In Working Girls: Or; What, Exactly, Is Dangerous About Sex Work?, Radical Faggot wonders if supporting his friend in her decision to become a sex worker is a good idea. I strongly encourage you to read the entire post, but know many of you will not. And yet I am loathe to quote too much… Here are some of the more salient parts:
After having this conversation, however, I started to worry. Was I being irresponsible by supporting my friend’s decision? Was I not thinking enough about her range of options and power to choose? …This inability to speak is at the root of the stigmas which surround sex work, and is particularly oppressive for queer people. For as TLBG people, but especially as Brown, poor, trans, homeless, immigrant, incarcerated, undocumented, hood and working queer people, sex work is not only a piece of our realities, but a foundational component of our history. Understanding it is necessary for understanding where we come from, how we identify, the ways we organize, our strategies for survival, and how sex work’s ties to other oppressed communities and identities is part of what maintains its marginal status.
The struggles which my friend may face as she continues on her path have little to do with sex work, for sex work, I believe, is itself no more or less risky than being sexually active is. What makes sex work dangerous are the social stigmas with which it is imbued—the shame, self-hatred and desperation we project onto members of the sex industry. It is dangerous because of the precarious role women occupy in our society, the thin line they walk between reverence and worthlessness, the long list of simple ways they can slip up and lose all of their symbolic value. It is dangerous because once that value has been lost, assault, violation and murder are no longer seen as heinous crimes, are often not even deemed worth looking into. It is dangerous because we fear anyone who takes their gender, sexuality and relationship with their body into their own hands. It is dangerous because trans people are targets for violence at a higher rate than any other queer identity, and combining that reality with sex work can be lethal. It is dangerous because it challenges almost every state-sanctioned institution, from the cult of marriage to the regulation and taxation of (certain people’s) profit. It is dangerous because the legal system declares it to be, and targets it for extensive policing. It is dangerous because even as the most basic of workers’ rights and abilities to organize come under global attack, sex workers have long had to rely on one another for support in the face of corrupt law enforcement, greedy management and abusive patrons.
Given all this, is it wise for us to participate in sex work, or advise our friends to do so when they ask us for our advice? I don’t think this is the real question that conversations like the one between my friend and I raise. Sex work is dangerous because it continues to represent what many of our struggles have always represented—the dignity of oppressed people, and our ability to maintain ourselves in the face of seemingly insurmountable and purposefully-imposed barriers. Should we or shouldn’t we is not the point, for many members of the sex industry have rarely felt the need nor had the opportunity to ask such questions. What we should do is continue advocating for the rights of all working people, regardless of their legal status, criminal history, or the type of work they perform. We need to listen to the needs of women and trans people. We need to advocate justice for sexual violence which acknowledges the legal system as one of its major perpetrators. We need to talk about how to make our communities safer and more supportive places for all our members, carve out space for conversation, and collectively provide the resources that will help to get us there. We need to celebrate sex worker history as queer history, inexorably and unavoidably. Our inability to examine it openly not merely distorts an accurate view of our identities as they stand, but keeps us from grasping the true breadth and depth of the ways in which we and our ancestors have challenged power through the practice of sex.
Sex work is not simply about sex, nor is it an inevitable exchange of bodies for money. Its branding as “the oldest profession” is not about the desires of it patrons, but the obvious outlet for survival it presents to those who have few others. More than anything, sex work is about self-determination—of gender, of sexuality, of the navigating of class and legal status, of access to resources. And if we are serious about loving, protecting and standing up for our friends, our partners and ourselves, then we should be committed to being dangerous, and to critically honoring all of our methods for survival when so few systems prioritize it.
Equally important to Rad Fag’s post itself are the comments about sex work. While basically a conversation between the author and one other person, one Suevanhattum, it should not be discounted ~ quality of comments (and indeed the quality of the person leaving the comments) is desired over quantity. So please go read them too.
However, I do take issue with one thing…
I see how self-determination is one issue in all this. But what I know (from watching a former friend), is that sex work is psychically oppressive, even when the legal system isn’t involved, even when there is no physical violence against the sex worker. Part of that oppressiveness comes from the disrespect you describe. If you could require respect from the customers, it might not be worse than other work. A sex therapist has a lot more control in that regard, for example.
My friend claimed that she was fine with the work. But she drank more and more over the time she was involved in it. I think it was very hard on her.
This notion of sex work being psychically oppressive, damaging, soul crushing, and the like is really common ~ but it is not inherently a part of (consensual) sex work itself.
What Suevanhattum and so many others describe is based upon their own attitudes regarding sex and sex work. This idea that sex for pay is somehow supposed to take it’s toll on a sex worker is based not on fact, but rather individual perceptions and belief systems which create an attitude about sex work and sex workers. And this very attitude is, in fact, what lies behind the image of sex workers being disrespected by their clients. Why else would someone presume that a john or hobbyist is less respectful of his sex worker than he is his therapist? (Heck, quite often, he pays the sex worker more!) It’s based on an attitude that one service is more professional than the other.
While there are johns who are jerks (and name a job which doesn’t have disrespectful consumers), the biggest, most pervasive problem with sex work is the disrespect of the general population. Legalities aside (for even when sex work is legal the attitudes about sex work and sex workers is generally negative), it is the disrespect of the general population which creates secrecy and isolation ~ things far more oppressive than sex and/or companionship for hire. In fact, the inability to share your life, to be accepted for who you are, these things are far more soul crushing, and far more likely to lead to self-medication and the like, than the job or the work itself.
I don’t want to pick on Suevanhattum; I don’t know her. But I know many who sound as she does. And they are blissfully unaware that their own attitudes and myth-information is what keeps the sex workers around them silent. In other words, it is their disrespect which creates or at least adds to the woes of sex workers.