Thursday, January 24, 2008

Do you think it's immoral to be a sex worker?

No, this question again frames sex work as a decision made by women when it's really not much of a decision for most. It is not immoral to do what you feel you need to do in order to get the money you need to survive. It is not immoral to be so damaged by a patriarchal society that you somehow see giving in to the demands that you act as a submissive sex object as less work and more rewarding than fighting the system.

That said, it is a bit immoral for some of the women who go around lecturing the world at large on how much they love sex work and therefore it's not a bad thing to do what they do. They may be suffering great emotional and mental upset for which I refuse to blame anybody ever, but they are certainly defending and promoting a system which is inherently sexist and does horrible things to people. And often they are doing it with no concern for the fact that they, as educated, articulate, conventionally attractive, western, and/or white women approach sex work from a degree of choice and privilege that most women in the world are not allowed, which is classist and/or racist.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Does sex work hurt women?

Actually, yes. And I don't particularly care how many people are going to get mad at me for saying this, but please do give me a couple paragraphs to explain myself.

The argument about whether or not sex work hurts women often boils down to what we believe people are paying for when they pay a sex worker.

Pro sex work arguments often tell us that sex workers are hired by men who can't otherwise get anybody to have sex with them because they are physically unattractive, old, shy, or stuck in horrible marriages. They are supposedly hired because everybody needs and deserves sex. Often, the argument is made, subtly or not so subtly, that if a straight man is denied access to female sexual organs for too long, he will become warped with rage and unrequited yearning until he is transformed into some sort of stranger-rapist. Very occasionally, people tell me that sex workers who allow these warped men to act out their fantasies about violent sex will induce some sort of catharsis or at least satiety that makes the man less likely to go out looking for some woman to haul into an alley.

Here's the problem with that line of thought. First, it's all based on the idea that conventionally unattractive people can't get laid, and that's wrong. All of my conventionally unattractive friends will in fact tell you that that's wrong because they are having lots of sex. More importantly, men don't become rapists due to lack of sex. Men become rapists for a lot of reasons, many of which center around a sociopathic desire to cause extreme pain and humiliation to another human. All of my male friends who can't get laid to save their lives, many of whom are actually very good-looking, are insulted by the idea that they will turn into slobbering rapists any second now, as it implies that they are little more than subhuman monsters held at bay by the occasional willing hole.

I believe that when someone pays a sex worker to sexually service a total stranger regardless of whether or not she hates his guts, this person is paying her to ignore consent and just do whatever he says. This person is paying her to do things she would not normally do under threat of dire financial trouble which may result in homelessness or inability to feed oneself, which in turn could very easily lead to death, or at least a life not much more desirable than death.

It's very difficult to rationalize this as anything other than a variety of rape. I'm not being farfetched here. I'm not saying this to negate the experience of women who have "actually" been raped. I myself have experienced violent rape under explicit threat. I understand that it's different and far worse.

However, rape is nonconsensual sex under threat or heavy coercion, not nonconsensual sex under threat or heavy coercion that the survivor finds particularly traumatizing and meets our societal expectations of what rape is like. Simply put, there are different types of rape and sexual assault, and the scenario which gets most attention in media and mainstream culture is not the only that exists.

I believe that men who regularly see strippers and prostitutes or watch mainstream commercial porn probably don't care much about the right of every woman to only have sex with people because she wants to, and not because she is being threatened with slow starvation and having nowhere to sleep. This is probably because they have absorbed patriarchal lessons about not seeing women as real people instead of things you fuck and/or slap around.

My experience certainly reflects this. It's not just "subtle" things like the number of clients who wanted to "do" me while watching violent porn. It's more obvious and real. See, there are websites (No, I'm not telling you what they are.) which rate prostitutes and list the acts they will commit. These same sites are the ones on which most prostitutes advertise and meet quite a few potential clients. I certainly used them religiously, to great effect. These websites have boards for discussion amongst "hobbyists" as well as a space for women and agencies to advertise, and the topics that came up were often downright scary and very indicative of the way that the men on the site saw all women.

Anybody who has ever argued that prostitution actually lessens violence against women rather than encouraging men to objectify and then victimize us needs to check out the threads which centered around "why pros are better than real women" (because they don't ask you to treat them as well as you would a regular human) and "where you go" (to spy on women in their late teens from your car as you masturbate, which apparently lots of the local guys on that site did on a regular basis). This sort of behavior on the part of the main body of men who see escorts in a given area tells me that not only is sex work highly damaging to the women engaged in it, it's a tool whereby men legitimize seeing women as something less than people. It's something that hurts us all.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Why are you assuming everybody else's experience of sex work is the same as yours was?

I'm not; I'm pointing out that many women have had my experience of sex work, and that many women getting abused by an industry is a good enough reason to shut it down. I fail to see why it's my responsibility to prove that every last sex worker on the face of the earth has been repeatedly horrifically victimized before I'm allowed to say that the industry as a whole is doing bad things to people on a systematic level.

I wish that people would stop pointing to the relatively few women who purport to be happy in sex work every time I bring this up. All you are proving is that a few women (usually the upper class white women who work for expensive agencies with cars, drivers, background checks, and security) are willing to say that they feel okay about things right now. Why do they get to speak for all sex workers when I have to be prevented from speaking for even a few? Is it because they agree with you and I don't?

Friday, January 18, 2008

So does that mean you think prostitution should be illegal?

No. I believe that sex workers are the passive objects of sex work, especially prostitution. I believe that women (and a growing number of men) are victimized by the sex industry. I do not believe that the passive objects of a given act should be blamed for the act, or that the victims of the crime which is acting out your sexual aggression on a stranger with no other options should be punished, as they are now in our system.

To suggest that we punish the victim for the crime which was committed upon them is ridiculous, and the fact that people want to do this so often to "bad women" is a sign that a large and powerful segment of our society hates women and thinks they need to be punished for acts which pale in comparison to what their clients are doing.

To clarify: Currently, prostitution is illegal in this country, and the result is that "Johns" are rarely if ever punished and include many police officers, with a focus on putting non-abusive agencies run by former prostitutes and women working for themselves out of business which takes valuable resources away from stopping abusive pimps. I had quite a few clients describe close calls to me in which the police, in order to get information about an agency or individual they were trying to take down, took them in and threatened to tell their families about the fact that they had been seeing prostitutes. However, none of these men were ever threatened with charges for regularly abusing women as the police poured resources into arresting said women.

More about police and prostitution: Not only I have worked for agencies that avoided trouble with the law by getting tips from police officer clients, there have been cases of officers working on a "sting" to capture certain women or agencies having sex with a prostitute on the government's dime before arresting her. If anything, I think the horrible treatment of prostitutes who get caught under our current system is due in part to the fact that the men busting them come from the same pool and share the same attitudes (and often are the same men) who are paying to do horrible things to them- which is to say they they hate women and have absorbed patriarchy's lessons about abusing them.

Finally, under a system which treats prostituting oneself as a sensational crime and not an unfortunate victimization, the news stations that love to report sensational crimes will have a field day, splattering a woman's face all over the television and reporting her name. This can and has opened up the woman to vigilante justice, and those news stations do not care because she is a "bad woman," a "whore." The news stories go online, as does the sex worker's face. This woman can never get a "real job."

At this point a system that purports to abhor the existence of sex work has taken away all the other options for the individual who made it onto the news, in effect ensuring that sex work continues to exist. This same principal is in effect when a woman who has been stripping for a long time cannot get a mainstream job, either because the well-off men who control who gets hired frequent her, know what she does, and have deemed her unworthy, or because she is unable to explain a long gap on her resume, or because she was actually stupid enough to admit on paper to having been a stripper in world where strippers are assumed to be hair-twirling, bubble-gum popping nymphomaniacal morons with nice hair.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

What if women like being sex workers?

The number of women who later retract these claims makes me extremely skeptical of any woman who tells me she enjoys being a sex worker. It's just as possible that she's lying to me out of shame at being victimized or that she's not emotionally stable and would hate what she was doing if she were to suddenly regain her equilibrium. 

However, even if the women who tell me they enjoy sex work are telling the truth, they don't speak for all women. Let's vastly underestimate and say that only ten percent of sex workers out there are unhappy, causing themselves emotional damage or will later experience intense regret at having been sex workers. 

If ten percent of the millions of sex workers worldwide are suffering the kind of emotional damage I’ve witnessed and lived, I would never be comfortable taking a one-in-ten risk of inflicting it on another human being. Anybody at all comfortable enough with those odds to go use a sex worker is necessarily a bad person, or at least not sufficiently empathic at that moment.

I'd say that the abolition of the sex industry as we know is it really the only compassionate response to any incident of this kind of exploitation.

Are you against all sex work?

I have no objection to any woman consensually going into sex work who is capable of making the same kind of money while working the same hours in another field. To give some examples:

Amateur porn depicting consensual sex acts, acts which would be occurring anyway and acts which are committed by people who most likely get off on strangers downloading porn of them, is fine by me. Professional porn depicting economically exploited women getting slapped around during painful sex is not. 

Women who could be earning more elsewhere charging enlightened pro-feminist men for sex with would be fine by me, if such a thing were not an oxymoronic laughable fantasy. (How many honestly pro-feminist men do you know of who would see a prostitute? How many sex workers do you know of who could earn a thousand dollars a night doing anything else?) I remain opposed to women getting paid obscene amounts of money to pretend they enjoy whatever a strange man does to them. 

Monday, January 14, 2008

How is sex work a feminist issue if there are male sex workers?

The short answer is that almost all sex workers are women and 99.9% of all sex workers are working for men. The longer answer is:

1) Male sex workers often have a very different experience from female sex workers.

I remember having a guy friend who worked in-calls constantly telling me that he loved his work and asserting that any women who complained of feeling pressure from male clients were not properly dealing with their clients and that, in fact, these women were bad sex workers. I think that what this man failed to see is that he, a highly educated white man who worked as a high-ranking executive during the day, was going to be treated very differently by his clients than, say, someone like me.

This is not to say that male sex workers do not get abused. They do. But female sex workers are also abused and at astronomical rates, in a system that has disadvantaged them and sexualized them from the day they were born.

2) Patriarchy is a motherfucker. Women are universally sexualized, de-humanized and toiletized and men in our society are taught to be aggressive and to see aggression as sexual. It is deemed socially desirable, even mandated, for men to seek out passive and controllable partners, and to engage in non-emotional, semi-abusive relationships with those partners.  When no such partners are readily available and rape strikes him as unpalatable, there is always the option of paying to rape a stranger, thus legitimizing the abuse.

Men who enjoy sex with men might, on the surface, be seen as subverting the patriarchy by seeking out same-sex partners, but their learned modes of sexual expression are patriarchy-approved and often cause them to abuse men in the same way, and sex workers where applicable.

Yes, I am writing mostly about women as sex workers here, but to be fair, that's what I know best. Someone else can and should write more about men.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Who sees sex workers?

Everybody, which knowledge threw me for a very unfortunate loop after I quit. There is no way that a "hobbyist" looks. Most of them were between fifty and seventy years old, vaguely conservative, well-dressed men. But I also had clients in their twenties and a client who was younger than me. That, I think, is the scary part, that as the older generation of men who would pay to abuse a woman heads towards an impotent sunset surrounded by nurses who would most likely not call in an escort upon request, more and younger men rise to take their place. This is not a problem that is going away. This is not a problem that can be ignored.

I'm not saying it's an immutable fact of male nature, more that our society is training young men to hate women just as surely as it trained their fathers. Only the younger ones can rationalize it better.

The thing about hobbyists is that although almost every single thing that a hobbyist does indicates that he associates satisfying sex with hurting women and fails to think of women as real people, they don't really stand out in a society that encourages all men to think about their sexuality in the same terms.

Certainly, it is considered "normal" for a man to watch some violently-themed porn and to occasionally see strippers, and most women I know would only raise objections if they knew a man who was doing it "too much." This misses the fact that when your average man pays any sex worker, he is paying to degrade and sexualize her. The men who do this less frequently are not "okay;" they just objectify women less.

Who are sex workers?

Sex workers are not who you think they are. First of all, sex workers are not all stereotypically or conventionally attractive- in fact I've worked with quite a few very successful women in Baltimore with more than a few extra pounds (The beauty standards of the US Mid-Atlantic region really are far more forgiving of large ladies. Just ask John Waters.). I was one of many women who refused to shave their pubic areas. The first sex worker I ever met had multiple facial piercings and bright red two-inch-long armpit hair.

Second, sex workers are not all desperately unhappy, and many of the ones who are certainly don't seem so at first. You aren't going to know who is a sex worker by looking for the first sad lady with a tale of childhood molestation and an inability to meet your eye. A lot of people have that, anyway.

Third, sex workers aren't all young. I worked with many who were over forty.

Fourth, sex workers aren't "trashy." Plenty get away with telling even close friends and lovers that they are some sort of office worker or consultant for years on end without anybody questioning it because they are composed, articulate, well-dressed women with law degrees and business suits.

Finally, as I just implied, sex workers aren't all "out." This is important. You have, by virtue of existing in our society, most likely met a sex worker who you did not know was a sex worker. You have probably met a person engaged in prostitution. Think about it. How many of your friends and acquaintances do you follow to work every day? How many of your coworkers do you follow home? Why are you so sure that they "aren't like that?"

Sex workers, from strippers to dommes to pornstars to prostitutes, can and do date, and there are quite a few who either don't tell their partners or have no trouble at all finding partners willing to date a sex worker. A beautiful woman who for some reason has no partner and works late nights might just be telling the truth when she says she's a waitress and she's not very interested in sex. You can't tell.

As with trying to figure out who sees sex workers, there is simply no way of knowing. The business is big. Much, much bigger than most people know, and most people involved are understandably embarrassed to admit what they are doing by a society that tells us sex workers are all bad people.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

What is sex work? What are the different types of sex work?

I would define sex work as the exchange of money for the sexual use of a person's body, whether that use involves direct contact or voyeurism. By this definition, fetish workers and dommes are sex workers, strippers are sex workers, prostitutes and people working out of massage parlours are sex workers, nude/porn/fetish models are sex workers, as are professional porn actors.

There are a lot of strippers and models who hate to be thought of as sex workers. These people often try to tell themselves that lack of certain types of physical contact or penetration, or what have you, makes them somehow immune to whatever they dislike about the population of sex workers at large. This is intellectually dishonest.

There are a lot of neo-burlesque performance artists who identify as sex workers despite the fact that they tend to work largely for audiences who are paying them for the art and dance aspects rather than for sexual stimulation. This is intellectually dishonest as well.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

If you did it, why are you saying it's bad?

Like most grownups, I am capable of admitting I made a mistake. I made a big one when I went into sex work.

Friday, January 4, 2008

How do you know what you're talking about?

I became a prostitute at nineteen in order to pay for my apartment and car the best I could with no degree, no work experience, and with what anybody who tried to hire me for anything else would be willing to tell you was a terrible attitude. I was part of a community of moral relativists who believed that prostitution was a completely valid and even desirable choice for women young and pretty enough to make lots of money at it (they also believed there was nothing wrong with me dating a parade of men nearly twice my age). The idea was that it was all my choice, and any discouragement would be deleterious to my freedom, but for some reason encouragement was okay.

Eventually, I tried to get into stripping because I thought it would be better for me than prostitution, inasmuch as it offered no actual exchange of sexual intercourse for money. Unfortunately, I found that strip clubs were actually more humiliating and less tolerant places to work. They're pickier about "imperfections" like body hair where my clients had always praised my decision to keep my pubic hair/lip ring, the boundaries are constantly being renegotiated, with some customers negotiating quite aggressively, and the whole place was run by creepy men. It was awful.

I went back to prostitution and worked for myself until I had one client say some nasty things to me that made me decide to quit. I worked at a restaurant for a couple of months before I got fired (I can't quite tell if it was for cutting my hair wrong, sleeping with my boss, or not sleeping with my boss anymore). At this point, a desire to not spend the rest of my life in a drug-addled murder-ridden city barely making rent and checking my email at the library spurred me into the decision to move to my current city of residence, where I immediately got back into prostitution (I had showed up in the city with a very negative bank account and had to turn up about two thousand in order to get into my own place and off my friend's couch by the end of the month).

I continued to work as a prostitute in order to pay for my apartment and my classes at a local art school until sometime in the late summer of 2006, at which point I took a break, which turned into a permanent holiday. I coasted on money I'd saved until it ran out. Then I was introduced to my current employer by sheer coincidence.

My current job is not important.

During my time as a prostitute, especially as someone who felt intense economic pressure to go into sex work and intense social pressure to lie about how that felt, I would make a lot of the same statements that young sex workers make to me all the time. I know where these ladies are coming from because I used to live there. I know what I'm talking about because I've done what they do.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

An Introductory Statement

I was recently at a nice local activist house watching a nice British zombie movie with a nice local activist hacker. When the movie was over and we were all more than a little on edge (even me, and I'd seen the movie before) from watching something as masterfully suspenseful and disturbingly violent as 28 Weeks Later, my hacker friend decided to take the edge off with a video game. While the rest of us sat slack-jawed on the couch and tried to reconcile the part of us that enjoyed watching a newly reanimated man poke out his wife's eyes in a fit of zombie rage with the part of us that believes it's wrong to hurt any other living being by wearing their fur, this friend popped in Grand Theft Auto 3.

The funny thing about me and Grand Theft Auto, aside from my having such a strong opinion about it despite the fact that I've only ever played video games a few times in my life, is that I manage to hate it for such different reasons than most people. Sure, there are fundamentalist Christians and pro-censorship jerks out there who think that it should be forbidden for kids to enter into simulated gun wars with cops, but frankly I don't see why it's such a big deal that the main character is shooting at police who are also trying to kill him. That seems like self-defense, or at least a justifiable counter-attack. I'm also not sure what the big deal is about the car theft either, but hey, I don't own a car.

There are two reasons I don't like the game: the glamorized casual violence against innocents that is commonplace in all video games to some degree and the fact that you can pick up female "hookers" and use them to increase your health stats. Number two is definitely my major complaint, and I said as much to the room full of three male and five female activists.

The men didn't have much response, actually, which is predictable. When I called the guy who I guess I'd call "my boyfriend" if I didn't hate that phrase later that night to tell him my story, he didn't seem to know what to say either. I think the opinion of a lot of enlightened and activist men is that they have almost as little right trying to inject themselves into a discussion of the effect that the sex industry has on women as they do to force their opinions on say, abortion, down someone else's throat. Whether or not a woman chooses to engage in sex work is framed as a debate about the choices she makes with her body, not a debate about the societal forces that might have made the decision for her. In my opinion that's a problem.

What was shocking to me was that the women in the room all disagreed with me. One girl snapped at me that street-walking isn't dangerous because "the women take care of each other" and walked out before I could respond. One went to sleep immediately to avoid the argument. One told me that she didn't think it was my right to tell others what was good for them and that I couldn't assume everybody had the same experience of sex work that I did. One spent the next hour volleying back and forth with me and only decided to go to bed when she seemed about to cry but had succeeded in getting me so flustered that I couldn't get out an intelligible response to any of what she was flinging at me.

This woman at one point confessed to me that she is a sex worker, assuming, I guess, that she'd just played her trump card and that I would realize I had no idea what I was talking about and shut up. Unfortunately, I have also been a sex worker. I was, for a while, arguably one of the most popular full-service escorts in my state and the ones surrounding it. My clients were generally very friendly to me or what passes for very friendly. They gave me obscene amounts of money, told me I was beautiful, and liked to snuggle. About ninety percent of them did their best to be better to me than a lover I could pick up in "real life" for the duration of the hour for which they were paying hundreds of dollars. I then moved to New England where I was met with the same treatment, and so it continued up until the very day I quit.

If anybody out there has reasons to feel "positive" about sex work, it's me. The fact that I still don't should tell people something. The fact that while I was a sex worker I constantly, whole-heartedly made the same fallacious arguments that I can so easily tear apart in this book (and the same ones that were made to me that night) should tell people something.

Sex workers often complain of being silenced, but I'd say some of them are doing just fine with their mission to promote a version of feminism that allows men to keep paying to rape women. Honestly, I'm sure our culture finds that a lot more palatable than anything I have to say on the subject, and the fact that books by and about the joys of renting out your physical sovereignty to people who hate you have become so popular and accepted would attest to the fact that prostitutes are being anything but silenced. Prostitutes are being actively promoted, provided they support the violently exploitative system that is capitalistic patriarchy as it currently operates.

When I come down against prostitution, the assumption is that I have never been one, and that's just stupid. The other assumption is that I am some sort of "recovering" prostitute, some born-again Christian or right-winger here to lecture young girls about the evils of all sex everywhere because I equate it with what I was doing for money this time two years ago. That's also stupid. I'm an atheist. I'm a feminist. If you want to know the truth, I'm an anarchist. I believe that women should have total control over their bodies at all times, including the times when they make decisions that I'd disapprove of. I don't believe prostitution should be illegal. (There are very few things I believe should be illegal.)

I don't pity, hate, or blame the women who I know who are prostitutes. I am trying to walk the fine line between telling them that I am concerned for their well-being and telling them what to do. It's a pretty hefty insult to me to say that I'm trying to "tell other women what to do." I think prostitution hurts almost all people almost all of the time, including the people who aren't aware it's hurting them at the time. I should be allowed to say this without it being interpreted as an order to cease and desist. I'm not the boss of you. Hell, you could be some sort of exception and I'd love you to prove to me that you are.

I'm not a prude. I don't hate sex. I just hate exploitation. I'm fond of pointing out that sex work doesn't happen in a vacuum. A world with no patriarchy would be a much different one in which to have an argument about men paying women for sex. It's possible that in this world, I'd have a lot less to complain about. But that world doesn't exist here.

This book is written as a series of questions I have encountered about my beliefs and my past, complete with the answers I either gave or really really wish I had given. The first chapter clarifies my position(s), the second chapter answers some of the basic questions about why I believe even sex work that does not meet our definition of "forced" is still heavily coerced, the third chapter deals with anti-sex work statements I've heard and actually vehemently disagree with, and the fourth chapter discusses ways in which a person can be anti-sex work without being anti-sex-worker.

I want people who disagree with me to read this book. I want men to read this book. (I am making my gentlemanfriend read the rough draft of this book.) I want hate mail from Southern Baptists who get their news from Fox exclusively to frame and put up on my wall next to the hate mail from people who regularly present at the Sex Workers' Art Show. I want men to read this book. I want neo-burlesque artists to read this book. I want my radical friends, my anarchist friends, my Marxist teachers, people who go to Burning Man, my queer and trans-identified friends, and yuppie office workers to read this book. I secretly want my old clients to read this book. I wish my great-grandmother was alive to read this book. I want men to read this book.