I do not understand why prostitution is illegal. Why should prostitution be illegal. Selling is legal. Fucking is legal. Why isn’t selling fucking legal? You know, why should it be illegal to sell something that’s perfectly legal to give away. I can’t follow the logic on that at all. Of all the things you can do to a person, giving someone an orgasm is hardly the worst thing in the world. In the army they give you a medal for spraying napalm on people. Civilian life, you go to jail for giving someone an orgasm. Maybe I’m not supposed to understand it. -George Carlin
The whore is invariably depicted as pathetic although she is sometimes given a few moments of glory here and there. In John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row the madam at the city’s brothel put her staff to work tending to the sick in the middle of a flu epidemic. Many genres of fiction depict whores as powerful and independent rogues, especially science fiction. Maybe in the future the human race will finally figure out that in the grand scheme of the world’s problems, illegalizing a commercial marketplace for sex really is moral nitpicking. At our present time, the debate over the decriminalization of prostitution is labeled “controversial.” To make a declaration that the negotiated sale of sex between two consenting adults should not result in jail time is “radical.” If there’s one thing that wing conservative figures and manyhigh profile mainstream feminists can wholeheartedly agree upon, it’s the idea that a sexual transaction between two adults is dangerous to society. I disrespectfully disagree.
Sex work is a very broad term without any concrete demarcation. Where exactly is the line between an escort and a debutante? Where is the line between a stripper, a casino cocktail waitress, and a food service/hospitality worker who is expected to skillfully flirt for tips? When does an advertisement or fashion photo spread officially become pornographic? What’s the difference between the giggolo or hustler and the teen magazine stud muffin who makes his money as shower nozzle masturbation material for teenage girls? Sex work is a term that functions as a reminder of the status quo and the fallacy of a class meritocracy. It’s perfectly acceptable to exchange sex for money so long as the rocks on your fingers are real and the carats are in the triple digits. Failing that, you’re an illegitimate whore deserving of rape, brutalization, and murder.
The street level prostitute in particular has suffered from a persistent and exhaustive character assassination and infantilization that most people accept as fact. Although I do identify as a sex worker myself, my realization of this came from my front line work in social welfare as the HIV Senior Specialist at an agency serving the homeless with a 12 million dollar annual budget. What I learned working inside the single resident occupancy hotels that rent by the week, the month, or however long the money holds out taught me a thing or two as did night shifts in the shelters. I ate meals alongside hookers and pimps, dealers and pushers, and other urban outlaws and I listened to their stories. The woman who enters the field of prostitution as a teenager is denounced as the victim of trafficking while her brother tending a street corner drug operation at the same age is recognized as something more like an avenger of the status quo. Both occupations are notoriously fast paced, short lived, and full of risk to life and limb. We do not speak of young men working in the illegal drug trade in the same terms as we speak of young women hustling their owns on the very same streets. It was curious to be told time and time again that street level prostitutes were pathetic victims in need of rescue and that drug dealers were in need of taming because what I was seeing and hearing was not matching up.
I interacted with a few “prostitution rehabilitation” programs who told me that their mission was to outreach to street level sex prostitutes and “teach them vital life skills and better ways to manage their money and live within their means.” I won’t deny that these programs have good intentions; class warfare is harsh for every single member of the bottom rung and something must be done about that. On the other hand, it seems more than a little condescending to go out into the streets at night to tell women that it’s bad for them to make so much money so quickly and that it would be better for them to trained how to dress, behave, and make a more appropriate living at the minimum legal wage with no opportunity to save and no opportunity to advance. It seemed more like an enforcement of the status quo than an uplifting of women’s rights to me.
It’s not uncommon to hear that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. I think it’s more relevant to talk about the fact that as a modern day occupation, sex work may very well be on of the most ethical jobs in America right now. When you consider the impact of global capitalism, the reliance on post-colonial exploited labor, and sustainability a fuck and a blowjob negotiated between two consenting adults is one of the few ways to make money that doesn’t mandate hurting anyone else. The moment I articulate this point in a debate, someone will invariably point to the pain and suffering of the “secondary victims” prostitution. What about the wives and families of Johns whose lives are destroyed when husbands and fathers go out and fuck whores? What about the crime that it brings into the neighborhood?
Here’s the one-two punch: the crime surrounding prostitution exists because prostitution is a criminal act. Far more people have lived adjacent to indoor brothels and trick pads than they know because sex work can and most often does operate with less disruption to daily life than a coffee shop. In regards to the destruction of the family, that’s a red herring. Many people act in ways that contradict the negotiated agreement they have with their partners with and without money passing hands. Every partnership has right to compose their own terms of engagement and they might be more clear if they modeled the kind of negotiations that sex workers have clients. It is no more the duty of a sex worker to background check and verify that a client is upholding their end of an agreement with personal partner than it is the duty of a sales clerk to call up a spouse and double-check for permission to make an expensive purchase. Whether or not it is wrong to have sex with someone that is not your spouse or partner is irrelevant to whether or not it should be illegal to sell sex. If pissing off or disappointing a romantic partner is a criminal act then every single one of us would be condemned to a life sentence.
Although this series will explore the gross injustice that is the illegalization of sex work it will also be an examination of the way that the sex worker rights movement and anti-oppression movements of all stripes intersect. As my own career in sex work began to take shape and momentum my views on politics took a sharp turn. I stopped relying on a blessing from an authority figure to make my living on my own terms. I stopped fetishizing the false construct of legitimacy of 9-5 work and began enjoying my life more fully. I remember complaining about the rote nature of my high school education and how inefficient it was for my learning style. “No, it isn’t exciting or particularly educational, per se, but you have to learn how to do it because that’s how jobs in the real world work. You just have to get used to it.”
No, actually, I don’t. I do not have to stuff my ethics about the exploitation of labor in post-colonial countries and work in a massive corporate retail operation. I do not have to get up at 7AM and commute in traffic with white knuckles and a bubbling rage. I do not have to sit in a grey cubicle and create sculptures out of paper clips that express an existential crisis. I do not have to take out a massive loan and go into debt if I want to purse higher education. “Business clothing” does not always mean a pantsuit and the work week can begin whenever the hell I want it to begin. I do not need a piece of paper from anyone to prove that I am damn good at my profession. If I have enough money saved up, I can decide to hop on a plane and fly wherever I want in the world and stay there until I’m ready to come back. I can be the CEO and sole stockholder in very profitable business venture without anyone’s permission. I can spend time working on that novel, that painting, that script, or that household project I’ve been meaning to get to sooner or later when I feel inspired. I can make money doing something that I love. I can insist that my terms be met and I can walk away if they don’t. I can have all of things and in doing so I have held no one back.
If you do have all of the things, your own culture will put a price on your head. In a good mood I point out the jealousy and the fact that the life of a whore makes pursuing the American Dream by traditional means obviously ridiculous. On a bad day I’m terrified at the cultural hostage situation we all exist within where delusional mad men with guns are making strange demands of all us and moreover that Stolkholm Syndrome has set into society and people think it’s only natural to hate whores, to rape them, to kill them, and to shred every piece of their humanity apart. People call sex work the cheap and easy route but there is nothing about it that comes easily. It’s an uphill battle that begins the first time you cross the river and exchange sex for money. Once you are a sex worker, you are always a sex worker. Your society will never forgive you for abandoning their ways and will punish you for it until the day that you die.
Self-identified whores are deeply entrenched in anarchist politics because their very lives demand that they put their money where their mouth is and live off the grid and without the protection of the state. At the very least one should recognize that it is unwise to underestimate anyone who can brave a New York City winter in nothing but lingerie and stiletto heels in the face of constant danger. These are the people that you need at rallies because they can get up on stage and speak for themselves about why the system is wrong and they have stories that will knock your socks off. Despite attacks on their intelligence, there is a sudden and steep learning curve for quick wits, cool thinking, and street smarts in the field of sex work. Sex workers are not, as a whole, stupid. They endure a perpetually hostile climate everywhere they go and even when they are slammed to the ground and looted for everything that they have they get back up and they hit the pavement again. Sex workers are consummate survivors and inventors and moreover they do not give a fuck what you think.