Tag Archives: desire

“just like any other business”? (morality and sex work part two)

From time to time, Wallace makes it onto another one of those “cool small towns in America” lists, here, #38. Although this latest list celebrates the “rich history and culture” you find in small towns, it fails to plug the Oasis Bordello Museum, which was mentioned in Travel + Leisure’s 2012 list and Budget Travel’s 2009 list (which also features my current town, strangely). If the article’s authors had actually spoken with the people living in Wallace, amid the “large pine-topped mountain peaks and breathtaking sunsets downtown” long enough to talk about the brothel-based sex work aspect of the town’s history they would have heard something like this:

“The houses prevented rapes.”

“They gave back a lot to the community.”

“It’s just like any other business.”

Whenever I talk about Wallace’s brothel-based sex work history and culture to a group of outsiders, I inevitably get asked these questions:

“How do you feel about it?”

“Do you think it’s immoral?”

“Should we legalize prostitution?”

Recently, at the Lexington Rotary Club talk I gave, I was asked these very questions, and they led to some of the more lively moments of the discussion. But they were also the moments when I felt least committed to what I was saying, because in some ways I don’t have a “position.” And I come from a place—am trying to translate the cultural values of this place—that continues to justify sex work as a positive thing. Or at least as a not-bad thing. Like, overwhelmingly so. So much so that I sometimes forget that a lot of people think that sex work cannot be anything other than inherently exploitive, immoral, and/or degrading for women.

I’m going to go ahead and do something I’m hesitant about and get a little personal…

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quick thoughts on the nature of this beast

So last night I was telling someone I’d just met about the work I did over the summer (I hadn’t seen our mutual friend since I’d gotten back into town and he’d asked about it). I mentioned how I’m interested in looking more at the connection between rhetoric, economics, and how we create our values as communities. He said he didn’t understand the economics connection. I was kind of surprised by this. I said that, because sex work is an underground economy that is also stigmatized the prices are high enough so as to coerce women into the profession. Since I study rhetoric, I’m interested in that line between persuasion and coercion, in a theoretical sort of way.

“I mean, the price probably *should* be high, but the underground, stigmatized nature makes it so that the value is increased even more,” I said, “so the line between choice and economic coercion very fuzzy.”

As a result, within something like ten minutes of meeting me, this guy says,

“So what is your price?”

I said I didn’t know. Maybe I should have a better answer to this by now. It’s interesting to hear what people think.

(Sidenote–wonder how many women have been commodified by complete strangers, whether they are sex workers or not, doing research on it or not. It has an effect on you, even if you think it doesn’t. I was once offered four hundred dollar bills by a complete stranger on the street, while with another guy. [Remember, Dom, he even pulled them out and showed them to us?])

“You don’t have a price? Everyone’s got a price. What’s yours, to sleep with me? Two thousand dollars? We would have a good time.”

“Sure.” I say. Of course, I’d like to think I’m priceless. Later on that evening, he tries to get me to sleep with him for free. When I was younger, I thought that was what priceless meant.

This morning, as I was getting ready for work, I was thinking about that price–two thousand dollars–specifically. I have a PhD. The price he named is not as much as my monthly take-home pay, but it is more than what I make in two weeks.

I think about how much work I put into my job and how much of a difference two thousand dollars would make.

Then, as I was driving to work, I heard a story on the radio that reminded me of the class discussion we had in the Cyber Security class I guest taught the other day. At my institution, they censor the web content (yes, like they do in China), and in class we were discussing the balance between internet security, freedom, and privacy. The students told me that even though they are not allowed to access content the university deems unacceptable on the school network, they still access it from their smartphones if they want. So in this case censorship does not actually prevent the behavior, it just drives it underground, stigmatizes it, and limits access to those who can afford smartphones and a data plan. It also creates an alternative economy made up of those who are motivated enough to sidestep the restrictions. Essentially, whatever is censored or forbidden becomes more valuable. Duh, but so why do we persist in banning things when we know this is the effect? This economy self-selects those who either value the content so much they will disregard the risks involved (due to need or desire), or are attracted to profiting off of the underground nature of the beast (due to need or desire).

I don’t know why I care about that line between need and desire. It’s an illusion anyway.

But it’s an illusion that moves us from choice (the realm of freedom, the realm of persuasion) into coercion (the realm of pressured “choice,” the realm of brainwashing and abuse, the realm of con artistry and manipulation), and it’s an illusion that matters across professions, of course…