Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Comprehensive Look at Sex Work

On this Easter Sunday, I reflect that among the followers of Jesus were sex workers. In the Gospel of Matthew, an particularly telling exchange takes place between Chief Priests and Elders who have questioned Jesus' very authority. In response, he tells a parable, which concludes, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you." Though much has changed between now and then, this statement still has the power to shock and offend.

The Obama Administration made a recent decision in which the Justice Department will no longer seek to prosecute cases of Adult Obscenity. The political figures objecting to this decision comprise the strangest of strange bedfellows. Though most are conservative Republicans, five are liberal Democrats. Though these Democrats differ from Republicans in their objections considerably, I still believe that their criticisms are incomplete without looking at the complete picture.

The specific target of the now-closed Obscenity Prosecution Task Force was hardcore pornography. The liberal Senators who signed onto this letter took a sex-negative stance regarding pornography as a whole and attached it to a belief that women in pornography are the targets of violence and degradation. In response to these assumptions, I'd like to instead examine an even more scandalous issue, sex workers and those who frequent them.

I haven't written about this much on this topic because I've never known quite what to say. However, a recent discussion with a Friend who has worked to end human trafficking provided me enough of a context to speak with some authority. There is, I recognize, a distinct difference between human trafficking and sex work, but her job put her in contact with both.

When Feminists often speak about sex workers, what often doesn't get mentioned are those who use their services. If the names of clients or johns are mentioned, these people, usually men, have been recently charged with a violent, felony offense. Condemning such acts committed by those who have purchased sexual favors does not happen nearly enough. Reading like a scandal sheet, they make their brutal point well, but they also neglect the larger picture. It is true that one can see the misogyny still present among us when we cruelly smear and belittle those who toil in a particularly ancient profession. But it is also true that this unnecessary hatred and venom also turns on those who visit sex workers.

While in my early twenties I read a book by the title of My Secret Life. It is a documented history of a well-to-do Victorian-era gentleman's numerous, obsessively noted dalliances with what in those days would have been considered women of ill-repute. One can only imagine how many pounds he spends in the course of one lifetime seeking sexual gratification. As literature, it is not particularly high quality. The anonymous author rambles, spends much time discussing unimportant details, and repeats himself on a frequent basis. But beyond this, it is a fascinating portrayal of sexual mores in a time when anything resembling public sexual expression were routinely suppressed. It is a look behind the curtain of that which was deliberately hidden and the secret world in which he lived. And in particular, it shows the ways that class divisions, guilt, and shame reinforced what was sexually acceptable and what was not.

Then, as now, sex work is considered the domain of the working class, the borderline criminal, and the chemically addicted. Most American movies, at least, portray sex workers alongside scenes of great urban poverty or as secondary characters present in the larger criminal underworld. Those who admit to visiting sex workers are assumed by association to be part of this shadowy universe of shady characters. But in reality, men of all social classes and moral purity purchase sexual services, and it should also be noted, this exchange is far from exclusively heterosexual in orientation. I'm even certain that women visit male or female sex workers as well, though convention assumes that this is not nearly as commonplace as is with men.

We may even sympathize with sex workers in ways we do not for those who visit them. While it is often factual that sex workers select their line of work based on prior trauma, dysfunctional upbringings, chronic illness, and drug addiction, this is not always so. But making our assumptions as we are apt to do, we then typify those who solicit such services as morally bankrupt, deplorable human beings, or targets of ridicule. But, in all fairness, not every interaction between client or john ends with charges of first-degree-murder or even with some sort of debasing objectification. When violence towards sex workers is documented in the news, inevitably phrases from the person on the street corner end up being reported. These phrases include "she had it coming to her" or "she should have known better". When men are exposed for seeking sexual services, it's regularly considered a sign of complete hypocrisy, stupidity, or immorality. Many a politician, notable figure, and even religious leader has been felled by these same scornful invectives.

One can debate the legality and the morality of the practice at some length. On the record, I think it should be legalized, but that's all I want to say about it. For now, I'm not seeking to introduce an argument on the subject of whether or not it's acceptable for someone to attain paid sexual services while in a committed monogamous relationship. What I am seeking, however, is that we might someday inhabit a world where sex work didn't have the social stigma it currently holds. Our own personal sexuality is what is being judged here. And, oddly enough, as sexual expression grows more prevalent, a corresponding change in attitudes towards how we attain sexual gratification is not. It's entirely acceptable to be symbolically sexual, but not acceptable at all to be truly actualized as a sexual being.

What motivates sex workers to pursue their vocation is also misunderstood, often attached to words like "sleazy", "disgusting", and "deplorable". My Friend once spoke to a sex worker who believed that her purpose in all that she did was completely altruistic in nature. She was providing a basic need to men who were lonely and seeking what she considered to be a natural release. This may have been something of a rationalization on her part, and I could debate her underlying assumption as well, but she nonetheless noted that most men she encountered while on the job were not unkind. Most were very matter-of-fact about it. They wanted something, she provided it, money was exchanged, and most of the time these men were never seen, nor heard from again.

If sex work is one step above grave robbery, then one wonders how it could have persisted this long. To look at sex work objectively, it must be examined clearly in the light, not in the dark corners where it has long been banished. Complicating our desires to humanize a profession long thought to be sub-human is that sex work is still illegal in most parts of the United States, though arresting those involved in the exchange is not an especially high priority for most law enforcement. Stripping away centuries worth of fear, anxiety, and societal disapproval takes time.

The colloquialism "nervous as a whore in church" exists for a reason and articulates well the attitudes still existent. Only briefly are we yet able to see sex workers as fully human, and that humanity usually only shines through when tragedy and spectacle overshadow the scandalously mundane. But if advancing the rights of sex workers is to be more than a niche concern to a specialized audience, we must as a society confront our automatic impulses which illustrate how easy it is to heap scorn without contemplating the lives and opinions of those engaged in the practice.

No comments: