Portraying sex work as positive and prestigious

One of the elements that most intrigued me when I watched Firefly years ago was the idea of a sex work as a positive, healthy, prestigious occupation – which I believe it could be in a society more evolved than ours. But it didn’t take long to realize the creators either didn’t get it or were setting up a revelation that despite the Companion Guild’s great public relations buzz, it hadn’t really reformed sex work to the degree Inara claims. I suspect it’s a little of both (the creators not thinking it all the way through, and the intent to expose the Companion Guild as one more piece of Alliance hypocrisy), but whatever the intent, what we’re left with is a hodgepodge. We’re told Inara is respected; we’re often shown she’s not. We’re told the “whores” in “Heart of Gold” are different because they don’t belong to the Guild, but never get a satisfactory answer to the question of why the hell that should make such a difference.

This got me thinking: what would a writer have to do to create a fictional a society in which sex work is positive, safe and fulfilling for both workers and clients, and considered a good thing by society? Can it even be done, when you factor in the reality that many prostitutes are minors of both genders, too young for any sort of legal employment?

The first step seems obvious: your fictional society would have to grant sex workers the same security, autonomy and protection that other employees and independent contractors have. This is where Firefly more or less gets it right. But what about minor prostitutes? Kids usually wind up on the street because the situation at home was no better, and our society isn’t prepared to talk about practical exit strategies for kids who desperately need to get away from their homes. If you protect adult sex workers, that would be highly beneficial – but it would reveal in disturbing detail the fact that women were never the sex class. Children have always been a sex class, too.

So it seems to me you need a society in which:

  • sex workers are protected by the law, like other workers,
  • women have as many options in life as men have,
  • abused children have access to practical remedies and know about them,
  • sexual predators of any sort are always thought of as the worst kind of scum, even when they’re such nice white boys with such promising futures, and
  • people believe all workers deserve basic respect and dignity. Otherwise, legally protected sex workers – like restaurant servers – will get some basic rights and protections, but still be made to feel worthless by asshole customers with entitlement issues.
  • Also, I’m not sure you can achieve this as long as monogamy remains the model for your society. It’s plausible that your society could believe people should be faithful without blaming sex workers for making infidelity possible, but highly unlikely.

And that’s just getting started. To convince me that your fictional sex work is a truly good thing, I would also like to hear that your sex workers enjoy the sex they have on the job. That at least many of them find their careers fulfilling in some way. And I would really, really like to see roughly as many male sex workers as female, and female customers as male, or else I will still be frustrated that in this enlightened society you’ve created, you’re okay with continuing the idea that sex is something women yield to men rather than a just plain human experience.

I’ve given this a fair amount of thought over the past couple of years, and yet I think there’s still a lot I haven’t worked out. What would convince you sex work was working out nicely for a fictional society?


  1. Other Patrick says

    I’m not sure it can be done, much in the same way that portraying any kind of job as purely positive these days would receive an arched brow. I mean, what would be your comparable contemporary job? Nurse? Bank clerk? Policeman? Housewife? Teacher? Who’s really enjoying their job all the time?

    Sex work, for me, needs to be regulated and protected like any other job, even with unions and all. That includes government oversight to protect against slavery, pimps, etc.

    Also, society’s opinions need to change still, so that it can be seen as truly “another kind of career” for those who are cut out for it. Which means that sex is seen with a less confining eye.

    However, I must say in Germany I’m sure we have it both better and worse than you do in the US. Better, because prostitutes have at least somewhat legal protection (and pay taxes) and our society is not that hung up on sexual mores. I mean, we have naked breast everywhere (sort of, and mostly in a sexist way, but still). Next to my university is a parking lot that has just been remade by the town council into an enclosed area for prostitutes, with lots for their RVs, washing facilities and a protective barrier around (which is naturally also a barrier to keep them in, but there was a slew of attacks on prostitutes who were dragged into the woods, beaten, and robbed, and this was a reaction to that).

    On the other hand, we have open European borders and a lot of women from poorer nations coming here to earn money, and these women are very often abused and forced into prostitution. And of course, the trend for younger women does hold up here, as well.

    I don’t think prostitution per se is wrong, but I do think there is a lot that is wrong with it in practice, and I’m not sure it’s possible to have a positive outlook on it at the moment without being unrealistic about the true woes and concerns of these (mostly) women.

  2. says

    I think you might be able to get by with something like Firefly, but you’d need a different companion guild structure. It had a sort of mysterious quasi-religious feel that in some ways exoticized the whole thing.

    Instead, I think it should feel like a union that has the tools and the power to stick up for their own rights. The Heart of Gold prostitutes wouldn’t be called “whores” but instead “scabs.” It’d have to be a particularly effective one, given the difficulty of the conditions.

    As Other Patrick said, probably even then most wouldn’t really enjoy their jobs. However, they could cite an array of regs and limits that they put in place that would probably seem somewhat arbitrary to outsiders.

    Basically, this is my political science degree talking. I can believe that they aren’t particularly being exploited when they show that they’ve got power, not prestige.

  3. DragonLadyK says

    Not to bring up Dr. Temple Grandin again, but– She points out that right now we live in a pyramidal heirarchy. The people at the top dominate the people below them. The more people dominated by the people you dominate (that is, the higher level you are on the heirarchy), the better/more successful person you are. However, since the heirarchy is pyramidal, there aren’t enough spots at each level to go around. Therefore there are people at lower levels who are incapable of reaching a higher level just because someone has to stay below. The other rule of the pyramid is that anger can only be expressed down, not up. You can yell at your secretary, but never your boss.

    The more frustrated this lower-level person feels about not being able to reach a higher level (that is, the more of a failure or the more helpless he feels), the nastier he will be to those below him on the pyramid. Those people then take comfort that they at least dominate the people below them, and so on and so forth. It’s like in a dog pack: the alpha snaps at the Beta and steals the beta’s bone, the beta then steals one of the minion dog’s bone, who then takes one from a smaller dog, who then redirects his rage onto the omega by beating him up to take his bone, and the omega is just SOL.

    Prostituites, non-functional addicts, and homeless people are the omega-level in our pyramidal heirarchy. Even the waiter made to feel like crap by an asshole customer with entitlement issues or the cop getting urinated on by some guy in a third-story window can look down on “whores” and “winos” and “bums.” Therefore the waiters and other “cogs in the wheel of society” are not going to want the omegas to be upgraded to their equals, because then the “cogs” will be at the very bottom of the pyramid with no one to dominate along with the “whores/winos/bums.”

    Prostitutes are also potential mate-theives. Sex without the responsibilties of a relationship/family is hard competition for someone looking to pass on their genetics with the best possible contributor who may now feel no need for a mate. That primal imperative is even more true for men than women: women may look down on women prostitutes, but they also try to “rehabilitate” them; men won’t even acknowledge male prostitutes and try their best to condition women around them never to even think of using one.

    Prostitutes — as not only part of the bottom rung but also threats to the primal drive of procreative competition — are at the bottom of the omega-level. They are maltreated by even the non-functional addicts, drug dealers, and of course their pimps. In societies where prostitutes are given legal recognition or protection, the distaste for the sex trade doesn’t go away — even if they’re legal, they’re still mate-theives.

    The only apparent exception is that of the semi-nomadic ancient Canaanites, who regarded prostitutes as sacred and intrinsic to the fertilization of the soil and the growth of plant and animal life. But then their tribes also burned their firstborns as sacrifices to Moloch, so it’s safe to say that primal imperitives didn’t hold much sway in their society. They also had a disdain for the structured pyramidal society of more settled, Yawehistic cultures.

    Therefore, if sex work is to be considered positive then you have to do away with the pyramidal heirarchy and neutralize the primal drive of procreative competition — in other words, you’d need a Canaanite-like or Federation-like society.

    In a bitter irony, people complain that Star Trek is boring because the Federation is so tidy and egalitarian (the people in command don’t look down on or maltreat the commanded; it’s more of a bovine circular heirarchy than a canine pyramid). :/


  4. says

    Re: job enjoyment. I don’t know anyone who loves every minute on the job, but I do know a lot of people who “find their careers fulfilling in some way.” Teachers, retail workers, doctors, construction workers, etc. In all these professions, there are also people who are miserable because either the career’s a poor fit for them or they’re working in a situation that’s so bad (say, a really problem school for a teacher) that it ruins any chance of feeling good about your work.

    I would expect the situation to be similar for sex workers, and that’s why I said I wanted to see that at least “many” of them enjoyed their jobs. Not all. Just a similar percentage to the amount of teachers that feel they’re doing a good thing, or reaching some kids, or “Hell, at least I get summers off.” :)

  5. The OTHER Maria says

    I think Inara/The Companions represented wasted potential. I felt like the way they mysticized sex still made the argument that only a few kinds of sex were okay. In that kind of world, there’s still a binary between good/acceptable sex (extremely meaningful) and bad sex (casual/ just for fun). That doesn’t really explode sexual relations at all.

    Also, I think Heart of Gold illustrates how Whedon can’t always pull off an ensemble cast. That would’ve been a great opportunity to give Inara some backstory, and to explore Zoe’s desire for children, and instead it was all Mal all the time.

  6. Fiona says

    The key, IMO, is to look at how the women at the bottom are treated, not the women at the top.

    The “Heart of Gold” women (to use Firefly as an example), should have regular medical screening, training to deal with potential abusers, and customers – even the poorest, least educated, least urbane – who understand that they can’t rape her.

    Greg is right with “power, not prestige”.

  7. says

    Have any of you read Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books? I think she tried to incorporate some of these “what ifs” into her “pleasure house”/courtesan model. She didn’t particularly tackle heterosexism, but she dealt with a fair amount of gender equality-related themes.

  8. Nina says

    [dave] – That’s what I thought of, too. Carey fulfills most of those requirements for the main country in her world (which is not to say there aren’t some flaws in her system, but she gets the closest I’ve ever seen in fiction). Interestingly, she does so by making sex workers part of a religious structure, similar to what DragonLadyK noted for the nomadic Canaanites.

  9. Pocket Nerd says

    First and foremost, the fictional society must not be male-dominated. I don’t mean that boy-children must be drowned at birth, or women must rule in an absolute vaginocracy, or any of the other silly things antifeminists fear; I mean that it cannot be a society in which men hold the lion’s share of power and social influence.

    Why? Because patriarchal societies almost invariably have huge issues about sex. Anthropologists tell us this is all tied up with social control, the need to know who your heirs are, the power and mysticism of childbirth, and half a dozen other things. Regardless of the cause, the end result is the same: There’s a perception that sex is something women possess and only grudgingly surrender it to men. The men resent the women for having something they can’t simply confiscate, and they build into their society ways to punish women for it. This goes double, of course, for women who explicitly trade on their sexuality.

    (DragonLadyK makes some very similar points, so I must concede defeat: You have scooped me,

  10. says

    i’d probably find it believable that “sex work was working out nicely” if there were male sex workers in equal proportion to female sex workers, and if they were generally heterosexually active, as most female sex workers are.

    this would not indicate to me that sex work was a highly valued profession, mind you – but it would suggest a society with less gender bias. and that matters to me more than whether sex work itself were respected, simply tolerated, or carried all the current stigmas.

  11. Terra says

    Even Carey says outright that as “whores” they receive some condemnation in the eyes of their peers. The first several hundred pages after Carey introduces Jocelyn in the first book are about that.

    Lois McMaster Bujold’s world Beta Colony has “LPST” people, which stands for something like Licensed Practical Sex Therapist. These are of both genders and include hermaphrodites. LPSTs are licensed and need to have at least an associate’s degree from college before they can practice. While they never have a speaking role in her books, they are mentioned in two of them (“Barrayar” and “A Civil Campaign”). In the second, one of the main characters, a young girl who is from a repressive, culturally backwards country, spends a year at university on Beta Colony. There she undergoes their puberty ritual for girls (hymen surgically cut and contraceptive device implanted) and visits an LPST to get some experience in bed before she sleeps with her boyfriend. It’s all very matter-of-fact and casual for Betans to do this sort of thing.

  12. says

    @Terra: I think one of the reasons that I liked Carey’s presentation of sex work was that it did so somewhat comparatively, using fantasy tropes rather than scifi ones. Rather than encountering some new humanoid alien species that has shockingly open-minded views around sex, she created a small open-minded country that is viewed with suspicion by other nations because of their strange religion that prominently features a prostitute. I thought they used Joscelyn as an example of the small portion of their society that was adverse to sex in general, as well as “niche” sexual practices…

    But that makes me think, to return to the original question, that the fictional society would also have to encompass the dissenters, which may look different for a culture predicated on sexual freedom.

  13. says

    Terra’s example makes a lot of sense. Credentialism is an effective way of increasing the economic power and prestige of a profession by reducing and controlling the supply. It gets to part of the difference between engineers and mechanics.

    I’m not sure if anywhere in the real world, licenses are required in practice. It wouldn’t surprise me if that was part of a compromise somewhere, but I don’t know of a specific case.

    The real trick I think would be controlling the black market. Aside from the obvious solution of legal distinctions, one possibility might be to affiliate other services with the licensed market. Why those other services would be strongly affiliated would really depend on the sci-fi or fantasy universe and would probably have some sort of coincidental basis well before the novel started. In this case I’m thinking of the quirks of path dependence that result in oddities like the U.S. employer-based health care system coming out of WWII -era decisions.

    I think in these sorts of situation, it might be possible to have a model for prostitution in a still patriarchal hung up on sex society. At least one good enough for speculative fiction if not a model for real life. I wonder if prostitution in a non-patriarchal society would even be that recognizable versus what we have now. This isn’t to say it wouldn’t be worth writing about, but that the economics might be quite different.

  14. says

    I should say sex workers-because there are people who work in the sex industry who aren’t actually having physical intercourse. (ie, phone sex workers and strippers)

  15. Kiki says

    I find this conversation fascinating but also difficult to follow and difficult to contribute to because of the view of society in the United States for sex workers.

    Most fantasy concepts begin with the society of the writer and then try to modify it in some way. Since most of the “westernized” societies have not had functional, respectable prostitution or sex work for hundreds if not thousands of years I feel ill-equipped to create a society where sex work would be a respectable profession and often authors starting in “westernized” societies have large flaws in the systems built to have respect and honor for sex workers.

    This conversation also reminds me of explaining to my boyfriend that as a feminist I took the view that sex work is not degrading in and of itself and therefore there should not be any shame involved with me taking a job as a stripper. His knee-jerk reaction to my off-hand comment had been furious anger that I would accept a position at a strip club. Any fantasy setting in which sex work was acceptable would have to involve at least one conversation with a mate pair where the mate going into the sex work is immediately praised in the same manner as a soldier going to fight for his/her country or an individual who decides to take up a religious vocation. Which is one reason I feel that the Kushiel novels depict the profession adequately.

  16. Pocket Nerd says

    Kiki, I object to you comparing sex work to soldiering— but not for the reasons you might expect. Sex is healthy and wholesome, and an important mechanism for keeping society together. Sex can hurt people, but there’s nothing intrinsically hurtful about it.

    Militaries, on the other hand, are cadres for institutionalized murder. Oh, sure, there have been wars in which one side is pretty conspicuously on the side of the angels, but not many. Soldiers are people who do terrible things; sometimes they have noble motives, but more often they don’t.

    I don’t blame the young fighting men and women for this. I blame the rulers of their respective societies, who propagate a mythos of prestige and honor (but few actual rights or benefits) for military service, so they don’t run out of young recruits to throw into the meat grinder.

  17. Hank says

    Is it really possible for sex work, or prostitution at least, to be positive? Don’t some forms of sex work rest on the assumption that if a customer has enough money, then s/he (though usually he) has a right to another person’s body? I suppose that in a society where sex workers are respected, then a worker could refuse any customer and so on. As I understand it, non-consensual sex is rape. So, what I want to know is if a person is being paid for sex, is that sex really consensual? If they have to do it to put food on the table, can it really be considered consensual? Granted, a person in that line of work could (theoretically) always switch careers, but how often does a person stay with a career they would rather not be in and tough it out anyway because they don’t really have many other options? Does a person who aspires to write films, but writes television commercials instead as a stopgap until they get their big break experience a comparable amount of exploitation as a sex worker?

  18. Charles RB says

    If they were intending to do a “hey, the Companions Guild is actually talking crap, things aren’t as utopian as they present it” revelation, that’d explain why we kept get scenes of Inara at work. They always came off as disconnected from the overall plot to me, being there solely to sell me on the Companion system actually being really great guys – and that gets annoying and dull very quickly.

    And unless there is going to be a revelation, Heart Of God is a massive disconnect: the only difference between the Guild and the brothel is, well, the Guild’s official and has money and lots of little trappings that glamorise it & make it exotic. The brothel didn’t, so it gets looked down on. If that’s not meant to suggest dodgy things about the Guild, then what message is it meant to be sending?

    As for how to create a fictional society where sex work is safe and positive, you’d need a society where sex-trafficking is either non-existant or heavily stamped on. That would involve stability in a larger number of [i]foreign[/i] societies for a start; as long as borders can be crossed, it couldn’t be restricted to the one society. The Dutch brought in legalisation and regulation, that didn’t stop the traffickers (either staying in the Netherlands or trafficking through it).

  19. Izzy says

    Having worked retail and spent some time on customers_suck, over at LJ, I’m *more* skeptical of the idea that a majority of retail workers find their jobs fulfilling than that a majority of theoretical prostitutes could. 😉

    That said…I think it’s possible to have a society where prostitution isn’t any worse than working at McDonald’s, and possibly even where it was a valued and fulfilling career. I think that, even in a sex-positive, gender-equal society, prostitution would run into the same problems that customer service and retail does: you’re dealing with members of the public, a large number of whom are assholes. Not much way to get away from that.

    Though I would hope that such a society would not extend the odious principle of the customer being “always right” to prostitution, and would, in fact, do away with that attitude altogether. Ick.

    Hank: “So, what I want to know is if a person is being paid for sex, is that sex really consensual?”

    Sure, if the person has consented–without coercion–to do it for pay. We all agree to things, including sex, for a variety of rewards: when you get right down to it, sex for emotional companionship, warm fuzzy feelings, etc, isn’t inherently different from sex for cash. It’s just a different form of payment. And while the *best* form of sex probably is sex that both people really really want, sex because you want to forget your ex, get invited to a good party, get a story to tell your friends or whatever is still quite consensual.

    I don’t think that anyone should have to stay with *any* job–prostitution, burger-flipping, or accountancy–because they don’t have other options. But I think the solution to that is to provide more of a safety net in society, so that people aren’t choosing between doing something they hate and starving.

  20. Charles RB says

    re Izzy: I think you’ve just IDed my main annoyance with the Firefly companions – when you get down to it, it’s a highly glamorised service industry. Inara doesn’t come off as someone who’s working in that sort of industry, dealing with members of the public who will often suck or be annoying. We never hear her vent about the little annoying things about work, or this total git who forgot that it’s her job to be nice to him, or wishing this customer would hurry up so she can go on her break.

    And having done a customer service job and knowing others who have, that’s less realistic than the spaceships!

    And I just thought of something after typing that: the Companions all work solo on their own as far as we’ve seen, they don’t seem to talk much to another Companions or hang out. I wonder why not? It can’t just be that Inara’s nomadic and works everywhere, we know they’ve got a communications net and presumably more than one Companions going to be around the same place at the same time.

  21. Izzy says

    Charles RB: Yeah, pretty much. Hell, even in a job you mostly enjoy, you’re going to have moments of annoyance and people who you wish you could set on fire. (Socially-equitable and high-end prostitution may have the advantage over other customer-facing jobs in that you only have to deal with *one* dipshit for a hundred bucks, rather than twenty, but still.)

    Now, it’s possible that Inara’s much more Zen and calm about the whole thing than you, or I, or any of my past co-workers. But still, having her never complain, or even roll her eyes, comes off as unrealistic. I mean, Joss is *surely* too smart and cynical to believe that, for instance, Wal-Mart greeters are really glad to see him…so why is a Companion different?

  22. Charles RB says

    I’d assume he and the other writers are deliberately exaggerating the utopian ideal of it, possibly to:

    a) Make a point about society’s view on sex workers. But whoops, Heart Of Gold kneecaps that attempt.

    b) Set up a “ah HA! It’s actually not nice!” revelation as Jennifer Kesler suggests. But then you have to wonder did he have to make it that shiny and nice to pull that off? She’s working on a junk ship with smugglers, thieves, mercs and a psychotic, who often delve into murkiness. Having her complain about a client when they’re gone or, I dunno, pick her nose would just fit with the rest of the cast better, surely.

  23. says

    DragonLadyK, I really liked your points.

    Hank, I agree there’s nothing consensual about someone being forced into sex work by desperation. But if jobs weren’t necessary to survival, I doubt very many of us would have them. For the vast majority of us, choosing to be employed at all is very nearly non-consensual, and that’s why we have protections – because infinite demand leads to abuse from the suppliers.

    To apply your wording to something else comparable, anyone who has enough money can use a psychiatrist’s brain. That doesn’t make it an act of violation, though the psychiatrist who just spent an hour listening to a patient talk about how he used to molest his baby sister might feel the need for a 24 hour shower or even consider quitting her practice. The difference is not (IMO) what the job entails, but how many options the worker has for making her job tolerable to her personality.

  24. says

    It strikes me that this conversation is focused primarily on the supply side of prostitution, and not the demand side. But even the most desperate people are only puhed into jobs that somebody somehwere is prepared to pay them for, so the real issue here is, why do people pay for sex in the first place?

    Not to write a dissertation here, but I think that paying for sexual intimacy is incredibly degrading to the person who feels they need to purchase such a basic human thing. The domination paradigm, suspicion of sex and sexual power, hierarchical segregation of the sexes etc. feed right into the creation of this need.

    Summarising the many good points about a society that is evolved enough to be agalitarian, peaceful, lawful and economically secure enough to allow for guiltless and non-demeaning sex, I think what we’d end up with is one where nobody feels the need to pay for sex in the first place, and with the disappearance of demand the supply would dry up. If a writer managed to convincingly imagine such a place, they’d have to corwbar prostitution in somehow, which at that point would probably come across as being more for titillation of the reality-based reader than a coherent part of a well conceived utopia.

    Which brings me to the point about Inara that this started from: the society in Firefly is far from peaceful or utopian, plainly. The attitudes to sex encoded in it are amply hinted at by Mal’s ambivalence towards Inara, Jayne’s many crass and sexist comments, the fact that traditional monogamous marriage exists and is broadly held up as the ideal, etc.

    Which kinds of breaks through the third wall for me and makes me suspect that titillation is exactly what was being aimed at here.

    The entire relationship ark between Mal and Inara is based on her work and their antagonistic attitudes to it. The Inara character is contrived in such a way that she expects not only simple human respect but a level of deference due to her prestigious profession; if she were a doctor, I don’t see how Joss Whedon would have manged to convincingly portray Mal’s refusal to concede that as acceptable. The fact that she’s a sex worker and her potential “infidelity” threatens his masculinity from the get go is key to the unresolved sexual tension scenario.

    What’s slightly more imaginative, and perhaps masks the essentialy retrograde sexual politics, is that the dynamic is subverted by ading class tensions to the sexual ones, with the woman occupying a higher status than the man, which is rare. But that was done back in the days of Moonlighting (and boy was it done well!), so it’s not an innovative plot device or a breakthrough in reimagining sexual politics.

    One last comment: not sure where the thing about the Cannanites being nomadic came from. The Canaanites are the Phoenicians by a Biblical name, and they were not only a well settled society, but a far more sophisticated one than the Israelite (fo lack of a better word) one. That’s why the OT shows so much distaste for their decadent sexual practices, as well as their finery, ivory chairs, opulent temples etc. And they most certainly did not sacrifice their children! That’s a libel invented by the Romans against the Carthaginians, who were a Phoenician daughter society and so spread to include them.

  25. says

    TheLady, it seems to me one reason people will always be interested in paying for sex is that no one they know is interested in sleeping with them. I’m not sure that will ever go away, because even if we got over our obsession with looks, you’d still have cripplingly shy people who get lost in the shuffle, transplants whose mannerisms are constantly misinterpreted by their new neighbors, etc.

  26. Pocket Nerd says

    I think it’s fair to assume there will always be situations in which somebody wants sex without any strings or obligations. Sure, some people cultivate “friends with benefits” for that, but even in a society without any serious sexual hangups, some people might simply find it simpler and easier to pay cash up front. (And that’s certainly more honest than befriending somebody just because you want a quick roll in the hay.)

  27. says

    Pocket Nerd, you’re coming at this from well inside the patriarchal paradigm I’m afraid. Sex is not limited to “roll in the hay” – it is something extremely pleasurable that people can to with and for each other. Befriending someone for the sake of sharing that can only be seen as an inferior motivation in a society that sees sex itself as inferior; in our imagined utopia that wouldn’t be the case.

    Commercial relationships, on the other hand, are immensely more complicated and less rational than our capitalist conditioning leads us to believe. Money doesn’t only create strings, it is the ultimate string. It taints and distorts relationships and undermines the basic fabric of natural social arrangements (Dan Ariely dedicates a chapter to the difference between personal and commercial relationships in his excellent book Predictably Irrational, and talks a lot about how the boundary between the two is delicate, and can easily be breached but not repaired).

    So from the point of view of fairness and honesty that you’re endorsing, and quite rightly so, sex that has to be paid for is still not the better or easier option. It just is for us, because we live in a society that loves money and hates sex. Think of Banks’s Culture – nobody ever pays for sex there, and if they did then I think it *would* come across as contrived and forced.

    As for people who nobody wants to sleep with, I really don’t know about that. It’s not as if only ugly shy dudes pay for sex. It’s a valid point, but my problem with it is that I can’t see how it’s testable even as a thought experiment.

  28. Pocket Nerd says

    “Sex is not limited to ‘roll in the hay’ – it is something extremely pleasurable that people can to with and for each other. Befriending someone for the sake of sharing that can only be seen as an inferior motivation in a society that sees sex itself as inferior; in our imagined utopia that wouldn’t be the case.”

    Sex is extremely pleasurable, and upthread I describe it as “healthy and wholesome.” However, besides being pleasurable, healthy, and wholesome, sex is also a very personal act. I don’t think that’s likely to change, no matter how sex-positive a society becomes. I doubt introducing yourself to a stranger and asking for sex will ever be likely to yield a positive response, any more than introducing yourself to a stranger and asking to use his or her toothbrush.

    There’s an elaborate mating dance surrounding sex— not just for us, but for all primates. Some people don’t enjoy the mating dance. Others aren’t good at it. Some simply want a totally selfish, self-focused act with no repercussions— it might be more accurate to say they want to masturbate with a partner. I don’t think any of those options are implicitly wicked (though plenty of societies have institutionalized it in a way that demeans both partners), and until we move past the concept of money as a basic unit of social exchange, the proverbial “pay cash up front” is likely to remain a simple way to make that clear to both parties.

  29. says

    TheLady, good points. But I’m not sure PocketNerd’s position is totally confined to the patriarchal view. Sex often leads to emotional closeness – we can’t know if that’s a hard-wired behavior or a cultural one, but if it IS hard-wired, then even a very different society could have situations like this:

    Two people are madly in love and have great sex. But Partner A really likes a certain sex act now and again, and Partner B doesn’t. They are both comfortable with Partner A going to someone else for that sex act. But the “someone else” could develop feelings for Partner A, or maybe even Partner A could get confused. A person specially trained to provide sex without developing possessive feelings toward partners could fill that gap.

    PocketNerd’s point re: the mating dance is also a good one. Bottom line: unless everyone totally stops seeing sex as intimate, there will be “strings attached”, and reason to want sex that doesn’t have strings attached.

  30. Charles RB says

    re why people pay for sex – there’s an interview with Victor Malarek (first half http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6Mj2haletE) where he claims researching and talking with johns, and finding the predominant reason they pay for sex is power and control. (Also that most of them appeared unconcerned whether or not they were using a prostitute that had been coerced or trafficked)

  31. Izzy says

    Jennifer: Yeah, plus? No matter how liberal, sex-positive, and casual-sex-positive a society is, there will probably always be people who–for one reason or another–don’t have reciprocal sexual chemistry with anyone they know and don’t want to or have time to actively go out and meet new people.

    Been there, done that. Have also seen it with my friends–and, for what it’s worth, have a lot of good-looking and personable friends who I wouldn’t sleep with because…there’s no chemistry and I therefore wouldn’t be getting anything out of the experience.

    In those situations, (idealized) prostitution has a couple of major advantages over the bar scene.

    1) If you’re hiring a prostitute, you’re probably following an advertisement, a site, or an agency: the prostitutes in question have already indicated that they’re willing to have sex for money. You don’t have to worry about bothering people who aren’t interested in a one-night-stand–or in sex with you in general–and they don’t have you bothering them. Better for everyone, I’d think.

    2) Hiring someone to perform a task places the relationship on a professional level. Payment says “okay, you’ve gotten what you’re getting out of this,” and contracts spell out what is and isn’t okay. It’s much easier and less awkward to hire someone for a night than to pick someone up and have to go through the whole “um, you know I’m not *ever* gonna call you, right?” routine.

    Now, you can get both these things online these days, sort of. But I think, human nature being what it is, there’d be a lot more people willing to have the above take place if they were getting paid for it.

  32. says

    Charles RB, you’ve just made me realize another thing an author would have to convey for me to believe sex work is doing well in a fictional society: that the main reasons for buying sex are NOT power and dominance, but rather things like not feeling like taking the time to find a partner, not knowing how to find a partner, needing a partner who understands fully there will be no strings, etc.

    Izzy, yes, exactly.

  33. Charles RB says

    If I was feeling pessimistic, and I am, I’d say in a world where that is no longer a reason to hire prostitutes, it’d be a niche industry. (Other sex work could follow, with the likely exception of porn because even without power issues, people like to masturbate)

  34. ehron says

    Just a comment about “Firefly”.
    I’m no expert on the matter, as my only other exposure to them was in the pseudo-historical “Shogun” by James Clavell, but I always thought the Companions were loosely based on the courtesans of the Edo period in Japan.

  35. Pocket Nerd says

    Gosh, every woman I’ll ever have sex with is “somebody’s daughter!” I guess that means I should give up on sex altogether!

    The argument, of course, predicates that sex and sex work are demeaning (especially for a woman). It doesn’t make any sense if you don’t think sexual activity somehow diminishes you as a person. Christian anti-pornography movements aren’t about empowerment, they’re about control. They’re horrified that women dare to openly exhibit sexual behavior, particularly sexual behavior that reduces your value as a daughter or wife— i.e. as chattel.

    On top of that, criminalizing porn historically has the same effect as criminalizing booze and drugs: It drives the industry underground, but doesn’t significantly hinder the supply or the demand. People would still sell porn, buy porn, and watch porn, but women who work in porn would no longer have even the minimal protections they have now. (I suspect this is the true goal of the anti-porn movements’ leaders.)

  36. Charles RB says

    I suspect it’s more likely the anti-porn movement leaders don’t care that the meager protections would be removed, rather than intend to have them removed.

  37. Izzy says

    So…I worked in porn–not video, but still images–back in the day. Yes, I’m somebody’s daughter; yes, I’d rather not have my parents find the photos (but who *doesn’t* have things in their lives they’d rather their parents didn’t find out?) and I’m not sure how it’s relevant.

    For that matter, any guy I ogle on the train is someone’s son. So what?

  38. Pocket Nerd says

    I don’t know, Charles. I know it sounds a bit paranoid, but the religious reactionaries’ actions toward women always seems more like veiled malice than indifference to me. For example, indifference would cut funding for sex education; instead we see misleading sex ed programs to discourage women from using contraception. That looks like deliberate malice, to me.

    Now please excuse me while I adjust my aluminum foil beanie, to keep out the CIA mind control rays… (>_<)

  39. Charles RB says

    The worrying thing is that they might actually _believe_ the misleading “sex ed” they peddle.

  40. Pocket Nerd says

    You may be right, Charles… I just have a hard time understanding how people who obviously aren’t stupid can believe such conspicuously counterfactual things. I know it happens, of course, but I can’t compartmentalize that way, and I don’t understand people who do.

  41. says

    The whole “somebody’s daughter” argument is straight from patriarchal theories of female ownership: every woman is defined by her status as the chattel of a father, husband, priest etc. Loose women who have fallen through the cracks of the possession paradigm have special and mostly derogatory designations, e.g. “spinster” or “crone”.

    So this “Christian” anti-porn argument is that you shouldn’t watch porn stars (or use prostitutes, or rape schoolgirls, whatever) because it’s damaging to the men who own them. Not because it’s, you know, maybe not the best thing for the women involved or anything.

    It’s the same kind of thinking that makes people feel more sorry for rape victims if they were virgins. The theory is that violating their virginity a) reduces their value to the men who own them b) deprives any future owners of an important mark of validity. Like taking the tags off a designer handbag before selling it on Ebay, type of thing.

  42. says

    Re: whether it’s malice or just not caring. I suspect there’s a handful of malicious people at the base of it, who full well know what they’re doing and mean it, and they use people who don’t think it through and don’t care but like the basic message to expand the movement well beyond what the haters could achieve on their own.

    TheLady, you’re getting into the issue of rape having its origins are a property crime against men, not a violation of a woman’s rights. In addition to the things you mentioned, I think this is why we make a big show of being incensed when we find out a father’s molested a daughter, but we don’t really want to do anything that would prevent that, such as empowering mothers or giving children any sort of recourse of their own. Because it’s His daughter, and deep down we still kind of think if he wants to take the tags off her before selling her on eBay, well, it’s only his loss. I’m not saying anyone consciously thinks that, but I think the flawed thinking involved in classifying rape as a property crime has not filtered out of public consciousness. And it does seem to me we’re far more outraged at relatives who molest boys or strangers who molest girls than we are when family members molest girls.

  43. says

    Spot on, Jennifer – and a little more OT, I think it would be well nigh impossible to imagine a society in which all of those hideously complicated and convoluted attitudes are erased to the point where sex, and the paying for it, can somehow be completely neutral.

    Not that I think all writers are such lunkheads that they can’t envisage a society where daddies don’t have their special little girls; rather that that tentacles of screwed up thinking, about rape, relationships, domination, the power dinamic and lots of other things to do with sex that I’m probably not even aware of, run so wide and so deep that you just couldn’t convincingly untangle it.

    I think Heinlein provides a great cautionary tale of someone with a very creative imagination who nevertheless tried and failed to present a convincing case for a radically liberated sexuality in the future.

  44. says

    TheLady, the idea that because something is a human need, and therefore paying for it is EVILLLLL really frustrates me.

    I go to restaurants, do you? I like restaurants because I don’t have to cook and clean up (yay not doing dishes), I like restaurants because I can eat food I could NEVER cook well enough to be edible. I like restaurants because it’s an *event* instead of just another night of eating.

    Food is a human need, pretty much inarguably more important one than sex. But we pay for food and don’t say a word about how “degrading” it is that we need/enjoy to do so.

    I stopped listening to anything you said the moment you made that statement, because it is frankly so offbase.

  45. says

    Er, TheDeviantE, everything you said is valid, but your last sentence could be interpreted as inflammatory. I hope that’s not how you meant it, but whatever the case, this is just a gentle reminder to everyone not to personalize stuff.

  46. says

    I wasn’t trying to be inflamatory, though I can see why it could/would be interpreted as such. It was mostly meant as a statement of fact, as in: truly I tuned out after that statement, if there were really valid points, I missed them all because that statement so turned me off.

  47. Tulip says

    Food is a human need, pretty much inarguably more important one than sex. But we pay for food and don’t say a word about how “degrading” it is that we need/enjoy to do so.

    Deviant, you’re actually comparing an intimate act like sex with eating food at a restaurant? Cooking a meal for a stranger is one thing, giving him head is quite another. Apples & oranges.

    Prostitution is unnatural. Sex isn’t a commodity; it isn’t bacon & eggs with a side of hashbrowns, okay? There’s this little thing called free love, and it trumps pay-for-play, any day. People who cannot acquire sex, due to a lack of attractiveness or whatever, should introduce themselves to masturbation. It is nobody’s job or duty to satisfy some stranger’s urges.

  48. says

    I can understand the apples and oranges opinion, but I get nervous when I see the phrase “unnatural.” On the other hand, “patriarchal invention” often gets by me without a blink, so I’m obviously biased.

    Either way, what we’re trying to do here is explore whether sex work can exist without patriarchy, not reduce it to unnatural…

    Okay so another example. From tacky teenage high fantasy. Are you ready?

    Mercedes Lackey. What? I hear you say. Well, I’m remembering the trilogy following Elspeth. Winds of Fate, etc. As well as the Gryphon series. They had at least two characters, namely Amberdrake & Silverfox, from a group called the Kaled’a’in, who were of a professional called a kestra’chern. Anyway, the kestra’chern role was kind of a combo counselor, massage therapist & and sex therapist. Traits necessary to the role, which had a somewhat shamanic flair, were empathy, sensuality, understanding of human nature.

    Anyway, what I’m trying to get at, is not one form of sex work that might fit into this framework one that sought to work out the harm caused by sexual assault or abuse? These aren’t particularly worked out thoughts, but I’m thinking along the lines of exposure therapy (If you’re afraid of germs, you get exposed to germs in the presence of a therapist and then process the experience together) — but taking into account the intimacies of the work they were attempting.

  49. says

    Yes Tulip, I am actually indeed comparing the idea that sex is a human need, and thus using money to purchase it, makes it “degrading” to the human need of food, and the fact that we purchase it every day. But I think you could tell that, you just want to shame me for saying it.

    I can also, coincidentally compare apples and oranges, and often do so (I prefer oranges on the whole myself, what with the citrus, though a good granny smith is wonderful).

    Also, thank you SOOO much for telling me that one of my seriously considered career options/the career options of some of my best friends are “unnatural”. I know I base all of my decisions off the “naturalness” of that decision, that’s why I don’t ride in cars or use medicine.

    It’s very gratifying to find that there is someone in this world that clearly respects the choices of people to decide for themselves what they find degrading or unnatural.

    Lastly, (just so you can’t pretend that I think it’s all peaches and cream), yes sex work is hugely problematic as it stands in the world today. But this post wasn’t about whether sex work is problematic in the world as it stands today. It was about how to portray it in a fictional setting as part of a larger society that does not demean it and de-legitimize it. And I personally can’t think of all that many things that the Jennifer Kesler didn’t already say.

  50. says

    Tulip, where on earth do you get the idea that restauranting is “natural”? I can’t get past that assertion to respond to the rest of your post. I’m also having trouble with the fact that servers in restaurants are exposed to quite a bit of abuse. I’m not comparing the *degree* of abuse to what many sex workers experience, but the motivation behind the abuse – “this loser is beneath me, so I can treat him/her however the hell I feel like” – is the same. And I will add that cocktail waitresses are expected to endure getting pinched, groped, pulled into laps, and having comments made about their bodies with a smile, in exchange for making a little more in tips than a regular server, but nothing like what your average office worker – often completely free of any sort of harassment – makes.

    If food selling is natural and sex selling not, how come they inspire the same bad attitudes in their clienteles and expose workers to abuse? The fact is, BOTH paying for food and paying for sex, like paying for medical advice, are an extension of the natural animal instinct to bargain. Even pets often grasp the idea of bartering – you do something for them, they do something for you – which makes me think it’s a universal animal instinct.

  51. Charles RB says

    “I’m also having trouble with the fact that servers in restaurants are exposed to quite a bit of abuse.”

    Not to mention the people manning the till, fast-food workers, security*, theme park stafff, janitors…

    Looking at it that way, the only way to have sex work that is seen as prestigious in a fictional world would be – unless you can find a way to elevate _the entire industry_ from being service industry – to have a society where it’s not considered acceptable to treat the people below you like shit. I’m not sure how you’d do that, outside of a fantasy world where robots do all the grunt work (and then we’d mistreat THEM).

    * Which is odd when they can boot you, but I’ve seen a lot of contempt from some people for the security at Dragon*Con.

  52. says

    Charles, that’s exactly why I said this in the article:

    people believe all workers deserve basic respect and dignity. Otherwise, legally protected sex workers – like restaurant servers – will get some basic rights and protections, but still be made to feel worthless by asshole customers with entitlement issues.

    We have two different kind of service providers. Lowly customer service staff and experts like doctors. We respect doctors and lawyers and so on because they supposedly have some sort of special education and expertise we’re in need of (and we even tend to overlook it when they’re clearly unfit to perform their jobs). But we see customer service staff as beneath us in the social hierarchy. They’re not doing anything we couldn’t do for ourselves (we imagine), so why respect them?

    Whedon tried to portray a world where sex workers provided MORE than just a warm body to be screwed, and that expertise and education entitled them to the respect doctors enjoy. Good idea, except there will always be people who want to pay for someone to abuse, or can’t afford an “expert” and will settle for a shivering addict who can’t possibly sixteen yet. Getting sex workers the protection customer service people enjoy is a start, but then they’d still be exposed to all this shit that class endures. Which includes not only abuse from customers, but companies like Wal-Mart who have been sued *multiple times* for not paying correct wages, yet they keep doing it because in the end the awards from the court cost less than the wages themselves. It’s sick, and as long as a fictional society retains the sickness of our real one, I don’t see how sex work can be a largely positive thing.

  53. DHS says

    This got me thinking: what would a writer have to do to create a fictional a society in which sex work is positive, safe and fulfilling for both workers and clients, and considered a good thing by society?

    This can absolutely NEVER work. There is no way a society can ever attain the kind of sex work you describe and any writing attempting to do so would ring incredibly false. Human nature will never allow that kind of prostitution to exist.

    The whole point of a sex worker is that they provide a service regardless of their own desires or feelings. If sex work was fulfilling for both partners it wouldn’t be sex work, it would be a sexual relationship. No one would get paid as both would be working for the others pleasure.

    I am always disgusted with the presentation of prostitution as potentially positive for a society. Prostitution is generally what abused kids with little education wind up doing for extra money- no one with real choices would be willing to put up with what they do on a regular basis.

    It’s just an all around bad idea for people to even think that they can organize prostitution to be a contributing positive service to society because it will never be such a thing. It’s a soul sucking occupation that only the desperate will take and the prostitute’s needs, well being and enjoyment are utterly moot points to the client and often to society at large.

    Also, there will never be a way to create a society in which people don’t feel jealousy and betrayal at their partner having sex with someone else. That’s a ridiculous notion that would require the entire rewiring of the human brain in order to be feasible. So, regardless of whether marriage as an institution lasts, the emotions of jealousy and hurt will continue to inhabit the human mind.

    Prostitution is so harmful and horrible, I just hate it when the media tries to make it seem positive. What crap!

  54. says

    If sex work was fulfilling for both partners it wouldn’t be sex work, it would be a sexual relationship.

    Your logic is circular. For this statement to be true, you must presume that ANYTIME someone enjoys a task they’re getting paid for, it’s not really work. Like, if a doctor enjoys making people feel better, it’s not really work.

    There is no rule in the universe that a transaction can’t be win-win. That’s true with purchases of both goods and services.

    I almost didn’t allow your comment through moderation because it’s just preposterous to state your opinion as fact the way you do. There are definitely sex workers who consider their work a good career, and did not take it out of desperation. You are basically saying that all those people are liars or deluded, and you are not qualified to make any such judgment.

  55. Charles RB says

    “there will never be a way to create a society in which people don’t feel jealousy and betrayal at their partner having sex with someone else”

    Factually inaccurate – we already have people (swingers, the polyamorous etc) who clash with that.

  56. Pocket Nerd says

    “Also, there will never be a way to create a society in which people don’t feel jealousy and betrayal at their partner having sex with someone else. That’s a ridiculous notion that would require the entire rewiring of the human brain in order to be feasible. So, regardless of whether marriage as an institution lasts, the emotions of jealousy and hurt will continue to inhabit the human mind.”

    I know an awful lot of polyfolk who disagree with this statement. (I myself am one of them.)

  57. Patrick J McGraw says

    DHS also assumes that anyone engaging the services of a sex worker has a partner.

    I’m really not sure why people like DHS think sex work is innately different from other work. Lots of people enjoy their jobs, and get personal dsatisfaction and validation out of them. But any sex worker who claims this is met accusations of lying or being brainwashed by the “porn-iarchy.” (Yes, there are people who really use that term.)

    I don’t think it has anything to do with sex work, personally. It’s my theory that there are poeple in the world who are simply unable to believe that anyone who is intelligent, well-informed, and well-intentioned could possibly come to different conclusions than they have. Therefore, to such people, anyone who disagrees with them is stupid, ignorant, or evil.

    (I’m not claiming DHS is one of those people, since they haven’t given us much to go on. I’m just pointing out that I think such people exist.)

  58. Anemone Cerridwen says

    I was forced into prostitution as a minor (and was told it was good for me) and I used to think that prostitution as presented in the popular media was accurate and that I was some sort of exception. Then I read the research. It turns out it’s the other way around. Most prostitutes are walking wounded and want out. Yes, there are some who are doing fine. But they make up a small minority. And from what I’ve read, the ones who are doing the best are the ones who have day jobs, because then they can always afford to say no.

    I think trying to make fictional prostitution positive in today’s world is a form of rape apology, if that’s the term I want. It’s easier to pretend prostitution can be good than to see just how bad it is. Less painful all round. Well, for most people.

    I was disappointed in Whedon when he added a “whore” to his series, and snickered about it. Though he could have had a character who was fine with casual sex, with or without gifts of cash or whatever, as a side job that she could take or leave whenever she wanted. That would be more realistic. And you could do a lot with a character like that.

    Except that I also consider writing this material into an actor’s job description to be sexual harassment, so it would all have to be off camera to be ethical in my book. But you could certainly do it off camera, or in print, if you were responsible about it.

  59. says

    Anemone, I’m sorry to hear you were forced into prostitution. I think that’s definitely the most common story among sex workers, unfortunately.

    I hadn’t thought of “good prostitution” as “rape apology” but I see what you mean. Some story elements tend to remain problematic, no matter what a great and enlightened job the writer does with them. This could be one of them, because society in general has a poor understanding of the various ways people get into sex work, the various things it means to them, and the ways they feel and so on. If the audience isn’t starting on the same page as the storyteller who attempts to portray a society that’s found a “good” way to dole out sex for money, the storyteller might need to spend inordinate time educating the audience on what all this means, and that wouldn’t be practical for the story. But leaving it out could certainly create in some readers/viewers the impression that the storyteller is saying sex work, as it is here and now, is largely okay.

    Re: off-camera. Hell YES you can always do anything involving sex and nudity off-camera. Used to be the only way you could do it, and I actually think it pushed the filmmakers to be more creative. Some old movies just ooze sex without even showing the clothes falling on the carpet – it was done with dialog and good acting. I personally find a lot of modern sex scenes pretty unsexy because no thought’s been given to creating that chemistry between the actors – it’s just rub this, kiss that, ho hum.

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