So recently, I stumbled across a great post by Jenny Zhang.
— Jenny Zhang (@Jennybagel) March 16, 2016
And it’s spot-friggen-on for one of the most crucial and difficult things about the representation of people in the sex industry. People don’t often think of the danger of being out, or the possibility of there being “degrees” of being out, but they totally exist.
I’ve been there. I’ve been coercively “outed” to my family, and lost family members because of it. I’ve hidden it from other family members, and lived in fear of the ones who knew tattling on me, just to see me wounded. I’ve been fetishized by non-sex worker friends, and condescended to by therapists. I’ve compartmentalized, the word for creating a double life with boundaries between the elements that are restricted to one part of my life, to prevent my landlord from finding out about my work, out of the fear that he might kick me out if he took it badly. I’ve been sexually assaulted for being “out” by non-work personal dates, who decided that if I was that kind of skank, surely I was up for anything, and if I was saying “no”, it didn’t mean anything.
The trust I place in those who know of this part of me, and my own defiance in insisting that as many people as possible should accept it as a part of me has been used to hurt me. It’s been used to say I am incapable of making good decisions, and to justify invasive aggression toward my (unrelated) mental illness. It’s been used to coerce me into unwelcome sexual conduct. It’s been used to draw misleading statements about my mental health and my general worth as a person, and to undermine my autonomy. By putting this part of myself forward, I’ve invited the whore stigma to be a force not just in my old professional life, and not just in internal parts of my present life, but in all of my life.
But I am lucky. Plenty of people are isolated from seeking support or recognition from non-industry friends and family by causes much more coercive or dangerous than I was. Being “out” has its dangers, and so much of the time, that gets lost in the rhetoric. Being “out” is a brave act, and I adore all of the people I have met who demand the world see the entirety of them, even the controversial bits. But it’s not for everyone. And until we recognize why that is, and what additional barriers may face others with even more marginalized identities and less social or economic capital, we’re gonna be skewing the framing of the discussion.
To an extent, it’s not simply that the “out” sex workers are the ones doing this; this kind of erasure happens elsewhere in the discussion, too. When anti-trafficking/anti sex work prohibitionists/”abolitionists” discuss sex trafficking as something that primarily happens to innocent white girls who were kidnapped at the mall, or submissive foreign girls who can’t speak for themselves, they are doing it. They are erasing the very real fact that much sexual trafficking is done by friends or loved ones with few other options or similar experiences themselves (Read Alexandra Lutnick’s “Domestic Minor Trafficking Victims” for an eye-opening look at what underage sex trafficking in the US looks like outside of the mainstream narrative) and that even the TERM is vague, and encompasses a lot of situations that people would not consider trafficking, such as Amber Batts in Alaska, who was convicted of trafficking for providing screening services for non-trafficked women of legal age, no force, fraud, or coercion involved. They’re erasing that many of those foreign “sex slaves” would say radically different things than what the prohibitionists say for them. They are erasing the fact that trans women working as sex workers face much more coercive and mentally draining and sometimes violent conditions than CIS women tend to, and that trans women of color face even more hostility, yet. And that many men are exploited in the sex industry, too, especially young gay men from homophobic families, or young men with the same background of abuse or neglect that leads many young women into the industry. They are erasing the fact that they are worsening the conditions that make it more difficult for society at large to allow non-privileged people to advocate for themselves by controlling the narrative in such an exclusionary way that doesn’t address the root causes of exploitation.
They’re creating a specialized narrative that leaves the vast swath of sex workers and trafficking victims alike out in the cold. Because when we’re looking for an innocent white girl with sad eyes, we’re arresting, incarcerating, and/or ignoring legions of black girls who have learned to keep quiet, because they won’t be granted the presumption of victimhood or innocence. We’re legislating the bathroom behaviors of trans people, rather than guaranteeing them freedom from discrimination in employment that could help them find opportunities outside of the sex trade. Or rather than helping them pay for “elective” medical care that can ease their dysphoria and health issues associated with transitioning. We’re ignoring exploitative and predatory practices in other industries, such as the hospitality and agricultural industries, and the bureaucratic hell that traps many migrants in exploitative situations.
The prevalence of this outsider narrative leads to biases that can ruin lives, victimizing people all over again, or putting power into exploitative systems. It leads to us charging trafficking victims like LaTesha Clay as adults, and incarcerating them. It leads to us throwing billions of dollars at “awareness” based on flawed statistics, and undermining HIV outreach by requiring HIV-targeting NGOs to disavow one of the communities that that they had relationships with for the public good: consensual sex workers. It leads to us propagating an unhealthy, racist, xenophobic, and colonialist policy that makes it impossible to recognize what consent (or lack thereof) looks like, when it’s not a little white girl under discussion.
It leads to predators like Daniel Holtzclaw feeling entitled to prey on poor, often majority non-white communities, and surprising the country on the rare occasions they are held accountable.
Being “out” is a privilege, and I’m determined to uplift as many other voices as I can. Because the dangers it’s presented to me aren’t as severe as they could be, and because what I see in the absence of my voice, and voices like mine, is far worse. My job here isn’t to talk until you listen- it’s to uplift as many other voices as possible so that the wider world can see beyond the narratives perpetuated by people even more privileged than me.
To follow along with all of my discussions on the subject, follow my facebook profile. I frequently share relevant links there.
Edit: I misquoted the name of Alexandra Lutnick’s book; the proper name is “Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking” instead.