Sex work is real work, even it is exploitation
- Published: 09 April 2011
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Mainstream porn is exploitative and degrading. But it’s more complicated than that: We should be focused on dismantling a society that forces us to sell ourselves, not one particular industry within that society – especially an industry that is currently (for better or worse) the livelihood for some of the most vulnerable people in our culture, writes queer trans activist and occasional porn star Sadie Ryanne.
10 April 2011
A few months ago I signed up for a workshop for sex worker activists at HIPS and presented with the Red Umbrella Project. It’s called “Personal Storytelling for Social Change” and encourages sex workers to tell their/our stories in the face of widespread ignorance about the realities of sex work. I see it as claiming space within a dialog that is overwhelmingly dominated by non-sex workers, especially white, middle class, cis Christians and feminists.
So, I was thinking about what I would say about my experience in the industry. Then, my Facebook displayed an advertisement for an organization called “Porn Harms.” (Targeted advertising: fail! Usually I get ads for “socially-responsible” wedding rings and FTM top surgery. At least those are trying to pay attention to my interests…)
It’s just another group dedicated to exposing the negative impact of porn on women (presumably by perpetuating sexist ideas) and men (presumably by degrading their morality/masculinity). The website is full of questionable research about how porn is addictive and obligatory appeals to how it “destroys families” and “corrupts children.”
Can porn perpetuate sexist/racist/cissexist/transphobic ideologies? Absolutely.
Is most porn ethically bankrupt? Of course.
Can it be fun and empowering? Sometimes.
Some sex-positive activists — particularly relatively better-off ones who do sex work purely by choice — focus on this last one. They talk about how porn can be reclaimed, and even make anti-oppressive porn that is by and for female, queer, and trans people. (Can you tell I had a subscription to Crash Pad?)
I think it’s amazing that we have stuff like Doing it Ourselves: The Trans Women Porn Project working to portray trans women’s sexuality in a realistic way, and not based only on some cis guy’s fantasies. We desperately need more of that. You should probably buy that movie, and then go make your own. (If you want to.)
But the reality is that a lot of mainstream porn is exploitative and degrading. A lot of people do it purely for money. If we only defend porn that is understood as “queer” or “empowering”, we still leave ourselves open to attack from the right and from anti-porn feminists.
If pro-porn activists only focus on queer/liberating porn, the right’s accusations about mainstream porn (and the people who work in it) will go unchallenged.
If we don’t speak explicitly about mainstream porn (the oppressive, cis supremacist kind), they will keep dominating the discourse on this type of porn, and by extension, the people who depend on it for a livelihood. People who have worked in mainstream porn should be allowed to tell the story from our points of view.
So, yes, mainstream porn is exploitative and degrading. But it’s more complicated than that.
This got me thinking about other shit I’ve done to survive under a capitalist economy. I would say all of it is exploitative and degrading in some way or another.
In order of how long I lasted at each job (some of them I did while homeless to make some cash before moving on, thus the short time-spans) here are some of the things I’ve done to survive:
- Selling blood/plasma: about 15 minutes.
- Scraping copper from abandoned buildings: a few hours.
- Agricultural laborer in fruit fields: 2 days.
- Canvassing: 3 days.
- Door-to-door flier distribution: 4 days.
- Childcare and house-cleaning: sporadic.
- Dog-walking/pet-sitting: sporadic and on-going.
- Janitor/cleaner for an industrial bakery: 2-3 weeks.
- Dishwasher: 4 weeks.
- Telemarketing: 4 weeks.
- Cafe barista: 2 months.
- Selling pot: 5 or 6 months.
- Pan-handling, shoplifting, scamming, and bumming: more than I can remember.
- Case manager for an abortion hotline: 2 years.
How is porn any more (or less) degrading than picking up dog shit, trying to sell car insurance over the phone, begging for money on the side of the highway, making lattes for douchebags, or trying to raise funds for nonprofits that will use the money to pay their own CEOs more than 10 times my salary?
Even case management, by far the most fulfilling, was degrading in its own way. Begging for help from some other broke abortion fund so I can pay for a 13-year-old rape survivor to get an abortion without telling her abusive parents, while being totally powerless to help her get out of that place.
Negotiating with clinic managers who only cared about profit margins, so I can beg them to knock a few dollars off her price. (Not all abortion clinics are like that! Some are lovely people.)
Working for a hierarchical nonprofit in which I had almost no voice. Putting up with bosses that actively undermined my health and exploited me for cheap, underpaid labor, and rationalizing it because I was “making a difference.”
Blaming myself for missing a day of work after debilitating panic attacks, knowing that my understaffed and under-resourced coworkers would have to make up for it.
Wondering whether that one woman was going to kill herself if I forgot to call her.
Putting band-aids on as many people as I can, but never doing anything to stop more people from ending up in the same place.
That job left me feeling broken and devalued (ie: degraded). I wouldn’t have been able to get out of this situation if I had not been able to rely on porn as a backup income.
And now, hopefully it can supplement the minuscule amount I make serving coffee. (It pays less, but at least it’s easier to ask “Would you like nonfat or whole milk?” as opposed to, “Is this abortion the result of a fetal anomaly?” or “Can the man involved in your pregnancy help pay for this?”)
I once spent two days on my knees, in the dirt, picking strawberries for eight hours in the cold September haze just outside Montreal. I made well-under Quebec’s minimum wage, and came home with bloody hands and severe back pain. The money barely paid my rent.
I quit after two days, because I am a spoiled pale-skinned girl that had never done that kind of manual labor. (I was the only anglophone in the field, and one of the only people who wasn’t Guatemalan. All of us were undocumented immigrants.)
Or, I spend a couple of hours getting a makeover plus three hours getting off in a fancy hotel. I make enough money to pay my rent for two months.
If anything, the ability to do porn is a privilege I did not earn, just because I conform to enough transphobic/sexist/racist beauty standards.
I can spend all day critiquing porn, especially the mainstream “tranny porn” industry that I have worked in.
They provide coercive incentives to do unhealthy things with our bodies. They pay us extra if we do things that we ordinarily would never agree to do. They encourage us to compete with each other. They often portray us as deceitful “fake women.”
We let them call us words that we would otherwise slap someone for saying. They feed narcissism and make us self-conscious by constantly holding us up to inherently cissexist ideas of beauty and hetereosexist concepts of sexuality.
But it pays. I have fun doing it. And I like most of the people I worked with. My photographer is also a trans lesbian, and explicitly got into the business because they were tired of seeing all their friends out on the stroll freezing their asses off all winter and they wanted to help them make money without going to the street. They were extremely trans-positive, friendly, professional and supportive.
I’ve also talked to photographers who were totally misogynistic jerks. But the point is: misogynistic bosses exist in all industries.
Under a capitalist economy, we’re all forced to sell ourselves somehow. Judging or focusing on one group of marginalized and oppressed people (a) makes no sense and (b) perpetuates the harm done to them.
The same moral condemnation used against porn is directed at prostitution and other forms of sex workers, who often have it a lot harder than people like me who aren’t working dark alleys with anonymous strangers at night.
Porn performers have to deal with stigma and certain levels of fear, while street-involved sex workers face the brunt of physical violence. (The contrast is no accident, by the way. Porn is legal and regulated. “Prostitution” is criminalized. Abusive photographers can be reported. Abusive pimps get away with it precisely because the cops are just as abusive.)
But it is the same whorephobia underlying both kinds of oppression. The prudish voices that condemn porn are usually the same voices (even the “feminist” ones) decrying the “moral depravity” of prostitution.
And that’s the idea behind the criminalization of prostitution: policies that put more sex workers on the streets, behind bars and in danger.
We should be focused on dismantling a society that forces us to sell ourselves, not one particular industry within that society — especially an industry that is currently (for better or worse) the livelihood for some of the most vulnerable people in our culture.
We should be trying to build a world where, instead of working for the profit of others, we work for pleasure and for the benefit of ourselves, our communities and our planet.
Focusing on porn, and ignoring the larger context of capitalism, only serves the interest of those in power and harms those with the least power.
We need to destroy oppression in all spheres of life, including the sexist, transphobic, etc oppressions that are rampant in the porn industry. But why single porn out, when those oppressions are pervasive?
One final thought: Growing up in an overwhelmingly conservative household and a (relatively) rural part of the country where I had no access to queer communities or information on trans people, seeing trans women in porn was probably the first time I ever realized that it was possible to be trans.
So, no matter how much I hate it sometimes, I owe “shemale” porn for that much at least. It exposed me to radical new possibilities, long before queer theory or trans activism did.
Yes, this type of porn contains poisonous themes that pour fear and domination into the minds of millions of people. But it’s more complicated. People who work in porn, and people who look at porn, have agency too.
Some of us can even take the ideas that porn exposes us to, often as young and lonely teenagers, and rework it for our own purposes. We can take apart the imagery and rearrange it into something that gives us hope for the future.
For other trans girls, sex work is the first environment where they are treated with respect, viewed as beautiful and worthwhile, and even able to connect with other people and create mutually supportive communities.
Sadie Ryanne dreams of a world where police, bosses, teachers, pimps, doctors, social workers, immigration agents and schoolyard bullies don’t have the power to keep us from being the strong and beautiful people we know we are, and she believes it takes our collective strength and action to move toward that world. She is a member of the DC Trans Coalition, a volunteer, grassroots organization dedicated to fighting for human rights, dignity, and liberation for all trans people in the District.
Sadie has also worked with HIPS, a peer support agency for sex workers, the National Center for Transgender Equality and is a founding Steering Committee member of the Trans Advocacy Network. While not pestering the government or giving workshops, she can be found talking to herself and her cats.
She maintains a personal blog at The Distant Panic, where this article first appeared.