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In Which I Speak Frankly About Sex Work

The most interesting aspect of my research, and the one detail I want to explore more, is the proximity between sexual labor and domestic work. Most analyses of this proximity are simplistic at best. The dangers of sexual assault at the hands of employers are commonly expressed in black women’s accounts of domestic work.

From a theoretical perspective, I wonder to what extent sexual labor is reproductive labor. And what role does it play in bolstering white supremacy? Like domestic work, it’s cultural impact extends beyond the kind of oppression associated with domestic labor as wage labor. But like domestic work as wage work, sexual labor gets exchanged in the kind of market that represents the fulcrum of black women’s oppression.

For example.

Think Progress recently published an investigation concerning women in Baltimore who were forced to trade sex for basic repairs at Gilmor Homes, the same housing complex where Freddie Gray lived before he was murdered. Nineteen women accused employees of the Baltimore housing authority of widespread sexual abuse.

Coverage of the affidavit (filed in September) focuses on the vulnerability of the women, the tragedy of poverty I suppose. Descriptions of the life-threatening living conditions of Gilmor Homes. Mold, lack of heat, rodent infestations, etc. Even the complaint filed exclaims, “These affronts are about power and control over the most vulnerable members of society, including the poor, the young, and the disabled.”

There is something about this language that bothers me. Let me (try and) explain. During the Depression domestic and sex workers exchanged their labor for wages in the public square. We all know about what street corners mean to sexual laborers. But domestic workers also waited on corners, called “slave markets,” for a white woman to come and offer them a days work. Both groups of women were described as being forced to the point of desperation. And even though sex workers made slightly more money, they were shamed while domestic workers were pitied. The public conversation about domestic work was more focused on the proximity of the exchange of labor for wages to prostitution, than the conditions of domestic work itself, including nonconsensual sexual harassment from employers.

So let’s go back to this Think Progress headline: “Women in Baltimore Public Housing Were Forced to Trade Sex for Basic Repairs.” Nothing about women in public housing being forced to live in inhumane conditions. We can look the other way when people are forced to live in conditions not fit for any human being. But to reduce them to “common prostitutes?” Heaven forbid! Now we care. When we can no longer look the other way.

And what of sex workers in this equation? Shamed. Criminalized. But not treated as workers or deserving of rights. Symbols of women’s degradation. Even when the work is work that they chose to do.

In all cases, questions of consent are complicated at best. It’s not a question of whether women are forced into sexual labor because of poverty or agency. Sometimes it’s both/and. Or neither. And what happened in Baltimore isn’t really about sex work at all. But these are my thoughts from the cutting room floor. And sometimes they don’t make sense. Even to me.



About Shana Russell

Woman. Scholar. Liberationist.

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