them, or the public. Sex workers are there for the sake of some unseen owners’ profits.

These demands on their speech, to both convey their guilt and prove their innocence, are why, at the same time that sex work has made strides toward recognition and popular representations that defy stereotypes, prostitutes, both real and imagined, still remain the object of social control. This is how sex workers are still understood: as curiosities, maybe, but as the legitimate target of law enforcement crackdowns and charitable concerns—at times simultaneously. And so this is where the prostitute is still most likely to be found today, where those who seek to “rescue” her locate her: at the moment of her arrest.

3

The Work

“The prostitute” is stretched thin across the threshold of the literal and the metaphoric, put to work as almost no other figure is.

—Julia Bryan-Wilson, art historian (2012)

The first women who shared anything with me about prostitution were later arrested.

“Were you scared when you started?” I had asked. She stood at my kitchen counter buttering bread. We sat together at the table under the stairs that had once led to the servants’ quarters, but now just led up to my room. I didn’t know if I should be asking. Was it okay to ask? Did she want to tell me? And should she tell me? Would she think I thought I was too good to do what she did? Did my asking, my not knowing, the fact that I had to ask mean I didn’t have it in me? Was I just like one of her customers, asking terrible questions, wasting her time?

She was patient with me. She had no reason to be.

The men, she said, would call the mobile phone number listed in an ad in the paper. Some met her in a motel or hotel but many also invited her into their homes, and in those homes they would leave their mail out, their family photos. It was astounding, she said, how many men felt so safe, to do that; that men maybe always feel safe, even around strangers who are women; that what she knew about these men’s lives could put her in far more danger than if these men were cops.

How few people did she think she could tell any of this to? How many times was I, asking my own questions, just seeking a kind of validation? We are told that women, either by nature or otherwise, would never want or need to hear from someone that they think could be a whore. Would I be believable to customers, the ones I was just learning enough about to construct my own suspect values of: who those men were, and who I would be to them if we met. Could I be good enough for sex work?

I asked her, What did she do in her hour with them? How did she get from the phone call to the money to the act and then home again? Why was this path not immediately understandable to me when I had performed it time and again without the appearance of money? It was only because it had been made obscure to me, like so many feminine mysteries of sex that are actually maintained by men who prefer us ignorant and dependent.

A division had been constructed between them and me, prostitutes and all other women, which had resulted in a break in transmitting such vital information. It was the breakdown, not the sex work, that kept us apart, that could cause us to suffer unnecessarily. Now I wanted everyone to know exactly what it could be like, what their choices were, what power they had, should they ever be in the situation of explicitly trading sex for something they need.

I remembered the workshops during college, held each spring in a barn on a nearby campus where you could learn how to perform a menstrual extraction—which can be used as a form of abortion—at home. There was no subtext: This information was shared in case abortion was criminalized again in the United States. Did you ever want to have to use it? Most likely you didn’t. Were you ashamed to know it? You should not be.

Recently I got an e-mail asking if I had any information on how to become a prostitute. The writer said that although she liked my work, it was not appropriate as a “101” resource on how to do sex work. That’s true, but that doesn’t mean that people reading it would not try to find advice in it anyway. It’s what I did whenever I came across a book about prostitution or stripping, some years before I ever did sex work, reverse engineering the text into a how-to. This was before many people began to use the Internet to share this kind of information, certainly before sex workers kept blogs (though not quite before they started e-mail lists and discussions on Usenet).

Sex workers’ ability to share information among themselves is essential for supporting all sex workers in negotiating their work, and in turning down work that is unsafe, underpaid, or undesirable. This is true of any job. But what does make this aspect of our work unique, and what creates the thump of panic in my gut when I open such an e-mail, is that to share this lifeline of information could be construed as criminal. Selling sex in the United States is a misdemeanor, but sharing information with someone about how to do it is considered a more serious criminal offense.

For sex workers, sharing honest information even anonymously means taking social, political, and emotional risks. Even in more uniformly legal forms of sex work—which in the United States could include pornography and stripping—secrecy reinforces stigma and shame and can compromise sex workers’ ability to take control of their own labor. When sex workers are spoken of as having “double lives,” rather than simply concealing who they are, this narrative obscures why it might be necessary for sex workers to conceal what they do at work. All that is intentionally discreet about sex work (protocols to ensure customer and worker privacy, for example) are strategies for managing legal risk and social exclusion and shouldn’t be understood as deceptive any more than the discretion and boundaries a therapist or priest may maintain. But this necessary discretion warps under the weight of anti–sex work stigmas and policing; workers aren’t sure what they can say and to who and not face consequences which themselves are unknown.

Remember Deborah Jeanne Palfrey, the famed “DC Madam” who, in the first decade of this century, counted David Vitter, the “family values” Republican senator from Louisiana, and the pro-abstinence soon-to-be-former AIDS czar Randall Tobias among her escort agency’s clients? When she was charged with money-laundering and racketeering, her finances were seized, and her most marketable asset was her client list. In spring 2007, I found a page of it online, a phone bill with a typed list of numbers and corresponding towns, and the only unredacted phone number on it was the one at the bottom of the page—her own. Without her business, that client list was her last asset worth anything.

So I called her. I didn’t take notes, but if I recall correctly she was looking to sell the list to a media outlet that would sift through it and track down the most high-profile customers. I may have made a soft bid for it: I had just launched a blog with the cofounder of the Sex Workers Outreach Project–USA, Stacey Swimme, and we were following Deborah Jeanne’s case obsessively. ABC ended up with the list and put on a nighttime special program hyping it, only to declare they hadn’t found anyone of significance on it. (Here’s another name: Harlan Ullman, the man regarded as the architect of the shock-and-awe doctrine used by the Bush administration in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.) It did not stop the show, with its promise of “true tales” of prostitution. ABC was even calling us, asking if we could produce a “classy,” “educated” (read: white, conventionally attractive) escort—like the ones they said Deborah Jeanne preferred to hire. Stacey and I took turns returning the bookers’ calls, one of us playing the blogger and the other playing the escort, when in truth we were each both, and we compared notes on how much of the story’s angle and progress the booker shared. To the blogger, he framed the story as an opportunity to show the “real world” of escorting, to present escorts without further objectifying them. In his phone call to the escort, he asked how soon they could meet for a preinterview at Starbucks. We declined his offers and kept going with the blog, where we could report the story instead of playing it.

There was something else about Deborah Jeanne’s agency that captured our attention as much as it animated fantasies in the press: Reportedly, she required her workers to sign contracts stating that they wouldn’t have sex with their customers. It’s not an uncommon practice with agencies that offer outcall services, for which an escort, masseuse, or dancer travels to the customer’s location. It’s a legal fig leaf, an attempt to absolve the agency owners of liability and shunt it off onto the workers. But maintaining that fiction—however justifiable or necessary when prostitution is criminalized—also shuts down real-world talk about the actual content of these jobs. If you’re not, as far as the paper says, having sex, why would the management ever need to acknowledge that negotiation about it is also part of the job? How can they address their workers’ health and safety, like their need for condoms or lube? How can bosses provide legal support to their workers in the case of a sting when, to protect themselves, they insist the work is entirely legal?

It’s not sex work but this kind of fiction and the criminal context that demands it that produces risks and hazards. Only in 2012 did a couple of US cities—San Francisco and Washington, DC—stop using condoms as evidence of prostitution, and did so only after considerable pressure from sex workers and public health and human rights advocates. In New York, the practice of using condoms as evidence of prostitution is so routine that the supporting depositions filled out by cops upon arrest have a standard field available to record the number of condoms seized from suspected sex workers. This is the tragedy of enforcement: A system that is supposed to use surveillance by law enforcement as a tool for combating violence against women (as prostitution is understood to be) produces violence against other, less defensible women. Sex workers refuse condoms from outreach workers, and from each other, as a way to stay safe from arrest.

These risks, not poor self-regard, are why sex workers might not share their experiences, even with each other.

There are other risks, too. So often in telling sex work stories, the storytelling process is a form of striptease indistinguishable from sex work itself, a demand to create a satisfyingly revealing story, for audiences whose interest is disguised as compassion or curiosity. In the conventional striptease routine, the sex worker dances suggestively for a first song, removes her top by the end of her second song and her bottom during the third. Off that stage, she knows there is also a script for how her story will be received. She’s often accused of not being capable of sharing the truth of her own life, of needing translators, interpreters. But part of telling the truth here is refusing to conform the story to narrow roles—virgin, victim, wretch, or whore—that she did not herself originate.

The public is most accustomed to relating to sex workers through their sexuality—or more accurately, through a sexual performance that may or may not follow their sexuality off the job. The public may not perceive this as a performance, or alternatively, they may dismiss and fetishize it as fake. Whether they’re received as brave truth tellers or conniving liars, the viewing public expects that this will be an erotic relationship whether or not they identify it as an erotic turn-on. Accordingly, sex workers calibrate what they share in public in order to compensate for this uncompensated erotic exchange.

This is not a peep show. So I will not, for example, be telling my story, though the means by which I came to the story I am telling here is inseparable from my experience as a sex worker. My job here is to reveal through an exchange of ideas, not through the incitement of arousal—while also not entirely putting aside that I have skin in this game.

Maintaining this kind of selective silence about myself is only a temporary, and ultimately insufficient, means of resistance. It’s a tactic until the time comes, or is made to come, when I can share my story in legal and economic conditions more favorable to me and to others who still do sex work. While we wait, and also because it’s just as important, I want to shift your gaze from sex workers to the fantasies of prostitution that occupy and obsess those who seek to abolish, control, or profit from sex work.

As a result of my political choice to remain silent on some of the questions we are taught to ask of sex workers, I worry that there might be so much absence in this story that it borders on erasure, that not speaking to those questions may cause some readers to think that there is almost no story here at all. Putting that privileged interrogation aside, however, will reveal all the space that is taken up by the idea of who the whore is. Rather than fear what we may be missing, I’ll continue there.

4

The Debate

The sex work debate, no matter how sedate and sympathetic its interlocutors claim it to be, is a spectacle. It attracts an audience with the lure of a crisis—prostitution sweeping the nation!—and a promise of doing good by feeling terrible. Sad stories about sex work are offered like sequins, displayed to be admired and then swept off the stage when the number is done. As a treat, the organizers may even decide to invite a token whore to perform.

Here come the questions for her:

• Is prostitution violence against women?

• Are prostitutes “exploited” or are they “empowered”?

• What are the factors that lead women (and it’s always women, and most often not trans women) to enter into or be forced to enter into prostitution?

• What about “the men”/“the johns”/“the demand side”?

• How can we help women “escape”/“exit from”/“leave” prostitution?

• How can we “raise awareness” about “this issue”?

Then there are the questions rarely up for debate, the ones she is left to raise alone:

• How do we define “prostitution”?

• How do people who sell sex describe it?

• What are some of the factors that lead women to not sell sex?

• What are some of the factors that lead women to oppose prostitution?

• How can we help women (and anyone else) better understand what selling sex is really like?

• How can we ensure that sex workers are leading any public debates on “this issue”—that is, about their own lives?

We should, in fact, refuse to debate. Sex work itself and, inseparable from it, the lives of sex workers are not up for debate—or they shouldn’t be. I don’t imagine that those in the antiprostitution camp who favor these kinds of debates actually believe that they are weighing the humanity, the value of the people who do sex work. (This assumes, of course, that there is a coherent antiprostitution camp, but for the sake of argument, let’s limit it to the antiprostitution feminists and their allies loosely congregated in the secular left.) Their production of the debate rests on the assumption that they themselves comprise the group that really cares for prostitutes. They may consider the purpose of the prostitution debate to be the challenging of myths and assumptions, to demonstrate their own expertise, perhaps to “raise awareness.”

What constitutes the nature of this awareness, particularly concerning the enduring and ubiquitous nature of prostitution, pornography, and other kinds of commercial sex? Awareness raisers can still count on a social hunger for lurid and detailed accounts, as well as a social order that restricts sex workers’ own opportunities to speak out about the realities of their lives. These factors in combination promote demand for the debaters’ own productions.

To fuel and stoke it, awareness raisers erect billboards on the sides of highways, with black-and-white photos of girls looking fearful and red letters crying NOT FOR SALE. They hire Hollywood bros like Ashton Kutcher and Sean Penn to make clicky little public service announcements for YouTube in which they tell their fans, “Real men don’t buy girls.” They occupy column inches in the New York Times with those such as Nicholas Kristof, who regales his readers with stories of his heroic missions into brothels and slums in Cambodia and in India “rescuing” sex workers.

The rescue industry, as anthropologist Laura Agustín terms such efforts, derives value from the production of awareness: It gives the producers jobs, the effectiveness of which is measured by a subjective accounting of how much they are being talked about. Raising awareness serves to build value for the raisers, not for those who are the subjects of the awareness.

Awareness raising about prostitution is not a value-neutral activity. Sex workers see a straight line between foundation dollars earmarked for advertisements such as those that appeared on Chicago buses—GET RICH. WORK IN PROSTITUTION. PIMPS KEEP THE PROFITS, AND PROSTITUTED WOMEN OFTEN PAY WITH THEIR LIVES.—and the allocation of resources to the Chicago police to arrest pimps in order to save women who they call “prostituted.” Inevitably, all of these women face arrest, no matter what they call them, a demonstration of the harm produced by awareness raising despite any good intentions. “On paper, sex workers are still not as likely to face felony charges as their patrons,” according to the Chicago Reporter, “who can be charged with a felony on their first offense under the Illinois Safe Children’s Act, which was enacted in 2010.” But when the paper examined felony arrest statistics they found,

[the] data shows that prostitution-related felonies are being levied almost exclusively against sex workers. During the past four years, they made up 97 percent of the 1,266 prostitution-related felony convictions in Cook County. And the number only grew: Felony convictions among sex workers increased by 68 percent between 2008 and 2011.

This was when antiprostitution groups such as the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation became active in the city, demanding johns pay.

With awareness raising as a goal, the debate circles back on itself. The problem at hand is not, How do we improve the lives of sex workers?, but, How should we continue to think and talk about the lives of sex workers, to carry on our discourse on prostitution regardless of how little sex workers are involved in it? Perhaps those fixated on debating ought to confine the scope of their solution to how to best bring about debates and leave those involved in the sex trade to themselves.

And on which side of this debate are sex workers presumed to sit?

Sex workers should not be expected to defend the existence of sex work in order to have the right to do it free from harm. For many, if not the majority, of people who work for a living, our attitudes toward our work change over the course of our working lives, even over the course of each day on the job. The experiences of sex workers cannot be captured by corralling them onto either the exploited or the empowered side of the stage. Likewise there must be room for them to identify, publicly and collectively, what they wish to change about how they are treated as workers without being told that the only solution is for them to exit the industry. Their complaints about sex work shouldn’t be construed, as they often are, as evidence of sex workers’ desire to exit sex work. These complaints are common to all workers and shouldn’t be exceptional when they are made about sex work. As labor journalist Sarah Jaffe said of the struggles at her former job as a waitress, “No one ever wanted to save me from the restaurant industry.”

The contemporary prostitution debate might appear to have moved on from the kinds of concerns moral reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries expressed, but it has only slightly restated the question from, What do we do about prostitution? to, What do we do about prostitutes? According to the twenty-first-century heirs to the battle for moral hygiene, this is to be understood as a way of focusing on the prostitute as victim, not criminal. Forgive sex workers if they do not want the attention of those who refuse to listen to them.

Far from concerning the lives of people who do sex work, these debates are an opportunity for prostitution opponents to stake out their own intellectual, political, and moral contributions to “this issue.” When feminist prostitute and COYOTE founder Margo St. James sought to debate anti-prostitution activist Kathleen Barry at one of the first world conferences on trafficking in 1983, she was told by Barry that it would be “inappropriate to discuss sexual slavery with prostitute women.” This continues to this day, with antiprostitution groups alleging that sex workers who want to participate in the same forums they do are “not representative,” are members of a “sex industry lobby,” or are working on behalf of—or are themselves—“pimps and traffickers.” For my reporting on anti–sex work campaigners, I’ve been told I must be getting published only because I’ve been paid off by pimps. (So pimps are stealing wages from sex workers in order to give them to journalists?)

Barry went on to found the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, which introduced the vague of sense “sexual exploitation” into United Nations and United States anti-trafficking policy, used by some to mean all commercial sex, whether or not force, fraud, or coercion are present. Sweden’s famed prostitution law, often described as a feminist victory for criminalizing men who by sex, and which Barry and her anti–sex work allies in Equality Now and the European Women’s Lobby push as model legislation, was undertaken without any meaningful consultation with women who sell sex. By contrast, New Zealand’s model of decriminalized prostitution was advanced by sex workers, and has since been evaluated with their participation (and largely to their satisfaction). Rather than evolving toward more sex worker involvement in policy, however, the backlash is nearly constant. Canada’s Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could result in removing laws against prostitution, and now in appeals, the same body declined to hear testimony from advocacy organizations run by sex workers themselves.

We must redraw the lines of the prostitution debate. Either prostitutes are in the debate or they are not. Sex workers are tired of being invited to publicly investigate the politics of their own lives only if they’re also willing to serve as a prop for someone else’s politics. As editor of the influential anthology Whores and Other Feminists Jill Nagle writes, “one could argue that the production of feminist discourse around prostitution by non-prostitutes alienates the laborer herself from the process of her own representation.” Not only are sex workers in the abstract used to aid feminists in “giving voice to the voiceless,” those same feminists then remain free to ignore the content of sex workers’ actual speech.

When sex workers are cast in this role, as mute icon or service instrument, it’s the antiprostitution camp at work, decrying sex workers’ situation yet abandoning them to the fundamentally passive role they insist sex workers occupy in prostitution. The parallel becomes even more damning when sex workers are paid comparatively little for their participation behind the debate podiums.

The Demand for “Demand”

The story about prostitution that occasions and results from these so-called debates is one of moral contagion and elite panic: Sex work is everywhere, it’s growing, it’s out of control, it makes many billions of dollars a year. It’s coming for your daughter, and it’s in your backyard, and if it hasn’t and it’s not yet, it will be. FROM INSTANT MESSAGE TO INSTANT NIGHTMARE! warn ads out of the Florida attorney general’s office; a young girl cowers under the red slash of the headline.

In all the ways that narratives about commercial sex once mirrored fears about the unruly, uncivilized, unhealthy, unfeminist women who perform it, now they more closely resemble fears of the demand for commercial sex. The fears focus on the same thing: desire and sex workers’ bodies; they presumably have been relieved from being made targets by being remade into victims requiring expert intervention. “The endless supply of victims won’t cease,” states former US ambassador Swanee Hunt’s antiprostitution group, Demand Abolition, “until we combat the driver of sex trafficking: demand for illegal commercial sex.”

The demand for victims, as anti–sex work activists describe it, is driven by men’s insatiable desire—not by sex workers’ own demands for housing, health care, education, a better life, a richer life, if we dare. Male desire is held up as a problem to be solved, and ending men’s “demand” for “buying” women is a social project to be taken up by producing alternatives for men—such as jail—and scant alternatives for sex workers—such as other forms of employment. It’s a smaller and more convenient problem to want to solve: who men want to fuck and how. It’s one that women who oppose sex work and sex workers’ rights can pretend—unlike poverty or racial inequality—that they have no role in, that they do not themselves benefit from.

Male desire isn’t the only source of panic. It’s also how men use technology to, as antiprostitution advocates term it, buy and sell women. Today the Internet is cast as the vehicle for unchecked male desire to purchase sex, the same panic that was once stoked by the telephone, without which we could not have had the call girl, or by escort ads in the backs of alternative newspapers. New mediums have often been said to have a corrupting influence on the weak (women, usually).

In more subtle but no less instrumental ways, sex work in the new millennium has been aided by the expansion of the service and leisure industries, which offer, as just one example, enjoyment in the course of business travel in unfamiliar hotels and on solitary nights. All the reasons a hotel is bland and lonely to the traveler are the same reasons they’d want to populate it with more pleasant company, company that can be hired on demand. Pay-per-view pornography is widespread and uncontroversial (and a high percentage of overall porn profits, according to the industry’s own account, are reaped by the Marriott, Hilton, and Westin corporations); free Wi-Fi is the next mandatory convenience, which, for the solo traveler on an expense account, will transmit porn and outcall sex work ads even more anonymously.

Commercial sex adapts to its social and economic surroundings, and all the while its practice also influences their shape: the saloon in the mining town; the dance hall for the working class and the assignation house for the wealthy; the private call girl’s apartment in a nice enough neighborhood; the after-hours karaoke bar undetected by day; the 24/7 porn theater right off a mass transit stop; the abandoned pier that hums to life with cruisers and couples; the rural brothel far from home; the strip club along the turnpike.

We don’t think of these places as red-light districts, those upper floors of business-class hotels that can be reached only by the swipe of a key card in the elevator, but these spaces are now much more likely to play host to commercial sex than any nearby street corner—if there even is still a street corner close to the great mall and tourist sprawl these hotels are set down in and make profitable.

The process of moving sex work into the private sphere can be mapped along broader trends toward sexual gentrification, as identified by author and longtime AIDS activist Sarah Schulman. This process began long before the popularization of the Internet and was as driven by rising rents as it was by public neglect in response to AIDS. “Gay life is now expected to take place in private,” Schulman observed of historically gay neighborhoods in New York in her book The Gentrification of the Mind, “by people who are white, upper class, and sexually discreet.” Law enforcement worked in tandem with gentrifiers to both produce and justify “street sweeps.” New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani didn’t just need the New York Police Department to put down Times Square; he also needed Disney to move in. And, to an extent, he needed Craigslist to finish it off.

Through zoning and through fear-fueled bias, sexually oriented businesses have been isolated from “legitimate” businesses—and yet, never completely. With its move into private spaces, they won’t be for much longer. The gentrification of the red-light district and the migration of commercial sex to the Internet don’t spell the end of the sex industry so long as actual live bodies must meet and exchange somewhere, and that somewhere has always been close to the places people live and work, all activities simultaneously happening behind closed doors. At the same time, all that was once negotiated on the street is now also conducted on public Web sites, and under more watchful (and curious) and tracking eyes than ever. Yet it is also possible for many people to try out sex work, organized online and conducted in private, without risking becoming a known prostitute. It’s the kind of privacy that, as author and former call girl Tracy Quan commented in an interview with the blog Tits and Sass, is more valuable than ever in the information age. “Facebook didn’t exist,” she points out, “when twentieth-century prostitutes were developing their political rhetoric” of coming out and being out.

Is this the real fear then: not that more people are becoming prostitutes but that the conventional ways we’d distinguish a prostitute from a nonprostitute woman are no longer as functional? Antiprostitution laws are primarily about exclusion and banishment; how, now, will we know who is to banished and excluded? And from the perspective of a (potential) sex worker: If you no longer have to go to a particular and stigmatized place, if you don’t have to already be part of a social network of other sex workers in order to get information about it, the social and material risks of doing sex work are more navigable. It’s not, I think, that sex work has necessarily gotten much safer through its gentrification, but that, like chic coffee bars and restaurants moving into previously working-class neighborhoods, gentrified sex work brings along with it consumers and workers who might never before have ventured there. It’s not clear whether the sex industry is expanding, but it’s definitely changing in character.

Crisis or Convergence

As some forms of commercial sex have been decriminalized, and workplaces have formalized, we have begun dismantling the systems of control that put sex workers at risk. This transformation of the sex industry calls into question why these systems—laws prohibiting “loitering with intent to solicit,” “living off the earnings,” “keeping a bawdy house,” for example—and those whose job it is to enforce them, and to “rehabilitate” those caught up in that enforcement, exist at all. The rationale in all these systems of control, whether they are meant to regulate or abolish commercial sex, is that they will make commercial sex unsavory enough to deter involvement. What were conceived of as systems of control are, in reality, systems of producing and doling out harmful consequences.

Some of those consequences are lessening, not through any learned or compassionate overhaul, but through sex workers’ own labor of adapting to the conditions of gentrification and making sex work more private: developing Internet-based businesses and creating social networks independent of red-light districts in which to share information and tactics.

Sociologists Barbara Brents, Crystal Jackson, and Kathryn Hausbeck, in The State of Sex, describe this facet of the gentrification of the sex industry as a “convergence”—a blending of what is understood as the sex industry with the leisure and pleasure industries. Convergence describes two near-simultaneous movements. One is the growing dominance of service and leisure economies, along with a normalization of purchasing intimate services: child care, Brazilian waxes, personal training. The other is the formalizing of sexually oriented businesses: the corporate consolidation of strip club ownership, the proliferation of Internet porn business, the growth of independently operated escort services advertised online.

Even the practice of finding a sugar daddy has been brought to a global market through paid membership Web sites that resemble conventional dating sites, though the wink and nod is that the young women on these sites would not be dating these men if money were not changing hands. The wink is only a slight one; these sites can be found advertised alongside escort services in free tabloids, but their real publicity comes from mainstream news coverage in outlets like the New York Times or on CNN.

“As these businesses become more visible and mainstream,” Brents, Jackson, and Hausbeck argue, “the business practices and work within them are becoming more routinized, and many look more and more like other service and leisure economies.” That is, the industry formerly known as the sex industry is not, as antiprostitution social reformers have alleged, some creeping menace ever-present at the margins of society that must be confined and tamed through purifying legislative effort. The margins are shifting. The crisis was never one of morals, but of money.

5

The Industry

There is no one sex industry. Escorting, street hustling, hostessing, stripping, performing sex for videos and webcams—the range of labor makes speaking of just one feel inadequate. To collapse all commercial sex that way would result in something so flat and shallow that it would only reinforce the insistence that all sex for sale results from the same phenomenon—violence, deviance, or desperation.

This variety also extends to the regulation and policing of workplaces, all having varying degrees of formality and legality. Even those operating under the most intense criminalization, in the least understood sectors of what’s come to be called the informal economy, have methods of organization and convention that are kept intentionally private, discreet, and contained within the industry. It would appear that even many scholars of the informal economy who’ve mapped the labor of trash pickers and street sellers, counterfeiters and smugglers have failed to give sex work its due—because it is criminal, because it is service work, and in many cases, because it is work gendered as female. They are confined to a “floating city,” as sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh describes it in his book of the same name, somehow outside society. Journalist Robert Neuwirth, in Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy, seeks to delink underground work from criminality, yet not for sex workers, who are only present in metaphor.

I’ll describe just one workplace that has been almost entirely overlooked: a commercial dungeon—which is in reality just a house on a residential block in a suburb of a major American city, connected by public transit to its central business district and those who work there. This is not a marginal place, nor is it a place marked by transgression. It’s only called a dungeon so that clients seeking the services of those who work there can know what to expect—versus, say, a massage studio or a gentlemen’s club. There is no one held in chains but those who pay to be placed in them, and even then, only for an agreed time.

In a dungeon a client can expect that several workers are available on each shift, and some workers will want to do what he wants to and some won’t. A receptionist will take his call, or answer his e-mail, and assign him to a worker based on what he’d like, the worker’s preferences, and mutual availability. Some dungeons might post their workers’ specialties on a Web site. They might also keep them listed in a binder next to the phone, the workers each taking turns playing receptionist, matching clients to workers over their shift. After each appointment the worker would write up a short memo and file it for future reference should the client call again, so that others would know more about him.

The dungeon is informal only to the extent that the labor producing value inside its walls isn’t regarded as real work. There are shift meetings, schedules, and a commission split based on seniority. Utility bills arrive, and are paid. Property taxes, too. In some cases the manager would give discreet employment references. And sometimes people were fired.

There was one group of people who did perform unwaged work in the dungeon: the many male “houseboys” who would telephone, at least once each day, to ask to come and clean. The women who worked in the dungeon knew that managing these men’s slave fantasies was itself a form of work, but when they could just turn them loose on the dishes, the worst they would have to do is check later to see if anything untoward had happened to a glass or fork. It was never meant as a commentary on the years of feminists’ arguing over the value of housework, but it still could feel deeply gratifying that the houseboys were made to understand their only reward would be the empty sink.

This—the notes, the bills, the dishes—is the look inside a dungeon you’ll get when you work there, not when you’re paying for it.

On an opposite coast, there was the college town escort agency “run” by R., who really was just the one who paid for the ad in the back of the paper each week and the mobile phone that customers would call after seeing the ad. The women who shared the ad and phone line paid R. a share of each half-hour or hour appointment they got through the ad, which meant they didn’t need to be around all the time to pick up the phone or give any information about themselves to the newspaper that ran the ad. They just showed up at the motel room or house where they’d meet their customers. Every once in a while a woman would call the phone number, wanting to work with them, and R. would meet with them in a coffee shop. If they decided to work together, she’d train them on all of this. Some of the women took turns answering the phone and booking appointments, and after they learned how to manage that, they’d end up going off on their own.

And there was M., who modeled for a few “shemale” Web sites. This was not a term she used to describe herself, but she made most of her money escorting men who were fans of those sites to sex parties held in clubs and other semiprivate venues—whether or not they had sex, which they did sometimes. The Web sites were ways to advertise herself as a date for hire without having to pay to be featured in online escort ad directories, and when the customers would e-mail her as fans, they could make plans to meet up. M. would make it clear that she would be paid for their meeting as well. A friend of hers was busted when an undercover cop contacted her through an overt online escort ad, made an appointment, and then arrested her in her own apartment, also taking her phone and her laptop. M. wasn’t as fearful of having an encounter with police at the club.

And there was C., who ran a porn site out of the apartment she shared with her boyfriend. In addition to modeling for her own porn, she also recruited others from the online forums she posted in, or through friends who knew what she did for a living. When a model came to C.’s apartment to shoot, the only contact she’d have with anyone associated with the porn site was C., who also acted as photographer. C.’s work computer was her personal computer; her workplace was her living room—a couch, a photo backdrop, her DVDs, and her cats. Sometimes she ran out of money to pay for models and would just shoot herself until more memberships came in. Sometimes fans would ask her to visit them in other cities and pay for her to fly out and shoot models there. The money could be unpredictable. She used to work in a strip club to supplement it.

Though these are four of the most visible forms of sex work—porn, stripping, domination, and escorting—and each offers a distinct environment, it’s not uncommon for workers to draw their incomes from more than one. It’s about more than maximizing their earning potential; it’s also a way to negotiate the varying degrees of exposure and surveillance that come with each venue. For every escort who would never give up her privacy by working in a strip club, chancing that someone she knew would come in, there’s a stripper who would never give up her privacy by working in porn or having her image posted online, and there’s a porn performer who would never have sex for money outside the context of a porn shoot.

These are also only anecdotes drawn from sex workers I’ve met and worked with over the last ten years, in this first decade of the twenty-first century, and in the United States. Each involves some work online and offline. Each caters to customers in a specific way, and with its own conventions: Web sites sell photo sets and memberships; escort services set up appointments; clubs charge entrance fees and sell drinks; and performers sell stage shows and private dances. Each sell takes its own skills, has its own hustle, its own downsides.

However, as distinct as the work and their environments may be, there is a political usefulness in calling all of this sex work, while also insisting that it varies considerably over time and place. The portrait of street-level prostitution, for example, as it’s on display in media accounts—a woman, most often a woman of color, standing in a short skirt and leaning into a car or pacing toward one—is a powerful yet lazily constructed composite. As the lead character of the prostitute imaginary, she becomes a stand-in for all sex workers, a reduction of their work and lives to one fantasy of a body and its particular and limited performance for public consumption. Sex workers’ bodies are rarely presented or understood as much more than interchangeable symbols—for urban decay, for misogyny, for exploitation—even when propped up so by those who claim some sympathy, who want to question stereotypes, who want to “help.”

The character isn’t even representative of all the street-soliciting sex workers she stands in for. When considering the practice of street-based sex work, sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein observes, “It is important to recognize the extent to which the practices and meanings of sexual labor varied in the different prostitution strolls,” even in the same city. Some of this sex work can be more accurately described as trade or barter, Bernstein writes, “self-organized, occasional exchanges that generally took place within women’s own homes and communities.” She distinguishes this from “the sexual labor of ‘career’ streetwalkers,” in which “commercial sexual exchange was conceptualized as ‘work’ that resided in the public display of the body.” You find this echoed in the research of Chicago youth involved in the sex trade conducted by the grassroots group Young Women’s Empowerment Project. They’ve adopted the descriptor “sex trades and street economies” to recognize that, for their community, trading sex for what they need to survive isn’t necessarily understood as their “work,” and that it occurs alongside other informal labor, such as hair braiding or babysitting.

The sex industry is varied and porous throughout. Consider its other most visible outpost in America: the legal brothels of rural Nevada in the few counties where prostitution was never fully criminalized, and where strict regulation and isolation are employed to make it tolerable to the public. There, according to a recent study conducted by Brents, Jackson, and Hausbeck and published in The State of Sex, one third of brothel workers had never done any other kind of sex work before, but rather came to it directly from “non-sexual service work.” Three quarters of those they interviewed move between “straight work” and sex work. “Selling sex,” they write, “is often one form of labor among a variety of jobs.”

When we say that sex work is service work, we don’t say that just to sanitize or elevate the status of sex workers, but also to make plain that the same workers are performing sex work and nonsexual service work. In her study of Rust Belt strippers published in Policing Pleasure: Sex Work, Policy, and the State in Global Perspective, Susan Dewey observed that the vast majority of the dancers—all but one—at one club in upstate New York had worked outside the sex industry, and “many had left intermittently for low-wage, service-sector work elsewhere before returning with the recognition that they preferred the topless bar with its possibility of periodic windfalls from customers.” For the dancers who Dewey surveyed, it was the work outside of the sex industry that was “exploitative, exclusionary, and without hope for social mobility or financial stability.”

Opponents, from the European Women’s Lobby to reactionary feminist bloggers, like to claim that sex workers insist it is “a job like any other,” but sex workers do not make this claim—unless by this anti–sex work activists agree with sex workers that the conditions under which sexual services are offered can be as unstable and undesirable as those cutting cuticles, giving colonics, or diapering someone else’s babies.

But that’s not what sex work opponents are referring to when they snap back with a phrase such as “a job like any other.” When they say “jobs” they don’t mean those informal service jobs, but their more elevated labor administering social projects, conducting research, and lobbying. Rescuing sex workers is good work for them. As feminist anarchist Emma Goldman noted in 1910, the prostitution panic “will help to create a few more fat political jobs—parasites who stalk about the world as inspectors, investigators, detectives, and so forth.” The loss of sex workers’ income was their gain.

Opponents even take our jobs when we win. Socialist feminist activist and antiracist campaigner Selma James, in her essay “Hookers in the House of the Lord,” documents the closure of a successful grassroots sex workers’ legal project in London in the eighties, so “feminist lawyers and women from the anti-porn lobby” could create their own without having to actually employ the sex workers who started this advocacy. “What we are witnessing before our very eyes is the process whereby women’s struggle is hidden from history and transformed into an industry,” James writes, “jobs for the girls.”

The message of anti–sex work feminists is, It’s the women working against sex work who are the real hard workers, shattering glass ceilings and elevating womanhood, while the tramps loll about down below. As political theorist Kathi Weeks notes, to call a woman a tramp is to judge the value of a woman’s sexuality and labor. Tramps, she writes in The Problem with Work, are “potentially dangerous figures that could, unless successfully othered, call into question the supposedly indisputable benefits of work”—and home and family, and women’s commitment to all of it. When sex workers are “rescued” by anti–sex work reformers, they are being disciplined, set back into their right role as good women. This isn’t just the province of large NGOs; one-woman rescue missions have popped up online and in megachurches, projects that claim to support themselves through the sale of candles and jewelry made by rescued sex workers. These jobs may technically exist outside the sex industry, but without a supply of rescued workers, there would be no cheap labor, no candles—and there would be no projects for the rescuers to direct.

These demands on sex workers’ labor, while it is simultaneously devalued, is why we still insist that sex work is work. But this should not be confused with uncritical sentiment, as if sex work is only work if it’s “good” work, if we love to do it. Being expected to perform affection for our jobs might feel familiar to sex workers—management at the unionized peep show the Lusty Lady tried to insert language in their contract that the job was meant to be “fun,” which the dancers refused to accept. To insist that sex workers only deserve rights at work if they have fun, if they love it, if they feel empowered by it is exactly backward. It’s a demand that ensures they never will.

6

The Peephole

BIG BROTHEL IS WATCHING YOU

—parody ad accompanying Margo St. James’s

redacted FBI file printed in COYOTE Howls (1977)

Klute is Jane Fonda’s star turn as a call girl, for which she won an Oscar, and all throughout it she’s radiant—in a backless, silver-mirrored dress, in her shag, in a swingers’ cocktail lounge. Before we are allowed to see her we are introduced to her voice, surreptitiously recorded by an unknown man. The recording, played first with the opening credits, is a one-sided solicitation. She assures us we are going to have a good time. We listen to her voice, and the tape loop spins; we’re overhearing her private conversations with a customer. We might think we know something, but all that we learn is that the way to know a call girl is when she doesn’t know we are listening. An alternative would require her participation, or her consent.

This is the way that we come to know a sex worker, not only in Klute but in other prostitute media, from Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure to the columns of Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. We know her through the author’s interpretation of the words and poses she chooses to represent herself with to her clientele. The novelist’s and reporter’s and researcher’s eyes graze over whatever window, physical or digital, in which she leans. Aside from an origin story of her life “before,” this is where the exposition will be confined: the red light, the bed, the men, the money. Everything else is out of frame. This is her everything—until she turns her back on it.

It’s how Klute introduces us to this style of reportage, however limited, that we should receive it: as a single moment in one woman’s life, captured on tape, and stuck on repeat.

Surveillance is a way of knowing sex workers that unites the opportunity for voyeurism with the monitoring and data collection performed by law enforcement, by social service providers, or by researchers. Even under surveillance, sex workers’ own words aren’t to be trusted without the mediation of those who are almost always regarded as superior outside experts. As motivation, such surveillance isn’t meant to expand the public knowledge of the lives of sex workers; it’s to investigate some form of harm to the public that’s believed to originate with them.

AIDS occasioned one such investigation, but not before sex workers were scapegoated as “vectors of disease” who—it was claimed, with misunderstood evidence—would endanger the public; that is, the families of men who paid for sex. “ ‘The Prostitute Study,’ ” writes historian Melinda Chateauvert in Sex Workers Unite, “didn’t require participants to be sex workers, and most of the 180 women who volunteered for it had never done sex work.” The 1986 study didn’t attempt to trace transmission but rather the prevalence of the virus in women. It took on a life of its own in the press and public imagination, she adds, and “when male AIDS researchers heard about the study to track the virus in women, they assumed the subjects were prostitutes.” This and an earlier Walter Reed study of ten soldiers who reported that they contracted HIV after sexual contact with “prostitutes” was mischaracterized as evidence that women—still assumed to be prostitutes—could transmit HIV to men through straight sex. “To Walter Reed doctors, it was obvious that prostitutes were disease vectors,” writes Chateauvert. “They were wrong, but the idea stuck.”

As we have moved from the panic of the period of AIDS crisis to what Sarah Schulman calls the era of “Ongoing AIDS,” the new site of sex work panic is the Internet. New technologies, we are told by the press and politicians, have made new forms of sexual commerce available as never before in history. And as the technological innovations supporting sex work have expanded, they are used to justify new forms of surveillance.

Invisible Women

The prostitute is imagined as an invisible woman, a voiceless woman, a woman concealed even in public, in her nudity—in all her presumed availability. I say “is imagined,” but there are many people who take part in this imagining, who are invested in it. I remember paging through a phone book as a kid, flipping to the “E” section and finding the ads for escorts. No actual women were pictured, nothing explicit. Escorts were revealed with clip art: a woman in a long gown that hung off one shoulder, a white woman with shoulder-length hair, her fingers to her lips. There may have been a moon drawn in the background. There were lipstick prints, another popular graphic element of the time. It was the eighties, and this was the palette the phone book designers had to draw on: No one created clip art just for escorts, so all the images that could signify women or glamour or class were strung together. A careful reader of the lipstick and the bare shoulders against the curls of text, words such as “elite,” “private,” “upscale,” and the perennial “discreet,” could interpret them. They could imagine whatever they want.

Even in full-color ads reproduced nearly infinitely across the Web, the sex worker herself may not be present. There are good reasons: not wanting to be outed and not trusting the publishers to protect the records linking the payment information—legal identification, a credit card—with the purchaser. As a result, escort and outcall dancers’ agencies may run stock photos of women who have never even worked for them, and independent escorts and models might select photos that show only specific body parts, particularly as they may relate to their marketing niches: long hair, small breasts, a round ass, toned legs. Some sex workers, particularly those who do it only occasionally, may want to leave their ads on the Internet for only the periods that they are actually working. For the most part, sex workers want to minimize their exposure and preserve their privacy while also earning a living.

When I first saw online sex work ads, I couldn’t believe that the police would allow them to exist. They appeared in many forms: expensively lit glamour photos arranged in slide shows, by outfit or fantasy theme; casual motel-room mirror self-portraits with a few hasty lines of text, a phone number, and clear instructions not to call from a blocked line; elaborate portfolio Web sites listing favorite books, shoes, and dietary restrictions; vague solicitations that had a single, striking photo and an e-mail address.

But of course the cops have an interest in these ads, if not in their creative flourishes: Online ads provide a steady flow of people to target in their vice operations: to monitor sex workers’ activities and set them up for stings. They allow cops to build databases of their working names, photos, mobile phone numbers, locations, services offered, prices, and availability. In some cases police have impersonated customers in order to gain access to sex workers’ private online forums, including databases of dangerous clients. A typical vice patrol still doesn’t make this many sex workers immediately available to police for such systematic surveillance.

And yet for sex workers the trade-offs of online advertising still make all these risks worth taking. We know about the games of cat and mouse with the police that are used to chase working girls from apartment to apartment, corner to corner. Once Craigslist, the world’s largest free classified-ad Web site, became a target, sex workers moved to Backpage, a classified ads site owned by Village Voice Media, once the publishers of the venerable alternative newspaper the Village Voice. Then the same coalitions of cops, conservatives, and anti–sex work feminists that railed against Craigslist moved on to Backpage, too. At this rate they can just follow sex workers around until there’s no Internet left to advertise on. But really, their aim is to wear down any publisher who might consider hosting sex workers’ ads, and to raise the costs of doing business for anyone involved in the trade.

“How Pimps Use the Web to Sell Girls” headlines one of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s anti-Backpage columns, which number in the dozens. An Equality Now petition demands that the “Village Voice must end its complicity in the rape and exploitation of girls and women.” Craigslist was called “the Walmart of sex trafficking” by antiprostitution campaigners so often that it became hard to trace who started it, let alone on what basis they could make that claim.

It is terrible, they claim, that anyone is “being sold.” This is how they describe these ads, as if a sellers and buyers use them to exchange human beings. They cannot fathom that the person in the ad could be the seller herself, so they fix their anguish on the publisher, as if the “products” and the markets in which the advertisements are bought and sold are the same. In the absence of a pimp or a trafficker to blame, they target the publisher. The solution offered? Renounce these ads, which, now that publishing an ad has been made synonymous with selling a person, will stand in for actually doing anything practical or beneficial for those people in the ads.

The choice to target the ads reveals what anti–sex work campaigners believe about the industry and its impact on sex workers’ lives. The near pornographic focus proves what campaigners view as the real threat: the visibility of sex work. Their anguish over advertisements has less to do with concern for how the people in them might be treated in the course of their work and much more to do with expressing their own negative feelings about sex work. We can’t bear imagining the horrors we assume untold behind these ads, say the anti–sex work reformers, and we will solve this by ensuring that no one can place them.

Through such demands, reformers take away from sex workers the power to make these decisions about their own labor. Where the Internet has opened up opportunities for them to take control of their work by increasing their direct access to customers, it has also given law enforcement, politicians, and assorted anti–sex work types a highly visible and vulnerable place to attack. They claim they’re “protecting” sex workers when they demand that publishers refuse their ads. But for the workers themselves, losing ad venues means losing control over how they negotiate at work.

This strategy, so far, is working. In December 2012, the Village Voice announced that anyone wishing to place an adult ad in their paper would be limited to using “face shots,” or photographs clearly showing the sex worker’s face. “Flesh. We are not against it at the Village Voice. Actually, we think it’s one of the best parts of being alive. But you’ll find less of it in this issue. That’s no accident,” their new publisher announced in a statement that must not have been vetted by any office feminists (or even Google) titled “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” It’s damning enough that the Voice caved to people opposed to the existence of sex work. But to require any sex worker who wants to place an ad to show her face? The editor’s note continues:

Many of us here at the Voice wish these ads would just go away. And, in fact, they continue to migrate online, so that might happen soon enough. There is not much doubt that the new rules are going to make us less appealing to this kind of customer. That is a price we are willing to pay.

What a price, one which the Voice can shift, along with the opprobrium and legal threats, back to sex workers. “Our bodies” indeed.

Where this strategy is not yielding such easy returns for the campaigners is when their challenges actually make it through the courts. The few laws they’ve gotten passed that target online venues for sex workers’ ads have met successful challenges not only from Backpage but from the Internet Archive, who were represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In Washington State, a judge found a law against sex work ads was written so broadly that it would infringe on all online speech. In Tennessee, a judge declared that even an attempt to focus on “sex trafficking” in ads would possibly open grounds to attack all sex workers’ ads, that “the state may not use a butcher knife on a problem that requires a scalpel to fix.”

While the campaigners blame sites such as Craigslist and Backpage both for the growth of the trade and for any harms related to it, they do so for sex workers, not with them. The campaigns make use of their images as evidence, but sex workers themselves are ignored. The prostitute is imagined by these self-identified defenders of her dignity; she can’t speak for herself. She requires many interpreters. Not only have antiprostitution feminists attempted to shut down sex workers’ ads, they’ve also manipulated them into data points to support their actions. An Atlanta-based organization with the imaginatively patronizing name A Future, Not A Past (AFNAP) hired a market research firm to conduct a study of prostitution on Craigslist. “Researchers” working for the firm, The Schapiro Group, who had never before researched prostitution, trawled through the ads, scrutinized the photos and text, and based only on this content guessed at the age of each person depicted. Never mind that Craigslist ads can be posted multiple times each day, or that each doesn’t necessarily correlate to one individual—or any real individual. Dummy and repeat ads are part of the business. This either eluded or just didn’t concern AFNAP, which advertised their findings along with a lavishly produced “tool kit” adorned with a photo of a young woman, her face downcast, covered in a hoodie, captioned “stop the prostitution of our nation’s children.”

Based on this amateurish tally of Craigslist, as well as surveillance of “street activity” and “hotels,” AFNAP claimed that “as many as 200 to 300 young girls are commercially sexually exploited every month in Georgia,” including “approximately 100 to 115 girls [who] are made available through Craigslist.org ads each month, with profitable results,” as they reported to the Georgia state legislature in order to rally for tougher anti-prostitution legislation in their state. Their “methodology” was repeated in similar studies in Minnesota, Michigan, and New York, supported by the Women’s Funding Network, whose director Deborah Richardson used such numbers to claim before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary investigating Craigslist that “over the past six months, the number of underage girls trafficked online has risen exponentially in three diverse states.” She did not mention that this “exponential” increase were measured based on counts of how many men had answered fake escort ads created by Schapiro Group researchers, using photos of young-looking women, and not from actual reported cases of underage girls being trafficked. Such well-intentioned red-light wandering has the sheen of science, even as it pays for weeks of researchers’ time scrolling through ads, just like clients do.

Red-Light Neighbors

A better and offline equivalent to model our red-light wandering on might be the insider account of Samuel R. Delany, whose participant observation of Times Square in its last pre-Disney gasps is as much of the porn theaters as it is about them and what they meant to those who cared for them. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue maps the various forms and sites of labor—theaters, food carts, camera shops, shoe- shine stands, hustlers—and the kinds of people who frequent each, including himself, and his unguarded affection for the porn theaters and the anonymous sexual encounters they made possible. For Delany, the value in a red-light district like the one once bounded by the streets around West Forty-Second Street and Eighth Avenue isn’t just sexual pleasure, though it’s that, too. The red-light district signals the potential of contact—physical, mental, spiritual—that crosses class.

I’ve worked in just one red-light district—San Francisco’s North Beach, which is dotted still with strip clubs and porn shops, all crowned by the legendary City Lights Bookstore, which published and defended Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, on the southwestern edge, and by Caffe Trieste, which has opera on its jukebox and old men with nothing to do but read the paper all day, up the hill to the northeast. In the streets sloping in between—Broadway, Kearny, Stockton—tourists cram together and drift between novelty Italian restaurants draped in garlic and roses and dumpling shops with whole chickens hanging in the windows. The purple neon marks the sex businesses, side by side with youth hostels, bars, corner stores, and cafes. We were all neighbors.

Forget the particulars of the work performed inside The Hungry I or the Lusty Lady or the Garden of Eden and appreciate the conditions of our shared neighborhood. You could take a public bus to and from a shift, step out on a break for a croissant at Happy Donut or a slice at Golden Boy, buy a magazine or a razor at the corner store on the way home. You had, all throughout your workday or night, the opportunity for human contact outside your workplace itself. It wasn’t necessary to drive out to the industrial zone on the edge of town, you had other plausible reasons to be in the neighborhood, you were both anonymous and safe in the way you are in a city. You were, like everyone else who belonged to the neighborhood, another set of eyes on the street.

When Craigslist’s Erotic Services section launched, it wasn’t the first Web site where sex workers could place ads seeking customers, but it was the first to so closely resemble the geography of the red-light districts that preceded it. Remember that Times Square didn’t contain only sexually- oriented businesses; as Delany captured it, the neighborhood was home to a variety: to low-end electronics and jewelry shops; to single-room occupancy hotels; to street-level workers informally selling sex; to those selling kebabs and newspapers. As threatening as it might be that a site such as Craigslist provided a space for advertising sexual commerce, what’s perhaps more threatening is that it did so alongside advertisements for any other kind of product or service imaginable. Rather than segregate sexual commerce, Craigslist made sex workers neighbors.

But consider this first: All sexual commerce is technological. Before electricity provided automation, the first peep shows operated under manual candlelight. Before telephones, or even telegraphs, prostitutes carried printed business cards. In ancient Greece, certain classes of prostitutes attracted customers by scoring the words “Follow me” on the soles of their sandals, leaving a trail in the streets behind them. Prostitution itself is a technology, a communication system, as much and at times more than it is a system for organizing sexuality. It signals. Walk for a moment through a red-light district in your head and you won’t see sex—just its red-hot flares.

Even the phrase “red-light district,” as far as we know, comes from a communication practice, one said to originate with railroad men at the turn of the twentieth century. They would set their red signal lights down outside the doors of the women they’d hire between shifts in case their foremen needed to call them back to work.

Now when we hear tales about the red-light district, they most likely won’t be coming from people who buy or sell sexual services. The red-light district you will hear about today is the province of the surveillance class—the police and the politicians, the researchers and the reporters. From their mouths, the online red-light district is rarely offered as a value-neutral term to describe a kind of commercial activity on the Internet: It’s meant to convey what we’re to understand as a troublesome growth and spread of commercial sex, though little evidence is offered for this alleged upsurge. It draws its evidence from a tautology that’s appealing to those who can know only through surveillance: The Internet makes sex for sale easier to see, so the Internet must be increasing the number of people who buy and sell sex—because now we see more of them. The truth is we simply don’t yet know how or even if the Internet has expanded markets for commercial sex. But it has certainly allowed many more outsiders to peep into them.

It’s seductive to imagine that by being able to browse the storefronts of sexually oriented businesses without leaving our homes and without being seen, we have access to some truth about commercial sex. Why flip through the ads in the back of the paper (and there aren’t that many anymore, anyway) when you have the Web? You can click through LiveJasmin.com, where a mosaic of women’s photos come to life as you mouse over them on the homepage, dozens of streaming video feeds of all the performers available wherever it is they are, and right here in the universal time zone of the live sex show.

Both the site design and the vicissitudes of the real live nude girl market mean that the mostly young women who’ve put out webcam shingles there seem to be always on and available. Some of the women look right at you (or at their webcams) but just as many look off to the side: They’re not avoiding you, they’re just absorbed in their computer screen, in something else to pass their unpaid time between the viewers buying private shows. (In the peep show, sex workers used the equivalent dead time to listen to the radio, and when customers made themselves known, they turned the boom box volume down with a toe while rearranging their bodies into an attentive pose.)

When the opportunity for voyeurism is your product, tolerating anyone’s wandering eye without a dollar amount attached just feels like you’re getting ripped off. There is a certain amount of show a performer must give for free, but there is a line, and each worker knows it, between the attentions of a prospective customer and the neediness of a time waster. To those interlocutors into sex businesses, those would-be flâneurs with the mouse, particularly those who feel that they should not or must not pay, will likely be treated as the latter. Preserving one’s propriety is no excuse. Having something to offer—money—is what makes you a good citizen of the red-light district.

We could say that peep shows and porn theaters and street-level sex work, particularly those conducted in mixed-use neighborhoods, are being displaced by online ad directories and live cam sites. But more to the point, the Web’s sex markets are flourishing in the vacant spaces left in the wake of gentrification campaigns that imperiled the sex businesses that also called those blocks home. These physical spaces are gone, and may never be again: The anonymous sexual encounter is now increasingly mediated by the digital.

That mediation only magnifies the power of myth making about the online red-light district. It is no one fixed place but a network of signs and solicitations. In the eighteenth century we had the polite euphemism “public women” when it was necessary to reference those who were presumed to be pros- titutes. What public is left for the public women now? On the flickering front page of LiveJasmin, the rest of the public can imagine—as those equipped only with gaslight once imagined—the bodies upon which their illumination is cast were just waiting for them to drop in a coin and bring them to life.

So it’s all of this, not just the Internet, that drives the online red-light district, to the extent that there even is one: the reliance on surveillance to know sex workers; the adoption of online forms of solicitation; and the gentrification of concrete red-light districts through policing and capital. This all means that when we consider people who don’t engage in commercial sex, who are most commonly known as the general public, they are far less likely to ever meet a sex worker in the physical world and are more likely than ever before to learn everything they know about sex work from marketing copy written for sex workers’ customers.

In the age of the online red-light district, everyone’s been made a john.

Video and Podcast

Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award

“Collectively as a society we’ve got a whole bunch of tangled, warped intuitions and policies towards the exchange of money for sex. Melissa Gira Grant does a remarkable job of rigorously teasing these apart and righteously scrapping those she finds wanting. Her work has been hugely influential in how I think about sex work and outright changed my mind on a number of points. She’s a must read.” – Chris Hayes, All In With Chris Hayes

“An important contribution to debates around sex and work, and deserves to be read by anyone who wants to get beyond tired and damaging understandings of both.” – Nina Power, author of One Dimensional Woman

“Thoroughly researched, eminently readable…Keeping the focus on ideas instead of autobiography has an impressively unsettling effect, as we’re forced to acknowledge the writer’s boundaries, and our own voyeurism.” – Village Voice

“Gira Grant is one of the most interesting policy thinkers in the country when it comes to sex work, and this short book introduces and outlines her thinking on the matter.” – Mike Konczal, Washington Post

“An informative and extremely worthwhile addition to the existing body of literature on sex work.” – Stoya, adult performer and Vice columnist

“Learn, listen, take heart—this is the real deal.” – Susie Bright, sex and culture critic, and founder of On Our Backs

“Well-researched and provocative … A vital text on an incendiary topic.” – Lily Burana, author of I Love a Man in Uniform and Strip City

“Gira Grant weaves her way through sanctimony and hypocrisy with wit, eloquence, insight, and a dose of necessary outrage.” – Laura Kipnis, author of How to Become a Scandal

“Makes precisely clear that a culture that polices, silences and marginalizes women who sell sex is a culture that cares nothing about women. Period.”
– Janet Mock, author of Redefining Realness

“As self-appointed saviors like Nicolas Kristof command mainstream media attention for their crusade on behalf of trafficked women, Melissa Gira Grant provides a sharp and powerful counternarrative, a layered, justice-minded critique of such interventions as well as a much needed skewering of ‘carceral feminism.’ An important, illuminating and engaging read.” – Liliana Segura, Senior Editor, The Intercept (First Look Media)

“In [Playing the Whore], Grant critiques the policing of sex workers, the conditions of the industry, and the ongoing discussions surrounding how we see the sex industry as well as the sex workers themselves. [She] hits the major points of these huge topics and takes a powerful stance on the rights of sex workers.” – River H. Kero, Book Riot

“In Playing the Whore, Grant critiques the policing of sex workers, the conditions of the industry, and the ongoing discussions surrounding how we see the sex industry as well as the sex workers themselves. [She] hits the major points of these huge topics and takes a powerful stance on the rights of sex workers.” – River H. Kero, Book Riot

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