“I buzz off it. It’s like a control buzz, and I like buzz off the control of it. It’s like…I don’t know. I love it. It’s fun now. […] Even if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t stop it. […] I personally get a buzz out of it, as well as the money.”
“[I]t’s an awful experience. You feel like you’ve been raped the first few times you do it. It’s very hard. […] I have got hardly any respect for my body anymore. […] I find it very hard to mix with normal people, people who don’t know what I do.”
Sex work or prostitution is the Rorschach test of Fourth Wave feminism. One’s position on the issue of legalisation of sex work – and whether one calls it sex work in the first place – is a generational and cultural marker that signals which side of the line in the sand feminists stand on: dour, hairy radfems this side, flighty funfeminists this way. To the left, Birkenstocks & dungarees, to the right, high heels and Cath Kidston pinnies.
I exaggerate the stereotypes for effect, but also because they are largely untrue. Created by a mass media fundamentally hostile to feminism and pitted against each other in an internecine simulacrum of the “Mommy Wars”, these division are, once one gets off Twitter, largely illusory. On both sides of the debate there is a deep commitment to the well-being and sexual agency of all women, and the argument is predominantly about means, not ends.
Sex workers and other women are not children to be patronised by do-gooder middle class women
The genuine controversies surrounding feminist campaigning for policy changes as regards sex work stem, as far as I can tell, from a single unresolved question within the movement: how much agency do women in a patriarchy have? Do we all, to one degree or another, suffer from false consciousness, or do we make choices knowingly and with a mature eye to consequences? Are we liberal-analysis individuals, or radical-theory class beings?
While not denying the moral agency of individual women, abolitionists tend to take the systemic view: for well-understood theoretical reasons that space does not allow me to go into, prostitution (their preferred term) is a form of abuse and can never be harmless. Pro-sex work activists counter with derision that sex workers and other women are not children to be patronised by do-gooder middle class women, and that the voices that count in the debate are those of sex workers themselves.
It is very much with that thought in mind that I started reading the appropriately titled In her own words, an unedited transcript of an interview the writer & campaigner Ruth Jacobs filmed in the 1998. It is currently being offered for sale as an e-book, with proceeds going to the charity Beyond the Streets. Both of the quotes at the top of the article are from this text.
Yes, both. The same woman, in the course of a single conversation, confirmed the knee jerk prejudices of both abolitionists & legalisers: sex work is empowering, lucrative and largely done by choice. It is also traumatising, lonely and hard. Anyone coming to the text with a strong preconceived idea of what sex work is and what society’s policy approach to it should be will find ample support for their views within it.
There is more to this woman’s life that a simple answer to the question: sex work – good or evil?
Which is why the thoughtful reader will be wise to take a step back from the questions setting feminists against one another, and reflect that this woman is not here to settle our internal differences. It might be that in this case, she is being used that way: the author has since published several novels about prostitution suggestively titled the Soul Destruction series. But the square peg is refusing to fit into the round hole. There is more to this woman’s life that a simple answer to the question: sex work – good or evil? Liberating or enslaving? Feminist or patriarchal?
Once the urge to parse the text for answers to my one’s own questions recedes, various interesting details emerge.
‘Q’, as she is called in the text, alludes to being forced into street prostitution at fifteen by a pimp, and describes the attendant fear, risk and sense of violation. But she also finds surprising empowerment in street work that, once she switched to being a call girl (an “upward” move, in the kind of superficial analysis Super Freakonomics might apply to it), was lost to her. As a street worker, she could be rude to a punter. As a call girl, she found she needed to maintain the illusion of consent by treating her clients with a simulacrum of affection. So-called emotional labour, or affective labour, is not, at least for this woman it seems, an inescapable part of all sex work, but something that becomes expected only with other trappings of middle class normality.
If the stigma were removed, would her life be different?
The alienation of stigma, a well recognised problem for both practising and former sex workers and porn performers, is descried vividly; but so is the difficulty in forming trust relationships, especially with men, and how that difficulty interplays with the stigma to make the barriers to a healthy social and love life all the greater. Loneliness, a deep and abiding aloneness runs through the text like a hairline fracture: this is a woman whose relation to the world is processed almost entirely internally. Whether this is as a direct result of her rejection by society is doubtful, as she briefly alludes to a “lifestyle” that comes with the work and she finds to be unhealthy. If the stigma were removed, would her life be different? On the basis if this text alone, it remain impossible to tell (except inasmuch as suffering under stigma is a harm and an injustice in and of itself).
When I agreed to review the book, I imagined closing my review with a recommendation to anyone who has an interest in the legal status of the sex industry to read it. Now I think this book is definitely not for those people. Q and other women like her deserve better than to be a football in some intra-feminist battle between liberal and radical idea. Read it because she sounds like an interesting person; because it will make you cry for her and admire her; and because she describes a slice of female experience that is all too common and all too little discussed.
In Her Own Words is currently available for £0.77 from Amazon.