SEX AS WORK AND SEX WORK
María Agustín studies undocumented migration,
informal labour markets, trafficking and the sex industry. She
is the author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets
and the Rescue Industry (2007). For more of Laura, please
visit her website, The
Naked Anthropologist. Her essay originally appeared
army colonel is about to start the morning briefing to his staff.
While waiting for the coffee to be prepared, the colonel says
he didn’t sleep much the night before because his wife
had been a bit frisky. He asks everyone: How much of sex is
work and how much is pleasure? A Major votes 75-25% in favour
of work. A Captain says 50-50%. A lieutenant responds with 25-75%
in favour of pleasure, depending on how much he’s had
to drink. There being no consensus, the colonel turns to the
enlisted man in charge of making the coffee. What does he think?
With no hesitation, the young soldier replies, “Sir, it
has to be 100% pleasure.” The surprised colonel asks why.
“Well, sir, if there was any work involved, the officers
would have me doing it for them.”
because he is the youngest, the soldier considers only the pleasure
that sex represents, while the older men know a lot more is
going on. They may have a better grasp of the fact that sex
is the work that puts in motion the machine of human reproduction.
Biology and medical texts present the mechanical facts without
any mention of possible ineffable experiences or feelings (pleasure,
in other words), as sex is reduced to wiggly sperm fighting
their way towards waiting eggs. The divide between the feelings
and sensations involved and the cold facts is vast.
officers probably also have in mind the work involved in keeping
a marriage going, apart from questions of lust and satisfaction.
They might say that sex between people who are in love is special
(maybe even sacred), but they also know sex is part of the partnership
of getting through life together and has to be considered pragmatically
as well. Even people in love do not have identical physical
and emotional needs, with the result that sex takes different
forms and means more or less on different occasions.
little story shows a few of the ways that sex can be considered
work. When we say sex work nowadays the focus is immediately
on commercial exchanges, but in this article I question our
ability to distinguish clearly when sex involves work (as well
as other things) and sex work (which involves all sorts of things).
Most of the moral uproar surrounding prostitution and other
forms of commercial sex asserts that the difference between
good or virtuous sex and bad or harmful sex is obvious. Efforts
to repress, condemn, punish and rescue women who sell sex rest
on the claim that they occupy a place outside the norm and the
community, and can be clearly identified and therefore acted
on by people who ‘know better’ how they should live.
To show this claim to be false discredits this neocolonialist
WITH AND WITHOUT SEX
live in a time when relationships based on romantic, sexual
love occupy the pinnacle of a hierarchy of emotional values,
in which it is supposed that romantic love is the best possible
experience and that the sex people in love have is the best
sex, in more ways than one. Romantic passion is considered meaningful,
a way for two people to become one, an experience some believe
heightened if they conceive a child. Other sexual traditions
also strive to transcend ordinariness in sex (the mechanical,
the frictional), for example Tantra, which distinguishes three
separate purposes for sex: procreation, pleasure and liberation,
the last culminating in losing the sense of self in cosmic consciousness.
In the western romantic tradition, passion is conceived as involving
a strong positive emotion toward a particular person that goes
beyond the physical and is contrasted to lust, which is only
is, however, impossible to say exactly how we know which is
which, and the young enlisted man in the opening story might
well not understand the difference. Sex driven by surging or
excess testosterone and sex as adolescent rebellion against
repressive family values cannot be reduced to a mechanical activity
bereft of emotion or meaning; rather, those kinds of sex often
feel like ways of finding out and expressing who we are. And
even when sex is used to show off in front of others, or to
affirm one’s attractiveness and power to pull, ‘meaningless’
would seem to be the last thing it should be called. Here it
is true that one person may not only lack passion but totally
neglect another’s feelings and desires, but just as often
this other person is engaged in the same pursuit. The point
is that reductions like lust and love don’t go very far
towards telling us what is going on when people have sex together.
Moreover, while real passion is meant to be based on knowing
someone long and intimately, a parallel story glorifies love
at first sight, in which passion is instantly awakened –
and this can occur as easily at a rave or pub as at the Taj
of the mythology of love promises that loving couples will always
want and enjoy sex together, unproblematically, freely and loyally.
But most people know that couples are multi-faceted partnerships,
sex together being only one facet, and that those involved very
often tire of sex with each other. Although skeptics say today’s
high divorce rate shows the love-myth is a lie, others say the
problem is that lovers aren’t able or willing to do the
work necessary to stay together and survive personal, economic
and professional changes. Some of this work may well be sexual.
In some partnerships where the spark has gone, partners grant
each other the freedom to have sex with others, or pay others
to spice up their own sex lives (as a couple or separately).
This can take the form of a polyamorous project, with open contracts;
as swinging, where couples play with others together; as polygamy
or temporary marriage; as cheating or betrayal; or as paying
when love is involved, people may use sex in the hope of getting
something in return. They may or may not be fully conscious
of such motives as:
I will have sex with you because I love you even if I am not
in the mood myself
• I will have sex with you hoping you will feel well disposed
toward me afterwards and give me something I want
• I will have sex with you because if I don’t you
are liable to be unpleasant to me, our children, or my friends,
or withhold something we want
these situations, sex is felt to be and accepted as part of
the relationship, backed up in classic marriage law by the concept
of conjugal relations, spouses’ rights to them and the
consequences of not providing them: abandonment, adultery, annulment,
divorce. This can work the opposite way as well, as when a partner
doesn’t want sex:
I will not have sex with you, so you will have to do without
or get it somewhere else
partner wanting sex and not getting it at home now has to choose:
do without and feel frustrated; call an old friend; ring for
an escort; go to a pick-up bar; drive to a hooker stroll; visit
a public toilet; buy an inflatable doll; fly to a third-world
of any gender identity can find themselves in this situation,
where money may help resolve the situation, at least temporarily,
and where more than one option may have to be tried. Tiring
of partners is a universal experience, and research on women
who pay local guides and beach boys on holidays suggests there
is nothing inherently male about exchanging money for sex. That
said, our societies are still patriarchal, women still take
more responsibility for maintaining homes and children than
men and men still have more disposable cash than women, making
the overtly commercial options more viable for men than for
don’t know how many people do what, but we know that many
clients of sex workers say they are married (some happily, some
not, the research is all about male clients). In testimonies
about their motivations for paying for sex, men often cite a
desire for variety or a way to cope with not getting enough
sex or the kind of sex they want at home.
I want to have sex with you but I also want it with someone
is the point in the sex contract many have trouble with, the
question being Why? Why should someone with sex available at
home (even good sex) also want it somewhere else? The assumption
is, of course, that we all ought to want only one partner, because
we all ought to want the kind of love that is loyal, passionate
and monogamous. To say I love my wife and also I would like
to have sex with others is to seem perverse, or greedy, and
a lot of energy is spent railing against such people. However,
there is nothing intrinsically better about monogamy than any
other attitude to sex.
saving marriages is a value, then more than one sex worker believes
her role helps prevent break-ups, or at least allows spouses
to blow off steam from difficult relationships. Workers mean
not only the overtly sexual side of paid activities but also
the emotional labour performed in listening to clients’
stories, bolstering their egos, teaching them sexual techniques,
providing emotional advice. Rarely do sex workers position clients’
spouses as enemies or say they want to steal clients away from
them; on the contrary, many see the triangular relationship
– wife, husband, sex worker – as mutually sustaining.
In this way sex workers believe they help reproduce the marital
home and even improve it.
AS REPRODUCTIVE LABOUR
support of the idea that sex reproduces social life, one can
say that people fortunate enough to experience satisfying sex
feel fundamentally affirmed and renewed by it. In that sense,
a worker providing sexual services does reproductive work. Paid
sex work is a caring service when workers provide friend-like
or therapist-like company and when they give a back rub –
whether the caring is a performance or not. The person providing
the caring services uses brain, emotions and body to make another
person feel good:
Leaning over to comfort a baby
• Leaning over to massage aching shoulders
• Leaning over to kiss a neck or forehead or chest
• Leaning over to suck a penis or breast
the recipient perceives the contact as positive, a sense of
well-being is produced that the brain registers, and the individual’s
separateness is momentarily erased. These effects are not different
simply because the so-called erogenous zones are involved rather
than other parts of the body. In this sense, sex work, whether
paid or not, reproduces fundamental social life.
argument against sex work as reproductive labor is that sexual
experiences, while sometimes temporarily rejuvenating, are neither
always felt as positive nor essential to the individual’s
continued functioning. Humans have to eat and keep our bodies
and environments clean but we don’t have to have sex to
survive: the well-being produced by sex is a luxury or extra.
Sex feels as essential as food to a lot of people, and they
may be very unhappy without it, but they can go on living.
AS A JOB
variability of sexual experience makes it difficult to pin down
which sex should properly be thought of as sex work. My own
policy is to accept what individuals say. If someone tells me
they experience selling sex as a job, I take their word for
it. If, on the contrary, they say that it doesn’t feel
like a job but something else, then I accept that.
does it mean to say it feels like a job? There are several possibilities:
I organize myself to offer particular services for money that
• I take a job in someone else’s business where
I control some aspects of what I do but not others
• I place myself in situations where others tell me what
they are looking for and I adapt, negotiate, manipulate and
perform – but it’s a job because I get money
are other permutations, too, of course. All service jobs involve
customer relations, which are eternally unpredictable. Some
clients are able to specify exactly what services they want
and make sure they are satisfied, but some cannot and may end
up getting what the worker wants to provide. To imagine that
the worker is always powerless because the client pays for time
makes no sense, since all workers jockey for control in their
jobs – of what happens when and how long it takes. This
is a simple definition of human agency. And it’s important
to remember that a very large proportion of sex work is spent
on selling: the seduction and flirtation necessary to turn atmosphere,
potentiality and possibility into an exchange of money for sex.
although we like to think about the two roles, salesperson and
customer, as separate, in the sexual relation roles can be blurred.
Theorists want to think about the worker doing something for
the client or the client commanding the worker to act. But carrying
out a command does not exclude doing it one’s own way,
nor, for that matter, enjoyment, feelings of connectivity and
the reproduction of self.
SEX IN THE HOME
would like to believe that non-commercial (or real) sex takes
place in homes, while commercial sex lurks in seedy other places.
However, sex outside the partnership easily takes place while
one of the partners is not there. This can be sex that is ordered
in and paid for or adulterous, promiscuous, play or non-monogamous
sex. Sometimes the non-partner is considered almost one of the
family – a live-in maid or nanny. Other times the non-partner
is someone who’s come to perform some other paid job –
the proverbial milkman or plumber. There’s also sex in
the home online, via webcam, or over the telephone, as well
as images or objects that enhance a sexual experience in which
no partner is necessary at all. The sex industry penetrates
family residences in many ways and cannot be, by definition,
the family’s ‘other.’
commentary on how the sex industry is changing focuses on the
Internet, where apart from more conventional business sites,
sexual communities form and reform continuously. Social networking
sites like Facebook provide spaces where the commercial, the
aesthetic and the activist intersect and overlap, also complicating
the traditional divide between selling and buying. Chat and
instant messaging provide opportunities for people to experiment
with sexual identities including commercial ones. Much of all
this is unmeasurable, taking place on sites where all participants
are mixed together, not sorted into categories of buyers and
sellers. Statistics on the value of pornography sold on the
Internet focus on sites with catalogues of products for sale,
but the sphere of webcams, like peep shows of old, blurs the
wobbly line between porn and prostitution.
some claim that sex workers offering girlfriend-like experiences
are a manifestation of post-industrial life, I am not convinced.
Sex worker testimonies from many periods reveal the complexity
always waiting to happen when brief encounters are repeated,
when clients seek again someone with whom they felt a bond as
well as a sexual attraction. Nor am I convinced that the experiences
of upper-class clients patronizing courtesans, geishas or mistresses
are inherently different from the socializing of working-class
men and women in ‘treating’ cultures. Instead, it
is clear that the lines between commercial and non-commercial
sex have always been blurry, and that middle-class marriage
is itself an example.
of sexual cultures won’t get far if they follow dogma
that considers marriage to be separate and outside the realm
of investigations of commercial sex. In societies where matchmaking
and different sorts of arranged marriages and dowries are conventional,
the link between payment and sex has been overt and normalized,
while campaigners against both sex tourism and foreign-bride
agencies are offended precisely because they see a money-exchange
entering into what they believe should be pure relationships.
We have too much information now about non-family forms of love
and commitment, non-committed forms of sex and non-sexual forms
of love to hold on to these arbitrary, mythic divisions, which
further oppressive ideas about sexually good and bad women.
We know now that monogamy is not necessarily better, that paid
sex can be affectionate, that loving couples can do without
sex, that married love involves money and that sex involves
no postmodern crisis here. Some believe that the developed West
was moving in a good direction after the Second World War, towards
happier families and more just societies, and that neoliberalism
is destroying that. But historical research shows that before
the bourgeoisie’s advancement to the centre of European
societies, with the concomitant focus on nuclear families and
a particular version of moral respectability, loose, flexible
arrangements vis-à-vis sex, family and sexuality were
common in both upper- and working-class cultures. In the long
run it may turn out that 200 years of bourgeois family values
were a blip on the screen in human history.
EQUALITY AND MONEY
professional sex work has not been made easier by making equality
the standard for gender relations. We can only really know whether
sexual experiences are equal if everyone looks and acts the
same, which is not only impossible but repressive of diversity.
In sexual relations, equality projects run into the problem
of dissimilar bodies, different ways of exhibiting arousal and
experiencing satisfaction, not to mention differences in cultural
background and social status. Those who complain about other
people’s perversity and deviance are accused in return
of being boring adherents of repressive sex.
terms of the work of sex, we run into a further difficulty vis-à-vis
equality, the cliché that sees participants taking either
an active or a passive role and identity. But many people, not
just professional sex workers, know that the work of sex can
mean allowing the other to take an active role and assuming
a passive one as well as taking the active role or switching
back and forth. Sometimes people do what they already know they
like, and sometimes they experiment. Sometimes people don’t
know what they want, or want to be surprised, or to lose control.
some critics, the possession of money by clients gives them
absolute power over workers and therefore means that equality
is impossible. This attitude toward money is odd, given that
we live in times when it is acceptable to pay for child and
elderly care, for rape, alcohol and suicide counseling and for
many other forms of consolation and caring. Those services are
considered compatible with money but when it is exchanged for
sex money is treated as a totally negative, contaminating force
– this commodification uniquely terrible. Money is a fetish
here despite the obvious fact that no body part is actually
sold off in the commercial sex exchange.
WORK AND MIGRANCY
many places, migrant women and young men do most of the paid
sex work, because there are enormous structural inequalities
in the world, because there are people everywhere willing to
take the risk of travelling to work in other countries and because
social networks, high technology and transportation make it
widely feasible. Migrants take jobs that are available, accept
lower pay and tolerate having fewer rights than first-class
citizens because those are less important than simply getting
ahead. Even those with qualifications for other jobs, whether
as hairdressers or university professors, are glad to get jobs
considered unprestigious by non-migrants. While many view migrants
in low-prestige jobs as absolute victims too constrained by
forces around them to have real agency, social gain or enjoyment,
there are other ways to understand them.
hold that migrants who work in private homes reproduce the social
life of their all-powerful employers but accomplish little on
their own behalf. This is strange, because low-prestige workers
who are not migrants are acknowledged to gain a connection to
society, knowledge of being a useful economic actor and more
options because of having money.
look at migration as neither a degradation nor improvement .
. . in women’s position, but as a restructuring of gender
relations. This restructuring need not necessarily be expressed
through a satisfactory professional life. It may take place
through the assertion of autonomy in social life, through relations
with family of origin, or through participating in networks
and formal associations. The differential between earnings in
the country of origin and the country of immigration may in
itself create such an autonomy, even if the job in the receiving
country is one of a live-in maid or prostitute.
of the great contradictions of capitalism is that even unfair,
unwritten, ambiguous contracts can produce active subjects.
have proposed the cultural study of commercial sex, in which
scholars are free of the constraints of the traditional study
of prostitution, where ideology and moralizing about power,
gender and money have long held primacy. Cultural study does
not assume that we already know what any given sex-money exchange
means but that meaning changes according to specific cultural
context. This means we cannot assume there is a fundamental
difference between commercial and non-commercial sex. Anthropologists
studying non-western societies consistently reveal that money
and sex exchanges exist on a continuum where feelings are also
present, and historians reveal the same about the past.
and work cannot be completely disentangled, as the officers
knew and the enlisted man would some day find out.
Lástima que la traducción al español
está pésima, pero de todas manera se pueden
apreciar -a ratos "adivinar"- los puntos de vista
de Laura, siempre desmitificadores y con propuestas que rebasan
los prejuiciados y moralistas enfoques sobre la relación
entre sexo, trabajo y dinero.
Would LOVE to see the study you propose.
I enjoyed this, as I woman long involved in sex work I'm delighted
by your level of intelligent insight.