Saying It for Themselves

Whores and Other Feminists edited by Jill Nagle. Routledge. Paperback, 312 pages. $43.

The cover of Whores and Other Feminists

WHORES AND OTHER FEMINISTS turns twenty this year, and it’s still the best academic anthology about sex work available—though academic is perhaps an odd term to use for a collection that includes such personal pieces as “Confessions of a Fat Sex Worker” and “500 Words on Acculturation.” (The latter opens, “She fucked me from behind with a nine-inch black rubber dick, pounding my pussy like driving a stake.”) “I didn’t want to go with a mainstream house because I didn’t want them to exploit the subject matter,” said the volume’s editor, Jill Nagle, in a 1997 interview, explaining how the anthology came to be published by Routledge. “I wanted this book to be taken seriously as an intellectual work.” And it’s true that there’s no shortage of theorizing and citations amid the vivid descriptions of sex, though the contributors mostly gloss over or omit educational bona fides in their biographies. What makes Whores and Other Feminists so much more worthwhile than many scholarly texts on sex work is that all its writers have actually worked in the field.

I discovered the book in 2004, when I was living alone in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood, a few blocks away from the country’s oldest LGBT bookstore. I spent most of my nights alone in my apartment’s second bedroom, where I sold private shows on a webcam site called Flirt4Free, then wrote or watched Netflix DVDs until I was relaxed enough to sleep. During my truncated days, I walked around the city—also alone—and read and shopped for clothes or books. I thought a lot about how I felt when I encountered porn made by others (shocked, upset, sad) and how I felt when I made my own (annoyed, bored, amused: in other words, fine). The only context I had for understanding sexual commerce came from what I’d read by Andrea Dworkin and what I’d soaked up from our whore-hating culture—until, that is, I came across Whores and Other Feminists. The book may not have changed my circumstances, but I can say that it has changed who I am. It taught me how to navigate the dissonance between the way I experienced sex work and the way most authorities (prominent feminists among them) said a woman should experience it.

“Mainstream feminism’s insistence that certain kinds of consensual sex are degrading to women,” Veronica Monét writes in “Sedition,” “reinforces the belief that women are property that lose value with use or at least certain kinds of use.” The other contributors to Whores regularly describe experiencing this form of sexist rejection within the feminism that should have been their haven—indeed, the book exists because of it. In the aforementioned interview, Nagle said she was inspired to assemble the anthology by a 1994 Ms. magazine roundtable discussion about sex work that included no current sex workers. (Her subsequent letter to the magazine’s editors asked, “If you were having a roundtable on lesbianism, would you only invite heterosexual married women?”) In “Inventing Sex Work,” Carol Leigh wonders, “How could women who worked as prostitutes and porn models tell the truth about their lives within the hostile environment of the women’s movement?” She coined the term in her essay’s title with the intention of giving such women a tool to claim space and respect within that hostile environment.

It was a success, sort of. The phrase sex work is used and recognized around the world, and it has played an indelible role in inclining discussions on the topic to prioritize human rights and harm reduction. There have been some huge triumphs, most notably Amnesty International’s 2016 adoption of a policy recommending decriminalization. Yet in the years since the book was published, none of the tensions Whores identifies between the feminist party line in the US and sex-working women’s interests has been significantly alleviated or addressed. Witness, for example, self-appointed feminist figurehead Lena Dunham’s vehement opposition to the Amnesty International policy, or the lauding of Senator Kamala Harris, a woman who aggressively pursued sex-work-related convictions while serving as California’s attorney general. One of the most intractable sticking points in these political battles involves the inconvenient truth that sexual labor is only as exploitative as other forms of labor, which, under capitalism, compel participation through the implicit threat of ostracism, homelessness, sickness, and starvation. We in the US have yet to see a concerted push from contemporary feminists to rethink the desirability and inevitability of capitalism. Politically, it is safe to attack sex work as immoral and coercive but less so to say such things about domestic labor or farming jobs.

Participation in heterosexuality, too, has long been compelled under similar terms. “Like many other women, I was raised to trade sexuality for survival, or some social advantage,” Carol Leigh writes, arguing that “good” women have more in common with sex workers than they might like to admit. “The existence of the overt economy of sex,” Eva Pendleton writes in “Love for Sale,” “brings to light the greater economy of heterosexuality in general.” This is one of the book’s most frequently expressed ideas: When women are “paid to perform heterosexuality, that is to say, to play a role of sexual availability and feminine receptivity, [they can become] less willing to play that role for free.” As Vicky Funari asks in “Naked, Naughty, Nasty,” “If capitalism was structuring my work experiences, and if sexism was structuring roles within capitalism, what had I to lose by facing overt rather than covert realities?”

That’s a question with no adequate answer. It’s also one of many moments in the book to demonstrate that a feminism that embraces sex workers can be far more intellectually rigorous and coherent than a feminism that silences them. “Mainstream feminism has yet to make major moves beyond analyzing how sex work oppresses women to theorizing how feminism reproduces oppression of sex workers and how incorporating sex-worker feminisms results in richer analyses of gender oppression,” Nagle suggests in the introduction. The beauty of this book and of much subsequent writing, political action, and public engagement by sex workers lies in showing how they can—and do—create media and theory without waiting for other feminists’ permission to do so. “We don’t have to ask to be included,” Nagle said. “We’re including ourselves.”

Charlotte Shane is the author of the memoir Prostitute Laundry (TigerBee Press, 2015).