Happy hookers: sex workers and their would-be saviors

Happy hookers: sex workers and their would-be saviors

Melissa Gira Grant on the framework in which sex work is discussed.

The following books were not published in 1972: The Happy Secretary, The Happy Nurse, The Happy Napalm Manufacturer, The Happy President, The Happy Yippie, The Happy Feminist. The memoir of a Manhattan madam was. The Happy Hooker climbed best-seller lists that year, selling over sixteen million copies.

When it reached their top five, the New York Times described the book as “liberally dosed with sex fantasies for the retarded.” The woman who wrote them and lived them, Xaviera Hollander, became a folk hero. She remains the accidental figurehead of a class of women who may or may not have existed before she lived and wrote. Of course, they must have existed, but if they hadn’t, say the critics of hooker happiness, we would have had to invent them.

Is prostitution so wicked a profession that it requires such myths?

We may remember the legend, but the particulars of the happy hooker story have faded. Hollander and the characters that grew up around her are correctly recalled as sexually omnivorous, but desire alone didn’t make her successful as a prostitute. She realized that the sex trade is no underworld, that it is intimately entangled in city life, in all the ways in which we are economically interdependent. Hollander was famous for being able to sweep through the lobby of the Palace Hotel, unnoticed and undisturbed, on her way to an assignation, not because she didn’t “look like” a working girl, but because she knew that too few people understood what a working girl really looked like.

In The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington, a 1977 film adapted from Hollander’s memoir, a scene opens with teletype bashing the screen with Woodward-and-Bernstein urgency. Flashlights sweep a darkened hall. Inside an unlocked office, a criminal scene is revealed: a senator embracing a prostitute. Hollander is called before Congress to testify. When the assembled panel interrogates her career, attacking her morals, she is first shameless, then spare but sharp in pointing out the unsurprising fact that these men are patrons of the very business they wish to blame for America’s downfall.

What’s on trial in the film is ridiculous, but the questions are real. What value does a prostitute bring to society? Or is hooking really not so grandiose as all that? Could it be just another mostly tedious way to take ownership over something all too few of us are called before Congress to testify on (the conditions of our work)?

Did you know that 89 per-cent of the women in prostitution want to escape?” a young man told me on the first day of summer this year, as he protested in front of the offices of the Village Voice. He wanted me to understand that it is complicit in what he calls “modern-day slavery.” The Village Voice has moved the bulk of the sex-related ads it publishes onto the website Backpage.com. This young man, the leader of an Evangelical Christian youth group, wanted to hasten the end of “sex slavery” by shutting Backpage.com down. What happens to the majority of people who advertise willingly on the site, who rely on it to draw an income? “The reality is,” the man said to me, not knowing I had ever been a prostitute, “almost all of these women don’t really want to be doing it.”

Let’s ask the people around here, I wanted to say to him: the construction workers who dug up the road behind us, the cabbies weaving around the construction site, the cops over there who have to babysit us, the Mister Softee guy pulling a double shift in the heat, the security guard outside a nearby bar, the woman working inside, the receptionist upstairs. The freelancers at the Village Voice. The guys at the copy shop who printed your flyers. The workers at the factory that made the water bottles you’re handing out. Is it unfair to estimate that 89 percent of New Yorkers would rather not be doing what they have to do to make a living?

“True, many of the prostitution ads on Backpage are placed by adult women acting on their own without coercion,” writes New York Times columnist and professional prostitute savior Nicholas Kristof. But, he continues, invoking the happy hooker trope, “they’re not my concern.” He would like us to join him in separating women into those who chose prostitution and those who were forced into it; those who view it as business and those who view it as exploitation; those who are workers and those who are victims; those who are irremediable and those who can be saved. These categories are too narrow. They fail to explain the reality of one woman’s work, let alone a class of women’s labor. In this scheme, a happy hooker is apparently unwavering in her love of fucking and will fuck anyone for the right price. She has no grievances, no politics.

But happy hookers, says Kristof, don’t despair, this isn’t about women like you – we don’t really mean to put you out of work. Never mind that shutting down the businesses people in the sex trade depend on for safety and survival only exposes all of them to danger and poverty, no matter how much choice they have. Kristof and the Evangelicals outside the Village Voice succeed only in taking choices away from people who are unlikely to turn up outside the New York Times, demanding that Kristof’s column be taken away from him.

Even if they did, with the platform he’s built for himself as the true expert on sex workers’ lives, men like Kristof can’t be run out of town so easily. There’s always another ted conference, another women’s rights organization eager to hire his expertise. Kristof and those like him, who have made saving women from themselves their pet issue and vocation, are so fixated on the notion that almost no one would ever choose to sell sex that they miss the dull and daily choices that all working people face in the course of making a living. Kristof himself makes good money at this, but to consider sex workers’ equally important economic survival is inconvenient for him.

This business of debating sex workers’ choices and whether or not they have them has only become more profitable under what sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein terms “post-industrial prostitution.”

After the vigilant anti-prostitution campaigns of the last century, which targeted red-light districts and street-based prostitution, sex work has moved mostly indoors, into private apartments and gentlemen’s clubs, facilitated by the internet and mobile phones. The sex economy exists in symbiosis with the leisure economy: personal services, luxury hotels, all increasingly anonymous and invisible. At the same time, more young people find themselves without a safety net, dependent on informal economies. Sex work now isn’t a lifestyle; it’s a gig, one of many you can select from a venue like Backpage or Craigslist.

Recall the favored slogan of prostitution prohibitionists that on the internet, they could buy a sofa and “a girl.” It’s not the potential purchase of a person that’s so outrageous; it’s the proximity of that person to the legitimate market.

Bernstein calls these “slippery borders,” and asks us to observe the feelings provoked by them, and how they are transferred. Anxieties about slippery market borders become “anxieties about slippery moral borders,” which are played out on the bodies of sex workers.

The anxiety is that sex work may be legitimate after all. In a sense, the prohibitionists are correct: people who might have never gotten into the sex trade before can and are. Fighting what they call “the normalizing of prostitution” is the focus of anti-sex work feminists. In this view, one happy hooker is a threat to all women everywhere.

“It’s sad,” said the speaker from the women’s-rights ngo Equality Now in protest outside the Village Voice. She directed her remarks at the cluster of sex workers who had turned out in counterprotest. “Backpage is able to be a pimp. They’re so normalizing this behavior that a group of Backpage advertisers have come out today to oppose us.” So a prostitute’s dissent is only possible if, as they understand prostitution itself, she was forced into it.

“Why did it take so long for the women’s movement to genuinely consider the needs of whores, of women in the sex trades?” asks working-class queer organizer and ex-hooker Amber L. Hollibaugh, in her book My Dangerous Desires. “Maybe because it’s hard to listen to – I mean really pay attention to – a woman who, without other options, could easily be cleaning your toilet? Maybe because it’s intolerable to listen to the point of view of a woman who makes her living sucking off your husband?”

Hollibaugh points to this most difficult place, this politics of feelings performed by some feminists, in absence of solidarity. They imagine how prostitution must feel, and how that in turn makes them feel, despite all the real-life prostitutes standing in front of them to dispute them.

It didn’t used to be that people opposed to prostitution could only get away with it by insisting that “happy” prostitutes didn’t really exist. From Gilgamesh to the Gold Rush days, right up until Ms. Hollander’s time, being a whore was reason enough for someone to demand you be driven out of town. Contemporary prostitution prohibitionists consider the new reality, in which they deny the existence of anyone with agency in prostitution, a form of victory for women. We aren’t ruined now. We’re victims.

Perhaps what they fear most of all is that prostitutes could be happy: that what we’ve been told is the worst thing we can do to ourselves is not the worst, or even among the worst. What marks us as fallen – whether from feminism or Christ or capital – is any suggestion that prostitution did not ruin us and that we can deliver that news ourselves.

Originally posted: August 2012 at Jacobin Mag

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Comments

Khawaga
Nov 21 2012 14:44

It wasn't obvious to me either. Seems like bounce charged everyone with refusing to listen to and denying solidarity with sex workers, which was blatantly not the case.

bounce
Nov 22 2012 08:47

This is why despite being a sex worker and an anarchist I avoid anarchist discussions on sex work, because even pointing out that sex workers should be central to and leading discourse on our work offends people so much that they don't want to listen. I never said it was everyone in the thread but it also wasn't just that one person and even some of the supportive comments were completely lacking in any recognition that people outside of sex work can only add so much to the discourse. But yeah, how dare I point out that sex workers are better placed to discuss all this stuff.

wojtek
Nov 22 2012 12:17

bounce, may I ask how you would like sex work to be organised, what would be different?

Re. Charles Fourier, I remember my lecturer first telling us about his erm controversial ideas, we were really shocked! haha.

flaneur
Nov 22 2012 13:41

Fourier, aye. I don't want to sidetrack 'cause this thread has been good but I wonder where all the utopian socialists went. Workers' councils and organising for the revolution is all well and sensible, but where are the folk promising the sea will turn into lemonade nowadays? Hard headed realism is boring, the workers want oneirism.

Khawaga
Nov 22 2012 17:45
bounce wrote:
This is why despite being a sex worker and an anarchist I avoid anarchist discussions on sex work, because even pointing out that sex workers should be central to and leading discourse on our work offends people so much that they don't want to listen. I never said it was everyone in the thread but it also wasn't just that one person and even some of the supportive comments were completely lacking in any recognition that people outside of sex work can only add so much to the discourse. But yeah, how dare I point out that sex workers are better placed to discuss all this stuff.

FWIW, I do not disagree with you at all. And I in no way at all suggested that sex workers aren't the best equipped to discuss their own working conditions and the discourse on sex work. If that's how you read my post, then I apologize for not making myself clear(er). It certainly wasn't my intention. In fact I agree with you; it makes perfect sense. We need to take charge of our own fights and struggles.In a lot of cases when people discuss sex work, that is precisely what happens. From what I can tell that wasn't such an issue in this thread. But I do admit that I cannot necessarily recognize what is "good" and "bad" (for lack of better words) class-based discourse on sex work since I am not a sex worker. I would really appreciate it if you could point out how to actually discuss it in a productive way.

jef costello
Nov 22 2012 18:50
bounce wrote:
Do you know what I rarely have seen come up in debates like this, anyone showing any desire to listen to sex workers on the matter. We do exist, we do have voices and rather than debate the merits (or perceived lack there of) without us why not listen to us. Surely you would agree that as sex workers we are best placed to address things relating to our industry. I mean, when it comes to other industries and their specific labour struggles you listen to the people within that industry, while offering solidarity in their struggles, perhaps try doing the same for sex workers.

I'm not sure anyone aside from the now banned BOD has said anything close to that. There has only been one swex worker commenting on the thread, a poster who has been istened to. The point of discussion is to find out more and you don't necessarily need to experience something personally to have an opinion on it. I think trying to engage with the topic and welcoming contributions from those in the industry is the best we can do (and what I hope happened here) and it is also what I think the community on here tries to do. I'm going to reread the thread because I don't think I interpreted it in the same way as you. If you want to add more of your own opinions or thoughts to the thread then I'm sure it would be appreciated.

Uncreative
Nov 23 2012 19:33
bounce wrote:
This is why despite being a sex worker and an anarchist I avoid anarchist discussions on sex work, because even pointing out that sex workers should be central to and leading discourse on our work offends people so much that they don't want to listen. I never said it was everyone in the thread but it also wasn't just that one person and even some of the supportive comments were completely lacking in any recognition that people outside of sex work can only add so much to the discourse. But yeah, how dare I point out that sex workers are better placed to discuss all this stuff.

All i did was ask who your initial post was aimed at, and then i had two people going on about how obvious it was. Ive heard "listen to sexworkers!" used to argue any given standpoint someone might take with regards to sex work, so i was sincerely wondering who you were saying that to, rather than being offended or anything.

Konsequent
Nov 25 2012 00:44
bounce wrote:
Do you know what I rarely have seen come up in debates like this, anyone showing any desire to listen to sex workers on the matter.

I would agree here. Also it's not ideal to have a 5 page thread of mainly non-sex-workers discussing sex work. However I think in this case the reason why it got so long is because someone put up the orginal article by a sex worker and the author's view was immediately dismissed by a non sex worker and so most of the resulting discussion was people pointing out that sex workers should be listened to and shown solidarity when organising. There are a number of articles about sex work on the site and they generally don't result in this much discussion. My impression of it was mainly positive as when I saw the thread 2 pages in most of my responses had already been covered. Had B o'D commented but everyone else not challenged him then at that point it might have just been me telling him to STFU and him telling me I was disgusting and it would have been pretty miserable and a pretty poor show, solidaritywise.

As it was, in the course of the debate inevitably examples were used, comparisons made, etc but the question of what sex worker organising should look like wasn't addressed in much depth. The question of whether to listen to and show solidarity to sex workers is probably the most appropriate one for non sex workers to discuss, if it needs to be discussed at all, which apparently it did, and the vast majority of people commenting were clearly on the more enlightened side of that debate.

My impression of the thread is presumably biased by the fact that I was in a agreement with most of the posts. If you weren't then I'd be interested in hearing your disagreements.

Generally I wouldn't deny anyone an opinion about sex work. People have feelings about sex and about work and are likely to have a view of some kind on sex work but when it comes to discussing the details of the industry I'd expect them to not be so arrogant as to think they understand exactly what it's like. But there's as much disparity amongst sex workers as non sex workers on the subject and even B o'D would be able to find a sex worker who shared his opinion on it so that only really gets us that far. Also when strategising about organising in the sex industry my conversations with people who have experience of organising in a number of different industries but not in the sex industry and my conversations with other people who work in the sex industry but have no experience of organising have both been useful (though differently useful) in helping me develop my ideas in that direction.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 24 2012 15:08

Well, I think Konsequent has covered it all, but I'm a bit confused by bounce and catterpillar's comments. The article (while certainly worthy of critique) is about how sex workers should be listened to. The vast majority of posters on the thread (bar the now banned BOD) have defended that position and have, I think, largely deferred to and supported Konsequent when dealing with the one person--the, again, now banned BOD--who was a non-sex worker trying to speak on behalf of them.

Another worthy point many posters on this thread have made is that sex work is still work. As communists and as workers I don't think any of us are pretending that sex work doesn't have it's own dynamics and challenges. But we are part of discourse that says the exploitation inherent to all work--including sex work--needs to be critiqued as part of an anti-capitalist analysis. We're not here pretending to speak on behalf of sex workers or claiming that sex work is some sort of special case where sex workers need to be 'saved from the outside'.

So we may not be sex workers, but we are workers and communists and I think that allows us the space to have a general criticism of work which we can then apply to various industries based on how informed we are about the particulars of those industries--whether trucking or sex work.

In any case, I'd be glad to hear from other sex workers on this thread. I think the most useful and insightful posts so far have been from Konsequent. I think hearing the voices of other sex workers would be hugely beneficial and appreciated.

34825742
Jan 10 2013 17:25

Likewise I could say your position is liberalism masquerading as socialism.

Aside from the overwhelming data that shows that prostitution is more frequent and that violence, coercion and rape persist when prostitution is legalized (french-Canadian sociologist Richard Poulin, although his work has many flaws, has accumulated extensive knowledge on this topic), what shocks me here is the ideological perversion that would lead left-wingers to think prostitution is acceptable and can be, in its current form, conform to anti-capitalism.

How on Earth did the capitalist commercialization of sexuality become an idea so many socialists hold dear? The most outrageous idea here is that critics of prostitution think they are "saving women from themselves". No. No. No. Prostitution is not just something women do "themselves", it is not a contract between two individuals. This perspective is directly borrowed from a strain of liberalism that upholds that we must let people do "what they choose" in a contractual setting while ignoring that these actions are part of greater structures of economic, collective (prostitution often affects marginalized and immigrant groups) and personal domination. Prostitution is not only an activity but also a SOCIAL INSTITUTION. One that is essentially always at the service of the patriarchy.

Main idea: Prostitution is, like pornography, an activity that CREATES our sexuality through capitalist activity.

flaneur
Jan 10 2013 17:33

Excuse the pun, but what a load of wank.

redsdisease
Jan 10 2013 20:53
34825742 wrote:
what shocks me here is the ideological perversion that would lead left-wingers to think prostitution is acceptable and can be, in its current form, conform to anti-capitalism.

How on Earth did the capitalist commercialization of sexuality become an idea so many socialists hold dear?

Who are you responding to here? When did anyone say any of that? All people are saying is that sex workers, like any other workers, aren't helpless non agents who need to be rescued from their horrible fates. Sex workers, again like any other workers, end up doing the work that they do because either they decided that it was better than their other options of survival or they had no other options. "Rescuing" sex workers from sex work doesn't improve their lives it just removes one, potentially their only, way for them to survive under capitalism.

I mean, no shit that the commodification of sexuality sucks, so does the commodification of pretty much everything. The fast food industry is terrible but I'm glad that when I worked in fast food nobody tried to save me from it by making my job illegal. If helping sex workers is something we're genuinely interested in, then we should be helping them organize to improve their working conditions and gain some element of power over their lives, not demonizing them and helping make their, probably already precarious, lives more precarious.

commieprincess
Jan 10 2013 22:10
34825742 wrote:
ignoring that these actions are part of greater structures of economic, collective (prostitution often affects marginalized and immigrant groups) and personal domination.

Who's ignoring that? All work should be examined with these greater structures in mind.

Plus, does prostition "affect" marginalised and immigrant groups more? I'm genuinely asking - are there statistics for this?

Also what do you mean when you talk about prostitution "affecting" people?

Just to clarify, are you arguing that it would be better if sex work were illegal?

jolasmo
Jan 11 2013 00:21
Quote:
Likewise I could say your position is fuckwittery masquerading as moral outrage.

Aside from the overwhelming data that shows that working in a factory is more frequent and that violence, coercion and rape persist when factory work is legalized, what shocks me here is the ideological perversion that would lead left-wingers to think factory work is acceptable and can be, in its current form, conform to anti-capitalism.

How on Earth did the capitalist commercialization of factories become an idea so many socialists hold dear? The most outrageous idea here is that critics of factory work think they are "saving workers from themselves". No. No. No. Factory work is not just something women do "themselves", it is not a contract between two individuals. This perspective is directly borrowed from a strain of liberalism that upholds that we must let people do "what they choose" in a contractual setting while ignoring that these actions are part of greater structures of economic, collective (factory work often affects marginalized and immigrant groups) and personal domination. Working in a factory is not only an activity but also a SOCIAL INSTITUTION. One that is essentially always at the service of the patriarchy.

Main idea: Factory work is, like photography, an activity that CREATES products through capitalist activity.

Wow you've got us there. They should totally ban factory work or something. Then all the women who are forced economically to do it will, erm, die of starvation? Wait, wait, hang on...

It amazes me the way people deploy socialist jargon to provide a paper-thin justification for patently moralistic ideas about factory work. The whole "ah but you're ignoring structural/social/economic factors stuff is just such a bunch of wank; no one's ignoring any of that. You're just desperately trying to frame the argument as a binary choice between "factory work is awesome and empowering" (as espoused by the liberal wing of factory work advocacy) and "factory work is bad, m'kay, and factory workers are at best worthy of pity and charity" (and at worst "human toilets" etc. etc.).

~J.

Konsequent
Jan 11 2013 17:27

Love the way people come on here and spout off without reading the thread or the article.

On the subject of criminalisation/decriminalisation, it wasn't really being discussed much as far as I could tell. Personally, I can see how making, for example, the purchase of sex illegal would make me less safe. I've talked to prostitutes working in various environments who say the same. However, I'm completely open to the fact that I might meet some who would benefit from changes that would be detrimental to me and vice versa. Whether its anti-trafficking laws used to deport immigrants, anti brothel keeping laws used to lock up sex workers sticking together for safety, or laws approving prostitution resulting in massive tax bills which aren't payable without worsening conditions, I hear of various ways in which various possible models have been used to make things worse. My point is that there needn't be this assumed connection between ones outrage at the existence of prostitution and ones views on what laws would be less shit.

Malva
Jan 12 2013 13:58

Quite an interesting interview with a sex worker about her life.