« Barton and Sex Work | Main | Barton, B. 'Mobius Strip' »

Chapkis and labor

Wendy Chapkis had some interesting takes on sex work, specifically as in the world of labor. I think her perspectives, while only one view of the issue, are definitely important to consider while perceiving the issue in its entirety. She cited several examples of different women and their experiences, in contrast and agreement with different arguments made. The chapter discussed the emotional labor of sex work, and made many definitions that ultimately wrought the effects of sex work on all women - the commodity of female emotion. At the same time, she cited Arlie Hochschild extensively, in her work of the concept of self. She denotes feeling as a commodified object. Hochschilds argument is not black and white, that sex work is detrimental to self and emotion. The explanation, as it should be, is far more complex. Emotion and feeling have been deconstructed within this chapter, and so is the effect that sex work has on identity. The containment of feeling, though, is that necessarily empowering or destructive? I think it definitely important to make the connection, first of all, that there are incredibly diverse experiences. But even more importantly, there is a broader issue of work at hand. The most interesting point of discussion within the chapter, I thought, was the relation of alienation to all work. Chapkis noted Marx's argument that all workers are alienated under a capitalist system. I don't think this belittles the sex work industry, but that it actually captures the entire system that women face in controlling their own bodies both as human vessels and as working vessels.


I think the emotional aspect of sex work is so very important to consider when determining whether sex work is empowering or exploitative. Like Barton’s article explained, dancers at strip clubs are very affected by the comments that men make about their appearance, bodies, and/or performance. The dancers’ self-esteem is completely at the mercy of men that go to strip clubs watch them (just to practice their patriarchal ‘right’ to pay faceless women to dance sexually for their entertainment.) I believe this only perpetuates patriarchal power and oppression of women by making women once again dependent on men and vulnerable by HIS opinion of HER body. While it is valid to say that this issue is not just black and white, because everyone is different and has different experiences, I think we can take from Barton again when she makes the connection between women’s years of experience in the field and their happiness with it. The striking correlation says something about the emotional conditions of work such as this. The emotional extremes and vulnerability takes its toll on these women, especially over a longer length of time.

I also thought that Chapkis's work was an interesting read; again, like you, I feel that the analysis of women in sex work as alienating themselves from their work was important. As you said, this reading states that in Marxist theory, all workers alienated themselves from their work, but this is not necessarily a bad thing in the area of sex work, which I thought was an interesting point to bring forth. Chapkis compares sex work to other type of work where employees must alienate a part of themselves while they do emotional labor. For example, she brings up flight attendants a lot who must act happy even when they do not feel the same way. The same with sex workers, who must pretend to like someone when they do not and still perform when they've had a rough day. Although I don't think that sex work is beneficial to women, this reading offered up another view on whether or not it is damaging to women. If sex work is necessary, Chapkis offers up the view that there can be a positive emotional separation from one's work and one's self that enables women who participate in sex labor to retain their personal emotions and perform their job.

I agree that Chapkins raises an interesting question in whether the containment of feeling is more empowering or destructive. When considering the quote from Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor, that the U.S. Prostitues’ Rights Group, COYOTE asserted, “To make a great distinction between being paid for an hour’s sexual services, or an hour’s typing, or an hour’s acting on a stage is to make a distinction that is not there.”, one has to consider the idea that prostitution is empowering. If a person can separate themselves from their emotions in order to further their career, it eludes to the sense of might. However, it is also essential to consider the destruction to self that separating oneself from one’s emotions can cause. The emotional strain of having to continuously hide and control the nature of a person’s honest feelings must be psychologically and even physically damaging. There is a very thin line between being able to control your mental and physical selves in order to work—how many jobs ask both physically and mentally challenging tasks of their employees? It is a difficult question to find a definite answer to.

In Taking Feminism to Bed, Henry argues that the ‘good-girl/bad-girl’ paradigm is potentially harmful and should be dismantled, or at least debunked (97). Now, the context for this statement is quite different than Chapkis (she’s talking about generational conflict in the waves of feminism), but I think it can be applied to Chapkis, Barton, and for that matter, to sexuality in general. What a lot of these authors are challenging is the bifurcation of sexuality: moral, or taboo; acceptable acts, or transgressions; empowerment, or degradation.
A little personal reflection would probably enlighten all of us to the shortcomings of this paradigm. Sexuality doesn’t fit neatly into two categories—I mean shoooot, if we’re learning anything it’s that sexuality doesn’t fit neatly ANYWHERE: not in feminism, not in politics, not even in our own individual constructions. Sexuality is a confounding force. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s the most powerful energy force on earth.
When we think about sexuality in all its omnipresent mysterious power, and then combine it with work, try to make it an asset, we begin to see how tricky a situation sex work really is. Kelly makes a great point about work as an exploitative system in itself—I think we can extend this: look at all the institutions that have tried to parametrically define sexuality (economically, religiously, politically); all are exploitative in their own ways, and none have been able to effectively constrain sexuality. What does this tell us? Sexuality never has been and never will be subject to a paradigm; it never has been and never will be neatly categorized—and I think it would do us all a lot of good to stop trying to pigeonhole it and start giving it the props it deserves.

Sex work isn't simply empowering or detrimental... and that phrasing sounds sillier every time I hear it.

Oops, that anonymous post was me.

I think you summed up Chapkis’ argument nicely. I agree with you that explanations should be complex, and while I don’t necessarily agree with everything Chapkis writes in this article, I definitely appreciate her departure from the black-and-white arguments that usually surround this issue. The truth is, sexuality, especially the commodification of sexuality, is a gray area. It means different things to different people. Chapkis drove home this point about the complexity and subjectivity of sexuality in her destabilization of the idea of a “natural” emotional response. Many people seem intent on identifying “natural”, inborn characteristics of the human condition. Even feminists, who emphasize the importance of social construction and environmental shaping in the development of a person, fall into this common trap when discussing sex work: they ignore the effect of social context on the shaping of a person’s emotions, assuming that their emotional response to the commodification of their bodies is the same as a sex worker’s response. I do believe that sex workers are often able to manage their emotions to minimize potential damage. I am sure that some women who sell their sexuality are able to experience intimacy in a non-business relationship because of their separation of their marketed sex from their intimate sexual selves. Where I diverge from Chapkis in this understanding is my profound uneasiness that this separation can or should exist. She cites, and seems to agree with Hochschild’s assertion that “the danger lies not in the separation from role but in too close an identification with it.” I may be overcrediting emotions, but I feel that if someone faces emotional harm by fully indentifying with their work, the solution is to not to create a clear separation between work and self but to abandon that job altogether. Just because you’re capable of dissociating yourself from sexual acts you perform doesn’t mean you should do it. I realize that people lobbying for sex workers’ rights and respect are making the best out of a bad situation, but in my view, creating discourses around these things only legitimizes prostitution as a viable line of work, taking voices away from conversations about wage and work equality in other, less damaging lines of work. Chapkis acknowledges that the separation between work and self often occurs in a capitalist society, but I firmly believe that there is a difference between an office worker who doesn’t see their pencil-pushing job as a defining feature of themselves and a prostitute who must extract or insert intimacy depending on who she is having sex with.