Greetings from The Slave Detective,
There are many that discuss Prostitution and Human trafficking in the same breath. Those that read my blogs (currently 17,628 of you) will know that many of my posts are about this very subject.
One of my readers sent me this article.
Before you read it though consider this. When I, in my line of duty, entered brothels in the UK I rarely found an english speaking sex worker. The Pimps and madams who ran the brothels obviously spoke very well. I doubt many of the working girls in this article are ones who lobby for change!
Melissa is also based in the USA which have totally different problems to those in the UK.
Melissa Gira Grant was one of the first webcam girls, before becoming a journalist. She talks to Liz Hoggard about the proposed changes to the UK’s prostitution laws.
American journalist Melissa Gira Grant wants to change the way we think about prostitution and sex work. Rather than dwelling on the “sex” part, Grant suggests we focus on “work”. By doing so, she argues, sex workers become neither corrupters, nor victims who need rescuing, but workers who need access to healthcare, a safe work environment and protection from abuse and exploitation.
A former sex worker herself (she was one of the first “webcam girls”), Gira Grant, 36, believes it’s possible to be anti-sex work but pro-sex workers’ rights. She has written extensively about sex, politics, labour and technology for the Guardian, Glamour, Wired, Jezebel and the Washington Post, and published Take This Book, an ebook on the Occupy Wall Street People’s Library, and Coming and Crying, an anthology of true stories about sex.
And now, just as prostitution is at the forefront of the news again with the proposed introduction to the UK of the Nordic model of criminalising clients and pimps instead of prostitutes, she is publishing her new book, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work.
Born in Boston, she studied comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts and is a graduate of the National Sexual Resource Centre’s Institute on Sexuality, Health, and Inequality at San Francisco State University. Today she lives and blogs in Brooklyn.
The sex industry is an endless source of fascination for the mainstream media. But rarely do dispatches come from sex workers themselves. What do you believe your new book adds to the debate? When I first started looking for things to read about sex work in the late 1990s, most of the books that had been published were memoirs, though there were a couple of great anthologies of political essays written by sex workers that I just found so valuable. But in the past few years there haven’t been as many books like that, so I wanted to write something about sex work post-2000, to update that literature. Most of the stories about sex workers that I came across in the press focused on sex workers’ behaviour – or, even worse, treating sex workers as a problem to be solved. It made me think that what needed to be done was invert the question, and take the people who were shaping and controlling the lives of sex workers (police, press, policy makers) and to put the focus on them. And to ask questions about their motivations, beliefs and values, and also what they stood to gain from the kinds of stories they shared about sex work, and the kinds of policing and sex policy they were introducing around sex work – particularly with the absence of sex workers involved. These people I focus on are presumed to be the experts on sex work, even though in most cases they haven’t done sex work themselves. It happens all the time that politicians will convene and debate laws about sex work without actually having sex workers participate.
You say: “I’m not ashamed of my experiences as a sex worker — I don’t harbour trauma, and I don’t have problems talking about them.” So why don’t you reveal more about this aspect of your own life in the book? I would still like to write a memoir, but this book is more a political memoir. It’s talking about the experiences that I had in activist communities, and also about my experience as a journalist. There is me in there. But it’s not the peepshow me that generally the sex work memoir is restricted to.
Why did you get into sex work? For money.
How did you get into journalism? My very first memories are of writing. It’s my own writing that in some ways motivated the experiences I had in sex work. I wouldn’t say I got into sex work because I wanted to write about it. I got into sex work because I wanted to afford to be a writer. It’s an incredibly underpaid profession and ever more precarious. And it’s only been in the last four years that I’ve focused on journalism as my livelihood and haven’t done sex work. It was being part of sex-worker movement communities that gave me access to all these brilliant people and allowed me to be part of a world that I thought was so under-represented. I don’t think anyone goes into activism without personal experience.
How easy was it to write about sex work for the mainstream media when you first started? Initially I was writing for a predominantly male readership about technology for Valleywag, the Gawker media blog, which pushed all the typical debates about prostitution to the side, to focus on the much more material and present issue, which is how is the internet changing the sex industry? And that opened up the space to look at a very different set of stories.
People talk about a transition from the red-light district to the online red-light district, and the way the internet allows sex workers to operate their own businesses, without having to have a third party, and to share information anonymously. I find it fascinating how websites such as Craigslist used to make sex work visible online. If you were looking for an apartment or at the gigs sections on the front page, erotic services were right next to them, which made quite a statement and I think provoked some anxiety that it was just treated as another service on the site.
What do you think of the results of a year-long UK parliamentary inquiry into sex work where MPs have called for the introduction of the “Nordic” or “Scandinavian” model of prostitution, whereby clients and pimps are criminalised rather than the women themselves? First, I think people need to be very clear what they’re talking about – we call it the Nordic/Scandinavian model – but there’s one law in Sweden, there’s a law in Norway and one in Iceland, and they differ from one another..
In Norway, where the buyer of sex is considered criminal, there are reports of sex workers facing increased violence on the streets, and reports that sex workers have less ability to choose which customers they see and which they don’t because when the customer is fearful of arrest they’re not necessarily going to adhere to the safety protocols that sex workers have developed. So it still puts sex workers in an adversarial relationship with the police. And as long as their work is considered criminal, it can’t actually be considered real work. I think the bottom line for me is: sex workers aren’t supporting these proposals that are currently in front of the UK, or those in front of the European Parliament – in fact they stand quite opposed to these measures.
The people who are most likely to experience harm from them are the people standing up and saying: “We don’t want this.”
You think that part of the problem is the way we conflate prostitution with “sex trafficking”… We know from experts in labour exploitation that forced labour in the sex industry is just one part of all of the kinds of forced labour that people experience. There are other industries such as domestic work and agricultural work where there are greater instances of forced labour. However, the lion’s share of the conversation about trafficking is about what’s referred to as “sex trafficking”. And I think that’s because the proponents of that view don’t actually believe that sex work can be considered work. They assume it must be devoid of choice and consent and therefore all sex work is equivalent to trafficking. It’s only been in the last 15 years that we’ve talked about trafficking in this way, and in particular we use these very sensational narratives that employ images of women in sex work to tell the story of everybody involved in trafficking. Even survivors of sex trafficking say that sort of imagery doesn’t speak to their experience, that it feels objectifying and dehumanising. And I think that could make it much harder to support and identify people who are trafficked and who do need help.
Who were your role models growing up? I feel I was very lucky as a young person to have images of women playing with their sexuality like the riot grrrls. It was a powerful thing.
Do you tell partners about your past? I remember a friend saying: “You put everything out there”, because I had a personal blog at the time and I thought: “Just because I tell you things people aren’t supposed to talk about in public, doesn’t mean you know me. I’m just offering you a window into my life, I’m not offering you my whole life.” But, yes, it’s a relief because I don’t have the sense of getting to know someone, whether it’s a friend, a colleague or a partner, and then someday something is going to come out that will damage the whole thing, because I feel like I am quite an open person. But on the other hand there’s no substitute for actually building intimacy over time, right?