By Nell Beram


I had no money. In the middle of the night, the landlord would call me up to demand the back months’ rent. After a while, I did not answer the phone so late at night. I looked for a job, but I was not qualified to do anything respectable.... In this apartment, I slept with a man who used to buy me dinner. I liked fish of every kind. When I went out with him, it was only to eat fish.... Most of what we did together was inside the apartment, and that was soon over.
                                    --Jamaica Kincaid, from "Putting Myself Together," an autobiographical essay.

In the bookstore where I work part time, the women’s studies section is spattered with titles like: Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor (Routledge, 1997); Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry (Cleis Press, 1987); and Whores and Other Feminists (Routledge, 1997). As I understand it, the author and editors of—and some contributors to—these books identify as feminists, and I’m thankful for the company: the greater the number of tentacles, the harder our tent is to topple. I’d value novelist Jamaica Kincaid’s nod as well.

I believe absolutely that women (and men) and not their kin or governments have the right to sovereignty over their own bodies. Yet the long-term yield of the social sanctioning of cosmetic surgery, for example, troubles me: a long, classically Semitic nose (like mine) will become that much more of an aberration every time somebody has hers or his shortened. (If there were an equal number of nose augmentations going on I wouldn’t be making this fuss.) The curve on the "attractive nose" graph changes shape and we become a culture in which the brackets defining the day’s standards of beauty contract.

Although I don’t know any sex workers personally—at least no one has ever confided as much to me—I do buy the prevailing notion that many women who become sex workers consider themselves desperate. But as Heidi Mattson, author of Ivy League Stripper (Arcade Publishing, 1995), and novelist and former prostitute Mary Gaitskill attest, indeed there are some basically middle-class, drug-free women whose service as sex workers doesn’t result from destitution. According to the books I’ve listed, some women (not just Camille Paglia) believe that sex work is a feminist enterprise because (a) by casting themselves as sexual objects, women are for once "in control" of their sexuality, and because (b) they are not beholden to husbands, boyfriends, or governments for their meal tickets.

The "tables turned" justification of sex work confounds me. Because she depends on his arousal, a prostitute is implicitly controlled by her john, a stripper by her (male) audience, no matter the surface nature of the exchange bought with his dollar (e.g., she dominatrix, he helpless conquest). If she were in control, her sexual pleasure would be part of the barter; as Lillian S. Robinson notes in her review of Live Sex Acts in the October 1997 issue of The Women’s Review of Books, "[author Wendy] Chapkis . . . persists in treating prostitution as these women’s sexual identity, even though they testify to faking it."

As for the economic defense of sex work, it presumes that feminism is about economic equity at the expense of all else. Thirty years after the second wave and on the heels of some incontrovertible feminist victories (Roe v. Wade, public acknowledgment of sexual harassment as a real phenomenon), why are our sights so low? Poet Audre Lorde might have been thinking of pro-sex-work feminists when she wrote her famous speech, "The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House," whose pertinent next line is, "They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change" (Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, The Crossing Press, 1984).

I think it’s crucial to realize the shortsightedness of the sex-work alternative: the idea that women are gladly in sexual servitude to men in exchange for money reinforces a climate of male entitlement under which all women, present and future, must live. Do men understand that the women who are telling them they like it are actors hiding their natural impulses beneath the garments and personae of his choosing? What can these men be teaching their sons about female sexuality?

Perhaps if there were equal numbers of male and female sex workers I wouldn’t be so testy. (Prostitute, like nurse, is a job title that must be modified by the adjective "male" before this possibility will occur to the average brain.) It isn’t due to the mythical male sex drive that nearly all prostitutes of both sexes serve men; it’s because men have most of the money.

When more women have money to burn, prostitutes, male and female, and proprietors of strip clubs will no doubt more actively court us. Perhaps not the most compelling reason to take out our scythes and level that playing field, but a sign that we are encroaching on parity just the same.

Still, can money be a fair trade for access to another’s body, an entity that I don’t believe can alternate between having value some days (hours, minutes) and no value others, depending on the solicitor. In the words of WHISPER (Women Hurt In Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt) founder Evelina Giobbe, "How can we say, it’s your body, your self—and suddenly it’s for sale?" (In the Company of Women: Voices From the Womens Movement, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1996). We can’t shed our skins like "Miami Vice" pastels when they begin to repel us.

You’ve heard of the woman who turns to stripping or prostitution to finance her law school education—after all, sex work is lucrative. Who knows? She may even dedicate her practice to helping women prosecute men who mistreat them—women whose psychic duress has likely interfered with their own careers. But what of our lawyer’s means to this professional end? Are we certain that a man who paid for her sexual services didn’t interpret her subservience as a feature of women generally? Do we know where all the men who mistreat the women seeking our lawyer’s counsel come from?

I won’t deceive you: I often wish I had a modest little nose. But I’m staying out of scalpels reach because I believe cosmetic surgery necessarily threatens diversity in that it narrows the parameters around what physically "normal" is in our culture. I’m grateful for my choices, however, and it would be philosophically inconsistent of me to argue against the legalization of prostitution. But even ignoring the drug addiction and health risks that often accompany it, I see sex work as necessarily anti-feminist in that it perpetuates the notion that women’s bodies exist for male sexual gratification, not for our own. How do we explain the existence of pro-sex-work feminists to those laudable men who are working to challenge their own eons-old feelings of entitlement?

I keep thinking about Jamaica Kincaid, who did not find sleeping with a man she did not care for in exchange for food less "respectable" than her other employment options. If we can’t have a moratorium on so-called sex work, can we at least have a moratorium on this declawed euphemism? And can we remind ourselves that feminism has never been about the sovereignty of one woman over her landlord but about the safety and self-respect of us all?               

Nell Beram is assistant editor of The Hungry Mind Review and a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her writings have appeared in American Short Fiction and The Women’s Review of Books.