Being a Sex Worker in Academia Who Doesn’t Care About Empowerment

Being a Sex Worker in Academia Who Doesn’t Care About Empowerment

 Being a Sex Worker in Academia Who Doesn’t Care About Empowerment

A Girl’s Guide

By Christina Parreira, M.A.

PhD Student

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.

Being a Sex Worker in Academia Who Doesn’t Care About Empowerment by Christina Parreira, M.A.

“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?

Does she feel empowered by her job?

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.


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29 Responses to "Being a Sex Worker in Academia Who Doesn’t Care About Empowerment"

  1. Pingback: Being a Sex Worker in Academia Who Doesn’t Care About Empowerment | Adult WIkiMedia

  2. Anthony Kennerson   April 5, 2014 11:01 pm at 11:01 PM

    You could make a case, Christina, though probably not the way your friend put it, that “the patriarchy” does make a woman like Gail Dines possible…but only in that such “patriarchy” needs “feminists” like Dines to help them promote antisex fascism as a “counter” to the usual antifeminist nonsense. Basically, it’s in the same way the Tea Party needs a foil in opposition to justify it.

    Nice to see you back blogging, Christina…the more of this, the better.

  3. Anthony Kennerson   April 5, 2014 11:05 pm at 11:05 PM


    ” […] Gail Dines — a supposed porn expert who has never stepped foot on a porn set… […]”

    Well, she did manage to invade’s booth during the 2005 AEExpo, and did harrass Ernest and Nina for two years attempting to use their words for their “Price of Pleasure” bullshit. Does that count???

    • Anthony Kennerson   April 5, 2014 11:07 pm at 11:07 PM

      OOPS….use their words for HER ‘Price of Pleasure’ BS. “Her” (as in Dines), not “their”. 1 AM typing doesn’t do wonders for my brain.

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  5. DirkJohanson   April 6, 2014 9:05 am at 9:05 AM

    You’re awesome and awesome post! DirkJo

  6. Thaddeus Blanchette   April 6, 2014 9:34 am at 9:34 AM

    Wonderful, Chris! Empowerment is indeed a meaningless buzzword. Next time some academic friend asks you about it, ask them right back, “Well, to answer that question, I first need to understand what kind of definition of ‘power’ you are using. Is it Marx’, Foucault’s, or someone else’s?

    “If Marx, then of course my job doesn’t empower me! What an absolutely silly question! Jobs, in capitalism, are based on relative LACK of power and that is true whether one sells pussy in a brothel or chocolate cake in a truck stop.

    “So if you are using Marx’s notion of power, you should already have your answer, which begs another question: why are you asking about this?

    “Is it because you don’t understand the theory of power you have chosen to employ? (That is a problem for an advanced academic like yourself, isn’t it?) Is it because you are trying to catch me out on Marxist theory, sort of hazing or mocking me because you think I am a junior colleague who doesn’t understand power theory as well as you?

    “Or is it because you have never met an out-and-about sex worker before and this is such a shock that your whorephobia just got the better of your analytical intelligence? If that is the case – and frankly, intellectually, that is the LEAST alarming possibility here -then your prejudice is showing. Please take care of that.”

    If they say “Foucault”, laugh and say, “Really? Under Foucault’s theory, how can anyone ‘have’ power? Power isn’t a reified thing one owns, but the product of a set of relations. So are you asking me to analyze the power flows involved in my job and my relation to them? That would be fascinating, but are you sure you are really prepared to hear what a brothel based sex worker can and cannot do?

    “Because most people who ask me this question, if you’ll excuse the assumption, seem to use it for a code that seeks to situate me in an inferior power relationship to themselves. I hope that is not what you are doing here, because that would come uncomfortably close to our school’s definition of sexual harassment.

    “No! I am not threatening you, sweetie! Just clearing the air in order to establish what we are really talking about here: is it a Foucaultian analysis of sex work? Good. Ok, so in my job, this is what I can and cannot do and these are the people who decide if I break the rules and these are the people who I get to decide about whether or not they’ve broke the rules…”

    Now, if they say “feminist”, say “Fascinating. I know of no feminist who has a fully developed theory of power. Are you sure you know what you are talking about here? Because most feminists who talk about power and patriarchy are using a straight-up Marxist analysis whose root is Engel’s work on Patriarchy. That is the case of Dworkin, McKinnon, and pretty much every socialist feminist out there.

    “There are also Foucauldian feminists and queer theorists like Butler and Preciado. But, again, I know of no feminist who has an original theory of power. Saying ‘Teh patriarchy keeps women oppressed’, isn’t a theory of power, hon: it is a declarative statement based on Marx’s theories of power. So if you have a feminist who has a real, new theory of power, please point her out and I will read her and get back to you.

    “Fair warning, however: I have a lot to read and no time for snipe hunts, so let me ask in advance: are you SURE that your question isn’t rooted in whorephobia and the presumption that I am too stupid to recognize my own oppression? Because if you have found a really new theory of power, I am interested. But if this is just an excuse for you to excercise your curiosity and prejudice at the cost of making me do unnecessary intellectual labor, then let me tell you that like all good workers, I charge. If this is a snipe hunt, you owe me several beers, at the very least.”

    I don’t know if this is an addition to your proposed manual or not, Chris, but if you find it useful, you have my permission to use it.

    When I was going through my PhD, I found it useful to think of myself as working in a harem. We got no pay beyond personal status and the favor of the Sultans (the professors), so people were necessarily catty with each other. Once I had that figured out, this sort of shit didn’t vother me so much.

  7. Antonia   April 6, 2014 12:22 pm at 12:22 PM


    As a non-radical second wave pro-labour rights feminist who is also a journalist in the corporate media, I know I am some kind of freak. But I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Empowerment? The only people who are “empowered” run megacorporations and/or are in the 1%.

    Not even my perch at Canada’s biggest newspaper makes me “empowered.”

    And, if there’s one thing that drives me insane, it’s so-called feminists who think (female) sex workers are better off dead than having sex with men for money.

    • Ernest Greene   April 6, 2014 1:18 pm at 1:18 PM

      The connection relationship between Dines and sex work is like that of any other pimp who makes a living off prostitution. Both make their livings off sex work without doing any and neither would be able to pay the rent if it disappeared.

      In the way that AHF is an AIDS profiteer, Gail Dines and her ilk are prostitution and pornography (yes Gail, they are two different things and porn isn’t rape either) profiteers.

      The world is full of horrific violence and oppression of women but Dines isn’t interested in any of that. She’s obsessed with First World problems that matter only to her and her huge 1500 member Twitter following.

  8. Dustin   April 7, 2014 12:58 am at 12:58 AM

    Gail Dines = “fraudulent academic”. Yes yes yes! I can’t believe she’s allowed to speak on college campuses, she’s the exact opposite of academic ethics and responsibility. But I don’t see her work as tied to feminist ideology at all – maybe a really narrow strain within feminism but not at all the kind of feminism I or just about anyone I know subscribes to. Then again, half the people I know are strippers, maybe I have a biased view…

    I think there is an argument for “enpowerment” to be made about work, sex- and otherwise. To me, the feminist ideal is all about self-realization – anything that allows one to reach their human potential is empowering, and anything that hinders them artificially is disempowering. But like you say, there’s nothing inherent to any given profession or social status that’s one or the other – life’s too complicated to boil down to “empowering vs disempowering”.

    That said, obviously there’s a deep strain of “sex = wrong” in our society and I’m pretty sure the concern with empowerment is a redemptive one – empowerment washes the taint of sex off so we can see sex workers as humans.

  9. Panther (@PantherAlyxx)   April 7, 2014 12:58 pm at 12:58 PM

    I think I love you even more now.

  10. jane whatsername   April 7, 2014 1:42 pm at 1:42 PM

    really really good piece. i completely agree with you. i also completely agree with your friend re: gail dines and patriachy, i dont think its a very big leap at all lol….

  11. Kitty Stryker   April 7, 2014 2:49 pm at 2:49 PM

    Actually I think there’s an argument for Gail Dines having a job because patriarchy allows for her to. The patriarchy has a lot to gain keeping women at each others throats instead of dismembering the system, after all. And the patriarchy believes strongly in maintaining the sex moralism/sex as compulsory binary. Gail (and many other anti-sex work feminists) aligns herself with the sex moralistic groups in order to gain funding/signal boosting.

    That said, I think your question of “why do you need me to be empowered or oppressed by sex work?” is an excellent and much needed one.

  12. minty   April 7, 2014 4:32 pm at 4:32 PM

    I feel like you should still call your self a feminist. Just because you subscribe to a less typical type of feminism doesn’t mean you can’t subscribe to it in a holistic global way. You believe women should have rights, freedoms and choice and that sure sounds like my kind of feminism!

    • Deep Throat   April 7, 2014 4:51 pm at 4:51 PM

      If you don’t mind me asking, WHY “should” she identify as a feminist? Who exactly is she letting down (or betraying) by not doing so?

      The belief that “women should have rights, freedoms and choice” is not feminism. It’s libertarianism — the belief that all individuals should have those things, regardless of gender or sexual orientation or occupation. Modern feminist in theory — core theory — and practice does not.

      Feminism is as feminism does. There is no “holistic global” way to subscribe to feminism, or any other philosophy (or religion) that has foundational tenets. Feminism is not a T-shirt u take on and off, nor is it a club to which you pay annual membership dues to get a Certificate of Feminism. Either you believe in its tenets as articles of faith (such as the laughable Marxist Patriarchy theory, where “Patriarchy” is substituted for “bourgeoisie”) or you don’t.

      Yes, at one time there existed an equity feminism movement but it’s long dead. Regardless of what you might read in some paper somewhere about theoretical feminisms, all modern feminism as practiced is unsupportable at the foundation level.

      Slapping on “sex positive” ideas to a group-class philosophy based upon the idea that man are an oppressor class is ridiculous. Sex positive feminists are, in this way, the Log Cabin Republicans of feminism — their beliefs are fundamentally at odds with the core philosophies of the movement.

      So, no, I don’t think Christina “should call [her]self a feminist” to please anyone. She has damn good reasons to be revolted by the term.

  13. rhianna   April 9, 2014 12:41 pm at 12:41 PM

    Everyone will have a different opinion of what defines empowerment. Perhaps it is easier to come to come to a consensus on what disempowered would look like….certainly the barista isn’t terribly empowered, but she also does not have to worry about her emotional and physical health being damaged by abusive customers like many street prostitutes do

    • Christina Parreira   April 9, 2014 1:00 pm at 1:00 PM

      “the barista does not have to worry about her emotional and physical health being damaged by abusive customers like many street prostitutes do.”

      She doesn’t; really? First off, you’re making assumptions about the life and conditions of other workers. Is that appropriate and should that even be part of the discourse? As sex workers, don’t we tend to get sick of people making those assumptions about us? I know I sure do.

      I waitressed and bartended for years and I certainly did feel the emotional AND physical abuse of grabby drunk customers, shitty managers, and terrible work conditions. Much more so than I feel now with brothel and cam work. But, you do make a good point about the conditions faced by street workers.

      Street workers obviously face much more danger and assault than those in legal brothels; I’m not going to dispute that. But, do you honestly think street workers give a single shit about “empowerment,” definitions of “disempowerment,” or ANY of the feminist/sex work debates? No…far and large, they do not give a single shit.

      As part of a study being conducted through the Uni that I attend, I interview street prostitutes and I can tell you this: if you even know what the term “sex work” or “disempowerment” means, you are much more privileged than you think you are. Street workers aren’t concerned w/ these cushy feminist ideologies; they are concerned with survival.

    • Christina Parreira   April 9, 2014 1:01 pm at 1:01 PM

      FWIF, Barb Brents and Kate Hausbeck/Korgan do operationalize and define “exploitation” in their research article that I opened by quoting. THAT’S how it should be done. Explaining exactly what these concepts mean, rather than basing it on “feelz”

    • Gaye Dalton   April 9, 2014 1:20 pm at 1:20 PM

      I was a street worker and one of the biggest positives was how empowered I felt by the safety of having access to s substantial income, independent of anyone but myself, almost anywhere in the world.

      My emotional health was not affected by it, but has been devastated over the years by the revictimisation of the abolitionist and rescue industries. I think they have made it impossible for me to ever trust or have faith in anything.

      Physical health? Well you have a point there, I always seemed to get every cold or flu going, but then so do teachers and medical personnel.

  14. Deep Throat   April 9, 2014 12:59 pm at 12:59 PM

    Ah yes, the oppression olympics…

    • Christina Parreira   April 9, 2014 1:05 pm at 1:05 PM

      Well, there is something to be said for the fact that the oppression of others (such as street workers) is very very different from that of women such as myself, who are in much more privileged positions. But, again, I’ve never interviewed a street workers that cared about empowerment or feminism. C’mon, this is the real world

      • Gaye Dalton   April 9, 2014 2:12 pm at 2:12 PM

        I think it is mostly about paying bills rather than empowerment, but I really was conscious of that too.

        It came to me, all of a rush when, after a few days I walked into a restaurant to have dinner with a sex worker friend, picking up our own tab. I could never afford to do that before.

        A little thing maybe, but it MEANT something bigger.

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  16. Haku   April 19, 2014 11:18 pm at 11:18 PM

    Well, we do have definitions of empowerment: “Empowerment is the process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes. Central to this process are actions which both build individual and collective assets, and improve the efficiency and fairness of the organizational and institutional context which govern the use of these assets” (,,contentMDK:20272299~pagePK:210058~piPK:210062~theSitePK:486411~isCURL:Y,00.html)

    However, this term is easily used even though it doesn’t say much in most contexts. If someone asks you “do you feel empowered?”, they ignore that people often do not see the boundaries the live in because they seem normal. While the idea of empowerment is objective, the question is subjective. Since reality always resists simplicism, the question may ask wether you are a sex worker out of a feeling of empowerment (“did you freely choose to be a SW?”), if being a SW empowers you (which includes payment and flexibilities some kinds of sex work can provide) or if you feel empower as a sex worker (which points to how sex work is treated).

    This usage of terms seems to be the core of the problem and you did reveal it yourself:
    “Why do you need me to feel oppressed?”
    “Without fear of rape, murder, or police brutality.”
    This seems like a contradiction at first sight since I would say that you are quite opressed if you have to fear rape, murder, or police brutality while doing your work. Just as with “empowerment”, “opression” is such a hollow term. If people claim that SW are opressed, they could be speaking of police brutality, the danger of rape, etc. which sadly still comes with the job. They could also mean that they were forced to do an inherently demeaning job. (and before you wonder, I do not see anything demeaning in SW)

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