An Ace Perspective on the Book Revolting Prostitutes

I recently read Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. First of all, I’d like to say that is a thought-provoking book that I would recommend to anyone who has any interest in feminism and/or workers’ rights, even if they have no particular interest in sex work. Obviously, the book discusses sex and violence, so reader discretion is advised, but it always discusses sex and violence in a very practical way – nothing in the book is meant to titillate.

I’m going to examine the book from an ace perspective, not because that’s the most important perspective (the most important perspective is ‘what is the best policy for society as a whole and vulnerable people in particular?’), but because it is a perspective on the book’s content which a) I can provide and b) is relatively hard to find.

The book never explicitly mentions asexuality, but while reading the book, I realized that sex workers and aces have more in common that I knew before (of course, some sex workers are aces). Sex workers often have sex with people they aren’t sexually attracted to. Saying that aces have sex ‘often’ is misleading, but by definition, when aces do have sex, it is often with someone they aren’t sexually attracted to. Thus, when sex workers and aces have sex, it is often with someone they aren’t sexually attracted to. When I write it out here, this seems so bloody obvious, but so many people (including myself) have missed this obvious insight because our culture tells us that sex workers are extreme sluts, and aces are extreme prudes, and the only thing extreme sluts and extreme prudes could have in common is that they are extremists who aren’t ‘normal’.

Before I read this book, I was under the impression that sex-positive feminism and sex worker activism were completely aligned and BFF. This book explains that that is not the case. Some sex-positive feminists are true allies of sex workers, but some sex-positive feminists talk over the more marginalized groups of sex workers and claim that they are supportive of sex workers when in fact they are silencing sex workers with ‘inconvenient’ narratives.

The writers own position vis-a-vis sex-positivity/sex-negativity is:

Feminist conversations about sex work are often seen as arguments between those who are ‘sex positive’ and those who are ‘sex negative’ … We have no interest in positioning ourselves within that terrain. Instead, we assert the right for all women to be ‘sex-ambivalent.’

‘Sex-negativity’ (to the extent that ‘sex-negativity’ is even a coherent concept) has in fact done a lot of harm to sex workers, since much of the misogyny/oppression aimed at sex workers is based on views the sex, particularly for women, is dangerous and needs to be controlled. Sex-negative feminists sometimes perpetuate old misogynist ideas about sex workers. The portion of the book which discusses this did not surprise me.

What did surprise me was the part of the book which discusses how sex-positive feminism is also sometimes bad for sex workers. Sex workers, particularly sex worker activists, are under a lot of pressure to claim that they love sex work to counter negative stereotypes. But what about sex workers who don’t love sex work? They are often told to shut up because they will provide ‘ammunition’ to ‘the other side’. But, if sex workers love their jobs so much, why do they need activism? Why do they need labor law protections if their jobs are so wonderful and they are never abused at work? According to this book, most sex workers don’t do sex work because they love sex work, they do it because they need money (or some other form of payment, such as food, shelter, drugs, etc.) The writers claim that, if all sex workers had viable economic alternatives to sex work (living wage, reasonable working conditions, etc.), the vast majority of sex workers would stop doing sex work. The writers claim that sex work is often a shitty job, but if you take it away a lot of sex workers are going to be unemployed and destitute; the solution is to improve their material conditions and bargaining power. That is what sex worker activism is about.

As the book claims:

This discourse of sex positivity helped produce the figure we term the ‘Erotic Professional’. Easily identifiable as one of the more vocal, visible figures of the sex worker movement, the Erotic Professional positions herself as answering a vocational ‘calling’ that seems to have barely anything to do with being paid.

In downplaying economic coercion and instead emphasising her pleasure and desire, the Erotic Professional attempts to make commercial sex more closely resemble the sex life that society is more ready to endorse – that for which women receive no payment … Blurring the lines between paid sex and recreational sex is a narrative readily available to many sex workers, as it is already present in much of the marketing directed at clients. Little is more consistently tempting for clients than the fiction that they are the object of the workers’ genuine, irrepressible sex drive … These sex positive politics create the illusion that worker and client are united in their interests. Both, we are told, are there for an erotic experience, for intimacy, for hot sex. Raising the subject of the worker’s needs (for safety, money, or negotiating power) would spoil the illusion that the worker and the client are erotically in tune, and that she’s just as sexually invested in their encounter as he is.

The book points out that the ‘Erotic Professional’ tends to represent the most privileged sex workers. The ‘Erotic Professional’ generally does not represent, for example, someone who does sex work because it is the only way they can make enough money to remain economically independent of their abusive family, or a trans woman who would have never gone into sex work if there weren’t so much job discrimination against trans people, or an immigrant who isn’t authorized to work in the country they are currently located and needs to make money, or someone who is all of the above. The book even gives examples of ‘Erotic Professionals’ blaming sex workers who have experienced abuse at work for their abuse, claiming they were abused because they were ‘unenlightened’ or not sex-positive enough.

I have been aware for a long time of some of the harmful anti-ace rhetoric certain types (not all!) sex-positive feminists promote, but before this book I was not aware that they sometimes promote similarly harmful rhetoric about sex workers. And it seems to come from a surprisingly similar place – some sex-positive feminists are very uncomfortable with the idea that people may consent to sex that isn’t ‘sexy’ for them, whether they are aces or sex workers, or that some people just might not feel positive about sex. As the book says “A sex worker who is living precariously or in poverty, who is at risk of criminalisation or police violence, or who is being exploited by a manager or lacks negotiating power, is not likely to be particularly ‘sex positive’ at work.”

As an ace, I’m in the opposite position of people who are shocked, SHOCKED that someone would have sex for pay. I have a much better intuitive understanding of money/payment as a motive than sexual attraction/desire as a motive. ‘She had sex with them for payment’ is easier for me to wrap my head around than ‘she had sex with them because they are extremely sexy’.

It also occurs to me that aces and sex workers have a common interest – promoting the idea that sex is not sacred/special/etc. Just because sex is consensual doesn’t mean it’s fun or transcendent. Sex can be just a job.

Does this have any potential practical benefit to the ace movement or the sex worker movement? Maybe. Though there are people who are both ace and sex workers, I find it hard to envision an alliance between aces and sex workers in the near future. But I think it’s worthwhile for aces to at least learn more about the sex workers’ movement, and opportunities to form mutually beneficial alliances may appear.

11 thoughts on “An Ace Perspective on the Book Revolting Prostitutes

  1. I must admit that I find being positive about sex work confusing. I see it come up all the time in inclusive places and on memes about supporting all LGBTQIA+ and feminism and POC and neurodivergent people, sex workers are usually added to the list. It makes me uncomfortable because I have quite a negative perception towards sex work, not towards the workers themselves, but about the abuse etc (with links to drug addiction) that is often involved and ignored, and I don’t know if that somehow makes me a bigot (I feel like while some sex work might be safe, if it is advertised in a positive light then others might get involved in the unsafe version unwittingly). After all, I am … not sex negative, but personally sex repulsed so the idea of people having sex who don’t necessarily want to horrifies me (I guess I am confusing lack of sexual attraction with lack of consent). And I know that is just my personal reaction but it is hard to see past it sometimes.

    So this bit you said ‘According to this book, most sex workers don’t do sex work because they love sex work, they do it because they need money (or some other form of payment, such as food, shelter, drugs, etc.) The writers claim that, if all sex workers had viable economic alternatives to sex work (living wage, reasonable working conditions, etc.), the vast majority of sex workers would stop doing sex work. The writers claim that sex work is often a shitty job, but if you take it away a lot of sex workers are going to be unemployed and destitute; the solution is to improve their material conditions and bargaining power. That is what sex worker activism is about.’ this tallies with exactly how I feel, so I am not sure if this means that I am okay thinking and feeling the way I do about sex work after all, or if I am still missing the point.

    • The book goes into a lot more detail and nuance than I can in a single blog post. If you really want to explore this issue / your thoughts, I highly recommend reading the book. You may not completely agree with it (I myself don’t 100% agree with the book), but you will at least be more informed and aware of some of the more complex arguments.

    • I haven’t read the book, but I think one of the things to keep in mind is that sex work is not unique in being a job that many people take out of desperation that can take a serious mental and physical toll – after all, literally back-breaking mining and agricultural labor regularly leaves workers with lifelong health problems, the food industry is notorious for drug use, retail can wreck workers mental health as they deal with constant verbal and even physical abuse, the entertainment industry is also rife with sexual abuse, the military can literally get you killed, etc.

      Basically, sex work is not unique in requiring people to endure objectly awful situations that they wouldn’t consent to if not for money – what sets it apart is that sex workers have to deal with a second burden on top of that in the form of scorn and stigma for “the wrong kinds of sex” and anyone involved in them.

      While an ideal world would have better social and economic systems so that no one would need to take *any* jobs out of desperation, that’s not imminently achievable – but reducing stigma and gaining better rights and protections for those who do end up taking such jobs is something that’s more immediately possible.

      • That is pretty much what the book says.

        The book points out that many sex workers can get other jobs (such as sweatshop worker) but they consider sex work to be the least bad option. IIRC, the book says that the slogan for one sex worker organization in Cambodia is ‘Don’t Talk to Me about Sewing Machines’.

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  3. I might buy this book, even though I’m in Germany, and sex workers aren’t criminalised here. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people doing sex work who want out desperately, not to mention victims of human trafficking. I’m all for allowing people who want to do it to earn money that way, but not when the power is imbalanced in a way that people can’t find another decent income or are being (more or less) actively coerced. Consent doesn’t have to be enthusiastic, but it certainly should be given or refused freely.
    Another parallel: Apparently, there’s gold star sex workers as well as gold star aces?

    • The writers of the book are actually very critical of Germany/Netherlands/rural Nevada, claiming that the way they legalize/regularize prostitution actually tilts power away from sex workers towards their managers (for example, sex workers who want to get away from their managers can’t set up their own cooperative), and that many sex workers have no practical way of complying with the regulations and are thus still criminalized. They strongly prefer New Zealand’s system, which gives sex workers much more bargaining power (in New Zealand, many sex workers do leave their managers to form their own cooperatives, and this pushes managers to treat their sex workers better).

      Though the book doesn’t use the term ‘gold star sex worker’ that does seem to be the idea (actually, there seems to be two of them, the ‘erotic professional’ and the ‘perfect victim’).

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