Four families, sitting together, shooting the shit. Seven adults, all in our late 40s or early 50s. Five children, from thirteen to seventeen. White and brown. Hailing from three countries in both East and West, North and South. Relatively recent old friends, all of us: three of the families have vacationed together multiple times over the last six or seven years. We are a solidly progressive group. Three professional activists among us, along with an academic. People who think a lot.
We were gathered to say farewell to the college-bound daughter of one of the families. At some point, she joked about how she looked forward to drinking, doing drugs, having sex, and seeing prostitutes at college.
And like that, the conversation turned to the regulation of sex work. When this happens, I feel awkward. Three of the other adults, one of them T – and none of the kids – know varying amounts about my history as a john. T, obviously, knows basically all.
As a result both of my history as a john and of my history of writing here, about sex more generally, I have thought a lot about sex work, and, more specifically, about my relationship to it. I try hard not to have strong opinions, here and elsewhere. To hold what opinions I have as loosely as I can. “People with opinions go around bothering one another,” the Buddha may or may not have said.
This crowd holds strong opinions, generally, and on this subject. Two of the adult women in particular.
As they discussed decriminalization, the Nordic model, the impact of sex work on trafficked women, I kept my thoughts to myself, listening and learning. And mostly, but not entirely, finding myself inclined to agree with the goals underlying or informing the opinions being expressed while inclined to disagree with the proposed strategies and tactics. I agree with the goals of reducing involuntary participation in sex work and child exploration. I disagree – mostly but not exclusively because practically, it’s insane – with the goal of of eradicating the phenomenon of sex work. And throughout, I wondered what to do with my vague sense that, beneath the concern for sex workers being expressed, there lies a mix of sexual shame or puritanism, societal and personal anger, idealism, and ignorance. Or if not ignorance, maybe a somewhat-greater-than-usual-in-this-crowd-tendency toward black-and-white thinking. And maybe also fear – each of the women has a teenaged daughter – and envy – though all attractive, each woman in the room is at, or approaching, her last fuckable day. (Click the link before you react too harshly to that phrase).
So there I sat, listening, thinking, learning, when the college-bound girl/woman offered up the fact that she has a friend who’s a “sugar baby.” She fairly quickly backtracked just a bit, clarifying – somewhat improbably, in-credibly – that her friend doesn’t actually have sex, she just goes on dates. But she seemed, gently, timidly, to be exploring the crowd’s reaction to what I imagine to be a not-all-that uncommon (perhaps incipient) phenomenon among her cohort.
I’ve known this young woman since she was, undeniably, a girl. Now, though, she occupies the worst possible age for adult men: old enough to be mistaken for an adult woman, but still a child in many (most?) ways. I know a bit about her crowd, because Instagram. They’re highly sexual(ized), the girls collecting likes with near-nudity, duck faces, and sexy outfits. (Her feed just the other day featured two close-up photos of her breasts in a barely-there bikini.) They play with adulthood, and with rebellion, smoking cigarettes and joints and blunts and bongs in their posts – posts on feeds they know their parents, and their parents’ friends, (can) see.
The adult reaction to the report of the “sugar baby” friend was swift, and harsh. Disapproving and defensive. Critical, political, and distant. The adults saw this reported girl’s actions – her choices – as tragic, as self-harming, and (most thought-provoking to me) as harming others. “How do you imagine her actions affect how you’re seen in the world?” one adult asked the college-bound female. This seems a really interesting question to me. Of course, so is the question of how hyper-sexualized Instagram feeds affect how she’s seen…. As is the question of which affects how she’s seen, how she can be seen, more?
At this point, I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable, on at least two accounts: first, I imagined what the college-bound female felt on behalf of her friend. And second, I recalled conversations I have had with many of the dozens, or even hundreds, of sex workers with whom I’ve interacted, conversations which have led me to imagine that for many sex workers (and, I believe, credulously, most of those with whom I’ve engaged) sex work can be a lucrative, empowering, interesting, flexible, exciting, and even arousing form of employment.
I hope I don’t deceive myself too much. I’m sure at least some women performed their contentment with their work for me. But I am certain that at least some, and most likely most, of the women with whom I engaged experienced their sex work as a job. A job with a unique combination of up- and down-sides. But a job.
The women in this room, in their refusal to imagine the agency of the college-bound-female’s friend, objectify and dehumanize her just as they accuse sex work of doing to her. And I couldn’t help but wonder, why do they single out sex work for judgment, unique among forms of employment? I spoke, for the first time, asking if they might be shaming the friend, asking how sex work differs from so many other forms of employment that depend on one person’s exploiting the body of another.
The answers I got did not edify me.
I don’t know where I stand on these questions. When a man pays a (female) sex worker for the “use” of her body, is it always and necessarily an act of harm against that woman? Against all women? If I go to a “happy ending” massage parlor, am I oppressing you by commodifying your body, your beauty, simply by paying a woman (not you) to minister to me based, at least in part, on my, or others’, assessment that she possesses a particular attractiveness? And, conversely, if prostitution is decriminalized, and/or if the Nordic model is deployed, and/or if sex work continues to exist to greater or lesser degrees in the shadows, (how) does that disempower (which) women? And does it empower any women? Can it?
Finally, is it true that, as my friends assert, the “vast majority” of sex work is performed by trafficked women denied agency? I wonder about the numbers. If we were to take a census of the population of people engaged in part- or full-time sex work at any given time, what would that population look like? In terms of age, ethnicity, power, agency, exploitation? On these questions, I am, truly, ignorant. And I wonder if what distinguishes me from the others having conversations like this is my ignorance? Or my awareness of my ignorance?
These feel like seriously complex issues to me. As ever, Maggie McNeill is a person I often turn to for some insight into this. She’s a bit more… extreme… than I am, intuitively, but she’s always super-smart, and always has a lot that’s worthwhile to say.
Me? I’m just confused.