Revisiting Sex Work And Checking My Privilege

I was pretty pleased with my post on why legislating sex work is problematic, until someone wrote to me to point out where I got it wrong. That’s actually what I was hoping for, as I’d concluded the post by writing:

To that end, if I’ve misrepresented the nature of sex work or adult performance here in this article, I apologize and request that someone from the community contact me and correct me. I’m just an academic who’s good at spotting patterns and analyzing cultural trends – you know more about your lives than I do. Not that it’s your job to teach me, but hopefully I can use this blog as a platform to correct false impressions about sex work and sexuality in general.

So when C. Simon, an escort, emailed me and pointed out that I’d undermined my own argument in certain ways, I was both happy to receive the criticism and chagrined that I’d fallen prey to the very logic I’d been trying to critique. In the vein of realizing you were Wrong On The Internet and apologizing for it, here goes.

My critic took issue with me claiming to support the autonomy of sex workers to make their own decisions while simultaneously saying that “I am a little skeptical about how often that occurs, given the matrix of oppressive forces that keep women in lower income brackets and in abusive relationships.” I also managed to erase male sex workers in that comment, by making it solely about women who are potentially victimized.

The first point doesn’t exist in a vacuum: all people make choices that are governed by economic and sexist and racist constraints, unfortunately. As a scholar of culture, I tend to be better about recognizing that sort of thing and taking a holistic point of view, but I failed to here, probably showing how I’ve not managed to escape all of the mainstream enculturation about how selling sex is somehow different from selling any other kind of labor. I’ve pointed out in another blog post how it’s easy to assume that people doing apparently-harmful things are just stupid, rather than taking into account how complex it is to even determine what is harm and what is a rational response to socially complicated circumstances.

The second point, that there are male sex workers out there and their experiences do matter, is also an excellent one. The essay “It’s Different for Boys” by J. Marlowe discusses how the experiences of male sex workers are both similar to and different from those of female sex workers… a difference that often emerges in the ways in which the discourse is framed.

So much of the stigma of and outrage over sex work is difficult to understand, and that’s part of why it intrigues me. I believe that a lot of it is due to how people tend to demonize sexual preferences that don’t appeal to them (as I discuss here), as well as plain ol’ misogyny. My correspondent pointed out one facet of the discussion which hadn’t even occurred to me: how in sex work, from escorting to porn acting, women are consistently paid more than men (which is not to say that there aren’t still problems with people of color being paid less and treated poorly due to racism). I wonder whether the fact that this is a profession in which women can in some situations control their means of income, and in fact make more money than men while being beholden to none, rankles at misogynists and informs their hatred for sex workers.

I’ve rambled on enough that I think I’ll make a separate post with some of the resources I’ve discovered that have helped me make sense of the discussion of sex work. Again, this isn’t intended to be a definitive, all-you-need-to-know post about sex work. It’s not like my perspective is central to the debate; I’m just good at spotting cultural issues and writing about them.

However, as I’ve been arguing, we should be prioritizing the experiences of people who actually know what it’s like to be a sex worker. We academics and policy-makers should step out of the way and let them speak for themselves. Since this is such a culturally complicated topic, and since so many of us are coming from positions of unrecognized privilege, we should learn to be quiet and let people with more central experiences educate us for a change. That includes learning when to say, “Whoops, I was wrong about that” and then doing so.

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.