Who do you listen to?

There’s one guaranteed pro-sex-work response whenever you write something unenthusiastic about prostitution, and that response is: listen to sex workers. It was the dominant theme of critical replies to my review of Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: listen to sex workers, then you’ll see how wrong you are.

In some ways it’s a peculiar logic when it comes to sex work – it claims the privileged status of the victim, while pro-sex-work advocates simultaneously insist that sex workers are not victims – but there’s a logic to it that I wouldn’t dispute. The people directly affected by any situation have undeniable insights into their condition, and I want to listen to them. I want to do justice to the people who figure in my politics.

But when I’m told listen to sex workers, the assumption is that “sex workers” as a class adopt a coherent line which I’m obliged to follow. (Again, this is a bit weird because one of the main strands of anti-legislation argument also holds that sex workers are too various to be dealt with under a single framework. Nevertheless, there it is.)

So for example, Gira Grant espouses decriminalisation, and presents that as an aim pertinent to all sex workers – in fact, she argues for total freedom from the state, including no registration and no taxation on income. But in Italy, some sex workers are campaigning for the right to legally register their occupation and to pay tax (doing so would make them eligible for pensions, which is a highly reasonable thing to want). Who to listen to, Gira Grant or the Italian protesters?

Or maybe I should listen to Rachel Moran, a former prostitute who considers the purchase of sex an act of violence against women and campaigns for its criminalisation (her own testimony, in her memoir Paid For, makes a pretty compelling case). Moran holds a very different opinion on who the victims of prostitution are:

The acceptance of prostitution makes all women potential prostitutes in the public view since there are only two requirements for a woman to work in a brothel: one is that circumstance has placed her so […] and the other is that she has a vagina, and all women are born meeting at least one of these requirements.

Paid For, Rachel Moran (Gill & Macmillan, 2013)

In other words, women as a class are affected by the fact of sex work, which means that all women have the right to be listened to as the affected class.

The “listen to” argument shrugs off responsibility. Rather than make your own judgments, it allows you to outsource your moral thinking to another party, and give up the tricky obligation to weigh facts and balance rights.

But it also obscures a moral judgment already taken: when someone says listen to sex workers, they’re defining the class “sex worker” by the opinions they think it proper for a sex worker to hold. (For example: anyone endorsing Moran’s writing and campaigning is liable to be called a “SWERF” – Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist – even though she had sex for money over the course of many years. Including her is still considered to be excluding sex workers, because sex workers are supposed to support the continuation of prostitution.)

This kind of covertly selective listening is not enough. Absorbing testimony is critical to developing your politics, but it’s not a replacement for the work you need to do yourself. That work is hard, of course. It takes you into areas where you have no guide but your own judgment, and the judgments you make have the potential to affect real lives if you are ever in a position to shape policy, or even just to influence other people’s opinions. That’s a responsibility I can understand anyone preferring not to acknowledge, but it’s a responsibility you have whether you want it or not. And it’s why the “listen to” argument is necessary, but it’s never sufficient.

Toying with politics

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, Melissa Gira Grant (Verso, 2014; £8.99)


The cover of this manifesto on sex work shows three cogs in three fleshy tones, a penetrable central socket in each and high-heeled legs sprouting from them as they appear to grind against each other in a mechanically impossible formation, with no outside power to drive them. And what is missing from the book overall is any idea of what drives the business of prostitution. Even to discuss demand, according to Gira Grant, is to detract from the agency of sex workers:

The demand for victims, as anti-sex work activists describe it, is driven by men’s insatiable desire – not by sex workers’ own demands for housing, healthcare, education, a better life, a richer life, if we dare. Male desire is held up as a problem to be solved, and ending men’s “demand” for “buying” women is a social project to be taken up by producing alternatives for men – such as jail – and scant alternatives for sex workers – such as other forms of employment. It’s a smaller and more convenient problem to want to solve: who men want to fuck and how. It’s one that women who oppose sex work and sex workers’ rights can pretend – unlike poverty or racial inequality – that they have no role in, that they do not themselves benefit from. [pp. 42-3]

Gira Grant’s insistent refrain in this book is that sex work is work, and sex workers are entitled to certain rights in the course of their work. That focus on sex as a business makes the elision of the purchaser even more annoying than it might have been otherwise: few forms of employment have been devised solely for the benefit of those who perform them, and while it’s true that money provides motivation for sex workers, sex work can only be work if someone is willing to pay for it.

That someone is men. From the way she characterises the anti-sex work position above, I suspect that it’s Gira Grant who considers “men’s insatiable desire” the driver – where she differs is that she doesn’t believe this desire should be seen as a problem. But the anti-prostitution argument might hold, and more persuasively, that men do not buy sex because they are innately libidinous: instead, the punter is driven by a belief that he has the right to access women as a commodity because he sees women as his inferior, and he finds erotic gratification in a relationship where the social roles are clearly defined by a cash transaction.

In the anti account, sex work is less about pleasure than it is about power, but because Gira Grant’s book doesn’t acknowledge the issue of masculine social dominance, she isn’t able to respond to that argument. Where does Gira Grant think power is vested? In the state, acting through the police and judiciary; and in anti-prostitution feminists, who Gira Grant claims are allied with police brutality. In the passage quoted above, they’re also implicitly stated to be white and middle class, which seems a rather sly and false way to shore up the radical credentials of the pro-sex work case. 

On the point of brutality, Gira Grant offers many examples of the abuses committed against women in the sex trade in the name of regulating prostitution, and if anyone is foolish enough to think that policing around the globe is an inherently feminist institution, this is a good book with which to disabuse yourself. The Indian sex workers who say they suffer more abuse from police than punters, the accounts of Cambodian round-ups: these are horrific. (They’re also examples of why end-demand campaigners are opposed to the policing of the women who sell sex.)

It’s unfortunate, then, that Gira Grant demands the reader accept her feminist-complicity hypothesis along with the fact of state violence. The women’s movement has long spoken out against police misogyny towards sex workers, on the understanding that as to prostitutes so to all women: the 1977 Reclaim the Night march in Leeds, reacting to the introduction of a curfew on women (not men) during the Yorkshire Ripper’s savage spree, is a totemic example of that.  You don’t have to accept the legitimacy of the sex trade to stand against the abuse of those involved in it, and given Gira Grant’s embrace of a harm-reduction ethic elsewhere, it’s strange to see her adopt a moral absolutism that excludes collaboration with potential allies on immediate and life-saving goals.

The book’s grasp of history comes up short in other ways. In the second chapter, Gira Grant tries to show that the identity of the prostitute is a culturally unstable one, invented that it might be controlled: “It’s the nineteenth century that brings us the person of the prostitute,” she writes. [p. 14] This is a welcome rejection of the tedious conservatism of the “world’s oldest profession” argument that is so often made in favour of sex work by self-proclaimed radicals with a blind spot for irony. But in chapter 6, discussing the use of technology by sex workers, she tells us: “In ancient Greece, certain classes of prostitute attracted customers by scoring the words ‘Follow me’ on the soles of their sandals […]” [p. 70]

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim that the prostitute is a Victorian innovation for the governing of sexuality, and then subsequently claim a continuity between the prostitutes of ancient Greece and those of Craigslist. There is one interesting observation to draw from Gira Grant’s commentary on prostitution and the wider economy, though, and that’s how much it resembles Gail Dines’ account in Pornland of a sex industry entwined with the hospitality, service and communications industries. Dines’ intention is to horrify readers with the level of capitalist complicity, Grant’s is to present sex work as a normalised part of the economy: both seem to agree that we live in Pornland, but only one is willing to imagine that there might be a better existence for women beyond it.

Gira Grant seems to see nowhere for women to fit beyond the sexual market. She writes: “[t]o truly confront [violence against sex workers] would require us to admit that we permit violence against some women to be committed in order to protect the social and sexual value of other women.” [p. 6] Even if an individual woman is not selling sex herself, in Gira Grant’s view that woman is offering a product in competition with that offered by sex workers, and anti-prostitution laws are to be understood as economically protectionist policies. Fuck Laws rather than Corn Laws, so to speak.

Actually, in the construction Gira Grant uses, the woman herself is the product – a possibly telling contradiction with other parts of the book where she insists that sex workers do not “sell their bodies” [p. 94] but instead provide a service. Neither the version Gira Grant dismisses not the one she offers in its place adequately characterises the sale of sex: sex workers don’t “sell their bodies” in the sense of handing over possession of a good, but reviews from PunterNet show that the men who pay for sex are very clear that the body of the woman is what they are paying for. What they buy is a licence for use of the woman’s body, for a certain amount of time and in a certain way (which many punters feel entitled to renegotiate during sex).

I don’t consider sex work a wrong to women because I think it affects my sexual value. I reject the idea that any woman should be given a sexual value at all. I consider prostitution a wrong because it places all women within an economic structure that prices them sexually: there is no comparable structure that women can place on men, because women have neither the capital nor the social power to do so. Gira Grant thinks that we must accept the legitimacy of sex work to make women safe; I think that as long as sex work is legitimised, men’s power over women is legitimised by extension, and women are made less safe.

Shared aims can and do coexist between these opposing positions, but to find them we have to be willing to look at the power that turns the cogs: the men who buy sex, and why they do it. Gira Grant displaces agency away from such men: “so long as there are women who are called whores, there will be women who believe it is next to death to be one or to be mistaken for one. And so long as that is, men will feel they can leave whores for dead with impunity.”

You might notice here that Gira Grant implies that women’s fears enable men’s violence, even though for women to be afraid of being mistaken for a whore, the male violence would logically have to come first. But Gira Grant cannot account for male violence around sex work, and the confusing call for “whore” to be adopted as a political identity with which Playing the Whore concludes is no answer to the abuses women suffer in a world where their bodies are a commercial commodity. Treating something as a game or a performance does not, after all, stop it from being viciously real to other people.