Recognize That Sex Work is Work: A Conversation with Melissa Gira Grant by Jamie J. Hagen
JAMIE HAGEN: In your book, you emphasize sex work is not about feelings, it’s about money. You recognize sex work as labor. This seems like an incredibly powerful shift in perspective that is outside of much of the current dialogue about sex workers.
MELISSA GIRA GRANT: I think that’s because most of the current dialogue about sex workers actually is not initiated by sex workers.
When people who talk about sex work have no grounding in experience, of course it’s going to go to those things where they believe that they have expertise. Some of those things might be their feelings about the existence of the sex industry.
I was just watching a very odd response go down on Facebook to the Belabored podcast I did yesterday. We spent 45 minutes talking about sex work as work, everything you just stated in your question, and it took about five seconds for some guy to jump in and say, “But what about the johns?” It’s a kind of derailing that I think happens in like every conversation about gender and sexuality pretty much ever!
It’s akin to “concern trolling.”
It is! It is like a concern trolling. “Your experience might be one thing, but what I’m concerned about is how I feel about it.” Unfortunately, that kind of derailing into the feelings of those people outside of sex work is the place where policy is made.
At one point in your book you address the fact that sex workers aren’t allowed the role of being a whole women by those who seek to save them. Within this framework, there isn’t much room for conversation about agency and empowerment for sex workers.
The whole woman thing comes from a confluence of narratives, whether that’s the media or even some of the feminist narratives around sex work. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking at the religious right anti-trafficking projects. In some ways, those seem like a revival of the Promise Keepers and they talk a lot about restoration and mending the soul, this idea that the sex worker is like an injured person who can never be whole.
You find that on the left and on the right, secular and religious kind of tropes. So of course that’s going to pop up in the media. That’s how people imagine sex workers. If they’re not whole, then they don’t have voices and they need other people to speak for them because their voices and their stories are suspect. I think that’s what really lets the media off the hook. That’s why you see these tropes so persistently because it doesn’t even seem to occur to people that sex workers might have the capacity to dispute them.
In my academic work I look a lot at the question of women’s silence and agency. In the predominant discourse used today it seems you’re a sex worker (or prostitute) or you’ve been raped and therefore “victim” is your category.
And, well, it makes it very easy for the people on the outside to then create a roll for themselves right? So if there are people who are injured then they need a rescuer, they need a savior. You even see that in humanitarian work where on the one hand people might view themselves as coming in and empowering people who might need their help, but it’s still a very fraught relationship - power dynamics there are pretty intense.
The tropes around the injured woman who then needs our outside intervention to save her, they go far beyond sex work but they are one of the things I think in sex work that people least often question.