Sex, work, and the eye of the beholder.
Image from Flickr via Bruce Taten
By Melissa Gira Grant
Excerpted from Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work
Klute is Jane Fonda’s star turn as a call girl, for which she won an Oscar, and all throughout it she’s radiant—in a backless, silver-mirrored dress, in her shag, in a swingers’ cocktail lounge. Before we are allowed to see her we are introduced to her voice, surreptitiously recorded by an unknown man. The recording, played first with the opening credits, is a one-sided solicitation. She assures us we are going to have a good time. We listen to her voice, and the tape loop spins; we’re overhearing her private conversations with a customer. We might think we know something, but all that we learn is that the way to know a call girl is when she doesn’t know we are listening. An alternative would require her participation, or her consent.
This is the way that we come to know a sex worker, not only in Klute but in other prostitute media, from Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure to the columns of Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. We know her through the author’s interpre- tation of the words and poses she chooses to represent herself with to her clientele. The novelist’s and reporter’s and researcher’s eyes graze over whatever window, physical or digital, in which she leans. Aside from an origin story of her life “before,” this is where the exposition will be confined: the red light, the bed, the men, the money. Everything else is out of frame. This is her everything—until she turns her back on it.
Surveillance isn’t meant to expand the public knowledge of the lives of sex workers; it’s to investigate some form of harm to the public that’s believed to originate with them.
It’s how Klute introduces us to this style of reportage, however limited, that we should receive it: as a single moment in one woman’s life, captured on tape, and stuck on repeat.
Surveillance is a way of knowing sex workers that unites the opportunity for voyeurism with the monitoring and data collection performed by law enforcement, by social service providers, or by researchers. Even under surveillance, sex workers’ own words aren’t to be trusted without the mediation of those who are almost always regarded as superior outside experts. As motivation, such surveillance isn’t meant to expand the public knowledge of the lives of sex workers; it’s to investigate some form of harm to the public that’s believed to originate with them.
AIDS occasioned one such investigation, but not before sex workers were scapegoated as “vectors of disease” who—it was claimed, with misunderstood evidence—would endanger the public; that is, the families of men who paid for sex. “‘The Prostitute Study,’” writes historian Melinda Chateauvert in Sex Workers Unite, “didn’t require participants to be sex workers, and most of the 180 women who volunteered for it had never done sex work.” The 1986 study didn’t attempt to trace transmission but rather the prevalence of the virus in women. It took on a life of its own in the press and public imagination, she adds, and “when male AIDS researchers heard about the study to track the virus in women, they assumed the subjects were prostitutes.” This and an earlier Walter Reed study of ten soldiers who reported that they contracted HIV after sexual contact with “prostitutes” was mischaracterized as evidence that women—still assumed to be prostitutes—could transmit HIV to men through straight sex. “To Walter Reed doctors, it was obvious that prostitutes were disease vectors,” writes Chateauvert. “They were wrong, but the idea stuck.”
The prostitute is imagined as an invisible woman, a voiceless woman, a woman concealed even in public, in her nudity—in all her presumed availability.
As we have moved from the panic of the period of AIDS crisis to what Sarah Schulman calls the era of “Ongoing AIDS,” the new site of sex work panic is the Internet. New technologies, we are told by the press and politicians, have made new forms of sexual commerce available as never before in history. And as the technological innovations supporting sex work have expanded, they are used to justify new forms of surveillance.
The prostitute is imagined as an invisible woman, a voiceless woman, a woman concealed even in public, in her nudity—in all her presumed availability. I say “is imagined,” but there are many people who take part in this imagining, who are invested in it. I remember paging through a phone book as a kid, flipping to the ‘‘E’’ section and finding the ads for escorts. No actual women were pictured, nothing explicit. Escorts were revealed with clip art: a woman in a long gown that hung off one shoulder, a white woman with shoulder-length hair, her fingers to her lips. There may have been a moon drawn in the background. There were lipstick prints, another popular graphic element of the time. It was the eighties, and this was the palette the phone book designers had to draw on: No one created clip art just for escorts, so all the images that could signify women or glamour or class were strung together. A careful reader of the lipstick and the bare shoulders against the curls of text, words such as “elite,” “private,” “upscale,” and the perennial “discreet,” could interpret them. They could imagine whatever they want.
Even in full-color ads reproduced nearly infinitely across the Web, the sex worker herself may not be present. There are good reasons: not wanting to be outed and not trusting the publishers to protect the records linking the payment information—legal identification, a credit card—with the purchaser. As a result, escort and outcall dancers’ agencies may run stock photos of women who have never even worked for them, and independent escorts and models might select photos that show only specific body parts, particularly as they may relate to their marketing niches: long hair, small breasts, a round ass, toned legs. Some sex workers, particularly those who do it only occasionally, may want to leave their ads on the Internet for only the periods that they are actually working. For the most part, sex workers want to minimize their exposure and preserve their privacy while also earning a living.
When I first saw online sex work ads, I couldn’t believe that the police would allow them to exist.
When I first saw online sex work ads, I couldn’t believe that the police would allow them to exist. They appeared in many forms: expensively lit glamour photos arranged in slide shows, by outfit or fantasy theme; casual motel-room mirror self-portraits with a few hasty lines of text, a phone number, and clear instructions not to call from a blocked line; elaborate portfolio Web sites listing favorite books, shoes, and dietary restrictions; vague solicitations that had a single, striking photo and an e-mail address.
But of course the cops have an interest in these ads, if not in their creative flourishes: Online ads provide a steady flow of people to target in their vice operations: to monitor sex workers’ activities and set them up for stings. They allow cops to build databases of their working names, photos, mobile phone numbers, locations, services offered, prices, and availability. In some cases police have impersonated customers in order to gain access to sex workers’ private online forums, including databases of dangerous clients. A typical vice patrol still doesn’t make this many sex workers immediately available to police for such systematic surveillance.
And yet for sex workers the trade-offs of online advertising still make all these risks worth taking. We know about the games of cat and mouse with the police that are used to chase working girls from apartment to apartment, corner to corner. Once Craigslist, the world’s largest free classified- ad Web site, became a target, sex workers moved to Backpage, a classified ads site owned by Village Voice Media, once the publishers of the venerable alternative newspaper the Village Voice. Then the same coalitions of cops, conservatives, and anti–sex work feminists that railed against Craigslist moved on to Backpage, too. At this rate they can just follow sex workers around until there’s no Internet left to advertise on. But really, their aim is to wear down any publisher who might consider hosting sex work- ers’ ads, and to raise the costs of doing business for anyone involved in the trade.
‘‘How Pimps Use the Web to Sell Girls’’ headlines one of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s anti-Back-page columns, which number in the dozens. An Equality Now petition demands that the “Village Voice must end its complicity in the rape and exploitation of girls and women.” Craigslist was called “the Walmart of sex trafficking” by antiprostitution campaigners so often that it became hard to trace who started it, let alone on what basis they could make that claim.
It is terrible, they claim, that anyone is “being sold.” This is how they describe these ads, as if a sellers and buyers use them to exchange human beings. They cannot fathom that the person in the ad could be the seller herself, so they fix their anguish on the publisher, as if the ‘‘products’’ and the markets in which the advertisements are bought and sold are the same. In the absence of a pimp or a trafficker to blame, they target the publisher. The solution offered? Renounce these ads, which, now that publishing an ad has been made synonymous with selling a person, will stand in for actually doing anything practical or beneficial for those people in the ads.
The choice to target the ads reveals what anti–sex work campaigners believe about the industry and its impact on sex workers’ lives. The near pornographic focus proves what campaigners view as the real threat: the visibility of sex work. Their anguish over advertisements has less to do with concern for how the people in them might be treated in the course of their work and much more to do with expressing their own negative feelings about sex work. We can’t bear imagining the horrors we assume untold behind these ads, say the anti–sex work reformers, and we will solve this by ensuring that no one can place them.
Through such demands, reformers take away from sex workers the power to make these decisions about their own labor. Where the Internet has opened up opportunities for them to take control of their work by increasing their direct access to customers, it has also given law enforcement, politicians, and assorted anti–sex work types a highly visible and vulnerable place to attack. They claim they’re “protecting” sex workers when they demand that publishers refuse their ads. But for the workers themselves, losing ad venues means losing control over how they negotiate at work.
This strategy, so far, is working. In December 2012, the Village Voice announced that anyone wishing to place an adult ad in their paper would be limited to using “face shots,” or photographs clearly showing the sex worker’s face. “Flesh. We are not against it at the Village Voice. Actually, we think it’s one of the best parts of being alive. But you’ll find less of it in this issue. That’s no accident,” their new publisher announced in a statement that must not have been vetted by any office feminists (or even Google) titled ‘‘Our Bodies, Ourselves.’’ It’s damning enough that the Voice caved to people opposed to the existence of sex work. But to require any sex worker who wants to place an ad to show her face? The editor’s note continues:
Many of us here at the Voice wish these ads would just go away. And, in fact, they continue to migrate online, so that might happen soon enough. There is not much doubt that the new rules are going to make us less appealing to this kind of customer. That is a price we are willing to pay.
What a price, one which the Voice can shift, along with the opprobrium and legal threats, back to sex workers. “Our bodies” indeed.
The prostitute is imagined by these self-identified defenders of her dignity; she can’t speak for herself. She requires many interpreters.
Where this strategy is not yielding such easy returns for the campaigners is when their challenges actually make it through the courts. The few laws they’ve gotten passed that target online venues for sex workers’ ads have met successful challenges not only from Backpage but from the Internet Archive, who were represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In Washington State, a judge found a law against sex work ads was written so broadly that it would infringe on all online speech. In Tennessee, a judge declared that even an attempt to focus on “sex trafficking” in ads would possibly open grounds to attack all sex workers’ ads, that “the state may not use a butcher knife on a problem that requires a scal- pel to fix.”
While the campaigners blame sites such as Craigslist and Backpage both for the growth of the trade and for any harms related to it, they do so for sex workers, not with them. The campaigns make use of their images as evidence, but sex workers themselves are ignored. The prostitute is imagined by these self-identified defenders of her dignity; she can’t speak for herself. She requires many interpreters. Not only have antiprostitution feminists attempted to shut down sex workers’ ads, they’ve also manipulated them into data points to support their actions. An Atlanta-based organization with the imaginatively patronizing name A Future, Not A Past (AFNAP) hired a market research firm to conduct a study of prostitution on Craigslist. “Researchers” working for the firm, The Schapiro Group, who had never before researched prostitution, trawled through the ads, scrutinized the photos and text, and based only on this content guessed at the age of each person depicted. Never mind that Craigslist ads can be posted multiple times each day, or that each doesn’t necessarily correlate to one individual—or any real individual. Dummy and repeat ads are part of the business. This either eluded or just didn’t concern AFNAP, which advertised their findings along with a lavishly produced “tool kit” adorned with a photo of a young woman, her face downcast, covered in a hoodie, captioned “stop the prostitution of our nation’s children.”
Based on this amateurish tally of Craigslist, as well as surveillance of “street activity” and “hotels,” AFNAP claimed that “as many as 200 to 300 young girls are commercially sexually exploited every month in Georgia,” including “approximately 100 to 115 girls [who] are made available through Craigslist.org ads each month, with profitable results,” as they reported to the Georgia state legislature in order to rally for tougher anti-prostitution legislation in their state. Their “methodology” was repeated in similar studies in Minnesota, Michigan, and New York, supported by the Women’s Funding Network, whose director Deborah Richardson used such numbers to claim before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary investigating Craigslist that “over the past six months, the number of underage girls trafficked online has risen exponentially in three diverse states.” She did not mention that this “exponential” increase were measured based on counts of how many men had answered fake escort ads created by Schapiro Group researchers, using photos of young-looking women, and not from actual reported cases of underage girls being trafficked. Such well-intentioned red- light wandering has the sheen of science, even as it pays for weeks of researchers’ time scrolling through ads, just like clients do.
A better and offline equivalent to model our red-light wandering on might be the insider account of Samuel R. Delany, whose participant observation of Times Square in its last pre-Disney gasps is as much of the porn theaters as it is about them and what they meant to those who cared for them. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue maps the various forms and sites of labor—theaters, food carts, camera shops, shoe- shine stands, hustlers—and the kinds of people who frequent each, including himself, and his unguarded affection for the porn theaters and the anonymous sexual encounters they made possible. For Delany, the value in a red-light district like the one once bounded by the streets around West Forty-Second Street and Eighth Avenue isn’t just sexual pleasure, though it’s that, too. The red-light district signals the potential of contact—physical, mental, spiritual—that crosses class.
I’ve worked in just one red-light district—San Francisco’s North Beach, which is dotted still with strip clubs and porn shops, all crowned by the legendary City Lights Bookstore, which published and defended Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, on the southwestern edge, and by Caffe Trieste, which has opera on its jukebox and old men with nothing to do but read the paper all day, up the hill to the northeast. In the streets sloping in between—Broadway, Kearny, Stockton—tourists cram together and drift between novelty Italian restaurants draped in garlic and roses and dumpling shops with whole chickens hanging in the windows. The purple neon marks the sex businesses, side by side with youth hostels, bars, corner stores, and cafes. We were all neighbors.
Forget the particulars of the work performed inside The Hungry I or the Lusty Lady or the Garden of Eden and appreciate the conditions of our shared neighborhood. You could take a public bus to and from a shift, step out on a break for a croissant at Happy Donut or a slice at Golden Boy, buy a magazine or a razor at the corner store on the way home. You had, all throughout your workday or night, the opportunity for human contact outside your workplace itself. It wasn’t necessary to drive out to the industrial zone on the edge of town, you had other plausible reasons to be in the neighborhood, you were both anonymous and safe in the way you are in a city. You were, like everyone else who belonged to the neighborhood, another set of eyes on the street.
When Craigslist’s Erotic Services section launched, it wasn’t the first Web site where sex workers could place ads seeking customers, but it was the first to so closely resemble the geography of the red-light districts that preceded it. Remember that Times Square didn’t contain only sexually- oriented businesses; as Delany captured it, the neighborhood was home to a variety: to low-end electronics and jewelry shops; to single-room occupancy hotels; to street-level workers informally selling sex; to those selling kebabs and newspapers. As threatening as it might be that a site such as Craigslist provided a space for advertising sexual commerce, what’s perhaps more threatening is that it did so alongside advertisements for any other kind of product or service imaginable. Rather than segregate sexual commerce, Craigslist made sex workers neighbors.
But consider this first: All sexual commerce is technological. Before electricity provided automation, the first peep shows operated under manual candlelight. Before telephones, or even telegraphs, prostitutes carried printed business cards. In ancient Greece, certain classes of prostitutes attracted customers by scoring the words “Follow me” on the soles of their sandals, leaving a trail in the streets behind them. Prostitution itself is a technology, a communication system, as much and at times more than it is a system for organizing sexuality. It signals. Walk for a moment through a red-light district in your head and you won’t see sex—just its red-hot flares.
Even the phrase “red-light district,” as far as we know, comes from a communication practice, one said to originate with railroad men at the turn of the twentieth century. They would set their red signal lights down outside the doors of the women they’d hire between shifts in case their foremen needed to call them back to work.
Now when we hear tales about the red-light district, they most likely won’t be coming from people who buy or sell sexual services. The red-light district you will hear about today is the province of the surveillance class—the police and the politicians, the researchers and the reporters. From their mouths, the online red-light district is rarely offered as a value-neutral term to describe a kind of commercial activity on the Internet: It’s meant to convey what we’re to understand as a troublesome growth and spread of commercial sex, though little evidence is offered for this alleged upsurge. It draws its evidence from a tautology that’s appealing to those who can know only through surveillance: The Internet makes sex for sale easier to see, so the Internet must be increasing the number of people who buy and sell sex—because now we see more of them. The truth is we simply don’t yet know how or even if the Internet has expanded markets for commercial sex. But it has certainly allowed many more outsiders to peep into them.
The Web’s sex markets are flourishing in the vacant spaces left in the wake of gentrification campaigns that imperiled the sex businesses that also called those blocks home.
It’s seductive to imagine that by being able to browse the storefronts of sexually oriented businesses without leaving our homes and without being seen, we have access to some truth about commercial sex. Why flip through the ads in the back of the paper (and there aren’t that many anymore, anyway) when you have the Web? You can click through LiveJasmin.com, where a mosaic of women’s photos come to life as you mouse over them on the homepage, dozens of streaming video feeds of all the performers available wherever it is they are, and right here in the universal time zone of the live sex show.
Both the site design and the vicissitudes of the real live nude girl market mean that the mostly young women who’ve put out webcam shingles there seem to be always on and available. Some of the women look right at you (or at their webcams) but just as many look off to the side: They’re not avoiding you, they’re just absorbed in their computer screen, in something else to pass their unpaid time between the viewers buying private shows. (In the peep show, sex workers used the equivalent dead time to listen to the radio, and when customers made themselves known, they turned the boom box volume down with a toe while rearranging their bodies into an attentive pose.)
When the opportunity for voyeurism is your product, tolerating anyone’s wandering eye without a dollar amount attached just feels like you’re getting ripped off. There is a certain amount of show a performer must give for free, but there is a line, and each worker knows it, between the attentions of a prospective customer and the neediness of a time waster. To those interlocutors into sex businesses, those would-be flâneurs with the mouse, particularly those who feel that they should not or must not pay, will likely be treated as the latter. Preserving one’s propriety is no excuse. Having something to offer—money—is what makes you a good citizen of the red-light district.
We could say that peep shows and porn theaters and street-level sex work, particularly those conducted in mixed-use neighborhoods, are being displaced by online ad directories and live cam sites. But more to the point, the Web’s sex markets are flourishing in the vacant spaces left in the wake of gentrification campaigns that imperiled the sex businesses that also called those blocks home. These physical spaces are gone, and may never be again: The anonymous sexual encounter is now increasingly mediated by the digital.
That mediation only magnifies the power of myth making about the online red-light district. It is no one fixed place but a network of signs and solicitations. In the eighteenth century we had the polite euphemism “public women” when it was necessary to reference those who were presumed to be pros- titutes. What public is left for the public women now? On the flickering front page of LiveJasmin, the rest of the public can imagine—as those equipped only with gaslight once imagined—the bodies upon which their illumination is cast were just waiting for them to drop in a coin and bring them to life.
So it’s all of this, not just the Internet, that drives the online red-light district, to the extent that there even is one: the reliance on surveillance to know sex workers; the adoption of online forms of solicitation; and the gentrification of concrete red-light districts through policing and capital. This all means that when we consider people who don’t engage in commercial sex, who are most commonly known as the general public, they are far less likely to ever meet a sex worker in the physical world and are more likely than ever before to learn everything they know about sex work from marketing copy written for sex workers’ customers.
In the age of the online red-light district, everyone’s been made a john.
Melissa Gira Grant is a writer and freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Glamour, the Guardian, the Nation, Wired, and the Atlantic. She is also a contributing editor to Jacobin.