Oct 21 2016 Whose Job Is It? Countering Problematic Sex Work NarrativesCategory: General     03:38PM   0

The arrest of Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer earlier this month highlights the contested nature of—and mechanisms used for—exchanging sexual services for money, much like the FBI’s raid of MyRedbook.com in 2014 and the Department of Homeland Security’s raid of RentBoy.com in 2015. The anti-trafficking narrative propagated by popular media anti-sex work activists stands in stark contrast to the “sex work as work” narrative expressed by many independent middle and upper class sex workers. We need look only as far as Twitter to see heated debates about privacy, safety, and unabashed opinions about individuals involved in various aspects of the sex industry. Yet, while discourses about the exchange of intimacy and/or sex for money have come to form part of the contemporary metanarratives about class, gender, morality, economics, power, and politics in American society, many of these conversations are over-simplified and under-representative of sex worker experiences. This results in misleading public narratives about the nature of sex work, including those countering characterizations of “controlling pimps,” the “pathetic john” or the “coercive client.”

Aside from review boards, social media platforms such as Twitter and personal blogs (like this one) serve as outlets for these discourses, or lack thereof. One that caught more attention than usual was a comment I tweeted on September 28th: “I don’t sell sex. I sell an experience; an opportunity to be honest, vulnerable, unjudged, in which eroticism is celebrated. It’s different.”

For most people, my tweet was apparently taken at face value; a heartfelt proclamation of my philosophy and the service I offer. For others, I imagine (though could very well be making an imaginary mountain out of a molehill) it could have been interpreted as an insensitive perpetuation of the whorearchy—a tiered system that communicates a positional hierarchy among sex workers. Despite receiving affirmative like after like, my critical mind started rolling not long after posting the comment, and the part of me that’s sensitive to classist posing among online sex workers began analyzing my own statement. Is selling an ‘experience’ really any different from selling sex? Was I insinuating there’s something wrong with selling sex?

My initial criticisms were interrupted shortly thereafter by a realization that had been largely lost on me until this point: This—the voice of middle and upper class sex workers—is a voice we hear amongst each other in the echo chambers of social media, but it's not one we utilize well enough in public discourses about sex work. Like it or not, if anyone can help change attitudes about sex work and sex workers, it’s the privileged “elite escorts” who have the clout to do it. In a society that associates status and class (even if it is a relative hierarchy of class within an otherwise discredited group) with having a "worthy" voice, the lady who charges $500+/hour (a totally arbitrary number, but I still think it gets the point across) stands a higher chance of being listened to or taken seriously in the public domain than women who work outdoors or primarily through sites like Backpage.

My realization about the potential impact privileged escorts’ voices could have in public discourse about sex work and sex workers’ rights was further solidified when I stumbled upon an article, “The modern john got himself a queer nanny,” (http://bit.ly/2dQSbcp) in the Feminist Current. The author makes one point we should pay attention to; one I contend disputants on both sides of the fence can agree: prostitutes’ narratives matter. This major point of divergence, then, is about which prostitutes’ narratives and why.

For example, Ekman refers to the recently published book, Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, to push her anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking agenda. The stories are horrific, but they are no more representative of the totality of “the world of prostitution” or sex workers’ experiences as would be the case if I published, Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Thriving in the Sex Industry. The problem is, nobody has published a book like the latter.

Ekman’s expose also seeks to vilify the female academic—the alleged “sex buyer’s nanny” and apparently misguided feminist at the forefront of international sex work discourse, accused of disrupting “pure” feminist efforts by strategically diverting attention from the sex buyer to the erotic provider. However, let us not ignore the fact that the female academic Ekman vilifies might very well be a sex worker herself. Lisa Ordell, Tara Burns, Melissa Gira Grant, and Zahra Stardust are just a few examples of women who have worked both in the sex industry and as scholars; I know that many, many more do so using stage names and aliases (points to self). As such, the voices of middle and upper class sex worker/scholars who refuse to characterize “johns” as inherently harmful (or inherent anything) to sex workers emerge from experiences in the sex industry that are just as legitimate as the stories pushed by anti-prostitution crusaders.

The anti-prostitution narrative is far from germane to all manners of sex work, yet it is applied indiscriminately as if all women are either trafficked or victims of patriarchal false consciousness. The point is, if we accept Ekman’s myopic argument about growth of the survivors’ movement, then we must also acknowledge the growth of independent erotic entrepreneurship in the sex work economy, and we must seek to incorporate these voices into dialogues that improve conditions for all sex workers.

Contrary to what feminists such as Ekman might have us believe, recognizing sex work as a form of labor doesn’t preclude us from considering issues such as exploitation, labor market segregation, and inequality. To the contrary, the failure of policy discourses to recognize sex work as work actually impedes the development of initiatives to improve labor rights and working conditions (Pitcher, 2014). These issues—as opposed to vilifying academics and johns—are the ones we should be focused on.

The only “john” Ekman recognizes is, “the man who will command and expect his every whim to be catered to, but will not take responsibility for what he does. If he ruins other people’s lives, spreads STDs to women in prostitution and to his wife, contributes to the organized slave trade—so what? Not his problem.” She is clearly drawing a stereotype from one locus of the industry, and is it any surprise? Anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking rhetoric paints an image of the sort of man who pays for sex (never mind companionship), and those narratives go largely unchallenged by any counter-narratives from within the industry. Why? In large part, because middle and upper class sex worker stories are not being widely shared, let alone in ways that could benefit all sex workers.

This has to change. Ladies, do you actually like your clients? Talk about the men who pay you for whatever consensual services you provide, without compromising their anonymity. Write blogs. Create sex worker-led organizations that show public appreciation for, rather than denigrate, the gentleman you see. Tell the world, even if it must be through a pen name or alias, that clients are real people too.

Gentleman, please consider the role you play in the industry as well. Do you speak up against misogynystic words or behaviors when you see them, or are you content to let bygones be bygones? The latter is certainly easier, but at what cost? What butterfly-effect consequence does inaction have on the women you appreciate in the industry? I certainly understand the risk associated with publishing a blog like Rick Pettit's "My Name is Rick, not John" and wouldn't expect 99% of the gentleman I see to dare such a brave task, but I hope that a certain amount of mindfulness and intentionality would at least prevail in its stead.

As a very wise client reflected back to me once, "You're much more of an advocate than an activist," and he couldn't have been more spot-on. I'm much too much of a relativist to feel comfortable telling people what they "should" do, instead preferring the approach of empowering people to make the best possible choices for them. But the fact remains that if we want sex work to be regarded as legitimate work, we need to be willing to speak about our work, and we have to help change the popular narrative that paints clients as abusive miscreants. Because even if you never advertised on Backpage.com or MyRedbook.com, the public opinions and policies that underlie their raids do have impacts across the entire spectrum of sex work.



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