About “Sex! Work?”

Sex! Work? is my blog about the vagaries of the vita activa of sex work in the City, the manifold possibilities of sex workering personally and politically, and the concept of “zero work” as it both does and does not apply to people in this so-called industry.

Q: What is a “sex worker”?

A: The term is meant as an umbrella term, but can just as easily exclude people who either don’t identify as a sex worker (e.g., temporary workers, some strippers, peepshow workers, etc.), or see the term as an unnecessary, academic euphemism for who they are: which is a worker trying to make ends meet.

Q: What is possible in a life of sex work that would be impossible in a nine-to-five, in an office or working a trade?

A: I don’t know; you tell me! The important thing to remember about “sex work” is that it varies. There are strippers, peepshow workers, indoor escorts, street working prostitutes, middle-class fetish entrepreneurs who get their feet sucked, rent boys, phone sex operators, and more. There are a variety of venues: street, home, strip club, brothel. There are female, male, intersex, and trans-identified workers as well as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, queer, and questioning workers. The lines are hard to draw!

There is one indispensable distinction, however. The one between “consensual” and “coercive” forms of sexual labor – trafficked persons, or hands-down “coerced” persons, are not to be understood as sex workers. No work that is forced on you can be understood as work; it’s slavery plain and simple!

Then again, this distinction blurs as various biases come into play. There is anti-sex bias, “first world” feminism set against the “third world,” and faith-based governmental restrictions. These biases often silence sex worker voices and define any and all persons workering as trafficked persons. This can be summed up as the “prostitutes (women and bois) don’t know better” approach.

In the U.S., the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and USAID dictate which non-governmental organizations are to receive funds by requiring all fund recipients to sign an “anti-prostitution pledge.” Organizations which refuse, often because they are lead by sex workers themselves, are refused funds. The vague pledge against “promoting” prostitution occurs alongside other restrictions, such as commitments to abstinence-only education and against needle exchanges.

Q: What does work have to do with it?

Hannah Arendt discussed the idea of a vita activa, or life activity, as an inseparable component of the intellectualist obsession with the dreamy life, or vita contemplativa. The Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle and, the 300BCE version of the et al., the peripatetics (“the ones walking about”) might be thought of as an exception to the general rule that “thinking” was to be separate from “acting” life, because they thought philosophy was a practice or life activity in and of itself, hence all the walking and talking.

Another modification on the concept of work is elaborated by Karl Marx, but it’s the dreary, materialistic notion “labor” which still obsesses over production and pushes aside the subjective dimension of work as a secondary rather than central concern. In other words, Marx introduces the protestant work ethic into the philosophical picture, shot through with the directives of “Progress! Progress!” so present in 19th century German thought.

The class implications are clear as far back as Aristotle, who can afford the contemplative life, unless you leave your family, community, and “property” behind? The “answer” to this problem has varied, from the Indian saddhu and the hippy-dippy Beat, to the present-day “gutter punk” societies, people have desired an alternative to the workaday life, never mind their class background.

But what a troubling alternative! Either you live a life of hard labor, or play the proverbial bum. There is another answer to the problem; sex work! Just kidding, but close . . . at least for some of us. The happy medium is what one could call a “labor of love.” This is located somewhere between the activity of life and the contemplation of it.