I just noticed that when you type “sex work” into Google, the first thing it tries to steer you to is “Amazing Sex Workouts for Men.” What is going on here? Come on, screw the algorithm, this can’t really be the number one thing inquiring minds are looking for. Surely Google is just terrified of becoming the new Craigslist.
Which at least leads me to what I wanted to talk about. Here’s a sex worker commenting, a year ago, on who was affected by Craigslist’s decision (not very well enforced) to drop sex ads:
Now that Craigslist has removed their Adult Services, we can assume that all the “exploited” women of the world can breathe safely. But what about all the women who happily and voluntarily advertised their erotic services on Craiglist? …
Really, the women most affected by the shuttering of Adult Services are all the “non-pros” — college students and young women freelancing in the sex trade for extra money. “It was the safest, easiest way for an independent woman to earn a little extra cash doing something she already enjoyed — without the risks or rigmarole that can go along with being a ‘pro,'” explained Vita, a 30-something, Ivy-leaguer who used CL between, and sometimes during, the low-paying “real jobs” her MFA afforded her.
Despite the fact that the Attorneys General claim the site was a source of “misery” for “women and children victimized by these ads,” I couldn’t find anyone who actually used CL’s Adult Services and agreed. The greatest threat to sex workers is when they don’t have the ability to screen or have a say in the clients they see. …
Of all the sex workers — professionals and freelancers — we talked to, none of them said they ever felt personally threatened or unsafe from a Craigslist encounter. … While a woman might decide that standing on a street corner, waiting to be propositioned for sex was too risky, answering an online ad from someone offering 150 roses for a blow job at a nearby hotel might not be such a bad thing. The beauty of Adult Services, compared to other listing sites such as Backpage or CityVibe, was that a provider was in total control over how much information she wanted to share.
I’m interested in this because another article has gotten a lot of buzz in the last few days: “Sex Work to Pay Off College Loans? How the College Debt Racket Sucks Young People Dry — And Led Many to Occupy Wall St.” Written by Melissa Gira Grant, a former sex trade worker herself, it starts with a young man who’s part of the New York protests:
“My loans are $1,300 a month,” he said. “My rent is $1,300 a month. My salary is $2,600 a month. You can see the problem. So I work as a prostitute for food and utilities.”
The article is really quite good. Cutbacks on student loans, and increasing rapacity on the part of educational institutions themselves, are making it impossible for kids to get a degree that essentially is the sole entry to employment in the U.S. Grant quotes a leader of the movement to forgive student loans, in a summing-up:
“By turning education into a commodity where the students must personally bear the full costs of an educational system that, in fact, benefits all of society, not just the students themselves, we’ve shifted the ever-increasing burden of skyrocketing tuition costs down the socio-economic ladder onto those who can least afford to shoulder them. Couple that with a job market that’s been utterly decimated by the irresponsibility and greed of those at the very top, the underlying reasons for the Occupy Wall Street protests start to come into focus.”
But what has this got to do with sex work?
Actually, aside from the scandalous intro, nothing in the article does. It’s about economic exploitation, not sexual shame. And that should be the point.
I’ve known plenty of middle-class students — starting in the 80s — who dealt with the skyrocketing costs of an education advertised to everybody but priced to the kids of the rich, by doing sex work on the side. I’ve also known plenty of students who waited tables in restaurants or cafes, did “tutoring” for richer kids, translated texts ranging from the dumb to the dull for pennies a word, drove taxis, or other menial jobs, to get by. I can tell you who felt more exploited. Sex work, entered into with proper protections (see the quote above) and a clear-eyed set of goals, paid more and offered more independence.
Of course, the downside was that you could get expelled if the school authorities found out about this rampant immorality, or you could go to jail. But this was a matter of regressive laws, repressive policing, and oppressive social attitudes.
What the headline of this article in the otherwise unimpeachable Alternet suggests, is the still-surviving sexual puritanism of part of the Left. I’m willing to bet Grant herself wasn’t responsible for the slant; but some editor saw an easy way to score shock points on Occupy Wall Street’s behalf. That’s wrong. It distracts from actual concerns. The real issue is twofold:
- the lack of support society provides for equal educational advancement, which drives students away from study and into a variety of ill-paid, exploitative work;
- and the state and social oppression that makes some of the best-paid work available illegal and unnecessarily dangerous.