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Stoya and Melissa Gira Grant talk labour rights and sex work

Who speaks for sex workers? The Playing The Whore author talks to Stoya about representation, the internet and possibilities for the future

As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day. Porn star Stoya kicks off our State of Sex week, which takes an all-encompassing look at sexuality, gender and all the flavours of the American rainbow.

Stoya kicks against all preconceived cliches, from being photographed by Sean & Seng in Prada to writing New York Times columns and campaigning for sex workers' rights. Today she bigs up her favourite artist-turned-alt-porn star Zak Smith, takes on Verso author Melissa Gira Grant in a head-to-head and draws the parallels between the sex industry and French prima ballerinas. 

What do we talk about when we talk about sex work? Stoya and Playing the Whore author Melissa Gira Grant have both written extensively about how conversations about sex work need to include a discussion of work. That is, sex work is less about sex than it is about work; strippers, escorts and adult performers alike deserve the same rights, healthcare and protections that all employees deserve. In this head-to-head interview, the pair discuss how to get beyond the journalistic clichés of the industry and how sex workers are coming together to campaign for change and representation.

How do you think American attitudes to sex work have changed over your lifetime?

Stoya: I don't know that they've really changed that much. There's more actual power as far as getting our voices heard but we're still screaming at a wall. We're better able to hear each other over long distances and in different sections of sex work, but it feels like a lot of the time we’re trying to get across to the rest of the world that many of us choose this work. 

Melissa Gira Grant: That's one of the most challenging concepts for people when they think about sex work – that it's a work issue. It's still hard whether we're talking law, media or even within other workers’ organisations to have people understand that sex work is primarily about what people do to earn a living. It's also difficult to talk about sex work without having to confront the issue of trafficking. The result has been that the power that sex workers have built up in the past 30 years of organizing is compromised, because sex workers or people running organisations are called upon to say what we’re doing about trafficking. It's just another way of derailing sex workers’ rights. Not to diminish the issue of trafficking, but it would like going to somebody who works at H&M and asking them to be accountable for the practices at the factory where the garments are made.

Have you guys experienced that kind of derailing when you talk about sex work?

Melissa Gira Grant: This is one of the really poisonous things about the narrative of "sex workers are damaged, culpable for violence, and have no agency or power". It's such an old story, that people identify sex work as conservative and anti-feminist – that women’s sexuality is poisonous and that means that there's something wrong with them. For the most part, this is something we've named as a problem, but for some reason, that old story gets dressed up in this new story when it comes to sex work. I think what’s going on there is that trafficking is actually a terrifying issue to grapple with, and it's much easier to offload it onto people who are the most visible sex workers.

Stoya: One of the things that I find interesting about stereotypes of sex workers not having agency is when I'm dealing with a journalist, the second I set a boundary, they don't know what to do. I don't feel comfortable commenting on sex trafficking or anything that has to do with the direct provision of sex, because it's not my place to speak for that community. And they’re like, “Whoa, what?'

Melissa Gira Grant: They assume everyone’s interchangeable. They don't see the distinctions between different kinds of sex work and certain people's experiences, because once you've crossed that line, it’s like, “Aren’t you all the same over there?”

“Even when sex workers want to challenge things in their own industry, it's hard because people use it against you. They're like, 'see that's why you should quit'” – Melissa Gira Grant

Why do you think people are unable to get over the sex bit of sex work? Do you think that's changing?

Melissa Gira Grant: There's limited cultural space for people to talk about sex work. One of the things that has actually opened up is about sexual health. When I look at all the anxieties around HIV and the porn industry, what could be a very intelligent and forward-thinking way of looking at the health and safety of sex workers just becomes a conversation about how we can shame porn performers and use HIV as the excuse. It's scapegoating and is part and parcel of the limited conversation about sex workers.

Stoya: One of the consequences of the focus on HIV is that we neglect to talk about how there are other injuries that can happen during sex like bruising and abrasions. If you have a strong stomach, look up “broken penis”.

Melissa Gira Grant: When I think of all the times I've talked to strippers about their health, their primary concern is their back, their legs and their feet from wearing shoes for so many hours. You don't have to really fight too hard to know this stuff about sex work. You just sit down with somebody who wants to talk honestly and you’re likely to have a few misconceptions corrected. But it's also exhausting. I'm more interested in talking about talking about the people who want to make sex workers’ lives difficult; I'm much less interested in the “sex workers are people too” story. I feel like I'm performing a party trick, like, “Look, I'm a human being just like you!”

Stoya: I go back and forth on that one. With certain audiences, like an interview with Cosmopolitan, it’s like – let's think about where people are coming from how can I meet them and help them actually make a step towards better understanding. But I do that for a little bit, then I'm burned out again. Like, oh my god, we're people – why is that a thing that ever needs to be stated?

What’s the solution for change – unions? Political representation?

Stoya: One of the things that I've noticed from my parts in the industry is that the status of an independent contractor is actually protected in certain ways. You say what jobs you're going to take as opposed to an employee, which is a very “you show up here, you do this” thing. I think the last thing we need to do is to be putting ourselves in a position where there is the power of an employer to say how we're going to do our job.

Melissa Gira Grant: But it also doesn't really work that way. If you're a true independent contractor, you self-schedule, you can come and go on a shift, you should not have to pay for the privilege of working. What happens is strip clubs and some venues exploit the limited power that sex workers have and the stigma against sex work. They use that to rip them off, fire them without cause, and penalise them for sick time.

Why this even matters is because of the shame around sex work. This is why you don’t see people filing lawsuits against strip clubs that are stealing their wages. People, whether they’re lawmakers or employers, are exploiting shame and stigma. That’s one of the biggest things to change. It requires people to take sex workers seriously as experts in their own lives; it's about saying “you're a human and you know what’s best for you. You're not somebody that I have to intervene on behalf of.”

Is it a matter of people being empowered to speak about their own experiences?

Melissa Gira Grant: It's about being heard. It’s like that Arundhati Roy quote: “There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” People are as empowered as they're ever been – it's just they might not be powerful in an institutional way. They just might not have the power to have a lobbyist represent them. They have other kinds of power – even without access to that kind of traditional political power – to make change. But even when sex workers want to challenge things in their own industry, it's hard because people use it against you. They're like, “see that's why you should quit”.

Stoya: There's so much speaking from sex workers available, it's all over their personal blogs, places like xoJane and Tits and Sass which is sex worker-run.

What would be an ideal situation for safe sex work in the future?

Stoya: I'm stuck on the word “safe”. Safe does not happen in any industry. Your job is not guaranteed even if you're a salaried worker who goes in five days a week. It's a question of how people can be provided with the tools to make their work safer.

One of the things that gives me a lot of hope is that a few years ago there was almost a hierarchy of sex work where strippers go “I can't believe that you let people document you”, and nude models go “I would never do porn”. Now, partially because of the internet, we are better able to communicate. We're able to come together more frequently and take care each other as a larger group. AB1576 (the bill that makes condom use compulsory in porn) was the first time that I know of where straight and gay porn performers were working with each other to deal with an issue – and that's incredible.