I subscribed to The Nation for a couple of years, long ago, and generally liked Katha Pollitt. But, like many otherwise intelligent people, she goes sideways when the topic of sex work comes up. Her essay, mostly taking issue with Melissa Gira’s book Playing the Whore, has a lot of juicy bits I want to chew on. Heather Berg has a completely different, and very valid, view of Pollitt’s article here.

It doesn’t matter to Pollitt that sex workers are not a monolithic group, nor does she recognize that some sex work writers might actually be leftists themselves. She is highly offended that the ideology of the sex worker rights movement doesn’t follow what she thinks it should follow. She gets downright insulting when she attacks the term “sex work.”

sex work is work

“The ‘sex work is work’ cliché is that prostitution is much like any other service job—being a waitress is the usual example. I dunno how many waitresses would agree with that…” First, I love how the extremely important statement that “sex work is work” is relegated to a cliche. Is it? I don’t think so, not until everyone in the current culture agrees that sex work is work, all sex workers are working hard at a respectable job, they’ve heard it all before, let’s move onto something new. We’re not there yet. Not even close.

Secondly, as a former waitress, yes, sex work does remind me a lot of waitressing — some forms of sex work moreso than others. One of the ways it doesn’t remind me of waiting tables is that I have almost always had the freedom to leave (or dump the customer/client) and you don’t get that freedom as a waitress. I also make more as a sex worker and have rarely been as demeaned as while making my few waitressing bucks. Oh, and the vast majority of the sex workers I’ve been around aren’t anywhere near as substance-abusing as the average waitstaff in an average restaurant. (Especially restaurants with a high percentage of teenage workstaff as teens get access to anything these days.) Has Pollitt been a waitress? I’m curious. I’m certain she’s never been a sex worker.

She ponders deep thoughts about why most women aren’t sex workers, “…is it just prudery or fear of arrest or attack or stigma that keeps the vast majority of women working straight jobs?” My answer: it’s complicated and it really comes down to each individual. Predicting their lifetime behavior is impossible, given that one small (or large) thing could change the course of their life forever. Everyone has their own ideas about what they want to do for work, everyone has their own boundaries, everyone has their own sense of how much they want to follow the social structure they were born into. There are many other factors, but this is a start. Trying to boil the decision down to prudery, fear of arrest, or social stigma does a disservice to women. (Though if sex work were indeed treated like work and decriminalized, then fear of arrest goes away!)

She also takes issue with how we identify those who cause us the most harm. “Today’s villain is not the pimp or the john—it’s second-wave feminists, with their primitive men-are-the-enemy worldview, and ‘rescuers’ like Nicholas Kristof, who presume to know what’s best for women.” Quite honestly, few sex workers are going to vilify the men who pay their incomes (being called on bad behavior isn’t the same as being vilified). Also, a whole lot of sex workers don’t work under pimps. They do work under draconian laws, often made by people with no idea what it’s like and who have an ulterior agenda, usually money, sometimes simply the complete dislike of the existence of prostitution. The most harm of all comes from our legal status, or lack of it. Criminalization only empowers criminals and turn sex workers into an invisible, instant-victim class. Legal harm leads to almost all other harm and our villians are those who support that detrimental status quo.

Which leads us right into the rescue industry. She scoffs at Gira’s take on the rescue industry, summing it up as: “Women who fight sex trafficking are in it to build nonprofit empires, “jobs for the girls,” and are indistinguishable from paternalistic rescuers like Kristof.” She doesn’t seem to realize Laura Agustin exists — someone who has carefully documented this very thing for roughly 20 years. There are sex workers who want to leave sex work, but they usually don’t find anything positive about being “rescued” to menial, low-paying jobs with little or no viable skills-training, further education or needed medical care.

but…slavery, and other countries

Pollitt then sheds a tear for all the (presumed) millions of sexually-enslaved women who aren’t assumed to be part of the “sex work is work” discourse. They are and aren’t, mostly because it’s recognized by sex workers that trafficking victims didn’t make a choice and sex work requires choice. This doesn’t mean victims should have no rights, though. Pollitt doesn’t recognize that the stigma which drives criminalization is also the stigma that makes it real easy to keep a victim in her place by pimps/traffickers.

She is under the delusion, like many, that trafficking victims make up the majority of the sex working population. They don’t. She lumps survival sex workers in with trafficking victims. The line between the two can seem to be thin, but it is there and there is a difference. She, like many, seem to think a literate sex worker with Internet access is an anomaly only belonging to the upper classes of Western society — something which I imagine sex workers the world over would find highly offensive. She also assumes that only rich Western sex workers are capable of organizing and fighting for their rights. Which is completely backwards to how I see it: that we (Western First World sex workers) can learn a hell of a lot from the courage and tenacity of the sex workers organizing in Third World countries.

In short, Pollitt assumes many of the truly cliched attitudes and postures of those who would gladly harm us by passing even-more restrictive laws.

the fun part: sex!

What I most enjoyed reading was where Pollitt decides to play sexual politics referee, which is the entire last paragraph:

It’s one thing to say sex workers shouldn’t be stigmatized, let alone put in jail. But when feminists argue that sex work should be normalized, they accept male privilege they would attack in any other area. They accept that sex is something women have and men get (do I hear ‘rape culture,’ anyone?), that men are entitled to sex without attracting a partner, even to the limited extent of a pickup in a bar, much less pleasing or satisfying her. As Grant says, they are buying a fantasy—the fantasy of the woman who wants whatever they want (how johns persuade themselves of this is beyond me). But maybe men would be better partners, in bed and out of it, if they couldn’t purchase that fantasy, if sex for them, as for women, meant finding someone who likes them enough to exchange pleasure for pleasure, intimacy for intimacy. The current way of seeing sex work is all about liberty—but what about equality?

She doesn’t realize — because she’s not a sex worker — that sex work makes the worker extremely aware of what goes on in her bed, both personally and professionally. This is the perfect context in which to express some views I’ve had for a while.

Most sex workers learn to fake it really well. Pollitt doesn’t understand why clients want to pay for a woman to fake it and neither do I, though I recognize the best fakers make the most money. But my thoughts on the motivations behind the need for a “performance” are very, very different from hers. I don’t see it as a symbol of the client’s male power: it’s actually the complete opposite. A good performance props up and temporarily reinforces his trembling ego because he deeply feels the lack of his sexual power. The more of this lack he feels, the bigger the need to have his partner fake it. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which are sad, some just stupid. I’ve gone into some of this territory in other posts.

Secure men don’t require a performance because they’re confident in their sexual power as men and don’t actually have egos — it’s a beautiful thing. Few things on earth will get me going like male sexual confidence. It’s an uncommon thing to find in a US client but still, I don’t fake my response anymore because I found the unspoken requirement of faking to be demeaning and so I’ve discarded it. Not-faking is not great for business but works very well for real-life satisfaction.

Like most civilians, Pollitt doesn’t realize that clients are desperate to make us orgasm, to the point where it’s a total turn-off because it’s solely fragile-ego-driven and they have no clue what they’re doing. This ties into the whole fantasy/faking I’ve noted above. But she somehow thinks prostitution is responsible for sexually-lazy and inept men. It’s not. The existence of prostitution, or lack of it, isn’t going to fix male sexual problems. There are too many other factors going into it, many of them societal and none of them having to do with prostitution (in my opinion). For many men, sex workers are where they go to refresh themselves, much like a spa day for a woman. Their total lack of sexual skill is often bewildering but it has nothing to do with prostitution.

I am completely selfish when in bed with a civilian. Sex is all about me. I tell them upfront to not bore me and if they do, I’m gone. More than once, I’ve been so bored that I’ve gotten up, put on my clothes and left. (Also, no civilians at my home — that way wherever we are, I can always leave.) I’ve never left the bed of a client in that manner and have never wanted to because the dynamic is different, I know what I’m signing up for (some clients have made me want to leave early due to severe character problems, not because I was sexually bored). This, for me, is one of the great demarcations between personal and professional sex: the freedom to do what pleases me. But then, isn’t that the same demarcation for anyone between their work and their free time?

Prostitution is responsible for creating women who know their bodies well and won’t accept second best. Prostitution creates a not-average woman you may or may not find in a bar.

No, there’s no equality here but once again, Pollitt misses the mark. It’s obvious she secretly believes that men have the all the power in sex — what kind of feminist is she? Prostitution can lead to a disappointing sex life if you can’t find the right partner or don’t have access to a large variety to try out. Very few men can possibly keep up. This won’t change no matter what laws or gender politics you throw at prostitution: basic biology makes woman the superior sex machine when you strip away the civilized stifling. Equality in the bedroom is only possible with young women who are just starting to have sex — or a woman who is dumbing herself down and faking it, i.e. sex work. (For a most fun look at woman unleashed, try Seductress.)

However, my new favorite answer comes from Judith Regan. Nothing and no one tops Regan. Her ultimate weapon, revealed in a juicy Vanity Fair piece by Michael Wolff: “Perhaps because her sex talk is not just dirty but, fundamentally, about power. And control. (“What’s my secret?” she once snarled at me. “I’ll tell you my secret. I never let them come!”)” Regan is exactly right and I’m glad I’m sexually-experienced enough to recognize it. (This is something I’m longing to apply to clients. I am going to apply this to my next civilian and see what happens, should be fun. It’s going to take my games with civilians to a whole new level. )

Pollitt never even comes close to an accurate perspective of sex. Pollitt is incapable of imagining a woman in control of her body and sexual interactions — sex worker or not.

PS: Another reason to like Regan: “Part of Judith’s appeal, if you will, is knowing that, at this point, she won’t try to save her job. No false contrition. No effort to reach out, heal. She will, reliably, set fire to the house.” I can relate. I like to end relationships by burning the village, plowing and salting the earth, then firebombing all bridges for good measure, usually after I’ve passed over them.

PPS: After having read this over several times, as well as knowing what I’ve held back, I’m probably ready for domme work for the first time in my life.

5 thoughts on “cliches and wrong ideas

  1. Dear Ms. Brooks:
    I am thinking considering your thoughts that most of these authors are on the outside looking in. Henceforth they are coming with a certain perspective, However they don’t have an equal concomitant of experience to give the opinions with any credibility to those who happen to be active an working within the industry. That is why you seem to be taking their comments with little more than a grain of salt.

    1. Lionel — Of course they’re on the outside looking in — it’s obvious. But don’t tell me to take their comments with a grain of salt when there is PLENTY of easily-found information on what it’s like to be a sex worker and they’re too lazy to find it or merely choose to disbelieve it — and then spout their own warped views as if they’re truth.

      Keep in mind that not only is she someone who influences the way people think, her views echo those of the people who make policy which affect my life and the lives of my colleagues. I have a real problem with that.

      When I start writing to a large audience and influencing laws and social stigma regarding, say office workers, then maybe I will reconsider my perspective.

  2. Thank you for this – it’s an excellent commentary on so-called authoritative journalism.

    Journalists love sex work. It always sells pulp. In their eyes, a streetwalker is in the same category as a VIP Courtesan. Starts with a sensational headline, lurid tales of boffing legions of anonymous men, and ultimately, the slippery slope. Female journalists love to argue the pros and cons of feminism as they know it. It’s all terribly dishy, and all terribly predictable.

    The problem with Amanda Brooks’ blogs is that sex work is a reasonable, straightforward conversation about a reasonable, straightforward occupation. There can be problems with clients, but there can also be problems with a waitress’s clients – sometimes serious ones.
    But nobody wants to know about common sense, or a server’s shit disturbers. They want sell media, and make a name for themselves.

    The people who should be writing these studies should be people who know the business, and people who are prepared to conduct quantitative research. The profession may turn out to be a lot more interesting than speculation and hot air.

    1. Ann — Thank you!

      As you point out, most of the articles written by non-sex work journalists are very lazy journalism. It’s a topic they think they don’t need to research because they’ve had sex before (or have eaten a restaurant before) and know everything about it. The problem is that this lazy, irresponsible journalism effects others’ views of sex work and ultimately harms us.

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