“Woman” for Sale: Feminism, Queer Theory, and the Question of Sex Work

An excerpt from the colloquium presented
at CLAGS on April 3, 2008 by Brooke
Campbell, PhD, Emory University

“The heightened visibility of sex work
has too long masked the disavowal and
dislocation of the thorough-going, universal
commodification of sexual identity. Sex
work has become one of capitalism’s favorite
scapegoats, whereby many of us can deny the
reality that under the current political economy,
we are ALL “guilty” of buying and selling sex,
and that “what has been repressed, the idea of sin, is
capital itself.” To seek to save one’s soul by “saving” prostitutes
is thus to imagine that, under capitalism, all privilege—not only that
exercised by pimps and johns— is not purchased at the expense of another’s
exploitation. It is to imagine that some of us are above the law of capital, and
that capitalism is not an adversarial, zero sum system.
Feminist and queer theory that rolls right past or right over sex workers
is premised on the falsehood that atonement—rather than “guilt
pervasive”—is possible under capitalism. To proclaim that prostitution
harms all women, everywhere, is to cover over the harm we all do every day,
as participants in our political economy. Inasmuch as sex work functions as
feminist and queer theory’s “imaginary outside,” whorophobia is in no small
part about preserving the fantasy of an “imaginary outside” to capitalism—
the fantasy that some of us living under capitalism have ingeniously managed
to finagle a way of not selling out. To fight whorophobia is therefore
to give the lie to the notion that it is possible for anyone at all to claim a
sexual identity somehow—whether because one is “blessed” with a bourgeois
nuclear family or because one works so hard at her progressive politics—
beyond reach of commodification.
If more feminists and queer theorists do not start listening to and
working with the sex worker rights movement, we risk having nothing to
say about an entire influx of sexual behavior—including and especially our
own—that takes place under the flashing neon sign of the dollar. Because
let’s face it: Responses like that of Dame Anita Roddick, founder of The
Body Shop:
A lot of people seem to think that it’s cool to be a pimp or whore. It’s not
cool. The reality is dark, evil and appalling and unregulated. The reality
is sex trafficking, which is about young women being forced into rooms
to have sex however many times a day so that the pimp can take all the
money.
will not fly with a younger generation increasingly steeped in “pimp chic”
and “stripper chic”—a generation that witnessed Three 6 Mafia win an
Academy Award for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”