The politics of sex and sex work

I met an attractive fella at a party over the weekend. Numbers were exchanged, as were kisses, and good things may be in the works. But two things happened that really got me thinking about sex and its social consequences.

I don’t actually recall the exact conversation, something to do with things that went on in the course of my work waiting tables, and at one point I quipped, “It’s not like I was cocktailing at a strip joint. Then again, given my situation, maybe I should…” It was a lighthearted joke, no big deal, but without a pause, he immediately shot back, “Don’t do that. You don’t need to do that, don’t do that.”

One the one hand, it’s nice, he doesn’t see me like that, but on the other hand, what’s wrong with working next to people doing sex work? Why the need to react so quickly, so strongly?

Most of my female friends (and a good portion of my male friends as well, fwiw) would either ignore the quip or use it as the introduction to a fairly interesting conversation about sex work and its pros and cons. I have friends who do it, some of whom have done extremely well in their work, none of whom fit the stereotype of the girl with poor self esteem and an abusive past who needs sexual attention to feel adequate. They are all well educated, pro-women, don’t take shit from men, and think sex and sexuality are positive, healthy things. Yes, there are problems in the various sex industries, most notably that women are usually expected to choose from a limited set of accepted archetypes of women’s sexuality, but sex work for women of that class usually comes with a good paycheck and the ability to protect oneself from the dangers faced by lower class women who engage in sex work.

I am not trying to romanticize sex work here, I know that it is often dangerous, demeaning, poorly paid, and too-well-connected to assault, rape, human trafficking, and worse; however, here I only speak to the experiences of the women I know, whose time spent doing sex work rarely if ever involved those dynamics.

I actually considered various forms of sex work several years ago. Despite my lack of dancing ability, I could have enjoyed stripping, and certainly would have enjoyed joining my local burlesque troupe, except that my university-level teaching work made it all too probable that I would find myself in a classroom with a client, just as I frequently found my bar customers in my classes when I was bartending. Prostitution was never on my list mainly because I’m far too naturally submissive to maintain control of a sexual situation the way I think most pros need to. Not to mention the legal issues — not something an aspiring university professor wants on her record, ya think? And of course illegality leads to the inability to protect oneself from the potential dangers, so it was easier not to go near that notion.

Do I know what the fella’s motives were in so quickly telling me I don’t need to work at a strip club? (Even as a cocktail waitress, never mind as a performer) No, I don’t. I assume he was being flattering, and what he said was broadly socially acceptable even if he happens to have a more nuanced opinion of sex work (which frankly I suspect he doesn’t). But I’m always a little surprised in a crowd of generally progressive people that some taboos remain such, and that sex work seems to be one of them.

As it happens, this same fella invited me to stay at his place when it was established that I was locked out of my apartment and had no place to stay that night. I was flattered, and was entirely prepared to accept (and have some naked fun with him in the process) but one of my roommates finally texted to say he was home and so I decided to be smart and get into my place while I had the chance.

This is atypical behavior for me. It’s not that I don’t have standards, I just really enjoy sex, and when I decide someone is worth going home with and the opportunity presents itself, I grab it. This may be the first time I can recall not doing so.

So now I find myself in the unenviable position of waiting by the phone for someone to call and ask me for the date he said he was so interested in. I don’t like it. This is one of the reasons I’d rather just go home with a guy — I know where I stand with him, and I get to be in control to a greater degree, even if it means we never go on a proper date. And yet, while I’m uncomfortable, I can’t help feeling proud of myself, and excited that I get to on a date, like all those other girls who don’t sleep with the guys right away.

For all that I pride myself on being the independent, forthright, sexually confident woman, I have spent my whole life surrounded by the message that good girls don’t. And that this sort of behavior is what men really want. And a huge portion of my mind (especially those parts where my mother still seems to live) wants to celebrate that I’m finally letting someone treat me like a proper lady.  Except I’m not a proper lady, and never wanted to be one, and don’t feel like I should have to adhere to The Rules to get a guy to treat me with respect. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with sex on a first date (or first meeting, whatevs) if that’s what both parties want.

On the other hand, giving up some of my control over the situation also means I’m not rushing into something, going home drunk with the only single guy at a friend’s party who may or may not have anything interesting to say when we’re sober. (Fwiw, I checked on facebook — he’s still attractive, and we were having good conversation long before the first drink was finished, so I don’t think those things are issues.) Maybe I’m just uncomfortable because of the loss of control thing, or because I’ve never engaged with men this way before and it’s just unfamiliar. I did say I wanted to change my sexual habits and maybe this is the right way to do it. It just scares me if the path to sexual empowerment might start with doing the things that mom always wanted me to.

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About pippingeek

feminist geek starting over outside the academy
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One Response to The politics of sex and sex work

  1. Sandi says:

    I’m pretty wary of the ‘Proper Lady’ concept – I don’t hold out because of sociological expectations. I hold out for me. I know that there will be some kind of connection with anyone I have sex with. Either that connection is derived from the sex, or derived from personality. If it’s mostly from the sex, then I’m not as open to the personal connection – it’ll stay just about sex. And I know those relationships get old for me eventually. I want the personal connection with someone who also provides a sexual connection, and I know I’m not available for that if I don’t give the personal side of things preference in the beginning.

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