Online controversy recently ensued as a video of Rosalía, Dua Lipa and other celebrities celebrating their post-Grammys victories by throwing money at strippers hit social media. How could these artists – artists who embrace women’s empowerment and feminism – be ok with getting caught in this situation? To be quite honest though, as far as celebrity debauchery goes, a night at a strip club seems fairly standard, if not tame.
Across Twitter, people were calling Rosalía and Dua Lipa hypocrites, accusing them of not caring about sex trafficking, and generally setting a poor example for young women. These critiques, however, are not just poorly thought out, they are disingenuous and rely on a deep stigma against sex workers that actively serves to put people who trade sex in harm’s way.
Let’s look at what we know are the facts: Rosalía and Dua Lipa were caught on video throwing bills at strippers. What this means, in short, is that these celebrities went to the place of employment of a group of women and literally threw money at them, in what we can probably assume was a highly profitable night of work for them. “The outrage over what is essentially a video of [celebrities] generously paying someone for their labor is telling in its commitment to remaining out of touch,” longtime sex worker activist and partner at Reframe Justice, Kate D’Adamo tells Remezcla.
The opinion that women are oppressing other women by paying them for services rendered would be easily viewed as completely and unabashedly bizarre if it weren’t for its reliance on a deeply present cultural stigma against sex work and the people who partake in it. The truth is that stripping is an industry that is dominated by women; while there are of course strippers of all genders, the vast majority of strippers are women, many of whom are also queer, many who are parents and most of whom have found that stripping is the form of employment that fits best with their material and economic needs. The idea that supporting such an industry is an affront to feminism is, frankly absurd.
One particulary strain of critique, however, accused the celebrities in question of supporting human trafficking, a claim that is not only disingenuous, but in fact a dangerous conflation that puts sex workers in harm’s way on a daily basis. Yes, sex trafficking is a problem, as are indeed all forms of human labor trafficking – the fact that we must separate sex trafficking from any other kind of labor trafficking is testament to the ways we sensationalize sex in particular. But the pop stars in question were at a legal establishment where we have no reason to believe that the women employed therein are being trafficked or are otherwise there against their will; to make the assumption that any woman doing sex work is doing so against her will is, in fact, robbing women of their agency.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the disingenuous conflation of sex work and sex trafficking is dangerous to people in the sex trades, creating avenues for contact with law enforcement entities that have never provided safety for people in the sex trades, and instead have actively served to harm them. Especially for sex workers who are people of color, LGBTQ, and/or immigrants, contact with law enforcement often leads to active and devastating harms.
“The outrage over what is essentially a video of [celebrities] generously paying someone for their labor is telling in its commitment to remaining out of touch.”
What we do know is this: stigma and criminalization of sex work often leads to actual violence towards sex workers – whether in the form of stings and raids that land workers in jail or coercive diversion programs, or discriminatory and violent policing. We also know that these harms are not universally felt; they are felt most harshly by people in the sex trades who are people of color, immigrants and LGBTQ. We know that when people who are engaged in sex trades as a matter of survival are asked what they need, they report needing access to housing, education and support – not further contact with law enforcement.
Support for decriminalizing all forms of sex work has been increasing because of the tireless work of sex worker activists. Recent data found that 70% of Latinx voters support decriminalizing sex work – and it is this kind of feminist organizing that is working towards the safety of people in the sex trades, not some basic Twitter concern-trolling.
We don’t need to pretend that the sex trades are some kind of universally empowering feminist wonderland for us to support strategies that keep sex workers safe. Do all sex workers love their job? I don’t know, do most people in general love their jobs? People figure out what works best for them to survive in a capitalist system that works to keep a few people wealthy at the expense of the masses, where choice and coercion exist on more of a spectrum than a black or white. Sex work, like all work, exists along this spectrum.
As much as the critiques attached to Rosalía, Dua Lipa and anyone present that night might want to make it about whether stripping or any other form of sex work is a good job, this disingenuous concern falls apart easily when examined more closely. Stripping is a job, and yes it’s different than other jobs, but that’s for the most part due to the cultural import we place on it. There’s plenty of other work in which people sell their bodies and the skills they can perform with them that don’t carry the same kind of cultural terror: professional athletes, bike messengers and dance instructors to name a few. Once we take away all assumptions, how do we know what we know about the working women in question?
“If there is any consistent thread between the attacks on [these celebrities] and the fight to condemn sex work more broadly,” D’Adamo says, “it’s that no one has been interested in asking the woman whose performance is being celebrated how she felt about that night.”