Sex as Work and Industry

Against the Current, No. 15, July/August 1988

Leslie J. Reagan

Sex Work:
Writings by Women in the Sex Industry
Edited by Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander
Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1987, $10.95.

DURING “THE PORN WARS,” as the feminist debate over prostitution and pornography has been dubbed, proposed legislation and many arguments centered on women who worked in the sex industry. Yet the voices of sex workers have rarely been heard in this debate. Finally women who work as prostitutes, who act in porn flicks, or perform in sex shows have a chance to talk about their lives and to participate in this debate.

Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry is a collection of stories, critical essays, poems, interviews and manifestos of prostitutes’ organizations. It is fascinating reading, full of variety and life, humor and sadness. It challenges the reader’s preconceived notions about sex and work, and raises significant political questions.

Understanding the work, problems and needs of women in the sex industry is necessary for feminists who are critical of pornography and prostitution and who pursue social and political change.

The first thing that Frederique Delacoste, an editor of Sex Work, learned about prostitutes and sex workers is that they too are feminists and many are very aware of the “Porn Wars.” At a Chicago book-signing, Delacoste described her initial efforts to find writers: she began by handing out fliers to prostitutes in San Francisco’s red-light district. It didn’t work. Sex workers first responded to ads placed in the feminist press.

She learned, she said, “that they had no reason to trust her initially, they were hurt badly that some feminists think that they — the prostitutes and sex worker — contribute to the oppression of women through pornography.”

Sex workers, Delacoste explained, “resent that they haven’t been consulted about the MacKinnon-Dworkin anti­pornography ordinance.” The anti-pornography ordinance, framed by Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, passed in Minneapolis and Indianapolis and later found unconstitutional, stated that pornography “differentially harms women,” and it was designed to enforce the removal of pornographic materials from stores under anti­discrimination legislation.

Sex workers particularly disliked the phrase included in the ordinance’s definition of pornography as anything in which “women are presented as whores by nature.” Prostitutes are proud of their skills and themselves and reject the designation “whore” as degrading.

Some prostitutes point out that just as lesbians have reclaimed the word “dyke” for themselves, prostitutes too seek to reclaim the word “whore” as a proud name. It is as though the feminists who wrote the proposed ordinance, and who claim the ordinance is concerned with the exploitation of women in the sex industry, consider whores themselves degradation to women.

Fighting Censorship & Repression

Many feminists opposed to the MacKinnon-Dworkin anti-pornography ordinance, including myself as part of Feminists Against Repression in Madison, Wisconsin, argued that the ordinance would not protect sex workers, but would further endanger them by pushing the industry underground.

We also argued that the ordinance would not only outlaw violent pornography, which we might all dislike and find misogynist, but also would be used to censor feminist writings and films about pornography and prostitution In addition to opposing censorship on principle, we did not think that even a “politically correct” community could agree on what is pornographic and misogynist.

Canadian officials have proven our point: Sex Work itself was seized by Customs officials and banned in Canada under its censorship laws. Canadian censorship officials use feminist anti-pornography language to justify censoring feminist, lesbian and gay materials.

The decision on Sex Work was appealed and, fortunately, overturned. Nonetheless, this type of censorship imposes heavy costs upon feminist and gay and lesbian bookstores, publishers and artists and encourages self-censorship of artwork and writing about sexuality. (Off Our Backs, Oct. 1987: 5. 00B cites Kinesis Jul./Aug. 1987.) For more on Canada’s censorship laws and struggles against them, see the excellent Women Against Censorship, Varda Burstyn, ed. (Vancouver: Douglas and Mcintyre, 1985).

Many of the writers of Sex Work speak directly and critically to feminists and the “Porn Wars.” For example, Nell, a lesbian and a prostitute, complains of the silence about and the silencing of lesbian prostitutes. At a party, she remembers, she was warned to not talk “’about hooking.’ I mean, could you walk up to somebody and say, ‘Please, don’t come out of the closet.’ It’s the same kind of thing.”

Nell continued, ‘I had long discussions with P about Women Against Violence, before marching on Broadway, about what that says to women who are working inside, how it alienates the women inside, how they get heckled if they support the marchers. I knew she never talked to any of the women in these places. It’s typical, though; in all the movements the people ‘to be saved’ rarely have a voice, or get to be leaders.” (54)

Feminists who march on Broadway and support the anti-pornography ordinance see pornography and prostitution as exemplifying male control over women and male exploitation of female sexuality. Male supremacy is the intended target of these campaigns, but to sex workers, it often feels that the women who work in the sex industry are the targets of protests and legislation.

In contrast to the common perception of sex workers as completely controlled by pimps or pornographers and totally victimized by men, the sex workers themselves write of their ability to control both the sex and the men who pay for it.

Barbara is a thirty-nine-year-old Black woman, who lives with her daughter, mother and sister in Richmond, California. She began “dating” for a living because she could not support her family with her two minimum-wage jobs.

Barbara comments, “See, people want to downgrade prostitutes and they think that guys can just take advantage of them. But most of the time the prostitutes set the rules. Johns go where we want them to go. We run everything. They pay you first, they come to your place, they wash, they must use a rubber. People think that the tricks call out the rules but I don’t know what girls they talked to.”

Recognizing the harmful results of drug addiction, Barbara adds, “Now junkies work totally differently from prostitutes who are not junkies. And they get hurt more.” (171)

Barbara also tells of her rape and the impossibility of reporting and prosecuting rapists. Like so many other women, she blames herself for the attack. She recounts being raped during her first year of working as a prostitute: “He wound up taking my purse and my coat…. And he took my wig. He took everything. …I don’t blame the guy. I blame myself for it because I was loaded on reds, because I should have known better in the first place, and believe me, after that I have.”

When asked by her interviewer, “He didn’t rape you?,” she answers, “He raped me. But the rape part was nothing. I mean, the devastating part to me was him taking everything I had.” Barbara did not call the police, “I thought because I was a prostitute, how dare I go to the police…. at that time I didn’t think I had any rights. And, I was loaded, too. I figured I’d be in just as much trouble as this guy would be.” (168)

Criminal Justice

The definition of prostitution as crime allows police and the criminal-justice system to ignore the rape and murder of prostitutes. Over and over again, women speaking in Sex Work tell of their rapes and the attitude of police that prostitutes cannot be raped.

According to this theory, if the woman sells sexual services, then rape comes along with the job. Sex workers continue to suffer from the traditional attitude and legal norm that determines whether or not a rape was committed by a woman’s “good” or “bad” sexual character, rather than defining rape as assault and sex without the woman’s consent.

Police everywhere harass prostitutes cruelly. Almost every prostitute has her own story to tell. Gloria Lockett, in “Destroying Condoms,” writes of policemen searching her for condoms and then punching holes in each one.

It is standard procedure for police to confiscate prostitutes’ condoms: “If they are arrested and released after the drug stores are closed, sometimes they can’t get any more. If they need to continue working to make up for lost time, say if they desperately need the money, they then have to work without condoms, which is dangerous, especially with AIDS.” (158)

The third section of Sex Work consists of statements from organizations of prostitutes (or non-prostitute supporters) in the United States and elsewhere. With one exception, all of the prostitutes’ organizations recognize the right of women to work as prostitutes and demand decriminalization of prostitution. They reject legalization of prostitution because it is a way to bring prostitutes under the control of the state. In Nevada, where prostitution is legal, the women who work as prostitutes are strictly regulated, subjected to mandatory weekly health checks and restricted in their freedom of movement.


The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) and the United States Prostitutes Collective (US.PROS) are organizations of prostitutes begun in the mid-1970s that share a focus against “police illegality and racism.” US.PROS, which began as a group of Black sex workers and other Black women in New York, points out that the anti-prostitution laws are selectively enforced and that the majority of those jailed for prostitution are Black: 85 percent of the prostitutes sentenced to jail are women of color. (197)

US.PROS demands investigations of the murders of prostitutes and fights the abusive treatment of prostitutes by policemen. The group states: “U.S.PROS often organizes pickets outside the courthouse to protest these abuses and to bring to the public’s attention just how much taxpayer money is wasted on harassing, prosecuting and jailing prostitute women. Money could be better spent on programs to assist women with childcare, housing, health care, academic scholarships, waged job training programs, increased welfare payments etc., all of which would reduce the reasons women go into prostitution in the first place.” (283)

Sex workers need feminists and socialists to support prostitutes’ right to work and to be treated decently. COYOTE/National Task Force on Prostitution, based in San Francisco, provides a list of “sample projects” that supporters of its platform demanding the “repeal [of) the existing prostitution laws”” might pursue.

COYO1E suggests questioning your local police department about how they treat prostitutes, checking whether they confiscate condoms and, if they do, working with the public health department to change this practice. They suggest asking your local battered women’s and rape crisis centers whether they accept prostitutes as clients and working to insure that prostitutes are treated well there.

Another idea is to make sure that the health department is providing education about AIDS and services to prostitutes, while at the same time working against the myth that prostitutes are to blame for the transmission of AIDS.

Sex Work makes a forceful and convincing case for the necessity of actions such as these to better this group of women workers’ lives, rather than a focus on legislative efforts that may further endanger them.

July-August 1988, ATC 15

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