What Good is Sex Work?

Chris's picture

Too often in discussions of sex work -- and sexuality in general -- it seems like we on the pro-sex side take on a defensive stance that inherently limits our success from the very beginning. One of the linchpins of many of our arguments is that using pornography or paying sex workers for their services doesn't hurt anyone, and is a private matter that's strictly between the people involved; so Gail Dines and Robert Jensen and Melissa Farley should just mind their own business and find some real battles to fight.  And that's true, as far as it goes.  But the flip side of that argument is that it concedes ground immediately because underneath the surface, there's the implication that these things should stay private because they are a little shady, and the best that can be said about them is that they don't hurt anyone else.  By accepting that argument as our starting point, the best that we can ever do is maintain the status quo and not slip even deeper into the morass of puritan self-loathing that already drives our national obsessions about sex.

I think we can do better than that. I want to talk about what's good about pornography and prostitution and stripping and all the rest of it. I want us to be able to start out by talking about how our society will not only not become worse if pornography is easily available and the stigma is removed from prostitution, but will become a better and safer place to live. And how, in some ways, it already has.

For instance, I think that the goals of equality for women and the elimination of pornography are mutually exclusive. We simply cannot have a society that's sane and healthy about issues of gender and sexuality without creating a body of art devoted to eroticism. And more importantly, we need to build criticisms of pornography that go beyond "Porn is bad," or "Porn is good." Even the often stunted and banal pornography that we have now is swimming in ambiguity. For instance: if the power of art is to make us forge an empathic bond with fictional characters, then what is really happening inside a straight man's mind when he watches a "girl-girl" scene? Who is he achieving identification with?  Without the ability to portray and discuss our desires frankly, we're doomed to be stuck in the same sinkhole of shame and self-loathing that breeds repression, misogyny, and homophobia.  But right now, anti-porn feminists and religious fundamentalists won't even allow that building such a critique is valid.  In their 'verse, the differences between Nina Hartley and Lizzie Borden are negligible at best.  Discussion otherwise is off-limits. And so it has been for centuries, which is why I refer to people like Bob Jensen and Gail Dines as "so-called radical feminists." Because whatever else they are, they aren't radical by any understanding of the term that I have, and I refuse to let them corrupt that word with their foul-minded obsessions without a fight.

It's far more radical, I think, for us to say that the world will be a better place with more pornography, not less, and more open discussion about what it means to us without that slightly embarrassed cringing wink that we've all used when telling someone about the new porn site or video that we just checked out. We should be able to argue that not only does prostitution not necessarily cause harm to society at large, but can have net benefits as well. At the very least, going to a professional sex worker can create a safe space for people to explore new and perhaps intimidating sexual fantasies. It is much more radical to assert that lust isn't dehumanizing and that desire is healthy.

Most of our contributors here have more intimate experience with the day-to-day realities of sex work than I do, so I'll turn it over to others to fill in the details: in what ways, if any, do you think that sex work makes us better as a society?