Sarah Katherine Lewis, former sex worker and author of Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It as a Girl for Hire and Sex and Bacon: Why I Love Things That Are Very, Very Bad For Me wrote this piece on sex work, her experience, and feminist discourse for AlterNet. The article is a response to these questions, which she poses herself: If a woman chooses to objectify herself — shedding her clothes to obtain power through money — is she helping to eliminate gender inequality or simply degrading herself? A former adult entertainer shares her story.
The article is quoted (partially) below:
“A popular narrative about sex work, earnestly discussed in Women’s Studies courses throughout the nation and represented in countless “I stripped my way through college!” memoirs, is that adult labor is automatically, and by definition, feminist.
The argument goes like this: By using sexual stereotypes professionally, by “owning” them (using them consciously), and by “subverting” them (choosing which stereotypes to exaggerate and which to discard), a sex-working woman is participating in a feminist reclamation of both personal and economic power. […] If women’s bodies belong to everyone, some feminists argue, why not be the ones to profit from our own bodies instead of being consumed for free?
The opposing narrative about sex work is that it’s never a feminist act — that by collaborating with the enemy (i.e., the patriarchal view that women’s bodies are, by definition, public entertainment), women harm themselves and enforce old, harmful views about women as erotic property.
According to that line of thinking, a woman who strips to pay her rent is doing so at great personal and societal cost: She is either knowingly or naively working against feminism (the implication being, she’s either a heartless mercenary, or too emotionally damaged to be held accountable for her actions)…
And these two opposing narratives present a real conundrum — a stalemate.
I tried to live on food service wages and failed. I was constantly exhausted, humiliated, and terrified of getting sick, because getting sick might mean losing my apartment. One bad month stood between me and desperate poverty. And, as any person who’s ever been in similar straits knows, there’s nothing that makes you feel less powerful than the constant daily fear of not having enough money to live on.
When I wasn’t able to afford the things I needed to live, I didn’t feel like a feminist. I didn’t feel strong and proud — a sister in struggle to the kind of college-educated white-collar women who would run me ragged and then sail out of the restaurant without tipping me. I didn’t even feel human. There is nothing more objectifying than poverty.”