That’s what we used to be called in another era of sex work prohibition, “rehabilitation”, during another national scare and shame. The Industrial Era brought with it a new kind of sex worker, better suited to capitalism and the phenomenon of interchangeable parts, and “fallen woman” was the euphemism of choice for her then. Not chosen by her, of course, but assigned to her, just as she would be assigned to the Catholic laundries in Ireland when captured, as she would be doubly exploited by frontier laborers in the American West for pleasure and then for their own ritual cleansing as the symbol of the opium den whore was employed in racist anti-immigration campaigns.
Fallen women. It’s fascinating how similar the tangible and symbolic uses of sex workers are even across eras and cultures. The Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl was a patron of filth and adulterers, as well as purification and confession. Today, women write books and blogs about their experiences in sex work, often sensationalized in one direction or another.
Whatever story they look to tell, today’s purity campaigners have just as much incentive as ever to take the lived experiences of sex workers for their own, and edit those experiences to suit their agenda. Melissa Gira Grant’s article in this month’s Reason opened up a rare public criticism of the “anti-trafficking” campaigners, exposing the harm done to real women by criminalization efforts and the links between these crusaders and various conservative “family values” figures.
Any campaign that manages to successfully lobby for vast public funds, locally and internationally, to combat a particular social ill must certainly be scrutinized. What Grant and other critics force us to recognize is that here is one of those massive campaigns, which, remarkably, has faced next to no public scrutiny of any kind. Not its aims, its methods, its policy recommendations, and this is particularly exceptional on account of its self declared “feminist” origins.
When have self declared feminists ever enjoyed broad mass appeal from conservative authorities and voters for their programs? When domestic abuse shelters regularly struggle for funding and have never been able to meet the needs of every survivor near them, how do figures like Gloria Steinem and Jesse Helms find common ground?
Grant’s piece, and follow up commentary on Feministe, hold anti-trafficking campaigners to account for the spread of draconian laws targeting the very women they claim to “save”. Grant demands that,
“If we are going to call attacks on reproductive and sexual rights a “war on women,” then let’s talk about a war on women that has actual prisoners and a body count. It’s a war on the women engaged in sex work, waged by women who will not hesitate to use their opponents’ corpses as political props but refuse to listen to them while they are still alive and still here to fight.”
While Laurie and Debbie at Feministe simply declare, “To be a feminist, one should actually care about the lives of women.”
In the same outlet, an alternative perspective, from an anti-sex-trafficking feminist, claims that we can do both, support and help meet the real needs of real women, as well as combat sex-trafficking, even bring an end to the idea of sex as a commodity at all.
And sex workers have been saying rather the same thing for a very long time. We just don’t often get heard over the shouts that we shut up for our own good.
In some respects, it’s this last opinion piece that feels closest to my own position, but I’ll get into owning my biases after an important note. I don’t want to enter directly into the discussion without first acknowledging how frustrating, how painful it is that these discussions are nearly always sporadic, almost never engaged with the public in good faith, and more often than not turn out to be object lessons in how to divide progressive efforts into partisan cannibalism.
Since the discussion is happening again, I want to add another sex worker’s voice to it. That’s the first of my obvious biases; I come to this as someone doing the work. Many of my opinions about that work were shaped long before I ever thought it something I would do myself, of course.
My family was one that briefly attained solid middle class status during my father’s time, and lost it again quickly during the Reagan/Bush era. Like a lot of working class kids, I remember late high school as a time when the people I knew were more likely to plan for entry in a trade or the military than they were to plan for college. Many young women at this time, four I knew personally as friends and many more I never knew, would become exotic dancers.
I’m 33 now, so I can’t know what it’s like for High School students today, but I remember that for us, it was like those women had disappeared. They were not spoken of, except as jokes, and only rarely. Similar treatment met many of the young women who became pregnant while we were still in classes, but even these women didn’t speak of the sex workers, unless it was derisive. It didn’t matter how many were looking to pay for college themselves, with no other means of support, they were not to be dealt with. One of my first object lessons in privilege came when on break from college, and finding one of my old close friends, that I hadn’t heard from in ages, dancing right next to my table at one club. She told me about her plans for medical school. I had the fortune of scholarships and safer work.
Some of us were exceptions to that social pressure, looked to maintain these friendships. Some found work in other parts of the vast sex industry. Someone I would find again later in a late night massage parlor found retail work in a porn store after getting their diploma. A young man I knew found a position as a security guard in a small, worker owned brothel. He was paid in tips from the prostitutes, had time to read his college books, and sat with a shotgun near his chair ready to respond to emergencies.
He recalled the night some men drove up to their business in the middle of the night, claiming to have “merchandise” in the large cargo truck they drove.
The dirty secret of Dallas, Texas is just how much of the city depends directly or indirectly on sex industry dollars. Every ten years or so there’ll be another effort to “clean up” the city, which in the end only involves a reshuffling of acceptable red light areas. Take them off Upper Greenville when they want to put in a big organic food store and gentrify the area, and move them out to Harry Hines or little pockets off of I-30. The business’ that last are paid up with the city in staggeringly large tax premiums aimed at “Sexually Oriented Businesses”, and the money for this almost always comes from the people doing the work, exotic dancers, retail clerks at 24 hour video parlors, masseuses.
I would get my first taste of it out of grad school, unable to find teaching work, and I get a position working the midnight to eight AM shift at a local video and toy store. Every shift meant at least one private video room needing to have urine and feces cleaned out of it, and a few bottles of video head cleaner that customers would huff. We looked forward to the messy rooms, because we kept their $20 deposit and split it between us.
I got involved for a while with a charity organization that helped recent immigrants orient themselves in the States. I did volunteer English as a second language sessions with people who often had refugee status. Among them were many, many young women who had been trafficked. On a few occasions, I actually saw the parlors some of them had worked from, and the communal living space they had been trapped in until found, mats to sleep on, no privacy.
At another business offering the same services, but with very different business practices, I met enthusiastic workers, friends of friends of mine, who kept their own places and talked about their studies, or the schools they were putting kids through. Some were open about their work with everyone, even their kids, and others left it behind in secrecy when they went home.
Some years later, after transition, I would come back to this work, never having been able to decide once and for all if it was bad, good, or if terms like that even had any relevance. I came to it privileged enough to access better online advertisers, to manage my own screening, to not be in as desperate a position as others. I have still never been able to completely settle on a perfectly coherent philosophical position regarding sex work. I’ve felt both empowered and exploited, and seen too many different experiences to say with any certainty what position we should all adopt, that would fit the needs of every sex worker.
As an activist for decriminalization of sex work, I actually don’t think there’s too great a gulf between my position and the position espoused by the feminist who opposes trafficking specifically, and sex work at large.
We agree that coercion should never play a role, and perhaps only differ on the question of whether or not sex work can ever be freely chosen. I don’t think we can know the answer until no one anywhere has their autonomy constrained by economic “necessity”. But I do not need to decide once and for all whether sex work is inherently “bad” to know that there is no justice in aiming a police state at prostitutes.
Meanwhile, women (and men, for make no mistake, there are many men, predominantly queer or trans men in this work), will continue to endure actual injury done to them while partisans kick around a political football. The practice of “saving” us from ourselves will continue to expose the classist, racist, cissexist, and misogynistic underpinnings of our society, as the only people who truly pay for these “crimes” are the ones who are its first victims, and they pay a greater price the less white they are, the less straight they are, the more queer they are.
If they listened to us, those doing the work, willing, trapped, or somewhere in that grey area demarcated by capitalist coercion, they would know about the work the Sex Worker Outreach Project does in several cities around North America, or HIPS in DC. They would know about the St. James Infirmary in San Francisco, publishing occupational health and safety manuals, holding classes, and providing medical care for sex workers. If we had a stronger voice in this debate, supposedly over our well being, they would understand that none of us are pro-trafficking, none of us want to empower pimps, we aren’t in this because we’re just so enthusiastic about exploitation that we got to do all we can to keep it going. They’d know about the Desiree Alliance, holding yearly conferences for activism, law and business studies, self care, even artistic expression done by and for sex workers, and they’d know the difference between our position, decriminalization of sex work, and the “legalized” models in Amsterdam or Nevada, which we believe strengthen traffickers and exploiters.
I’ve been wrong often enough in this life to know that my opinions about this work, this industry, will likely never stop evolving. The day may come when I reject it outright, and also believe that no just society would ever accept the exchange of sex for other goods or services. Whether I do or not, I can never be convinced, as many of the anti-trafficking camp seems to be, that justice requires us to seriously harm the people we wish to save.
For their own good.
(See Elizabeth Bernstein’s “Temporarily Yours” for a scholarly recounting of the history as well as a modern anthropological study, one of the rare ones conducted with the consent and cooperation of sex workers. This book’s cover is the featured image)