Hyper-Sexuality, Policy Fantasy and Sex Work Reality

Hyper-Sexuality, Policy Fantasy and Sex Work Reality

In 2015 British journalist Suzanne Moore wrote a piece lavishing praise on US hip-hop star Nicki Minaj for speaking out and standing up to structural racism within the music industry and American society more generally.

In the same piece Moore also celebrated Minaj’s agency and hypersexuality.

It is evident from the many videos that Minaj has starred in that she wears her sexuality on her sleeve. This is reflected, for example, in the video for “Anaconda,” which borrows heavily from tropes associated with lap-dancing and pornography.

More recently, in a ‘Break the Internet’ edition of Paper Magazine, Minaj appeared on the cover as part of a feature titled Minaj A Trois. The cover image presented an interesting take on auto-cunnilingus. Furthermore, it screamed porno-chic and resembled the DVD cover of a porn film by Mike Quasar featuring Mercedes Carrera and Bridgette B.

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What is significant about Suzanne Moore’s support of Minaj’s hypersexuality is the recognition that she is doing things on her terms. As Moore states:

“Her hypersexualized self-representation makes many uneasy, but this is her choice. She writes the words. She chooses the imagery”.

So, for Moore, even in the face of structural racism, the limitations on who and what black women can ‘be’ in the hyper-masculine hip-hop industry, and patriarchy itself, Minaj is capable of articulating a strong degree of sexual agency, choice and authority.

When is work not work? When its sex work….apparently!

Although Moore is supportive of the stylized hyper-sexuality and pornographic tropes appropriated by Minaj, she shudders at the idea that women—especially middle-class women—would engage in real forms of sex work:

I still await the dinner party where middle-class parents tell me: “Tom is doing his law conversion but even though Charlotte hasn’t done her SATs she already says she wants to do sex work! We always knew she was entrepreneurial.”

The suggestion here seems to be that sex workers come from lower-class backgrounds and lack agency, business acumen and even intellectuality. Emily Bazelon, writing in the New York Times, showed that contemporary US sex workers come from all manner of social, gendered, ethnic, sexual and political backgrounds. Similarly, the ABC Australia program “You Can’t Ask That” showed that Australian sex workers are also a diverse community.

Unlikely bedfellows – Radfems and Neo-cons

Proclamations that sex work is inherently violent and exploitative forms part of a political coalition and strategy by what many might perceive as the most unlikely of bedfellows—radical feminists and neo-conservative politicians, political parties and religious organizations.

This coalition of neo-prohibitionists often ‘talk over’ or dismiss the voices of individual sex workers and sex worker-led organizations who advocate for the decriminalization of sex work. Individual sex workers who stand up and call for decriminalization are accused of being privileged, or not representative of all sex workers. Relatedly, others, including academic researchers, who argue that decriminalization is the most effective method of regulating sex work and protecting the rights of sex workers are labeled as part of the ‘pimp lobby’.

For sex work prohibitionists, the pathway to ending sex work is to criminalize the purchase of commercial sex services. This approach is often call the ‘Swedish model’. Seen from a sex worker perspective, a more appropriate term might be the ‘Swedish regime’ given the oppressive and chilling impacts of this policy approach.

Jay Levy in his book, Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden, notes that ‘the sex purchase law and several other laws are used to directly destabilize the lives of sex workers’. In short, sex workers live under a cloud of permanent fear—perceived and real. The threat of losing custody of their children; harassment and discrimination from the police, social services and landlords; and deportation in the case of migrant sex workers loom large.

Various sex worker organizations in the global north—SWOP USA, Pace Society Scarlett Alliance, New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, English Collective of Prostitutes, Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, SCOT-PEP—and the global south— Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers, the African Sex Workers Alliance and PLAPERTS (Latin America)—all acknowledge that sex workers can and do experience violence.

However, all these groups reject the idea that sex work is inherently violent, oppose the Swedish model and call for sex workers to be afforded full human and labor rights.

Abolishing Sex Work – A RadFem Fetish and Policy Fantasy?

Efforts to abolish sex work in the UK since the 1860s have one thing in common—failure! Similarly, despite the introduction of the ‘Swedish model’ in Iceland, Norway, Korea, Canada, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, since first introduced in Sweden in 1999, the demand and supply for consensual commercial sexual services has not ended.

If anything threats and harms against sex workers have a tendency to increase. This is evidenced, for example, in Ireland, which introduced its version of the Swedish model in March 2016.

In the US, where the provision and solicitation of sex work has long been illegal, with the exception of parts of Nevada, sex work continues to take place—on-street, off-street and online. This is despite the regular use of police stings on motels and street-based sex workers.

Even with the recent closure on online sites such as myredbook.com, rentboy.com, Backpage and Craigslist in the wake of SESTA/FOSTA, sex work still prevails. The dilemma is that there has been an increase in street-based sex work, and, more crucially, increased violence and exploitation of sex workers.

For sex workers, out-in-the-open online sex work spaces provide more than just greater economic opportunities. Crucially, online platforms offer a valuable safety net in screening clients and the development of online communities that provide support and strategies for improved safety and alerts about abusive and violent predators.

It is policy fantasy to think that the closure of online personal ad sites will stop sex work. If anything, it will either push sex workers onto the so-called darknet and/or back on to the streets. Paradoxically, this will severely diminish both the personal and work place safety conditions for sex workers.

Don’t believe the stereotype

People who provide consensual commercial sex work do so for a variety of reasons. Fundamentally, economics is the key driving factor.

Some people dip their toe into sex work for brief periods of time and when times are hard. Others engage in sex work due to precarious and vulnerable lifestyles and experiences. Some carve careers out of sex work by working within and/or across different spaces—street, off-street, online and on set— and sectors—‘prostitution’, lap-dancing, cam-work, fetish/BDSM and porn. And, some people juggle ‘square work’ and sex work simultaneously.

It is imperative that wider society, the media and politicians move beyond lazy, reductionist stereotypes and ill-informed sensationalist claims about sex work, sex workers and sex work organizations.

A failure to acknowledge the nuanced structural and individualized factors underpinning the complex who, why, what and how of sex work, and, more crucially, the vast gulf between consensual and coercive commercial sex means that female, male and transgender sex workers will continue to endure stigma and harm.

The international network of sex worker organizations in the global north and south that advocate for the decriminalization sex work do so on the basis of direct personal experiences. Proof that decriminalization is the best way forward is provided by an array of international organizations including: Amnesty International, the Lancet, UNAids, the World Health Organization, and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.

Dr. Paul J. Maginn is Programme Co-ordinator, Urban and Regional Planning, at the University of Western Australia. @Planographer

Dr Raven Bowen is the CEO of National Ugly Mugs in England. @Corbeau_1863

Prof. Maggie O’Neill is Professor of Sociology, at the University of Cork. @MaggieOneill9

All three authors are members of the Sex Work Research Hub

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