Women’s Empowerment Through Adult Entertainment

The term “adult entertainment” has long been seen as somewhat of a euphemism – adult entertainment, commentators have argued, is really entertainment for men. Whether as workers or consumers, women who are involved in adult industries are often seen as degraded, exploited, and even as psychologically damaged.

Recently, however, women have begun speaking out about their experiences in the sex industry, either as workers or as entrepreneurs, and they have been telling a different story. Certainly, sex work is not a utopic form of labor and there are downsides to working in the industry – just as there are in any kind of occupation. Yet many sex workers also talk about the possibility of personal empowerment through the adult entertainment industry in memoirs like Heidi Mattson’s Ivy League Stripper or Lily Burana’s Strip City, in academic texts like Whores and Other Feminists and Jane Sexes It Up, in documentaries like Live Nude Girls Unite, in television interviews, in journalistic pieces, and on their own websites. Tracy Quan’s Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl is a fictional account of the adventures of an ambitious New York City hooker, but provides a fascinating and realistic look at the work experiences of a certain class of sex worker.

How might adult entertainment be empowering for women? Women working as escorts, street prostitutes, strippers, masseuses, web seductresses, professional dominatrixes, phone sex operators, and pornographic actresses and models of course encounter different kinds of downsides and benefits from the sex industry. Yet, over and over again women have been arguing that the sex industry offers them a number of opportunities that they cannot often find in other jobs: the freedom to set their own hours (especially appreciated by single moms and college students); the ability to control many of the terms of their employment; and the significant financial benefits (many women earn more in a day doing sex work than they could earn in a week at a “regular” job). Some women also believe that sex work allows them to dictate the terms of their objectification by men — if it is inevitable that they will be seen as sex objects, why not charge money for it? Though one still unfortunately finds women working in different sectors of the adult entertainment industry only because they have no better options for employment, many other women are now doing sex work because they actually enjoy the work; or, at least, enjoy it more than other kinds of jobs they have considered. Some women also find opportunities for self-expression and artistic or spiritual release in different kinds of sex work.

Women are now taking the initiative in many different kinds of sex related businesses as entrepreneurs as well, and have begun capitalizing on their ability to draw in female as well as male consumers. Historically one could find ambitious madams running their own bawdy houses and escort services; currently, women are also developing interactive adult internet sites, editing pornographic magazines and directing erotic and educational sex videos, and managing businesses that specialize in sex toys (for sale in the home, Tupperware-party style, or in stores). Some women, of course, blur the boundaries between entertainer and entrepreneur, and stars like Jenna Jameson and Danni Ashe have almost become household names.

It is important to recognize that there are still many downsides to working in the industry. Though the stigma of sex work may be lessening, at least in certain parts of the industry, it can still cause problems for the employees even years later. Because adult entertainment is focused on youth, long-term stability is missing for employees. Employees may also face poor working conditions and have difficulties organizing because of their desire to remain anonymous or their short term approach to the work. Few adult companies provide health benefits for the employees. Further, sex work often requires difficult physical labor – whether one is working as an escort, actress, or stripper — and may be debilitating over time. Finally, the inequalities that structure other kinds of work experience also come into play in the adult industries — those individuals who are relatively privileged in terms of race and class will likely remain so.

Significant changes lie ahead, however, as more women choose to work in the adult entertainment industry or to use their business skills to take an entrepreneurial approach to the businesses. As women also continue to grow in numbers as both producers and consumers of sexually oriented services and products, who knows what new fantasies will be expressed?

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