On the expectation of exploitation in sex work

I’m recovering from some personal issues, but my mind’s as active as ever. And there’s been something on my mind for a while. So here goes.

I’ve slowed down on publishing Love and Lapdances, although I do have a lot of material ready to go. Too many other projects demanding my attention, and Love and Lapdances is a niche project, in part because it’s so far from the stories the market usually bears about sex workers. It’s more a labor of love than a for-profit endeavor, and that sometimes means it takes a backseat.

So, to satisfy my own desire to share my insights, I’m going to be trying to blog a little more, explaining some of the thoughts that make it into the subtext, the little things I hope people carry with them after reading works like the newly-released Bad, Bad Thing, and Love and Lapdances, which star sex workers.

First up, let’s talk exploitation, the thing that comes first and foremost to most people’s minds when they think about sex work.

Now, this one is a tough one to talk about. Walk too far one direction, and you whitewash a very real history of exploitation and professional violence that affects many people, if not most, in the sex industry, in varying ways. Walk too far the other direction, and you risk presenting sex work as inherently different, inherently worse than other work, which it’s not.

First off, let me say that exploitation is present in every aspect of the economy, not simply one industry. The difference is that we expect not just professional, but personal exploitation in the sex industry, and privilege our narratives on it accordingly.

There is rampant exploitation in the sex industry. Let’s talk about one aspect of it, in a comparatively less stigmatized, completely legal sector.

In most, if not all, areas strip clubs call performers “independent contractors” to escape owing them everything from a sexual harassment-free workplace, to workers’ compensation in case of injury, and medical benefits. However, they treat performers like employees, using considerable amounts of control over their dancers’ scheduling, performance style, clothing, and more. They fire dancers for no reason, or freeze them out from scheduling, which they would not be permitted to do if dancers were employees, without making the dancer eligible for unemployment. Independent contractors, by law, are entitled to negotiate their own contracts for performance, but I dare you to see what happens if you tell a club that they’re gonna have to lower their house fee by 50% for you, trusting in the money you bring in to the club to give you sway at the negotiating table. Overwhelmingly, when dancers bring management to court, the courts tell the clubs to fuck themselves. But filing that suit triggers a number of retaliative responses toward the complainants, from being fired, to losing their social network of dancers, who can help them scout out new work at other clubs, to harassment campaigns or being labeled “troublemakers” and pushed out of other work opportunities with other clubs. Plus the emotional strain and expense of handling a lawsuit.

But strip clubs are hardly the only people to do this. Check out the working conditions for Uber. Salons, spas with massage therapists, yoga studios all frequently have the exact same complaints levied at them, minus some of the sexual harassment stuff that people won’t risk outside of an already sexually charged environment.

And this is just one example of institutionalized exploitation in the sex industry. In a legal sector, in an area that boils down to primarily a labor issue, rather than one arising from whore stigma, racism, misogyny, and entitlement, such as the crimes committed against sex workers in more stigmatized, less legally respectable sectors, like full service sex work or pornography.

But ask yourself… why do we expect strippers to be downtrodden and abused, but not yoga teachers?

It’s because of the way we’re taught to view the sex industry, versus the way we’re taught to view outside society. We paint the sex industry black with the weight of its sins, even as we paint outside society white to cover up its sins.

Let’s play a game. I’m going to name a “red flag” I have personally witnessed. Tell me… was it in a strip club, or in an office job?

1. A manager corners the women he likes, who work under him, trapping them in areas of their workspace until they agree to a date.

2. A woman comes to her workplace with a dossier on an ex. He’s been harassing her, threatening to kidnap her children, and the restraining order came through. She’s giving management a picture of him, as well as information on the vehicle he drives, so that they can take action to keep him away from her. Management rolls their eyes as they look it over, grumbling that the woman is “High drama.”

3. A woman calls her partner. She’s debating getting something to eat at work, but needs him to tell her it’s okay to spend the $1.50 on the snack.

4. A woman calls her partner. She’s debating getting something to eat at work, but “isn’t allowed” to eat the calories without her partners’ permission.

5. A partner spends an inordinate amount of time at his partner’s workplace, watching her work.

If you guessed that all of these happened in a normal dayjob, you’re right. #1. happened to a waitress friend of mine, and I witnessed #2-5 during my time working security. The difference is that the manager in #1 preyed on poor, minimum wage-earning women (often hospitality industry restaurant industry workers are women of color, immigrants, single mothers, people at a significant economic disadvantage)  who couldn’t get the money to sue him. #3-5, while subtler examples, are all flags commonly held up as indicating a dancer has a pimp or trafficker, when seen in the strip club. People are told to watch for those signs as examples that a woman is being coerced into work, or is being sexually trafficked, and more and more, they’re encouraged to report what they see, setting that dancer up for investigation and possibly harassment or legal scrutiny. And in some cases, they may be signs that something’s not right. But can you really trust that it’s all, given how widely they happen in “civilian” (Non sex workers’) lives, too?

The commonness of financial abuse, domestic violence, and sexual harassment doesn’t sound very good to talk about, does it?

Look, we need to fix things. No one should be exploited or harassed, especially on account of their sexuality or gender. But insisting on the inherent degradation or harassment of the sex industry, while ignoring the prevalence of that stuff in the world at large is just a way of selectively feeling good about yourself, while only serving a small subset of women. Look for solutions to all labor exploitation. Empower all women to leave abusive settings. Provide everyone with a variety of resources and opportunities so they can escape bad jobs. Key words being all and everyone. You’ll help everyone at the same time.

But that doesn’t give you the thrill of being a “voice for the voiceless,” does it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>