The Sex Industry: Prostitution, and “Whore-ism”

This is Part I of a two-part series about The Sex Industry. Stay tuned for Part II: Pornography.

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This is a really controversial topic in general, and I want to make a few things clear before going into it:

What I am discussing in this post are philosophical ideas about the sex industry, theories about why the sex industry exists, what it means for US culture, for women and men, and as a result, whether or not it should, theoretically or ideally, continue.

What I am not discussing are legal consequences for sex workers; protection for sex workers if they are harassed, abused, or otherwise violated; or the legality of sex work of any kind.

First, I wanted to raise a general question:

What, exactly, is “whoreism”?

I first encountered the term on a blog. I think it was the Feminism 101 blog, but I haven’t been able to find the reference when I sought it out. Googling has not helped. I’ve tried several different combinations of words and phrases, but have yet to find anything that explains in greater detail what I wonder about.

From what I can reasonably assume based on whatever it was that I read is that “whoreism” means the institutional and social oppression of women (or men, but not nearly as often) who receive money in exchange for sexual favors of any kind. The general vibe is that someone who could be described as a “whoreist” is someone who discriminates against someone because of their status as a sex worker. Sex worker could mean prostitute, stripper, phone sex operator, porn actor, etc.

What I don’t understand is how, or why, this behavior or belief system would even have a name. Now, this is my understanding based on limited education on the matter, but I don’t understand the concept. I will attempt to explain why I am unconvinced that this is an issue I should glance twice at:

For one thing, to decide that there is an oppressive discrimination that occurs against sex workers that is deserving of a movement would be comparable, to me, to saying that the male guy with glasses who loves video games is oppressed because people call him a “nerd.”

I feel that this is different and, yes, less important, than issues such as sexism, homophobia, racism, to name only a few. If you are a black lesbian, for example, you are likely to be discriminated against because of several personal identifiers that are beyond your control. There is the chance for racism, sexism, and homophobia. You, as a black lesbian, have no control over the color of your skin, your sexual orientation, or your sex. Those three things all occurred naturally. For me to declare your race, sexual orientation, or your sex to be negative in any way would be legitimate oppressive discrimination.

Receiving money in exchange for sex is a decision. You are not born a prostitute, or come out of the womb doing sex work; you aren’t forced to do it, and if you are, that is obviously a fucking terrible crime and punishable by law. But we’re not talking about people who are born into sexual slavery. Point being, profiting monetarily from engaging in, or performing, sex acts is a choice that one makes.

While I believe that prostitution should be legal (for safety of everyone involved, and because it will happen regardless of what laws are in place, as we can obviously observe), I do not understand why I should pay any kind of attention to how positively I see this particular job, or care how a sex worker feels about my opinion of their job.

I work for a national bank that is run by rich, old white men who got Michele Bachmann in office. When I consider my ideal workplace, I do not think of my present employer, because our philosophies so greatly differ. I know that there are plenty of other people who would not choose to work for a national bank on principle and think less of me for choosing to do so. However, I need a paycheck, and this is what comes easiest to me now. I ignore the opinions of the people who think I shouldn’t work at this bank, or at a bank at all, and I choose to continue working at the bank. I chose to apply there, I choose to continue my employment there. I like it well enough. I do not believe that there needs to be a shift in the way that our culture views my job. People are entitled to their opinions, and any one choice I make will never, ever please everyone who observes it. I was not born a check card fraud investigator; I made the decision to take a job as a fraud investigator and I continue to choose to keep that job. Meanwhile, some people like my haircut (the one that I chose to get) and some people don’t. No one told me that my natural hair color (which I was born with and cannot choose or change) was inferior to the natural hair color of another person; they told me they’re not really a fan of my new haircut.

Everyone’s choices are open to being criticized. It’s not only a fact of life; it’s the natural order of things. There would be no need for choices if we were all programmed with code that allowed us to operate in the most highly efficient and pleasurable ways possible at all times.

So, why should I have sympathy for sex workers who are annoyed at being viewed as “slutty” or perpetuating an industry that’s negative for all women and the way that all women are perceived? It’s only my opinion of a job that someone chose to have, not a negative view of the person based on something that she cannot choose or change.

Whenever the sex industry, prostitution, pornography, etc. is brought to my attention, I tend to just shake my head and think something to the effect of, “to each their own.” I figure, usually, that if people get off on something, if people want to do something, then why not? If it harms no one, then by all means, do what makes you happy. But I am having a hard time standing by that these days, and only when it comes to this particular topic.

Personally, I can see the appeal in being a sex worker. The money is good, and in the end, it’s just another job, right? There are unenjoyable aspects of it, but they could be compared to being the one to clean the bathrooms of the gas station you work in instead of mopping the floors. Ultimately, there are things you hate and there are things you could do without. Everyone who works for a living can agree with that. People who don’t work for a living could say the same thing, have the same benefits vs. drawbacks conversation.

Ultimately, when you look at the sex industry from the ant-farm perspective, one has to wonder why there are so vastly many more women and other oppressed minorities working in the industry than any other. How many straight white guys (who we can all reasonably agree are the most privileged class, generally speaking) do you know that regularly, for a living, engage in or perform sex acts on/with straight women in exchange for money?

Not many, if any at all, I’d venture to guess.

What’s with the disparity? Why are more women the sex performers and not men? How come white, heterosexual, middle-class men not engaging in the lucrative world of sex work, specifically with hetero female clients? Engaging in sex acts for money is obviously a good decision if you want to make money. After all, people are willing to pay top dollar for discreet, anonymous sex.

Right?

Oh, right, because there is no demand for them. Heterosexual women, in a very general sense, are not collectively concerned with having sex to a great enough degree that we’d be willing to pay men for it in droves. Chippendales is practically a joke; hetero women only see male strippers for laughs. Hetero men, relative to hetero women, go to strip clubs constantly and maybe some laugh, but most experience a form a sexual gratification, and that the intent when the decision to go to a strip club is made.

I’m not a scientist, so this is just a general theory based on nearly-educated guesses and the joint I just smoked, so don’t get too jumpy with me just yet.

We know that men and women have some biological differences, namely their naturally occurring hormone balance. Men generally have more testosterone than estrogen, women typically have more estrogen than testosterone. We also know that the two hormones have vastly different effects on bodies that they exist in, and on the sexual nature of these bodies. A very enlightening book to read on the differences between testosterone and estrogen is The Testosterone Files, by Max Wolf Velario, who wrote this memoir about the hormonal changes that occurred in his transition from female to male.

So we can reasonably agree that testosterone makes most men more interested in sex and more sexual beings than women, whose predominance of estrogen tends to lessen her sex drive or slows her desire for sex to a more gradual level, as opposed to the immediacy of male arousal and climax. These facts make it easy to agree that the lack of heterosexual male sex workers and the lack of demand for them, and the abundance of female sex workers and the constant demand for them are naturally occurring.

There is also evidence to suggest that testosterone makes a person more aggressive, physically and otherwise, which manifests in men more than women because men generally have higher levels of testosterone in their body than women

The only problem with this “natural occurrence” is that it put the sex worker at a disadvantage in all situations. The man is more powerful and in a position where he feels control over another’s body. It isn’t an iPod purchased for his pleasure, it’s the use of a human being’s body. Even if this isn’t the way that the male client treats the sex worker, the potential for the power disparity is there, at all times.

I am going to make some vast assumptions now, and even knowing that they are vast and not to be representative of the entirety of sex workers, I am still going to say it, because I think it’s a decent theory, if anything:

I would bet a great deal that no sex worker can honestly say that all her life, she’s wanted to be a sex worker. Or that now that she’s in the sex industry, she feels personally fulfilled. That she really and truly “loves her job.” There are certainly people who do it because they see it as a great source of quick cash and even long-term income and the sex part isn’t really such a big deal. But, I am highly suspect of any sex worker who would actually say that sex work is the only line of work that they would enjoy, and that there is no other job that they would like more.

Ultimately, here it is: I hate the idea of the sex industry. I hate what it does, what it looks like, and what it implies. I don’t, however, think that sex work should be illegal or criminalized in any way. The reason for this is because real people are sex workers, and all real people deserve good health and need protection. Prostitution will not ever go away, and because it won’t, sex workers need protection under the law the same way that construction workers are protected under the law. But? I wish it wasn’t that way. I wish there wasn’t a demand for sex work. It’s idealistic, I know, but I don’t see a positive in sex work that outweighs any negative, at all.

And, ultimately, sex work is still a choice, and therefore up for criticism, and not something that needs it’s own social justice movement. That’s just ridiculous.

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22 Responses to The Sex Industry: Prostitution, and “Whore-ism”

  1. ballgame says:

    Great post, ethifem. (BTW, you might want to put your handle in your “About” section.) I like the open way you write.

    In terms of substance, I disagree with a good bit of it. Let me start off with a question about your feelings toward the sex industry. Are you familiar with Renegade Evolution (old blog, and new blog)? She has written frequently about the fact that, while there are ups and downs to her work in the sex business, she has greatly preferred her career path to others she might have taken. Do you really think she’s lying?

    Now, let’s assume — just for the sake of argument, I’m not assuming this is reality — that the majority of sex workers genuinely preferred their chosen career to others that were available to them. Would your feelings toward the business stay the same?

  2. ethifem says:

    Thanks for checking out the new blog, ballgame!

    I haven’t seen the blog until just now when I read a few posts from each, but I think I recognize the handle from Feministe comment threads.

    I don’t necessarily think she’s lying. I don’t want to venture into the dangerous territory of saying that I know what someone wants/needs/thinks more than they themselves do, but I can’t get rid of the nagging little voice that says that, still, this job wasn’t her first choice.

    If every sex worker, or even a vast majority of them, were to genuinely love their jobs and their line of work really were their first choices, then my feelings may change. The reason for this is because the power dynamic is no longer placing the female sex worker at a disadvantage. If the line of work were the first choice for employment by the vast majority of sex workers, then I’d guess that with that would come a greater demand for male prostitutes (by heterosexual women). Both parties are equal in that scenario. But I don’t believe that to be the case, currently.

    My feelings about porn are a bit different than my feelings about prostitution, though. I’m trying to figure out a concise way to explain that for an upcoming post.

  3. Daran says:

    I don’t necessarily think she’s lying. I don’t want to venture into the dangerous territory of saying that I know what someone wants/needs/thinks more than they themselves do, but I can’t get rid of the nagging little voice that says that, still, this job wasn’t her first choice.

    The strongest thing for that comes out of her blogging is how passionate she is. Whatever it is she is saying, she really, really means it.

    If every sex worker, or even a vast majority of them, were to genuinely love their jobs and their line of work really were their first choices, then my feelings may change. The reason for this is because the power dynamic is no longer placing the female sex worker at a disadvantage. If the line of work were the first choice for employment by the vast majority of sex workers,…

    Do you think that checkout operators genuinely love their jobs, and that it’s their first choice? What about refuse collectors? Office cleaners? Farm labourers?

    … then I’d guess that with that would come a greater demand for male prostitutes (by heterosexual women). Both parties are equal in that scenario. But I don’t believe that to be the case, currently.

    My understanding is that demand for male prostitutes is mostly also from men.

    I don’t agree with you that women in general want sex discernibly less than men. Rather I think the lack of female demand for male prostitutes is at least partly explained by heterosexual women’s greater ability in general to attract a large pool of interested men from which she can pick suitable partners. That in turns is because society equips women to do this. See the last four paragraphs of this post and the ensuing discussion.

    • ethifem says:

      Do you think that checkout operators genuinely love their jobs, and that it’s their first choice? What about refuse collectors? Office cleaners? Farm labourers?

      No, I’d guess that the vast majority of working people are not doing exactly what they want, or don’t have other ideas about what they’d rather be doing. The difference is in the ways that the sex industry (specifically, prostitution) is damaging to both women and society at large. This, in my opinion, is due to the imbalance of power that exists in the current way that the mainstream sex industry operates.

      My understanding is that demand for male prostitutes is mostly also from men.

      I also understand this to be true. You bring up a good point. If demand for male prostitutes is mostly from men, then it’s more likely that the male sex worker is also equally enjoying and benefiting from the experience, which would make it an equal transaction and not damaging to anyone involved, men or women, or society as a whole.

      I don’t wish to just perpetuate potentially negative stereotypes, so it was difficult to write that I believe men generally want sex more often than women generally do, but I really don’t believe that women physically desire sex as frequently as men do, to a degree large enough to create a demand.

  4. Desipis says:

    I don’t, however, think that sex work should be illegal or criminalized in any way.

    sex work is … not something that needs it’s own social justice movement.

    How do you propose the change in legislation and thus the required change in society’s attitude towards sex workers happen, other than through some sort of social movement?

    the sex industry (specifically, prostitution) is damaging to both women and society at large.

    I’m curious how you come to this conclusion, especially in the context of the harm caused by many other industries.

    • ethifem says:

      It’s my belief that if legislation changes, society’s attitude will soon follow. For example, far fewer white people are exhibit racist behavior toward black people today than was the case 60 years ago when black and white people were not (legally) equal under the law. Of course, race relations in the US are certainly not perfect and we have a lot of work to do, but the laws changed before the entirety of society was convinced, which left people to simply have opinions about, not power over, the individual.

      With this logic, one could determine that if legislation were to change, effectively legalizing all forms of sex work, then my mind would eventually be changed. This could be the case. In order for my feelings about the sex industry to change, the industry as a whole would need to be revamped. Legalizing all forms of sex work would do this.

      Of course, there are obvious areas where this hasn’t been the case. Abortion is legal, and public support is still split. It’s hard to say, really.

    • Daran says:

      It remains my view that public opinion and the law are dog and tail. The tail may have a bit of a wagging effect on the dog, but by and large, it is the dog which wags the tail.

  5. Daran says:

    How do you propose the change in legislation and thus the required change in society’s attitude towards sex workers happen, other than through some sort of social movement?

    The way you worded this implies that you think it’s changes in legislation which bring about changes in society’s attitude. I think it more likely to be the other way around.

    • ethifem says:

      I think you are both right. I explained why I’m likely to agree with legislation bringing change in society, as opposed to the other way around, but I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule.

  6. elementary_watson says:

    Hi ethifem.

    I am not quite sure what to make of this:

    If demand for male prostitutes is mostly from men, then it’s more likely that the male sex worker is also equally enjoying and benefiting from the experience, which would make it an equal transaction and not damaging to anyone involved, men or women, or society as a whole.

    I don’t see why the experience with a male customer should be ethically in different universes when the gender of the sex worker is changed. I don’t believe that men who go to male sex workers see those men as their equal; at least not anymore so than men who go to female sex workers do. The power structure will be so strongly in favour of the customer in both cases that the gender of the sex worker should hardly matter.

    Or am I missing something?

    • ethifem says:

      Meh, maybe I’m not explaining my train of thought clearly. It’s a bad habit.

      Maybe the two men wouldn’t see themselves as equals– or, maybe the client doesn’t see the sex worker as his equal. What I was theorizing, based on the long-winded disclaimer about how I’m making vast assumptions based on nearly-educated guesses after smoking a joint… is that, if men have a higher desire for sex, than the likliehood of both parties engaged in the transaction equally desiring the physical aact itself would be much higher.

  7. Daran says:

    In the interest of full disclosure: I’m now forty-five. When I was eighteen, I stuck £1 in a slot in order to whatch a naked woman writhe in a box for thirty seconds. On the same day, I went to a blue movie theatre with topless hostesses. I was curious. I found the whole thing extremely tacky and have never been motivated to do this again. On four subsequent occasions that I can recall, I’ve seen live strippers. In each case I was at the place for reasons other than the strippers, and in no case did I expect strippers to be there.

    I have also bought porn. That was in the days before the internet made freely available as much porn as anyone could want. I no longer look at it, not even for free; it just doesn’t turn me on any more.

    Other than that, I am not now, nor have I ever been either a sex worker or a client of sex workers. I never had much of a dog in this race, and have none now.

    No, I’d guess that the vast majority of working people are not doing exactly what they want, or don’t have other ideas about what they’d rather be doing. The difference is in the ways that the sex industry (specifically, prostitution) is damaging to both women and society at large. This, in my opinion, is due to the imbalance of power that exists in the current way that the mainstream sex industry operates.

    One of the things I noted in the original post was that, while you quite passionately articulated your hatred for the sex industry, you didn’t actually raise any substantive objection to it. The “It’s not women’s first choice” argument came up in your comment, and now, that this has been shown not to distinguish sex work from most other kinds of work, you’ve switched to a different tack – it harms women and society. Of course, you’ve not justified that claim.

    What comes across is that you don’t hate it for a reason. You just hate it. The reasons you come up with look like rationalisations.

    It’s possible to argue that sex-work is good for women – good both for sex-workers and women who aren’t sex-workers. For sex workers the argument is that, while they, like just about everyone else, probably would be doing something else in an ideal world, in this world they’re doing sex work because it is the most attractive out of the available options. In other words, sex work provides them with a means of making money more attractive than any other available to them. That’s a good thing, surely.

    For non sex-workers, sex work is another option avilable to them, which is not the most attractive. That such an option exists doesn’t harm them, and they benefit perhaps from the reduction in the competition for the work that they do do, that would otherwise come from unemployed sex workers if the latter industry didn’t exist.

    There is another benefit to non sex-working women. Sex work satisfies a demand for sex, or for certain kinds of sex that non sex-working women don’t want to supply. If the supply of commercial sex work didn’t exist, that demand would either go unmet, or it would be met by non-sex workers. Most likely some of the demand would be unmet, and some would end up being supplied by women who, we’ve established don’t want to supply it. Being relieved of that burden is a good thing for women.

    I’m not claiming that there aren’t also ways in which sex-work harms women, or harms society. But the onus is upon you to make that case, and so far you haven’t done so.

    My understanding is that demand for male prostitutes is mostly also from men.

    I also understand this to be true. You bring up a good point. If demand for male prostitutes is mostly from men, then it’s more likely that the male sex worker is also equally enjoying and benefiting from the experience,

    I don’t see how that follows at all. Prostitutes don’t have sex because they enjoy it. They do it for the money. Any enjoyment they get out of it is a bonus. Renegade Evolution sometimes reports enjoying a job, whether it be stripping or a porn shoot. In the latter case, she, as a heterosexual woman enjoys being fucked by an attractive man. I don’t see why a gay male prostitute would necessarily enjoy his job more than does a straight women. A straight male prostitude would presumably be less likely enjoy sex with other men at all.

    which would make it an equal transaction and not damaging to anyone involved, men or women, or society as a whole.

    Again, I don’t agree with the first part, while you’ve not supported the second part with any actual argument, only other conclusionary assertions.

    I don’t wish to just perpetuate potentially negative stereotypes, so it was difficult to write that I believe men generally want sex more often than women generally do, but I really don’t believe that women physically desire sex as frequently as men do, to a degree large enough to create a demand.

    I don’t think that the sex industry exists necessarily because of women’s lower sex drive, but because the male demand for sex with women is mismatched with the free supply. As I argued in the thread back on my blog, women who want sex with men know what to do to attract a large number of potential partners, from whom they can choose the most desirable. Many men do not know what to do, and consequently have a much more restricted choice.

    I do not think this a complete answer, but it’s part of it.

    • ethifem says:

      I don’t think that the sex industry exists necessarily because of women’s lower sex drive, but because the male demand for sex with women is mismatched with the free supply.

      Here, we agree, and that’s my point. If the two parties involved do not equally desire the sexual interaction, then I find that to be problematic.

      The claims I made about a male sex worker and a male client were based on my “nearly-educated guess” about sex drives of men and women. If men generally desire sex mroe frequently than women, then the odds of them equally desiring the interaction are much higher than if women were the worker and a man the client. I made it clear before saying it that this was based on vast assumptions and not scientific research of any kind.

      I’ll have to respond to the rest of this after work. Anyone looking over my shoulder right now probably wouldn’t be too thrilled with the topic I’m writing about 😉

    • ethifem says:

      I should clarify that when I say that it’s problematic that two parties don’t have an equal desire for the sexual interaction, I mean that in a purely physical sense.

      On the other hand, everyone does not view sexuality in the same way. Many sex workers who thoroughly enjoy their job may not have the same physical desire, but they also may not see their sexuality as something that it only to be experienced at specific times. I wonder if maybe my distaste for the industry has anything to do with the fact that I personally would not like the job. I thought about that beforehand, so I don’t think so. But it’s certainly something for me to consider.

  8. Daran says:

    By the way, I don’t know whether anyone’s thought to alert RE to this thread. I’m reluctant to, because being on the receiving end of a fisking from her can be quite discomforting. At the same time, I think the thread would be better if there was input from sex workers, and perhaps also from actual clients.

    • ethifem says:

      I’m curious as well to hear how RE may respond, but unwilling to directly ask her for input because I can reasonably assume that her response would not take into account my original question (why should there be a social justice movement with the goal of making everyone happy about her job) and would instead just “yell” and get defensive. I come to this conclusion after reading the tone she uses in her blog. The only people who could answer the original question would be sex workers, or potentially someone who used to be one or is in support of the cause.

    • ethifem says:

      …Or yes, clients, as well.

  9. Daran says:

    I’m curious as well to hear how RE may respond, but unwilling to directly ask her for input because I can reasonably assume that her response would not take into account my original question (why should there be a social justice movement with the goal of making everyone happy about her job) and would instead just “yell” and get defensive.

    RE defensive? Not a chance. RE is attackive. 🙂

    Seriously I think this might piss her off a bit:

    I don’t necessarily think she’s lying. I don’t want to venture into the dangerous territory of saying that I know what someone wants/needs/thinks more than they themselves do, but I can’t get rid of the nagging little voice that says that, still, this job wasn’t her first choice.

    Because she’d take the view that the only voice, nagging or otherwise, you should be listening to about whether the job was or was not a sex-worker’s first choice is the voice of the sex-worker concerned.

    And I think she probably would have something to say about the need for an advocacy movement for sex-workers, possibly along the lines of “We need one to get people to stop listening to the nagging voices and start listening to us”.

    And you know, along the same lines it really would be better for you to hear this from her (alternatively to hear something else from her, in case I’ve got it wrong) than to hear it from me.

    • ethifem says:

      Because she’d take the view that the only voice, nagging or otherwise, you should be listening to about whether the job was or was not a sex-worker’s first choice is the voice of the sex-worker concerned.

      No, you’re right about that. I’m wary, like I said, of trying to define people’s experiences for them. It’s a stupid line to cross most times.

      Ultimately let me just say that if someone absolutely enjoys the job and would not choose another over it if given the opportunity, then that’s when I think it’s ok. That’s the goal, in my mind, anyway. If both people have equal desire for the physical act, and there is respect for the sex worker, then I don’t see anything wrong with it. I just don’t believe that to be the case in even the majority of the time.

  10. Daran says:

    Ultimately let me just say that if someone absolutely enjoys the job and would not choose another over it if given the opportunity, then that’s when I think it’s ok. That’s the goal, in my mind, anyway. If both people have equal desire for the physical act, and there is respect for the sex worker, then I don’t see anything wrong with it. I just don’t believe that to be the case in even the majority of the time.

    Then we’re back to the question of whether refuse collectors, checkout operators and office cleaners absolutely enjoy the job and would not choose another.

    If you don’t think they do, and you have no similar moral objection to them, then why does sex work specifically need to satisfy these criteria in order to be ethical, when other forms of work don’t?

    • ethifem says:

      I have given this a lot of thought and might have changed my mind a bit. I think that, at this point, as far as my principles are concerned, I would be uncomfortable criticizing the choice to be a sex worker. I say this now because of the fact that I can’t possibly speak for anyone else or their experiences. If a woman who is a sex worker does not feel exploited, then she’s not. It’s not my place to decide otherwise.

      Ugh. I hate realizing that something I feel strongly about may not align with my other principles. 😉

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