Bloomington Pride talk 8/25/18: Why Hookers Can't Complain About Work, V2
As requested, here's the notes I read from for my talk at Bloomington Pride.
First off, I’m going to ask any law enforcement, or friends/family/supporters of law enforcement leave. I can’t make you. But I am asking politely.
My name is A., I identify as queer and my pronouns are she/her, and up until this semester, I was a PhD student and instructor at IU. I left for a number of reasons. One being that my department was no longer a good fit. Another being that I was tired after 7 years of putting on class and educational drag each morning and performing at all times. The biggest one, though, is that I got tired of dealing with men unless they were paying me to engage with them sexually.
At the end of the day, I prefer sex work. Now, sex work is an umbrella term for anyone who consensually professionally turns people on. That includes cam models, full service sex workers (you probably use language like hooker or prostitute for this job, but they are slurs), strippers, erotic models, dominatrices., etc. When this labor, like any labor, is involuntary we call it trafficking and that is a huge issue worldwide, and one we are deeply concerned with, but not the same issue as consensual sex workers’ rights.
Raise your hands if you support sex workers’ rights and keep them up. Keep your hand up if you’ve ever spoken to a sex worker about how to support their rights. Keep it up if you’ve ever even talked to a sex worker that you know of. Raise your hand if you don’t support the rights of consensual sex workers to work safely and have the same protections as other workers within our current system. Did anyone not raise their hand at all? Are you on the fence?
Anyhow, I left academia, which I was very successful in, to further my career in exchanging sexual services for cash. My name is A., but most people call me Fancy. Yeah, like the hooker in the Reba MacCyntyre song. I’ve been a sex worker for over 14 years, and I’m very, very good at it.
Now I want you to take that pen and paper that was on your chair and write down your first feelings and thoughts when I talk about leaving academia to get dicks hard for cash. It can be full thoughts, free association, whatever is honest. I know they may be hurtful, but I’ve made that space within myself and I am asking you for complete honesty with me, but more importantly with yourself. It’s important if you want to do the work of liberation. You will remain anonymous, so no names.
Just pass them up. I’m going to take a second and skim these because they may impact the direction we go here. When I’m done though, I’m going to give y’all maybe five minutes to ask me whatever burning questions you have about my work that are otherwise going to distract you from the message I am here to communicate. So go ahead and think of your questions so this can be productive. Again I’ve made space for these to be potentially offensive, because I want everyone focused on the message, not their own curiosity about my job.
LET ME SAY HERE THAT I AM CHOOSING TO TELL THE PEOPLE IN THIS ROOM MY EXACT JOB. I DO NOT CONSENT FOR MY NAME AND JOB TO BE CONNECTED WHEN SPEAKING TO PEOPLE OUTSIDE THIS ROOM. I’VE SPECIFIED THAT SOME PEOPLE ARE UNWELCOME FOR A REASON. OUTTING A SEX WORKER IS AN ACT OF VIOLENCE, THE SAME AS OUTING A TRANS OR QUEER PERSON, EXCEPT THAT WE ARE BY NATURE ENGAGED IN ILLEGAL ACTIVITY AND CAN BE ARRESTED JUST FOR WORKING.
Great. Now hopefully we are all a bit more focused.
Before we can talk about stigma, lets define it so we are sharing language. Stigma is defined by Webster’s as “A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.“ Semi-hilariously the word in the original Greek actually means tattoo. I prefer sociologist Erving Goffman’s definition, which is “a phenomenon whereby an individual with a particular attribute is discredited by society and rejected due to these attributes. A process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity.”
I like this definition because it centers the person, not the attribute. Ultimately, stigma’s greatest damage is that it dehumanizes us, and this definition acknowledges that stigma is something that happens to a human and impacts their very identity.
In sex work stigma takes a number of common forms, some of which may sound very familiar to you:
Thinking all sex workers are victims.
Conflating sex work and trafficking.
Thinking it must be empowering to be valid although no other job is held to that standard.
Thinking it’s gross or degrading.
Assuming all sex workers have diseases. Which, for one thing, let’s please end STI stigma because most are more treatable and less contagious than the common cold.
Fear for your own relationships with men. Centering yourself instead of sex workers in these conversations.
Thinking we must be either brave or desperate.
Thinking we are sinners.
Devaluing our labor by thinking it’s easy or wanting to know how we do it although you never will once you find out how labor intensive it is.
Your only job is to keep your daughter off the pole jokes.
Dead hooker jokes.
Hashtags like no little girl, asserting that no little girl wants to grow up to be a sex worker. As if men and enbys can’t be sex workers or as if any little girl grows up dreaming about all the hard work she’s going to do so someone else can get rich. Gee mom, wage labor sounds swell.
So many other stigmatizing beliefs, too many to name. All of them, shades of violence against me and the people I love.
Sex work is one of the most stigmatizing jobs in the world. Our very job titles are carelessly used as insults or to describe someone who isn’t a whore, prostitute, hooker, or ho (which by the way is racialized and specific to denegrating black full service sex workers).
The appropriation of our job titles as insults and jokes is one further step to dehumanizing us and reducing us to disposable stereotypes. And when someone isn’t human anymore, when they are marked as different, when they are seen as disposable, they are left open to violence and oppression.
What starts with a word between joking friends ends with the hundreds of deaths of sex workers each year. Most of those deaths are black, people of color, queer and trans workers.
And to get around to the title of this talk, stigma impacts sex workers and can be deadly in another way.
Someone tell me their most recent complaint about work.
I think we all felt empathy and mild concern there. Was anyone deeply concerned? No.
But when sex workers attempt to express their legitimate complaints about work, there are two reactions.
Recently I had a client who was obviously high on cocaine, and it was really stressful because men on drugs tend to be unpredictable. I wrote about it on a social media platform on which I have a number of civilians (we call y’all that) who I engage with. The unsolicited advice, as it has always been, was unanimously that I should quit my job.
One camp felt vindicated and justified in their pity for me. As if nobody else ever deals with shifty men at work, or you know, in the world. The other couldn’t handle the notion that sex work isn’t any more empowering than any other job, so they decided I’m just not cut out for it. Over 14 years, I think I know whether I am cut out for this work or not.
This was mild. I’ve spoken about work online and received death threats. I’ve been doxxed. I’ve been outed as a sex worker. I’ve been stalked.
All because I talked about my job. How is that for a phenomenon whereby an individual with a particular attribute is discredited by society and is rejected due to these attributes?
And I’m a pretty, thin, white cis woman who works as straight.
Not only does speaking openly about something so absolutely mundane as a job risk violence, it almost guarantees some form of rejection. Even if that rejection takes the form of being treated as suddenly precious, stupid, or with invasive fascination.
Imagine not being able to talk to anyone outside of your field about work. If you’ve been in the armed forces you probably don’t have to. But everyone else, imagine what that would do to your mental health. Imagine how isolated and alone you might feel.
And how do you find a community of other sex workers? Nobody can talk about it. The internet has enabled it to some degree, but most of us have never been able to talk openly about a job that is already lonely and dangerous and hard on mental health (I want to add that dealing with men and not having the protections afforded other workers, not the work itself, is inherently damaging) . Many of us chose the work because it gives us the freedom to work around our preexisting mental health struggles.
So another way we lose sex workers in droves to stigma is mental illness. Whether it’s the isolation itself or the chemicals we use to feel less isolated.
And of course the isolation and risk of violence are much higher for queer, trans, black and people of color in the industry. And this is in a job where we already have a 400x higher rate of death to violence than any other job, aside from the police and military.
So you can hopefully see how things that seem harmless, whether it be the empowerment narrative or the exclusion of sex workers from feminism or the use of slurs, leads directly to the deaths of humans who are just trying to do their jobs.
One way that this has recently manifested is in bipartisan legislation that passed this spring with alarming success, called FOSTA or SESTA. Does anyone know about these laws? Can you explain them?
Essentially these laws claimed that all sex work could be considered trafficking, which is misinformation that we’ve been fighting within sex workers’ rights for decades, and made it federally illegal to assist in what they are calling online trafficking. Which was actually already illegal. However, what this enabled the government to do was to shut down sites like backpage that consensual sex workers used to find safe clients. If we can advertise online, we can screen potential clients and keep bad client lists. Otherwise consensual sex work gets pushed further into the margins and we’re back to anonymous car dates with dangerous men.
When we were fighting this legislation, we screamed into the void for months that people were going to die, all while Amy Schumer used her white feminist cachet to silence us and push for this legislation.
Within a week of “he who shall not be named” signing the law into effect and backpage being shut down, my personal death count was over 15. Most of these bodies were black, brown, and queer and/or trans. The most already marginalized workers were forced onto the street by the US government, where predators who also knew about this legislation were waiting. Many friends also returned to drug dependence to cope. There have been a number of deaths by suicide. Even more people have gone missing because they have no way to safely work indoors. Even privileged workers like me struggle to find work now, and I often wonder how long until we are all working outside alone.
The worst part is that now it’s even harder to find real trafficking victims, so they are dying too and we can’t help. Not a single trafficking victim has yet been saved by this law. Not one.
And it all starts with stigma. With casually dehumanizing us by calling your friend a whore when that insult is actually my job title and not yours to reclaim. With being ill informed about the difference between sex work and sex trafficking. With thinking we need rescue, not rights. By reducing us to our jobs and not the multifaceted, diverse humans who we are.
The result is legislation that helps predators kill us and attempts to starve us out of existence. And largely because when sex workers talk about work, nobody listens. When we cry that Amnesty International advises full decriminalization, even our allies don’t know the difference between decriminalization and legalization. With decrim, we would have full autonomy along with protection from violence and oppression. What y’all take for granted every day at work. Maybe then people would stop killing us. The government included.
But the first step is interrogating your own feelings about sex workers and the work itself. Calling out other people when they use stigmatizing language. Talking to sex workers about what you can do to broadcast them and take over some of the labor of fighting for our rights, with our explicit involvement and direction.
At Pride that means don’t let drag queens say whore. Explain to people, gently or firmly, that hoe is a racialized slur. Keep sex workers physically safe. Keep out cops and white supremacisits, as Frederick Douglass suggested, “by words, blows, or both.”
And let’s not forget that pride was started by Marscha P Johnston: a black, trans, bisexual full service sex worker who was fed up with stigma and threw a brick as an act of revolution. That’s why sex workers belong at pride, in feminism, in anarchist and communist circles, and in conversations about labor rights and social justice. That’s why these conversations must intersect. Go. Throw bricks.