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Weeks 11-12: Sex Work in the U.S. and elsewhere

Anne Dalke's picture

We turn now from Felice Picano's description of his work as a "smut peddler" to a consideration of sex work in the U.S. and elsewhere. Viewed through the lens Kamala Kempadoo offers in her essay on "Women of Color and the Global Sex Trade," what are your reactions to the two films we are viewing and discussing on this topic: Kauffman and Briski's Born into Brothels , and Query and Funari's Live Nude Girls Unite! ? In what ways do they converge, in what ways diverge, in your thinking about the various dimensions involved in sex work?


rae's picture

Kempadoo and Prostitution

After watching the films and reading Kempadoo's article, I think the two things that I'm really left with are that I feel the two biggest issues with prostitution are the conditions and the lack of other options. I'm still not entirely positive where I stand when it comes to prostitution as a moral issue, whether it should be allowed, whether it's also degrading, whether it's possible for prositution to be separated from it's demeaning and misogynistic history. But I do believe that the conditions that many/most sex workers have to deal with are more troublesome than the concept of prostitution itself.

Also, I think that everyone who cares about the effects of prostitution must fight for other options. Especially if you think that prostitution is wrong, you should then be really focused on what else people can realistically do that will earn them a similar amount of money. It reminds me a bit of an article I read about child labor in an econ class. Some people try to simply ban child labor and don't think about the consequences. However, the study the article referenced showed that most families do not have their children work unless there is no other option. If families' income rises, they put their children into school. (I'm not saying that this is what always happens, just that that's what the study showed.) Therefore, the children can be assumed to be working because there are no other options; they need the money to survive. In order to eradicate child labor in a way that truly benefits children, there must be other realistic ways for families to earn enough money to support themselves. Similarly, it would not be enough to simply work on a stricter ban on prositution. People need other viable options, regardless of whether you think prostitution is morally acceptable or not, if you actually want to help the people who go into prostitution.

Karina's picture

as necessary as it is exploitative

        Ever since I read Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs I’d been trying to figure out how to go about perceiving sex work as something that is actually empowering in the midst of what she so aptly dubs “raunch culture.” Here’s the breakdown for me: on the one hand, of course sex work is inherently offensive and oppressive to women – it degrades them for the benefit of men. On the other hand, sex work can have an empowering effect: as Julia states in Live Nude Girls Unite, one way to fight the patriarchy is to subvert the system and take their money. I’d gone back and forth between the two and I think, in the final analysis, it comes down to the belief that feeding the bad habits of the patriarchy – even if it has a somewhat liberating effect for the women – is not the solution. Healthy expression of sexuality is not going to be possible when we are still living in constructs of certain century- or maybe even millennia-old power dynamics. The curious thing is that I can totally agree with the notion that on the level of an individual sex work – profitable sex work – can certainly be a big fat f*** you to the patriarchy and a legitimate, even respectable, and clever way of beating the system at its own game. But, on the level of the collective it only exacerbates the problem, strengthens the systematic oppression and subjugation tactics. If there is a supply for a demand that is driven so obviously (at least in my opinion) not by the desire for sex but a particularly constructed kind of sexual interaction, one teeming with gender-specific power dynamics, then the demand will continue to exist. And if sexist and misogynist views of sexual exchange remain well-stocked and well-fed then it doesn’t seem like the conditions in which sex work exists now is doing anything to solve the problem. Sure, it’s a source of income – for some (or many, depending on the region of the world) it’s the only source of income. But, until conditions improve – and that entails both some serious changes in the way society thinks, in addition to basic recognition of sex work as work – it seems legitimate but not just for lack of a better word. I can accept sex work as necessary but not as non-exploitative. After all, sweatshop workers in factories aren’t performing any less of a legitimate kind of labor. But that doesn’t mean I support it. Serious, mind-blowing change has to happen first.

skindeep's picture

where do we draw the line?

so the writing exercise we did really worked for me. in the sense that in the begining i had no idea what to write. the questions were just statements roaming around my head not particularily articulating themselves in any manner. so i had to push myself, and when i did, i seemed to succeed a little.

this is what i took home and have been thinking over thanksgiving break:

- what does inherently mean?

- how do we push past what we're 'inherently' made of? can we? do we need to?

- does 'inherently' come into play if we exercise free will? do we have free will?

- what is the point of having free will?

and thats whats stayed on my mind. what is the point of having free will. if we cant exercise it. if we remain boxed in, whats the point of knowing we can have free will.

and even if we decide to exercise it, our actions are always going to be subject to other peoples opinions and thoughts and perceptions. theyre going to box us in anyway. so where does free will get us?


and then there was the question of whether it was a liberating expression of free choice and sexual independence. which got me thinking about whether it was liberating at all. and for whom. was it for the girls performing, for the people watching or even for us as we study it?

and what were they expressing anyway? their sexuality? because that didnt seem to be the case. their bodies? maybe. or maybe just their independence and courage. maybe.

and what if you dont get into it by choice. can the freedom of expression still liberate you from the labour? is it a controlled liberation? does the liberation wash over the disgust? is there disgust? does their have to be?

can you 'sell' your body and still be in control? why do you need to be? and who is in control - the girl, the man watching, or people like us, sitting comfortably at home reading statistics and behaving like we understand.

w0m_n's picture

Sex (Work)

These films on sex work are the first of their kind that I've seen. In all of the documentaries on this industry it seems to me that the story is the same: destitute individuals with little of no means of getting income using on the few things of value they have left- their bodies. In none of these movies (this might be the way the director structures the film) are the happy to be in their position. In reading Kempadoo's essay I feel like she has a valid point in that if these individuals, victims of the social institutions that create there circumstances that they should be granted the conditions to perform this kind of work safely. At the same time I think she disregards the that fact that for some consumers part of the appeal is taking part of something illegal. I took a sociology of deviance class and we discussed prostitution as deviance, and the reason why it is a lucrative profession is because consumers are paying workers for their lost of status. Also I think it's important to note this is these individuals only option- how free is your choice if it's your only option? Also something I've been wondering if treated sex work as just work, how would it change the meaning of sex? I feel like sex culturally is alot more complicated then having it or not; it is part of many facets of our lives in implicate ways. With your partners, how would you differentiate between work and play?

ebock's picture

what would...

When I think of sex work (stripping, etc.), I always have to try and put myself in that position. If stuff got really hard, would I do it? Would I have the guts? I can't say that I know the answer to that question right now, but I think the trick to the trade must be learning to separate yourself from the work: separating your sexuality from the sexuality you exude during your shift. I think Funari ultimately makes a great argument about the kind of work the women in the film are performing: these people deserve all the basic rights that other workers deserve. They are working to pay their bills just like any UAW member or SEIU member, or any a member of any other union. The difference in this work that raises so much moral controversy is the American, white, middle-class, WASP-y "family values" that have been elevated into the highest levels of power that exist in this country (don't all politicians run on some form of 'family values' platform, whether they're a 'D' or an 'R'??)....


Anywho, I like to think of it as just any other 9 to 5 job... Thanks Dolly... - Dolly Parton "9 to 5"

Terrible2s's picture

Sex Work: The Great Debate

So today in class when we were asked to do the questions exercise I was kind of stuck. Well, actually I wasn't stuck at all. I had so many questions to ask, but no answers. Sex work and its ethics has always been a very confusing subject to me. I'm not about to delve into my conservative religious upbringing (again) but I really think it effects my thinking (on everything...).  Someone in class today was asking about morality and how it plays into peoples thinking on this issue. Basically I go in circles in my mind. On the one hand I think that it is degrading and that a woman's (or man's) body is priceless. On the other hand, we can choose whatever we'd like to do with our bodies, and we are free to set our own rules, and if a woman chooses to use it in a certain way she should be entitled. Sex is a big part of life, and a very important one--so should we treat it like any other need? Should we put it on a pedastool?

I guess my official policy on it would have to be a little bit of a mixture of the two. I think that personally sexwork would be degrading to my body and not for me, and I would not encourage any of my friends or loved ones to engage in it. HOwever, I think that it is a woman's (or man's) choice and that, just like anything else, good or bad can result from it.

As much as I criticized Julia (the main woman in "Live Nude Girls Unite") for being hypocritical, I think I probably would react similarly... I would not want my daughter to be involved in sex work and yet would support those who were. I guess we can talk all we want but when it comes down to our own lives and loved ones, it's different.

LizJ's picture

stripping and strutting and sexing oh my

Bob Seger - "Her Strut"

Shes totally committed
To major independence
But shes a lady through and through
She gives them quite a battle
All that they can handle
She'll bruise some
She'll hurt some too
But oh they love to watch her strut
Oh they do respect her but
They love to watch her strut

Sometimes they'll want to leave her
Just give up and leave her
But they would never play that scene
In spite of all her talking
Once she starts in walking
The lady will be all they ever dreamed
Oh they love to watch her strut
Oh they'll kill to make the cut
They love to watch her strut

Yeah love to watch her strut
Watch her strut

I think that this is pretty self explanatory. The lyrics seem both degrading and empowering. Saying she's "Shes totally committed/ To major independence/ But shes a lady through and through" but then countering that with "Once she starts in walking/ The lady will be all they ever dreamed/ Oh they love to watch her strut" makes the song degrading as she is turned into an object to be viewed. This song brings up the complexity of sex work that we were discussing in class. Do sex workers have a choice? Is it essentially degrading? Would it be different if there wasn't such an obvious gender power struggle? As I walking out of class today, the image of the man watching the women of the "lusty lady" in the peep show popped into my head and I felt disgusted. I'm not disgusted in the people who are in the sex business, but I am thoroughly disgusted by the men who pay for it. Is that fair? Yeah, I think it is. There would be no need for sex work if there wasn't a clientele in the first place. If there is going to be such a thing as the sex business though, then I do think that trying to legitimize it would be beneficial. It would hopefully create safer working environments and better workers rights. The sex workers project ( is just one example of the ways people are trying to protect the human rights of sex workers and such. This is a complex issue, and one that is not dealt with very openly. It's hard to say what is right or wrong, what is feminist or antifeminist, what is degrading or empowering. I just don't know.

kayla's picture

stripping and motherhood

 I haven't had a chance to see Live Nude Girls Unite! yet because it's out in Magill, I didn't have time to go to Bryn Mawr and I cannot find it ANYWHERE online (has anyone else? I thought that it'd be easy to find but I guess I was wrong).  Anyways, sex work and stripping is something I've thought about a lot, and I immediately thought about this song, which I'm sure you all remember:

City High, What Would You Do

Boys and girls wanna hear a true story?
Saturday night I was at this real wild party,
they had the liquor overflowin' the cup,
about 5 or 6 strippers tryin to work for a buck,
and I took one girl outside wit me,
her name was Lonni, she went to Jr. High wit me,
I said, Why you up in there dancin' for cash?
I guess a whole alots changed since I seen you last
She said,

what would you do if your son was at home,
cryin' all alone on the bedroom floor
cuz he's hungry, and the only way to feed him 
is to sleep with a man for a 
little bit of money and his daddy's gone,
somewhere smokin' rock now,
in and out of lock down,
I ain't got a job now,
so for you this is just a good time but for me this is what 
I call life, mmm

girl you ain't the only one wit a baby,
that's no excuse to be livin' all crazy,
then she looked me right square in the eye,
and said every day I wake up hopin' to die,
she said-nigga I know about pain cuz,
me and my sister ran away so my daddy couldn't rape us,
before I was a teenager I been through more shit,
that you can't even relate ta... 

what would you do?
get up on my feet and let go of every excuse
what would you do?
cuz I wouldn't want my baby to go through what I went
(come on)
what would you do?
Get up on my feet and stop makin' up tired excuses
What would you do?
girl I know if my mother can do it, baby you can do it

what would you do if your son was at home,
cryin' all alone on the bedroom floor
cuz he's hungry, and the only way to feed him 
is to sleep with a man for a 
little bit of money and his daddy's gone,
somewhere smokin' rock now,
in and out of lock down,
I ain't got a job now,
so for you this is just a good time but for me this is what I call life

This song was released in 2001, so I guess most of us were about 12 years old and didn't quite understand what the song was talking about. But the lyrics are straight forward enough that I had the idea. When I listen to this song now, I can't really keep my thoughts in a straight line. I think of my mother's friend who got pregnant at 18 and tried like hell to get a job as a secretary, in food service, in factories around the city but nothing pulled through for her so she starting dancing as a stripper at the local bars. That's all she's done for more than ten years now, and she has a nice, clean home and has enough money to give her youngest child, her daughter, everything she desires. There's still a lot of conflict though, from the lifestyle that tends to come along with this kind of work. She doesn't have custody of her son of her son because of mix-ups with drugs and partying when she was younger and first started stripping. 

In the song, the part rapped a male member of the group (starting with the line "get up on my feet and let go of every excuse") really rubs me the wrong way. I understand what he's saying, and in some ways I agree with his sentiment, but I've seen this woman get her life together and be a responsible and loving parent while stripping. He ends this section with "girl I know if my mother can do it, baby you can do it" which has a really caring, sincere tone, but she HAS done it, and so have many other women who have turned to stripping and sex work in order to provide for their children. 

So I guess right now my opinions and thoughts are mixed and mashed. I would like for women to not have to resort to stripping in order to make rent and buy food, but what else do you do when you've spent months and months applying for jobs and going to interviews without getting any offers? I don't see it as a degrading profession when the women choose it and become well-off because of it--what is degrading about being able to put food on the table or buy Christmas presents for your child? It's likely that most of the time, especially for women who have been doing this for awhile, stripping isn't even about sex. It loses that feel after 5 years of dancing in lace underwear on a stage, or that's what I think would happen if I were in that position. I don't have a full perspective on this issue, and I really can't wait to get my hands on that documentary to see what perspective that offers me. It could be that it totally changes what I think, but at this point I know that stripping does not have to be a horrible thing, and that negative sentiment shouldn't be pushed onto the women who are working as strippers--rather, we should be listening to them telling us how they feel. 

*Note, I'm not sure yet how I feel about "sex work" still. It's in a different space in my mind, away from stripping, and seems to imply something much more dangerous and risky than dancing. 


meredyd's picture

I really enjoyed Live Nude

I really enjoyed Live Nude Girls Unite! and what interested me simultaneously the most and the least was the generation gap issue, with regards to feminist views on sex work, that we have been/will be discussing. It interested me the least when it was involved with the conflict between the director and her mother, which felt a lot of the time like a subplot shoehorned into the film to give it an "emotional center" (and I think the director recognizes this, because she even mentions how she's using it narratively at one point.) It interested me the most when it became more than one person's story and a part of the story of all of the sex workers, because it was a divide that blocked them off from wider acceptance and support in the feminist community. At first I found the hypocrisy really strange, but I think if you look at it as a first/second wave vs. third wave thing, it becomes more understandable. If it's been a way of thinking for so long - sex work = degrading, is there really a way to overcome that stigma completely (see: director's mom, who can't)?

Owl's picture


I was in high school when I first saw this episode of the Tyra Banks show, but ever since then it had caught my attention. I picked this video clip to show the class the diverse opinions and thoughts on the sex industry by workers of the sex industry. I found it particularly interesting for the class, for these women  choose to be in the sex industry, many even had collge degrees. Furthemore, I found it interesting how this heirarchy within the sex industry illustrates how sex labor should be legalized, for it show how sex is just another form of work.


the video is a bit long, but it's all worth it!

cantaloupe's picture


I actually did take the time to watch the whole porntown clip, and it was interesting.  My thought has always been that I could probably work in the porn industry, but as I get older, I'm not sure.  Exposing your body and having sex is a really personal thing.  And I always thought that I could seperate emotions from sex if I was ever doing porn, but now I think I couldn't do that.  It follows you for a long time when your body is disrespected and messes up other parts of your life.  I really don't think I could emotionally handle being in the porn industry (or any other kind of sex work - stripper, prostitute, escort, whatever). 

There were two things about college that were in the porntown clip that I had strong opinions on.  First, one woman went to college and got two BA's in nursing and psychology.  She worked in a clinic for a while, but was so disgusted by the health care system in the US, so she went to porn.  Tyra (who, by the way, super obviously showed in the show that she disapproved of all sex work) asked why she didn't become an activist instead of tossing up her hands.  She wasn't given a chance to answer (figures, all TV shows slant their shows to reflect whatever the host feels).   I understand what the woman was saying though.  Activism only works if you have hope - hope that you can actually change something.  And sometimes a person feels like the problem is too large for that person to make a difference.  That mentality might not be right - maybe the person could make a difference - but if the person gave up hope, you can't force the person to keep on being an activist.  The only option is to turn to something that has nothing to do with what bothers you in the system - like porn.  Secondly, in their porntown they had to pick ten commandments from fifteen given, and one that they kept was "thou must attend college."  I didn't expect that, nor do I believe it.  College isn't for everyone, and that doesn't make people who don't go to college failures.  The women in porntown argued that they learned all these valuable lessons in college and how to run a business, and so forth.  But others didn't go to college and are still successful in their line of sex work.  I think college is great for some people.  For others, I think it is completely wrong and pointless to force attendence.

Owl's picture

SEX, SEX, SEX!!!!!!!!

okay, so in our class discussion, one person said that before we make sex labor legal, we must give women trapped in such a life, different alrenatives. I have to say that I completely agree with this. In Legitimizing/legalizing sex work, we give men the freedom to do as they please with the women who were put into such conditions by force. We purposely condemn unwilling victims to a lifetime of sex labor of which many have no choice but to stay in.

With that said, of course sex work should be legalized. For many, sex work is the only form of surviving due to a lack of education; for others, sex work is simply easier, or empowering. But this does not mean that conditions in a work place should be used to manipulate workers to stay and work. I mean why must the idea of sex be used to keep workers in the sex industry from living normal lives without being looked upon as whores, sluts etc.

I think that this lies with the idea of sex as devil worshipping in the eyes of society. If sex was not looked at as an evil sin, then sex work would  not be so hard to legalize.

Terrible2s's picture

Born into Priviledge

So I first saw "Born into Brothels" in high school. It was on what is called "Peace Day" where we celebrate other cultures and to each students great delight classes are cancelled. So, predictably, as attendence was not taken, many students would cut that day. Peace day was my favorite. I got to try different foods, watch interesting movies, hear stories, and enjoy performances which were all by design very separate from my experiences.

On that particular Peace Day one of the activities was to watch "Born into Brothels" in theaters and to discuss it afterwards with teachers who had volunteered to run the conversation. I went to a school near Bryn Mawr, so we actually ended up seeing the film at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. It was a cold rainy day, but seeing as the theatre is 3 blocks away from our school they had us walk to the movie. Some of us hadn't brought our rainboots or coats and the walk ended up being a little miserable. 

After the movie we were walking back and all anyone could talk about was how miserable the walk had been and how useless it was that we were watching a movie so separate from "any of our problems." Then they began to discuss how useless they thought it was that they woman was teaching the children photography and that yes it  heartbreaking that these children had such a hard life but it was "their mothers fault...obviously."

I couldn't take it. I sped up my pace and walked with the teachers. Maybe it's immaturity, maybe it's our upbringing, either way I don't understand what could have been going through those girls heads, or rather not going through them.

ebock's picture


I just wanted to say that I really liked that Kempadoo challenged the first-world assumption of women of color and third-world women as victims. I think also that her taking on the idea of "the dominant Euro-American definition of the family, domestic work and the house-hold" (38) is very relevant to our conversations from throughout the semester and not only this week. It's important to always remember the site and context in which we're having our conversations about gender and sexuality, and despite where we all come from, our conversations are happening in an affluent, first-world, predominantly white bi-co community.

Going back to our conversation with Felice Picano, I think that there's a certain extent to which our queer theory and post-modern/post-gender/etc. ideologies are still very much only really accessible to those who are privy to the liberal, academic community in various colleges and universities. I think I have yet to hear about anyone outside of this class or any of the feminist/queer theory courses that I've taken using this kind of jargon or really even identifying as such. Not to say that it doesn't happen because I know it does - it's a growing movement/community, but I do think that it's small and still pretty abstract.

I'm excited to talk about Born into Brothels. I've talked about it in two classes before, and it's always been exciting to hear about new takes on the film and the issues that get confronted/raised in the film.