Melissa Gira Grant’s new book is causing all sorts of discomfort among liberals who are just flat not comfortable with thinking of sex work as labor. Katha Pollitt’s latest piece is an excellent example of this. Unfortunately, while Pollitt is writing in the language of second-wave feminism, she’s also writing in the language of prohibitionism. She tries to stigmatize a reality of the world as immoral, but in fact just reinforces a system by which women are in fact victimized. Even the poor women she accuses Grant of ignoring are not helped by keeping sex work illegal. If you legalize sex work, you are going to make it harder for underground sex operations that treat women terribly to continue because a major reason why they exist is that sex work is illegal and therefore stigmatized. That’s not to say sex work is great–it’s a bad job—but keeping it illegal does not promote the equality that Pollitt wants to see.
…To clarify one point, I realize Pollitt is not really calling for sex work to remain illegal, but by using language that separates it from other kinds of work as inherently and perhaps uniquely awful, it reinforces long-standing arguments used to keep it illegal. Quibble with my characterization if you’d like, but I just wanted to clarify this point a bit.