Q&A: The Woman Debunking Myths About Sex Work

Photo: Noah Kalina/Courtesy of Melissa Gira Grant

As New York City prepared for an influx of Super Bowl tourists last week, fear-mongering stories about sex trafficking and recent police crackdowns on prostitution proliferated. The New York Times reported on a recent spike in sex-work arrests, noting that the NYPD has reported making 298 prostitution-related arrests since the beginning of the year — a 30 percent increase from 2013. Yet despite increased attention, there aren’t any statistics that suggest sex trafficking or prostitution actually increases during the Super Bowl.

“Going back to the Berlin World Cup in 2006, we have eight years of data to show that for all these major sporting events, there isn’t a major uptick in trafficking. There is a major uptick in the media about fear of trafficking,” says Melissa Gira Grant, the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, which comes out from Verso in March. A former sex worker and activist*, Grant’s writing takes the media to task for their role in perpetuating harmful misconceptions about sex work. “It’s such a macrocosm of all of the terrible reporting around sex work and all of the fears around trafficking that become focused around sex workers,” she says of recent coverage pegged to the Super Bowl.

She spoke with the Cut about crimes against sex workers, anti-prostitution feminism, and what’s wrong with Nicholas Kristof.

You argue that the media is largely responsible for perpetuating misconceptions about sex work. What examples of this are particularly damaging?

I think there’s an effort to be more sensitive when reporting on human trafficking, which I think is really important, but that trend often leads to conflating sex trafficking and sex work, and absorbing a lot of the myths that I think we already have about sex workers — that they’re all victims, they’re all coerced, and they need us to intervene and rescue them from their situation.

That’s the problem with Nicholas Kristof, who at this point is so synonymous with having rescued two women out of prostitution in Cambodia. And now he has this whole branded enterprise — he’s built a career of speaking for people he positions as voiceless. That’s really different than listening to a real cross section of people and hearing what they have to say, instead just using them as props in your travelogue. I think the thing that’s missing most is thinking of sex workers as agents in their own lives, and people who have demands — who aren’t just the object of somebody’s gaze, or the object of violence, or the object of a politician’s downfall.

Your book positions itself in opposition to a lot of conventional discourse on sex work, particularly that of anti-prostitution feminists. What are the problems you have with that?

My critique around feminism and sex work has to do with this very narrow idea that all prostitution is rape, that sex work itself just doesn’t exist. I question how dominant that really is in feminism now, but just [last month] Gloria Steinem, in promoting a new anthology of her work, essentially said, I won’t call anyone a sex worker. We have to call them prostitutes because sex work isn’t work, it can’t be work, it is bodily invasion and it’s paid rape. That was once a very marginal opinion, but now it’s something that somebody who’s still seen as a feminist figurehead with a lot of institutional power and clout can say, and there’s very little pushback. That’s alarming to me.

You argue that criminalizing sex work implicitly condones violence against sex workers. Can you explain that?

That theoretical framework comes from watching sex workers respond to serial killers who target sex workers. I was living in San Francisco when Gary Leon Ridgway, who’s known as the Green River Killer in Washington state, claimed to have murdered upwards of 50 women over the course of the nineties. He was targeting women he assumed to be sex workers, but when sex workers went to the police, they were ignored. I think a huge part of it was that these women were fearful to go to the police to ask for help, but he himself offered a statement saying, I targeted prostitutes because I figured no one would notice, I figured I could get away with it. There are even some quotes like, I thought I was helping the police out. That is chilling.

A recent piece by Jill Filipovic for Al Jazeera America characterized the pro-decriminalization movement as championed by more privileged sex workers. What’s your response to that?

That’s a trope you see over and over again in the rare instances when sex workers are acknowledged by policy makers. Like, Since you’re here speaking, you can’t actually be a sex worker — you must be one of those privileged minorities and therefore you can’t actually represent anybody else. That’s something that happens in every movement: The people you see on TV are always the people who can take the risk to get fired for their organizing, and for every one of them there are hundreds of people who couldn’t afford to go on strike that day. I think it provoked the outrage that it did on Twitter because sex workers read it, and were like, You’re basically saying that your views, as someone who has never done sex work, are worth listening to, but not us, who have done sex work, who you’ve decided are “privileged.” It just becomes another reason not to listen to sex workers.

You make an explicit choice in the book not to reveal any details about your own experience as a sex worker. Why?

I wanted to demonstrate that sex workers had things to say about sex work that weren’t just about the sex work they’ve done. It’s a little counterintuitive, because I’m not ashamed of my experiences as a sex worker — I don’t harbor trauma, and I don’t have problems talking about them. But I felt if this book hinged on the value and authenticity of my own experience, everything else I had to say would get fed through the lens of that. I do want to write about those experiences, someday, when I’m more in control of how they will be framed.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

*An earlier version of this post misidentified Grant as an organizer.

Q&A: The Woman Debunking Myths About Sex Work