Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Sex For Sale

I chatted to him online for a while, before we arranged to meet. I agreed I would stay at his place; I had friends and family in London I knew I'd have somewhere to go if I bailed. When I got to the bar in Islington it came as no surprise to me that he bought me a drink and then swiftly started to eat my face. His hands were warm, but a bit too small for my liking as he dragged me across Upper St to his flat on the Canalside.

I stayed there for three nights and he never once let me pay for anything; not even a cup of coffee, not even a pint of milk. The sex was good, I think I screamed once. I remember he had a film poster in his bathroom. He looked after me. I got the train home and never saw him again.

I recall this vignette, now, as it serves as a backdrop to the realisation I keep on having lately, some kind of epiphany if you like to be dramatic about these things. My realisation is this: sex work is everywhere and we all are involved. That's why when I write about feminism and sex, or feminism and pornography, or feminism and prostitution, it feels personal. I may have not worked as a sex worker, but I have exchanged my body for something: a bed for the night, a drink and a meal, a boost to my ego, a momentary escape from some pain or other.

I am a feminist and always will be. I know women get exploited, trafficked, murdered, in the 'sex industry'. But women get murdered by their partners too, and nobody talks about 'marriage' or 'love' as if it was a dirty word. I don't have a burning ambition to work in a lap-dancing club, I am wary of the concept, suggested by the sociologist Catherine Hakim, of the profitablity and power of 'erotic capital'. We can't all be Madonna or Belle de Jour.

But when I talk about sex work I include myself in the picture. And I include you too. If we don't talk about it as participants, then we are 'othering' the women who overtly exchange sex for money. We are still thinking of them as whores. Whores who need rescuing (Pretty Woman style), maybe, but whores all the same. I prefer to think of sex workers as people. I feel ashamed that I haven't always thought this way.


  1. I used to be a sex worker, in what feels now like another lifetime ago. The reasons, the usual ones, aren't really important here. It was without doubt one of the darkest, loneliest times in my life. Not so much the actual sex (after a while that becomes almost insignificant,something physical to be detached from) but the way people treat you. See you. Or don't see you. How quickly we are made shadows, ghost-people.
    It always has confused me. As you say, in many ways it's just a more overt form of what everyone else is already doing. Most people don't have the courage to acknowledge that though.There is a safety I think in the "othering", the dehumanising; a cover over mirror glass for the things we are most ashamed to see reflected.

  2. Hiya
    Thanks for your comments.
    Have you read anything by @melissagira (on twitter) she writes brilliantly on this subject.
    Really worth checking out.

    Your point on the safety of othering is very interesting.

  3. I'm interested in the subtext to what you're saying: that the sex somehow was a chore you had to endure. Isn't it a little simplistic to reduce the man to a carnal beast and the woman to a passive prop? I wouldn't be interested in sex like that in the slightest. Many men wouldn't. If I want to have sex with someone, it could only ever be fun if I thought she was as into it as I was. If I thought for one second that she was just using sex as payment in some cold barter scenario from her own imagination, I'd be the one who felt cheap.

    I'm not dismissing what you say, and you leave the specifics of your relationship with the man in your opening paragrapgh vague enough that I may just have misread or misunderstood. But I find it more than a little disheartening that you might view the act of someone being kind to you because they actually LIKED you being the same thing as being 'paid for sex'.

    Please correct me if I'm jumping to conclusions.

  4. Hello!
    No you're not jumping to conclusions I left the context vague deliberately.

    I am just making the point that in the great scheme of life, sometimes there are 'transactions' involved in sex. I don't think this is so terrible, it just isn't limited to sexwork. Even in loving relationships transactions take place all the time.

    It is tricky because in my mind I am highlighting something we all do, but because I am the one who is saying it, people are perfectly free to say 'I don't do that' and then I might think it's just me. But I don't think it is just me!

    Fuck now we are not constrained by 140 characters and I still will fail to express myself clearly. Let me think on a while.

    Thanks for posting your comment it is appreciated.

  5. No thank you. I don't want to come across all whiny and 'Boys have feelings too *sniff*', and I do fully agree with your point on the whole. I'm just mindful that as mechanistic and programmed as human behaviour can be in general (especially when it comes to the blind acceptance of stereotypical gender attitudes), there is still room for bonds that go beyond the purely physical, even if the end result is sexual contact. As you are fully aware, sex can express a myriad of things about a person's attitudes and psyche, but not always the crucial things, their deeper opinions and feelings.

    But I think I've hijacked this thread enough, sorry.

  6. It's good to hear a male perspective. God knows I have trouble talking to men about sex before/during/after actually having sex with them!

    I will return to this subject and maybe say more about my own experiences/feelings.

  7. I had two good friends in junior high who eventually became what they referred to as a "call girl" and a "date girl for sailors", after high school. I spent a decent amount of time talking to the "call girl" about her work and her choices and constraints. It seemed to me that she had definitely made her own choices, but that they were within a tight set of life constraints, abuses and impediments that limited what she had to choose from. That said, she was to a certain degree satisfied with her choices. And resisted my attempt to suck her (non-working -- I wasn't trying to drag her out of sex work, but into a group of friends) social life in a different direction.

    I'm not sure where I'm going with this. These are all interesting perspectives and I think I need to think about them.