Sex work will not be empowering until it is organized

Ashley Ryan argues against the idea that sex work as it currently exists is empowering.

This is an unpopular opinion, but I do not believe sex work is empowering women. Yes, sex work is work. It is awful work. I respect the hustle and want women who do it to make as much money as possible while working as safely as possible. But I can’t in good conscience say sex work is empowering. It did not empower me. Being able to make money doing something does not make it empowering. Sex work activists who say so are embracing a nonsense, petit-bourgeois notion of empowerment. Being an independent contractor does not mean you escape the logic of capitalism.

Looking back on that time in my life, I am ashamed that I bought into the liberal ideology that sex work can be a form of feminist resistance. Some sex workers find sex work to be empowering because men tell them that they are bright and attractive and enjoy their company. Others find being their own boss empowering. Also, they feel empowered because they are paid to do something that feels good. Additionally, the sex trade is very lucrative and you can be your own boss.

During my years as a sex worker, I worked with close to a hundred women and for most of them, it wasn’t empowerment. It was about single moms trying to earn enough money to take care of their kids, or it was about being able to pay for expensive substance abuse habits. In no way am I suggesting that these women did not have agency or did not choose to be involved in the sex trade. What I am saying is that I heard a ton of tragic life stories and many (if not most) of the women I worked with wouldn’t have worked in the sex trade had their circumstances been different.

For myself, I was desperate for money and loved the attention. I was very fortunate in my “career”. I started out working in “spas” and never had to work outdoors. The environment at the first spa I worked at was awful and abusive. I would have to work 48 hour shifts where I had to sit in a dark room by myself and wasn’t allowed to talk to or interact with the other women working the same shift as me. The owners and managers would constantly try to find reasons to take a bigger cut of my money. On a few occasions, they “fined” me $200 for every five minutes that I was late for a shift. I also never received any of my money from the men who paid on debit. One night, I brought in $800 in debits and didn’t see a cent of it (and I was just about to be late on rent, so I desperately needed the cash). Additionally, there was an old man who clearly had dementia who would come to the spa and choose one of the women on shift and they would go into one of the rooms. He never had money, but he would constantly show up. At this spa, you had to pay to rent a room, even if you could not negotiate a deal with the client. So, if you were chosen by this man, you were essentially going into debt because it cost $50/hour to rent a room. Also, this man would grope me, even after I told him that there was no way that I was going to have sex with him for $20. All of the women working at the spa would beg the manager to stop letting him in, but they didn’t care because it wasn’t hurting *their* bottom line. Furthermore, when business was slow, I would often have debt for simply showing up for work because I had to pay host fees to be there, regardless of whether or not I had any clients during the shift I was working.

The second spa that I worked was better, but still pretty shitty. The owner encouraged us to offer unprotected sex for an additional fee. I liked most of my coworkers, though, so I usually enjoyed going to work. We would often spend hours eating take out and just visiting and gossiping with each other — typical female friendship stuff. The owner was very friendly with the police and that put a few of the women I worked with at risk of losing access to their kids. The environment drastically changed when the owner hired a manager who would threaten to hit me with a stick. One morning, we were informed that we were not allowed to shower between clients because the utility bills were too high. Myself and most of the women I worked with were furious, so I suggested we do a march on the boss. During the march on the boss, the owner started crying hysterically and saying that all she really cares about is providing a safe place for us to work so that we stay off the streets, a common tactic used by bosses to discourage workers from further organizing their workplace. She went back to allowing us to shower, however our host fees and room rental fees were increased. We were all pissed about that, but many of the women I worked with did not want to escalate things further because they were worried about feeding their kids. Much like the first spa I worked at, when I quit, I did not receive the money that was owed to me from the clients who paid with debit.

Eventually, I got sick of being treated like garbage and managers taking an unfair cut of my money, so I decided to work for myself. Some people find independent sex work less exploitative than other jobs under capitalism because it isn’t working for a boss. However, that was not my experience. At first I enjoyed it, but it was still depressing. I met another sex worker and she introduced me to the review board scene. Basically, there was a local website dedicated to rating full service sex workers on a scale of 1-10 based on “looks, service and attitude”. The men who posted on these websites believed they were participating in a “hobby.” As if having sexual intercourse with a sex worker is a hobby akin to knitting or building model trains. The men involved in the review board scene hold a scary amount of power over full service sex workers. I saw many women’s reputations and livelihoods destroyed because men would post fake reviews claiming that they were robbed or worse if they did not do exactly what the man wanted (even if it made her uncomfortable).The reviews posted on those sites run by customers are the example of how escorts don’t have control over their own industry. The men involved in the “hobby” would host parties where they could socialize with the sex workers who were well-reviewed. These parties were a good opportunity to drum up business, however, I had to put up with the men groping and trying to kiss me for free.

Sex work will not be empowering until it is organized. The main obstacle is trying to organize an industry that depends on client relations rather than collectively advancing power. The second obstacle is that sex workers are independent contractors. I know of a few collectives who share an apartment to work form, but from what I have seen online, these collectives usually don’t last very long because of conflict between the women sharing the work space. Often, this has to do with the fact that all of the women sharing the space are competitors at the end of the day. One sex worker’s regular client may decide to become another sex worker’s regular. This means that the first sex worker has lost a consistent source of income. This can cause tension within the collective. And, we all know that a mass cooperative movement can never pose a legitimate challenge to the employing class. Another obstacle to organizing sex work is that many sex workers are hesitant to organize because they want to be in charge of what their fees are and organizing the industry might mean regulating how much they can charge. Additionally, we need a new review board culture. As Kitten Karlyle has argued, “While most hobbyists are not sociopathic predators who use coercive tactics to rape sex workers, the very fact that a review community exists creates a power structure that makes coercive rape a fairly common occurrence for sex workers.”

I’ll say it again: while I respect the hustle and want sex workers to make as much money as possible while working as safely as possible – which is why I support decriminalization — I do not believe sex work is empowering women. Just because you can make money doing something does not make it empowering. Being an independent contractor does not mean you escape the logic of capitalism. Sex work will be empowering when the industry is organized, and that is a difficult task.