Villainizing sex workers won’t improve their lives. Basic labor rights will.
Melissa Gira Grant
March 5, 2014
There is no one sex industry. Escorting, street hustling, hostessing, stripping, performing sex for videos and webcams—the range of labor that falls under the umbrella of “the sex industry” makes speaking of just one sometimes feel inadequate. To collapse all commercial sex that way often risks conjuring something so flat and shallow that it would only reinforce the insistence that all sex for sale results from the same phenomenon—violence, deviance or desperation.
In many ways, the sex industry is just a part of the larger “informal economy,” that shadow marketplace of workplaces with varying degrees of regulation and legality. In the informal economy, those industries operating under the most intense criminalization, in the least understood sectors, have methods of organization and convention that are kept intentionally private, discreet. The workers of these industries are confined to a “floating city,” as sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh describes it in his book of the same name, imagined as existing outside the confines of more legitimate society. But it would seem that the informal sector’s many scholars, who have mapped the labor of trash pickers and street sellers, counterfeiters and smugglers, have failed to give sex work its due—because it is criminal, because it is service work and, in many cases, because it is work gendered as female.
I’ll describe just a few of the workplaces that these observers of the informal economy have almost entirely overlooked. One is a commercial dungeon—which is in reality just a house on a residential block in a suburb of a major American city, connected by public transit to its central business district and those who work there. This is not a marginal place, nor is it a place marked by transgression. It’s only called a dungeon so that clients seeking the services of those who work there can know what to expect—versus, say, a massage studio or a gentlemen’s club. There is no one held in chains but those who pay to be placed in them, and even then, only for an agreed time.
In a dungeon a client can expect that several workers will be available on each shift, and some of these workers will want to do what he wants to and some won’t. A receptionist will take his call, or answer his e-mail and assign him to a worker based on what he’d like, the worker’s preferences and mutual availability. Some dungeons might post their workers’ specialties on a website. They might also keep them listed in a binder next to the phone, the workers each taking turns playing receptionist, matching clients to workers over their shift. After each appointment the worker would write up a short memo and file it for future reference should the client call again, so that others would know more about him. The dungeon is informal only to the extent that the labor producing value inside its walls isn’t regarded as real work. There are shift meetings, schedules and a commission split based on seniority. Utility bills arrive, and are paid. Property taxes, too. In some cases the manager would give discreet employment references. And sometimes people were fired.
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