Sex Work/Gig Work: A Feminist Analysis of Precarious Domina Labor in the Gig Economy
Fifty professional dominas work at Dungeon X, a commercial dungeon in a large city in the northeastern United States, on any given day.1 These women are not protected under labor law. Consequently, they have little job security, receive no hourly wage, and generally take home less than 50 percent of the value of their services. As independent contractors, these women are responsible for paying self-employment tax in addition to federal income taxes. Like other workers in the gig economy, they are ineligible for workplace benefits such as healthcare, retirement plans, overtime, or paid leave. Moreover, despite wages being unreliable and benefits nonexistent, the dungeon’s management forbids these women from working at other dungeons or conducting independent sessions with clients. Because their work occupies a legal grey area (laws regarding bondage and disci-pline/dominance and submission/sadism and masochism [BDSM] sex work are open to legal interpretation), dominas are vulnerable to arrest, contributing to their stigmatization as sex workers and BDSM practitioners.2 Furthermore, unlike independent dominas, they have little control over vetting their clients, making them especially susceptible to violence and arrest by undercover police officers. If a client assaults them, it is unlikely management will report the incident to law enforcement or take punitive action such as barring the perpetrator from the dungeon.
Like other gig workers, the lives of these women are marked by economic precarity and deeply impacted by neoliberal policies that withdraw public support for welfare, low-income housing, Medicaid, food stamps, and other programs. Because they do not earn an hourly wage, employees at the dungeon lack a reliable income stream, and when business is slow they can go for months without having a single session with a client. Since Dungeon X’s owner does not report income, it is difficult for workers to pay taxes or keep money in the bank, making it difficult for them to build credit or even provide proof of income, frustrating efforts to secure housing. If they work at the dungeon full time or without a day job. their resumes might also reflect significant gaps of time without conventional employment, a problem that makes finding work in the future onerous. However, these examples of economic precarity in sex work are not unique to the sex industry but are instead characteristic of the gig economy as a whole. In this sense, their labor entails certain kinds of risks not unlike those taken on by Silicon Alley entrepreneurs.3
Although sex work stands apart from official definitions of the gig economy, they are in fact inextricably linked.4 Sex work operates according to the logics of the gig economy, demanding multiple sources of income, independent contractor status, low wages, flexibility, and a premium on creativity. Many sex workers also participate in the gig economy to make ends meet. To function, the mainstream economy depends on the underground economy, which includes but is not limited to sex work. Despite this dynamic, little has been written about the relationship between sex work and the gig economy. What, then, is the relationship between the sex industry and the gig economy? Specifically, what are the similarities between sex work and gig work, and what can these commonalities tell us about the relationship between the underground economy and the mainstream economy more generally? Drawing on interviews with 16 female-identifying sex workers, the following chapter answers these questions, contributing to feminist research on the gig economy by sharing omitted stories. As the following interviews put into sharp relief, sex workers embody the connection between the underground economy and the mainstream economy.
Considering the relationship between sex work and the mainstream economy, a number of sex work scholars have found that the growth of the sex industry is connected to broader shifts in the labor market. According to Elizabeth Bernstein, the entry of white, middle-class women into the sex industry coincided with the rise of the service economy; relatively privileged and highly educated women turned to sex work because they could make more money offering sexual services than they could otherwise.’ Black women are likewise drawn into the porn industry by the lack of more desirable work opportunities in the face of neoliberal cutbacks and the feminization of labor, according to Mireille Miller-Young.6 Furthermore, Heather I<. Berg maintains that the precarity faced by porn performers is symptomatic of late capitalism more broadly, which “increasingly relies on a flexible and itinerant workforce” and fails to provide “basic benefits and protections.”7
Scholars of the gig economy also view gig work as part of broader trends in the labor market. For example, Austin Zwick uses Uber as an example to show how gig economy companies “enact the neoliberal playbook, including (a) (mis) classifying workers, (b) engaging in regime shopping, and (c) employing the most economically vulnerable.”8 Valerio De Stefano proposes that the gig economy is part of broader economic trends including “casualization of the workforce, informalization of the formal economy, and the so called ‘demutualization of risk.’”9 Joshua Healy, Daniel Nicholson, and Andreas Pekarek situate the gig economy in the context of increased job and income insecurity and the loss of employment benefits since the 1980s, particularly in the United States, andjeremias Prassl sees gig work as following “a broader trend of fissurization” in the mainstream economy."’ Finally, Jim Stanford characterizes the gig economy as part of “a broader shift in capitalist employment relations” to “precarious work practices.”11 The present analysis builds on past studies of the gig economy and sex work by making their connection explicit, contributing to and inviting further feminist analyses of gig work.
Ethnographic methods, including in-depth interviews, have proven especially productive for feminist scholars studying sex work. Miller-Young, for example, used ethnographic interviews and participant observation in conversation with textual analysis in her study of black women in pornography because, as a feminist, she wanted to understand the experiences of black women in mainstream pornography, an industry geared toward straight, white, male desire. Speaking to black women in the porn industry allowed Miller-Young to let them “speak for themselves,” an aim which is not alien to this chapter.12 Wendy Chapkis also conducted interviews with women working in the sex industry, in addition to participant observation and secondary research on commercial sex, in her comparative study of the sex industry in the United States and the Netherlands. Chapkis conceded that one of the weaknesses of qualitative research is its susceptibility to biases of the researcher. Chapkis attempted to counteract this tendency by intentionally including material with which she did not agree. However, she recognized that her research participants exercised agency by revealing or withholding information, necessitating the critical interpretation of their narratives.13
Following the work of Chapkis and Miller-Young, I crafted the methodology' of this study to reflect my desire to understand the experience and context of workers at Dungeon X. This chapter, more specifically, draws on in-depth, semistructured interviews conducted with 16 current or former female-identified sex workers in July 2018. Fourteen of these women were working at Dungeon X between May 2013 and July 2015, and the remaining two have worked as an erotic dancer and an erotic masseuse in the same city. Interviews lasted approximately one hour and covered relationships with coworkers, types of support given and received, hierarchy at work, relationships with friends and family, and work history'. Interviews were then coded according to ad hoc and emergent coding schemas using qualitative data analysis software, NVivo, with codes relating to difference, labor, and precarity. Like Chapkis, I too tried to remain open to viewpoints that challenge my own, while allowing myself to interpret the words of my research participants through my own perspective.
Sex Work and the Gig Economy
Since its emergence with the 2009 financial crisis, the gig economy has been linked with economic precarity. According to The Financial Times, the term “gig economy” was first used to refer to the practice of working multiple part-time jobs in order to get by.14 Although the gig economy is now synonymous with working for online “sharing economy” applications like ride-sharing apps Uber or Lyft, these jobs are also precarious because of their short-term status, low wages, and lack of workplace protections or benefits. The gig economy is also closely connected to creative labor that, as Angela McKobbie argues, is critical to the neoliberal economy.1’ Previously referring to the musical engagements of jazz musicians in the 1920s, the term “gig” today is more commonly used for any type of short-term engagement, particularly those of a creative type.16
Sex work shares many characteristics of the gig economy and, in doing so, highlights the exploitative nature of all labor under capitalism. Scholarship on the gig economy identifies misclassifying employees as independent contractors as one of the defining features of the gig economy.17 Like gig workers, sex workers are frequently considered independent contractors, but as Berg’s writing on porn work shows, the label “independent contractor” is often nominal.18 The weekly schedules that many sex workers hold, for example, should legally render them employees of the business.
Several of my interview participants nonetheless identified themselves as independent contractors. Erin,19 a holistic bodywork practitioner, noted that as an independent contractor in an illegal business she is automatically isolated from other workers. Lily, an independent escort who worked at Dungeon X for one year, compared doing sex work to working in bars and restaurants because in both cases you are an “independent contractor” who makes your own schedule. Finally, Miriam, a direct support professional who worked at Dungeon X for two years, wondered why skilled workers or independent contractors do not have more say over their wages, though many independent contractors do not either.
Like independent contractors, many sex workers lack workplace benefits such as health insurance or paid leave. As Leona, who worked at Dungeon X for two years, related, “My new job, which is a straight job, is significantly more economically viable and has things like benefits, which are nice, which we did not have [at Dungeon Xj.” The absence of health insurance is particularly difficult for workers with disabilities like Natalie and Miriam. Natalie, an independent domina and performance artist, seriously injured her back and suffered a series of psychotic breaks during her five-year tenure at Dungeon X. Natalie did not seek the care she needed after she injured her back because she did not have health insurance, instead expending much of her income on sliding-scale doctors and eventually becoming hospitalized, where she was finally put on Medicaid. Similarly, Miriam, who struggles with bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety, was paying entirely out of pocket for her psychiatric treatment, including multiple psychiatric medications, until three women at Dungeon X, including Natalie, convinced her to sign up for public healthcare through the Affordable Care Act. Others had not been so lucky.20
The lack of paid leave also poses problems, especially for those with chronic health conditions. Shortly after being released from the hospital for the second time, Natalie was brutally attacked and sexually assaulted. She had to return the following week, however, because she could not afford to take more time off work. Even without paid leave, it could be difficult for some to take extended periods off work for necessary medical treatment. Natalie faced resistance from management when she requested time off work for her back surgery. The dungeons owner even attempted to convince her not to undergo the surgery by admonishing her that she did not need it. Her manager too had questioned her need for surgery, advising her to take up yoga.
De Stefano argues that gig economy workers may lack basic worker protections beyond leave and health insurance.21 Companies misclassify gig economy workers as independent contractors to deny them protection under labor law.22 Like gig work, sex work frequently denies workplace rights such as a minimum wage, maximum weekly hours, or protection against discrimination. The majority of women I interviewed began doing sex work because they needed money; only three out of 14 did not mention financial concerns as a reason for engaging in sex work. Seven of the 12 women I interviewed who worked at Dungeon X had responded to an ad on Craigslist. Janice, an actor and entertainer who worked at Dungeon X for eight years, recalled the ad’s promise of high wages that, for most interviewees, never came.
For many the promise of earning extra money rang hollow. Six of the 12 women who worked at Dungeon X mentioned some form of wage exploitation in their interview. Leona and Jane, a pharmacy counterperson who worked at Dungeon X for five years including one year as a manager, stated that the money was not particularly good there. For Leona, some of the “straight” jobs she had were more “lucrative and economically sustainable” than working at the dungeon, and she mentioned that workers with little interest in BDSM would often leave quickly when they realized “it’s not actually the most profitable job you could take.” Natalie observed that at Dungeon X, like the other male-run dungeon she had worked at, workers received the smallest cut of the money—S80 as compared to SI40 for the house—explaining that the owner’s systematic overhiring practices further exacerbated the dungeon’s already low wages and high turnover.
Several of the women I interviewed also mentioned that clients failed to tip them adequately. Gretchen, an independent dominatrix who worked at Dungeon
X for six years, mentioned that clients would often try to take advantage of new workers by tipping them less for particular services. Jane similarly remarked, “You know, your two to four was just struggling to make money and having to fend off a bunch of creeps who obviously weren’t gonna pay for what they were asking for.” Miriam also mentioned an incident in which a client badly beat her and only tipped her $50. Liz, who worked at Dungeon X for a year and a half, noted that even at the new dungeon where she works clients sometimes do not tip and then are reprimanded by management.
Miriam, however, saw low wages as endemic to the sex industry as a whole. She initially began sex work as a “sugar baby”—typically a young woman, who dates and often becomes intimately involved with someone else, frequently an older man, in exchange for either money or goods and services—with an allowance of $400 per night. Though finding this amount “shamefully low,” Miriam could not find anyone else who would pay more. Before Dungeon X, she had worked at a different dungeon which hosted foot parties where “no one really pa[id| enough for anything,” adding, “That’s kinda the standard.” Dissatisfied with inadequate compensation, Miriam ultimately left Dungeon X to work independently, attributing wage exploitation in the sex industry, especially for women of color, to the presence of sex trafficking.
Sex workers are also exploited through long working hours. Erin related how, at the first bodywork studio she worked in, the owner would overschedule and overwork the staff. “All of us worked five to six days a week . . . four to seven days a week,” she explained. Natalie recollected a similar experience at the first dungeon where she worked: “It was an afterhours place, so we were working midnight to six, and we were required to do five days a week, which is a lot in sex work, Jesus Christ.” Those demanding hours led many to use heroin.
Finally, sex workers were not protected against workplace discrimination, particularly racial discrimination. A racial hierarchy of desirability meant that white women and lighter-skinned Latina women were more in demand than were black women. Yanna, a stay-at-home parent who worked at Dungeon X intermittently for six years, remembered a black Columbian coworker who was rarely picked for sessions because of her skin color. Miriam was especially vocal about racism in the sex industry, a problem she specifically linked to anti-blackness. Miriam also noted that sex workers of color were often responsible for contributing financially to their families. “And that makes them more vulnerable, then, to be coerced into services or sex acts that maybe they didn’t want to do as much,” she expanded. To illustrate this point, Miriam, who is Asian and white, spoke of a coworker who attended the same college she did: “I feel like we were similar people, and she’s black, though. And, so, she was treated differently, disrespected and needed to give money to her mom and just had this context of reality that I did not.”
Miriam also objected to racial discrimination from management. She accused one manager of frequently stealing money from black workers but almost never from white workers, noting that this particular manager would mistreat black workers by making them redo tasks like cleaning up a room. Such racial intimidation was “mostly used to intimidate lighter skinned or white folk,” Miriam claimed. These gratuitous demonstrations of power prevented more privileged workers from speaking out against discrimination for fear of being next. Furthermore, Miriam maintained that black and darker-skinned Latina workers would be fined two or three times as frequently as she was for infractions such as being late, adding, “And managers are often the one who show their discretion with that.”
Moreover, as “independent contractors” many sex workers are responsible for any injuries sustained on the job. Miriam, Liz, and Yanna recollected an incident when a coworker had a seizure at work and management ordered that she be carried out to the sidewalk before calling an ambulance. Miriam, who was on shift at the time, expressed guilt over her complicity in the situation, while Liz, who actually called the ambulance, articulated more condemnation for management.
Jobs in the gig economy tend to be temporary or piecework, and many sex work jobs are also short term.23 Although the women I spoke with worked at Dungeon X for at least one year, it is worth considering the significance of overhiring and its impact on turnover. Yanna told me, “The owner of the place just hires anybody at any time ‘cause he just wants as many girls so that he can make money.” According to Natalie, over-hiring also led to high turnover: “There were so many people and not enough clients and not enough rooms. And there would just be new people added daily because most of them would quit, but a lot of them would quit because there [were] more new people coming in constantly.” Megan, an independent dominatrix who worked at Dungeon X for a year, speculated that the reason it took so long for the more senior workers to accept new people was because of the high turnover rate, and other women who worked at Dungeon X confirmed Megan’s theory. Emily, a marketing and customer experience manager who worked at Dungeon X for a year and a half, Janice, Miriam, and Natalie gradually stopped engaging with new workers over time. Emily articulated, “Having worked there, there’s such turnover that you begin to realize there’s no point in getting to know most people because they’ll be gone in a week or two anyway, so you just don’t want to engage with them.” Although she acknowledged that some of the senior women at Dungeon X could be really “bitchy,” the longer Emily worked there, the more she “understood that people stumbled through there so often, not everyone’s gonna be your best friend.”Janice likewise remarked, “You see a lot of people come through there, so it’s hard to try and care for everybody ‘cause people come and go so fast.”
This dynamic increased the competition between workers and led to a hostile work environment, particularly for new hires. “When new people would come in, it wouldn’t be welcoming. It would be like, ‘What the fuck is this shit?”’ Natalie explained. Yanna even recalled treating new workers as rudely as possible to encourage them to quit. Likewise, Venus, a nonprofit worker who worked at Dungeon X for about a year, described how some of the more senior workers would not speak to the new workers and behaved as if the latter did not exist. Similarly, De Stefano found that competition undermines solidarity between gig workers.24
Janice grew so frustrated with the lack of appreciation for her voluntary labor that she stopped training new hires. “So I stopped doing a lot of the free information. It became, you know, not that you had to be in the club, but you had to show that you were serious [about the job],’’she recalled. Yanna echoed this sentiment when she said that she would only warm up to the new workers after they had demonstrated that they were there to work and because they were passionate about the job, not for the cachet of being a dominatrix. Like Janice, however, Natalie eventually ceased training new workers after many of them quit anyway, and even Miriam, who always trained and helped new hires until she left Dungeon X, eventually limited her efforts to interact with them.
In addition to hiring practices and worker attitudes, the rapid replacement of workers at Dungeon X resulted from workers who were unprepared for the requirements of the job. For instance, Yanna recounted hearing about women running out of their first sessions crying. For this reason, Janice always advised new workers to figure out their boundaries straight away and to articulate them as specifically as possible. She reasoned,
I feel like I had to make a lot of decisions that I wasn’t prepared for, and that’s what I always wanted to let the new girls know because if you’re prepared for it, then it’s harder to second guess yourself and then feel bad about it later, which is I think why a lot of people leave is because they make decisions that they don’t feel proud of.
Beyond Dungeon X, the sex industry has a high turnover rate because workers do not know what to expect. As Laurie, a stay-at-home mother who was as an erotic dancer off and on for six years, revealed, “There’s always girls that come and go, kinda stay for a week and then they realize they’re not really cut out for it.” Because sex work is “not for everyone,” just as in the gig economy, there is always a fresh stream of workers cycling through the industry, keeping competition high and wages low.
Sex Workers as Active Agents
Despite exploitative working conditions, Dungeon X workers are not simply victims of their environment. All of them have chosen to work at the dungeon because they prefer it to other types of work available to them. For example, work at the dungeon affords flexible work hours; if a worker needs a day off to go on a job interview or care for a sick child, she simply finds someone else to cover her shift. Other workers appreciate how the job allows them to multitask, permitting them to take on freelance projects in areas such as marketing, graphic design, or journalism in their downtime between sessions. And for still others, especially for low-skilled workers, the job offers better compensation than strenuous, low-paying work in the service industry, with the lack of steady wages offset by the potential to make a lot of money in a short period of time.
Additionally, many of my interview participants, especially those engaged in independent sex work, saw freelance work as preferable to full-time work, in no small part because of the flexibility it offers. Megan remarked that working independently gives her more control over her schedule, clients she accepts, her image, and how much she charges. By the same token, Lily prefers being an “independent contractor” to a full-time employee because of the “flexibility of schedule” it provides. Lily began working at Dungeon X because she was waiting tables at a restaurant and needed a second job with a flexible schedule. Now that she works independently, she no longer works evenings or weekends unless she wants to, and she has a “flexible daytime schedule.”
Natalie much prefers working independently to working at a Dungeon X because she can do her own bookings. “And I’m able to structure my schedule around my life rather than structuring my life around my schedule, so it just makes a lot more sense,” she explained. In fact, flexibility is so important to Natalie that she quit a previous job as a regional makeup artist because the company would not give her weekends off to practice roller derby. Gretchen prefers working independently to working at Dungeon X because of the “peace of mind” it gives her by allowing her to work less and on her own time. She hopes to become a freelance art curator and thinks that this will allow her to travel more and have more freedom. Lana, an independent dominatrix who worked at Dungeon X several times over the course of six years, enjoys her dayjob, which is commission-based and where she can make her own hours, like working independently, and she is proud that her friends at Dungeon X were “self-employed doing what they love.” Jane, who still occasionally works as an independent BDSM player, informed me that working independently is better money than working at a house “and you can set your own hours.” Even Miriam, who was unable to work independently for more than six months after she left Dungeon X for mental health reasons, granted that working independently allowed her to work less and earn more money, although she had to “hustle” for it.
Nonetheless, even interviewees who did not work independently appreciated the flexibility of sex work. Janice started working at Dungeon X “because it was so easy to work around the schedule, because I can focus on my main goals and do this.” Leona and her coworkers at Dungeon X “were pursuing it either as an outlet or as a monetary source that [lent] flexibility.” Yanna also appreciated that she was able to set her own schedule and hours at Dungeon X. Erin concurred, saying that sex work “allows you the flexibility to live your life in the meantime.” Abi Adams, Judith Freedman, and Jeremias Prassl report that women are more likely than men are to prefer self-employment because of its flexibility.25 Perhaps this preference stems from women’s taking on the lioness’s share of unpaid familial labor and the lack of other high-paying, flexible-hour job options, but given this reality for many women, sex work provides a way to negotiate this structural inequity.
Finally, like gig work, sex work is associated with creativity. Both Megan and Lana felt that sex work constituted creative labor. “I’m creating a lot with my domming, and I enjoy that, doing the creative part, like taking photos and making things for that. I just mean exploring sexuality and doing that in a creative way,” Megan expressed. Likewise, Lana sees working as a dominatrix as “performance art,” and she takes pride in the fact that many of her friends from Dungeon X were also creative. She called Dungeon X “a host for creative female misfits scrambling to make a life in the last creative cornerstones of |the city where I live].”
Other sex workers had engaged in different types of creative labor. Erin has worked for a number of artists, including a sculptor and a painter, in creative assisting and fabrication roles, and she is also a seamstress, making clothing and costumes for circus and theater. Furthermore, Erin is a fine artist in her own right, with a studio a few blocks from her house that pays for itself through the creative work she does. She argues that doing sex work has boosted her artistic career because she can now afford to turn down less highly paid work.
Like Erin, Miriam is also an artist and a seamstress. She has two associate’s degrees, one in fine art and one in costume design, and she has designed costumes for theater. Miriam was formerly a member of a do-it-yourself artists’ collective, where she hosted her own life-drawing event. Janice also studied fine art at college and, while working at Dungeon X, taught art to children at a Jewish Community Center (JCC). Moreover, Janice works in entertainment, and she has done some media consulting work related to her job as a dominatrix. At the time of her interview, she was considering marrying sex work with entertainment by embarking on a career as an intimacy director, choreographing sex scenes for television and film. Venus runs her own event production company. Gretchen recently went back to school to become a contemporary art curator and decided to work in the nonprofit sector, someday hoping to “merge art and curatorial. . . studies with advocacy, non-profit, and community outreach work.”
Still other sex workers engage in creative pursuits in their free time. Liz and Natalie are performance artists and produce a collective, female-led performance art show. In addition to creating through her dominatrix work, Lana makes visual art inspired by BDSM. She elaborated, “Before this I didn’t have a subject to paint. I didn’t know what I wanted to paint. I had no idea. I was painting abstract things, and then I walk into the dungeon. I see leather and latex and this world that of fetish that transfixed me.”
More Than a Dominatrix
Gig economy workers must often rely on multiple income streams to make ends meet.26 In addition to sex work structurally resembling gig work in terms of workers’ “independent contractor” status, temporary labor, desire for flexibility, and creativity, sex workers also utilize multiple income streams to survive. The need for sex workers to hold multiple jobs at once reflects a wider economy in which this is increasingly the case, for legal as well as criminalized workers. Having access to multiple sources of income may involve performing various types of sex work simultaneously, working a “straight” job in addition to a sex work job, or doing sex work at the same time as other gig jobs. As Berg shows, porn workers often perform other types of sex work such as erotic dancing, webcam modeling, and escorting, to supplement their unreliable income, or they use porn as a calling card for work in these adjacent industries, allowing them to demand higher wages for their labor.27 An example of a porn performer working in a number of related sex industries, Vanessa Blue has worked as “a porn actress, exotic dancer, phone sex worker, fetish model, dominatrix, and private escort.”28
The interviews discussed here also illustrate the fact that workers move in and out of different sectors of the sex industry, sometimes performing different kinds of sex work simultaneously. More than half of my research participants reported doing more than one type of sex work.29 In addition to practicing bodywork, Erin has been as an erotic photography model and sometimes works as an escort. Gretchen worked briefly as an erotic masseuse as well as a dominatrix. Jane and Miriam were both sugar babies in addition to being dominatrices, and Miriam was also an escort. Although Laurie was mainly an erotic dancer, she worked briefly in a fetish club, and Yanna performed at a lap-dancing club in between two of her stints at Dungeon X. Sarah had been a fetish model before working at Dungeon X, and Natalie sometimes does erotic dancing as well as working as an independent dominatrix. However, Lily has done more sex work jobs than any other participant has. In addition to working as a dominatrix and an escort, she has done erotic dancing, erotic massage, porn, and nude modeling, and she is a hostess in a sex club.
Additionally, sex workers perform other “gig” jobs. As well as being a seamstress and an artist, Erin has worked at events as a coat check attendant, door person, and bartender, and she framed her freelance work as a “hustle,” a black working-class strategy' for survival, according to Kobin D. G. Kelley?" Janice has also hosted trivia, karaoke, and speed dating in addition to working in entertainment. Furthermore, a number of participants were self-employed. Natalie and Liz run their performance art show, and Gretchen works “freelance.” Emily summarized this point, saying, “We all have side gigs or main gigs and this was our side gig.”
Finally, sex workers perform jobs in the mainstream economy, regularly and on an occasional basis. Many workers have “dayjobs,” or ongoing employment outside the sex industry. As mentioned earlier, Emily had a full-time job the entire time she was a sex worker, as did Lana and Venus. Liz works as a receptionist in a funeral home part time at the same time as being a dominatrix, and Erin works for a nightclub while practicing bodywork. When Lily began working at Dungeon X, she was a server in a restaurant, and Janice taught art to kids at the
JCC while working at Dungeon X. Miriam worked as a cashier, had a job on her college campus, and sold hats while doing sex work. According to Yanna, many of the dancers at the club where she worked were “professionals” of some kind.
Sex Work Supports the Mainstream Economy
These interviews demonstrate the parallels and convergences between sex work and the gig economy. Women dungeon workers are overlooked in analyses of the gig economy. Thus, undertaking such an analysis makes a modest but significant contribution to feminist scholarship. Like other forms of caring labor, sex work is feminized (predominantly performed by women), and exploitation in the sex industry is highly gendered, raced, and classed, as is exploitation in the wider gig economy. Just as the majority of sex workers are women, many sex workers are people of color and working class. There are numerous middle-class and high-end sex workers and plentiful poorly paid gig jobs, and according to Zwick, the largest demographic of gig workers in the United States are 18- to 29-year-old people of color?1 However, in general, there are more prestigious and/or middle- to high-income jobs in the gig economy than the sex industry, and gig work spreads more easily across racial and ethnic lines than does sex work. This economic reality suggests that exploitation depends on one’s position at the intersection of systems of oppression?2 Members of marginalized groups such as women, people of color, and low-income workers are more likely to experience labor exploitation than are their more privileged counterparts, in gig work as in sex work.
Sex work is one form of gig work that predated the “gig economy,” but sex work has its own unique characteristics. The primary difference between sex work and other forms of gig work is the matter of criminalization and stigmatization; most gig workers do not experience stigma or face incarceration because of their job. As Juno Mac and Molly Smith suggest, criminalization only intensifies economic exploitation?3
The resemblance between gig work and sex work and the fact that sex workers, like gig workers, must work multiple jobs to make enough money to live suggest that sex work is more closely connected to the gig economy than has previously been theorized. Not only can sex work be gig work, but sex work often subsidizes the low wages, lack of benefits, and job insecurity of the gig economy. In this way, underground economies, including sex work, undocumented labor, and the black market, are crucial to the functioning of the mainstream economy. The exploitation present in these underground economies reflects and supports labor exploitation under global capitalism more generally.
This last point is significant because in order to address labor exploitation in the sex industry and the gig economy, we must first address it in the mainstream economy. Because the gig economy is inseparable from the mainstream economy, better conditions for all workers will improve conditions for gig economy workers, and the same holds true for sex workers?4 When sex workers have access to mainstream jobs that are flexible, well paid, and include benefits, they will have less incentive to endure labor exploitation in the sex industry. Furthermore, gig work must be recognized as labor in order to combat the commodification and dehumanization of gig workers, and this is also true of sex work.3’ Only when gig work and sex work are recognized as work can legislation protect these forms of labor.
- 1. Dungeon X is a pseudonym.
- 2. Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole S. Vance (Boston, MA: Routledge, 1984).
- 3. Gina Neff, Venture Labor: lUvfe and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).
- 4. Elka Torpey and Andrew Hogan, “Work in a Gig Economy,” BLS.gov, May 2016, www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2016/article/pdf/ what-is-the-gig-economy.pdf.
- 5. Elizabeth Bernstein, Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 9.
- 6. Mireille Miller-Young, A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
- 7. Heather R. Berg, “Porn Work: Adult Film at the Point of Production” (Doctoral diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 2016).
- 8. Austin Zwick, “Welcome to the Gig Economy: Neoliberal Industrial Relations and the Case of Uber,” GeoJournal, 83 (2018): 679.
- 9. Valerio De Stefano, “The Rise of the ‘Just in Time Workforce’: On-Demand Work, Crowdwork, and Labor Protection in the “Gig-Economy,” Proceedings from Crowdsourcing, the Gig Economy, and the Law (Philadelphia, 2015): 3, accessed July 3, 2019, http://ssrn.com/abstract=2682602.
- 10. Joshua Healy, Daniel Nicholson, and Andreas Pekarek, “Should We Take the Gig Economy Seriously?” Labor and Industry 27, no. 3 (2017); Jeremias Prassl, Humans as Service: The Promise and Perils of Work in the Cig Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 9.
- 11. Jim Stanford, “The Resurgence of Gig Work: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives,” The Economic and Labor Relations Review 28, no. 3 (2017): 392.
- 12. Miller-Young, A Taste for Brown Sugar, 22.
- 13. Wendy Chapkis, Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor (New York: Routledge, 1997).
- 14. Leslie Hook, “2015: A Year in a Word: Gig Economy,” The Financial Times, December 30, 2015.
- 15. Angela McRobbie, Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Creative Industries (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016).
- 16. Hook, “2015.”
- 17. De Stefano, “The Rise of the Just in Time Workforce’”; Healy et al., “Should We Take the Gig Economy Seriously?”; Prassl, Humans as Service; Zwick, “Welcome to the Gig Economy.”
- 18. Berg, “Porn Work.”
- 19. Erin is a pseudonym; this study replaces interviewees names with pseudonyms to protect anonymity.
- 20. Two other former Dungeon X workers recalled a schizophrenic colleague who had stopped taking her medication and had to be taken to the hospital.
- 21. De Stefano, “The Rise of the ‘Just in Time Workforce.’”
- 22. Prassl, Humans as Service; Zwick, “Welcome to the Gig Economy.”
- 23. Stanford, “The Resurgence of Gig Work.”
- 24. De Stefano, “The Rise of the Just in Time Workforce.’”
- 25. Abi Adams, Judith Freedman, and Jeremias Prassl, “Rethinking Legal Taxonomies for the Gig Economy,” Oxford Review of Economic Policy 34, no. 3 (2018).
- 26. Adams et al., “Rethinking Legal Taxonomies”; Healy et al., “Should We Take the Gig Economy Seriously?”
- 27. Berg, “Porn Work.”
- 28. Miller-Young, A Taste for Brown Sugar, 276.
- 29. Nine out of the 16 women I interviewed told me that they had done more than one kind of sex work. Four more had held more than one sex work job.
- 30. Robin D. G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: Free Press, 1996).
- 31. Zwick, “Welcome to the Gig Economy.”
- 32. Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989).
- 33. Juno Mac and Molly Smith, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (London: Verso, 2018).
- 34. Healy, Nicholson, and Pekarek, “Should We Take the Gig Economy Seriously?”; De Stefano, “The Rise of the Just in Time Workforce.’”
- 35. De Stefano, “The Rise of the Just in Time Workforce.’”