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.
I’m recovering from some personal issues, but my mind’s as active as ever. And there’s been something on my mind for a while. So here goes.
I’ve slowed down on publishing Love and Lapdances, although I do have a lot of material ready to go. Too many other projects demanding my attention, and Love and Lapdances is a niche project, in part because it’s so far from the stories the market usually bears about sex workers. It’s more a labor of love than a for-profit endeavor, and that sometimes means it takes a backseat.
So, to satisfy my own desire to share my insights, I’m going to be trying to blog a little more, explaining some of the thoughts that make it into the subtext, the little things I hope people carry with them after reading works like the newly-released Bad, Bad Thing, and Love and Lapdances, which star sex workers.
First up, let’s talk exploitation, the thing that comes first and foremost to most people’s minds when they think about sex work.
Margaret Cho just came out on twitter as a former sex worker. And maybe that doesn’t seem too exciting, but for a field that’s largely kept underground, and whose stories are portrayed by outsiders, it’s huge.
Think of the first time you heard a story about a stripper or a full service sex worker. Was it a story of violence and exploitation focusing on their murdered body? Was it a cautionary tail about their spiral down, drawing broad connections between their whoredom and other “tragic” melodramas, such as substance abuse, mental illness, childhood abuse? Or was it a story about the white knight saving them, in which they wring their hands and wait for him to do the right thing, removing them from this life of depravity and danger? Was she a hooker with a heart of gold, who deserved better than that life?
How many sex workers can you think of who’ve been portrayed after they left the work, compared to how many who were shown as dying because of the work? Not many, I’ll bet. I certainly didn’t see many, growing up. This imbalance has drastic and far-reaching effects on the lives of sex workers. From family who immediately assume we’re unsafe or sick when we come out about the work, to partners who always assume we’re “less than”, because of our previous or ongoing choice to be a sex worker. To employers who a sex worker must conceal her work from, rather than have it held against her. Or one who’s denied employment because it can’t be hidden from that background check. It even affects public policy that dictates what legal recourse sex workers have to protest exploitation, through government employees encouraged to see sex work as an inherent evil to be punished, with no nuance or attention paid to the details of the lives of those in that life. It undermines sex workers’ ability to seek support, making harmful and devaluing judgments cultural shorthand.
It ties into a far larger pattern of devaluing our labor. Think about it. When was the last time you heard someone imply that sex work was “easy money”, or “not a real job?” Or that those who did it were short-sighted, stupid, talentless, or somehow unemployable or worth less than normal workers? While it’s true that not all sex workers may be MENSA candidates, it’s a far cry to apply those judgments to them as a collective whole. Sex work requires a very particular set of skills that can be quite intense and difficult to acquire. And judgments like that undermine the fact that those skills can translate well into other fields. The experience of running your own business, whether a sex work related one or not, is a huge boon, helping a worker be independent, self-sufficient, confident and more resilient when faced with no’s, or criticisms… all of these qualities are never explored over the trajectory of sex workers’ lives, in the media. Let’s just say she lays on her back and that’s it.
Sex workers deserve aspirational figures same as everyone else. We deserve celebrities who do sex work through the hard times and go on to blow people’s minds. We deserve discussions on how to translate sex work skills to the larger economy.
If you know where to look, you can find an amazing community of activists, former sex workers, current sex workers trying to rewrite the way our stories are told, but the deeper down the rabbit hole you have to look to find it, the fewer people are gonna be able to. Most of us don’t pick up memoirs for our fun reading, after all. And the process of pulling together a memoir is long and intense and rewards particular kinds of privilege, which makes it harder to get the full range of stories out and visible in a field that’s cluttered with genre fiction subplots written by people who still think the average age of entry into prostitution is 13.
No. If we’re gonna tear this thing down and start making room to show a variety of sex work experiences that would enable us to examine the systemic factors that contribute to people feeling forced into it, or continuing in the work when it’s not healthy for them, we need to start from the ground up. We need sex workers writing about sex workers in every story imaginable. From romances that don’t revolve around their saviors, to police procedurals that don’t begin with them dead. There’s plenty of stories to tell, and we need to be the ones telling them.
I’m a little late in sharing this, but several months back, around the time that my editor and I were hammering out revisions on Edgeplay, we had a very long conversation-turned-interview on the direction of romance, and the ways it intersects with the world around us. The links were shared on my facebook and such at the time, but I forgot to share them here. And there’s some really meaty stuff. Because I’m apparently a sucker for punishment and tough conversations. Samples and links below.
Every so often, I emerge from my cat-lady cocoon and talk to people. And then stuff happens. Like this.
Diversity and representation can be hugely important to both authors and readers. So there’s a bit of my take on neurodiversity and mental illness. Including such tidbits as this. Continue reading Guest Post: Rae Ford’s Diversity Month Series
Okay. So some of you’ve noticed that I’m *ahem* outspoken on some issues, such as issues related to sex work, domestic violence, etc.
And the why for that’s what I want to talk about today.
Trigger warning for discussions on sexual abuse, self-harm, mental illness, all that stuff.
Some of you (those who follow me on facebook, you poor souls) may have heard me agitating about Amnesty International’s draft proposal to decriminalize sex work. This week, a variant of that proposal was voted into policy. This changes nothing for sex workers immediately, however Amnesty’s support enables sex worker rights organizations and other groups to apply pressure to countries to change individual laws that infringe on the rights of sex workers.
In celebration, let me break down 10 ways criminalization and stigma harms sex workers, trafficking victims, and marginalized communities. For those who got bored by my massive post, with links, on the terms that define the sex industry. Visit that post for links on this one; I don’t have another 50+ link research paper bibliography in me. Not when I’ve still got stories to tell, and books to share with you. Also, this is far from a complete list; this issue is exceedingly complex. If you want more information on it, Amnesty’s draft proposal is great, too, containing a plethora of new research.
TW: sexism, racism, abelism, transphobia and homophobia, sexual assault and violence, exploitation, police violence.
Okay. So the ongoing discussions on the novel For Such A Time’s nomination for two RITA awards are pretty upsetting. I’ll state right off that I am IN NO WAY the target audience for this book, for the inspirational genre. So take my comments with that grain of salt.
(Content warning for discussion of WWII atrocities, antisemitism, microaggressions toward non-Christians)