Sex Work and the Power of Choice

 October 19, 2011 at 3:22 pm  Greta Christina

There’s a widely-held myth about sex work and sex workers: I ran into it again recently (don’t remember where, sorry), and I want to talk about it and eviscerate it.

The myth: Prostitutes and other sex workers can’t choose their customers. They have to have sex with anyone who offers to pay.

When you think about this for ten seconds, you should realize that it makes no sense. People in any other service profession can, and do, turn down customers they don’t want to work with. Therapists, car mechanics, gardeners, hair stylists, nannies… you name it. There are a few exceptions — emergency room doctors leap to mind — but for the most part, it’s understood that, as long as they’re obeying non-discrimination laws, service professionals reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. (My hair stylist has told me long, entertaining stories about clients she’s fired.) So it’s kind of weird to assume that sex workers would be the exception.

And in fact, if you talk with sex workers or read their writing, you’ll find out directly that this is nonsense. Plenty of prostitutes can, and do, turn down clients. They turn down clients who they think are dangerous, or who won’t respect their limits, or who they just find personally unpleasant. They turn down first- time clients; they say no to previous clients they’ve had bad experiences with; they fire long-term clients who are becoming difficult. I certainly did when I worked at the peep show: if I didn’t like a guy who came into one of the booths, I could dance for someone else instead, and if he was being exceptionally obnoxious, we could get him thrown out. And in my book, Paying For It: A Guide by Sex Workers for Their Clients (now out of print, but still available onKindle), sex educator and retired prostitute Carol Queen talks at length about which customers she would and wouldn’t work with, and which ones she fired first when she was starting to get out of the business.

Yes, there are some sex workers for whom this isn’t true: ones who are in extreme dire financial straits, or ones who work for extremely abusive and exploitatative brothels. But it’s by no means an inherent part of the industry.

So why would people assume that it is?

There’s an excellent piece by Amanda Marcotte, Buyers and Sellers, that I think sheds some light on this. The gist: Our culture views female sexuality as a commodity, one that’s either owned by a husband/ father/ partner or is available to anyone with the right purchase price. Women with more valuable products — i.e., more attractive women — can ask for a higher price — a higher-status man with a better job, for instance. But men are assumed to be the choosers, and women are assumed to be the chosen. Marcotte says it better than I can, so I’ll quit summarizing and just quote her:

Dating advice tends to get gendered along these lines. When women aren’t getting any action, it’s pretty much standard to tell them to look at themselves and see if they’re charging too high a price for the product they have on offer. The advice from there is to either improve the quality of the product or lower the price. Granted, upbeat American society being what it is, most of the advice industry aimed at women is about improving the quality of the product.

But you definitely get your share of people griping that women are too full of themselves and think they deserve more than they do, i.e. that they charge too high a price for a crappy product. Advice to settle isn’t as rampant as advice to learn how to suck cock better and tighten those abs more, but it’s definitely out there. The assumption in a market view also is that the seller really has to sell, but the buyer has an option not to buy. Thus, in our heterosexual dating model, women are often cast as so desperate to get the man to sign on the dotted line and drive off with his new car-wife. Men are buyers, of course, and therefore are cast as hesitant to spend the money, and thus commitment is seen as a tense negotiation between a woman trying to move product and a man worried that he’s paying too much. Many conservatives warn that because women are willing to have sex outside of marriage now, that has made it all the much easier for men not to buy at all, much like the way that an avid bicyclist is probably going to be that much harder to sell a new car to.

Men’s sex and dating advice tends to be more on the grounds of being a better consumer. Pick-up artist books and websites aren’t interested in teaching men how to improve the product so more women want to buy. Seriously, PUA guides read like guides on buying a car—show up looking like money, demonstrate to the salesman that you fill out the checklist of requirements to get a car, talk down the price (which PUA guides suggest you do by insulting women, hoping the loss of esteem in their product will cause them to sell at a lower price), and you’re done. Actual improvement of one’s self is as strange an idea as suggesting that you have to have good character and a tight waistline to get a car. You just need to have the cash, the credit rating, and a solid ability to bargain.

And if this is true for ordinary women having non-commercial sex… it stands to reason that it would be ten times as true for women who are having commercial sex. After all, if, as Marcotte says, even women who aren’t sex workers “are assumed to be in a perpetual state of consent just as that gallon of milk at the store is assumed to be on sale for anyone who can cobble together the $5 to buy it,” how much more true would that be of women who are literally making sex into a commodity? How much more true would that be of women who are literally “selling their bodies”?

Except that prostitutes aren’t “selling their bodies.” That’s a horrible phrase, and everybody should please stop using it right now. Prostitutes do not sell their bodies — any more than car mechanics or gardeners or hair stylists. They charge money for a service. And like anyone else who charges money for a service, they can, and do, decide who they’re willing to provide that service to. They can decide which services they will and won’t provide — just like a car mechanic can decide that she’ll only work on foreign cars, or a hair stylist can decide that he won’t use products that were tested on animals. And they reserve the right to refuse service to anybody.

(P.S. It’s also the case that not all sex workers are women — a substantial minority are men, a fact that’s commonly overlooked in what passes for thinking about sex work — but that’s a rant for another time.)