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Recognize That Sex Work is Work: A Conversation with Melissa Gira Grant

the cover of Playing the Whoremelissa gira grant

This month, Jacobin launched a book series with Verso offering a socialist perspective on cultural, political, and economic issues, including Melissa Gira Grant’s new book on the sex work industry, Playing the Whore: the Work of Sex Work. Grant has written about sex and politics for such outlets as the Nation, the Guardian, $pread and as a contributing editor of Jacobin.

This is the second book in the span of a few months to highlight the sex industry form the perspective of sex workers themselves. In January, Melinda Chateauvert published the book Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk and both works emphasize the roles sex worker movements have played in other activist movements, including queer rights and workers rights movements.  Beyond recognizing sex work as labor, Grant’s book examines how sex work has become stigmatized in American culture to the point of criminalizing all involved.

I spoke with Melissa Gira Grant over the phone last week about her new book, specifically about the necessity of including the voices of sex workers in conversations around the sex work industry and the question of whether a sex worker can be a whole woman. 

As we concluded our conversation Grant noted, “This isn’t a debate about whether sex work should exist. We’re talking about people’s safety and rights and access and that’s quite a different conversation.”

JAMIE HAGEN: In your book, you emphasize sex work is not about feelings, it’s about money.  You recognize sex work as labor. This seems like an incredibly powerful shift in perspective that is outside of much of the current dialogue about sex workers. 

MELISSA GIRA GRANT: I think that’s because most of the current dialogue about sex workers actually is not initiated by sex workers. 

When people who talk about sex work have no grounding in experience, of course it’s going to go to those things where they believe that they have expertise. Some of those things might be their feelings about the existence of the sex industry. 

I was just watching a very odd response go down on Facebook to the Belabored podcast I did yesterday. We spent 45 minutes talking about sex work as work, everything you just stated in your question, and it took about five seconds for some guy to jump in and say, “But what about the johns?” It’s a kind of derailing that I think happens in like every conversation about gender and sexuality pretty much ever! 

It’s akin to “concern trolling.”

It is! It is like a concern trolling. “Your experience might be one thing, but what I’m concerned about is how I feel about it.” Unfortunately, that kind of derailing into the feelings of those people outside of sex work is the place where policy is made.

In your book you outline troubling domestic and international policies like those promoted by USAID aiming to eradicate prostitution with disastrous results in places like Cambodia. The voice of sex workers impacted by this “protection” is generally left out. How do you think this might shift if the power of the narrative of this work were given to those who actually engage in the work? 

One of the most powerful shifts for me was actually getting to get outside of the US and look at the way sex workers organizing has actually played out in Cambodia, India, and Mexico.  

Look at the work that sex workers in Cambodia were doing, for example: they were in alliance with other women workers who were also experiencing a lot of exploitation. So the Cambodian sex workers union who I got to spend a little time with worked very closely with the garment union in Cambodia, which was largely representing women. And in India the sex workers rights movement didn’t necessary come up out of the women’s movement, but it came up more closely aligned around labor and also to a certain extent around HIV prevention. 

There were ways that sex workers found to really stake out their own expertise. Rather than play into this idea of,  “We’re a problem to be solved,” they’d show up and say, “We have the solution. You actually can’t solve the issue of labor exploitation, you can not solve the problem of the HIV pandemic without us.” It changed the stakes immediately.  

In your section about whore solidarity, you talk about how the word whore is “perhaps the original intersectional insult.”  It seems that an intersectional insult potentially means an opportunity for great movement building! 

When you look at something like intersectionality from an academic perspective it can very quickly turn into another form of looking at identity politics. Sex worker movements are intersectional movements by necessity because these are movements that are often inside of other movements or they are multiple movements coalescing together around something. 

The organizing that I think has a chance to be really successful in rolling back criminalization in the way that it hurts sex workers is coming out of queer organizing and, particularly, its coming out of queer people of color and trans organizing.

You also make a point about how some people have been funding this activism through sex work.

Usually grassroots organizing gets the short end of the stick and so you have communities who are taking on pretty bold projects—policy change, community organizing, political education—with almost no resources. Sex workers know how to find resources in hard times. This is an actual component of sex workers expertise! 

I was really humbled to go back and look at things like Amber Hollibaugh, who wrote in her memoir about her experiences in activist movements. She kept her sex work secret because even in these activist movements, she was concerned she would be judged—I think at the time, rightly so. And even to this day. How many people are in the closet that we won’t know about?  

I’m pretty open that it was sex work that allowed me to get into journalism without having to do unpaid internships—that let me just start working. So I think it isn’t even just activism but it touches on how the economy is and what people need to do to get a job. 

At one point in your book you address the fact that sex workers aren’t allowed the role of being a whole women by those who seek to save them. Within this framework, there isn’t much room for conversation about agency and empowerment for sex workers.   

The whole woman thing comes from a confluence of narratives, whether that’s the media or even some of the feminist narratives around sex work. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking at the religious right anti-trafficking projects. In some ways, those seem like a revival of the Promise Keepers and they talk a lot about restoration and mending the soul, this idea that the sex worker is like an injured person who can never be whole.

You find that on the left and on the right, secular and religious kind of tropes. So of course that’s going to pop up in the media. That’s how people imagine sex workers. If they’re not whole, then they don’t have voices and they need other people to speak for them because their voices and their stories are suspect. I think that’s what really lets the media off the hook. That’s why you see these tropes so persistently because it doesn’t even seem to occur to people that sex workers might have the capacity to dispute them.

In my academic work I look a lot at the question of women’s silence and agency. In the predominant discourse used today it seems you’re a sex worker (or prostitute) or you’ve been raped and therefore “victim” is your category. 

And, well, it makes it very easy for the people on the outside to then create a roll for themselves right? So if there are people who are injured then they need a rescuer, they need a savior. You even see that in humanitarian work where on the one hand people might view themselves as coming in and empowering people who might need their help, but it’s still a very fraught relationship - power dynamics there are pretty intense.  

The tropes around the injured woman who then needs our outside intervention to save her, they go far beyond sex work but they are one of the things I think in sex work that people least often question. 

Related Reading: Forty Years in the Hustle—An Inteview with Sex Worker Advocate Margo St. James. 

Jamie J. Hagen is a freelance writer and doctoral student in Boston. Follow her on Twitter.


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Comments

1 comment has been made. Post a comment.

Solidarity! Keep Going!

Thanks for doing your thing, MGG. You've got a lot of current and former workers watching what you do, and your work has helped me/us do our organizing against repressive state policies and internal prejudice on the left. Current international policy on sex work, also known as "prostitution abolition," is designed and enforced by the US (through the UN), and was never shaped by the workers themselves. It's just yet another way for the state to enact systemic racist, classist, sexist regulation of bodies, not all of them female, most of them not "trafficked." Keep on it, sis, we're breaking through.