Is Sex Work Actually Empowering?

Largely thanks to Belle Knox, otherwise known as the Duke porn star, sex work is prominent in the national conversation right now. And while sex makes headlines every day in some capacity, sex workers as a water cooler topic is unusual — more unusual than it should be, given that porn is pretty much playing on all of the computers everywhere always, and that sex work in general is a sprawling and ubiquitous industry. (As the Washington Post points out, though, it's hard to know exactly how sprawling and ubiquitous it is, because the statistics we have on sex work are skewed beyond skewed.)

A dizzying dialogue has been ricocheting around Knox's burgeoning career, both in mainstream media and feminist news outlets. She's an embarrassment! She's an icon! She's so young! She's a whore! Personally, I find her enterprising and poised, but I'm all too aware that sexuality and pornography surf some choppy feminist waters.

Amidst all this far-ends-of-spectrum dialogue, Cathryn Berarovich wrote a refreshing post last week for The Gloss on sex work and branding. Part of Harlotry, her weekly column on the adult industry, the installment never even name-drops Belle Knox. It does, however, hold a magnifying glass to a mantra that Knox has maintained throughout her media circus — a sentiment, Berarovich says, that other sex workers share. She's talking about the widespread idea that sex work, when done correctly, is an empowering experience for its participants. Here's what Berarovich, an adult industry vet, has to say about that:

It is [empowering], I guess. But the idea that sex work is always empowering is just wrong. I’m empowered by being able to pay my bills and do fun things and buy pretty clothes, but it isn’t the sex part of sex work that is empowering. It’s the work part. Sex work is not intrinsically empowering any more than being a lawyer is intrinsically empowering.

Now, I highly doubt that Knox would disagree with much of the above. After all, the 18-year-old got into porn to pay for her college tuition; you've got to assume she understands the value of a dollar. Being able to claim complete financial independence is a major victory for a woman in any profession, and a disposable income is even greater cause for celebration.

But here's where Knox and Berarovich split: unlike Knox, Berarovich doesn't believe that sex work is empowering, in and of itself. The money, totally, but sex work on its own? Not that liberating, she says. Here's her logic:

  1. Power structures exist in the adult industry, too. "Unfortunately, we live in a world where the definition of beauty is sadly narrow ... The reality of it is that it is going to be much, much harder for any sex worker who is not young and thin and white."
  2. The idea of achieving empowerment through sex work is remarkably privileged. Remember, she says, "People do sex work for many reasons, whether it’s as a last resort or because sex work is a career that provides flexible hours and high earning potential."
  3. It's just a job. And though it is, most days, Berarovich's "dream job," it's not always perfect. She also has an important reminder: "all sex work is, on one level or another, survival sex work."

The first two of Berarovich's points had crossed my mind many times before. As bystander-happy as I've been for Knox's successes in academia and the porn industry, and as great as I think it is that she's shared her experience across a number of buzzy platforms, I've found myself wishing that other women in porn (college students or otherwise) could share her microphone, volume, and audience.

Oddly enough, then, it was Berarovich's last point that really resonated with me: sex work, like editing and investment banking, is a job like any other. Is it fun? In Berarovich's experience, yes. Is it as glamorous as it sounds? Absolutely not, says Berarovich, and money aside, it's not empowering, either. As she puts it,

"to say that my work is empowering only because I suck a bunch of dick to earn the dollars I pay my rent with ignores my labor, and that is pretty much the opposite of empowering."

Image: Belle Knox / Twitter