Is Sex Work?

Sexual freedom is an important component to being our authentic selves

by Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell

Introduction: Last week, Robin and Malachi each responded to the open-ended question, “What is sexual freedom?” This week, we are expanding on these ideas by exploring sex work in the context of sexual freedom. Discussing our thoughts, feelings, and relationships with this complex and emotionally charged idea, we find a lot of common ground in our conclusions, even though we are coming from somewhat different perspectives.


Writing about my own emerging sexual freedom last week led me to think about the forces outside ourselves that deny that freedom. Social pressures that create sex-negativities are often created and sustained by religious beliefs and practices. Christianity, strangely for a faith built on God’s human embodiment, has much to answer for in terms of body- and sex-negativity.

But it is not just the church that uses negative judgment to control, and even imprison, sexuality and sexual expression. The legal system codifies sex negativity through legal restrictions, especially by limiting sexual freedom through laws criminalizing some kinds of sex among consenting adults.

Of course, not all legal restrictions on sexual activity are based on sex-negativity. For example, the protection of minors from sexual abuse by adults (and by adults against other adults) is absolutely necessary, as are laws against sex slavery. Those who have no, or limited, ways to protect themselves need legal protection.


However, based on things some gay men have told me over the years, I also know that the prohibition against sex with a minor is not necessary in all cases. Over the years, I have heard numbers of men say that when they were under age they benefited greatly from sex with an older man (or older men). This was especially evident in earlier decades when same-sex activity was so hidden, and carried far more opprobrium than is true today.  The attentions of an older man, even an authority figure, helped them claim their own sexual power and needs, and these men are grateful. As we know others had different experiences.


But what about the buying and selling of sex, usually called prostitution? Last September, in response to the raid on the Rent Boy headquarters in Manhattan  I wrote on another blog a piece supporting the decriminalization of sex work (see Sex Is Good. Why Is It Illegal?).  I wrote this from the relatively safe perspective of an older gay man who has never paid for sex, and known only a couple of sex workers.  As I look back on that post now, I realize I felt an unconscious twinge of envy and regret: I never had enough sense of my own freedom and worthiness as a sexual being to even consider using my body that way. Now I think I wish everyone could feel free enough to consider it if they wish.

The issue seemed clear to me then, but as Emily Bazelon wrote in the New York Times Magazine on May 8, this is an emotional issue, a real hot button these days especially among women—a serious, hard-edged debate between many feminists who want to free sex workers from the work by ending prostitution and, on the other side, female (and some male) sex workers who want to have their work respected and treated as legitimate employment.

Part of the emotion is class- and race-based, as it certainly reflects the deep and powerful effects of misogyny and patriarchy. The argument for decriminalization—this is not the same as making prostitution legal and regulating it—seems to be made largely by white women who make a good living selling sex by choice (white privilege and class origins are very much in play here). Others may feel differently, especially those (mostly women and girls) who are coerced through human trafficking and other criminal forces into selling their bodies for survival (theirs and often their children). These are so often women of color, in our own nation and from oppressed and war-torn places around the globe.

It is this latter group of (mostly) women worldwide that causes many feminists, including leaders such as Gloria Steinem, to participate in the Abolitionist Movement, vigorously calling for harsh penalties on men who buy sex in order, they claim, to bring prostitution to an end. The movement draws its name from the heroic anti-slavery movement of the 19th century. And given the proportion of women of color victimized globally, it may be an apt connection.

Yet is it the same? Surely, anyone who sells the sexual use of the body of someone else without


free participation by that body is a slaver. But what if the person has a choice about whether to allow their sexual services to be offered for sale? Is that still slavery? And if the person offers her or his own body, and the customer pays the agreed-upon price, is that slavery? If there is no force, is it slavery?

And further, will we ever be able to end sex for sale? Should we? If a woman or man needs to make money and realizes they have, in their own bodies, a commodity that others would want to touch  and be touched by, hold and be held by, lick or suck or penetrate or be licked or sucked and penetrated by, should we deny them the right to engage in such a transaction? No law on the books is broken if people do that without the exchange of money (unless one party is below the age of consent). We say they have the right to their own bodies and the use thereof (except for some religious groups who would say it is wrong outside legal marriage).


So, it would appear that it is the money that makes it wrong.  But I knew a woman who helped herself pay for college through sex work. I have lost track of her, but she said it was actually often pleasurable and that she probably would continue after college (at least until she had enough years in her vocational field to be making better money). And I know a man who supplements income from office work by giving erotic massages that can include sexual acts—in order to help support his aging mother and extended family.

They appear to enjoy the work. I read others who feel the same way. A good place to see all sides of sex work is a blog called Tits and Sass.

Sex is a very powerful instrument of power, both to raise up our own power and potentially that of others, and at the same time a way to hold down others.  Prostitution seems to have deep roots in the patriarchal control of women in general and women’s bodies in particular. Every woman was (is) assumed to belong to some man and that man gets to determine what she does with her body and with whom. Pimps act this way, of course, but patriarchy begins with fathers and husbands who make claims on women beginning at birth and continuing throughout life. This patriarchal attitude also affects how some men regard and treat young boys  who live on the street after being kicked out of their homes for being gay.

“Speak up for all who cannot speak for themselves for the rights of all who are destitute.” Provberbs 3:18, from

So, I hope we all agree that has to change, radically. Some change has been happening of course, thanks to the work of feminism and some allies among men, too. But so much more needs to be done. Decriminalization helps us get the focus off sex—letting consensual sex with or without money exist without penalty—and can, I think, help us focus on the real issue, namely the control of women and their bodies by men (and even other women in some cases).  Instead of penalizing people who choose to make their living through sex, we can prosecute the slave traders and pimps and criminal syndicates that violate women. Of course, this will also require that we work to eradicate social and economic conditions that often drive women into working in these ugly and demeaning conditions.

For millennia, women who stray from this system of control, especially as it has been exercised through sex, have been shamed, called fallen women, sluts, prostitutes, etc. Shame is a very powerful emotion so often connected with sex.

The effort by some women to say “No” to that shame is, for me, an example of sexual freedom. We need more women making such claims, not only about sexual activity but also dress codes and religious roles, not to mention fighting glass ceilings, etc. We, especially men with various kinds of privilege, need to help women all over feel empowered to make their own choices, just as we need all of us fighting the exploitation of all people, women, men, children, through distortions of sex that become abusive, enslaving, violent and violative.

One thing Malachi and I are committed to do is to help people talk about sex, in order to value it as a central element of our humanity, a means of holy conversation through our bodies (and not limited to our genitals).  I see sex workers as allies in this work. And I pray that together we—more than the two of us, and more than all the sex workers, indeed a growing number of caring people—can end sexual tyranny and usher in a new era of sexual joy, freedom and peace.

Malachi GrennellMalachi:

Sex work is one of those topics that I could talk about for a very long time and still barely scratch the surface of my feelings. It’s something of a complicated relationship that starts, like many parts of my sexual journey, with Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg.

I’ve written in other places about my relationship with this particular book, but Feinberg’s novel was the starting point of so much of my sexuality that it keeps coming up in these discussions. The portrayal of sex workers in that novel shaped a perspective that is different from the mainstream narrative (sex workers are all drug addicts, desperate for money, desperate in general, not given the freedom to make their own decisions, cheap and/or untrustworthy people, women that need to be saved, etc.). In fact, any generalizations I had about sex workers were completely different: I believed that they were strong, powerful people, balancing authentic relationships against the illusion of intimacy, fierce, independent, no-nonsense people who were able to work with or without their clothes on which, like the main character of the novel, awed me at the time.

Of course, I have since learned to stop making generalizations about any group- or, at least, be aware of what generalizations I am making. But my bias has always slanted in favor of sex workers, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that many of my friends and lovers have been involved in sex work, and it’s something that I have contemplated for many years. The truth is, although I wouldn’t consider myself a sex worker, the second cisgendered man I had sex with was someone that I was paid to have sex with, and it is recorded on film- I was paid to shoot porn. At that point in IMG_0631my life, I was considering whether I felt like I could work as female (although I had been on testosterone for several years and “passed” as male most of the time) and whether or not I could work on camera. That particular situation was unhealthy for me and I chose not to pursue it beyond that one time, but every so often, I consider whether I would be interested in working either as a professional dominant or an escort- not on camera, and not as strictly male or female, but as “myself” (at least, with respect to my gender). As a transgender person, that can be a little more complicated, and between being such a niche market and navigating legality, I haven’t pursued either of those avenues at this time…which isn’t to say that I won’t someday.

The legality issues of sex work are incredibly complicated and frustrating. Legalization ends up being almost as bad as criminalization because it creates particular parameters (read: boxes) around the concepts of “appropriate sexuality,” creating further definitions of what constitutes “real sex” and what doesn’t, and further dividing “normal sex” from alternate sexual expressions (e.g. fetishes). Personally, I support decriminalization, which would cease to make sex work illegal; however, I do not think that legalization (creating new legislation for government regulation and control of the industry) would be as beneficial.


In this, please let me be clear: assault is still assault, rape is still rape (and not “theft of goods” as stated by Judge Teresa Carr Deni in 2007 or Columnist Mary Mitchell in 2015). Similarly, sex trafficking (buying and selling people- particularly young women and girls- as sexual objects) is an abhorrent practice, and I am absolutely against trafficking, and think that assault and/or rape should be reported and prosecuted- but, of course, the statistics on rape cases that get reported, prosecuted, and lead to an eventual conviction are terrifying and show that, quite clearly, rape and sexual assault is already not well-handled. But let’s focus our energy and resources toward ending abuse, rather than criminalizing what consenting adults do between the sheets (whether or not there is money involved).

The truth is, there are people who are sex workers who are drug addicts. There are people who are desperate for money and are offered an opportunity to do something that is outside of their comfort zone but, out of desperation, do it anyway. There are people who are working under pimps and don’t want to be in the life anymore but don’t see a way out. Those are real, true, honest narratives that can’t be ignored. But there is also a narrative of claiming sexuality through sex work- a narrative of choosing to engage in sex work out of desire, rather than desperation. That is an authentic narrative too, but it’s one that makes us uncomfortable. We want to see sex workers as either morally bankrupt or hapless victims looking to be rescued. Why does it make us so uncomfortable that some people might choose to engage in sex work without being forced, coerced, or just inherently “bad” people?

Among many reasons, I believe that it holds up a mirror, in some respects, for many of us. It’s a brazen claiming of sexuality. It is a defiant refusal to

sex work is real work

buy into these ideas that we should be ashamed of our sexuality, that it should be a secret, that we shouldn’t want what we want. I don’t believe that everyone should be a sex worker- but I do think that those who are more comfortable with their sexuality, who actively work to feel confident and authentic in their sexual identities often don’t have the same visceral response to sex workers as those who have not done some of that work. It reminds me a lot of faith- those who are fairly secure in their faith tend to not need the same types of external affirmations that those who are not as secure (and have nowhere to go with the questions). When we know who we are- truly know our authentic selves, and work to reflect that image externally- I think we become a lot less concerned about what everyone else is doing and are able to simply move on with our lives.

Sex workers are not necessarily more “sexually free” than anyone else. I would argue that there is a certain freedom in wanting to engage in sex work and having the capacity to be engaged in ways that feel safe and healthy because our choices are limited by our opportunities. Last week, I stated that I think that “freedom is an understanding of the choices available, and the ability to have informed consent in what choices (and, for some, what limitations) we put on our sexual relationships.” I think this is absolutely applicable when discussing sex work: when someone is not able to give informed consent, or when someone doesn’t understand the choices available to them and is therefore forced or coerced into sex work, that is not freedom. But if someone is able to make the decision to go into sex work fully informed and consenting, then they should be free to do so, free from judgement or conviction of others.


Conviction and legality is something concrete that we can do something about. Judgement is harder. In a world that fears, disdains, and undermines women’s sexuality, sex work is a reflection of the misogyny and patriarchal beliefs of this culture. “Hung like a porn star” is a testament to a man’s penis size and, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, penis size = importance. But most women do not talk about “tits like a porn star”… in fact, when someone’s breast size is compared to a porn star’s, it’s usually an insinuation that the woman has had implants (in this case, bigger = fake). This is one of many example of how we, as a society, continue to perpetuate these double standards, holding up men’s bodies and sexuality as a measure of importance while women are “asking” to be sexualized if they looked a certain way.

Sexual freedom can be a powerful force, and it’s important to remember that we are bound by much more than institutional laws- we are bound by social customs, expectations, and mass media that continue to feed ideas that are, at their core, oppressive and toxic concepts.  Sexual freedom is an important component to being our authentic selves… and as we become more comfortable with ourselves, we may find that we have less need to judge the lives of others.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What do you think? What are your thoughts on (or relationship with) sex work? Please share below (or at the individual sites for Malachi’s and Robin’s personal stories), or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed.

10 thoughts on “Is Sex Work?”

  1. Thanks, Robin and Malachi, for the interesting post.

    I was a little disconcerted by Robin’s statements that “…the prohibition against sex with a minor is not necessary in all cases,” for instance in the case of some men he knows that “when they were under age … benefited greatly from sex with an older man (or older men). The attentions of an older man, even an authority figure, helped them claim their own sexual power and needs, and these men are grateful. As we know others had different experiences.”

    I don’t doubt the authenticity of these men’s stories – or Robin’s point that for some minors the experience of sex with a trusted authority figure was a liberating one. But where sex with minors is concerned, the notion of consent becomes dangerously blurry, especially when an authority figure is involved. Because of their limited life experience, the minor may initially see the sexual encounter positively, only to comprehend in retrospect the element of coercion. The concept of an “age of consent” is admittedly a rather blunt instrument to define the boundary between protecting the innocence of children and permitting the freedom of consenting adults; some 16-year-olds are more mature than others and more ready to claim their own sexuality. But it gives me pause to validate the overstepping of this boundary so easily. *Some* form of age partition is necessary to protect those too young and inexperienced to have a well-formed basis from which to give consent, and I worry that validating such encounters in the cases where we know things “turned out well” erodes that boundary’s efficacy in shielding others.

    On a separate note, you both discuss the pro’s and con’s of the criminalization vs. decriminalization vs. legalization of sex work. I wondered if you can comment on how these various policies have played out in real-world places where they are currently (or have been previously) in effect. In Las Vegas, for example, or Amsterdam, has bringing sex work “out of the shadows” actually made the profession safer for the sex workers? Or has it, as Malachi suggested, created a further class divide which elevates cisgender sex workers performing “normal” sex and drives transgender and fetish-oriented sex work further underground? Since genuine people seeking to protect the safety and agency of sex workers can arrive at very different conclusions – say, abolitionism vs. decriminalization – it would be good to seek guidance from real-world data on the measurable aspects of these policies.

    Looking forward to hearing your responses,

    – Matt

    1. Matt, thank you for writing. It feels good to be taken seriously enough to engender some response!!
      I will respond, initially, to your comment directed at my comment. I am not suggesting that we end these legal prohibitions against sex with minors. They are needed. All I was hoping to do was to point out that law is a blunt instrument and that on occasion enforcing the law could actually be counterproductive to the well-being of the very one the law is meant to protect. As a parent and a pastor, I am well aware of the difficulty in ascertaining if consent by a minor is sufficiently informed and not coercive. One has to assume that the younger the child the less they can be an agent of decision. At the same time, I have seen laws like this used against 18-year-olds (or other ages for adult status in terms of sex) who have sex with their boy/girl friend who is slightly younger (maybe a couple of months and on the other side of the line) and when a parent finds out the “adult” is tried and prosecuted for a sex crime and ends up on the state sex offender registry. All I am trying to say here is that we need to be thoughtful about using the law to enforce sexual mores, because unintended and undesired consequences can result. The law, while necessary in many cases, is not a perfect instrument, but so often we act as if it is the only right answer.

      1. Robin,

        Thanks for your thoughtful response. I can certainly agree that an age-of-consent law is a “blunt instrument and that on occasion enforcing the law could actually be counterproductive to the well-being of the very one the law is meant to protect.” As you mention – when for example a sexually active couple of 16 and 17 (where it is just considered “teenage sex”) becomes a couple of 17 and 18 (where statutory rape applies), leading to the older being prosecuted and permanently impugned as a sex offender – these instances are clearly abuses of the law.

        Given that an age-of-consent law is not, as you say, a perfect instrument, I wonder whether you have any insight or suggestions for perhaps a more nuanced and granular criterion? A flat age requirement is easy to police, but clearly something more thoughtful and individualized would be preferable if it could be realistically applied. Do you have any thoughts for how we could prevent abuses like prosecuting an 18-year-old for sleeping with their 17-year-old partner, while still protecting the agency of other minors?

        But returning again to the case you referred to earlier, of certain men you know who benefited from under-age sex with older authority figures, I find myself wondering whether these men would have had the capacity to withhold consent from a similar authority figure if they were not fully ready to commit to sex. In a sense, I suppose, the ability to give consent is only meaningful if one is realistically able to withhold it.

        As a bisexual man myself, there is a certain appeal in the image of an older male authority figure who can “show you the ropes” and guide you through the gates of sexual maturity. While I find this a very appealing fantasy, I struggle somewhat with the baggage associated with it playing out somehow in reality. Perhaps this is why I was drawn to your comments about the positive aspects of a minor being “inducted” by an older authority figure.

        This point is perhaps somewhat far afield from the main point of your post, of course. I certainly appreciate the distinction between the image of sex workers as poor entrapped slaves performing debasing sex acts out of desperation and destitution, and the complex reality. The situations where this is indeed the case – sex trafficking, for instance – are indeed utterly abhorrent and should be fought with all our strength. The opposite image – of a sex-positive college student paying her way through school by choosing sex work – can be equally dangerous. Rather than causing us to dehumanize sex workers as passive, oppressed victims, this perspective makes it all too easy to dismiss the dangers and oppression some face in sex work, viewing it instead in an overly rosy light. As with everything, the reality is more nuanced and lies somewhere between the extremes.

        Is sex work inherently oppressive? Not necessarily. But in a way that, perhaps, mirrors the complex ambiguity of age-of-consent law, addressing the law as applied to sex work requires simultaneously validating the agency of those who freely choose it and protecting the vulnerable victims who are coerced into it. This brings me back to my previous thought: it seems to me that “sexual freedom” and “consent” are only truly meaningful if one is free – legally, socially, and economically – to choose to withhold them.

        – Matt

        1. Matt, I certainly agree with your final point. And I don’t believe it is possible to have it all work out right, all the time. I wish life were like that, but it is not. The great danger in law I think–useful and necessary and important as it is–is the myth of certainty. We simply do not get it right all the time. Not possible, at least for humans in human society. My only real point in raising the example of young men being helped, sometimes, by older men, sexually was to say that no law can ever adequately protect everyone they need and deserve to be protected. We have to learn to live with uncertainty. Einstein knew this, and most scientists seem now to know this, too, even though many of us are shocked when we discover that an operation that cures some dread thing for 95% of people also fails 5% (the number is made up, but the reality is not). The person who is proposed for the treatment has to deal with this in choosing whether to proceed or not, as must their loved ones carry the anxiety until all is done. We do best as a society when we can hold these conflicting realities in a creative tension, when we can live in a continual and simultaneous state of contemplation and action.

  2. Matt,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments- I have enjoyed reading the dialogue between you and Robin on age of consent and any practical application of the more nuanced understanding of these things.

    I’ll admit, I just started to write my thoughts to some of your discussions- particularly that last point, that “‘sexual freedom’ and ‘consent’ are only truly meaningful if one is free – legally, socially, and economically – to choose to withhold them.” and realized I was starting to side-track in discussions about consent. There are a lot of really excellent points and areas of nuance that consent (particularly with respect to sexual freedom) may well be a post for later! But I do thank you both for your thoughtful discussion.

    I want to address the question you had in your initial comment around the real-world applications of legalization vs. decriminalization. I did a hefty bit of research on this about 5 years ago, so much of the data I found at that point may or may not be as applicable. However, much of the structure remains the same, so I can speak to that. The way I understand it, the brothel system in Nevada is on a county-by-county basis; some counties have legalized prostitution and others have not (for example, all forms of prostitution are still illegal in Vegas). In places where it is legal, a person receives a licence to work through their local sheriff’s office and is hired onto one of the brothels (The Love Ranch, Dovetail Ranch, etc.) There, they are given an STI test (and take STI tests regularly), and are often “shown the ropes” of the house by someone who has been there longer. Different accounts vary depending on the houses… the people who work don’t necessarily live at the ranches full-time (though there may be some that do), and when they come out to work (the ranches are often times a little ways out) they are required to be there a certain amount of time (for some, they are required to be there for a week when they come out). Some ranches have a BDSM room for fetishists; some ranches might have a particular focus or appeal for certain clientelle. I don’t think that any of this is inherently bad; however, I do find this to be a remarkably restrictive means that allows for one type of sex work. People are not allowed to “freelance”… they can only work under a brothel (so no escorting). Brothels are seeking to draw clients and therefore want to present a particular type of image, so the people who tend to work are attractive, young females- think of the staff at a standard strip club (absolutely nothing against people who work at strip clubs; my point is that it tends to be a very specific image and archetype of person). I have read one account (although I don’t know if this has changed in the past 5 years) that spoke of not being allowed to leave the ranch during a work stretch without being escorted by a guard.

    This leaves a lot to be desired in terms of “sexual freedom”…by creating legislation that regulates sex work, it also regulates who can work and in what capacity. I don’t think brothels are bad… I think they provide a certain type of service and provide, perhaps, additional assurances to clients of STI status, confidentiality, etc. That being said… I also don’t think that’s the only method of providing sex work, and trying to create a law large enough to encompass everything is fairly impractical… never mind when we start getting into things like fetishes that may or may not be “sexual” in the sense of genital involvement but might be sexual in the sense that someone had an orgasm. How to we codify or write in all these variations?

    At the end of the day, legalization will require some kind of paper trail that will follow a person through their life. While I don’t believe that it is anything to be ashamed of, stigma and prejudice happen. It reminds me very much of these bathroom bill discussions- I don’t think, for example, that I have anything to be ashamed about with respect to my gender, but the reality is, I’m going to face harassment because of it. Should we make it more difficult on sex workers by forcing them to adhere to certain practices (such as licencing, which creates a paper trail and where the benefits of the practice tend to be the clients, and not the workers) that run the risk of further stigmatizing them?

    And if the licencing process costs money (in Asheville, NC, for example, you needed a $500 licence to strip), many people may choose to work without a licence- and thus still have no means of reporting if they are assaulted or raped without running a considerable risk to themselves. I know that one such argument for legalization is the idea that sex workers will be able to report assault without fear of prosecution themselves; however, the number of rape cases that are reported (never mind that lead to a conviction) for people who aren’t sex workers doesn’t give me a lot of hope that legalization will have much impact on reporting.

    Anyway, I could go on and on, but the point is, to me, it seems that decriminalization is the best method of meeting the most people’s needs based on the ways that legalization has already played out in this country. Are there benefits to legalization? Sure; I won’t say that there aren’t. But I think that there are some dangerous pitfalls that come with it, and it is for these reasons that I tend to support decriminalization over legalization.

    Thanks again for your fantastic comments,


  3. Interesting discussion. I have less experience than either of you with people who are personally affected by the strictures against sex for pay, but I have had a fair amount of experience in counseling people whose sexual experience, for one reason or another, is off-limits to what is socially, and sometimes legally, approved. The clash of social regulation and personal behavior is the point at which problems arise. And that, in fact, is nothing rare—for just about all social regulation of personal behavior is fraught with tensions and difficulties unavoidably.

    Why does human society want to regulate behavior? The obvious answer is that some behavior is destructive to its interests, its wellbeing, its overall integrity. So societies choose to regulate patently anti-social behavior. Moreover, societies have a need to protect not just the whole group or tribe or nation but those within it that especially need protection: the vulnerable, the weak. Third and most basic, human societies do what other animal societies do: they make decisions and choose group patterns that on some level are designed to assure their survival. In fact, I believe it can be said that every society, and every individual in that society, is chiefly motivated by the instinct to survive. That we corporately and individually make decisions that don’t work all that well to the end of surviving is true enough—but that is a somewhat different matter.

    The tools that societies use to regulate behavior are well known: laws, punishment, ostracism, banishment; moral codes strengthened and supported generally by religious authorities or their secular counterparts; shaming and scapegoating on familial, tribal, and cultural levels. But the tool most readily available for regulating anything is always money. Somebody is profiting from the regulation, whether it be, to use Blake’s phrase, “priests in black gowns making their rounds, binding with briars my joys and desires,” or cops or judges or TV talk show hosts. There is nothing new about this, witness recent research and discoveries of the prevalence of prostitution and other sexual activity in ancient Pompeii and other parts of the Roman Empire. And money, of course, is always the currency in which humans act out power plays and games. The minute money comes into play, and it always does when the concept of “work” is introduced, then ears perk up and somebody immediately senses that power is to be had, won, gained, lost, or wasted. Hence the appearance of the pimp, the madam, and a host of other characters who are a part of a much bigger web of people who stand to gain from whatever financial arrangements are made around the behavior. Notice that the patrons of sex workers are in all cases those who can afford to pay. Hence there is immediately the implicit need to have a variety of options to match the variety of resources. Penniless people don’t buy sex. Wealthy people might buy (and sellit as well), but they have options that the poor lack. So the issue that you are elucidating in this article really is an issue of justice, and it is specifically one of economic justice. Scratch around very much and it is not hard to see that most justice issues really are matters of economic inequality. Thus, to attack or defend a system of “sex work” called by whatever name, might well entail unmasking the economic disparity that feeds the system. Malachi, you are exactly right that legalization is not an apt way to liberate sex workers. All that does is set up the State to get a slice of the pie, which it already does, as you point out, through licensing some forms of sex entertainment. (I was in the new Dallas Eagle several years ago and was called out for dancing with my husband. Turns out that the city had fixed it so that in order to allow dancing in a bar, the management had to have a special license. That is just the tip of the iceberg, isn’t it?)

    But what about those things, such as protecting minors, that apparently have little or nothing to do with money? In the first place, don’t be too sure that they have nothing to do with money. A whole lot of money is being made in lawsuits, in insurance premiums, in fines, and even by the private firms that increasingly run states’ prison systems through the incarceration of offenders. But in the second place, society (ours, in this case) has a legitimate stake in protecting children, for example. I am all for that. (And woe betide anyone who questions it!) But as Robin courageously intimates, the one-size-fits-all template by which we seek not only to regulate but to eliminate all forms of child abuse doesn’t quite work. And Robin, you are quite correct, at least compared with my professional experience in listening to dozens of stories of men in particular, that what is legally and socially forbidden and anathematized is sometimes understood as positive and redemptive by those who, by the template definitions, were abused as children. I am not arguing that they are right, those “victims,” only that their stories do not line up with the approved social narrative, so well articulated above.

    More than likely, you have hit upon the key concept that will in fact tip the scales at some point in the direction of either legalizing prostitution (I disdain euphemisms and see nothing dishonorable about using the word that still denotes what we are talking about) or removing some of the stigma and encumbrances upon those who make their living selling personal sexual companionship. And that is “freedom.” Personal freedom, the ability to make those choices of which Malachi speaks, is likely the thing that does or will resonate most strongly with the American public. Closely related to it is the concept of “privacy,” which has emerged as a legal category on the grounds of which far-reaching changes have been made in a number of directions. (“Privacy rights” trump a great many other considerations not only in the area of sexual behavior but financial transactions and medical protocols.)

    I would argue, however, that there is something far more basic at stake in this whole area. And that is community, and one of the things without which communities will always founder and fail. And that is honesty. Truth. The truth of the matter is that the phenomenon of regulating sex is fraught with a pile of bullshit and dishonesty that stinks to high heaven. Prosecutors who go after prostitutes at the same time patronize them. Priests who baptize and bless little kids at the altar rail can become their predators. Prelates who scorn the sexual misfits of one age turn around and robe them in the vesture of officialdom and grant them favors in exchange for their own bodily favors. Biblical scholars take a personage like Rahab the Harlot and argue that she was after all probably just an ordinary landlady. Few people want to tell the truth. And the real reason for keeping something going like prostitution is that it allows those who cannot face their own shadows an illusion that somebody, somewhere is lower down the food chain than they.

    Keep pushing the conversation. More is at stake here than liberating sex workers.

    1. Thank you, Frank! As always, an illuminating and challenging commentary. I so wish I had your eloquence…. And yes, you are right, the larger cause is human liberation in many ways and forms. We have chosen to focus on sex and bodies because, as you say here and have said elsewhere, these are areas loaded with repression–repression that makes lots of money for some, holds down many others in addition to sex workers, and is a major source of self-negativity that contributes to war, violence in other forms, and the abuse of multitudes. The fact that it is so hard for most people to talk about it at all is key to understanding the power the whole topic has. So, we will keep pushing the conversation, because uncovering the secrets and helping people share experience, hopes, and joy and pain, will someday open the floodgates of change (which of course often seem to operate at a trickle!). You are so wise to bring economics into the conversation. Without that focus, we miss central aspects of the issues involved. More to come.

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