In discussing sex work in my Power and Sexuality Course, I often ask students whether sexuality is really absent in work that is not deemed “sex work” (e.g., stripping, prostitution, and pornography). Students can quickly think of ways in which sex appeal and sexy performances play a role in many, many jobs. This is obviously true for singers, actresses, models, and dancers. But it is also true, to some degree, in sales and bar-tending, or working as a lawyer, a flight attendant, or a teaching assistant. These workers are sometimes called upon to dress to accentuate their sex appeal, move in ways that incite desire, and flirt with customers, clients, or co-workers. Sex plays a role in most of our jobs, even when they aren’t explicitly called “sex work.”
I thought of this conversation when checking out a submission by artist Costanza Knight. (I’m a fan, especially, of her paintings about slavery and freedom based on the beautiful poem, The People Could Fly.) Knight’s submission was in regard to a story about a Chinese tea producer hiring busty virgins to pick tea with their mouths. The method of harvest is in reference to a traditional folktale and is designed to titillate and intrigue buyers willing to pay handsomely for the virgin-kissed, bosom-cradles leaves.
I can’t confirm the veracity of the story, but whether or not it’s true, it helpfully points to the need to deconstruct the notion that some jobs are “sex work” and other jobs are “just work.” We sell our sexualities in many types of jobs; much of the time, it’s simply a matter of degree.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.