Don’t criminalise, organise!

Katie Cruz speaks to Melissa Gira Grant, US journalist and former sex worker

April 21, 2015 · 11 min read

In her book Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work Melissa Gira Grant argues that sex workers should have the space to collectively discuss ‘what they wish to change about how they are treated as workers without being told that the only solution is for them to exit the industry.’ I spoke to Gira Grant about the history, organization and demands of the sex workers rights movement (SWRM).

melissa gira grant

I really liked your description of the SWRM’s relationship to other movements and protests, including its historical relationship to feminism, and more recently Slutwalk. Who benefits when this nuance is glossed over?

I bet you could go back to the movements for suffrage, to the movements in the US for equal rights, and see the same kind of arguments made. ‘Those women are just being riled up. Most women don’t really want this. The people who want this are just a small minority. If you actually ask them, most women are completely happy with the way things are. They are just being whipped up by outside agitators.’ I look at sex work in that long historical lens. But sex work has another gloss. It’s said that these people don’t actually want their rights; the management who will profit from the industry is just whipping them up.

But in the US the very organisations that represent either the porn industry or strip club industry are advancing positions that are the opposite of what the SWRM is advancing. So it just doesn’t hold up. The businesses are not advocating for decriminalisation, and the majority of sex workers are. They are advocating for a business model that allows them to continue to have dominance over the industry, which is legalisation, which is what keeps them in business.

It’s quite unfair of people who are outside these movement spaces, even with the best of intentions, to say the only reason people would stand up for sex workers’ rights is because of profits. It’s a way of minimising agency, and also the expertise and leadership of people in the movement. That’s what they get out of it. They get to say: ‘Don’t listen to these people; they aren’t qualified to speak on their own behalf. They aren’t actually leaders; they must have been put up to it by someone else.’ So rather than engaging with what sex workers actually have to say, they are trying to tell them they don’t have the right to speak at all.

One thing that is great about your book is your retracing of the history of alliances between the SWRM and the feminist movement. Can you say a little about that?

It’s hard to get this history. I can only speak to my own education in the States, and public education here, but we don’t learn about labour and social movements. The history we get of the civil rights movement makes it sound as though one day white people decided that segregation was a bad idea! This process of recovering a movement history, and talking about the power of people within movements to collectively change the conditions of their lives, is something that every movement faces. Learning about the feminist movement from other feminists I never heard about the SWRM as a feminist movement. It was only because I was able to get into the archives of people like Carol Leigh, who had some materials on the early prostitutes’ rights movement, to see that they had worked alongside Wages for Housework.

There’s a way the broader culture doesn’t do a good job of talking to us about the role and power of movements, and there’s a way in our own movements that we aren’t honest with each other about these histories. You can’t tell the history of the women’s movement without talking about sex workers, and to make them invisible is an active erasure.

The women’s movement has narrowed its agenda in the past 30 years, and some women, and sex workers, have been left out of that agenda. Until, perhaps, the last 10 years, where they are now part of the agenda of the mainstream anti-violence against women feminists, who equate sex work with violence against women. Even though they would say they are not stigmatising women who sell sex, there is something very troubling to me about how anti-prostitution feminism can harness the hatred of people in the sex industry. It makes many sex workers feel very dehumanised in exactly the way the larger culture does.

Why do you think it is important to move away from the feelings of those who oppose sex work, and the insistence that people who do sex work speak about how it feels to sell sex?

There’s place for feelings in politics, there’s a place for feelings in movements. But the conversation is so dominated by the projection and manufacturing of feelings – these dramatic spectacles of the sad story of the woman who used to do sex work, who is then put on stage to tell her sad story.

That one story then ends up standing in for all the stories of people who have done sex work. Sex workers feel pressured to produce the counter narrative, to say that their work is fabulous. I don’t think we’ll get anywhere until we have more diverse opportunities for people to talk about what they want to talk about, and not be expected to conform to either stereotype.

The stereotype of being exploited or empowered?


You suggest that anti-prostitution feminists focus on the realm of representation – for example, ‘the pole, the thong, the waxed pussy’, or the Playboy magazine – and not the reality of the labour market, privatization, debt. Can you say a little more about this?

If you’ve never done sex work yourself, you just have access to forms of popular culture that are believed to represent sex work, like pole dancing classes, waxes etc – these are thought to be an indictment about how society views women. Actually, they are things that capitalism wants to sell to women; it doesn’t care whether women feel empowered or disempowered by a pole dancing class.

Capitalism tends not to be on the agenda when discussing whether pole-dancing classes are empowering or exploitative, or when asking how young is too young to have a Brazilian wax. But if you don’t have personal experience all you have are feelings about pole dancing classes and thongs. And if you can confine these things to your feelings you can be an expert, and campaign to end page 3, or close down lap dancing clubs etc. But these campaigns are resulting in wages being removed from people who are doing sex work.

That’s the distinction I want to draw. This focus on feelings relies on a cause and effect relation that arguably doesn’t exist, and meanwhile the pockets of the people doing that work, who we are told have few other options, are being hurt.

It’s dangerous to say that these representations of sexuality one-for-one line up with the experience of people working in a sexually-oriented business. And so we need to step back and ask what the people who actually work in lap dancing clubs think about their jobs. There isn’t space for that in these very polarized debates.

You talk about how sex workers represent themselves at work, and how this is often very different from their sexual self (their real lives). In Arlie Hochschild’s study of airline hostesses she discusses emotional labour as ‘deep acting’, and as socially reproductive.

But she also describes alienation and estrangement in the labour process that results from workers’ ‘psychological arts’ being subject to the law of value.

I think these discussions are hard to have because the anti-prostitution position takes them as evidence that sex workers must exit rather than self-organize. Do you think Hochschild’s vocabulary offers a helpful framework for thinking about sex work?

Nearly nobody who asks these questions about sex workers also puts the same questions to waitresses, whether they feel alienated from their labour because they have to smile, from their self because they have to serve food to people when we only ought to be doing that for our friends and family.

I really lean on Elizabeth Bernstein, who proposes the category of ‘bounded intimacy’ to understand what it is that sex workers are performing as their labour. So the production is the boundaries, the labour product is maintaining these boundaries.

I wonder also if part of the reason that commodifying a performance of our sexuality (its not your actual sexuality) can feel alienating is because you’re doing it in a society that tells you it is impermissible. That’s quite different to the kind of alienation that someone who would much rather be at home with her own kids, but today has to nanny these other kids, might be feeling. I wonder how much the alienation in sex work is about how your work is understood by the larger culture, rather than anything intrinsic to the work itself.

A central argument in your book is that sex work need not be fun or empowering for it to be legitimate, and for workers to be able to access labour protections. What do you think are some of the difficulties extending protection, or what protections are desirable?

One of the challenges is that so much of what we think of as labour organising is shop-floor organising. That’s changing. Workforces are more transient, or have always been so, like strip clubs. The Internet is changing things, and people are often freelancers. The question then is how workers who only meet through a web browser can organise. And even in clubs you can’t always have conversations in the dressing room because you might face retaliation. It’s like all labour; people are much more out on their own, working independently. The break room where you can organise is lost for many people.

A sex worker came to one of my events and said to someone that sex workers have already thought of every single proposal for organisation and unionisation. So, the reason that it isn’t happening is either that workers think it’s a great idea but don’t have resources, or it isn’t a great idea. We need to get sex workers the resources to organize, and we have to get rid of laws that criminalize sex workers.

As you say, sex workers are organising but not always in ‘traditional’ ways. Collectives in the UK like the x:talk project and Sex Worker Open University are doing really interesting work. What are some of the most inspiring demands being made by the movement?

What’s most inspiring to me right now in the States is Monica Jones, a woman who is fighting the charges against her in Phoenix, Arizona, that she was ‘manifesting prostitution.’ Rarely do people stand up and fight their prostitution charges.

The courts, not just in relation to prostitution, are not designed to give you a fair trial. But the fact that this woman, a Black woman, a trans woman, an activist, is standing up and fighting those charges is really inspiring. And it raises so many important questions about policing, and violence, and racial profiling. It says a lot about the risks people take to be public, why they do, and how we can support them.

Maybe there will be legal change that comes out of it. The American Civil Liberties Union is standing up and saying that the law isn’t lawful. The fact that she is doing it is so tremendous. Her visibility means our focus is on the rights of sex workers, but also the rights of transgender women and Black women, and how policing harms people in so many different ways.

Katie Cruz is a member of feminist fightback and the x:talk project

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