'You live in a fantasy', says my client wistfully. He is lying on my bed in a state of post coital triste, having expounded to me his marital problems. He looks around him, at the beautiful room bathed in golden light with its fin de siècle Parisian theme, he strokes the flank of the warm woman in his arms. 'You are so lucky', he tells me, 'You get to have sex all day'.
He is right course, it is a fantasy. Whose fantasy is it? Then and there, it is his fantasy. And mine? Clio is named for the Muse of History, a nod to my academic past. She works from an upmarket residence, has as clients mostly working class older men, and does a little 'domming' where required. She likes her clients and finds her time with them often enjoyable. She employs the same professionalism she always has. She sees whoring as part social work and part theatre sports. She is the ultimate capitalist, an independent business woman in charge of her own destiny, apolitical, amoral, individualistic, for her the money meter runs all the time. She is the ultimate anti capitalist, living off the grid and on her wits, undertaking transactions of a sort older than feudalism.
Left wing critique of sex work is predicated on two ideas – that it is inherently degrading to sex workers, who are mostly women, and that it must exist within patriarchal systems. Late stage capitalism with its cultural impoverishment and austerity measures has driven women into sex work and also made sex work more dangerous and more alienating. Sex work cannot be decoupled from the capitalist system in which it thrives. There would be no need for it otherwise. Most sex workers would choose not to be doing it. Sex workers are victims either of social and economic forces around them or their own pasts. They may be considered to be 'prostituted women'. Sex work by its nature is traumatising. Clients or 'johns' are engaged in oppression whether they know it or not. The buying of sex exists as part of the commodification and objectification of women and is a result in part of the patriarchal view of family life. Sexual transactions are qualitatively different from all other transactions. Sex should never be bought or sold.
Sex work activists and their liberal feminist allies emphasise choice. If a woman has choices over her own body, sex work may be one of them. If sex work is dangerous and degrading, it is because it is criminalised and unsupported, not because of inherent issues in sex work itself. Sex work is just that - work. Sexual transactions are like any other transactions. Sex workers are better paid and perform often under better conditions than their counterparts who may work under a zero hour contract on minimum wage. And yet, nobody tries to 'rescue' workers from the cleaning industry. Sex work advocates accuse other feminists of identity politics and are concerned that the voices of sex workers themselves are not heard.
The subtext behind these arguments is the question of whether or not sex is like anything else. Proponents of sex work say yes of course it is, it can be freely bought and sold like any other service. A sex worker might say that her actions are no more intimate than that of a physiotherapist or counsellor. Left wing critics argue that sex is different. It is an intimate act involving the whole self.
Sell the act and the self itself is being sold, and the selling of sex is at the absolute sharpest end of the worst of capitalism and patriarchy, where a less powerful individual, usually a woman, is selling herself to a more powerful man. Inequality is inherent.
I became interested in this particular aspect of the argument, whether or not sexual transactions are like any other transactions and whether or not sex is like any other activity. It seemed to me to be treated by both sides as a given, and yet it underpinned the other arguments. It also seemed to be the aspect most amenable to being addressed by looking at the experience of individuals, and that is what I can offer to the debate.
My experience is limited because I am new to the industry and my situation defies commonly accepted stereotypes of sex workers - I am an educated Pakeha woman and my background has no particular trauma or impoverishment. In the past I would have seen sex workers as victims, of poverty, addiction, or the men in their lives. When I began this work I was astounded to find myself selling sex, astounded to find that I did not 'feel oppressed', and astounded to find that I liked my work and (most of the time) my clients. Am I subjected to false consciousness? Should I feel victimised?
I am in charge in my Whoring Room. Hurt or degrade me, and you leave. Quickly I learned to keep safe, and do only what I felt comfortable with. The New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective gave me good advice – stand on your dignity, charge what you are worth, stay safe. I don't bargain, for example. When men text things like '$60 for anal that's my best offer' I reply 'Would you bargain with your hairdresser or your GP? I too am a professional, providing a service'. I use the conscious use of self to assess needs and engage clients, and to keep safe. I also act. I act domme, I act cute, I act like a pet. These are roles which I enjoy, but they are roles nevertheless. My Whore's Drawers, as I call them, my wardrobe of skimpy yet elegant outfits and killer heels, are my uniform. If I was an airline pilot I would wear a pilot's uniform. Both uniforms denote professionalism. Moreover, my clients mostly treat me with respect and gratitude, far more so than if I worked in fast food, or the health sector, for that matter.
All this implies that sex is the same as anything else. I offer counselling with actions, or massage in costume, or a little bit of theatre. A fantasy. You want a drill bit inserted into your rectum? I can help with that. Have diabetes and need care and patience to maintain an erection? I can help with that. It's all the same to me. While I pride myself on my focus and use of my whole self, it is the same ethical base as for any other personalised social services, and nobody sees those as the selling of the self. I sell my labour too as I always have. Moreover, I mostly like my clients and I hope I see them as whole people.
And yet. I want to return now to the man who envied me my fantasy life, the man seeking a brief escape from a sexless marriage, from the stress of a job he thought he would be able to retire from by now, and also from the soulless anomie of an increasingly atomised society in late stage capitalism where affection or its simulacra are bought and sold like everything else. If an hour with me is a commodity, if in fact I am a commodity for that particular hour, so is he, so is everyone else who is alienated from the forces of production.
I wish I had a clear stance on whether or not sex is different from anything else, and a tidier argument. My hunch is that critics of sex work and its proponents are making an Aristotelian category error, a bit like arguing whether or not a blade of grass is odd or even. It is a question best dealt with outside the arena of politics and activism, and yet, a bit like deciding somehow whether or not a foetus is a person, it underpins whole arguments and affects the real lives of sex workers, their clients and policy makers.
The strangest question I have been asked by a client so far is 'How can I go home and be on my own knowing what I now know about myself?' Sex is deep stuff, saturated with meaning. Humans touch each other here. Lives change in my Whoring Room. I wonder about sex work under a non capitalist non patriarchal system, as if that ever existed. I would be perhaps sacred, and valued. I would be a healer and an educator. Perhaps I am already.
Here is a quote from David Rosen, in the magazine Guernica:
'The prostitute's sexual exchange is the purest expression of capitalist alienation, the relation between buyer and seller'.
If sex work is a Bad Thing, as left wing thinkers like Rosen propound, then it is not because of the sex. It the alienation, and that alienation pervades all aspects of our lives in society. Buying and selling sex has taken place long before capitalism, and in other societies where patriarchy may take different forms or even be mitigated by other social forces. It is the alienation that degrades women, commodifies us, and leads men into situations where oppression is easier than communicating. One socialist commentator states it is important to see sex workers as victims, because calling them victims points to the fact that there is oppression**. But here and now, oppression is ubiquitous. As Clio the Whore, I would call us not to suppress sex work, but to reclaim our humanity and the depth of our relationships.
* From the weblog Diary of a London Call Girl, by Belle du Jour (Brooke Magnanti). 'It's not all about the sex - never has been. It's about the heart of darkness.'
**Laura Fitzgerald, A Socialist Perspective on the Sex Industry and Prostitution, Socialist Party, 7 Aug 2013
Melissa Gira Grant Will Nobody Listen to the Sex Workers, The Guardian, 15 March 2014
Melissa Gira Grant, Waging War on Sex Workers, Guernica, Feb 15 2013
Lasn, Kalle and Adbusters, Meme Wars, the Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics, London, 2012
Christine Overall, What's Wrong with Prostitution? Evaluating Sex Work, Signs, Vol 17 No. 4 Summer 1992, pp. 705-724
David Rosen, Prostitutes as Victims of Throwaway Capitalism Guernica Apr 22 2011