There’s been a lot of criticism against women who condemn the sex industry. “Anti-woman,” “anti-feminist,” “sex-negative,” “evangelical,” are among the many insults hurled at these critics. It is assumed these women do not like men or sex and that they’re attacks are aimed at sex workers and not the industry itself or the sexism it promotes. Women who are critical of sex work are also accused of “parenting” sex workers and pushing their values on them.
I am one of these critics but I want to make clear that I do not condemn sex workers and that I understand the choice to exploit oneself sexually. You do not have to be a sex worker to exploit your sexuality. Dressing, behaving and altering your appearance for the male gaze are in the same line. Many of us choose this avenue as a means of survival. Of course, many of us do not view it as such. We might describe our decisions as “empowered” or “because we like it” or “just for fun.”
But, like most things, there is a deeper driving force. Women who choose to exploit themselves sexually are keen observers of the world around them. They see the imbalance between men and women very clearly. They realize, often intrinsically, that men pose a physical threat to them and exert significant control over women’s lives. They see that many men’s vulnerability lies in their ego–their desire to see and interact with women who make them feel more manly.
Many people, not just women, are survivalists. They live with the threat of annihilation every day, whether it be physical annihilation or soul-annihilation. “How is it that I can survive?” “How can I carve out an existence that affords me the freedom to have and do the things that I want?” These are the questions that run through our minds, maybe not explicitly, but they’re there, pushing us forward.
Recently, I considered sex work myself. After leaving an abusive relationship, I ended up in a living situation that is not much better. Really, the only difference I can think of is that I’m nobody’s sex-slave. I lost everything during my last relationship and I’m struggling to put everything back together again. I’ve felt desperate to leave my current situation and during one of those moments of desperation, trying to think of a quick way to earn enough money to get out and get my own place, I considered sex work.
It’s the type of work that almost any woman could obtain and that has the possibility of paying well. There is a feeling of “freedom” one experiences from making enough money to live independently……especially for women…..especially for women who have lived under somebody else’s control. But, this is not the type of freedom I want. I can’t do it. I can’t do ANY job my heart isn’t in. It’s one of the reasons I’m struggling so much–I won’t do just any job.
Women who do sex work know where they stand. They know the men who exploit/employ them would be the first to dismiss, reject, demean, abuse, rape or even kill them if they got “out of line” or did anything to displease their masters. Sex work is dangerous not just for the women who do it but the women who don’t. Sex is not necessary but it’s expected from all women and if it’s not given it’s taken. In our pornified culture, sex is glorified like money–getting it, having it and flaunting it–a sign of power.
The decision to exploit oneself sexually is not a casual one. I cannot condemn women who make this choice any more than I can condemn any other person who lives and acts out of desperation. If not the threat of physical death, social death is enough to compel someone to compromise their values and integrity. I can’t condemn anyone for trying to survive.
I can, however, condemn institutions which perpetuate and exacerbate the conditions which cause people to live this way. I condemn any institution that demeans and dehumanizes a group of people for the benefit of another. Sex-work and its off-shoot, the beauty industry, thrive on women’s insecurities and objectification. Objects don’t need to be seen or heard and they are only valued so much as they are useful. If they’re not useful, they’re thrown out or destroyed.
While I understand the compulsion to exploit oneself sexually, I can’t do it, not anymore. Frankly, I would rather be unattractive to and unpopular with anyone who needs me to sacrifice myself for them. I would rather be viewed as “whiny,” too butch, weird or quirky than ever compromise my values and integrity again. You think I’m a bitch because I don’t need or want your approval? Good. That means I’m doing something right.