Sex

Published on June 9th, 2014 | by Aya de Leon

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AYA DE LEON on Putting Sex Work Into Context For Our Kids

I often read posts on The Good Men Project, and wanted to be in conversation with a recent post from a father talking to his sons about misogyny and sex work.  The dad reports:  “my son asked me why women become prostitutes. I explained that it’s complicated and offered the thought that some women grow up with a lack of self-esteem or sense of their value, and that as prostitutes they may feel valued for their bodies when they exchange sex for money. I don’t know if that’s the right answer…”

As someone who writes about sex work, I appreciate this dad’s honesty that he wasn’t sure if it was the right answer.  Perhaps it’s the right answer for some women who become sex workers, but it certainly does not describe the experiences and motivations of all the women in the sex industries.  In particular, it describes sex work as an emotional payoff more than a job.  Sex work is work.  Also, the workers themselves report a vast spectrum from violent trafficking to chosen work they enjoy.

I think the bigger problem is the dad’s question.  The question isolates and stigmatizes female sex workers, as opposed to asking a broader question that connects women’s experiences and indicts the society:  why do so many women choose to have sex for reasons other than sexual desire?  I’m not talking about sexual violence where there’s lack of consent, I’m talking about women consenting to sex for other reasons than wanting sex.  Whether it’s tolerating the sex to get to the cuddling afterwards, or screwing the husband to get a new car, or faking an orgasm, or professional sex work, or non-professional “golddigging,” or desperately picking up guys to get a brief moment of male attention, or screwing a boyfriend to make him stay, or blowing a producer to get a part in a movie, or having sex to feel loved.  Why do women trade in sexual currency for all kinds of stuff all the time?  And why do we, as a society, question those choices so little but save up all our outrage and pity for sex workers?

HabierLopez:FCC

Habier Lopez / Flickr Creative Commons

As the father said to his son,

“some women grow up with a lack of self-esteem or sense of their value, and that as prostitutes they may feel valued for their bodies when they exchange sex for money”

Let’s put that statement in a context with other examples:

Some women grow up with a lack of self-esteem or sense of their value, and [in their sexual decision making] they may feel valued for their bodies when they exchange sex for [male attention].

Some women grow up with a lack of self-esteem or sense of their [ability to make money], and that as [wives] they may feel [powerful] when they exchange sex for [being able to influence the financial decisions of their high-earning husbands].

Some women grow up with a lack of self-esteem or sense of their value, and that as [girlfriends] they may feel valued for their [relationship status] when they exchange sex for [commitment].

Some women grow up with a lack of self-esteem or sense of their value, and that as [golddiggers] they may feel valued for their bodies when they exchange sex for [gifts, luxury experiences, and the possibility of marriage].

Some women grow up with a lack of self-esteem or sense of their value, and that as [actresses] they may feel valued for their bodies when they exchange sex for [a role in a film that can make their career].

Some women grow up with a lack of self-esteem or sense of their [intellectual] value, and that as [models] they may feel valued for their bodies when they [pose for sexualized images in] exchange…for money.

Some women grow up with a lack of self-esteem or sense of their value, and [when they fake orgasms] they may feel valued for their [ability to feign pleasure that will require no effort for their partner beyond what gets him off].

NickCP:FCC

Nick CP / Flickr Creative Commons

So, we’re really focusing on the wrong part of this equation.  The sex for money is just one example.  The big takeaway is that the society devalues women.  Because of this, our self-esteem is bound to be negatively impacted.  Meanwhile, we are conditioned to exchange sex for whatever it is that we might find lacking in our lives.  Unlike most non-professional women who participate in this dynamic, sex workers are honest with themselves and others, and negotiate openly.

The dad talked about another “teachable moment” that he had with his kids.  I think our children’s curiosity about sex work is a teachable moment to help them connect the dots to the myriad of ways that women’s sexuality is exploited and commodified.

As the mother of a young daughter, I’m working hard to help her feel strong, confident, and valued.  Because I write and think about sex work, I often wonder what it will be like when my daughter has enough information and experience to ask me questions about sex and sex work.  So I’m preparing myself for challenging questions like these.  I want to equip her with the language and the critical thinking to help her decode male domination, understand women’s lives around her, make choices about sex in her own life.  I certainly have my hopes for her, but my daughter’s future is a total mystery:

Some women grow up with [parents who support their] self-esteem or sense of their value, and that as [           ] they may feel valued for their [         ] when they exchange [          ] for [          ].

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About the Author

Aya de Leon

Aya de Leon teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. Her second, THE BOSS, will be published by Kensington Books in May 2017. This is the latest in her Justice Hustlers series of feminist heist novels, which began with UPTOWN THIEF in 2016, and will continue with THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS in 2018. Her work has also appeared in Ebony Magazine, Guernica, Writers Digest, Essence, Bitch Magazine, Huffington Post and on Def Poetry. She blogs and tweets about culture, gender, and race at @AyadeLeon and ayadeleon.com. She is also at work on a children’s picture book about talking to children about racism and she just finished a YA black girl spy novel called Going Dark.

 



2 Responses to AYA DE LEON on Putting Sex Work Into Context For Our Kids

  1. Jennifer Heineman Jennifer Heineman says:

    Such a lovely essay. As a mama and sex worker, I’m elated that this conversation has begun.

  2. Jenn Jenn says:

    Wow, I just wanted to say that I loved this essay. I think that I am in that father’s shoes, if only in the sense that I would want to give a good answer, and feel unsure about what to say. I’m grateful to have read this as food for thought and preparation.

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