A BDSM educator shares her experiences with sex work and explains the troubling implications of commodifying the body.
In 2012, I retired from the sex industry. Pregnant with my second child, I was ready to move on to other goals: a writing career and the work of raising children. During my second trimester, I met a young woman at a pre-natal yoga class who disclosed to me over a cup of rose hips tea that she was a surrogate for a gay couple in Manhattan. It was a private transaction, as paid surrogacy is forbidden in New York City and participants can be fined up to $10,000 for the first offense and then charged with a felony in repeat offenses. The woman was a dog walker, but wanted to return to graduate school. I didn’t ask the amount she was paid, but she implied it would cover the full tuition. I personally would not choose surrogacy, but the concept didn’t offend my motherhood. What bothered me was that other people were putting their ethical judgments on this woman’s life and livelihood so that she felt shamed into secrecy, just as I had once been about my chosen career.
A surgeon’s hands. A dancer’s feet. A model’s face. When we try to separate the body from the work that the body produces, we are faced with a conundrum. It might be easier if the body with a particular skill set creates something tangible—a carpenter and their bookshelf, let’s say. But without the use of the carpenter’s body, the bookshelf would remain in pieces. No one has a problem that this kind of work can be put forth into the economic market. If you can create a piece of furniture that someone will buy, then off to market you go with no worries.
Now let’s consider the use of the womb as the body’s industrial center. Let’s consider its utility—it incubates, feeds, and grows an embryo to a baby, producing a human life. No one calls this work unless you talk to the pregnant mother.
Human lives and their bodies should not be commodified. This basic law protects us from slavery. Babies should not be sold, but the service of incubation and birthing—that work should belong to the consenting adult woman as an asset that her body can provide. In most states this is accepted, but not in New York. Due to the 1986 Baby M case, in which a custody battle ensued from the surrogate/egg donor mother, all commercial surrogacy has been disqualified in New York. The state does allow for altruistic and uncompensated surrogacy agreements. In the case of commercial surrogacy, many birth mothers and prospective parents draw up the contract outside the state.
Meanwhile, sperm and egg donors are paid well, especially those deemed genetically desirable. Hair can be sold, as well as blood plasma. Organs, though, are not a legal market product and can only be donated. You cannot trade in a kidney to pay your mortgage.
The commodification of the body extends into all arenas of the entertainment industry, even those where risks of bodily harm are high. A football player can be paid to play a sport that may leave them in physical disrepair from multiple concussions and fractures. A boxer can be paid to beat and be beaten. Violent sport of the body is still a legal arena for commerce. But in most parts of the country, a consenting adult cannot engage in sexual activity for payment without breaking the law. Erogenous zones of the body are deemed too intimate to provide service for monetary compensation. Commodification of intimacy is illegal; commodification of violence is legal. Another intriguing twist is that sex for payment is illegal unless a camera is capturing the image. Pornography falls under the protection of the first amendment. Commodification of the image of intimacy is legal.
I started this article as a way to investigate the laws that govern the commodification of the body, in particular the arenas of prostitution, sex work, and surrogacy. As a professional dominatrix, I spent two decades in the sex industry with an underlying anxiety that my business was illegal. In 2007, the NYPD released a witch hunt against professional dominatrixes, raiding and arresting dozens of practitioners on the grounds of prostitution. I became more obstinate about my rights to practice a fair business with consenting adults—my individual pursuit of happiness. Why were we being targeted? Why is sex work illegal? Though most professional dominatrixes, myself included, have self-imposed rules forbidding overt sexual activity, especially no penetration of the dominatrix herself, our work still falls into the category of prostitution. I prefer not to draw lines between the escort that sells full-service sex and me. We are in the same service industry: sex work. We are agents of body commodification, radical entrepreneurs.
It is no coincidence that both these industries have to do with the female body. Laws against reproductive rights, laws against surrogacy, and laws against prostitution shame and disempower female bodies and female lives. While there certainly are horrific cases of degradation and exploitation in both businesses of sex and reproduction, those cases should be met with laws to protect human rights, not to shut an entire industry down. As Toni Mac states in her TED Talk on sex work, “Prohibition barely makes a difference to the amount of people actually doing those things. But it makes a huge difference as to whether or not they’re safe when they do them.”
There are more efficient ways to write laws to protect the victims of abuse, exploitation, and sex trafficking. Amnesty International has begun consultation to form a policy that decriminalizes all aspects of consensual adult sex—sex work that does not involve coercion, exploitation, or abuse. Allowing women the agency of their own bodies and decisions of commerce would continue the sexual revolution of achieving balance and equality for all.
About the artist: Noa Maccabi was born in 1989 in Israel and is currently based in Jerusalem. She is a Haddasah academic collage student, photographer, feminist, and writer. noamaccabi.com
This article originally appeared in the Body issue. For more inspiring stories about women, check out What I Learned as a Woman Traveling Alone and The Journey of a Female Sommelier: From Paris to New York.