A few hours after I met with Melissa Gira Grant in a Brooklyn coffee roastery this past March, she published this FAQ on her website for other writers requesting interviews with her.
“Would it be useful or a dick move to make a FAQ for other journalists who want to interview me, and do I really care if it’s a dick move?” she wrote on Twitter. Then: “Shit’s just become so meta. I should be happy to be covered, but a lot of these interviews end up being about interviews.” Then: “OK, guys, I made it: my first FAQ.”
Gira Grant is a writer and a former sex worker, and her extensive coverage of and commentary on sex work, anti-prostitution laws, anti-trafficking initiatives, and public health has made her a go-to resource for those seeking vetted information about the sex industry. Her writing has been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Slate, and The Nation among other venues, and her book, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, was published by Verso in 2014.
Playing the Whore takes a comprehensive and unforgiving look at police violence against sex workers, the stigma faced by sex workers as well as gender-nonconforming folk and people of color, and the follies of those whose mission is to save people from sex work—the “rescue industry.” Gira Grant’s other titles include For Love or Money, a chapbook cowritten with Sarah Jaffee, Take This Book: A History of the People’s Library at Occupy Wall Street, and Coming & Crying, a collection of essays about sex she coedited.
Gira Grant told me she doesn’t want to talk about sex work anymore, which is why she wrote Playing the Whore—to hand people a book instead of having to engage in the same arguments again and again. And after a book tour, numerous other interviews, and a handful of television appearances, I can appreciate the tedium of answering the same questions ad nauseum, especially when her book so clearly outlines why sex workers deserve the same rights as workers in any other industry.
Gira Grant is a sharp critic, not only of the politics surrounding sex work and women’s sexuality, but also of her writing peers and the media itself. I have a sense that as a journalist herself she may have found my questions pedestrian, or misguided, or of just-another-reporter-looking-for-a-sensational-headline caliber. Gira Grant is confident in her work, erudite, and unafraid to challenge others on their reporting and their inferences. Her own writing is stark and clean, lacks decoration or nonsense, and is so strong that it feels void of room for argument.
Already well on to the next thing, Gira Grant’s next book is about women’s ability to take up space in public—”not just the women’s movement, but women’s movements,” she said. “Women’s freedom of movement in a city or a place without being harassed, without being surveilled.”
It sounds as though Playing the Whore is only an introduction to something much broader than sex work, something rooted so deep in our culture it is invisible to most of us. Gira Grant appears to aim at the heart of where women stand in society, how the strictures of gender and race carve out the pathways of our lives.
The Rumpus: You write in Playing the Whore that your choice to remain silent about your experience in sex work is a political one. Tell me more about that choice.
Melissa Gira Grant: It’s an interesting place to start, because it forces us to talk about absence. When I was writing the book, and very clear at the outset that it wasn’t a memoir, I wasn’t sure how to write about that absence. Should I draw attention to the fact that there is material here the readers either expect to find, have been conditioned to find, or will feel has been left out?
I wrote a piece for the Guardian a few years ago, a political piece about end-demand anti-prostitution campaigns. I never look at the comments on websites, but at that point, the editor at the Guardian said, “We’d really like it if you’d get in on the comments.” It just so happened I had a dental appointment that day and was under some mild anesthesia, so I thought, “Oh, that’s a good state of mind to wade into the comments, I have nothing else to do.” The only one I remember was someone saying he felt I betrayed the readers by not disclosing I had done sex work.
We don’t have this expectation of war correspondents [to disclose] if they’ve been a soldier. We don’t have this expectation of those who report on health care if they’ve been nurses or doctors or worked in community health clinics. I think having been an insider strengthens the reporting in some cases, and in some cases it compromises it. I know people who work in human rights. How can you objectively report on human rights violations if part of your work has been documenting so much crime and injustice? It’s complicated.
My choice on this is political because to produce your biography on demand is a kind of labor. I didn’t want to engage in that labor. I put it alongside any other labor action, like a resistance or a strike. I was talking with sex workers in Berlin recently, and they said, “Keep up your strike. We really admire this. Because that story is what people always want to hear.” Those are all the reasons I would say that was a political choice, as much as it was a choice of craft as a writer. It would be a very different book to try to do memoir and polemic in the same space. I know from experience that any discussions of a polemic would be lost underneath the desire to pick apart the memoir.
Rumpus: You also write that you will tell your story when legal and economic conditions are favorable to you and others still in sex work. What do these favorable conditions look like, and how do you plan on telling your story?
Gira Grant: It’s another question about my story, okay. (Laughs) Just to point that out. It’s funny how even the absence of a story becomes a thing you have to talk about. I wanted to be clear that it isn’t a story I don’t want to tell, but it’s my story to tell. And it’s not a story I’ll tell on demand. When you think of fair conditions under sex work and fair conditions under any other kind of work, you have to have power and control as a worker to decide what you want to do with your labor. You want to make sure you’re fairly compensated. You want a good contract.
I’m trying to also make visible the mechanisms of how media is created, to draw attention to the fact that that’s a job. This is something I don’t think writers are often encouraged to acknowledge, but there’s something about the way sex work shaped my labor politics that I feel it would be a dodge for me to have this book that’s very rigorous about politics and the labor of sex work and then not bring those questions to the kind of labor I do now. I continually point out that very rarely am I asked to politicize the labor of writing in the same ways I’m asked to politicize sex work. They’re not framed as labor questions about my work as a writer; they’re framed as, “You used to do this thing, so why won’t you tell us about it?”
Rumpus: One of the mantras of the sex workers’ rights movement is “sex work is work.” What would you say to a housecleaner, or a Fortune 500 executive, to show commonalities between these forms of employment?
Gira Grant: Most people aren’t encouraged to think of their labor as very valuable. We usually think of it as the necessary thing we engage in in order to survive. We live in a world where our ability to survive is connected to our ability to draw a paycheck. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are other ways of organizing labor and government and culture. For example, people who are pushing for fixed universal base income, or a welfare system that separates wage labor from the compensation required to survive. It was only when I thought of those alternatives that I was able to really understand what we mean when we say sex work is work.
We aren’t defined by our work. People think if you over-identify with your work, then that must mean you’re giving over too much of yourself to it, that there’s something wrong with that. We’re trained to believe in things like work-life balance. So much work is tending towards service. It’s very much about creating experiences rather than products, and it makes those boundaries between life and work very slippery.
I don’t think it’s just a question of what I would say to people in other jobs about how their work is work, because I’m not interested in that. I would rather hear from them about what they think than tell them what I think, especially if their work is work I haven’t done. I’m more interested in how there are pressures outside all of these industries—economic pressures and political pressures putting the squeeze on everyone and making it harder to survive. Those are the kinds of connections people really respond to.
Why is it that the ability to get healthcare is attached to your job? Why did we settle on that? Why is it that labor unions are the weakest they’ve ever been in the history of the United States? Whose interest does that serve? Why is it we think sex work is about morality but not mortgage lending? What do we mean when we talk about morality in this context? That’s the big picture I point towards. Far be it from me to tell someone what their job is, what it entails, and how they should politicize themselves around it. That’s up to the workers themselves.
Work doesn’t have to be great in order to dignify it as work. Work just is. It’s quite value-neutral. The issue is about what kinds of power and control you have at work as a human being. That’s the commonality. It’s not necessarily what the task is.
Rumpus: Some countries have chosen to criminalize patrons of sex workers rather than the workers themselves. Can you provide examples of where these laws have succeeded or failed?
Gira Grant: It’s a misnomer to say you can criminalize one part of the transaction and not criminalize the entire transaction. For example in Sweden, where the law was passed in 1999. Those laws didn’t actually decriminalize people who sell sex; they introduced new criminal penalties for the people who buy sex. Nothing changed in the legal status for the sex workers themselves. It’s impossible for them to operate a legal business. They don’t legally have premises to work on. They can’t legally advertise. When you criminalize part of a transaction, you’re creating collateral damage for all those engaged in it, whether that’s the workers, whether that’s the workers’ children or their landlords or anyone who engages with them in the course of their work—drivers, or security guards. You are now making them work in a criminalized context.
That’s what often gets missed when we talk about this distinction between criminalizing buyers versus criminalized sellers. If the purchase of coffee were criminalized, how is that going to impact the people who produce the beans if there’s no market for them to be sold in? It makes people feel better to say, “Oh, we’re not actually criminalizing sex workers.” I actually look at these laws as a victory for the sex workers’ rights movement. They were the first to talk about decriminalization of sex work. But these laws are no solution.
You can look to Sweden, you can look to Norway. You can look to the United States, where we have one of the most punitive systems of all when it comes to sex work. It’s always sex workers who suffer. If you can’t legally operate, you are by definition operating in the shadows, which is where you’re most vulnerable. It sends a message to society—no matter who in the transaction is criminalized—that this is behavior that should not exist, that it should be abolished. I understand why penalizing buyers is appealing to people, but if they look at the evidence, at what the UN and Human Rights Watch have said in their evaluations of these laws, it isn’t as advertised. It sounds good, but it doesn’t play out for sex workers.
Rumpus: In your book, you say anti-prostitution laws “target a class of people as whores whether or not they are selling sex, and in areas of their lives far outside what they do for a living.” Which class is being targeted, and why?
Gira Grant: Class isn’t the point of that. The point of that is you can’t criminalize sex work without creating a class of people who are regarded as criminals. It creates a group of people who are then going to experience discrimination at all expenses. If your labor is criminal, if your income is criminal, then how do you put your income in the bank? If your labor is criminal and your income is criminal, then how do you quantify that for a landlord? How do you get healthcare when you’re not sure you can talk about the health issues that might come up in your work?
Criminalization is not just about the way laws are on the books but about the way laws are enforced in the streets and in people’s real lives. That’s where we get into talking about who this class of people is, and they’re different in different places. In the United States, those most likely to experience police harassment, surveillance, and arrest are people of color, particularly black people. When we’re talking about sex work, it’s particularly black women and trans women. Those are the people who are most likely to experience violence and harassment from law enforcement.
There are two things going on at once here—there are groups of people our society already regards as criminal, and there are laws prohibiting prostitution which accelerate that criminalization for classes of people within those classes. It’s a missing piece in our conversation about class—the ways that prostitution laws are a part of that. There are ways of getting women into the system, there are ways of monitoring poor women and black women and trans women. These ways are part of a larger control system that says, “These people are less than, these people need to be removed, these people need to be taken off the streets and put into prisons or jails, or they need to be saved or fixed.” This is the new friendly face of arrest, the claim that when we arrest people we’re helping them to make better choices in their lives.
The attitude is that this is an injured class of people, a broken class of people, and a different and more superior class have a right to control them. It’s the same logic whether you’re putting someone in forced treatment or behind bars.
Rumpus: Is there data on prostitution arrests in terms of race, or gender?
Gira Grant: It’s spotty. The data I use is what I hear from public defenders, those who actually manage these cases in places like New York and San Francisco. Maybe the FBI has its own crime statistics, but it’s very rarely disaggregated by race. A police department told me just last week that they’re not sure if they can break down their statistics by race—but they for sure have those statistics. They’re contained in arrest records.
This is what community-based organizations are saying. This is what human rights organizations are saying, what people’s attorneys and legal projects are saying, whether or not the FBI wants to report it. The FBI can’t even get it together to report on how many people are shot and killed by police officers every year, so I wouldn’t necessarily look to them as a resource on this.
Rumpus: You’ve said, “Anything that is going to be good for sex workers is going to be good for women across the board.” Can you elaborate?
Gira Grant: Sure. This is borrowing heavily from the idea of what marginality means within women’s rights and within feminism—centering people who already have a lot of power and privilege instead of centering people who have the least power and privilege. Trickle-down feminism is a fantasy. To improve things for people who already have it okay does not mean it’s going to trickle down to people who have the least, the people who are facing the greatest barriers in their lives.
Sex workers are, within the realm of women’s rights, facing those obstacles and barriers. Anything we can do to lessen the oppression, discrimination, violence, and stigma sex workers face is going to be a culture shift impacting all women. It’s going to change some of these very entrenched ideas of who defines women’s worth and what women’s worth is about. Is women’s worth connected to their purity and their chastity? Is women’s worth connected to their ability to convince people to protect them?
Sex workers are the last women police stand in to protect. Sex workers are the last people that room is made for in many ways. You get a very different kind of feminism if you put people at the margins at the center. It’s a recently resonant lesson, but black feminists have been saying this for decades. Now when I talk to people engaged in sex workers’ rights advocacy and people who identify as intersectional feminists, this is the air they breathe. We can’t just make feminism about improving the lives of all women. Because there is no such thing as all women. There is no universal female experience. So which women are we talking about, and where do we start?
Rumpus: What are the statistics on the number of minors trafficked for sex in the United States?
Gira Grant: There’s an often-cited statistic: between 100,000 and 300,000 young people are at risk for being trafficked in the United States. However, the authors of the study from which that statistic was drawn replied the study wasn’t about trafficking at all. That statistic referred to the number of young people who are homeless and may at some point be approached by someone who wishes to exploit them. We currently do not have any statistics on the number of young people who are trafficked in the United States.
There are handfuls of cases where people have been prosecuted for trafficking. But even in those cases, we don’t know how many young people were exploited, or how many were involved in those trafficking operations. As far as I know, no one is tracking that in a comprehensive way in the United States.
Rumpus: What about all people who are trafficked for sex, not just minors. Are there any statistics on that?
Gira Grant: There are estimates, but there aren’t any accurate counts. There are estimates up into the tens and twenties of millions, but there are no accurate counts on that.
Rumpus: Can you talk about misperceptions of street workers, pimps, the number of minors in sex slavery, life expectancy… is there any data you find rampantly misleading?
Gira Grant: We talked about the figure taken from the Estes study, 100,000 to 300,000 minors at risk for being trafficked. One figure you see quite often is 13 or 14 as the average age of entry into prostitution. If that is true, it’s an average, so there must be six-year-olds, seven-year-olds, and eight-year-olds entering. The data just doesn’t show that.
There are a lot of persistent zombie figures floating around. People will cite one location for a figure, and then you track down that figure citation and it cites somebody else. One I see all the time is that there are more people enslaved today than there were during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. There’s no basis for that. Even more offensive is to compare the trans-Atlantic slave trade with an activity that the law defines as any young person engaged in the sex trade, whether they’re consenting or forced. What are you trying to do when you conflate these two activities?
On one level, it’s useful to debunk these statistics that come up over and over again. But what I’m more interested in is asking, “What is the power that these statistics create and support?” The power behind all of these ideas—more slaves than there’s ever been, the average age of entry is 13 and there’s hundreds of thousands of them—is to exaggerate a problem and give it a moral cast, thereby reducing every single person engaged in the sex trade into one kind of person, into one kind of problem.
It misses the diversity that exists among sex workers. It refuses the diversity you see, particularly among young people engaged in the sex trade. There are so many different stories and experiences to take from there. And it also reduces the experiences of people who have been trafficked—they don’t have a single story either.
We can get very easily distracted in challenging these statistics. I know many people who are trying to do good work on that and debunk bad data. The reality is that there’s a great force to this narrative, and the real animating force behind it is that there are women doing bad things who don’t know how to make decisions for themselves, and we have to step up and make decisions for them. That’s a really powerful narrative. You can’t challenge that narrative just by saying, “Well, maybe the average age of entry into prostitution is older.” Because it’s not about the statistic. It’s about a value, and that value is persistent.
Rumpus: The value of a person based on their work?
Gira Grant: The value we’re all raised with, that women don’t have the capacity to make moral decisions for themselves, particularly around their sexuality. That if they make the wrong decisions they are ruined for life. That someone more powerful, a man or even a more powerful woman, should be responsible for them. That’s the value animating all of this. It’s incredibly racialized as well.
When you think about how the trans-Atlantic slave trade is paralleled with coercion in the sex industry—it overshadows the reality that people of color will make up the vast majority of those incarcerated due to increased penalties for human trafficking. It’s quite a mindfuck, using historic imagery of slavery to justify the fact that you’re going to put more black people in prison. And yet that’s exactly what’s happening.
It’s very challenging, because there are two things happening at once. There are really crappy statistics, but then at the root of it there’s a really powerful cultural narrative. A lot of this is about us struggling with very fundamental questions of our own past. It’s no accident that we see in the turn of the last century, right after the Civil War and as we’re getting into the Jim Crow era, that’s when this phenomenon with white slavery takes over the national imagination, the idea of white girls being taken and put into prostitution. This is something that really happened, but it did not happen on the scale people thought it did, that mythic level. There’s something very similar at play right now.
It points to very deep questions of American identity, and to very deep questions of women’s power and independence. I don’t think this is ever going to be about the merits and drawbacks of one law or one piece of evidence or one study. This is something quite fundamental. I see it when I talk to people about these issues, when I see the emotions it provokes, the anxiety it provokes, the fear it provokes. We talked absolutely nothing about the actual conditions and demands of sex work, aside from the question about Sheri’s Ranch. We’ve been stuck on these narrative questions that are very external. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking about that, but it’s very hard to step back from these questions and consider the people who are targeted by all of this.
Rumpus: If we were to talk about working conditions and demands of sex workers, what would you draw attention to?
Gira Grant: That was the purpose of my book. To debate what the sex industry means, to debate how we perceive sex workers when we don’t ask sex workers what they want and who they are. It’s a complete folly and a waste of time. And it’s deeply misogynist and sexist to engage in a conversation about a group of people when they are not present, but what others imagine about them is. I’ve never come into a version of this debate where people are sitting idly around asking, “What does it mean when men sell sex?” Men are not as fascinating. Debating women’s sexuality is endlessly fascinating.
If you turn it around and you have trust with communities of sex workers, if you actually spend time in their workspaces, if you spend time inside their community organizing spaces, the conversations that come up are absolutely part and parcel of any basic women’s rights platform, or women’s rights struggle. The issues that sex workers face are discriminations—legal discrimination, housing discrimination, health care discrimination, access to healthcare, having a voice at work.
Even at legal brothels, sex workers have very little power and control over their workplace. They might have power with their customers on a case-by-case basis in terms of what they want to do and not do, but they don’t necessarily have a lot of power in how that business operates. There’s this presumption that sex workers are broken people, so how could they engage in something like workplace democracy? How could they even have demands?
The reason I’m not saying, “These are the demands” is because they’re not my demands. This isn’t the work that I do. And when I did it I may have had my own demands, and I was engaged in different democratic struggles around sex work, but far be it for me to turn in and say, “Okay, now here’s what sex workers want.” My job is to say, “Go listen to sex workers. Historically this is what they’ve been demanding. Today this is what they’re demanding. This is what I’m hearing.” And that’s why the book doesn’t end with any easy solutions, either. It’s not meant to tell people, “Here’s your three-point action plan, go.” The three-point action plan is listen to sex workers, listen to sex workers, listen to sex workers.
It takes a lot of work to even get to that point, to sweep away these cobwebs and these old narratives, these biases and stigmas, to even see someone face to face.
Rumpus: In New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalized, do you find sex workers’ demands are met at a greater rate? Is it better for them?
Gira Grant: The biggest difference in what’s going on in New Zealand versus the rest of the world, aside from the decriminalization of sex work, is that sex workers were actually part of the decriminalization process. There was a provision in that legal change stating sex workers would be part of an evaluation committee, and in 2008, they were, they were a part of the committee determining whether or not decriminalization worked. They are continually regarded as stakeholders—in their communities, but also in the legal process. That’s such a different way of operating.
What has decriminalization achieved? In New Zealand, sex workers are regarded as workers, as people who are members of the community, people who have a stake in the community—not just in the workplace, but in the broader community. They aren’t objects to be controlled and regulated. They are not collateral evidence of a crime. They are human beings.
It’s not by any means finished, either. This is a continual process. They are still having to push back on regulations they feel would severely limit sex workers’ power and control. One of the fights they keep having is over the definition of a brothel, how many people can work in a brothel and what kinds of regulations brothels should have; how to define a democratic, collective workplace versus a top-down workplace with management.
To me, those are really interesting fights from a labor perspective. But it seems you can’t get to those fights until you level the playing field and actually put sex workers at the table, so they can talk about their needs and concerns. New Zealand is also interesting because there were people in public office who were receptive and listened to sex workers. This made a huge difference. I don’t know that we’re at this place in the United States.
Rumpus: Is there any data on sex workers’ health or trafficking numbers in New Zealand since decriminalization?
Gira Grant: There have been some studies on increases or decreases in trafficking, and it would be hard for me to say how conclusive any of them are. I’m not an expert on the ins and outs of each of those studies.
The New Zealand model was a point of focus around the time of the United Nations AIDS Conference in Sydney last year. At the same time, the medical journal The Lancet came out with a cross-analysis of 800 different studies related to HIV health and sex work. They came to the conclusion that if you decriminalize sex work, you will reduce HIV rates by something like 30 to 34 percent. Going through both The Lancet’s process and those of the individual studies they pulled together, this is the research that I would point to as most important. It puts a big picture together of the health benefits of decriminalization, but also the health risks we perpetuate through criminalization.
And it’s not so lofty as all that. My roots are in community health, and I started working on sex work issues and health issues when I worked at a community health clinic run by and for sex workers, St. James Infirmary in San Francisco. It’s the only peer-based occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers in the United States, and it was founded in 1999. The mandate of that clinic is not so much engaged in policy but in harm reduction, in helping people get the tools and resources they need to take care of their own health and their own lives.
Doing that in a criminal environment is not easy. This is an environment where police still feel that they are able to search you, confiscate any condoms you might be carrying, and use them as evidence of prostitution. It’s an environment where police harass health and harm reduction outreach workers who are going out into the streets, the communities, and the clubs, making contact with sex workers. That really dramatizes how much harder it is to take care of yourself when you’re literally hiding from the police. Things would be so different if police just got out of the prostitution business altogether.
Rumpus: So who should be in the prostitution business? Just prostitutes?
Gira Grant: Yeah! It’s funny—when you get conflicts between sex workers and law enforcement in the United States, much of law enforcement aren’t out there looking for people to arrest. In some places they are, but in other places they’ll tell you, “We’re motivated by neighbor complaints.” In New York we have community boards. In San Francisco we have neighborhood associations. Different communities organize themselves in different ways. But is there a venue outside of criminal law for neighborhood decision-making? Where, instead of calling the police on sex workers, the committee could contact a sex workers’ organization, invite them to a meeting, and say, “Hey, we have concerns and questions.”
Most of the time, people are not actually concerned with prostitution and sex work. They’re concerned about seeing people who they think are prostitutes and sex workers in their community. Sometimes this just comes down to profiling, the feeling of “I don’t want someone who looks like that in my neighborhood.” I’ve heard police get involved in parking disputes—”There’s a massage parlor or a brothel or a dungeon in my neighborhood and I don’t like all the cars.” That’s not a prostitution issue, that’s a parking issue. We have other ways of resolving these issues on a community level that does not require police involvement at all, or any legal change. It requires communities and neighbors to regard sex workers as part of the community and fellow neighbors. But that’s really difficult. There’s certainly nothing supporting that.
It might actually be impossible for communities to connect with sex workers outside of experiences that annoy them. People are not necessarily going to think there might be an organization representing the rights of sex workers they can reach out to—and in a lot of communities there isn’t one. But I think a lot has changed, and there is potential for action on a community level. If we sit around waiting for an MP or a rep to inspire legal change, we’ll be waiting for a long time. A lot of this is about basic grassroots change. That’s the level that most sex workers’ organizations work at.
Rumpus: Many people want to know whether sex workers are exploited or empowered. I would guess you believe this is not a relevant question.
Gira Grant: Nope.
Rumpus: Why not?
Gira Grant: Because it’s not a metric by which we judge other workers. We don’t ask nurses to justify to us how much they love their patients when we decide how much money nurses should make, or if nursing should be legal. I think the reason why we put this question to sex workers is because we would rather talk about our ideas of what women’s sexuality is than deal with brass tacks issues of labor rights and human rights. That’s why I think it’s a mostly irrelevant question.
Pointing out that it’s irrelevant is also a way of politicizing this issue. Why is this the point of engagement? Why do you want to hear a woman detail her sexual experiences rather than tell you about police violence or discrimination in getting healthcare or education? These issues are not sexy to people.
Rumpus: Do you think that exploitation and trafficking are more serious in the context of the sex trade, and should therefore be treated or attacked differently than such violations in other industries?
Gira Grant: I don’t think exploitation and trafficking are the same thing, even though legally, people have been trying to redefine sexual exploitation, or exploitation in general, as trafficking. To a certain degree, all work is a form of exploitation. Let’s think of another field, one that is rampant with trafficking and other violations. Let’s talk about agricultural work for a second. I would think most people prefer not to work in the hot sun, stooped over every single day, picking crops laced with pesticides that might make them sick—without even a break to go to the bathroom.
Is that work so particularly unappealing, unattractive, or by definition exploitative due to the circumstances under which it happens? Should we attack that differently? Should we treat those workers differently than people who face exploitation and trafficking in other industries? I’m not interested in pitting different groups of workers against each other.
Rumpus: There are many studies stating that the majority of child sex workers were sexually abused before they enter sex work. Is that true?
Gira Grant: I’m not aware of a single study that uses the term “child sex worker,” to start. Generally speaking, we don’t see that. So I’m not sure what you’re referencing.
There are lots of studies that say—based on one small population that the researchers had access to—that this part of this population had X rate of sexual assault, therefore that explains why they were engaged in prostitution. My response to that is usually that you can’t make assumptions about every single person who’s engaged in sex work based on a subsection of the population that happened to be studied.
Rumpus: Do you look to any specific countries or American cities as models for sex work policy? New Zealand?
Gira Grant: I’m an armchair expert on New Zealand. I know a lot more about New Zealand than most people, but my heart in all of this has always been grassroots change, so I’m not going to tell you that the thing to do is sit around and draft policy. I’m much more interested, including as a reporter, in talking about people’s lives and their communities, and the changes they’re making at this super-grassroots level. Not even what’s going on in your city, but what’s going on in the few blocks on which you live, what’s going on at this club, what’s going on at this clinic.
Due to these entrenched attitudes about sex work and the stigma that sex workers are so weak, that’s really where change starts. I’m very inspired by the Sex Workers Outreach Project in Chicago right now. They’re working on a legal project where they as an organization have partnered with providers vetted as sex-worker friendly, those who are going to help sex workers deal with their issues. Anything on which they would work with a public defender—joint custody, discrimination, housing—these providers will be a resource for them. Here we have a group led by sex workers partnering with people who have expertise, people who want to be in alliance with sex workers and provide them a meaningful service—which in turn empowers sex workers to make political change. You can imagine that you start to see patterns with these legal projects. You’ll see the landlord who persistently kicks people out. You’ll see the neighborhoods where sex workers are subject to the most street violence.
I’m a firm believer that advocacy and political change comes from meeting people where they’re at and serving their direct needs. That’s where my interest and energy is.
Rumpus: If you could see one thing change in the United States, whether it’s legislation, services, or spaces for sex workers, what would that be?
Gira Grant: I would just go back to the previous answer I gave you. There is no magic bullet here. There is no single solution. I can tell you that most sex workers are going to say decriminalization is at the top of the list. That would create an enabling environment where all of these other changes become more possible. As I say at the end of the book, I also don’t think we should wait. It’s sort of a chicken and the egg scenario, where you might not get decriminalization until some of these other things happen—until there is a base of power for sex workers in this country, until we have changed our cultural perceptions of sex workers, until sex workers have people in public office who can stand up for them. There are so many moving pieces to this, and so there is no one solution.
If anything, it’s more about what the necessary ingredients are in order for this to take off. For me the necessary ingredient is that it has to be driven by sex workers. Any project or plan or policy that’s meant to improve the lives of sex workers without sex workers being a part of that process—as though they haven’t already come up with plans or policy—is doomed to fail.
My favorite, favorite experience in taking the book out on tour was in London about a year ago. There was a guy in the audience who asked, “What if sex workers unionized?” Which has happened already, and it is continuing to happen. But he proposed it as, “Oh, I guess you girls never thought of that before!” It was a totally sexist dude question. A sex worker stood up and said, “Look, here’s the deal. We have thought of all these solutions. We have all of the solutions. What we don’t have are the resources to bring them into being.”
That’s the necessity—building the resources in sex worker communities that will enable them to take power and control in their communities. That’s the point of all this, and that’s why decriminalization matters. But it’s so much more than that. There’s no one thing, other than sex workers being in control of their lives.
Rumpus: It seems as though you feel statistics are not really relevant to discussions about sex work in the same way the exploitation versus empowerment argument isn’t.
Gira Grant: I think statistics are important, and as a journalist, I understand how they are important. What I feel bound to do, ethically, is to say…for example, we say sexual assault matters because one in four women are sexually assaulted. What if it were one in 20, or one in 100? Would we say, “Oh, that’s not enough. That’s not an issue.” It’s important to know the scope of our problems in order to know what we’re dealing with, but most of what’s getting bandied about as authoritative data on sex work or on trafficking has such political motivation behind it. Also, when I’ve dug in, the data has such a shoddy evidence base. All I can do is say, “This is what someone says, and here’s why I don’t trust it, and here’s why I’m going to look at the math.”
As a writer, and as someone who is very engaged in human rights work, I find this to be the side of the struggle most deserving of energy and time. Because there will always be think tanks, et cetera, coming up with figures to support what they believe to be true.
I’m also not a social scientist. I can say, “This is what I’ve read, this is what seems to be valid, this is what cross-checks with other data I see.” As far as I’m concerned, there aren’t really any authoritative figures.
Rumpus: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Gira Grant: I think sex work gets over-mystified and overcomplicated because it’s about sexuality, and women’s sexuality in general. What strikes me when I look at sex worker organizations and sex worker movements, in the US especially, is that they’re so in alignment with other longstanding progressive causes. If anything, sex workers have been at the forefront of some of these causes. There have always been sex workers at the forefront of social movements. Some of the absolute movers and shakers of Stonewall were Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two trans women of color. They both engaged in sex work in order to survive. It was a time where, politically, the identity of sex worker hadn’t really emerged yet, but sex worker rights was part and parcel of gay rights. People who were there and took risks and stood up to police as a marked political protest for gay rights were doing so because they had already experienced profound police harassment. So why not stand up? We shouldn’t forget that part of our history.
All of these principles are so fundamental, and the disconnect seems to be hinged on sexual agency—or it’s perceived to be about sexual agency. Not all sex workers feel their work has anything to do with their sexuality. You punch in, you punch out. There’s not necessarily a direct line between what you do at work and what you with the rest of your life. But people don’t recognize that, and they miss those opportunities for connection.
One of the biggest things going on in London, Amsterdam, San Francisco, and New York right now is gentrification. Every major city is dealing with gentrification, and it’s always the sex workers they come for first. Cities feel they have to clean up their image and make themselves more attractive for tourism, more attractive to businesses. The Gezi Park struggle in Turkey a few years ago, for example, was a popular movement defending public space and land. What I found when I was digging into the goings on there was that the park was a place where transgender sex workers felt safe.
Prostitution is brothel-regulated in Turkey, but transgender workers are not allowed to work in the brothels. So they end up in the underground side of the industry, they end up working the streets and in this park. There was a huge amount of violence against trans women in Turkey. There were global protests in the name of a trans sex worker named Dora who was murdered there in the summer of 2013. The energy in protecting this space was not just for the sake of nice, green, urban space but because of who was there and who has been pushed out—who deserves to be in public.
My next book is about cities and spaces. A lot of our fights about sexuality, and women’s independence in particular, are literally fought over women’s ability to take up space in public. Not just the women’s movement, but women’s movements. Women’s freedom of movement in a city or a place without being harassed, without being surveilled. This is really fundamental stuff, and it isn’t just about sex work. It’s about who we value in a community, whose lives matter.
It moves me because I feel that peeling back those layers is still yet to be done. People get caught up in the smoke and mirrors of what they think the sex industry is, and they can’t see the people behind the red neon. They seem like something wholly other, and people don’t have the capacity to understand that this is the way we’re acculturated—to see people of color as other, poor people as other. This is part of that. Why is this an acceptable prejudice? Why is this a group of people who are considered to be outsiders, no matter how many gains are made?
This struggle is connected to struggles surrounding sexual identity and racial justice. Looking at the huge number of transgender women of color who have been murdered since the beginning of the year—that we know of—the number has reached seven or eight at this point, maybe even nine, since the start of 2015. The number of those women involved in sex work is not a piece that gets lifted up in news reports. Sometimes people want to bury that, because they don’t want to say anything that might make it seem as though those women were asking for it. We’re still living with the idea that sex work somehow marks people as acceptable targets for violence.
That’s where my work lives, and it has very little to do with sexuality. It has everything to do with whose bodies are marked by society as acceptable targets for violence. It has everything to do with marginalization.