Preamble: Once a working friend told me that she didn’t want to take on “sex worker” as a politicized identity (1).
I respect that: no one should be obligated to identify a certain way, or to take on politics that don’t inspire them. But for myself, I’m certain that sex work is not and can never be politically neutral; it can’t ever be anything less than a site of struggle. Being a person who exchanges sex for money is to be a certain kind of cultural outsider. It’s to be someone who is researched and criminalized, someone who is the subject of fascination and the butt of endless sitcom jokes. The disgust with which our culture regards whores is very old and runs very deep, and our radical communities are not immune to this.
I want so badly for radical queers, anti-authoritarians, anarchists and everybody else to see that their struggles intersect with ours so we can all kick ass together. The intricacies of the sex industry illuminate aspects of work, gender, care, class, sexuality and zillions of other points of struggle. Sex workers are intimate with capitalism, patriarchy, class (and more) in ways that other people aren’t, and our experiences give us insight that can inform resistance.
Even in radical communities there are all kinds of things getting in the way of having these conversations, so here’s a (very much in-progress) list of ways radical folk can get their shit together and move towards a more meaningful solidarity with sex workers. You’re welcome.
9 Ways to Be In Solidarity With Sex Workers
1. The first and most important thing you can do to be in solidarity with sex workers is understand that it’s really complicated. Let’s cultivate an analysis that leaves room for sex work to be different things to different people at different times: annoying, financially empowering, traumatic, funny or mundane. Help us out by disrupting narratives about sex work that let some people shoehorn our experiences into (often over-generalized, shitty) political positions.
2. Don’t stigmatize our clients. This is so huge. Assuming that clients are “gross” or “sketchy” feeds the narrative of sex workers as victims. We deal with entitled assholes, uncomfortable situations, and trauma, yeah, but that’s not your conversation to have. Men pay for sex for so many reasons beyond just wanting to get off— like boredom, loneliness, social awkwardness, or disability. When you stigmatize men who pay for sex, you stigmatize our work, and by extension, us.
3. Challenge narratives that characterize sex work as “selling our bodies.” So you’ve realized that maybe sex work isn’t anti-feminist or inherently exploitative. That’s cool. I still hear rad people refer to folks “selling their bodies.” It’s offensive and dehumanizing, and denies us agency. Sex work commodifies sexual acts, not the bodies that perform them. If you can’t shake the supply-and-demand metaphor it would be more accurate to say we’re renting our asses, not selling them.
4. Stop being fascinated. It makes me not want to talk about work with you. I can feel you taking in my outfit, my body, my demeanor, wondering who pays me and how much and how it goes down. It’s so weird.
5. Don’t judge, project, and shame. In addition to being fat, queer, of colour, or trans, a ton of sex workers are plain, awkward, shy, or not particularly femme. Teach yourself to be unsurprised by this fact. While we’re at it, please don’t suggest that we’re too smart, skilled, radical, or otherwise awesome to be doing sex work. And don’t assume or suggest that we could or should get “real” jobs, or that we even want to. This happens in so many ways, subtly and blatantly. (I personally struggle with so much shame around not having a superstar social work or activist job).
6. Don’t conflate sex trafficking with consensual sex work (or let other people do it). Conflating the two hurts sex workers and hurts trafficked people. It imposes victimhood on those who aren’t trafficked (leading to paternalistic, often dangerous legal and social service interventions) and entrenches a shoddy understanding of what trafficking actually is (kidnapping, forced displacement, and exploitation).
7. Don’t assume that all sex work is the same. Phone sex is not web-camming is not escorting is not stripping is not street work is not survival sex. Don’t feel empowered to talk about sex work because one time you hung out with a stripper or went to a workshop facilitated by an escort. (And hey, hoes, doing one kind of work doesn’t mean we’re in solidarity with people who work in other ways).
8. Don’t make us repeat ourselves. Look, it’s work: because we say it is, and because that should be self-evident. It’s different than other jobs. It’s still a job. We have to say this over and over again and be patient with you while you struggle to conceive of and talk about sex work like it’s work. That feels really crumby.
9. Don’t assume you get it. If you’ve never worked (or maybe even if you have), you have hang-ups about sex work. All you badass intersectional anarchists and feminists, women’s shelter/rape crisis workers, social workers, women’s studies grads, anti-poverty organizers: you harbour the same fear, fascination, and disgust as the rest of the world. You’re working on it. That’s awesome. Thank you! But don’t assume you get it.
Here is very good post on basic ways to interact with sex workers: http://not-a-jerk.blogspot.ca/2011/09/how-to-interact-with-sex-worker.html
1. We talked about it lots since, and that’s not where she’s at anymore. (Either way, it’s fine.)
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