Labor Intensive: In Defense of Sex Work
Sex work is not a liability. It is a form of labor and art; its participants don't deserve violence or stigma.
The attempted murder of Christy Mack is sickening. On August 8th, Mack’s former partner Jonathan Koppenhaver (also known by his Mixed Martial Arts name “War Machine”) broke into Mack’s house; for hours he viciously beat her, threatened to kill her and sexually assaulted her. Only after he left the room did Mack manage to escape with her life. At the end of it all she had 18 broken bones in her face, shattered and knocked out teeth, broken ribs and a ruptured liver. Her leg was so badly injured by Koppenhaver that Mack has trouble walking.
The public response to this heinous act has been equally gut-wrenching. Right-wing pundits and internet commentators have trotted out a predictable but no less destructive line: that Mack’s history as a pornographic actor somehow made her deserving of this horrifying abuse and torture. It is unfortunately par for the course, a continuation of the vicious and disgusting cycle of victim-blaming and slut-shaming that normalizes violence against sex workers.
This is the last fucking straw. As sex workers, we have had enough. We are sick of the public (including much of the left) clinging to the vestiges of a puritanical past. Therefore, with all due defiance and anger, we welcome you to a nuanced position on sexuality and labor: the work of sex.
Those of us in the trade have watched as our mischaracterization has populated literature, conferences, news articles and often the very minds of those claiming they want to “build a better world.” We say: no more.
Sex workers have been done with this sort of “blame the victim” stance — from both the mainstream and the political left — since its early circulation. But we are equally through with the so-called “savior mentality,” the perfumed version of the same refuse that has shamed us into silence and relegated us to the margins of movements for worker’s rights, union representation, and feminist struggles. Those of us who perform, cultivate persona, create fantasy and pay our goddamn bills how we goddamn please, are workers and artists. We are sitting in classrooms, courtrooms, bars, cafes, bookstores, and beside you on the couch. Respect us, as you would any worker struggling to make it in this world. And if respecting workers is not a position you start from, reevaluate how you were able to complete the most essential and menial tasks of the day. We did that. We make this world turn, and we make this world cum. Respect us.
Pornography is not a shameful dance with the devil. Those that engage in pornography are engaging with a business, a craft, an entertainment industry. Certainly it is a business that is waged under Capitalism, and therefore is fraught with the same exploitative nature that all labor is conducted under. We are not claiming to be “off the grid” even while the grid often does not claim us. We understand that our work is negotiated in different, complex ways and in the context of the most oppressive economic system the world has ever known.
It is a racist, heteronormative, ableist, fatphobic, queerphobic system, and then some. We acknowledge this, and we actively fight back against manifestations of these oppressions within our own communities. We also understand our labor to be particularly situated under the institutionalized rape culture of our society. This creates a specific intersection of oppressive dynamics that performers, artists, and cultural workers must navigate. That being said, all workers have to survive under these conditions. We do not want to just survive, we want to thrive.
Specially oppressed groups have an even more arduous existence because of these conditions. Women and female identifying folks should not be bullied to regret any safe and consensual acts — whether they be personal or transactional. The sanctimonious attitudes toward pornography and women’s’ sexuality only maintain the limited scope of the mainstream industry. We demand acceptance, as it is intolerance that restricts us from leading healthy, fruitful lives.
Education is a right
Some of us seek higher education, and are still met with discrimination. Colleges are in denial about sex work on their campuses. The old stereotype of women stripping their way through grad school does not reflect the diversity of sex work practiced on campuses or by students, staff, and faculty members. American student debt is over one trillion dollars. Young women, female-bodied, and female-identifying students have bills that sex work can do more to pay than any low-wage service job. This is a reality that underpaid staff and adjunct faculty know just as well.
Miriam Weeks, or Belle Knox the so-called Duke University porn star, is only the most famous example of students engaging in sex work. She is also only the most recent example of the ways that university rape culture devolves on sex workers in academic communities. It is apparently less embarrassing for Duke to crush a young woman’s pursuit of education than it is to acknowledge that students actually engage in sex work to offset their looming student loans.
Miriam put it eloquently herself saying, “Everyone is focused on my decision to perform in porn to pay my tuition. Let’s start paying attention to what got me here. Sky-high tuition bills result from a culture, from our President on down, telling every kid to go to college, regardless of their future plans or ability to graduate. And they result from schools being all-too-happy to raise prices to catch all the money flowing from the federal spigot.”
The dismissive puritanism so rampant in university administrations is particularly putrid considering the endemic nature of rape and sexual assault on college campuses. What the struggles of Belle Knox and other student sex workers show us is the constitutive intersection between sex worker disempowerment and rape culture. These fights are one and the same, and feminism can no longer purport to fight the latter without destroying the former. Miriam also spoke out in an interview with Elle magazine, “First I’d like to see the decriminalization of prostitution. Sex workers should be given equal protection under the law. I want our jobs to be treated as legitimate. Right now, if I were to go to a policeman and report something that happened to me, he would say, ‘You’re a prostitute, I don’t care.’”
Sex work should be decriminalized
Both state and federal laws actively repress sex workers, fomenting a system of violence towards our bodies, our livelihoods, and our communities. Arizona in particular has some of the harshest prostitution laws in the country, and under these sweeping guidelines, sex workers are targeted, arrested or harassed in the anti-trafficking agendas of diversion programs complicit with academic, religious, and law enforcement institutions.
The infamous Project ROSE is one such anti-sex worker organization that seeks to “save” sex workers from themselves. What they actually participate in amounts to the (at times illegal) detention on behalf of the police of those they suspect of prostitution. One transwoman Monica Jones, found out just how brutal these anti-sex worker laws can be, and she wasn’t even turning tricks. Monica made the mistake, as a lot of us do, of walking outside in her own skin. Walking while trans was what caused the Phoenix undercover police officers to offer Jones a ride to a local bar.
Darby Hickey explains this phenomena, “In other words, ‘Walking While Trans’ is a succinct summation of the interconnected biases against trans women (and trans people more broadly, sometimes called transphobia) and against people who trade sexual services for money or other things (sometimes called whorephobia) and bound up in that special sauce of racism.” After arresting her for solicitation, or rather the “intent to commit,” instead of booking her at the precinct, they took her to the basement of a church so that none other than the infamous Project ROSE could intervene. In the face of being convicted for crimes she did not commit, Jones stood up and said “no more.” The overwhelming support Jones has gained on an international level, indicates we have had enough of profiling, racism, criminalization, and stigma as well.
Sometimes they kill us, or fail trying
The mainstream media narrative of the brutality Christy Mack faced at the hands of War Machine collapses the distinction between the simulated violent sex in her pornographic films and her very real experience of partner abuse. But simulated violence and actual violence are not the same.
Simulated violence happens all the time in video games, horror films, stage productions of Shakespeare, and yes, porn. Simulated violence is just that- simulated. It is an act, potentially a problematic act, but an act or portrayal of violence. If an actor is given a script, consents to the script, performs the script, and is then compensated for said script at their agreed amount, that’s called a job. Even if it happens to suggest violent content. When we make play roles in so-called violent adult films, we are somehow undermining the feminist agenda, and contributing to the overall oppression of women — our own subjugation. We are rarely seen as workers, performers, or people.
Real violence is when partners or clients beat us. Real violence is when police officers harass, detain, and rape us. Real violence is when we are shamed, humiliated, or degraded for our profession. And when a society builds institutions to enforce these conditions, that’s real violence too. Our “poor life choices” and “dangerous sex lives” are ultimately our death sentence in the public’s eyes. As a porn star, Mack was not beaten within an inch of her life. As a woman, she was.
Women are taught that they are to blame for sexual violence reigned down upon them. Hem lengths, heel height, inebriation, sexual history and reams of other irrelevant facts are constantly deployed against survivors of sexual assault. Every aspect of our lives come under scrutiny, though the lives of our abusers is rarely so intensely investigated. In a society structured by rape culture, it comes as no surprise that a woman who has had sex on camera is considered to have brought her assault onto herself.
In the debased and unjust world in which we live, our sexual lives are weaponized against us, hurled back at us in the epithet: they asked for it. Samantha Allen, in her piece “Stop Blaming Christy Mack: Porn Stars Don’t Deserve to Be Beaten,” clarifies our point: “The fictional acts of violence that are sometimes depicted in pornography do not justify the real violence that an adult film star like Christy Mack might experience in her domestic life. We wouldn’t blame a stuntman, after all, for getting hit by a car in real life just because he sometimes gets hit by a car during work hours. But because Mack works as a visible icon in a sexualized industry that many perceive as inherently immoral, Mack will have to be defended in the coming weeks from those who would chalk up her abuse to “bad life choices.””
In defense of porn
We argue that pornography is a performance based art, not unlike other film genres. It is a cultural creation that reflects the demands placed upon it by those seeking it out. It is a many-tendencied art. It is a job, as well as a craft. The porn that we make and sex work we perform should not be considered synonymous with our sexuality. Sure some of us enjoy the work we do, but some of us (like any other job) have serious criticisms and grievances. There is a debate about our work. And we’re feeling more inclined to side with one of our own, Melissa Gira Grant. In her latest book, Playing the Whore, she writes, “We should, in fact, refuse to debate. Sex work itself and, inseparable from it, the lives of sex workers are not up for debate — or they shouldn’t be.” The notion that sex workers are human, deserving of dignity, respect, and rights, is not commonly held. Yes we have done commendable work at creating organizations for ourselves, outreach projects, and hidden networks, however until we have access to the cultural community, until we have political power, we will fight for it.
Grant continues, “Likewise there must be room for [sex workers] to identify, publicly and collectively, what they wish to change about how they are treated as workers without being told that the only solution is for them to exit the industry.” Stop telling us to “get another job.” We already have jobs. We already labor. We already work to support ourselves and our families. Should we trade in work that we set boundaries to, that we consent to, that we control the hours to, for low-wage retail or fast food service?
Sure, there is an inspiring movement organizing low-wage workers, we are ecstatic to see that developing! But how about the labor movement stop ignoring the oldest profession, and start organizing us? We already have a profession that we do not acknowledge as shameful. Do not try to redirect the validity of our demands, and critiques of our field into a misinformed job fair. To make this leap toward recognizing the legitimacy of our work, Grant adds, “We must redraw the lines of the prostitution debate. Either prostitutes are in the debate or they are not. Sex workers are tired of being invited to publicly investigate the politics of their own lives only if they’re also willing to serve as a prop for someone else’s politics.”
Do not fall prey to the over simplified positions the left has held in the past, or continues to drag, baggage-like, with it. Do not try to save us. Do not believe the liberal feminists who promise their programs have our best interests at heart. Do not assume we need your analysis to illustrate our lived experiences. Do assume you need our living and working experiences to inform your analysis. Do become our allies. Do respect us and our role as workers and artists. Do listen when we call you out for taking a reductionist position on our art. Do stand in solidarity with us in our fight for union representation, free speech, improved working conditions and decriminalization.
This piece includes edits from Brit Schulte and AJB.