Let’s Talk About….Sex Work?

by Brittany Robinson

My interest in this topic stems from a class I took during my senior year of college called Sexual Revolutions. My professor was an amazing woman who challenged us to look at sex work as a product of our culture, not just something we can condemn or advocate under the idea that this form of work (which Ronald Weitzer in Sex for Sale says includes stripping, prostitution, peep-shows, phone sex operators, etc (1)) just emerged without our consent or awareness of it.  From this, I thought “What about sex work within my culture?”  I am an African-American woman from the South, and I have always heard women in my community treat sex as a “secret,” so when some of them learned I was taking a class that examined sex work, they wanted to know one thing: why I would feel comfortable as a Black woman discussing sex work when we have a history of sexual exploitation.  Because of their inquiries and my own, I came to formulate the argument presented below.

Much of the new literature discussing the nature of sex work has been produced by women who consider themselves “third-wave” feminists and have worked in the “sex industry.”   A majority of this literature, produced by white, middle-class, college-educated women, claims that sex work can be liberatory.  The perspective of African-American women is elusive.  The lack of accounts from African-American women might derive from their history of over-sexualization.

Historian Deborah Gray White discusses two ways in which Black women have been over-sexualized.  In her book, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, she discusses the Jezebel myth and the “Fancy Trade.”  The Jezebel myth, in short, is the myth that Black women are naturally immoral and overly sexual beings (28-29).  The “Fancy Trade” was a more complex form of sexually exploiting Black women. This was, “a practice centered in New Orleans but existing in a few other major cities as well, during slavery, that involved the sale of light-skinned Black women for the exclusive purpose of prostitution and concubinage” (37).

Mainstream hip-hop has also influenced this topic by highly sexualizing Black women.  In her book, Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip-Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women, T-Denean Sharpley Whiting argues, “hip-hop’s hold on young Black women” exists because of mainstream hip-hop’s relationship with the adult entertainment industry.  One example of this is the complex relationship that exists between hip-hop and strip clubs.  In the mainstream hip-hop world strip clubs are a place of business.  Whiting states that they are places, “where those moguls and artists test market music before a highly discriminating group of dance music connoisseurs—black women in the adult entertainment industry also known as strippers, exotic dancers, and shake dancers” (116).  Black women’s relationship with hip-hop is both exploitative and embracing and may influence their experiences in, and opinions of, stripping.

The literature from third wave, white feminists is not as heavily influenced by a history of sexualization.  For some of these women, like those in Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire and Flesh for Fantasy: Producing and Consuming Exotic Dance, sex work is multi-faceted and, at times, liberatory.

Something that these books do share is an editor, Merri Lisa Johnson.  Johnson, who is now an academic, worked as a stripper in college. She acknowledges at the beginning of Flesh for Fantasy that, as a white, middle-class college student she had the privilege to quit whenever she pleased (xxxi).  In Flesh for Fantasy Johnson’s essay “Stripper Bashing” discusses some of the positive experiences she had because of sex work, but also how she was confronted with being on the margins of society for the first time (185).

While being driven home from a party where she and a fellow dancer were almost assaulted by fraternity members, their car was pulled over by the police. For the first time she realized that she was scared of the policeman (185).   For Black women, who have dealt with being sexualized in so many aspects of their lives, such fears are all too familiar and have been instilled in them from a very young age.

In her essay, “Third-Wave Black Feminism,” scholar Kimberly Springer proposes a “third wave black feminism” as a means for black women to have a forum to voice their concerns, particularly those involving sexuality (1074).  Such a space would give the experiences of Black women a central position within the new third wave sex work literature.

In conclusion, I am not suggesting that no African-American woman can find sex work liberatory. However, it is important to recognize how Black women’s history of being sexualized and exploited might inhibit their ability to experience such work as empowering.  With that being said, I will end with the following questions: What does it mean when a group of women have so much history connected to their bodies but are erased from history due to their existence within those bodies?  What is at stake here?  How do we rectify this? ▢

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