Debating porn: Is it “just like stacking shelves”?

Young women with low-paid jobs in retail are dead useful, aren’t they? I don’t mean just for stacking shelves and beeping stuff through the checkout. I mean as a debating device for the middle-classes, people who’d never dream of finding themselves on their hands and knees in Asda, making sure the Moshi Monsters tinned spaghetti hadn’t got mixed up with the Third & Bird wholewheat pasta shapes.

When I was growing up, for instance, the threatened penalty for not working hard at school was “ending up on the sweetie counter at Woollies”. Whereas to me this would have meant strawberry laces on tap, to my parents this meant only misery and failure. It’s only in a post-Woolworths world that we see how much worse it can get; if the pick ‘n’ mix counter were open today, it’d be run by staff receiving only JSA for their troubles.

In his desperate defence of Page Three, Neil Wallis asks “why shouldn’t a girl stuck behind the bread counter at Tesco, an office girl down the local council, the unemployed, find a new glamorous life via Page Three?” Why not, indeed? Well, mainly because no one  finds “a new glamorous life” simply by virtue of there being mundane wank-fodder in your average newspaper. But still, bread-counter girl comes in useful if you’re wanting to cast all your opponents as snobby, middle-class know-it-alls who want to rob the little people of their simple pleasures. It doesn’t matter that these simple pleasures aren’t there for them, as long as they – the unspeaking, non-real poor – are there for you to patronise and misrepresent.

I was reminded of this while reading an interview with Kat Banyard – “Britain’s leading young feminist”, no less – in the Guardian. There is much about this piece that is annoying, although to be fair not all of this is Banyard’s fault. She can hardly be held responsible for the fact that interviewer Decca Aitkenhead throws in mentions of dungarees and catfights, all the while nodding approvingly at Banyard’s self-effacement (“no Andrea Dworkin sloganist, dramatising defiance via dungarees, nor a gladiatorial Germaine Greer show-off, nor another glossy Naomi Wolf”. Phew! Those other white feminists – they’re just way too noisy, aren’t they?). But Banyard is responsible for making the following argument when asked whether, with appropriate legislation, there can ever be such a thing as an OK sex industry:

No. There can’t. You can’t commodify consent. The inherent harm at the heart of this transaction we see evidenced in the astronomical rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a result of having repeated unwanted sex because you need the money. It’s often argued that it’s just like stacking shelves. That it is ordinary work, just like any other work. But if you’re stacking shelves, is it a bit different if your manager says: ‘Right, before you go at the end of your shift can you give me a blowjob?’ Would you feel uncomfortable about that?

To be honest, I probably would feel uncomfortable at that – especially as it has sod all to do with stacking shelves (and perhaps also because I’m crap at blow jobs). Nonetheless, I also feel uncomfortable about this as an argument. Who is Kat Banyard – or any other privileged, middle-class feminist – to speak of the relative impact of sex work when set against that of stacking shelves?

Clearly Banyard has researched this more than I have, as her reference to “astronomical rates of post-traumatic stress disorder” show. But she still speaks of an industry which does not have the values and regulation that others propose. Moreover, to then bring in our ever-useful supermarket girl with her “ordinary work, just like any other work” feels disingenuous. No work is “just like any other work”. Some jobs are really, really fucking awful and taking your clothes off doesn’t have to come into it.

My worst ever job was in a motorway service station, clearing tables. It was boring, smelly and low-paid, but all the same, I knew it wouldn’t last. I was still at school, living with my parents, and for me it was pocket money. The job I have now is a million, trillion times better. I can moan all I like, but it is a total dream compared to that. The fact that I am paid more to do something that I often enjoy seems positively unfair. And if I didn’t have this option – if I did find myself choosing between stacking shelves and sex work – then I don’t know what choice I’d make. I don’t know the relative values – the losses and gains. I don’t know how much of yourself you lose by doing any job that is undervalued, exploitative and badly paid. I don’t know how much trauma is associated simply with being poor.

I do not wish to suggest that supermarket work is miserable or that it’s worse than endless hours of stark, painful, depersonalising sex. Nonetheless, “unwanted sex” feels like a term which is both over-used and poorly defined. Does it mean any form of sexual activity in which one or both participants is/are motivated by something other than sexual desire? If that is the case, then I have had plenty of “unwanted sex”, not due to pressure or coercion (I’d give that kind of sex a different name), but because I have my own motivations and make my own choices. They’re not always the most beneficial choices, but they’re mine. You could argue that it’s better to have a dull, boring shag in return for money than in return for … Well, some of the reasons I have used in the past are so ridiculous I’m not going to mention them. Besides, I worry about being judged. I worry about people assuming my decisions weren’t really mine to take.

A whole range of inequalities limit the choices we make. Why single out particular ones – ones which, in a fairer world, we may indeed choose not to make – as more pitiable than others? Banyard claims not to believe “anyone has the right to judge another woman for the choices she makes in a highly sexist culture”:

Women have to find ways to survive and get by each day, and how we do that will depend upon our circumstances. I think judging other women on that basis is the antithesis of what feminism is about. And we need to have our sights set on the structures and the industries which feed this culture, who are the ones driving it and reaping the profits from it.

On this, I am broadly in agreement with her. But the phrase “find ways to survive and get by each day” sounds inappropriately forgiving. Women – working-class women in particular – might need more choices, but they don’t need forgiveness for the choices they’ve already made.

Reading Banyard’s words, I become slightly – but only slightly – more sympathetic to the argument against No More Page 3 made by Martin Robbins. I still believe No More Page 3 to have been a wildly inappropriate target, but if the central point is that sex, if freely chosen, doesn’t have to be nice, aesthetically pleasing, or even orgasmic, then I’d agree. It’s just sex. Your motivations are your own business. Your freedom to choose your own destiny should, however, be everyone’s concern.

Well, that’s the end of that post. I truly hope that somewhere out there, there’s a blog written entirely by women who work in supermarkets, where they pontificate endlessly about what middle-class feminists and disgraced former newspaper editors really want …

3 thoughts on “Debating porn: Is it “just like stacking shelves”?

  1. I seem to have read this quote differently to everyone else. I read it that while stacking shelves is shit at least you have protections if your boss asks you for a blow job at the end of the shift, but in the sex industry, there’s a blurring of the boundaries and people expect that because you agree to a sexual act while being filmed or with that client, it’s just like doing overtime to suck another dick.

    But then I’m biased. I just don’t think there’s anything especially positive about active work in the sex industry (ie: hands on, not sex lines or cam girling where you can’t be touched) because it’s a job that’s utterly devalued, depersonalised and allowed to talk about the people involved as if they are meat. And I don’t feel that the sex positive stuff from those who support it is especially helpful in that it doesn’t teach the men who use the industry to realise that they are buying a sexual act, not the person and therefore societal rules still apply. This attitude pervades society and ensures that the police etc do not defend sex workers and they are left to fend for themselves safetywise, not even on an employment rights way. How useful is a union membership when a guy starts hassling you when you’re escorting compared to debating the rota at Poundland?

    My bias comes from having been a prostitute for 8 years. I never enjoyed it, but at the time it was normal. If I wanted to make rent, I sold my body and there was very little choice in it. You could agree to one thing and it was reliant on your client sticking to the deal, but you knew he could kill you or rape you and no one would care or even hear.

    I’ve never had a customer service job like that. There were rules in all the shops, bars, restaurants and offices I worked in and even where they weren’t stuck to, there was some level of protection beyond that. People were visible, they had reputations to uphold and no one in even my most menial minimum wage job ever hit me, strangled me, pissed on me, tried to stick their dick in me uninvited or told me I was an ugly slut who didn’t deserve to live.

    I came away from customer service jobs with a hilarious set of anecdotes and a desire to improve my situation. I came away from prostitution with an eating disorder, a deep hatred of myself, a fear and disgust of men and galloping PTSD.

    Kat Banyard doesn’t speak for me as she doesn’t talk about improving the lives of the women in sex work and the sex workers and their allies who refuse to acknowledge that there are many shit things about the industry for many women but bang on about how empowering and sex positive it all is really if you do it right.

    1. Thank you for such a brilliant, eloquent comment – and for not being confrontational, which I might have been in your position. From your perspective, what would be the best thing feminists such as Kat Banyard (or me) could do? Campaign for opportunity outside of the sex industry – or is there any way at all of contributing to change from within? (Or is shutting the fuck up and letting other people speak the best option? On that note, if you did want to write a guest post on this – not that this blog is all that popular, I’d have to admit! – I would be really interested).

      1. Oh now you’ve caught me out! I have to make actual helpful suggestions, not just moan. Eeek. That’s a bit harder!

        I think one of the most important things is for feminists to speak up against the dehumanization and depersonalisation of sex workers. Too often I hear of women who sell sex being then written off as if nothing else they have to say is valid. This allows feminists to speak over them, clients to treat them as orifices and society to allow the police, social services, courts etc to let them down because they agree they have no value. This ‘othering’ further marginalises sex workers to me.

        I think you offering me the space to speak is very supportive (and a big compliment coming from you whose writing I love!) and I think that kind of thing is a good step toward supporting women and listening. I find that hard myself because I feel so passionate about how damaging my sex work was that my temptation is to jump in with my experience and assert it which in turns drowns out another woman’s voice which might not be agreeing, because of course this is not a universal experience.

        I feel really cautious about making suggestions per se because I’m aware that giving up like I did just isn’t an option for some women esp with the changes in welfare and it would be awful of me to speak for them. I would like to see more understanding and help from social services toward women in prostitution with children, better sexual health services, more police protection, more awareness of mental health during and after sex work (the further I got away from working, the more I realised how much I’d normalised rape and abuse at the time to survive) and more censure for the clients who create that atmosphere of abuse and general disrespect for the women.

        I just have NO idea how you do any of that!

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