I Don't Want Your Pity: Sex Work and Labor Politics

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 05:  Duke University student/adult film star student Belle Knox poses for a photo on March 5, 2014 in
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 05: Duke University student/adult film star student Belle Knox poses for a photo on March 5, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Joe Kohen/Getty Images)

I recently received an email from a man in Colorado:

Earlier in your story you mention due to high cost of Duke [University] and not wanting to end up with huge amount of loans, and also having no special training for other types of jobs, you decided to get into porn. In a way you are hinting and making the case for you not having a choice and I mean economical choice.

In other words, if you had other socially acceptable skills to market, most probably you would have done other things and not getting into porn.

Lack of economic choice in the first place makes other choices that follow hard to accept as free will choices, due to necessities.

Ah, the desperate exchange. This is not a unique or nuanced point of view. The concept of the desperate exchange permeates discussions about sex work. I've been confronted with it in interviews, in class discussions, and in communications with friends. How could I possibly be empowered through necessity?

People assume that my support for sex workers and porn is somehow invalidated because I chose to do porn for the money rather than for love. They act as though this is some shocking victory for them because being a sex worker wasn't my dream job -- because as a little girl I didn't write "I want to be a porn star" on career day, or excitedly tell everyone around me about how excited I was to someday have sex on camera for money. Or because my teacher didn't tell me I could be anything I want to be: an astronaut, the president, even a porn star! Apparently because I didn't dream of living this life -- because it was "necessary" -- it now somehow reverts to being morally wrong, and I become another pitiable whore to be dismissed at leisure.

Porn wasn't my only option, but it was the most prudent, the most shrewd -- trading the smallest amount of my time for the maximum profit, on my schedule. I could quite easily have taken out loans to cover my tuition bill, but I chose not to. Why be $50,000 or more in debt when it simply wasn't necessary? I was not making what economists call a desperate exchange.

A desperate exchange in the labor market is one motivated by poverty -- by necessity -- the steal-to-feed-your-family analogy. Yes, of course I do porn for money. It's a job, not a summer retreat. Why else do we labor at things if not to see a profit? The entire purpose of labor in the economic market is to yield some result -- whether it be money, goods, etc. The majority of people don't work every day for fun; they do it because they want -- they need -- something in exchange. Do you honestly think that the people working at McDonald's flipping burgers and responding to rude customers on a daily basis would come to work every day if they weren't getting paid? Moreover, do you think as a child their dream job was to do this? Is their desire for better working conditions, or their defense of their industry, somehow the lesser for it? No.

The argument that people should only work in jobs that they enjoy or find empowering comes from a place of privilege. Avoiding student loans means that I put myself in the position of privilege that allows me to be able pick and choose my employer more carefully, rather than take the first job that's offered to me simply to start clawing myself out of debt. In today's America, jobs are scarce and unemployment is teetering on the brink of double digits; the situation is no more cheerful for graduates. It is extremely unrealistic and disingenuous to act as though we can all get our desirable, dream profession. Often we do work we don't enjoy, because we have families to provide for or bills to pay, or, like the majority of the student body I hope to graduate with, loans to repay. It doesn't make their job immoral or illegitimate.

I was lecturing at a class last week and taking questions when I was asked by a female student, "Would you still do porn if you didn't need the money?"

I replied, "No."

She looked shocked. The entire class was buzzing. I felt puzzled. It all seems so intuitive. I wouldn't do labor for free. No one would.

But the crux of the issue is not the idea of me being involved in a mutually beneficial transaction. The issue is that it's porn. All of our discussions surrounding desperate exchanges or last resorts arise when we discuss taboo markets -- especially sex work.

If I had been a doctor standing before the class, would I have been asked that same question?

No. Because being a doctor is a "respectable" job. But our idea of respectability is predicated on social and economic oppressions, to wit: being a sex worker is not respectable or morally acceptable. We assign a cultural significance to sex; it is for procreation and the preservation of the family unit. We are told it is for romance, it is special, cherished and not commodified, but meanwhile sex screams at us from every billboard and television channel. Sex can be used to sell everything except for sex itself. Sex work, then, is dirty, it is sleazy, it is something only truly desperate people do. The pity and subsequent marginalization of sex workers as people to be rescued, or damaged, goods is grossly offensive and contributes to the caricature of the street walker: it dismisses and erases the person behind the job, no more so than when we paint all fast food workers as high school dropouts. The desire to see people in work we would not choose for ourselves as victims is immature and reactionary, and it harms the people within those professions by creating a line between us and them.

Sex work is work: It's a job. I'm lucky in that the job I chose to pay my bills just so happens to empower me and reward me in ways I didn't imagine it could. I love my job. I don't deny for a second that this isn't the reality for everyone, and we need their stories too, but not to be stolen, reworked and retold by banner-waving academics or politicians, or minced up and stamped into cookie-cutter whores for television dramas. The theft of our voices, our narratives, devalues us as people; and allows us to be silenced.

So please, before you pity a sex worker, or talk to me about my "desperation," consider the privilege that you are have when you look down on me, and realize that you, too, engage in a "desperate exchange" every day you drive to work -- if you're blessed enough to have a job.