Sex Work Can Be Empowering, But The Sex Industry Isn't

Young sexy woman wearing lingerie
Young sexy woman wearing lingerie

One of the most consistently repeated arguments made by pro-sex work feminists and adult industry supporters is that sex work doesn't exploit women but rather "empowers" them. It's a compelling argument -- especially if the person making it is a sex worker herself. After all, she should know, right?

Fair enough. But first, let's look at what it means to feel "empowered." Notice I said "feel" and not "be," because there's a difference between them -- and it's a big one. We can "feel" empowered without gaining additional power in real-world terms. We can feel it when we exercise a personal freedom, when we take a risk instead of playing it safe or when we gleefully thumb our nose at society's conventions. The belief that freedom of choice is inherently empowering is a cornerstone of feminist philosophy.

But is it the same as being empowered? As we gain real power in the world, we become less imprisoned by our circumstances. Our options become more plentiful -- and more attractive. Instead of choosing between the lesser of evils, we choose between what we want and what we want more. The more power we have, the less helpless and vulnerable we are.

Yet, I can think of few people more vulnerable than female sex workers. Bad girl bravado aside, the fact is that there are few (if any) adult industry policies, benefits or organizations that serve to truly empower your friendly neighborhood porn star. Society doesn't care what happens to sex workers, and we don't seem to care what happens to each other.

I've observed first-hand that porn stars with the bad fortune to get sick or hurt (whether on the job or not) invariably find themselves with no support or worker's benefits to fall back on. As their financial desperation grows, they often resort to begging for donations on social media or moving in with their parents. It doesn't matter on how many posters, box covers or web banners the performer's image has appeared, how many AVN awards she won for her studios or how many thousands of dollars in publicity her name has generated. In her hour of need, she is entitled to exactly nothing from her billion-dollar industry, and that's likely what she'll get.

Likewise, even a healthy young woman who at the height of her fame commanded a six-figure salary can wake up one morning to find she's no longer in demand. The drop in wages can be abrupt, and most performers are ill-prepared for it. In the eight years I've been making adult films, I've run into two former porn stars I'd personally directed; both were working at Starbucks. (One of them had recently won the AVN Award for Female Performer of the Year; the other was still actively featured on adult websites and DVD box covers.) Both also seemed petrified that I would "out" them to coworkers and put their jobs at risk. Clearly, the empowerment stage had ended for these young women, and it was back to the old drawing board.

Of course, there are also success stories: performers who invested in property, earned college degrees or started a business with the money they earned working in the adult industry. But if sex work typically led to financial stability, I would take great pleasure in telling you so. In fact, I'd advise all young women to drop everything and get their (preferably firm, round) asses to Porn Valley immediately.

But I'm not going to say that, because it simply isn't true. What turns out to be true is there are no short cuts on the road to female empowerment. A woman cannot gain power through sex work any more than she can set herself free by being an accountant. If she's not cut out for the job, or if she's doing it for the wrong reasons, it will never, ever empower her. It doesn't matter how much money she makes or how many men fall helplessly at her feet.

I'm convinced that the only way to be empowered by a career -- any career -- is through feeling that it's what you were meant to do. Many sex workers feel that special calling for their work and they will tell you, honestly, how empowering the adult industry has been for them. They'll explain how through sex work they found the happiness, purpose and meaning that had always eluded them. They don't have to be driving a Mercedes or wearing Louboutins to mean what they say -- and most of the time they won't be. Their sense of power doesn't come from money, beauty, fame or giving society the middle finger. It comes from feeling that their work has meaning, that the sacrifices were worth it and that if they had it to do over again, they wouldn't change a thing.