Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What sort of pressure causes different people to become sex workers?

The vast majority of people worldwide who become sex workers do so out of imposed necessity. While for a significant fraction, estimated by even pro-sex work advocates to compose about a quarter of sex workers worldwide this takes the form of sexual slavery and kidnapping, many sex workers experience a less violent indoctrination via monetary necessity.

I am not referring to the kind of monetary necessity that involves some vague fear of eventually not having a nice condo or a car, but the kind that comes from not knowing where your next meal is coming from in a country where most of the population is just as desperate as you and can't really offer you much help. These fears are exacerbated in cultures where women are denied access to jobs or to the education that they would need in order to qualify for a job. They simply have no hope of ever finding a way in which to earn enough money to live on through any other means.

There was recently a piece done by a mainstream news outlet on the "choice" of Iraqi women to go into prostitution. My guess is that most of the women who are prostituted in Iraq do not ever have the illusion of "choice" and would admit in a second that they do not enjoy their jobs at all. In fact, some of these women do admit just that on camera.

The notion of referring to what they do as "choice" is insulting. I do not know any pro-sex work women who actually are lobbying for the "right" of desperately poor mothers in horribly exploited countries to take a job that makes them want to kill themselves. I have on occasion encountered someone who felt the need to tell me that "nobody can make anybody do anything" and implied that these women did, in the end, have the option of suicide.

The people who have said this to me were almost all men and all white Americans. Which is good for them, I guess, since they'll never have to back up their ludicrous assertions by offing themselves, no matter how much I wish someone would present them with the opportunity.

There are a huge number of women, especially in the USA, who prostitute themselves for drugs. And yes, being addicted to drugs is bad and is often an indicator of poor decision-making abilities. However, addiction is a powerful force that renders a person unable to make any decision in almost all circumstances except to do whatever they think they need to do to get more drugs. If someone who is addicted turns to sex work or chooses to stay in it, they most certainly are not making a free choice.

I tend to think of sex work as a symptom of addiction, not something that can exist separately in the same individual. If someone is an addict and a sex worker, they cannot claim that they have made a free choice of sex work which had nothing to do with a desperation for money. The addicts who do not degrade themselves sexually for money seem to me to be the ones who have other ways of making money and are usually not by any means different in either character or addiction from the ones who do.

Now we're moving more into what is thought of as a "grey area." This grey area for prostitutes is a little higher in the good old U S of A than in most other countries, since most of us have our needs provided for so exceedingly well in comparison to your average Thai thirteen-year-old. However, I think it's important to emphasize that studies done by anti-sexual slavery advocates indicate that women worldwide who go into prostitution do so with the belief that it was something they "chose" are the vast minority.

Out of the sex workers who claim that they decided upon their current vocation because it's something they enjoy or at least view as a "regular job", between 65% and 90% have been sexually abused as children.

While our national average for incest and childhood sexual abuse survival is high, more than half is much higher and the elevated level of sexual abuse histories among sex workers needs to be examined. To me the answer seems obvious: a high number of sex workers became sex workers due to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder which cause them to act out sexually, to be "promiscuous."

I really hate the word promiscuity. It's all pretty damn relative, and I fail to see why somebody else should be allowed to tell me I'm having too much sex anyway. That said, survivors of childhood sexual abuse often end up having not just a lot of sex, but a lot of sex that they aren't really even enjoying. It helps to define promiscuous behavior not as "having too much sex," but as "compulsively seeking out sexual encounters which are not actually fulfilling" in order to avoid the implied value judgement usually found in the word.

The idea is that having a lot of sex when you want to and it doesn't interfere with your life is fine, and having a lot of sex when you don't particularly even care about sex is bad specifically because it has negative emotional effects and is a sign of unhealthy compulsive behaviors.

There are a few ways of explaining why someone who was abused as a child might be engaging in more sex and with different people than they actually desire. For many survivors, there's sort of a disconnect between the act of sex with someone and positive feelings or desire centered around that person. Having sex extremely often without any emotions or attraction isn't at all disturbing in this context.

In fact, this "numb" sex can actually serve some emotional purpose for the survivor, who may be re-enacting their past abuse in a situation which gives them the illusion of control, or might be using the situation in order to make themselves feel "powerful" since they are indifferent (almost immune) to the effects of an act that has a profound effect on most people. It's also possible that somebody who was raised in an abusive situation only ever got affection from immediate family members as part of sex and therefore believes subconsciously that their sexual availability is a direct measure of others' capacity to love them, or that someone whose family members had sex with them learned early and well the lesson that sex was all they were good for.

All of these reasons are strong contributing factors to the decision that many survivors make to go into sex work, and they are all bad reasons based on unhealthy modes of sexual expression which retraumatize a survivor while preventing her from beginning to recognize the signs of and heal from her abuse.

The inescapable abject poverty experienced by working poor, working class minorities in our country is also a huge motivator for many women who go into prostitution. These women are on average far less likely to go into stripping at the safest and highest profit clubs or to work for the safest and highest quality agencies for the reason that most of them are not as sought after by clients who don't perceive them as "classy," and that many of them are not white enough to appeal to the tastes of the often racist hobbyist base.

However, these women exist and are doing sex work against their express wishes and usually in direct opposition to the moral code by which they would prefer to be living their life. They experience sex work as the degrading and terrible experience it is, and they have little interest in rationalizing it otherwise. They comprise the majority of sex workers in our country.

The number of women remaining to be classified is so small as to be negligible in the grand scheme of things, but these girls are vocal in their defense of a system that really ought to be torn down, a defense they somehow frame as brave opposition to oppressive and powerful anti-sex work forces. Also, many of them constantly try to refute my assertion that the majority of people who claim to have chosen sex work were abused at some point by pointing out that they personally weren't. (Because these women, despite being a fraction of a percent of sex workers worldwide, seem to be operating off the assumption that their experience is universal.)

Why do I think that a woman who says she has never been abused in her life (I'm not sure I believe all of them), an educated, upper-class woman with access to better job opportunities and no addictions, would go into sex work?

All of these things are easier to understand if you recognize that our culture is actually extremely supportive of and conducive to the decision to go into sex work. Pornstars get book deals and fame which actually extends into their retired lives and non sex-work ventures. Prostitutes are the object of mystical worship, assumed to be successful in prostitution not because demand is high and they are superficially beautiful but because they somehow embody an ideal of sexual perfection and acquiescence. The mythical good girl working her way through college at a strip club is justification for suggesting that the girl you know do the same. The rapist (literally, it's been reported on many times and proven in court) behind Girls Gone Wild suggests that women find it empowering to be part of his videos.

Somehow, having control of your body and sexuality is supposed to mean having control of how you sell it to others. Perks like having more money, more control, and shorter or more flexible hours are taken to be the upside of a profession with no downside and when people discuss these perks, they don't discuss the degradation which renders a shorter work week completely irrelevant, the fact that other jobs can make you a lot of money in a little time without requiring that you become a consumable experience, how to get these other jobs, or even the glaringly obvious fact that all people in all professions should have access to financial stability and bearable work situations.

A quick search on Google proves that it is much easier to find women making the ridiculous assertion that allowing strangers who don't like women access to your female body somehow empowers it than it is to find someone pointing out the no-brainer which is that sex work is humiliating to people with healthy boundaries. In this environment, it can be said that women particularly but people in general are actually being encouraged to enter into sex work and don't feel safe voicing dissatisfaction with it, especially if they are in well-paid, high-end sex work. They don't see their experiences as legitimate because they are constantly hearing about and supposedly being shown evidence as to how enjoyable it is to be a sex worker.

There are a growing number of communities that in striving to be sex worker supportive are actually adamantly pro-sex work. It's hard for most Americans, who are part of much more socially conservative communities, to fathom the truth of this, but where do you think things like the Sex Worker's Art Show came from? Spread magazine? It's absolutely true when I say that there exists a movement which is not only against violence on prostituted women (which I support) but which tries to normalize and frame as a positive decision work which is not normal, positive, or a decision.

This movement has made a lot of headway in a lot of subcultures, particularly among people who wish to distinguish themselves from the morally repugnant politically conservative set who loudly disdain sex work and sex workers from somewhere in the middle of our country. Sex work and its acceptance is seen as a rebellion for some people against the stifling reactionary sexually prude culture that prevailed in the towns where they were raised before moving to a metropolitan coastal city. To be against sex work is to be with Jerry Falwell.

Certainly, within all the "alternative" communities I have seen and been part of which described themselves as sex-worker supportive, it was considered extremely rude for me as a sex-worker to voice dissatisfaction with sex work. I was breaking an ideological boundary and committing a grave faux pas when I tried to talk about it. I was under the distinct impression that my friends would think less of me, possibly even stop speaking to me, if I said what I knew was true about what I was doing with my body.

Those from these circles that I am still in touch with tend to confirm my suspicions by being irrationally upset by my assertion that I don't think sex work is good for you, regardless of whether the issue affects them personally. It's not because they are sex workers, are close friends with any sex workers at the moment, or ever see sex workers. They have, in general, far less genuine interest in societal concepts of sex work than I do. The problem is that by breaking with their conventional wisdom, I have said something which is just not said and done something which is just not done.

Even our mainstream patriarchal culture, the one of middle American teenagers who have never seen what I would call an "alternative subculture," demands that the targets of men's affections present as willing sex objects at all times. In a country where WalMart attempts to sell panties to preadolescents which reads "Who Needs Credit Cards?" it can hardly be said that we are not encouraging sex work and prostitution imparticular. Sure, we also talk a lot of trash about "sluts," "hookers," and "whores," but our media also spends most of its time subtly guiding women toward sex work with a multitude of cues and societal conditioning which teach them that they are nothing more than objects for men to possess. I'd say that the former is not enough to counteract the latter, especially since it disparages sex workers as individuals rather than sex work as a valid career path.

College is seen as the road to success in our country, an education the opener of doors. Whether or not this is actually true (and judging by the number of college grads I know who work behind cash registers it is not) it bears mentioning that our society creates intense pressure to spend tens of thousands of dollars on school whether you have it or not. College is an all-consuming goal. It's supposed to be the most important thing twenty-somethings have going on in their lives. It is one of the last viable options for transcending class for those who were born working-poor, and to hold out the idea of college to someone who could not usually afford it, someone raised with material deprivation, as some sort of promise that they could spend the next four years doing this one thing and then be guaranteed to never go hungry for the rest of their lives- well, that's the worst kind of coercive. It's a seductive lie. It's blackmail. It's anything but conducive to free choice.

I've had young people, only slightly younger than myself, speak to me as if convinced that they need to go to college or they will literally die homeless and soon. Nobody should be surprised that some of these young people would go to lengths as great as doing sex work, despite sex work's being against their moral and religious beliefs, in order to accomplish the goal which is a college education, something they perceive to be the only ticket to a better life.

Indeed, the irrational desire to earn vast sums of money beyond what one could ever spend or beyond what one needs to be comfortable, no matter how repulsive the actual job, can be seen in many Americans and in many other people worldwide. This isn't just greed. Sex workers aren't just "greedy," though I've heard them accused of greed often enough. Sex workers, like all other people, are vulnerable to indoctrination. Our capitalist system has, in this case, done the brain-washing from a very young age.

Finally, almost all sex workers, like almost all other people, are taught from a very young age to worship the almighty dollar. Almost all sex workers who were raised in poverty, like almost all poor people, have been taught from a very young age that market structures are fair and just and that the better goal than tearing down an oppressive system is to work your way to the top of it, to become as rich as the people who drive through your neighborhood with the doors locked. What better way for our world's elite to indoctrinate those they oppress?


Adrienne Marie said...

Some day I will have the time and energy to help you edit, dear one.

Till then, this is the CNN article you referenced:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this really excellent piece. I find prostitution defenders refuse to believe that it cannot be a free choi. They refuse to see the woman as whole, only as her role as a prostitution. I find their attitude highly offensive and patronising. Rebecca

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this really excellent piece. I find prostitution defenders refuse to believe that it cannot be a free choi. They refuse to see the woman as whole, only as her role as a prostitution. I find their attitude highly offensive and patronising. Rebecca