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.