Sex Workers Need Support, Not Saviors

Hearing the stories and perspectives of sex workers often puts you at a moral crossroads as to whether you condone sex work itself. This is a layered decision because it means finding a stance on the world’s oldest profession while not undermining the people that willfully engage in it. Regardless of the good intentions held by anti-sex work feminists and their seemingly noble anti-sex work efforts, neither we nor the state can discriminate against women for their decision to engage in the industry. Anti-sex work feminists and others who stigmatize women for engaging in sex work risk oppressing them just as much as their industry and abusive clients do.

I have long sat at this crossroads after having worked alongside sex workers, interviewed them, counseled them and in some cases, befriended them. Once, I had staunchly opposed the sex industry for its hold on vulnerable and disempowered girls and women, its racial discrimination, physical violence, sexual violence and overall unjust working conditions. Now, I question myself. When you really listen to the insights of the women in the field, you are reminded that outside of the women and children who have been sexually trafficked, there are plenty who aren’t vulnerable or disempowered, who enjoy their jobs and have no shame in what they do for a living. An old interview I had with Exotic Dancer Nunu Michelle of Magic City comes to mind:

When you think of a stripper, a lot of people have nothing but negative stuff to say. At the end of the day, I’m just like you. I just choose to get naked to make some money. I just can’t sit there and work at Forever 21, look at those people and ask them: “Can I help you?” I can’t do that. So I choose to come to Magic City and ask them: “Can I help you? Would you like me to get naked and dance for you?” Michelle laughs and continues to say: “You really do have girls that are in here that are good girls, going to school trying to better themselves—that have boyfriends at the house. We just come here because we have that hustler mentality.

There were other profiles and news stories I had stumbled upon early this year and throughout 2014 that boldly confront old, pre-conceived ideas of sex workers being sexually deviant, insecure, non-upwardly mobile and/or left without other career options.

In this March 2011 interview with Brooke Taylor, a successful call girl for Nevada’s Moonlite Bunny Ranch, she beams as she explains her brand as a “ho-fessional” to NBC’s Peter Alexander.

Just as compelling are the stories of Claudette of La Vie en Rose, Bonnie Cleo Andersen and Monica Jones. Claudette is a 76 year-old intersex prostitute living in the French region of Haute-Savoie. She’s also a father, a loving husband, a talented cyclist, and noted campaigner with Aspasie, a Genevan organization mandated for sex workers’ rights. During her riveting profile with Photo-reporter Malika Gaudin Delrieu that was later featured in the Huffington Post, Claudette said:

The satisfaction of work well done is incomparable in prostitution. When a client is happy, I’m happy too. It’s social work, how can anyone deny that we make people happy, that we are useful? In my job I have the certainty that I have done what was right.

Andersen, a sex worker from eastern Denmark, was adamant about showcasing her full humanity as a “mother, friend, sex worker [and] human being” in her profile with Photographer Marie Hald. Also featured in the Huffington Post, Andersen’s various identities show through the photos. In one, she kisses her youngest son on the forehead as they share a bath in an impossibly small tub. In another, she embraces a close friend at her son’s confirmation. In another, her ankles are hoisted around the neck of a naked client as they lay in bed. Her eyes are striking because they’re dark and full—not with sorrow, but with lessons and insights few will be fortunate enough to hear, and even fewer will understand.

Jones, a student at Arizona State University and prominent sex work activist shared this comment with Vice’s Molly Crabapple when interviewed about being wrongfully arrested for “manifesting prostitution” and her past in the sex industry.

I wasn’t ashamed about being a sex worker. I kept bringing this up during the diversion program…Girls would ask me why I didn’t feel this way. Well, ’cause I don’t. I have the right to my own body.

Jones’ full story exemplifies the danger that the stigma and pre-conceived ideas held by anti-sex work activists yield for the very sex workers they’re trying to help when those ideas manifest in our legal system. Crabapple explains that Jones was arrested by Phoenix police officers working in conjunction with Project ROSE (Reaching Out on Sexual Exploitation). The initiative allowed officers to detain anyone they suspected of being a prostitute and to bring them to a nearby church where the accused were then forced to speak to prosecutors, detectives and ROSE representatives without legal representation. If they qualified, the accused were given the option of going through the ROSE diversion program to receive emergency housing, detoxing and counseling services. Otherwise, detainees could face months if not years in prison.

This quote from Project ROSE founder, Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz in an interview with Al Jazeera gives you a strong sense of how the organization views the women it services:

Once you’ve prostituted you can never not have prostituted… Having that many body parts in your body parts, having that many body fluids near you and doing things that are freaky and weird really messes up your ideas of what a relationship looks like, and intimacy.

Listening to ROSE representatives’ interviews with the media, it’s obvious that they mean well with the initiative. But there are holes in their logic and the structure of the project. At the outset, they perpetuate the troubles sex workers face by criminalizing them and putting them through the trauma of being arrested. This not only breeds the false ideas that sex workers are pathologically evil and in need of saving, but also that they are too oppressed to understand their own victimhood. This also drives sex workers to put themselves into increasingly unsafe working conditions out of fear of being caught and going to prison.

Secondly, the fact that sex workers are denied legal representation when they are brought to Project ROSE leads them to accepting whatever legal penalties they face without any kind of resistance because they’re too poor or scared to fight back. Thirdly, ROSE’s philosophy of once a sex worker, always a sex worker gave the Phoenix police department license to enforce an unconstitutional ordinance that is vague enough for officers to justify profiling citizens by their race, class, sexual orientation, and gender expression. As Jones explained in the Al Jazeera report linked above, the Project ROSE model doesn’t elevate sex workers but puts them in a cycle of legal issues that keeps them in the trenches of their industry.

The Jones vs. Project ROSE story appeared to be a precursor to Crabapple’s most recent story at Vice, “Special Prostitution Courts and the Myth of ‘Rescuing’ Sex Workers”. In this article, Crabapple reports on New York’s State Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs), legal institutions that were formed in September 2013 after advocates argued that prostitutes were the oppressed, not the oppressors. HTICs are mandated to crack down on commercial sexual exploitation by detaining and investigating traffickers while getting trafficking victims out of the life. The structure and philosophy behind these courts are strikingly similar to those of Project ROSE; while HTICs regard prostitutes as victims, they still arrest them and dangle prison time over their heads if they’ve had previous convictions. Even more problematic is that these courts conflate those who have been trafficked with those who are consensual workers. This means that HTICs don’t account for those who have entered (and exited) sex work by their own volition. Court officials probably wouldn’t have such a hard time getting sex workers to cooperate with them if it weren’t for the numerous and humiliating complaints of sexual, verbal and physical abuse that workers have endured at the hands of the police detaining them.

Our justice system doesn’t only criminalize workers that engage in prostitution.  Another policy I’ve found aimed at helping women actually punishes them for engaging in sex work even when it’s legal. In 2013, Texas State Representative Bill Zedler received bi-partisan support after proposing a bill forcing exotic dancers to wear licenses on the floor that would reveal their names to clients. The bill was intended to ensure that strippers were of legal age and to prevent sex trafficking and prostitution. But many dancers claimed the mandate would breach their privacy and make them targets for rapists and sex offenders. Getting a license would mean paying money for an ID that most dancers didn’t care (or were unable) to pay for. Worst of all, if dancers had to get a license in a “Sexually Oriented Business”, then their pasts as strippers would come up in background checks—something that would scare off potential employers in other fields.

The Jan. 12 issue of the New Yorker published a fascinating profile on the famed sociologist, Howie Becker. Don’t be fooled by the New Yorker’s dark and romantic illustration of the elderly white man. Becker has quite the colorful past: he got his start researching drug users during his stint as a piano player for Chicago strip clubs in the 1950s. But it wasn’t just his past working at titty clubs that caught my eye. Becker’s theory on deviance—and its relation to social acceptance and power dynamics—got me musing on the need for ethics and nuance in legislation and activism surrounding the sex industry.

A student of Becker once explained one of his philosophies by saying, “Rather than asking the less fruitful question of why people break rules, Becker came to focus on how people go through an identifiable process to choose to break rules.” As a result of those choices, how does society segregate those who are deemed “normal” versus who should be considered as outcasts? It was these kinds of questions that helped Becker gain fame in sociology for changing the way people think about deviance. While previous social scientists focused on the root and possible cures for deviance in human life, Becker emphasized the contexts of deviance and individuals’ conscious, intentional decisions to resist social norms.

Perusing Becker’s ideas throughout the article have been helpful for me. I’ve struggled with articulating my support of sex workers despite my disgust for the industry that oppresses them through racial discrimination, physical violence, sexual violence and overall unjust working conditions each day. I don’t stand for the hundreds of thousands of children that are forced into prostitution each year in the U.S. alone. Frankly, even after writing this article I am still hesitant to express my support for women who’ve chosen prostitution, whether through lowly forms of street walking or high-end brothels and escort services. Giving away something so valuable to strange and potentially dangerous people still doesn’t sit very well with me.

However, I do stand in solidarity with the adult sex workers whom have willingly (and sometimes gladly) opted into exotic dancing, phone sex operation, burlesque, Go-Go dancing and peep shows as a means to support themselves. I can’t put my back towards them just because they make a living doing things that make me uncomfortable. Sex workers are people who have created their own realities, their own dreams, their own moral planes, and their own codes of ethics that aren’t so radically different from other industries as we often make them out to be.

It is to be expected that exotic dancers (and those who engage in various other more extreme kinds of sex work) are stigmatized for their profession. Their industry exploits human sexuality, occasionally produces cases of human trafficking and sex slavery and is antagonistic to societal ideals surrounding female chastity. Still, considering sex workers’ (consenting) decisions to engage in their industry and the subjective contexts that have led them to sex work, they cannot be viewed and governed as pathological deviants. Sex workers need to be regarded as free-thinking adults who have entered their professions to reap a profit by serving an ongoing demand that they know they can fulfill. More than that, they deserve to receive their human rights and their due compensation in the process. They may have chosen a less desirable or respectable line of work in the eyes of others. Yet they are human beings who have chosen to defy respectability politics in order to survive.

If this world were mine, no one would have to exploit their sexual organs for their livelihood. How do you put a price on sex? The answer is you can’t. Any price you place on it will be too much and too little. Good sex and bad sex are too emblematic of the human experience to attach costs to them.

Despite this, the commercial sex industry is here to stay. It doesn’t matter how many blog posts we write or how many bills we pass or how many anti-sex work organizations we build. Women (and men for that matter) will always find work doing these things because there will always be someone willing to pay good money for a cheap thrill. The least we can do is not insult and further abuse the workers involved as we navigate their world.

I don’t want to admit these things, but it’s all out of my hands. It’s all out of yours, too.

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