I recently chatted to an intern in the House of Lords. I was waiting to go into an interview myself. It was fairly clear that he was doing one of those internships that we’ve heard a bit about in the news recently – you know, the ones where the interns are doing work that should really be paid. He told me that he was very aware of the fact that he is one of the lucky ones, because he is able to live at home with his parents and rely on their financial support in order to do the internship. He is lucky because, he said, not everyone has access to that kind of support. Immediately after saying this, he said he didn’t know how long he could justify doing this to his parents and confessed that he wasn’t really happy to be living at home at the Methuselan age of 26.
As we talked more, it became clear that he had sought out the internship himself, essentially offering his services, as a fresh politics graduate from a good university, to the person he is working for. About the internship itself, he said, as if he had to pinch his nose before swallowing the medicine, ‘it sounds bad, but it’s good for the CV’. As he is only too aware, to get ahead, whether you like it or not, you’re probably going to have to take advantage of someone somewhere along the line. In the decidedly inelastic current job climate, applying for a job feels like queuing outside a full club with a ‘one in, one out’ policy, and that’s on the good days. I get glassy-eyed each time I read yet another email explaining that I wasn’t short-listed for a job where I fulfilled every aspect of the person specification simply because there were 150 other applicants. To get anything, eventually something, or someone, has got to give.
After my interview, I went to a seminar on female sex workers in London given by Sophie Day, Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmiths. I admire Day’s clarity, sympathy, practicality and the level of her engagement with her research participants. She argues that sex work is stigmatised at a cultural level because it exposes the ‘fictions’ of capitalist economy, in particular the idea that we have a private, inner self that cannot be alienated – i.e. bought or sold. This is the private self of the home, the labour that is done for love and with care, rather than for money. It is, of course, also ‘women’s work’. So, fears about exploitation in sex work do not only represent concerns about women entering the market place – whether paternalistic or sympathetic – but about just what part of themselves, what kind of labour, the women are selling.
In listening to her talk, I was reminded of Stephen Soderbergh’s 2009 film, The Girlfriend Experience. The film follows a few days in the life and work of Chelsea, a ‘high-class’ Manhattan sex worker, while she seeks to consolidate her brand, decides about where to invest her money and is tempted to break her own professional code to be with a client. Sophie Day explained that one of the problems for London sex workers is that, despite the fact that most see sex work as a temporary thing, something they are doing to get together a lump sum or to make ends meet until they find something more fulfilling, they can never fully convert the ‘dirty’ money they make back into ‘clean’ money.
In The Girlfriend Experience, Chelsea seems at first to be having it all as she has a supportive boyfriend who accepts her profession. Her USP is that she provides, as the title of the film suggests, a full experience – she goes on dates with her clients, has nice dinners with them and goes to their flats or hotel rooms and listens supportively as they complain about their jobs; the sex is only part of the package. Indeed, those watching the film for a titillating thrill will have to be pretty imaginative, given the dearth of sex scenes.
The problem for sex workers, as Day shows, is that the money earned through sex work is always seen as dirty or ill-gotten and for the women themselves, it is hard to shake the public, moral sense that entering the world of sex work is a one-way journey. Ideologically, it is very hard to imagine a sex worker recovering her ‘true’, inner, most private self after she has laid herself bare to numerous men in exchange for money. This is one reason why people often have a hard time imagining a sex worker having an authentic relationship with a partner. Of course, it is easy to imagine being jealous or concerned for the safety of a partner who works in the sex industry, but these concerns are also a function of the divisions that sex workers, like any other workers, make between their professional and private selves.
Soderbergh’s film concludes that, however attractive, well turned out and skilled as a professional girlfriend and lover Chelsea might be, she is destined to struggle to find a man who will love her for her private self – a self which has chosen the profession of sex work. I say that she has chosen it, because we are given no glimpse into what Chelsea’s life was before she became a sex worker, nor any sense of why or how she ended up in the industry. In this sense, the film could be criticised for being more on the Pretty Woman end of the spectrum of films about sex workers (although there is no prince on a white charger coming to rescue her and she buys her designer clothes herself), but art is always partial, it can only ever focus on particular images and scenarios. In some ways I think it is refreshing that the film looks at sex work in this focused and specific way – looking at the hows and the whats rather than the whys – and what is certainly valuable about it is that it treats Chelsea as a fully human woman, with nous, confidence and independence as well as emotional foibles and romantic neuroses.
While not in my view a great film, The Girlfriend Experience condenses the problems of being a young, contemporary, urban woman in New York with a maturity that would make Carrie Bradshaw weep into her Cosmopolitan, yet it is best known for making a decent woman out of Sasha Grey, the porn actress who turned mainstream to play Chelsea. So, it seems that the (ahem) happy ending of the story happened in real life, rather than in fiction. But, Soderbergh did not rescue Grey from porn – as well as publishing a photography book and appearing as herself in Entourage, she has appeared in a prodigious number of porn productions since filming The Girlfriend Experience (funny how porn is such a fecund industry, given the traditional associations of sex work with infertility) and, judging by the IMDB list of films she is currently involved in, will be straddling porn and mainstream for the foreseeable future.
Sasha Grey may be managing to successfully navigate the porn and mainstream worlds – perhaps the sex worker/porn star’s mandate of being anything you want her to be helps in this – but a recent hoo-hah demonstrates only too well that, as far as most people are concerned, you can take the girl out of porn but you can’t take the porn out of the girl. Grey has recently been taking part in the Read Across America campaign and was invited to a Californian elementary school to read stories to some of the children as part of this. When parents found out and complained, the school at first denied it ever happened, but this proved unsustainable when photos of her getting down to some hot story-reading action emerged and they were forced to admit that this sordid event had in fact taken place.
The Sasha Grey story shows what sex workers everywhere know: some people, perhaps the majority, believe that exchanging sex and money leaves a permanent taint. Once you have sold a part of your inner, private, inalienable self, you have also lost some of your vital integrity.
Sex work is criticised, often accurately, for being exploitative. Aside from the actual conditions of the work, people make this criticism because of the moral and philosophical ideal that certain parts of the person – the most intimate, private, personal parts – are not fungible. In this view, paying someone to ‘give’ you sex is de facto exploitative, just as paying someone for her organs or child might be. Yet, there is another, paradoxical, side to exploitation, which is working for free. As someone whose has spent almost all of my working life in academia and non-profit organisations, I am very used to the idea of working for free. I have done my fair share of internships and I understand the need to build one’s CV, as well as the sense that this is a time when standing out from the crowd is the only way to survive.
For middle-class, left-leaning types like me, there is a shared assumption that the best work is fulfilling work and, ideally, one’s job is a reflection of one’s inner self (but not, of course, one’s sexual self). People who haven’t yet established themselves in their careers are enslaved by their CVs because these semi-sacred documents are supposed to be signifiers of their – irresistibly employable – selves.
I was interested to read, recently, the account of a couple who saved the Cambridge bakery and local institution, Fitzbillies, from closing. It interested me because I grew up in the Cambridge area, so Fitzbillies is part of my childhood mental geography, and because I love all things food-related including in particular baking and cafes. In the Guardian article that Tim Hayward wrote about their experience, the story he tells is very much one that is framed by the current financial climate – stalwart places like Fitzbillies are suddenly very vulnerable because markets do not have the same loyalties that people do and there isn’t much slack to cushion places that are struggling to make a profit anymore.
For me, this story also reflects a particular kind of mid-life, middle-class aspiration. Theirs is the story of the ones who have decent, well-paid, careers, but which aren’t quite allowing them to fully be themselves. These are the jobs that fund the play time – the holiday home in Tuscany where they learnt to become wine connoisseurs, the Monocle subscription, the gym membership, the evening classes in conversational Italian – where they can express their true selves, rather than the jobs that allow them to get paid for being themselves and doing what they love.
Living the dream, (re)building a new business or rerouting a career like this, is a means for re-embedding a self that has become dis-embedded by the demands of professional life. When people downsize or escape the rat-race mid-career to become artisans and small business owners – whether it’s cultivating heritage apples, running yurt holidays or making recycled jewellery – they often express the idea that they are getting back to something truer, more authentic, a more natural and healthy pace of life, the opportunity to work with their hands and to have the satisfaction of producing actual, tangible things. They are, also, giving rein to their inner selves, blurring their public and private selves, so it is no surprise that these new enterprises often entail the conversion of parts of the home into office space.
We have heard a lot about how the upside of recessions is that they force people to rethink where their lives are going. Job insecurity becomes so normalised that it would be feckless not to have a Plan B and foolhardy not to consider alternative ways of putting one’s CV to work. No one seems to know if the financial crisis, the global grassroots movements like Occupy, the problems in the Eurozone or the emergence of new economic and political powers like China will actually bring about fundamental changes in the way we live, work and exchange goods, nor what kind of scale those changes might be on. I think there is an increasing feeling, though, that change is necessary and in fact pretty appealing.
At the moment, there are qualitative problems for the individual people who do end up working for free, or for that matter selling sex, because they have to. (When it comes to morality, it’s not the money itself that’s the problem – it’s the lack of freedom to choose and change that comes with poverty.) But, as alternative ways of working become increasingly common, as I think they will (at least within a certain section of the population), it is likely that we will start to seeing working for nothing in a new light and that we will end up rethinking our notions of exploitation accordingly. Just because something becomes normalised doesn’t of course make it right, but I think we need to take this shift seriously so that we can shape these changes positively. One way of doing that would be to rethink the distribution of wealth so that people have opportunities to access or accrue those financial cushions that can fund their dreams.
If the upshot of the pain, hardship and upheaval of this moment in history is that this ideal of getting paid to do what you love doing spreads more widely, I can think of a lot worse outcomes. Of course, there will probably be a slew of self-satisfied ‘How I Changed My Life’ Saturday supplement articles in the Guardian magazine and blogs with links to Etsy pages to contend with, but, for a revolution in how we work and how we get paid, that is probably a sacrifice worth making.