If you haven’t seen spy drama The Americans yet, I’m not sure what you’re waiting for. It’s exciting, it’s set in the ’80s, and Keri Russell wears Guess jeans and leotards. What’s more, after years of playing one of TV’s biggest drips, here she finally kicks some ass. Plus! The programme raises questions about s-e-x that other intelligence-themed shows have ducked by getting feeeeelings involved.
I initially thought season two of Homeland was going to be more interesting and subversive than it turned out to be. Sure, Carrie kept mooning over Brody, saying that he’d hurt her, telling him she loved him, but I thought it was an act to get information out of him. When she invited him to her hotel room in the first episode and it turned out to be a sting, she gave this little smirk that made me think she’d been in charge all along: using the trope of a wounded, vulnerable, mentally ill woman against him. Later, when they ran away to a bugged CIA safe house, I thought she cared more about nailing him for his crimes than… nailing him.
Yeah, I was wrong. Over the season, the show turns Carrie into an overgrown teenager who cares more about her affair than the career she’s worked so hard to keep hold of. She’s able to justify Brody’s terrorist allegiances and the murders he’s committed because he was brainwashed and because she’s in lurrrrrrrve with him, thus allowing the show to skip over any discussion of the issues involved when spying segues into sex work.
The Americans has no such qualms. Its married main characters Phillip and Elizabeth both have sex with other people to gather information, and the show illustrates the many ways this become complicated: from jealousy to physical abuse. Meanwhile, when Russian mole Nina gives a blowjob that gets her access to secret KGB intel, her FBI handler Stan is shocked, and tells her she didn’t have to do that. But whether he’s truly horrified or secretly thrilled isn’t entirely clear — and of course, he doesn’t hand the information back.
This is all fiction, but honey traps have a long history. Which always seems shocking to me, like having sex for your country is too much for a government to ask. Paste magazine’s review of episode five of The Americans, “Comint” says that the it “highlighted just how debasing what they do for the love of their country truly is”, and I was inclined to agree. But then I thought, hang on a minute. Obviously, when a honey trap goes wrong, things can get er, sticky.
But why am I more horrified by the idea that people have sex for secrets than by the idea that people commit murder as part of their job description? Maybe because it feels more noble to shoot someone than to help them shoot their wad? Maybe because you can do the former with your clothes on, from a distance, so it feels less invasive?
Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been socially conditioned to think that having sex for money is taboo. Because I do. To be clear, I don’t believe in shaming women for engaging in sex work. I don’t see sex workers as lesser than me and I don’t think they can’t be feminists. And I won’t be seeking to ban porn or prostitution on the grounds of ickiness.
But I can’t help feeling that there’s something wrong with a world where men routinely rent out women’s bodies, seeing them not as people but a series of body parts. The fact that men are the major consumers of prostitution and women its major providers only echoes the power imbalance of our misogynistic society. Having said that, we all have to negotiate our way in this imperfect world the best we can, and I’m prepared to consider that what’s denigrating to one person might be liberating to another.
Caty Simon (whose writing I discovered via Emily Books) is an activist and escort whose thoughts on sex work have made me confront prejudices I didn’t even know I had. She wrote a great post about how sometimes a pimp is actually a caring partner, and did a controversial interview with Feministe where she pointed out that women who are “rescued” from international sex work don’t necessarily want to be.
While I don’t believe that feminism is simply about women’s freedom to choose, we all live in an oppressive society and can only make choices from what’s available to us. And if you compare having sex for money with other jobs, it’s arguably more honest than a lot of them. I mean, who should be holding their head higher, a prostitute or someone who works as an assessor for Atos?
I can’t fake a smile, let alone an orgasm. I also have a lot of new agey ideas about needing to feel an emotional connection to anyone I have sex with, so for me (and my customers), prostitution would be a nightmare. But then again, so would being a funeral director, or working in an abbatoir (for me, and my customers).
As Lena Chen points out in this excellent blog post, sex work isn’t that different (in principle, at least) from any other job people are doing just for the money. I might not like the idea of it or want to do it, but there are women (and men) struggling with illnesses or other difficult situations for whom prostitution is their best option to pay rent. There are others who have a range of opportunities but choose do do sex work. And it’s possible that maybe, just maybe, how they make a living is none of my business.