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Memo to Sex Workers

You can write the story without the names. Prominent White Male gets caught with Extramarital Female-bonus points if she’s profiting from the transaction. Prominent White Male steps down in disgrace, muttering and apologizing all the while. Extramarital Female rides the wave of publicity to launch or accelerate a career in modeling (Donna Rice), broadcast journalism (Paula Zahn) or perhaps even fashion accessories. (Monica Lewinsky’s handbags did look so cute with silk stockings).

Public’s reaction to the ‘scandal’: Shock. Sure, in part because that’s all we know. But also in part because what we know comes from the media, who reproduce shock as the only option. And sex workers, who help keep those same newspapers afloat, silently comply.

One need only peruse the back pages of weekly tabloids to get a sense of the enormous amount of ad revenue from sex work that floats these papers. Even major papers run thinly veiled prostitute ads under ‘massage.’ The same papers that run stories reproducing the shock at this unthinkable revelation get hundreds of thousands of dollars of advertising revenue from.sex workers. Who do they think those working girls’ clients are? Someone isn’t doing their math.

The indoor (as opposed to street) sex workers who advertise in newspapers quietly and unobtrusively service singles, husbands, boyfriends-and even wives and girlfriends-from all walks of life, all over these United States of America. Those sex workers pay rent to landlords. Many pay taxes on their income. They enable strained marriages to stay afloat, help relieve the stress of many a harried executive, and provide options for anyone having a hard time getting laid for whatever reason, to have consensual sex without much risk of rejection and without bugging the uninterested. Sex workers are an integral part of the media economy, and as reviled and ‘shocked’ as some people are to think of it, provide what most of their clients consider to be an extremely valuable service.

Though it pains me to do so, I will stop to preempt conflation of sex workers who choose the profession with those who are forced into it, leaving aside for the moment the tremendous philosophical complexities involved in the notion of choice in any realm. Now really think about this one: Just as we don’t talk about sweat shop workers in the same breath as clothing designers with their own boutiques, so am I not conflating economically oppressed, drug addicted or underage sex workers (or anyone who needs help to get out of the business because it is damaging them) with educated adults who make rational choices to trade sex for money. The subject in this moment is the grown men, women and transgender sexual service providers whose profession of choice forms an integral part of our social fabric and our economy.

I want to enjoin any sex worker who currently advertises in a newspaper or website that’s covering the Spitzer story to use their economic power to demand that the media provide a more balanced account of sex worker’s lives, their work, and their clients. Has anyone, even one reporter at one paper, thought to ask Governer Spitzer WHY he resigned instead of assuming it would be obvious to everyone? Would any other profession tolerate these assumptions being promulgated in the very media they support with thousands and thousands of dollars of their hard-earned money?

Think sex workers don’t organize? Think again. In 1997, the Lusty Lady in San Francisco’s North Beach became the first-ever group of strippers to unionize, achieving many benefits workers in other professions consider basic, like sick days, and protection from arbitrary discipline and firing. Other clubs have since followed suit. The infamous Mitchell Brothers theater, a high-end strip club, in 1998 paid out over 1.65 million dollars in back wages to dancers based on a 1991 suit brought by a group of former dancers claiming they were employees, not independent contractors.

Now it’s middle-class sex workers’ turn. Ask your ad representative when the newspaper plans to run some more balanced coverage of the profession whose dollars they’re only too happy to take. And if they can’t answer, tell them to talk to the editorial department and get back to you when they have something positive to say-then maybe you’ll consider forking over your hard-earned cash.

JILL NAGLE is a blogger, freelance writer, and editor of Whores and Other Feminists (Routledge, 1997), an anthology of writings by feminists in the sex industry, and associate editor with Kerwin Kay of Male Lust: Pleasure, Power and Transformation (Haworth, 2001). She can be reached through her blog: www.jillnagle.com

 

 

 

 

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