by Furry Girl
Karl Marx's headstone: "Workers of all lands unite." I approve this message.
I am often asked what I mean when I say "sex worker." Here's my short and long-form answer, including why I don't have as expansive a definition as some.
I maintain that sex work is exchanging one's own sexual labor or performance for compensation. It doesn't have to be actual sex for cash, it doesn't even have to be in person (like web cam or phone sex) or with direct compensation from the end customer (like being paid by a producer for doing porn). But it does have to involve your own sexuality or sexual performance. That's the sort of definition I'll be using in my outreach project, SWAAY.
"Sex worker" should not not a term for people who simply profit from the labor of sex workers, or have a job/hobby that is related to sex in some way. As someone who does both sex work and other sex industry jobs in my tiny empire of revenue streams, I have zero ethical or personal qualms with business owners, photographers, writers, managers, or retail employees in the sex industry, so long as they're not treating anyone poorly. Serpent Libertine (autoplay video/sound warning), whose work I love, has a definition on her blog what constitutes a sex worker that includes lots of job titles that I don't even remotely consider to be sex work. [Edited to add: Serpent clarified in my comments that the list was a collaborative definition written in 2008 by her and other sex workers rights organizers, and is not her own personal definition.] Here's the list, in grey text below are ones that I absolutely would not consider a sex worker:
An Erotic Masseuse
A Full Body Sensual Masseuse
An Exotic Dancer
An Adult Film/Porn Performer
Someone Who Shoots, Directs, or Produces Porn
An Erotic Writer
A Phone Sex Operator
A Tantra Provider
An Agency owner
Someone supported by A Sugar Daddy/Mama
Someone who has had sex for food, drugs, or to get the money you needed to survive
A Clerk at a Sex shop
An Owner of a Sexually Oriented Business
A Peep Show Dancer
A Webcam Performer
A Fetish or Nude Model
A Fetish/Erotic Photographer
An Online Domme
An Adult Webmaster/mistress
A Burlesque Dancer
A Sex Advice Columnist
A Sex Toy Reviewer
A Sex Worker Advocate/Activist
A Publisher/Editor of A Sexually Oriented Publication
A Waitress at A Strip Club
A Phone Operator at an Escort Service
A Fantasy Sex Provider
A Curator at A Sex Museum
A Sex Educator
A Sex Surrogate
A Sex Therapist
(A lot of the terms are duplicates to take into account pretentious or fussy people who would rather call themselves a "sex surrogate" or a "tantra provider" than a prostitute, or a "fetish model" rather than a porn model.)
Half of those listed people - those I put in grey text - do not sell their own sexual energy or physical sexuality. Dan Savage is a writer who offers people free advice about bettering their sex lives, he doesn't offer to come over and provide them with good sex for $500 an hour. A clerk at the porn shop isn't being paid by customers to act out their wildest fantasies, he's being paid by the owner of the store to man the cash register and sell DVDs and vibrators. A woman who writes dildo reviews on her blog is paid in free sex toys by sex toy companies in exchange for the exposure, she's not working in a peep show where an audience is paying by the minute to see her masturbate with the toys. All of these dynamics are not about sex work, they're about having a job or hobby that relates to sexuality. There's a large overall sex industry - in which sex advice columnists, retail clerks, and reviewers could be included - but sex workers are a distinct subset of the sex industry.
I love that sex workers rights ties together so many threads I enjoy. Sexual freedoms. Privacy rights. Free speech. But when it comes to the key terminology for the movement - the definition of sex worker - that has to be defined from a labor rights perspective. Organizing around labor has always been about actual workers, not the managers and bosses, not the outside contractors who refill the snack machines in the break room, not the artist who created the logo for the product's advertisements, and not the journalist across the country at Consumer Reports who tested out one of the company's widgets for an article they were writing.
To put "escort" or "stripper" in the same category as the person who designed a dominatrix directory web site dilutes and erases the special and complex challenges faced by sex workers. Unlike webmasters or publishers or photographers, you can't just swap out the sex part of my work and have it be basically the exact same job. Whether a clerk is being paid minimum wage to stand fully-dressed in a retail store ringing up purchases for anal gangbang porn on DVDs or Hollywood's latest blockbusters on DVDs, it's not a fundamental change in what the worker is doing. They're still a video store worker being paid to sell tangible items they had no role in manufacturing.
What sets sex work apart is that you can't just take the sex out of it and still have a job. People don't pay a $20 monthly fee to see thousands of clothed and nonsexual photos of me. People don't pay me $4 a minute for random video chat. People don't pay me $300 an hour to hang out in their living room. We'd all like to think we're so charming - some sex workers even desperately clinging to the idea that they are truly paid only for their time and presence, not the sex - but we all know the real score. Even though we all do get customers sometimes that just want someone to keep them company, if that's all we offered, every one of us would be out of business.
Let's be honest about something else - the people who enthusiastically consider themselves sex workers when I would not are hardly your typical porn store clerks, photographers, and bloggers/webmasters. They're sex-positive feminists, sexual intellectuals, kinksters, already somewhat in the public sphere or trying to get more internet famous, and generally living in pervert-friendly cities. What I see is the same dynamic I've seen in many different places: liberal/lefty folk falsely claiming life experiences that they've never had because their social circles make it stylish to be part of marginalized groups. Widening the definition of "sex worker" to include everyone with a sex-related job or who does slutty things for fun online doesn't build solidarity and create a stronger/larger political movement. When you look at who actually seizes on the opportunity to label themselves a sex worker under more far-flung definitions of the term, the attempt to be "inclusive" only facilitates the hipsterization of sex work by giving people in certain social circles a chance to add another trendy term to their list of descriptors of why they're such a sassy nonconformist.
Rather than falsely inflate our numbers by expanding the meaning of "sex worker," how about we try to empower and activate the huge numbers of actual sex workers who feel alienated from the current feminist-/pagan-/left-wing-/sex radical- dominated activist scene in the US? (The types of people that alienate many sex workers from getting involved in their own movement are the exact same ones that are allowed in when we have a more liberal definition of "sex work"!) Our problem isn't a lack of people who could be considered sex workers, it's a lack of overall direction and strategy, money, public outreach, and organizing/lobbying experience.
Furry Girl: a good time not yet had by all.
- I operate SWAAY.org, an accessible sex workers' rights site that educates the general public about our lives and our issues.
- I've been vegan for 13 years because it's the easiest way for an individual to contribute to less violence, suffering, and exploitation.
My adult sites
- Cocksexual.com: Strapons
- EroticRed.com: Menstruation
- FurryGirl.com: Unshaved
- TheSensualVegan.com: Store
- VegPorn.com: Herbivores
More of me online
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New to my blog? Some favorite posts
- "You have no right to dislike feminism after all it's done for you!"
- "You misrepresent true feminism by focusing on the bad feminists. They're not real feminists anyway!"
- An argument for more sex workers to be out?
- Degrading, violent desires
- Do you have what it takes to be an empowered sex worker?
- Feminism is the shitty relationship you had in your early 20s
- Feminist porn isn't a branch of sex workers' rights, it's an obstacle
- How are we branding sex workers rights in the US? (Let's focus more on *worker*, less on *sex*!)
- How to do your homework on trafficking, "rescue", and the affected communities
- Let's stop pretending that "objectification" is a thing that exists
- Musings on ethical porn and the red herrings of "feminist porn" and "violent porn"
- My call for a "working" class uprising against inaccessible discourse and the over-representation of dabblers
- Sex trafficking is the new crack: manufactured "epidemics" as political tools
- The common logical fallacies deployed by anti-sex worker activists
- Things I've gained from being a sex worker: an anti-paternalistic perspective
- Vigilantism and 'crushing bastards': in praise of anger, hatred, and taking joy in the smiting of one's enemies
- Want to play BINGO with the antis?
- Watch out for psuedoscience: my long-time nemeses of concern trolling and "teaching the controversy"
- What do I mean when I say "sex worker"? Why I'm against an overly-broad definition
- Why I call them "anti-sex worker" rather than "anti-porn" or "anti-prostitution," and why you should too
Favorite sex/ho blogs
- Amanda Brooks
- Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers
- Belle de Jour
- Born Whore
- Bound, Not Gagged
- Dan Savage on SLOG
- Danny Wylde
- Jiz Lee
- Kat's Stories
- Laura Agustín
- Lux Nightmare [2006-2007]
- Maggie McNeill
- Our Porn, Ourselves
- Sequoia Redd
- Serpent Libertine
- Sex Worker Pie Charts
- Sexonomics by Brooke Magnanti
- Shit They Say to Sex Workers
- Stuff Sex Workers Eat
- Whore Madonna