Most modern people agree that every individual has the right to set his or her own conditions of consent, even if few of us think about daily life in those terms. "You can borrow my car if you promise to have it back by 4 p.m." is an example of conditional consent at work. "I'll perform this labor for you in exchange for x amount of compensation" is another. "I will have sex with you if you agree to use a condom" is a third.
In the realm of sex, consent has been elevated to the level of a sacred word. But in practice, most of us believe in a host of exceptions. We think that some people (such as minors) should not be allowed to consent to some things and, conversely, that some other people (such as cops) should be allowed to do some things even without consent. Many if not most of these exceptions involve sex, money, or power, so it's not surprising that sex work—which involves all three—inspires some truly absurd mental gymnastics on and around the concept of consent.
Statists, both in and out of government, like to play Kafkaesque games with the idea of consent. We are told by a certain type of feminist that consent must be explicitly verbal, ongoing, and "enthusiastic." They say it must be tiresomely re-ascertained over and over and over again, no matter how clearly it was expressed in the first place. Modern Puritans, meanwhile, claim that people who engage in "deviant" sexual behavior (including sex work, BDSM, and—until very recently—homosexuality) are suffering from "Stockholm syndrome," "trauma bonding," or "false consciousness" and thus cannot consent to things they claim to enjoy because they are not in their right minds.
But the most bizarre of these tortuous mind games, popular among radical feminists for years but gaining momentum today among "progressives," is the idea that if a person is paid to do something he wouldn't do for free, that constitutes "coercion" or even "violence." As Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown pointed out a few years ago, "In Seattle, sex must be a 'leisure activity' for both parties or it's nonconsensual, according to one area prosecutor." Brown was writing about Val Richey, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County, Washington, who argued that all sex workers are victims of rape because someone paid them "essentially to turn a 'no' into a 'yes.'"
This dogma is deranged. Richey doesn't do his job for free; does that mean he is coerced, too? This contradiction doesn't seem to occur to anti–sex work crusaders, because they're unwilling to accept that sex, like every other part of the material world, is not distributed "evenly" or "fairly."
I trade something I have a lot of—sex appeal—to get things I otherwise have trouble getting and holding on to, such as money. If you don't have anything you can trade, sell, or negotiate with to give me something I want or need, you won't be able to get what you might want from me. This is not a crazy concept anywhere else in modern life. If I don't have the money the grocery store wants, I won't be able to get the groceries I want from it. The grocery store is neither dirty nor a victim, and I am not a predator or a creep. We're both just peaceably trading what we have for what we want.
Sex is a resource, just like money and groceries. One can be traded to get the others, just like any other possessable resource on Earth.
These days, this concept is under fresh rhetorical assault by yet another army of control freaks: young people who think socialism is the cure to what ails us all. Young "socialist" men on Twitter seem to imagine that once they seize the means of production from capitalists and redistribute everything "equally," women will be "free" to open their legs (to them) for, well, free. Or perhaps these men think of women as yet another resource to be divided like all the others.
Alas, the desire to view sex as separate and distinct from all other worldly phenomena is not limited to the economically illiterate. Even people with fairly typical ideas about commerce are wont to decry its "commodification," often by declaring it "sad" in the absence of more cogent analysis. None of these frustrated poets would go see a great movie and then declare it "sad" that they had to spend money on admission, that the actors were paid for their performances, or that the production turned a profit. Nor would they enjoy a delicious dinner and then claim it was "sad" they had to pick up the check and tip the waiter. Sex generates a lot of mumbo-jumbo in the minds of otherwise reasonable people who would never say that fair, consensual exchange, writ large, is worth lamenting.
Yet sex is an exchange, whether you like it or not. In some circumstances, the exchange is so intimately mutual that it seems to cost nothing to either party. But even in those relationships, there are moments of bald, blatant trade: "If you want to get it tonight, why don't you have the kids in bed by the time I get home?"
Why don't we reject the idea that these arrangements are consensual? Is it because consent is unnecessary in a monogamous relationship? Or is it because we only acknowledge that consent has occurred when we like the exchange people are agreeing to?
Consent is having a moment, but we aren't defining that term broadly enough if we aren't extending it to women who trade things they have for things they want. As my friend and fellow sex worker Mistress Matisse has pointed out, an individual or group that is unwilling to respect a woman's "yes"—regardless of the price she puts on it—is also unwilling to respect her "no."
And a person or society that cannot respect an individual's right to set the conditions of access to her time, attention, or person is one that believes said individual is owned not by herself but by the state.