Sex work and the see-saw of morality

// 9 May 2012

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After her ex-partner revealed that he had slept with a sex worker while they were in a long distance relationship, Vic was forced to re-examine her feminist principles and come face-to-face with the wider debate on sex, sexuality and women’s rights: “I had to set aside any left-of-centre moral panic attacks and really examine my very own ‘personal is political’ situation”.

A square yellow road sign with a simple black picture of two people on a see-saw.Repulsive. Scandalous. Shame. Degrading. All adjectives used in the media in past six weeks to discuss sex and the peripheral acts which make up the sexual landscape. While this repugnance is nothing new, these articles show that the angle is changing – the moral panic attacks are being aimed at the system, at the ‘johns’, at the leerers – including secret service agents and politicians (see Berlusconi). Seemingly, the see-saw of morality is tipping towards a vilification of the person with the purchasing power. On the face of it, a good thing, right? Criminalising the buyers is progress, isn’t it? I have recently had the chance to delve deeper into the debate from a personal perspective and have found that nothing could be so clear-cut.

While I have never explicitly identified as a sex-positive feminist, I have always agreed wholeheartedly with the core premises of sex-positive feminism: the promotion of sex workers’ rights; sex education in schools; and the free expression of sexualities. But, when my ex-partner revealed to me that he had been unfaithful to me with a sex worker, the picture became a lot fuzzier.

Because, no matter how I feel about rights, a part of me felt corrupted. Not by the fact that he had had sex with a sex worker, but by the fact that another woman had been used, purely and explicitly, to gratify the person whom I had such faith in. And it was not only me that felt a sense of degradation; he was evidently self-disgusted. The more I considered how we felt, the more I read his infidelity as a grasp at a concept of manhood in which women are at once idealised and denigrated.

In the truest sense of the phrase, the personal was political – we were two people caught in the wider net of body politics in a scenario which has been repeated time again. It had harmed us both and contributed to the end of our relationship. But what of the third person involved here? What of the (for me) faceless sex worker? What of her motives and response? What of her rights? What of her self?

In my native New Zealand, sex work has been legal since the Prostitution Reform Act, 2003, and sex workers have enshrined health and legal rights, as well as an active support network. The clear guidance provided by the Act led me to believe that the power dynamic between customer and sex worker was more equal and less questionable from the point of a feminist ethic. Moreover, I saw the logic in the argument that a woman’s sexual freedom is part of her sexual autonomy and to denigrate the sex industry is to denigrate those workers who choose their vocation out of interest, pleasure or a sense of empowerment. Not only that, to denigrate the sex industry was in some way to be on the side of those who wish to maintain prostitution’s illegality, thus endangering all sex workers.

However, my sense of degradation in the face of my ex’s revelation challenged all of these assumptions. The profound sense of loss that I felt was not just because of the damage done to my relationship. I felt as though my sexuality had been compromised. I felt as though both the sex worker and I had been used and denigrated and we had become every woman in my mind; coping with the fall-out of vastly unequal sexual power dynamics. When I looked even further, I saw that my ex was tied into the same dynamic – his choice was not a choice in the freest sense of the word. He, like the rest of us, had the patriarchy inside his head.

So, where do we draw the line on the expression of sexuality? Where do objectification and degradation end and where does the right to choose begin? Because even though the see-saw is tipping, I argue that it is wrong to see things in black and white. We must confront the idea that those buying sex workers are in many ways entrapped in the same societal expectations of sexuality as the sex workers are. Otherwise we are blinding ourselves to the nuances of sexuality and also giving powers of choice and autonomy to buyers that do not exist in reality.

One thing is clear, the sex industry and its workers need to be made more visible. A broad cross-section of workers needs to be given a voice and the industry to be governed by clear rules and regulations that have the sex workers and their well-being and security at their core. Facelessness and the denial of personhood it implies is not an option.

Image by navonod, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 9 May 2012 at 10:49 am

Thanks a lot for this post, it is brave and touches many issues I feel strongly about.

I am really sorry for how awful you felt and that your relationship ended and what I want to say below in no way disputes your experience or disregards your hurt feelings.

However, you are writing you felt corrupted “not by the fact that he had had sex with a sex worker, but by the fact that another woman had been used, purely and explicitly, to gratify the person whom I had such faith in.” I am wondering, would you (or another woman in your position?) feel corrupted in the same way if your ex-partner had had sex with his colleague, a stranger picked up in a bar, a perhaps mutual friend of yours? In the case of long distance relationship, the assumption was that your ex technically was in a relationship (with you) so whoever he’d sex with would be branded ‘cheating’ and within this idiom any woman he’d sex with would be ‘used, purely and explicitly, to gratify’ him. (As it wasn’t the case of “I am sorry, but you’re far away and I met somebody else here and I will start seeing her now”).

Then you are writing about your sexuality being ‘compromised’ by the fact that the cheating was with the sex worker (and not any, just-as-faceless woman) and this is the argument used often by women who say that prostitution should be made illegal and all sex workers re-educated (and these are not necessarily women who share your experience of partner infidelity). They say that the sole fact of the *existence* of prostitution (understood as exchanging sex for money) compromises non-sex workers sexuality, somehow taking away their sexual empowerment and freedom.

Again: in a monogamous relationship, any infidelity is ‘degrading’ and potentially fatal for it. However, a strong argument can be made for a ‘just business’ sex exchange being better than long time affair(s) or one-off ‘exploitation’ of unsuspecting women (who may be hurt, expecting more from a guy who just wants sex because his girlfriend is far away but will lie his way into their pants?).

I believe that listening to how things look like from sex workers’ perspective is crucial even though understandably it is not easy, especially after the experience you’ve had. Men in long-term relationships are often the clients of sex workers and from the latter’s stories these interactions are not inherently ‘degrading’: some of the men pay for companionship more than anything else.

Finally, most sex workers whose opinions I’ve read online or heard expressed in person are deeply offended by the assertion that punters are ‘buying sex workers’: they are buying sex. Using such language (also ‘the denial of personhood’?) is alienating and hurtful and surely does not help in making sex workers have faces and be respected.

Ann-Marie Foster // Posted 9 May 2012 at 11:08 am

Yes….and no.

I agree – the tide does seem to be slowly turning against the punters – men of free will who have a choice on how to spend their money.

To give an example of how using a prostitute has become a “life-style” choice – the police in Northern Ireland recently revealed that one of the busiest nights in the Belfast sex trade was on Thursdays – the city’s late-night shopping evening. while their wives and girlfriends were wandering around the shops, the men chose to visit prostitutes. Not sit in a bar, not stay at home watching TV, not take the kids for a walk.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) have warned punters that if they are caught, police officers will be knocking on their doors.

In Belfast there are practically no street prostitutes left – the exploitation has moved indoors, to anonymous flats in bland developments dotted around the city, so it’s easy for a man to press a buzzer and spend half an hour or so with a prostitute before nipping back to collect the shopping and tell the lies.

But indoors is no safer for the women – certainly not according to the blogs of those who have exited from prostitution.

I was interested in your references to the law in New Zealand. Personally I don’t agree with legalising brothels. I feel it dehumanises the women behind those closed doors and sweeps the issues of abuse and exploitation neatly out of the way so society doesn’t have to think about what exactly goes on.

It is time to hear from the women involved in prostitution. It won’t be a comfortable conversation.

JLO@WVoN // Posted 9 May 2012 at 11:16 am

This is an interesting article. My experience has been an ex who paid for sex with a sex worker before I met him and also an ex who boasted of visiting lap dancing clubs while I was with him. Both of these revelations tipped my world on its axis – and like the author of this piece I was plunged into a conflicting set of emotions, but what emerged was the recognition that these ex partners saw women as objects to be used for their own sexual gratification. I do take the author’s point that my exes are a product of the society we live within and they paid for sex without any kind of contextual understanding of the nature of the purchase. But that doesn’t excuse what they did, and it does not mitigate the shame I felt in realising that I had had relationships with men whose actions went against every belief that I held about the discrimination and sexualisation of women. I also felt stupid for living in a bubble where I believed that they saw me/all women as independent beings worthy of respect: by paying for sex, they demonstrated that this was not the case. For me this is also the case with men consuming pornography – again using women for their own gratification, like it is some divine right. I am undecided about the regulation of sex work for a number of reasons, but I do agree that facelessness and the denial of personhood contributes to the disassociation that men employ when paying for sex in that they are having sex with an object rather than a person. As I say, interesting piece.

Lisa // Posted 9 May 2012 at 12:06 pm

When I looked even further, I saw that my ex was tied into the same dynamic – his choice was not a choice in the freest sense of the word. He, like the rest of us, had the patriarchy inside his head.

Sure he had a choice. At the moment when it became explicit that he was going to hand over money, he had a choice just to hand over the money and not to require her to perform a sex act with him first. Yes, patriarchy attempts to condition men to act like playground bullies and keep the money out of reach, saying, “Jump, honey, if you want the cash,” but in feminism we draw a line at perpetration. Don’t we?

Rose // Posted 9 May 2012 at 4:02 pm

@Lisa – Hell yeah!

My partner had the same socialisation as his brother, but they behave very differently.

For me it’s not just the disrespect in cheating, or the disrespectful treatment of ‘the other woman’ – its a serious statement about a guys concept of ‘woman’. I would never have a relationship with a guy that had been to a prostitute. I have had friends that were prostitutes from poverty, including starting as children, and the way that they were abused by men with ready cash was disgusting. It did them all long-term damage. It was heartbreaking to watch. I would never forgive a guy that had done that to a woman. The guy has a choice – poverty can take that choice away from the women.

In my opinion, if we had the ‘average’ prostitutes story, instead of the middle class playing-poverty-fetish prostitutes story, there would be no question about needing to criminalise the ‘johns’.

Laura // Posted 9 May 2012 at 5:06 pm

@ Ania

I have to say, I would much prefer that my partner cheated on me (in hypothetical land!) with someone who wasn’t a sex worker. At least then he would be engaging in a mutually-desired sexual experience, rather than one where he has essentially bought the woman’s consent. Sure, he may happen upon a sex worker who likes her job, but he may equally end up exploiting a woman who has a history of trauma and abuse. The fact that he would be prepared to take that chance would absolutely appal and disgust me, on top of the betrayal of our relationship.

anywavewilldo // Posted 11 May 2012 at 12:38 am



Hell yeah!

We all have patriarchy in our heads – but people[TM] with boots ON knecks certainly have more room for agency than people[TM] with boots on THEIR knecks.

Oh the Nigels and their conditioning! This is why being a dyke is so relaxing…

Regards, Anywave Willdo


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