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.