Being a Sex Worker in Academia Who Doesn’t Care About Empowerment
A Girl’s Guide
By Christina Parreira, M.A.
Official Sex Worker
Tool of the Patriarchy
I would really appreciate it if someone could write the aforementioned guide so that I could buy it, read it, and live by it. Until then, I’m still screwed.
“Prostitution is controversial. As a social exchange and gendered institution, it is at the heart of longstanding passionate debate over the nature and effects of commercial sex. Is it an explicit exercise of patriarchal control over women? Is it inherently sexually violent and therefore an exploitation of women? Or is prostitution an inevitable market exchange? Is it an expression of women’s own sexual agency? The problem is, and long has been, that prostitution is not a unitary enterprise a standardized social exchange, or even a consistently gendered institution (Brents & Hausbeck, 2006).
Currently, I’m living in Nevada and working on a PhD while simultaneously working in the legal sex industry. Before moving to Las Vegas last May, I was miserable and bored in another doctoral program, daydreaming about dropping out of school to move to Vegas and collect data in the legal brothels. I’m serious. (As an aside, my father has told me that I have the strangest research interests ever).
Dilemma: How could I do this while stuck in Connecticut? I couldn’t — so I dropped out of school, came to Las Vegas, and found my way into what seems to be a near-perfect fit of a PhD program. I am accepted into an academic environment as an “out” sex worker, and am surrounded by others who also have passion for studying the sex industry. It is refreshing to be around others that understand that prostitution must be examined within its socio/political/economic context, rather than something that can be “good” or “bad.”
As the quote above points out, prostitution is not a unitary enterprise, and unfortunately, much of the literature on prostitute treats it as such. So here I am, ready to collect data in one very specific market of the global sex industry, the legal Nevada brothels. Everything sounds peachy, right? And…it is…until the topic of gender inevitably arises, as it always does amongst colleagues.
“Are you empowered?”
“Do you think that as women achieve equality to men in the work place, they’ll have other options besides prostitution?”
My inner monologue: What? Am I empowered? I don’t know…are you? What does this even mean?! Why are you asking me such sweeping broad questions? In what context? Also, DO YOU KNOW THAT THERE ARE MALE SEX WORKERS TOO!?
Basically, whenever people learn that I am a female studying sex work, they often assume that I am an aspiring gender scholar and/or feminist. This will likely be an ongoing struggle. I too was once duped into thinking that I was both of these things, until I realized what they entailed.
Christina’s brief history exploring feminism:
- Started listening to Bikini Kill at the age of 12
- Read about feminism, thought “yeah! This sounds good!”
- Bumped into some feminist literature that confused me; “sex work is bad? Wait, what? But…I thought this was about women’s rights and choices? What about the right to sell sexual services?”
- Found third wave “sex-positive” feminism and thought “oh, this is where I was supposed to be!”
- Marched in Slutwalk NYC and thought “yeah!!!”
- Later learned how Whorephobic Slutwalk was.
- Oh. #disappointment
- Decided to keep calling myself a feminist. Surely I would meet others like myself.
- Mistakes were made.
- Continued to run into self-proclaimed feminists who tried to tell me what to wear, what to do for work, how to speak, and who to have sex with.
- Continued to be disappointed by mainstream feminism. (How about mother of feminism, Ms. Gloria Steinem’s proclamation that prostitution is commercial rape, and NOT “sex work”?!?! Who remembers that one? It just happened a few months ago…)
- Okay, I’ve had enough! Decided to stop calling myself a feminist.
Christina’s Even Briefer History Exploring Gender Studies
- Noticed that many other sex work researchers study gender. Thought “okay, that seems like a good plan.” Had previously enjoyed learning about gender theories.
- Learned some interesting stuff. Thought to myself “okay, I like studying gender.”
- Came to the conclusion that while gender is interesting, it has no place in my research.
- Started bumping heads with friends, classmates, and colleagues about theories like patriarchy, empowerment, and oppression (and their lack of utility in the real world, on the streets, in research, and in public policy).
- Decided to write an article begging for someone to write a guide on how I can survive graduate school and get a job when I’m done! Pretty please?
Okay, and here we are. I want to examine prostitution in context, while recognizing the (maybe not-so-obvious) truth that prostitutes are NOT a homogeneous group. So, it’s really difficult to ascribe empowerment or oppression to a non-homogenous group, right? Where do we even begin?
Well, for starters, why does anyone care whether or not sex workers feel “empowered” by their jobs, and what exactly does this empowerment entail? This has been a topic of discussion amongst some of my feminist friends and I. I often hear about this empowerment stuff, but what does it mean, and furthermore, why do we need it?
My friend and I chatted about this over lunch at a café. I was eating a surprisingly flavorful vegan burrito (I figured it would taste like cardboard, but it tasted like tomato flavored cardboard instead), and telling her how sick I am of people asking me if I feel “empowered” by my job. Why do I need to be empowered? Should I go up to the barista behind the counter and ask her if she feels empowered by her job making coffee and burritos?
My friend insists that sex workers should be empowered though, “because of the stigma.”
No, friend, sex workers don’t need to feel empowered any more than any other laborers need to feel empowered. Sex workers need human, civil, and labor rights first. Sex workers need to stop being arrested, murdered, and raped. Perhaps then we can discuss “empowerment” (what does that even mean!?)
It sounds like something silly that feminists insisted that we need (feminists tend to know our own bodies better than we do). So, we’re supposed to be empowered happy hookers, right? What if we aren’t happy? What if our job sucks? What if we’re miserable due to a lack of labor rights? And even worse…what if we show it? Feminism will turn right back around and remind us that the reason we’re miserable is because we are being oppressed. We are tools of patriarchy. We were suffering from false consciousness, but now we are finally seeing the light!
According to feminism, we are either empowered happy hookers (and we are crushing the patriarchy in our own way!) or we are oppressed victims (damn you, patriarchy! You’re holding us down!) so hurry up and pick one. But wait…what if you’re not a “happy hooker” OR a “victim?” Now what? Well, I’m neither of those, so I’m not sure where I fit in.
Okay, new plan:
Stop insisting that I should feel empowered by my job. It’s my job, and I’ll feel the way I want about it. Why do you need me to feel empowered? Is it so that you can feel better about what I do? What if I tell you that I had a bad day at work?
Stop insisting that I should feel oppressed by my job. It’s my job, and I’ll feel the way I want about it. Why do you need me to feel oppressed? Is it so that you can feel better about supporting policies that hurt sex workers?
So, back to my friend at lunch…
“If you don’t care about the empowerment of sex workers, then why are you a sex worker rights activist?” she asks. Well, I care about rights, and I believe that “empowerment” will follow after rights. And if it doesn’t, I don’t really care. People don’t work for empowerment, they work for money. MONEY is power, and I personally feel “empowered” by being able to safely and legally make money. Without fear of rape, murder, or police brutality. That’s my version of empowerment.
At that point, I almost got out of my seat to go ask the barista if she feels empowered by her work. Could you imagine how ridiculous that would sound?
I conceptualize sex work as work. As service labor. As a labor that involves both body and emotion work. Perhaps that’s why I don’t feel a pressing need to obsess over empowerment. I only view sex work as a way to pay the bills. I don’t immediately view sex work as inherently good (empowering) or bad (oppressive). I am not on a moral crusade or an ideological journey. Is that okay? Can it be okay as a female sex worker in academia?
I don’t care if you think I’m being oppressed by patriarchy because I don’t make life decisions based on mysterious, invisible, unverifiable, all-powerful things like god and patriarchy. I respect and honor your right to do so, but can you respect my right to not do so?
But, there’s another layer here: I’m also a sex work researcher. I work in a legal brothel, and am collecting data while doing so. I want to observe and report on my experiences, observations, and the patterns that I see in my environment.
While I’m not naïve enough to believe in value-free research, I believe that it is important for researchers to acknowledge their ideological biases when entering the field. I refuse to follow in the footsteps of “porn researcher” and radical feminist Gail Dines, who has proclaimed that there is no data that could ever change her mind about the evils of pornography. Gail Dines — a supposed porn expert who has never stepped foot on a porn set. I will not be the “sex-positive” version of Gail Dines; I will NOT proclaim that no research about brothels will ever change my opinion of them. Wouldn’t that be utterly ridiculous?
Today at lunch, I used Gail Dines as an example of a fraudulent academic whose “research” and conclusions are all based on feminist ideology, rather than actual data. My friend in turn told me that PATRIARCHY is the reason that someone such as Dines even has a job in the first place. The mental gymnastics required of me to make that leap were too much, so I returned to the tomato flavored cardboard.
Have I mentioned that I love my friend to death? She’s going to hate this article, but I must thank her for inspiring me to blog again.