On Sex Work, Morality, and Truth
As far as the post-event dissection and sound bite accumulation went, this was Buttigieg’s quote of the night. For what it’s worth, the pointed criticism of Pence and the religious right is well taken. Prior to the rise of Trump, white evangelicals were most likely to insist on a candidate’s morality as an important quality. Now, however, they downplay Trump’s moral and other deficiencies of character, in this respect acting more white than evangelical. For some, it may be unconscious, but either way, religious conservatives see an ally in a president who appears to exemplify the so-called “prosperity gospel” and who would uphold their brand of “religious freedom.”
Mayor Buttigieg, though, is not a member of the religious right. He is a Democrat and Episcopalian whose mere sexual orientation would make him a target of conservative Christians’ scorn. His attack of Trump’s “porn star presidency” is a double-edged sword that strikes not only at Mike Pence’s hypocrisy and that of his ilk but also at adult entertainers and their choice of vocation. Within his comments are an implicit criticism of porn stars—or at least a failure to defend them. Trump is a bad person. He consorts with porn stars. By association, if you associate with him or them, you are a bad person.
The unnamed allusion to Trump’s extramarital liaison with Stephanie Clifford a.k.a. Stormy Daniels is not the first knock on the woman who alleges she slept with Trump and was paid off in advance of the 2016 presidential election for her silence. Rudy Giuliani—or the crazy person masquerading as Rudy Giuliani for the purposes of defending Donald Trump—expressed to a national audience the belief that Daniels has no credibility because she is a porn star. Translation: Stormy Daniels is a lying whore who can’t be trusted because all porn stars are lying whores. Michael Avenatti’s detractors on the right have leveled similar criticisms of Daniels’s then-lawyer on guilt-by-association principles. He represents porn stars, ipso facto, he is a lying scumbag.
Irrespective of what you think of their personalities—Avenatti, in particular, strikes me as an obnoxious attention-seeker—their choice of vocation or client shouldn’t have a bearing on their believability. As is oft said, love the sinner; hate the sin. In this instance, however, even on the left, there are those who condemn the sinner and sin. Trump is a “porn star president.” Lost in the discussion of his and Pence’s and Daniels’s and Avenatti’s morality is the more relevant issue of whether Donald Trump specifically directed a payoff to Stormy Daniels and whether that constituted a breach of campaign finance law. It shouldn’t matter whether Daniels is a porn star or prostitute or any other similar type of professional. It’s Trump’s conduct with which we should be primarily concerned.
Unfortunately, this bilateral takedown of adult entertainers and other sex workers is emblematic of our larger discomfort with sex work as a function of our discomfort with, well, sex. Sex is enjoyable. It’s the reason most of us are here, barring in vitro fertilization or the like. Talking about it, though, for many of us can be an, er, icky prospect, necessitating the use of double entendre or other euphemistic language. And showing our appreciation of its splendor? Oh, no. Especially for women, that’s not very “lady-like.” Too much sex and you risk getting branded as a “slut.” Worse yet if you’re a prostitute. Then you’re a criminal and deserve to be admonished. So much for the world’s oldest profession.
I watch porn. (Mom, if you’re reading this, apologies.) I’m not without my reservations. There are the usual complaints. The costumes tend to be tacky. Lo, the cut-rate nurse uniforms. The dialogue is often stilted. The acting is frequently subpar. And is there nothing that doesn’t get a porn parody? Who asks for a Rugrats porn parody anyway? Who finds that sexy?
Even when these things are improved upon—and I do think the production value of today’s adult entertainment is largely superior to the XXX offerings of yesteryear—there are troubling aspects of the presentation and of the industry as a whole. The plots—which often barely qualify as such and for some reason usually revolve around sex with stepfamily—can be steeped in misogyny, involving coercion or trickery of the female participant(s) as pivotal “plot” points.
Even when the content is geared to be more “female friendly,” the on-screen enjoyment is often reserved for wealthy characters who enjoy lavish accommodations on the count of being highly-paid hard-working individuals. It’s luxury porn on top of being actual porn. There are also concerns off camera about suicides of numerous high-profile stars and the ever-present worry about transmission of sexually-transmitted infections in a world where condom use is infrequent. And we haven’t yet gotten to the problem of monetization for production companies and actors/actresses alike.
So yeah, the adult entertainment industry has its issues—and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. Still, I’m not sure why there seems to be such a disdain or disregard for the people involved, the type which prompts left-leaning comedians like Chelsea Handler to equate porn stars with abusers, child molesters, and Russian hackers. I get that its objectors may see porn as exploitative and the performers as lacking talent. But why the hate? Because they love sex and like getting paid for it? Even within the context of the on-film productions, there seems to be an inherent condemnation of the young women in these situations modeled on real life. These whores will do anything for money! They can’t control themselves when they see what he’s packing down there! We condemn them for their vices while absconding to our bedrooms, gratifying our pleasures. To the extent that these scenes are a reflection of us and our society is disconcerting.
Morality also appears to cloud our collective judgment when it comes to our demonization of escorts, prostitutes, et cetera and advocacy for their rights. A presumption in this regard is that the sex worker has agency over her or his circumstances—and that may be a big presumption to make. There are arguments by some feminists and others that sex work is an oppressive form of labor, especially as it relates to exploitation by “pimps.” Speaking of exploitation, there are serious concerns about human and sex trafficking that would subvert that necessary agency and constitute a serious crime. In many cases, there are quantifiable risks to the sex worker, including drug use, poverty, rape, sexually-transmitted infections, and violence.
These issues notwithstanding, the stigma of sex work lingers. As with adult entertainers, prostitutes who get involved with this line of work for the money or sex are demeaned as unskilled opportunists, and as for the risks they face, the consensus response seems to be an effective shrug of the shoulders. They chose this lifestyle. If they don’t like it, they should get an education and a real job. This comes to a head when discussing sex workers’ desire for safety and protection against burdensome regulations as well as freedom of movement, available health services, and other rights that mere status as a human being should confer. In practice, this is not always the reality.
Meera Senthilingam, a CNN Health and Wellness editor, penned an article which appeared on CNN in February concerning “what sex workers really want.” In the opinion of one sex worker interviewed for the piece, seeing as they pay the same taxes, sex workers should be afforded the same rights as other service professionals who are allowed to work from home. There is also the problem for some prostitutes when law enforcement gets involved. In places where the legality of the practice is null or vague and dependent on who solicits who, the presence of police may actually be a deterrent to would-be customers.
This assumes, by the by, that the police aren’t the ones abusing, exploiting, or harassing sex workers, and as with the agency of sex workers mentioned earlier, this is quite an assumption to make. As with any profession, there are bad actors, and for a population in sex workers already susceptible to violence and other health and safety concerns, it puts practitioners in a bind, to put it mildly. It begs the question: who will watch the watchers when it comes to safeguarding their liberties as citizens?
The above deliberations are worth talking about. Whether it’s because of a deprecating attitude regarding sex work, a discomfort in approaching such matters, or both, however, even those on the left who usually are keen on standing up for individuals’ agency over their bodies and protecting their inalienable rights appear loath to mention sex workers specifically. Chalk it up to social mores or personal morality, but in 2019, America and the world at large is evidently lagging on this topic.
You might ask why we are worried about the feelings and opinions and rights of someone like Stormy Daniels. The woman didn’t even vote, for crying out loud! What do she and her contemporaries have to contribute to the larger discussion about Donald Trump and American politics? To be honest, I’m not totally sure, but if we dismiss her as an opportunist and a slut from the jump, what chance do we have to listen and know with an open mind?
In front of an audience of 500 women or so at The Wing, a work and community space designed for women in Washington, D.C., Daniels recently said she believes Michael Cohen to be true in his testimony to lawmakers. Cohen, like Daniels, has had his credibility attacked reflexively by Republican supporters of the president, and while she may not possess a great deal of affection for the man—she referred to Cohen as “dumber than herpes”—she thinks he is honest and that, like her, he came forward because he’s tired of “being bullied” and “being called a liar and a rat.”
Sure, this is just one person’s opinion, but it comes from someone who alleges to know Trump intimately—in more than one sense of the word. In this respect, her thoughts have at least much value as a shameless defender of Trump like Sean Hannity. Instead, though, she’s a porn star to be derided alongside the president, Mike Pence, and even child molesters and wife beaters. Thanks for the insight, but we’d rather scoff at you from atop our high horses. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.
Whether it’s within the context of #MeToo or of simply acknowledging the dignity of sex workers as human beings, the left has a problematic relationship with those storytellers it considers to be problematic or unsavory. Daniels has stressed she is a not a victim with regard to #MeToo. Cohen, set to spend three years in federal prison, is sure as heck not a victim.
Through all the deals they’ve struck and monies they’ve received, this doesn’t mean they’re utterly irredeemable. And their past actions and vocations have no bearing on the veracity of what they say about Trump. To allow our social and moral misgivings to stand in the way of our better judgment is to fall prey to the same kind of prejudices that have characterized conservatism of late. You know, when its practitioners actually heed their conscience or the teachings of scripture.