I'd Rather Be a Whore Than an Academic
Issue #46, December 1999
Imagine you are a whore in a society where whoring is considered the most respectable profession, and academia the most repugnant. At a meeting of your fellow whores, you've finally confessed your darkest secret: you're going to become an academic. This is what you might hear from a roomful of your fellow whores ...
"I don't understand why you're doing this. I've heard a lot of women get into this kind of work because they have some kind of drug addiction. Why else would you want to do something that intimate with strangers? You're smart, you've got a good education. There are lots of things you could do for a living without having to sell yourself in that way. Think about what you have. You have a high-paying job. You can choose your own hours and your own hourly rates. And your services will always be in demand wherever you go. Why would you leave all this for a job where you can't make your own schedule and have to work long hours for considerably less pay?
"You're also in a profession that provides a great service to society. We help people; we satisfy an immediate need. Can you say that of academic work? There's little use for most of it, and even less demand. You won't be able to choose where you live. You'll have to search all over the country to find people who will pay for what you do, and everything you write, teach, say and think will be entirely dependent on what those few people are willing to pay for. You'll be so desperate for work that the people who finally hire you will be able to exploit you to no end. They'll give you subcontracts -- part-time positions with no job security. You'll have to move from one lectureship to another year after year. How can you give up your respectable job for something so degrading? And how will you feel as a feminist -- being objectified in that way?
"What if you get arrested -- and get a criminal record? On every job application, you'll have to admit that you accepted money for academic work. You'll never get a straight job in a brothel again. Think of your family! What will you say to them -- you who come from a long line of madams, pimps and panderers. You'll have to lead a double life -- lying to those closest to you. Don't you think this is really self-destructive behavior, and you should talk to somebody about it -- a therapist maybe?"
No one will ever say these things to you, because you don't live in a society which honors prostitution and considers academia shameful and degrading.
And I'm not a whore coming out to you as an academic. I'm actually an academic coming out to you as a whore.
In fact, I'm not coming out at all. I'm still writing to you from the closet, because I'm not giving you my name. This is because the way I make my living is illegal. Under the California Penal Code, it's illegal to provide sexual services in exchange "for money or other considerations." What, pray tell, are "other considerations"? -- Dinner? Drinks? Two kids, a car and a garage? A wedding ring? You probably won't get arrested for any of these things. The laws are open to interpretation and selectively enforced.
Nonetheless, I don't call myself a whore because I'm someone's financially-supported wife or girlfriend. I'm a whore because I sell sexual services to strangers. This is what I do for a living. Right now it's my only source of income. And, if I make myself too visible, I may get arrested. I've seen it happen. That's why I'm writing anonymously.
My anonymity serves another purpose as well. Since you don't know who I am, it's possible that you do know me. I may be your best friend, your next-door neighbor. I certainly know lots of nice middle class girls and boys who are whores or have had sex for money at some time in their lives. Even if you don't know me, I'll bet you know others like me -- people who put themselves through college or grad school by turning tricks. These people may not have come out to you -- probably because prostitution is illegal and because so many people think it's degrading.
Prostitution is indeed degrading for those who don't want to do it -- for those who are forced into it by poverty or drug addiction. We're all familiar with the stereotype of the street prostitute: she's exploited by her pimp who rents her out to johns then takes all her profits. Many, many prostitutes fit this stereotype. But I chose to become a prostitute. Having earned my Ph.D., I had other options, and I still do.
So what's so degrading about prostitution? What makes it more degrading than other forms of work? The liberal intellectual opponents of prostitution (let's call them "anti-pros") appeal to the stereotype of the street prostitute, exploited by her pimp. They usually assume the prostitute is a woman and a helpless victim, and they claim that the prostitute is objectified, reduced to a commodity bought and sold on the market.
It's no coincidence that the anti-pros sound a lot like Marxists deploring the evils of capitalism. This is because what the anti-pros say about sex workers is what Marxists say about all workers in our capitalist society. While traditional Marxists are rarely the most bubbly cheerleaders for sex work or any kind of sex radicalism, Marxist analysis has a lot to say in response to anti-pro arguments.
In the first place, the prostitute certainly isn't the only one who's made into a commodity. All of us are objectified under capitalism, which transforms both the worker and her labor (sexual or otherwise) into commodities for sale on the market. Marxists generally don't blame the worker for this. You've probably heard Marxists say that someone "sold out," but have you ever heard a Marxist say that a factory worker is selling himself or his body? No, no, this is what capitalism does: it makes us into commodities and sells us. We can't objectify ourselves all by ourselves without lots of helpful oppression from the capitalist system.
Yet, the anti-pros sometimes blame the prostitute for being a commodity. They say, "She sells herself. She sells her body" -- as if the prostitute willfully transforms her whole being into a commodity with no socio-economic pressure, and the rest of us look on in horror because we would never do such a thing. (Much of this is blatantly sexist. Men -- even male prostitutes -- are rarely blamed for "selling themselves." The assumptions are that the prostitute is a woman and that she is evil.)
According to one such argument, the prostitute embraces her commodity status: she makes herself a pretty object and parades around flirtatiously for sale -- thus running headlong into the "objectification of women," that gnarly bogie. Sometimes this kind of objectification is very narrow in its definition: it simply means she's judged on the basis of her looks. The "problem" with the prostitute is that she panders to this kind of judgment -- but who doesn't? We're all judged on our appearance in many more arenas than we might like to admit. It's generally not the most abusive form of objectification, and sometimes it's downright flattering. Who doesn't like to be complimented on his appearance? Who doesn't strive for this occasionally? We do this for all kinds of reasons, but it's considered nasty when we do it in order to sell sex.
When the anti-pros are not presenting the whore as an evil self-objectifier, they're depicting her as a helpless victim, robbed of agency and power. Once again, prostitutes are women, and, when women are not evil, they're helpless victims. According to the stereotype, the pimp exploits the street prostitute -- taking all the profits from her labor. While it's true that many prostitutes are horribly abused by their pimps, the pimp-prostitute relationship is also typical of the dynamic between capitalist and worker. Like the stereotypical pimp, the capitalist's objective is to derive the most profit from the worker's labor, and pay the worker as little as possible.
As I mentioned above, there are many prostitutes and pimps who fit this stereotype. But in general, prostitution is so silenced and taboo -- so little known -- that it serves as a blank screen onto which mainstream society projects all the abuses of the capitalist workplace. This distracts us from the fact that we're all implicated in many forms of exploitation on a daily basis. We may think that the most extreme forms of exploitation and objectification only affect prostitutes on the streets and others driven to poverty and desperation. It's true that these people are exploited, but a lot of abuse goes on outside whoredom in the "straight" workplace as well.
Does this mean that we're all "prostitutes" -- in the sense that we ourselves, as well as the services we provide, are bought and sold as commodities? Is academia, for instance, a species of whoring?
Not quite. Academia is only whoring if you think that "whoring" is simply another name for the exploitation which affects us all. Looking at the current job market, it's easy to see how academic departments treat the academics they're thinking of hiring as commodities. Job scarcity makes this objectification all the more blatant, because the job-hunters have to worry a lot more about their marketability. Like many other grad students, I spent eight years trying to turn myself into a marketable commodity -- and eight years resisting. The institution which I attended also exploited my labor in the sense that it gave me what amounted to a full-time job at a part-time salary with no benefits.
In many ways, academia is like the stereotype of street prostitution, but it's also far more degrading than the kind of whoring I've done. The power that academic institutions wield over academics resembles that of the pimp who rents the whore out to different johns and confiscates most of her profits. There's no question that my experience as a whore is far less degrading than this. I get to choose where I want to live, I'm far better paid per hour, and I often get a lot more respect. Oh sure, I'm still a commodity bought and sold on the market -- like everyone else in this capitalist world. But my value as a commodity has generally increased, since there's so much demand for what I do. Ironically perhaps, I feel less like a commodity and more like a person.
For this reason, I'm reluctant to equate academia with prostitution. Calling academics "whores" is a denigration of whoring. It buys into the stereotype that the prostitute is the consummate example of objectification -- the idea that he or she is somehow the most objectified person in our society, more object and less person than anyone else.
But there's also another, less advantageous reason why academia isn't whoring. Our society condemns the whore. Academics simply aren't subject to this stigma, or anything like it. Academia is the kind of job where you sacrifice profit for prestige. In prostitution, you sacrifice prestige for profit.
As an academic, you spend years in grad school; then, if you're very lucky, you get a relatively low-paying drudge job in the wilds of Wisconsin. This drudge job is, however, shrouded in the mystique of the Ivory Tower. This is clearly a gain in cultural capital. You wear threadbare clothing and worry that you will never get tenure. But people see you as "cultured," and they think your absent-mindedness means that you're thinking lofty thoughts.
In prostitution -- at least in high-end prostitution -- you sacrifice prestige for profit in a very big way. Actually, it's more accurate to say that you sacrifice your acceptability in mainstream society for a very high value and respect among a privileged clientele, and -- if you're fortunate -- a community of like-minded people. You may be a super-prostitute who jet-sets around the world and earns a thousand dollars an hour, even in transit. You may have a doctorate in art history and be secret advisor to the Prime Minister of France. But, if you tell people at your high school reunion what you do for a living, they'll probably still think you're a street hooker being beaten by your pimp. If you went to a Baptist high school, they may try to exorcise you. And, if you're absent-minded, they'll probably think you're on drugs or just dumb.
This condemnation of whores ultimately boils down to the fear and hatred of sex. Our Judeo-Christian society is so ashamed of sex that it has to lock it behind closed doors and swear it to secrecy under the vows of marriage. A woman who transgresses these bounds is frequently called a "whore," even if she's not a prostitute. Being a "whore" -- either literally or figuratively -- is unacceptable in polite society.
But it's no coincidence that whoredom also poses a serious threat to our society's limitations of women's power. Many people want to see whores as victims, because they don't want us to own our power and embody this threat. Historically the whore has always represented a danger to the patriarchy, because she does not have to depend on any one man for financial support. She makes her living off of many men. This gave her financial freedom in times when women were forbidden to work to support themselves and the wife was her husband's possession. Dependent on no one man, the whore was no man's property.
Now that there are other ways for women to gain financial independence from men, the whore still threatens institutions such as marriage and monogamy. Whores like me who enjoy their work represent a happily ravenous polyamory. We provide sufficient evidence that at least some people like sex for reasons other than reproduction, and that not everyone is monogamously-inclined. Together the whore and client also represent a sexuality which clearly transgresses the bonds of monogamous marriage. The fact that the clients are often "monogamously" married makes this partnership all the more threatening.
Whores are ultimately threatening because we remind mainstream society that there's nothing inherently degrading or private about sex, and that marriage and monogamy are not the necessary order of things, even though many people swear by them. While we sell sexual services, we do not necessarily sell anything more intimate, private, or personal than anyone else. In this sense, we do not "sell ourselves." We are commodities only in the sense that we work under a capitalist system, which transforms all workers and their labor (sexual or otherwise) into commodities for sale on the market. And we are no more objectified than anyone else. Although many prostitutes are abused, the idea that all prostitution is exploitation is a scapegoat for capitalism: mainstream society projects all the abuses of capitalism onto prostitution, and this allows it to deny exploitation in the "straight" workplace. In this sense the stereotype of the 'exploited whore' represents the abuses that all of us endure and perpetuate.
The editor who solicited this piece suggested I write about a "community of whores" and the advantages and obstacles to this kind of community. Since prostitution is illegal in the state of California, the chief obstacle to a community of currently working whores is the risk of arrest. Any organization and any visibility heightens this risk. This is why I cannot write about a community of whores. It's up to each individual whore to decide whether she or he wants to make themselves visible and how they want to do so. But you can bet that, when a group of people share common oppressors, some of these people will find each other and talk about it -- even if it's behind closed doors. This piece is dedicated to those who do find each other, and it reflects the ideas of many people who, like myself, are or have been prostitutes or sex workers of some kind. I'd like to thank all these people and especially Lois Hoeffler, who read an early draft and offered suggestions.
Anonymous, Ph.D., loves being a whore in both the literal and figurative senses.