A Note On (S)Exploitation

miley cyrusI went to a storytelling show a few weeks ago where a comedienne told a story about her working girl days in North Carolina. She was in college at the time and decided to try out sex work to make some extra cash. She was still getting an allowance from her parents, but she just wanted give this thing a go and said she had glamorized some of the famous French sex workers that she had read about. She didn’t find the work as glamorous as she had imagined it, but said it was still fun for the time being and an interesting learning experience. She did it for about a year and a half, at which point she was just in the mood for something else.

She says she still often gets flack from people when telling that story. They criticize her for doing sex work and point to all the trafficking that goes on. “So?” she tells them. “There is exploitation in every industry.” I may have never thought of that before, but what a good point! I have other sex worker friends, who are perfectly fine with what they do and seem to have a lot of fun with it, actually. But for every given industry, there is a spectrum of people that do it by choice and enjoy it, people that just put up with it and those that get exploited.

There are factory workers in China and in third world countries making measly wages to produce goods and services for the West. There was that flurry of open letters that began with Sinead O’Connor’s letter to Miley Cyrus, which suggested that she’s getting exploited for her youth and beauty and coerced into an overly-sexualized image by her management and marketing teams. That these guys are going to basically take the money and run and won’t give a shit about her once they’ve effectively sold her as much of her young T&A as they could. That, in turn, inspired a backlash of other letters suggesting that Miley is, in fact, in control of her own image and doesn’t need to get schooled on exploitation in the music industry. (And, yes, I too got dragged into the big stupid world of popular culture/music, it’s what happens when you start blogging and get on Twitter).

In any case, I’m not sure about Miley and whether she’s in control of her image or not. To me, she just looks like a random kooky tween who is just running around and trying to do every crazy/shocking/tasteless thing possible just to make headlines and sell records. And, as far as I can tell, she’s succeeding. But she’s not much different from any 20-year-old that’s just trying different things on for size. Except, she’s doing it in the public eye, and desperately trying to shake her Hannah Montana image.

But back to sex work. Yes, there are people that are doing this that like it and don’t feel exploited. Thing is that most of these people are probably also doing it when they’re young and good looking and when they want to experiment with their sexuality more. We all do it, some of us just do it by having multiple partners, others go to fetish or sex parties, others get into porn, others do sex workers, some start stripping (I gave that a go for a mere couple of weeks when I too was hard pressed to find a job after finishing college).

But I doubt that many do, or plan to, stay in sex work for a long time or for good. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d imagine it’s not a long-term career goal for many. My new friend at the storytelling show became a comedienne. Another sex worker friend of mine that I profiled earlier plans to get into body modification, tattoo and piercing work. Another friend who is in the business is getting a degree in computer science at the moment (If she becomes a tech nerd, she’ll be the sexiest tech nerd I know. Well, in addition to my ex, who is a white hat hacker).

We all move on to other things, not necessarily because of some moralistic consideration, but just because there is a time and a place for one thing and another time and place for another thing. I doubt Miley will be swinging naked on wrecking balls for much longer either. But I hope she enjoys it for the time being.