Stop Using Us As Clickbait!

The sex work “confessional” as advertisement

Sex work is a juicy topic, chock full of taboos and sexiness and literal sex (it’s right there! In the job description!) so it makes sense that articles purporting to be nuanced peeks behind the fourth wall into our “real” experiences are perennially popular. It’s the ultimate clickbait, and it works on us too because we rarely get to see anything approaching our unvarnished experiences in media.

Charlotte Shane once said,

If you’re reading ‘about’ sex work and feeling titillated and unchallenged, you’re probably just reading sexual anecdotes. That’s different.
The truth about sex work is usually boring in that it’s not about the sex but is about power dynamics, systems of oppression, etc.

The clickbait appeal of sex work as a topic has even twisted into a new kind of advertorial, one that targets both the discerning client who might read a 4,000 word confessional about a young woman who discovered a great new way to pay rent, and the kind of middle class feminist who doesn’t know a lot about labour rights or power dynamics but does know that we’re all supposed to find sex empowering and awesome.

These advertorials adhere strictly to a vision of sex work-as-empowering hobby: unthreatening, pleasant and often enjoyable and even when it’s not enjoyable it’s boring in a funny way. And of course the money is gainfully used to pay college tuition and rent as well as to buy luxury items because who doesn’t want a little purse and shoe porn?

This makes the articles palatable to their intended audience, of course, but it leaves the rest of us — those of us actually engaged in the stigmatised business of selling sexual or sexualised services — out in the cold. These articles aren’t ACTUALLY about investigating sex work. They’re ad copy to appeal to the worst reinforcers of respectability politics: look! These stories practically whine. I’m just like you! Except a little edgier, a little more titillating, a little more sexually adventurous and confident, perhaps, but nothing you can’t aspire to, nothing you can’t relate to, nothing that will highlight the power imbalances between you and I, or between my clients and I, in a way that will make any of us uncomfortable.

One of the worst offenders in the recent history of this genre is this article, published by Nuance: Having My Cake and Eating It: What It’s Like to be an Asexual Sex Worker.

Nuance purports to be “amplifying the voices that add colour to sex and health” whatever that means. I’m assuming it’s bland, slightly offensive, speak for something close to Working It’s goal of amplifying the voices of marginalised community members who are so often overlooked, and that’s a goal we here at Working It are onboard with.

The ways asexual people experience sex work are as worthy of exploration as anyone else’s experiences of sex work. However, writing about sex work from the stance of “I don’t experience sexual attraction” runs the risk of creating a false binary, and it is exactly this pit that the author of “Having My Cake” falls into.

To me, my asexuality means that I don’t experience sexual attraction. Practically speaking, this means that I can have sex and leverage my sex appeal for work, but I primarily draw motivation from my professional commitment rather than any kind of desire to have sex with other people.

Sure, interesting… Wait, what?

Believe it or not, “professional commitment” (I just call it “needing to pay rent”) is exactly what motivates those of us who experience sexual attraction!

There is a common asexual assumption that those of us who experience sexual attraction must be more open to having sex, more ready for sex, more excited and desirous of sex than those who do not. At its ugliest, this reasoning has led to the argument that sexual assault is not as bad for non-asexuals because at least we like sex. “Having My Cake” doesn’t go this far, but this is the basic line of thought the author offers us, and it’s still fairly offensive as is once you give it more than a passing thought.

Not being attracted to clients is not a situation unique to the asexual worker. The idea that sucking dick is somehow more palatable to those of us who experience sexual attraction sheerly by dint of having at times experienced sexual attraction — that’s the same sort of brutal generalisation that says that those who’ve consented once have consented forever, and it denies us the agency of choice: We looked at our lives and options and decided, just like the author of “Having My Cake” did, that sex or sexualized services are our most monetizable assets and best bets at financial security and survival.

The article continues in the same navel-gazing way:

I chose to become a sex worker because I saw that there was an appetite for the sexual services that I can provide.

Again, how unique.

I’m lucky in that my high self-esteem means I enjoy being recognized and receiving praise for my looks, and that I have a good relationship with my body.

Oh, sugar cookie. We ALL feel rewarded when people find us attractive: this white supremacist patriarchy is designed that way.

This sloppiness runs throughout the post — even to the parts on emotional labour, which are the most thoughtful and coherent paragraphs. Emotional labour is not a broad term, despite the way it’s been used by young people seeking to shirk basic responsibilities toward their friends and families.

Emotional labour is a very specific kind of labour performed by workers in the service industry — for those of you looking for a term for the unnoticed and often invisible work performed by women in the home or office, I offer you “carework”: still work, still involving emotions, still uncompensated and undervalued, but not the affective labour carried out for pay under penalty of job loss that workers in the service industry do. This is important, because those of us in the service industry, performing emotional labour (and that is part of the point: it is a performance. You listening to your friend or loved one when you are tired and burned out is a kind of carework but it is not a performance tied to payment) need these terms in order to discuss our jobs, labour, and the ways that both management and consumers of our services find to exploit our services. Got it? Great. Thanks for listening, I recommend The Managed Heart for further reading.

This sloppiness keeps “Having My Cake” from deeply exploring the experience of doing sex work, whether as an asexual person or not, and in a way, that’s predictable. Sex work is a lot, and the author has been working at it for less than a year. Being able to articulate a response to something as complex and loaded as sex work takes time. They’re at the Hot Shit stage of Charlotte’s 5 Stages of Escort Attitudes.

However, in lieu of a thoughtful exploration of their experiences, we’re given more advertorial. People enjoy talking about themselves to attractive and attentive listeners? People pay to watch other hot and scantily clad people smoke? This is not news. This wasn’t even news in 2004 when Suicide Girls hit the mainstream.

There’s a defensiveness on the part of people for whom sex work is more of an identity politics CHOICE rather than the best way they’ve found to make an income: defensiveness of clients, a need to pretend it isn’t about sex, a need to dress it up — as therapy, healing, &c. I’ll be exploring the concept of sex work-as-therapy in November, but suffice to say, this is largely just lip service, another way to make selling sex palatable to an audience of people who have the power to harm us if they decide that sex workers are too far out of bounds. We’ve made strides, but our stories — the stories of low income sex workers who have to do sex work to survive, those of us who are barely making it, who have bad clients, who accept that this is our best financial option but still don’t like it most of the time, those of us whose clients aren’t scrupulously hygienic sad gentlemen looking for a little healing company — our stories are still too messy and unruly to be heard.

There’s a market for the empowered sex worker who chooses their work and enjoys it, and there’s a market for trafficking horror stories — even for trafficking non-horror stories, the whole “I was almost trafficked at Ikea/the Woodburn outlet mall/on Trimet!” — but what all of these narratives share is a lack of nuance, an unwillingness to explore the messy and often deeply abusive power structures in our society that lead to sex work as the best option for so many of us.

Those are the stories we’re telling now. Those are the stories that will help us change the world.