Sex Work IS Work: a Documentarian Gives Sex Workers a Voice
A documentary filmmaker dispels myths about sex workers through their own words.
Posted June 5, 2017
This is the latest installment of interviews with speakers from the 2nd Annual AltSex NYC Conference, which was held on Friday, April 28 in a midtown NYC theater. Miki Mosman is an artist and documentary filmmaker who has dedicated her artistic life to topics and issues surrounding expressions of sex and sexuality within our society. Her latest documentary is Born Into Porn, exploring the stories of children born to porn stars. Her presentation focused on data collected from semi-structured interviews with current, former, and considering sex workers.
Q: You are a documentary filmmaker who has explored the lives of sex workers from their own lived experience. What were some of the most common ways or words in which sex workers described their work?
A: I found it most interesting that many of the sex workers I interviewed would refer to their work in different ways, based on how they explained their experience within it. For instance, those who said they engaged in sex work as a means for survival described the work in words such as “Anger,” “Unsafe,” “Brutal,” “Shame,” and “Guilt.” Those who expressed they were more empowered by sex work used words such as “Honest,” “Fun,” “Fulfilling,” “Creative,” and “Liberating.” The only words that were repeated were “Empowering” and “Important.” I found that very curious.
Q: What were some of the most common myths about sex workers and sex work that you ran across?
A: Many of the myths that were addressed centered around themes of being “Damaged Goods” i.e. they were victims of childhood sexual trauma, and/or abuse. One person said, “The idea in our society is that the only way someone would become a prostitute is that you’re damaged and broken and psychologically unhealthy because a healthy person would not be drawn to do that.” A recurring theme is that of the “drug-addicted, diseased, whore who has no other choice or recourse than sex work,” or that sex workers are desperate as opposed to independent. “I wish people knew that sex work is actually work and not some frivolous hobby and that people come to it in various ways, not like the media say that we are all damaged and drug addicts. Many of us are very happy, educated and fulfilled in this work.”
Another popular myth is that they are all victimized and need “saving,” but that it is out of their hands because everyone who enters sex work is forced into it. However, that’s an interesting point because it can be argued that there are some who enter sex work because they have no other means to survive. So, in that instance, did they really make a “choice?” It’s purely subjective and at the discretion of the person to decide that for themselves.
Q: In your presentation, you made a strong distinction between choice and need-based sex work. Can you talk a little bit more about what these differences are and how they influence the subjective experience of the sex worker?
A: In terms of need-based sex work, one must look to society at large and realize there are so many factors that would lead someone to sex work, but we can’t just look at it as a social issue unto itself. We must also look at it as an economic justice issue and we must also respect survival strategies.
I will maintain my hesitation with using the word “choice.” I think it’s important that “choice” be replaced with a word that is less polarizing and simplifying. “Choice” is a difficult word for the person who entered sex work because they have no other recourse or means for survival due to discrimination, lack of opportunities, education, prejudices or any other social construct which is designed to oppress marginalized groups or peoples. We must be careful to not apply the same standards to sex work we apply to other forms of work when we use the word “choice.”
There’s always economic need when we are talking about a working-class person who needs to survive. There are many nuances to survival, but the bottom line is, it’s survival. One of the interviewees said, “The deprivation of work that pays fairly to survive is a survival issue, an economic justice issue, and it’s based on labor laws and exploitation of the poor.” Another one said, “I learned that survival sex and sex work are all under the same umbrella. No matter what you do with sex to survive, it’s sex work and its hard work.” Someone else remarked, “The details on why we do it to survive are hard for many people to understand because those people see life as living the straight and narrow and that’s the only option.”
There are many people who enter sex work because they are interested in it. Sex work for many people I’ve interviewed gives them a sense of empowerment, autonomy, and connection. They are proud to be sex workers and feel its role as a job should be respected as such. Sex work IS work. One interviewee said, “It’s more empowering to be a sex worker than to work a straight job. Sometimes there’s more freedom.” Another one said, “Sex work is a challenge to power because it opens up the possibilities that people can have autonomy over their bodies and their needs and wants. It’s possible for women to make a living without men, romantic relationships without men if that’s what they choose. They might get pleasure and connection and I think all of that is a challenge to power.”
Regardless of how someone came to be a sex worker, I think we should really examine our attitudes towards sex work and the sex worker and engage in healthy dialogue and discussions about sex and sexuality and stop the shaming of and moralizing to the sex worker. As one person said, “People want to judge us, but you don’t want to step inside our world.”
Q: One of the themes that came up in your interviews was the role of religion and shame on sexuality. What did you learn from sex workers about these issues?
A: I learned that society, in general, has some very serious hangups about sex and sexuality. We equate it to a sense of moral versus immoral and we, in turn, equate people by such standards, especially when it comes to their sexuality and sexual proclivities. One interviewee said, “I don’t know why there’s so much shame. I guess it’s from religion. It’s a societal wounding. This idea that sexuality is only ok in very certain circumstances and everything else is shameful. It’s a deep wounding.”
One could argue that our puritanical belief system hinders our free sexual expressions and we are then left mired in feelings of guilt and shame, right and wrong, moral and immoral and we don’t feel free to express ourselves, which is the true shame in my opinion. Shame can come from not agreeing with religious dogma for yourself and yet not wanting to be ostracized or humiliated by peers or society. Another participant said, “Religion plays a role in shaping our sex and sexuality because it perpetuates that shame cycle. I saw it a lot in my clients. I see a lot of shame in my own fetish relationships. I fetishize it. I call it blasphemy fetish. It goes back to my goth youth. Organized and mainstream religions are detrimental to sexuality.”
Conversely, I also learned that in terms of the kink world, it’s an interesting ground for sexual exploration, but there’s internal and external shame. The shame from within is born from the standards set by a society that shames those who step outside the norm and desire something different from “normal” or “heteronormative” sexual expressions. With this shame and the standards of moral and immoral in place, there’s a struggle to belong, but that box is small in its definition and in its acceptance of differences. One person said that guilt and shame are part of expanding horizons and boundaries. There was nothing wrong with them and it’s a way of discovering things about yourself that maybe you didn’t know before.
I feel that sexual shame is detrimental to the individual and socially harmful at best and we would be wise to engage in healthy discussions to prevent or circumvent larger societal displays of sexual aggression. One interviewee said that “Shame is one of the biggest killers out there.” I tend to agree.
Q: In the presentation, you asked, what does it take to become a healthy society? Please expand on that and provide some insight into what you learned from your interviewees.
A: I will always believe that in order for us to be a happy society, we must first become a healthy society. One way we can do that is to come to terms with our sexuality and our relationship/s to it. We need to be able to talk about sex and not consider it a shameful act. We need to be able to discuss it openly and honestly with our partners, friends, loved ones, and families and not feel ashamed for wanting or needing to do so. We have to be honest with ourselves and our desires. We should always treat ourselves with love and respect.
Moreover, clear communication and boundaries are great places for us to develop our sense of who we are and what we want in a relationship. Knowing and accepting who you are is also a sexuality theme that was brought up a few times. One person said, “We need to speak more openly about sex and sexuality. We should stop thinking about sex as a moral or immoral thing. It’s a human need that needs to be met. I believe a lot of our issues in society are because people aren’t getting their sexual needs met. Sexuality is a huge part of who we are as human beings and a huge part of how we connect. All of us are trying to connect to one another and sexuality is just one avenue, which is very important.”
Overwhelmingly, the majority of people I interviewed said communication, boundaries, and consent as well as knowing and accepting who you are and what you want were the major pathways to healthy sexuality.
Q: One of the final segments of your presentation was on the future of sex. You quoted one interviewee as stating that the "future of sex is its own perfection." A number of attendees found this to be a very profound statement. What does this mean and can you expand a bit on your own vision of the future of sex?
A: Sex can be perfect. There’s really no way to improve it as an ideal. It can be argued that the orgasm is perfection. One person said, “Sex is an art. The human body is beautiful.”
I see the future of sex as being very uncertain. On the one hand, I’m seeing a lot more acceptance of gender variances and a strong movement away from vanilla heteronormativity amongst our young people. It’s seemingly not so taboo or secretive for them. On the other hand, we are losing our ability to interact with one another. We are losing touch with one another. We forget that there are people around us, beside us, walking through this world with us. We are not alone and yet we sometimes act as if we are. We have our heads in our phones, computers, headphones, etc and communication is truly lacking. I feel we need to work hard to maintain interpersonal relationships, actual in-person relationships, and make an effort to truly connect with each other.
I hope the future of our sex and sexuality brings us all happiness and the chance to be truly fulfilled and satisfied in a healthy, consensual, respectful, informed, and positive way.