The Sex Industry Pt. I: The reality
I love my work.
Sometimes Yes, sometimes I don’t feel like working. Sometimes clients can be rude. Sometimes I think my managers are the devil. But don’t all employees go through that at some point in their employment history?
Apart from the normal love-hate relationship I have with certain aspects of my job, this is probably the best job I have so far, and I really, enjoy it.
It is important that I point out, if you haven’t picked up already, that Hephzibah talks of the strip club and the sex industry from a place of privilege. The reality I have is not the reality of many sex workers in my country and in the world. Not all men and women have the option of working in a safe, clean establishment where their rights and dignity as human beings are upheld and respected by their employers and clients. Not all sex workers feel empowered and have been able to make dreams come true by committing themselves with such bravery and courage to an industry so loved, yet so shunned by society.
Let me explain exactly what I mean by “the sex industry” and “sex work”.
The UNAIDS Inter-Agency Task Team on Gender and HIV/AIDS, in its fact sheet “HIV/AIDS, Gender and Sex Work,” published in its 2005 Resource Pack on Gender and HIV/AIDS, stated:
“A broad definition of sex work would be: ‘the exchange of money or goods for sexual services, either regularly or occasionally, involving female, male, and transgender adults, young people and children where the sex worker may or may not consciously define such activity as income generating’.
There is a widespread view that occasional engagement in transactional sex, or sexual barter, constitutes ‘sex work’.
Sex work may be formal or informal. In some instances, sex work is only a temporary informal activity. Women and men who have occasional commercial sexual transactions or where sex is exchanged for food, shelter or protection (survival sex) would not consider themselves to be linked with formal sex work. Occasional sex work takes place where sex is exchanged for basic, short-term economic needs and this is less likely to be a formal, full-time occupation. Commercial sex work may be conducted in formally organised settings from sites such as brothels, nightclubs, and massage parlours; or more informally by commercial sex workers who are street based or self-employed.”*
While a bored sex call centre agent playing solitaire while pretending you’re giving her the best imaginary head possible may not identify as a sex worker, for me, and according to the above definition, she is one.
In my opinion, sex work is the use of any skill or talent used to seduce or evoke desire and pleasure irrespective of whether or not physical contact is made, and whether the experience ends in a ‘happy ending’ or not. If I published my erotic poetry I wrote as a teen, for me, that act would make me a sex worker. A burlesque dancer or participant in an installation doing the Naked Girls Reading is, to an extent, a sex worker. The similarity we all have is, we are using the power of sex appeal, attraction and desire to render a service for some form of compensation.
Yes, many people who resort to sex work do it because of a lack of opportunities, monetary obligations or a simple desire to have a certain standard of life that the system may not offer someone in their shoes. We almost cannot down play that there is a lot of abuse that happens in our industry. Thus I know some feminists would argue that advocating for sex work is merely perpetuating the objectification of women and the idea that all a woman can be is a sexual object, and cannot contribute ‘meaningfully’ or more ‘commonly’ to society.
But in the era that we live in now, a few women at a time in different parts of the world are learning the freedom and pride to own their bodies and be sexual creatures without feeling like there are ’serving the man’ or losing something of themselves. Is it not possible then, to imagine that sex workers could use an already existing need and market to their advantage in a way that is empowering? Can we not imagine that someone as privileged as I am, educated, goal driven and on her way to being one of the most influential women in my country can and has considered sex work as a line of business at some point in her life without shame? Is it unfathomable that a woman can find it ego-stroking and empowering that someone out there would associate a (very handsome) monetary value to her beauty, her dancing skills, her vocabulary, her intelligence and her ability to evoke desire and pleasure?
Not all of us are drug addicts with pimps waiting for us when we knock off to take our money. Not all of us are blinded by circumstance and have lost ambition and the ability to dream. Not all of us lack ambition and an interest to hone what’s between our ears more than what’s between our legs. And you know what, that STILL doesn’t make me any better or more deserving of respect than the woman or man who does find themselves in those undesirable positions.
The only difference between the ‘crack whores’ we saw in films that paint a one-dimensional picture of sex workers and someone you would find in the club where I work is simple: the environment. It is the environment that allows one to work as an autonomous, empowered man or woman, where rights and human dignity are still upheld. It is not the fact that I dance for money, while she has sex for money that makes the real difference. It isn’t even the fact that I work for myself while she might have a pimp who’s hooked her onto drugs and takes all her hard earned cash. It is the space and how it acknowledges you as a human and citizen with rights due.
Who is to say that if you took that same sex worker out of that environment and put her in one where she can access resources and support, make informed decisions, feel safe and celebrated instead of exploited, she would not flourish over and beyond what she thinks she can do and become?
The legalising of sex work, and the acknowledgement of our brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers who participate in it, either as service providers, clients, intermediaries, marketers or a behaved audience, has very little to do with promoting the moral decay of society. The sex industry will be there whether we acknowledge it or not, because humans are sexual creatures and it is not always possible to have the sexual experiences we want in the comfort of our relationships and homes. The legalising and acknowledgement of this industry, however, is to make sure that sex workers can attend to an existing market without compromising their safety and the standard of life that is due to them. It can be as simple as a customer knowing he cannot touch me when I’m dancing for him in the club, and it can be as serious as transwoman not receiving the appropriate medical help after being attacked and raped by a client because of fear based hate and discrimination.
It is no question that it is my privilege of being able to make an informed decision and associate myself with safe spaces that has allowed me to have a good experience as a sex worker. It is the acknowledgement of my human dignity and rights from my employers, colleagues and customers that has allowed me to turn an otherwise abusive industry into my very own playground.
* Definition obtained from ProCon.org and is accessible here.
Next week look out for the second part of this The Sex Industry: My Playground. For more from the series click here