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The Problem With Sex Work Is Work: Conner Habib & Dr. Heather Berg in Conversation

The adult performer and Feminist Studies scholar examine the non-consensual nature of waged work in America through the lens of anti-sex worker narratives on the American Left.

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The following is a conversation between Conner Habib — porn performer, activist, and host of the podcast Against Everyone with Conner Habib — and Dr. Heather Berg, a professor of Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, whose book on sex work and pornography is forthcoming.

Berg and Habib examine sex work in America broadly, specifically touching on the overlap between systems of power which enforce the stigmatization and criminalization of both cannabis and sex; how sex work is often excluded from political efforts like #MeToo and modern socialist/Marxist and feminist narratives; and the potential threat that sex work poses to wage-based systems of employment. 

Conner Habib: There’s a lot of overlap between the regulation of sex work, the regulation of drugs, and the systems of punishment that enforce both. So, since this is MERRY JANE, let’s start there. What is it about drugs and sex work that threaten the status quo?

Dr. Heather Berg: Both drugs and sex work are the enemies of waged work. Sex work, especially independent sex work, has historically been a powerful way to escape the wage system. Criminalizing it is a way to make sure that people have to have a boss, or be part of a nuclear family, in order to survive. The drug trade has sometimes worked in the same way, and so there’s a deep connection between the war on sex work and the war on drugs. 

Conner Habib: You’re focusing on the wage system, and I’m thinking also, of other cultural ways this is true. For instance, in the 19th century, single women turned to sex work because they had more rights and greater possibilities to thrive as sex workers than as wives. 

These kinds of occupations are strategies to evade many structures that can harm you. And in regards to the wage aspect you bring up, the powers that be find that part particularly threatening. Sex work in many of its forms is so difficult so regulate; it’s such a direct transaction. Most commonly, it’s two people in a small unmonitored space.

Dr. Heather Berg: Right. It’s unregulatable, and also unproductive. Independent sex work doesn’t make money for a boss or (often) the state, and, unlike the sex we’re supposed to have in nuclear families, it also doesn’t produce kids who can become new workers. 

Conner Habib: People fighting drug regulation have said that it’s a war on altered states of consciousness. The war on sex is the oldest war on altered states of consciousness there is. And obviously, since sex is the content of sex work this plays into restrictions on sex work as well.

Tying that into what you said about productivity: it’s obvious, for instance, when people talk about so-called porn addiction.

"People say, 'Oh, I think I have a porn addiction because I watch two hours of porn a day.' And I turn that back to them and say, 'Well, how many hours a week do you work? Forty? Fifty? More? It sounds like your work addiction is getting in the way of you masturbating to porn.'"

Dr. Heather Berg: Which is the point of connection between sex worker communities and the readers of MERRY JANE. What does it mean to fight for the right to be unproductive? That’s also the threat of pot. We don’t have to say that sex and drugs are not distracting for us, we can say, “yes they are, and that’s a good thing.”

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Conner Habib: Yes, because what are they distracting us from? And also, why do we crave this distraction? We want out of the world being offered to us. That’s a question of consent. Who the fuck consented to “working for a living” or using money? The anti-sex and drugs narratives are: “This is so dangerous, you might lose control!” But of course, no one is in control of work or money, which is the most dangerous of all.

There’s a rise in consciousness in the US about the problems of work, and that’s coming mainly from Marxists, socialists, and even Democratic socialists, like the so-called “Bernie Bros.” Fortunately, this is making us start to question the concept of “work” overall.

Dr. Heather Berg: And it’s still not doing enough to end attacks on sex workers. Returning to the idea that sex work is threatening because we are able to do it independently, I want to say that I think it’s wrongheaded for people who call themselves “socialists” to say that [sex work] is uniquely damaging as a form of work. To the extent that work is damaging because people can exploit you for your labor, sex work offers more pathways for independence from shitty bosses.

Conner Habib: It can be a step towards dissolving the power of bosses.

Dr. Heather Berg: Yes, and that’s not recognized. The sex worker rallying cry “sex work is work” has taken sex workers’ rights a long way. But the problem with that framing of sex work is that it gets burdened with what the listener already thinks of “work.” If people presume that work is a good thing, then calling sex work “work” makes it respectable. It sanitizes it. 

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Conner Habib: And obviously, work isn’t a good thing. Work, and the demand to do work, is dangerous. Work or starve. Work or watch your family die from lack of healthcare. Work and die on the way to the job or because of the working conditions. There’s so much talk about supporting the economy by creating jobs. But “creating jobs” is, in a way, a stand in for, “creating more ways to destroy your psyche, spirit, and body.”

We’re starting to see that, as laborers who are forced to work, we’re all in this together, and something needs to change.

But socialists are playing into those respectability politics. Not by being pro-work overall, but in only focusing on the work part, which is, for some people, a way to remain safely respectable. The idea at the bottom of it all is that somehow, if we arrange all the labor and economic conditions in the right way all the problems in the world will just solve themselves; all you need is good politics! But it’s simply not true, you have to do inner and cultural work as well as wage work.

Dr. Heather Berg: Focusing entirely on framing sex work as “real work” can also let us off the hook from examining why people in power want us  to deem certain kinds of sexual encounters as “bad.” Which for me, is still an economic question, because what’s defined as “good” sex is economically productive sex. Returning to the limitations of sex “work” language, it makes it easy for people who think workers are only ever victims to disguise their squeamishness and whorephobia as some kind of social justice critique. 

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Conner Habib: And I think that translates into a shallow argument that goes something like, “No work is consensual. Non-consensual sex is rape. Therefore, all sex work is rape.”

Dr. Heather Berg: Of course, plenty of people who do sex work don’t really care about (or care for) the sex part; they want money, just like anyone else in a job. Most people hate their jobs in the sense that most people wouldn’t work under the conditions they do without the economic threat compelling them to. That’s as true of sex workers as it is of college professors, retail workers and attorneys.

But sex worker exclusionary feminists and/or socialists refuse to take the next and most obvious step, which is to build something else. They’ve dead-ended their labor arguments [by claiming sex work] is somehow the worst kind of work. They put all their anxieties about “the system” into the figure of the sex worker, and refuse to ask any other questions. 

Conner Habib: I enjoy some, but not all of the sex work I’ve done. But when I say that, the response is often “well you’re privileged!” It’s true that some sex workers experience privilege compared to other sex workers. But with very very few exceptions, no sex workers enjoy the privileges that people who don’t do sex work enjoy, and that is an extremely important angle of privilege to think about. 

Dr. Heather Berg: I also think the idea that only people with race and class privilege can enjoy sex work is racist and classist. 

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Conner Habib:  Right, and obviously I experience privilege as a cisgender guy, but I don’t experience the same kinds of privileges as straight white men, much less straight white men who aren't sex workers. I understand the point being made, that people all over the world are engaging in sex work and not liking it. I never think I’m speaking for any of them when I say I’ve enjoyed some of it. 

“Sex worker exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs) like to imagine that sex workers in the global south, for example, or street-based workers of color in the global north, are incapable of finding moments of pleasure and resistance in their workday, which is profoundly condescending.”

Dr. Heather Berg: And sex worker exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs) like to imagine that sex workers in the global south, for example, or street-based workers of color in the global north, are incapable of finding moments of pleasure and resistance in their workday, which is profoundly condescending. But it’s also true that folks on either side of this issue (whether they like sex work, or hate it) need to be mindful that they might be excluding other workers from the norms they’ve just established. So if you say you like [sex work], that’s a claim to being a good worker. Just like the “good” retail clerk is thought of as the one who loves the product sold at the store, whereas the “bad” worker is the one who doesn’t care about it. 

Conner Habib: Totally. I might have been less cautious about that in the past, but these days I go out of my way to distinguish that as my experience and not a prescription or overall representation of anyone, because I see the dangers of that misreading. The question for me, in imagining a world without work, is “What would you like your day to look like? What would you do on a day you enjoy?”

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When I imagine a world outside of wage labor bullshit, I still imagine myself enjoying sex. So I’ve done as much as possible to make my life inside this gross forced labor system look like what I imagine it looking like if I weren’t in it.

And I realize there are others who, if asked, “What would you like your day to look like if it were up to you?” would never say anything like what I’d say.

We need to see that the questions of autonomy, desire, and culture are important, but that we shouldn’t mix those up with questions about rights.

The point for me is that even if I enjoy a sexual aspect, I hate the work part of it, too! I’ve always hated it. It seems so obvious to me that the relationship people have to their wages is what is non-consensual, not the content of the work.

Dr. Heather Berg: I want to highlight that again: saying that work is nonconsensual is to say that the imperative to earn a living is non-consensual; it’s not to say that the content of how we decide to make-do is non-consensual. Paying bills and earning a living are things we’re forced to do. But there are all sorts of strategies, forms of creativity and struggle, and consent, in how people opt to do that.

Conner Habib: You get people who play at revolution asking with a straight face, “Will sex work exist after the revolution?” and it sounds like a joke to me. The idea of a savior moment, of a before-and-after-the-revolution with sex work is ridiculous and mirrors the I-Saved-A-Sex-Worker rescue industry of anti-sex work feminism.

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Dr. Heather Berg: Right, and they make these claims by citing Marx, when there are so many thinkers, especially Marxist feminists, who have more interesting things to say about sex. I’m a Marxist, and I can easily acknowledge that Marx had conservative sexual and gender politics. We can’t think that he gives us the answers to these questions.

When it comes to “sex after the revolution,” I wish anti-sex work socialists would recognize that revolution becomes less and less possible when they pretend that sex work is exceptionally bad compared to other forms of work. That framework prevents them from getting to the next step. They’re actually keeping us in place because they don’t take their theories far enough or seriously enough.

“I wish anti-sex work socialists would recognize that revolution becomes less and less possible when they pretend that sex work is exceptionally bad compared to other forms of work.”

Conner Habib: And it’s a violation of the basic terms of solidarity in a Marxist/socialist framework, which is that solidarity is formed on the terms of the Other. It’s not about what one side imposes on the other, but a kind of listening. That’s a basic principle! If oppression is happening to anybody, you come together in universal causes to fight it. If you’re demanding sex workers need to shut up about sex work and just get on board with your version of labor politics, then you’ve abandoned solidarity. That’s true even if the person demanding it is a sex worker themselves, which you see in the so-called “whorearchy,” where one type of sex worker (i.e. escorts vs porn performers vs dominatrixes, etc.) believe themselves to be better in one way or another than another kind of sex worker. Alliances between all workers are needed, but especially amongst classes of workers that are struggling through overlapping pressures.

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Dr. Heather Berg: It also abandons a core tenant of how socialist ideas get formulated. Which is by knowing that working people have a vast reservoir of knowledge. So these people who think they are the vanguard are ignoring how working people experience their days and turn that experience into politics. 

Maybe more to the point: if you’re advocating policies like SESTA that get workers killed, it’s not socialist.

Conner Habib: And the problem with most critiques of any consensual sexual behavior is that they presuppose the critic is coming from an objectively healthy standpoint of understanding sex. This is not true 99% of the time. 

For instance with the anti-sex work socialists who say sex work won’t exist after the revolution, the idea is that there’s a kind of absolutely healthy sex that doesn’t look like sex as a transaction, and that socialists are already having it now. 

The cruel irony is that the people who have the best shot of coming from that space of understanding are sex workers, because there’s an ability to actually witness how sex functions in people’s lives.

And this connects the ways that socialism fails to the ways that #MeToo - however necessary and successful it has been - fails as well: the critique is incomplete.

That’s how you end up having people expressing their sense of sexual violation through #MeToo by saying, “I’m not a prostitute!” 

Dr. Heather Berg: When an actor says, “I’m not a prostitute!” to communicate the assault they’ve endured, you can see their lack  of solidarity with other workers. 

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That’s so striking in these entertainment industry #MeToo stories. The sense of injury is that these other kinds of workers are being regarded as sex workers, and for them, that’s a grave category error. Of course, this isn’t to say that workers aren’t entitled to setting the terms for how their work gets sexualized, but there’s a way to do that that isn’t, “I’m not one of those girls.” 

Conner Habib: That highlights for me how many of the issues facing sex workers are labor problems, but that a big part of the discriminatory impetus has to do with sex.

Dr. Heather Berg: And the unruly nature of sex work we talked about before.

Conner Habib: The anti-sex work socialism, the anti-sex work feminism, the lack of solidarity in #MeToo, they’re all tied together by being so limited in their understanding of workers and sexuality. I’m thinking about how, for #MeToo, there’s this idea that sex needs to bear the burden of the terrible man-woman dynamics. When people talk about how, for instance things between men and women are so bad in offices regarding harassment because of sexual dynamics, why are so many people ignoring the fact that offices are shitty places that inevitably create terrible power dynamics? 

Sex is already stigmatized, misunderstood, and controlled by people and institutions of power in many ways, and now we expect [sex] to bear the burden [of fixing the dynamics between men and women] more than any other aspect of life? Of course [sex] has its power dynamics, but what do we miss about those power dynamics when we put so much of the burden on sex as the place where we sort them out?

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Dr. Heather Berg: And again, this focus on sex means their critique can’t go far enough. If you want to remove extreme differences in power, remove bosses!

Conner Habib: And if you want to have a real sex-based critique, take it further! Also critique monogamous relationships and marriage and the idea that sex is “better” when it happens between two people in love and that you shouldn’t do it otherwise.

Dr. Heather Berg: The fact that sex work and sex are already stigmatized is why people pick them as their limit. And it becomes an airtight container. I’m thinking of how many women I’ve spoken to who have said they would prefer a handsy boss to a narcissistic boss, or one who steals all the efforts of their work, or who belittles them. Or, most basically, a boss who refuses to pay a living wage. But we have to fight for the room to discuss these others sorts of abuses.

Conner Habib: I think, also, there’s this claim that #MeToo is about to investigate the “gray areas” as if that’s a radical statement. The truth is, most sexual encounters aren’t a total violation or a total and consuming pleasure. Which means that most sexual encounters are the gray area. If the idea is that we’re going to take #MeToo to sexuality, who is going to do that work and how will it even be thought through?

When you think about that in terms of sex work, we can see that most work with sexual content is going to share contours with private, unpaid sexual interactions. But people use that as ammo to attack sex workers. “Oh, it’s not totally enthusiastic sex, so it must be violation!” No, we’re just talking about how sex takes place. The difference is that some people are able to navigate that to meet our culture’s shitty demands for survival.

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Dr. Heather Berg: And again, for folks confusedly citing Marx: Marx said that work was a site of struggle. It’s a place where we go to fight. Work is exploitative, but not unilaterally exploitative. When people say “sex work is work,” this can mean that sex work is a place where we go to struggle, to strategize, and to develop creative ways of resisting. 

Conner Habib: And we need to also see, sex worker or not, that we all try to make sex work for us in our lives. Sex is a constitutive part of being human. We literally can’t exist without it! Yet, we demonize it. But forced work makes our lives worse and we praise and normalize it. What the fuck?

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