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What everyone gets wrong about sex work

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When talking about sex work, media and the public tend to focus on the "sex" rather than the "work."

Melissa Gira Grant aims to change that conversation with her recent book, Playing the Whore, which takes on the structural and cultural constructs that perpetuated stereotypes and misconceptions about the sex industry. Grant is a freelance journalist and commentator on sexual politics, technology, and rights, contributing to the Nation, the New York Times, the Guardian, and Salon, among other publications.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Adrianna McIntyre: I wanted to start out broadly, by keying in on public misconceptions about what prostitution is, and who sex workers are. You come back to this notion of "the prostitute imaginary" in your book time and again.

Melissa Gira Grant: The public perception of sex work is really preoccupied with this figure of "the prostitute," right? I think that very rarely are people able to get beyond that word, the media images associated with that word. It's like a feedback loop with the media, where you'll see a story about sex work that might talk about stripping, it might talk about workers who predominantly get customers over the internet. Time and again, you see the same image: a headless woman in a miniskirt out on a street somewhere.

And the word "prostitute" itself has very much fallen out of favor. Very few people who are engaged in sex work describe themselves as prostitutes outside their own communities, and in some circles the word prostitute is considered a derogatory term.

I really think that what we're going to see as sex workers actually get some control over their public image is that that character is going to fall away. We can see the evidence — whether you're looking at human rights documentation or global health reports, or the arts and culture that sex workers produce — that this is a broad, diverse community.

But this one image still sticks, and I think that's largely due to the public's fear of what it might look like if you couldn't just isolate the figure of "the prostitute" in this one image. The idea that a sex worker might be your neighbor, might be a family member, might be a co-worker in another work environment. That's what this stigmatizing image is meant to do.

Anyone who takes advantage of all of the opportunities they have to actually learn about sex work from sex workers themselves will quickly find that image dispelled, but it's still very powerful for a lot of reasons.

AM: The internet has done a lot over the last few decades to change how sex is bought and sold. Has it also changed the discourse around sex work?

MGG: I don't think it has been an even change. I've certainly seen more nuance and a deepening in our public conversation around sex work in just the last ten years, and quite rapidly in the last five years.

It's a funny thing about the moral panic about prostitution, which we see going on around ads on Craigslist or on Backpage; it increasingly puts the issue of sex work in the public's eye. Sex workers have been incredibly principled about taking advantage of that to say "This is what you're saying we're like, but actually it's like this." More and more, I actually see sex workers refusing to engage in that kind of back-and-forth with journalists or with documentary filmmakers, basically asking "Why should we provide this performance for you? We're more than capable of telling our own stories — and actually, we might just prefer that you leave us alone.

There's a way that even these well-intentioned efforts to have a more nuanced conversation can still feel very sensationalistic. I think a true mark of moving forward would be when we stop starting the conversation here, when the conversation begins from a place of "Okay, so, politically sex workers have the following demands. Where are those coming from, and what can we do to achieve them? As workers, sex workers are facing these difficulties on the job. As a discriminated-against group of people, sex workers are facing barriers in access to these public institutions."

That should be where the conversation starts, but I find that I'm still starting it from this place of breaking through stigma — which is real; that's where we're at.

AM: In the book, you talk about how focusing on the criminalization of sex work is the wrong lens; it's too narrow a perspective. But is there a way to take on these broader issues without first tackling the legality question?

MGG: Well, legalization and decriminalization are two different things.

There are different legal frameworks to consider. What we currently live under in the United States is criminalization, where anything concerned with buying and selling sex — including running a business around buying and selling sex, or sharing in the profits of such a business — is considered criminal.

Then we have legalization, which we have in the few rural counties in Nevada where brothels are legal. The premise of legalization is that unless you participate in commercial sex in these certain environments, it's illegal.

In these particular environments the brothels are very tightly controlled, and they're controlled in a way that doesn't give sex workers very much control over what their work looks like, and they're penalized for things that, in any other industry, would be considered a violation of their labor rights. That's what you get under "legalization," and you can see that in Germany, you can see it in Switzerland, you can see it in Turkey where there are actually state-run brothels where police are actually present to ensure compliance with these regulations.

So, that's problematic and health and human rights activists — and this is actually covered in a recent issue of The Lancet — have broken out some of the harms associated with legalization.

The framework that activists are pushing for is decriminalization. That involves removing criminal law associated with commercial sex and dealing with this through civil and labor law, acknowledging that sex work is work. Anything that would fall under the rubric of criminal law — like rape or physical abuse — we already have criminal law that would cover that. We don't need to have a separate set of to deal with that in the specific context of the sex industry. What we really need is to create opportunities for sex workers to be consulted in developing the regulations governing their workplace; this has happened in New Zealand with success.

AM: Another topic you bring up in your book is the "gentrification" of sex work. That's an issue I've heard discussed in a lot of contexts, but sex work — until now — hasn't been one of them. Can you expand on what gentrification of the sex industry is, and what consequences it can have for sex workers?

MGG: I think it's too soon to say. I don't just mean "gentrification" as something that's happening in sex work, but that's happening more broadly within society.

Two things I name in the book are police sweeps and broken-windows style policing that targets so-called "quality of life" violations; prostitution is considered one of those violations. You see people getting picked up for misdemeanor offenses for prostitution on the street or in a massage parlor, where people who have the resources to work at a hotel or out of their own home are largely left alone. That creates a kind of gentrification within the sex industry.

I think a lot of this is still shaking out as the characters of our cities are changing. I'm not sure where that's going to leave sex workers, but crackdowns definitely target people who don't have the resources to work indoors, in a place where the public can't otherwise see them.

This explicitly happened in San Francisco in the 1990s and 2000s, tracking with the tech boom and the influx of wealth into the city and the desire for the city to become kind of a playground for people with money to spend. There, we saw the movement of "undesirable people" off the street. That didn't just include sex workers, but also the homeless, trans individuals — anybody that reminded people, I think, of the great poverty and inequality in the city.

AM: In Playing the Whore, you raise the problem that sex workers aren't invited into conversations about sex work — or, if they are, it might be someone we'd consider a "token representative" of the community, rather than drawing on a broader coalition of community members. What gets left out of these conversations as a result, and how to we change this reality?

MGG: If sex workers are invited into these public debates — all too often they aren't — it's almost as if they're handed a script outlining the things they're expected to say. This happens in different contexts, even outside the United States.

The most generous characterization is that sex workers are invited to dispel myths and stereotypes, to create an alternate character of "the sex worker as a human being" — which is itself, I think, a very dehumanizing thing to ask, to have someone to vouch for her humanity on a stage. The presumption is, "Until you got here, we weren't really sure you existed or could speak for yourself."

In the least generous version, the most stigmatizing way that this plays out is when sex workers are told, if what they say does not conform to the stereotype, that they are lying, that they are somehow deceived, that they might suffer from some trauma that keeps them from being able to convey the experience they the audience was prepared to hear.

AM: Are you familiar with the recent research on Rhode Island, where prostitution was temporarily decriminalized? The two main takeaways were that the incidence of gonorrhea fell, and so did the rate of reported rapes, though other crimes held constant. This was conducted by economists and it's been published as a working paper in the National Bureau of Economic Research.

MGG: I haven't had a chance to read the study yet, but I'm familiar with how it's been reported on.

Most of the studies I've seen come from a public health frame. It'll be harder for me to wrap my head around coming at this from the perspective of economists. I think there probably need to be more economists looking at the sex industry — but looking at the economy of the sex industry, not just collapsing general trends in public health into the economics of the sex industry.

There's something quite stigmatizing in the proposition that the rationale for decriminalizing sex work is that it will benefit the public health of the general population. That is just an inverse of all of the rationales for criminalizing sex work, which is that we need to criminalize sex work, the idea that we need to contain this group of people, otherwise they'll create ill health effects for the general public.

That's certainly the rationale behind what's going on with the legal brothels in Nevada, and the absolutely unscientific amount of HIV and STI testing that the workers there have to undergo. They're not being given the latest, most accurate HIV tests, they're over-tested to the STIs. There's a window of time during which these tests can't detect the presence of a new STI. Sex workers are being tested during this window, where it wouldn't necessarily make a difference, and the cost of this excessive testing is being pushed onto the workers themselves.

I look at this from an occupational health and safety perspective, because that's where my work is coming from. I also think that's really critical here if you're going to look at this from through the lens of the rights of sex workers.

When we're talking about the regulation of an industry from the public safety perspective of public safety, the workers in that industry are part of that public safety equation, and they need to come first. I think some really fantastic work has been done on the health benefits of increasing sex workers health and their access to health services. That's my primary focus and it's certainly the focus of sex workers' rights activists.

If I had to suggest a future direction outside that Rhode Island study for considering alternate legal frameworks and what people might actually do — whether that's in governments, in public health, at nongovernmental organizations — to support the rights of sex workers, this new special issue in The Lancet that came out in concert with the International AIDS Conference a few weeks ago has cross-analyses of hundreds of studies that looked at the health and rights of sex workers. It has an action agenda that was produced with consultation from sex workers and public health workers.

This is the kind of model that I'm excited about: when I see science and health and sex workers and rights advocates coming together around the same table. It's something that happens all too rarely.