Sex Work Is Work: Agency, Identity, and Policing Personhood in the Labor of Selling Sex

Cassandra Troyan
Maya Andrea Gonzalez
  University of California, Santa Cruz


As made apparent through the Sex Worker Right Movement, where “Sex Work is Work” serves as the ideological slogan necessary for valorizing a labor societally framed as purely coercive, it leaves little room for critical inquiries on the nature of work itself. Thus the history of its labor movement finds itself in a difficult juncture, where work must be used as a sign of agency to legitimize the safety of those who labor through policy initiatives in order to counter sex negative critiques.

This relation to labor and independence is a selective identity projected onto those who fit the right narrative and model of a victim of human or sex trafficking. One of the great contradictions of the Anti-Trafficking Movement is the moral declaration that people are not commodities, while disavowing personal agency and a general sense of the subject, rather than viewing this distinction as inherent to capital, where according to Laura Maria Agustin, “even unfair, unwritten, ambiguous contracts can produce active subjects.” Fully agreeing women are inherently vulnerable exchangeable objects validates one of the motivating principle for the NGOs’ existence: their concern for how young girls could increase the global national profit if they were not being trafficked, made a child bride, or a victim of sexual violence. Yet ultimately, Agustin’s argument relies on the belief that this moralistic white saviorist neocolonialism is fueled by Puritanical western impulses, which views sexual freedom as taboo. In response to Agustin, we use theoretical and material frameworks implemented by Dawn Paley, Michel Foucault, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore to analyze structures of punishment, state violence, and policing in the United States.

Thus, we believe that the refusal to distinguish prostitution from trafficking, or the policing of those participating in the sex trade, is forged by the state’s denial or recognition of personhood, reliant upon formal and informal labor economies, which reveals carceral punishment experienced by sex workers is not based in sexual taboo but the relationship between race, gender, class, and criminality under capital. It is also for these reasons why the face of sex work on a mainstream scale is about high-end “happy hooker” escorts and sugar babies, or trans women of color working on the streets. Women of color and trans women of color who are vocal about their participation in the sex trade take additional risks through their increased visibility, as they are already seen as criminals due to the nature of their personhood. Thus it is of no surprise that some of the most visible and prominent voices for sex worker rights---Melissa Gira Grant, Maggie McNeil, Annie Sprinkle, Mistress Matisse, etc.---are white former sex workers. Without reverting to sex-negative critiques or narratives of complete agency and proud self-identification with the labor of selling sex, our argument aims to complicate the politics of producing pleasure by reassessing how privilege, visibility, and agency can serve as modes of policing utilized by the state to reaffirm or deny personhood based on notions of criminality.

sexual identity - agency - policing - anti-trafficking - sex work - criminality - migration - personhood - punishment - sex trafficking - sexuality - gender identity - gender violence - labor