This is a post is a not really a finished product, but an attempt. It is me muddling through the ideas of sex work, and prostitution, and legalization, trying to reconcile Annie Sprinkle and every feminist text I have read and everything I know about my friends who did sex work and all the research I just did on trafficking. I've been thinking about it all a lot.
Because, I mean, the thing is, also: I have been given money for my body.
Never regularly, and never for what most people think of as "prostitution." But when I was 20, I went with my girlfriend on a completely comped trip to Las Vegas for the 2000 New Years.* Her friend/former employer was a huge concert producer, and he had been gifted plane tickets and hotel rooms for him and ten of his friends. I was her date. We got flown out to Vegas, put up in the Venetian, had our meals completely paid for, and were usually given about $500 a day from this dude to just go blow on whatever (we ended up putting aside nearly half of everything we got. I remember we referred the stash we would take home as "book money" - neither of us had had any idea how were going to pay for books that next semester before this trip. I think I came home with close to a $1000. It would help me pay for study abroad in India that next year).
If I can say anything about Vegas, it is: THERE IS SO MUCH MOTHERFUCKING MONEY IN VEGAS. It was easy to get swept up in the debauchery of it all, get drunk on the excess. I have never seen so much money exchange hands as I did that week, and it was unnerving, and neaseating, and strange - I never got over the feeling, the entire time I was there, that I did not belong there, that I was an intruder, some random no-name schmuck who had wandered into a celebrity party by mistake.
Anyway, so there we were, in Vegas, and seriously guys, men like THREW money at us. My girlfriend was stunningly beautiful, and we were both pretty femme, and were happy to dance close and be affectionate and make out with each other (and others) in public, so we ended up with a lot of male attention very quickly - we were like the fucking porn fantasy of "lesbians" piped in to everyone's hotel rooms all night. And my girlfriend, well, she proclaimed loudly and often that she was very pro-sex. But pro-sex in that: "I am going to wield my sexuality against guys, and control them with it, and that will make me powerful!" sort of way.
Which it doesn't. Make you powerful. I have had women (and men) argue with me that women using their sexuality to get shit from (straight, obviously) men makes them powerful. And that would not be any definition of power I can think of - it makes the women manipulative, or shrewd, or savvy, but they are still dependent on someone else to provide them with something; some dude withholds his goodies, the woman loses all her power. It is at someone else's whim. This would be the opposite of powerful.** Women can use their sexuality to access power, but they never hold it themselves.
I recall our very first evening there - we were standing in the Hard Rock Hotel talking, waiting to meet with the group we had come with for dinner (and then go see Tina Turner and Elton John in concert after that - seriously). I was talking to my girlfriend, and a guy walking by just strolled up, grabbed my ass, said, "NICE," and then went to go on his way. I turned around to chew him out, but as I started he interrupted me with, "Yo, chill, this is how things ARE here, get used to it." And I just shut up. I realized he was right, in a way, the rules there weren't like the rules in the outside world. Everywhere, there is a patriarchy; in Vegas (and especially in the Hard Rock, whoa) it was multiplied exponentially, and no one batted an eye as if that were maybe a problem. My body, just being in that space, was ASSUMED to be public property. By merely being somewhere, I was implying consent to everything that followed. Even if I wasn't dancing, or in a bar, or flirting, or wearing a miniskirt (oh, maybe I was, I don't remember) and was in fact just standing in a fucking lobby, the rule still held. I remember thinking, ok, if there are different rules, I will learn to play by them, and I will learn to win. I bet you can guess now: I never could win. The house always wins; everybody knows that.
So my girlfriend was all gung-ho about this powerful, well-compensated force we were going to have over men with our sexuality (when I would argue, she told me to stop being "prude," which just annoyed the piss out of me enough that I stopped arguing). And while I knew her reasoning behind this "Let's take them to the cleaners!" attitude wasn't so feminist and didn't really hold up as "empowering," I had my own reasons for going along. I was fresh off a number of women's studies classes in college; I was pro-sex, and I was pro-sex worker. I had passionately argued, along with my classmates, for the legalization of prostitution, for sex workers to unionize themselves and/or fight for better working conditions, for women to be able to speak out against abusive johns and pimps without fear of being thrown into the criminal justice system themselves. I walked into Vegas with the full feminist belief that sex work was just work, and for the good of women we needed to de-stigmatize it, legalize it, remove the moral values that had been placed on it. It was a job, it was about exchange of money, and if there were two (or more) willing participants, who was I to tell anyone they couldn't earn their living as they pleased?
And then it suddenly seemed like I could make myself a hypocrite - who was I to turn down sex work, either? Was I really a prude? Did I really still have moral values attached to sex? I was just making a business transaction, wasn't I? I needed the money. I had the opportunities to make it. If I set my boundaries, my limits, and some dudes were willing to give me money, well, who was I to refuse to take it? Because there was nothing immoral about what was happening, right? This wasn't dirty. I was voluntarily consenting to, at first, just being pretty arm candy to wealthy men, sometimes make out with my girlfriend in front of them to get their unlimited credit-card-type things to go gamble to our hearts content.*** Then it became more, letting men see parts of me, and then more parts of me, naked. Then it was letting them touch me. The boundaries kept moving. My girlfriend dove into it with a zeal I was only later able to recognize was self-destructive (not two months earlier, she had put herself in the emergency room after trying to take her life; she would end up there again for the same reason five months later. Still, on her most wanton and dangerous exploit that week, I would refuse to join her), and I went along, because sex wasn't supposed to be moral or immoral, right? This wasn't a problem, was it? I mean, it was a business transaction. I was in control. I could call stop.
And you know? It felt dirty and awful and wrong and I hated it the entire time anyway. I left Vegas with a lot of money and a hollowed-out feeling, like there were breezes blowing between my ribs.
No matter how many of the variables I controlled in these business transactions, I couldn't take the patriarchy out of the equation. While I wasn't intellectually processing it, I could fully feel how skewed the power dynamics were, how exploitative it was, how there was no way to erase any of the ugly history and context that went with what we were doing. I couldn't do sex work in a vacuum. And in the end, it meant I couldn't do sex work and also feel ok.
Obviously, there are women who do do sex work, and enjoy it, and get something out of it, and happily choose it as their living. And I do not judge them. I am pro-woman, and pro-sex worker. But I don't like sex work, and it's because we can't do it in a vacuum. I know, after researching an awful lot about sex trafficking, that legalizing prostitution actually makes it harder to find trafficking victims and child victims and prosecute their pimps. I know that legalizing prostitution in Vegas has not made things much better for women. And when I think about it, most of the women I know who were sex workers and personally advocated for the legalization of sex work were pretty privileged within the sex work industry. If the average age that women enter into sex work in this country is 13 (and they are often poor, and women of color), and the legalization of prostitution makes it harder for us to help them, then . . . well, I don't know if I can get behind the legalization of prostitution.
At the same time, I don't want to deny women their right to earn their living however they choose, and I do not think we should continue to throw women into the criminal justice system for a transaction we have placed a moral judgment on and thus made illegal. Sex between two consenting, of age people, where money is exchanged, isn't a good or bad thing (mostly - obviously, the patriarchy elephant is in the room). It can be victimless. But many times, it is not. I am very pro-sex worker. But I am kinda anti-sex work, or at least how it plays out in the real world, where those who are most oppressed and vulnerable and need the most help are funneled into it and abused.
I know that there must be other options. I don't wish to deny anyone the enjoyment of their work, or the income it generates, and I don't wish to force women who may have few other options to make money out of work, but there has to be some way we can make things better. When I took a public interest class at law school two semesters ago, we had to do proposals of some sort, and one guy did a presentation about a legislative solution to prostitution. The legislation he proposed was really comprehensive, thoughtful, and sex-worker- and woman-centered - it made johns paying for sex an illegal act, but did not criminalize prostitution for the sex workers. It had a way of collecting funds (I think there was a tax on something?) to help train cops, and then would use other moneys, including payments of fines, to fund drug rehab centers and help pay for counseling, as many of the women who go into sex work have been raped and abused, sometimes even before they ever became sex workers. It was a stellar presentation and sadly I don't have a copy of it. But it means we have other options out there, ways of changing the law that don't follow the rules of the patriarchy, different ways to try and solve the problem. And again, the problem isn't sex work per se. The problem is that no one can do sex work in a vacuum. There is no sex work without the patriarchy. And there is no sex work without the myriad of oppressions that leave those who are most in need, most vulnerable, like children, those with drug addictions, those who have been abused, women of color, and trafficking victims the most likely to become its victims.
So. This is me muddling through sex work, the question of legalization of prostitution. It's not something I feel I should really get to weigh in on; it doesn't really affect me on a daily basis. I just did a lot of research into what effects the global sex trade, though, and I think it has finally pushed me off the fence onto the anti-legalization side. I understand that there are women who enjoy sex work and need it to make a living, but I think that we need to build laws and policies around the least powerful, those most vulnerable and least able to fight back, all while fighting unemployment and lack of opportunities for women as well. My goal isn't, obviously, to make anyone or their family go hungry. And if folks think I am wrong, or totally off base here, or do not know what I am talking about, I really hope they show up in comments, because I would love other perspectives on the question of legalization.
But also, maybe, deep down, part of me doesn't think sex work is worth reforming. I don't think it is worth trying to improve. If we could do it in a vacuum, and we could take out the patriarchy and all forms of oppression, yeah, maybe. But I remember what it felt like, and how I couldn't divorce what I was doing from its context. I was calling the shots, I was getting paid, but the whole time, even while men were showering me with every compliment under the sun, I was pretty sure that I wasn't the one who was powerful in that situation. Like I said, the house always wins.
*Apparently, not everything that goes down there stays there.
** Yeah, I know the argument too that most men are pretty easy to seduce (and SORRY, they kinda are)(this is not meant as an insult; many women can play-act that socially-constructed "seductress" - I have switched into and out of that character on a dime as a party trick, and Megan Fox gets in trouble for pointing out this is just her job and an act and she doesn't actually want to bone all men all the time), but they are not dependent on anyone else to have the power they already have.
*** Did you know these things exist? They do. I haven't the faintest idea how you get them, or if only certain people get them, or if you have to throw down a lot of money to get one but: it is a card, it is unlimited, and you can blow thousands of dollars with it on anything (drinks, food, gambling). And, in fact, that was expected, once it was put into our upturned palms.