A woman in a short skirt and tall heels leans into a man's car on a seedy street, promising a good time, but with an air of desperation. It's the kind of stereotype that has come to represent all sex workers, says author Melissa Gira Grant in a new book about the sex trade, “Playing the Whore” (Verso Books).
People who work in the industry are seen as "interchangeable symbols" for societal ills such as "urban decay, misogyny and exploitation," she writes. But talk to some actual sex workers and you'll get a different story, she says: They are not all victims who need to be rescued or saved. What they need, she argues, are basic human rights.
Gira Grant, a journalist who has worked in the sex trade and as an advocate for the rights of people in the trade, says sex workers are misunderstood and largely misrepresented in the media. In an interview, she described her campaign, arguing that because sex work is criminalized, people in the industry suffer discrimination, violence and widespread abuse of their civil rights. The law, she said, thrusts sex workers into "an antagonistic relationship with police," making people less likely to report violence or get medical help for fear of being arrested.
Police themselves often abuse and profile sex workers, she said, citing a 2012 report from the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch. That study found that police in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., were regularly confiscating condoms from sex workers and transgender women, citing the condoms as evidence of prostitution and threatening arrest. As a result, sex workers were reluctant to carry condoms, putting them at risk of HIV and other diseases, the report found.
In Queens, N.Y., transgender women "report in significant numbers that they cannot walk freely in their own neighborhoods," writes Gira Grant. Police accuse them of "working," she says, whether they are or not. She cites one transgender woman who said police handcuffed her, yanked off her wig and arrested her while she was out "buying tacos."
Gira Grant argues that the stigma and violence sex workers face are "far greater harms than sex work itself." Society encourages people to leave the trade, she said, but if they do so, they are shunned for their past. She cites a New York City schoolteacher named Melissa Petro who made headlines back in 2010.
Petro was a grade-school art and creative-writing teacher in the Bronx and reportedly did well at the school, earning tenure after three years on the job. Then Petro wrote in a blog post that she had once sold sex on Craigslist to help pay the bills in graduate school. She got fired from her teaching job and trashed by the tabloids, with the Daily News calling her a "hooker teacher" and the New York Post calling her a "prosti-teacher."
"You would think that the kinds of women's groups who lobby for the abolition of sex work should have risen to Melissa Petro's defense," Gira Grant writes. "She had talked openly and honestly about her past, including the times it felt as if escorting damaged her sense of self. She had left sex work for a low-paying job as a teacher, moving on with her life." But Petro was completely on her own, said Gira Grant. "Who spoke for her?"
Gira Grant devotes a chunk of the book to the media, making a controversial argument that news coverage of global sex trafficking has helped fuel a perception that everyone in the sex trade is a victim of exploitation. To be sure, sex trafficking is a multibillion-dollar international business, with criminals forcing people into sex work against their will, often by tricking or kidnapping them into the trade. The U.S. State Department estimates that some 27 million people are current victims of forced labor and sexual slavery around the world. Human-rights abuses are rampant.
Gira Grant argues that not everyone in the sex trade is a victim and that activists who equate all sex work with exploitation don't act in the best interests of people who do sex work of their own free will.
"People who think they have sex workers' best interests at heart don't get the full picture," she said. For instance, she said, activists lobbied to shut down the Craigslist adult-services section in 2010, arguing that it encouraged prostitution and exploitation of women. Gira Grant says the section gave sex workers the opportunity to run their own businesses and protect themselves by screening their clients, free from the grips of pimps. Now activists are looking to shut down a similar adult-services section on Backpage.com.
"Through such demands, reformers take away from sex workers the power to make these decisions about their own labor," she writes. She says activists describe sex workers in these classified sections as "being sold," adding, "they cannot fathom that the person in the ad could be the seller herself."
When asked about the conventional wisdom that no one really enters the sex trade voluntarily, instead falling into it out of desperation, she said, "My response is to ask a sex worker, because you probably haven't asked one."
People take jobs for all kinds of reasons, she said, with many people in this economy "patching income together and doing odd jobs." She declined to discuss her own past in sex work, saying the book is about the demands of sex workers, not her own experience. In the book, she says she worked in the red-light district in San Francisco at some point in her past, without giving details.
She writes that "maintaining this kind of selective silence about myself" is "a tactic until the time comes, or is made to come, when I can share my story in legal and economic conditions more favorable to me and to others who still do sex work."
Born in Boston, Gira Grant, now 36, says she studied comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and is a graduate of the National Sexual Resource Center’s Institute on Sexuality, Health, and Inequality at San Francisco State University. She said she became interested in sex-work activism while in college at Amherst, where she recalled joining a protest against a new women's prison in Massachusetts. "The concern was, if there's a huge women's jail, there's an impetus to fill it," she said. The likely inhabitants, she said: sex workers and "women who use drugs and other crimes of poverty."
Today Gira Grant lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she blogs on her site PostWhoreAmerica.com and writes about sex and politics for publications including The Nation and The Guardian. She said she hopes her book will make people think: "We're all raised with this idea that if you trade sex for money, something is wrong with you. You've failed everyone. You've failed yourself," she said. "So many people can't break through this narrative, this stereotype. To say that this is a matter of human rights, that's a leap."