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.
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.
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 my 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
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.
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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.