Sex worker rights discourse is inaccessible and dominated by ‘dabblers’
- Published: 12 February 2011
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The sex worker rights movement needs public advocates who are the most representative of sex work as a whole – that is, those who have direct daily involvement with sex work, rather than academics and feminists who did or do rare and occasional sex work, writes Furry Girl.
13 February 2011
People, and social movements, cannot grow without dealing with their shortcomings, especially if those problems are uncomfortable, dramatic, or awkward to fling into the open. This lengthy post is me throwing a molotov cocktail of things-that-have-gone-publicly-unsaid, but I wanted to start my critique only after I give some quick context of what else has been said recently.
For backstory, start with Amanda Brooks’ post about excluding women like her who are mainstream sexy and heteronormative. Snippets:
There is a deep prejudice permeating the sex worker rights movement in the US. Just because some of us have a mainstream appearance doesn’t mean we don’t deal with the same stigma that every other sex worker does, that we somehow work under a different set of laws. Just because we look much like the “pretty” depictions of sex workers in mainstream media doesn’t mean we’re not “real,” it means we’re making money (most sex workers are in sex work to make money).
“Inclusiveness” and “diversity” are such huge preoccupations in the movement that they often derail energy and focus on the real-world issues staring all of us in the face. In the stampede to be inclusive and make sure that all ethnic/gender/occupation/whatever boxes are ticked and that a token representative is present, a huge majority go unnoticed and unwelcome.
Then, she called out two of the biggest names in sex blogging, Susie Bright and Mistress Matisse. Single sentence summary:
The Craigslist debacle of 2010 really separated the in-the-trenches sex workers from those quite obviously above it.
Amanda's posts are the tip of an iceberg, and it's not just her, and it's not just about any one or two famous sex bloggers saying detached or offensive things.
Overall, the big issue I've seen floating around America in the last six months is that there are a number of sex workers who aren't happy with the Big Name Visible People in sex worker politics, Big Names who notably couldn't even be bothered to attend this year's Desiree Alliance sex worker conference.
Many sex workers I've talked to aren't thrilled with the increasing inaccessibility and academic-esque nature of sex work dialogue, don't feel like their world is being well-represented, and are privately whispering things like, "Wait, what was it that so-and-so actually did that makes them a sex worker? And how many years ago was that?"
In sum, it feels like there's a lot of important and exciting shit brewing just under the surface in sex worker politics, and more people looking to get involved in some sort of political stuff – if they can find a way to do so.
For those of you who don't know me well: this is coming from someone who got started in sex work almost nine years ago (full-time for eight years), is not involved in any sex worker rights groups and has a semi-outsider’s perspective on sex worker activism, but who considers herself to have a pretty good grasp of the history of social movements and activism in the United States over the last 50 years.
Here's what I see from where I'm sitting:
1.) The sex worker rights movement should be led by experienced and current sex workers. No one should be excluded, but we sorely need more voices from folks who aren't hipster feminists with only brief involvement with sex work.
It's truly great to have part-timers and people who did/do only a small amount of sex work speak about their experiences. I am glad that people who don't "need" to be involved in the fight for sex workers rights care to do so anyway.
It also testifies to how sex work is not a monolith and can often be something people do once in their lives, or for a few months, or a few years, or with one special patron they see twice a year. I am not dismissing those folks and their stories or their work as activists, but for people who have flat-out spent less time sex working, they sure do comprise a whole lot of our tacit leadership and spokespersons.
The vocal sex worker scene needs more people whose primary motivation wasn't a quick bout of fun self-exploration. That's a totally valid reason to do sex work, and I'm not saying you're bad or irrelevant if it describes you, but it's simply not representative of sex workers in this country as a whole. (I enjoy the explorative and creative aspects of my work, but it's still my full-time job that I do for money.)
The over-representation of sex-positive dabblers also contributes to the anti camp being able to dismiss sex worker activism as something by and for a tiny minority of the most privileged and "happy hooker"-esque.
Even if we love our work, as I do, I think we do ourselves a disservice by over-selling the erotic/transgressive/feminist aspect of it in an attempt to counter false stereotypes that all sex workers are abused addicts who hate their jobs.
When I feel extra cynical, I wonder if there's some kind of unwritten rule that says the less sex work you've done, and the longer it's been since you've done it, the more aggressively you ought to shout about how you're a sex worker and thrust yourself into public conversations as such. (Of course, this rule does not apply to typical sex workers, it applies only to the educated feminist types.)
I've been a full-time, no-"real"-job sex worker my entire adult life, and frankly, I think this buys me a bigger seat at the table than someone who appears in a few porn videos a year, or was a stripper for a semester a decade ago. (Just as, of course, I think people who've been sex workers since before I was born deserve an even bigger seat at the table than I do.)
This doesn't mean I dislike part-time or former sex workers (I adore many of them and think they've made some amazing contributions!), nor do I think that they shouldn't be included, or that they aren't "real" sex workers. I simply want the folks with the most at stake and the most experience to have the most say in what's going on and how their jobs are portrayed. Radically offensive perspective, I know.
2.) The sex worker rights movement needs to make itself and its issues accessible to more supporters and sex workers, not just feminist bloggers, the kinkster/sex-positive scene, and academics.
If you were to casually surf across popular sex worker rights blogs and articles, you'll find stuff like how to reframe human trafficking through a lens of post-colonial theory, impassioned calls to stop cis-sexist language constructs, and the forced rehabilitation centers in Cambodia.
These are all excellent and fascinating topics of discussion to me, but (sadly!) they only interest a very small amount of other people. Sex worker discourse is dominated by people who choose to forget that most folk in America aren't familiar with the idea of being "cisgender", can't find Cambodia on a map, and all they know about "colonialism" is that pilgrims wore funny hats.
Your average person (sex worker or potential ally) does not have a graduate degree-level understanding of gender, feminism, or immigration politics. They don't even possess the vocabulary to join the conversation we're having amongst ourselves.
Think of it this way: we're trying to implore people, "Save the whales from extinction!", except their concept of what a whale looks like is "a grey cow that can breathe under water", they don't know what save implies in this context, and they need to look up extinction in a dictionary because they've never heard the word before. The steep learning curve is alienating.
When I see so many sex worker rights discussions going on, I wonder if some people have ever ventured outside of the intellectual pervert cliques of New York City and San Francisco.
It's not like I disagree with what most of the brainy clique is writing, or think they should stop saying it, but I'm a pragmatist who knows that deconstructing every facet of hetero-normativity is not the most pressing issue for most sex workers.
Yes, everything is connected, "let's not be single-issue", I get that – but some people are like a chef so busy trying to explain how to make impressively intricate fondant cakes that they forget that their audience hasn't even mastered Jello instant pudding yet. I'm not anti- fondant cake, but let's start with getting everyone on board with that just-add-milk-and-stir thing, and then work our way up from there, shall we?
If you want to change the world, you have to be able to meet people where they're at, to explain things to average people using plain language. Broad-based social change is not a competition to see who can talk the furthest over the heads of the general public. That famous quip about how "the only thing that's ever changed the world is a small group of committed people" is complete bullshit. You do need those core instigators, but if it starts and ends there, your cause is doomed.
Further, sex workers really need to reconsider what it means to "build bridges with other communities." We can get every last feminist sex blogger and BDSM enthusiast to say they agree with our cause, but, well... that's not really progress.
The way I see, the root thing we're working to change is public opinion and stigma before we can do anything else – like changing or repealing laws – and sex workers need to actually reach out to the general public.
I love sex bloggers and kinksters and think they have been great allies, but they are members of the choir, not the people that we most need to reach. It seems like 99% of outreach efforts are focused on influencing less than 1% of the population.
We need to stop kidding ourselves and acting like it's a major accomplishment to convince someone who's already devoted to transgressive sexuality that they should support sex workers, too. (I'm not dismissing our cool allies in the pervert scene, I'm stating that we need more allies.)
3.) The "working" class needs to be at the forefront of the sex workers rights movement.
In Jim Goad's polarizing book, The Redneck Manifesto, he lays things out thusly:
The working class doesn't write a lot of history books. The working class doesn't produce many movies or radio shows. The working class doesn't need to hire media consultations or theatrical agents. The working class has played an itty-bitty role in fashioning its public image.
That's because the working class was too busy working.
I might not be "working class" in the sense Goad means it, but I'm "working" class within the sex work scene in that my focus has been on actual sex work, not on writing about it for liberal news sites and academic journals, debating anti-prostitution activists on TV, or promoting myself as a guest lecturer available to talk to college students about "feminist porn".
Even as I blog, consider writing a book, and start expanding into doing more political stuff, I'm still working a full-time job as a pornographer and web cam performer, which is where I devote most of my energies.
I know we're all busy, but I'd like to see more sex workers take just a bit of time to get involved in something, or speak out, or share their stories. I don't want sex worker politics to belong only to a handful of feminist intellectuals, I want to see blogs and contributions and stories and ideas from people sprinkled all over the country, doing all sorts of different work, especially those who have no prior experience with activism and political organizing.
I want to see new faces. I want these faces to be diverse, but without refusing to acknowledge the reality that most sex workers are able-bodied cisgender women who adhere to mainstream beauty standards.
It saddens me to see any sex worker feeling like there's no place for them because they're not a punky queer hipster (pseudo)intellectual. It's such a bizarro-world scenario where a teeny little minority of (ex) sex workers can make the majority feel like they are the ones who don't fit in.
I know a number of long-standing, smart, politically-minded, and/or boundary-pushing people whose work and opinions don't get mentioned in political sex work and "feminist porn" discussions because they don't fit into the established superficial mould of what a "smart sex worker" is supposed to look and act like.
Is sex worker activism a momentum-gathering social movement or a temporarily trendy subculture, like ironic mustaches?
I stated that I'm calling for a "working" class uprising, and I chose that word for a reason. I didn't call for a coup. I don't want to silence anyone or tell anyone to stop doing what they're doing. I am calling for the rest of us to literally rise up, to become the dominant voices not because we take voices away from others, but because we are speaking up for ourselves.
If you don't like how things are going, or don't feel represented by the current sex worker political scene, it's up to you to make sex worker politics yours through your own participation.
4.) I live up to what I ask of others, so I'm starting a new project. Its focus is on providing accessible information about sex work to a general audience.
I've had an idea for this independent project floating around in my head for a while, and decided that now is the time to finally get on it. Independent as in something I can operate mostly by myself, without joining an existing group and devoting time to organization meetings, worrying about consensus processes, and frankly, having to rely on other people – who may end up flaking out on me.
While I will be asking for input, advice, and help from other people, I'm a ultimately a lone wolf, and I want something that's mostly operated by me, because then I know it will get done.
The political work (I sort of hate the word "activist" because of the subculture scene image it implies) I've been involved with off-and-on over in the last decade has been of a very different framework than general education and outreach.
My experiences are with more targeted issues where there's some clear goal and there are more definitive metrics to gage success. Changing the big picture for sex workers is fucking hard. This isn't "let's get this company/person to stop/start doing this specific thing."
Sluts and whores (and women falsely perceived to be so) are some of the most hated people across every human culture in the world. Every single religion is anti-sexuality, and that affects our global psyche in ways I don't think all people realize or care to admit. So, while this isn't little Furry Girl's first try at doing something political, it's a truly challenging construct due to its vastness and how much it's ingrained in our world.
Also, it's funny to me that I generally agitate for more "radical" positions on issues, but what most needs to be done for sex workers is providing polite, 101-level basic public education, so what's what I'm going to do.
The launch date on my project hasn't been determined yet, but it will be some time in the spring. I promise, it will be good, and I'll write more about this soon. In the mean time, if you have a fancy-pants job and aren't hurting too badly from the recession, I would appreciate any early-bird donations to get the ball rolling.
I've decided on what I have the skill, time, and interest to contribute. What will you start doing this year?
Furry Girl is the pen/performer name of a ex-feminist pornographer and sex worker who has been working in the adult industry full-time for over eight years. She operates a number of "specialty" porn sites with feature a diverse array of models, blogs about sexual politics and sex workers rights at feminisnt.com where this article first appeared, and can be found on Twitter as @furrygirl.