Playing the Whore, The Work: Melissa Gira Grant

To mark May Day 2017, we bring you a selection of May Day Reading from the Verso Archive covering care work, sex work, black liberation & more; from Angela Davis, Gail Lewis, Melissa Gira Grant, Isabell Lorey, and Kristin Ross. Read them all here

We also have 50% off all our May Day reading until May 2 at midnight: see the reading list here.

The following essay is taken from Melissa Gira Grant's book, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex WorkIn Playing the Whore, sex workers' demands, too long relegated to the margins, take center stage: sex work is work, and sex workers' rights are human rights.


Sex workers’ ability to share information among themselves is essential for supporting all sex workers in negotiating their work, and in turning down work that is unsafe, underpaid, or undesirable. This is true of any job. But what does make this aspect of sex work unique . . . is that to share this lifeline of information could be construed as criminal. Selling sex in the United States is usually a misdemeanor, but sharing information with someone about how to do it is considered a more serious criminal offense.

For sex workers, sharing honest information even anonymously means taking social, political, and emotional risks. Even in more uniformly legal forms of sex work—which in the United States could include pornography and stripping— secrecy reinforces stigma and shame and can compromise sex workers’ ability to take control of their own labor. When sex workers are spoken of as having “double lives,” rather than simply concealing who they are, this narrative obscures why it might be necessary for sex workers to conceal what they do at work. All that is intentionally discreet about sex work (protocols to ensure customer and worker privacy, for example) are strategies for managing legal risk and social exclusion and shouldn’t be understood as deceptive any more than the discretion and boundaries a therapist or priest may maintain. But this necessary discretion warps under the weight of anti-sex work stigmas and policing; workers aren’t sure what they can say and to who and not face consequences which themselves are unknown.

Remember Deborah Jeanne Palfrey, the famed “DC Madam” who, in the first decade of this century, counted David Vitter, the “family values” Republican senator from Louisiana, and the pro-abstinence soon-to-be-former AIDS czar Randall Tobias among her escort agency’s clients? . . . There was something else about Deborah Jeanne ’s agency that captured our attention as much as it animated fantasies in the press: Reportedly, she required her workers to sign contracts stating that they wouldn’t have sex with their customers. It’s not an uncommon practice with agencies that offer outcall services, for which an escort, masseuse, or dancer travels to the customer’s location. It’s a legal fig leaf, an attempt to absolve the agency owners of liability and shunt it off onto the workers. But maintaining that fiction—however justifiable or necessary when prostitution is criminalized— also shuts down real-world talk about the actual content of these jobs. If you’re not, as far as the paper says, having sex, why would the management ever need to acknowledge that negotiation about it is also part of the job? How can they address their workers’ health and safety, like their need for condoms or lube? How can bosses provide legal support to their workers in the case of a sting when, to protect themselves, they insist the work is entirely legal?

It’s not sex work but this kind of fiction and the criminal context that demands it that produces risks and hazards. Only in 2012 did a couple of US cities—San Francisco and Washington, DC—stop using condoms as evidence of prostitution, and did so only after considerable pressure from sex workers and public health and human rights advocates. In New York, the practice of using condoms as evidence of prostitution is so routine that the supporting depositions filled out by cops upon arrest have a standard field available to record the number of condoms seized from suspected sex workers. This is the tragedy of enforcement: A system that is supposed to use surveillance by law enforcement as a tool for combating violence against women (as prostitution is understood to be) produces violence against other, less defensible women. Sex workers refuse condoms from outreach workers, and from each other, as a way to stay safe from arrest.

These risks, not poor self-regard, are why sex workers might not share their experiences, even with each other.

See all our May Day reading here.

We have 50% off all our May Day books until May 2. See our reading list here.

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