'Let's Call Sex Work What It Is: Work'

The Nation ran an excerpt of Melissa Gira Grant's new book on the rights of sex workers:

[A]s distinct as the work and their environments may be and whatever the dangers of lumping them together, there is a political usefulness in calling all of this “sex work,” while also insisting that it varies considerably over time and place. To do so is to insist that those who do sex work, in all of their workplaces and in varied conditions, deserve the rights and respect accorded to workers in any other industry. The portrait of street-level prostitution, for example, as it’s on display in media accounts—a woman, most often a woman of color, standing in a short skirt and leaning into a car or pacing toward one—is a powerful yet lazily constructed composite. As the lead character of the prostitute imaginary, she becomes a stand-in for all sex workers, a reduction of their work and lives to one fantasy of a body and its particular and limited performance for public consumption. Sex workers’ bodies are rarely presented or understood as much more than interchangeable symbols—for urban decay, for misogyny, for exploitation—even when invoked by those who claim some sympathy, who want to question stereotypes, who want to “help.” The character isn’t even representative of all the street-soliciting sex workers she stands in for. When considering the practice of street-based sex work, sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein observes, “it is important to recognize the extent to which the practices and meanings of sexual labor varied in the different prostitution strolls” that she studied, even in the same city. Some of this sex work can be more accurately described as trade or barter, Bernstein writes, “self-organized, occasional exchanges that generally took place within women’s own homes and communities.” She distinguishes this from “the sexual labor of ‘career’ streetwalkers,” in which “commercial sexual exchange was conceptualized as ‘work’ that resided in the public display of the body.” You find this echoed in the research of Chicago’s Young Women’s Empowerment Project, a grassroots organization made up of women and girls of color who have been or who currently are involved in the sex trade. They’ve adopted the descriptor “sex trades and street economies” to recognize that, for their community, trading sex for what they need to survive isn’t necessarily understood as their “work,” and that it occurs alongside other informal labor, such as hair braiding or babysitting. Though one can justifiably question the moral and ethical ramifications of sex work, Grant's excerpt is interesting and thought-provoking. I see this issue as parallel to legalizing marijuana: make it permissable under the law, but regulate it in certain areas.