Working Girls: Or; What, Exactly, Is Dangerous About Sex Work?

Sex work is not merely a part of our present reality, but an inexorable strand of our history.

Sex work is not merely a part of our present reality, but an inexorable strand of our history.

A friend of mine recently shared with me that she is thinking about registering with an escort service to make some extra money.

We had a long conversation about what resources were available to support her in her decision, what research she might do before pursuing a job, what steps she might take to be sure that she could stay as safe and healthy in the process as possible. We talked about how her decision might impact her relationship with her longterm partner. We talked about some of our other friends who have been involved in sex work of various kinds, of some of the risks she might be facing, and how to best prepare for them.

She was already clear on the fact that she would not be telling anyone in her family about the decision, as she felt she already knew what their reactions would be. She thought it better to make the choice independently, and avoid the lectures about the dangers she would be subjecting herself to and the sad direction in which she was leading her life. Given her stance, I was glad that she felt comfortable talking with me, and I hoped I was providing her with some useful places to start.

After having this conversation, however, I started to worry. Was I being irresponsible by supporting my friend’s decision? Was I not thinking enough about her range of options and power to choose?

Though I have never been a part of the sex industry, I have many friends who are strippers, part of escort services, and who regularly perform sexual acts to gain basic resources or make extra money. I know that not all of them feel sex work was something they had a choice in pursuing. I know not only the judgements they face, but the ingrained social disrespect, the threats of violence leveled at them by those who seek their services as often as from those who decry them. I know that even my friends who are perfectly comfortable with these realities still have a hard time acknowledging and openly discussing them with family and friends.

This inability to speak is at the root of the stigmas which surround sex work, and is particularly oppressive for queer people. For as TLBG people, but especially as Brown, poor, trans, homeless, immigrant, incarcerated, undocumented, hood and working queer people, sex work is not only a piece of our realities, but a foundational component of our history. Understanding it is necessary for understanding where we come from, how we identify, the ways we organize, our strategies for survival, and how sex work’s ties to other oppressed communities and identities is part of what maintains its marginal status.

The struggles which my friend may face as she continues on her path have little to do with sex work, for sex work, I believe, is itself no more or less risky than being sexually active is. What makes sex work dangerous are the social stigmas with which it is imbued—the shame, self-hatred and desperation we project onto members of the sex industry. It is dangerous because of the precarious role women occupy in our society, the thin line they walk between reverence and worthlessness, the long list of simple ways they can slip up and lose all of their symbolic value. It is dangerous because once that value has been lost, assault, violation and murder are no longer seen as heinous crimes, are often not even deemed worth looking into. It is dangerous because we fear anyone who takes their gender, sexuality and relationship with their body into their own hands. It is dangerous because trans people are targets for violence at a higher rate than any other queer identity, and combining that reality with sex work can be lethal. It is dangerous because it challenges almost every state-sanctioned institution, from the cult of marriage to the regulation and taxation of (certain people’s) profit. It is dangerous because the legal system declares it to be, and targets it for extensive policing. It is dangerous because even as the most basic of workers’ rights and abilities to organize come under global attack, sex workers have long had to rely on one another for support in the face of corrupt law enforcement, greedy management and abusive patrons.

Given all this, is it wise for us to participate in sex work, or advise our friends to do so when they ask us for our advice? I don’t think this is the real question that conversations like the one between my friend and I raise. Sex work is dangerous because it continues to represent what many of our struggles have always represented—the dignity of oppressed people, and our ability to maintain ourselves in the face of seemingly insurmountable and purposefully-imposed barriers. Should we or shouldn’t we is not the point, for many members of the sex industry have rarely felt the need nor had the opportunity to ask such questions.

What we should do is continue advocating for the rights of all working people, regardless of their legal status, criminal history, or the type of work they perform. We need to listen to the needs of women and trans people. We need to advocate justice for sexual violence which acknowledges the legal system as one of its major perpetrators. We need to talk about how to make our communities safer and more supportive places for all our members, carve out space for conversation, and collectively provide the resources that will help to get us there. We need to celebrate sex worker history as queer history, inexorably and unavoidably. Our inability to examine it openly not merely distorts an accurate view of our identities as they stand, but keeps us from grasping the true breadth and depth of the ways in which we and our ancestors have challenged power through the practice of sex.

This is not to romanticize sex work, or the role it plays in our radical history. Part of the conversation is acknowledging how members of our communities may be forced into the sex industry against their will–either through channels of human trafficking and abduction, or because they feel forced into it for social or economic reasons. When the choice to pursue sex work is made for us, it is far more difficult to claim it as an empowering piece of our identities and legacies. Yet these voices and their perspectives remain as marginalized as any others in the sex industry, the questions and struggles they face just as unlikely to be raised as problems which all of our movements are responsible for addressing. Opening the conversation on a larger scale and connecting it to all our struggles is the beginning of a real reimagining of the role sex work plays in our daily lives and ongoing battles, and the rejection of shame is universally crucial for the empowering of all our stories.

Sex work is not simply about sex, nor is it an inevitable exchange of bodies for money. Its branding as “the oldest profession” is not about the desires of its patrons, but the obvious outlet for survival it presents to those who have few others. More than anything, sex work is about self-determination—of gender, of sexuality, of the navigating of class and legal status, of access to resources. And if we are serious about loving, protecting and standing up for our friends, our partners and ourselves, then we should be committed to being dangerous, and to critically honoring all of our methods for survival when so few systems prioritize it.

7 responses to “Working Girls: Or; What, Exactly, Is Dangerous About Sex Work?

  1. >More than anything, sex work is about self-determination…

    I see what you’re saying, but this statement bothers me. I see how self-determination is one issue in all this. But what I know (from watching a former friend), is that sex work is psychically oppressive, even when the legal system isn’t involved, even when there is no physical violence against the sex worker. Part of that oppressiveness comes from the disrespect you describe. If you could require respect from the customers, it might not be worse than other work. A sex therapist has a lot more control in that regard, for example.

    My friend claimed that she was fine with the work. But she drank more and more over the time she was involved in it. I think it was very hard on her.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response, as always. Being younger, I have not seen my friends navigate these issues for more than six or seven years, so I’m sure that limits my perspective. I am also familiar with a lot of the behaviors you describe in some of my own friends, but don’t know that I ever attributed them to sex work specifically, or sex work alone. I agree with you that the work is always complicated, even when members of communities pull together and fight for better conditions. Can part of self-determination be talking about those realities, and trying to understand why so many members of our communities have turned to sex work given how complicated it can be for their lives and relationships?

  2. Of course, self-determination is aided by talking about anything and everything. It’s doing this sex work thing that might not be healthy. But then lots of work in unhealthy in various ways, and lots of it is soul-damaging. So which sort of damage to our souls will we ‘choose’?

    My community is San Francisco, and I think sex work is actually glamorized here (at least in some parts of the queer community). But whatever your community looks like, perhaps, there is sometimes no better work than this for a person to ‘choose’. It’s just that the costs of this work are much more blatant.

    • I’ve been thinking about that, too, and maybe a bigger question is actually about work, and the personal compromises we all make to get by.

      I think one of the reasons discussing sex work is important to me is because it is a huge part of the communities I belong to, one of the primary ways members pay for health services, surgeries, and other necessities, and is not glamorized at all. Within spaces where a lot of people are struggling economically, those who participate in sex work are shunned, scorned and disrespected by other poor, working, Brown and queer people, and watching that causes me a lot of pain. Many people participate in “illegal” economies, but sex work seems to be the primary taboo. I really want us to be able to examine the larger structures sex work is tied to, and to respect those who do it as being a part of a long line of folks who have made similar decisions. I hope to do this with out glamorizing its realities, though, and realizing, as you say, that choice is not always what people associate with sex work.

  3. I look forward to what you have to say about the question of work. And you’ve also raised another big question: health care. Look at all the contortions we go through in this country because we don’t have reasonable health care.

    Do your non-queer friends and family read this blog? Are you able to share the opinions and analysis you’ve written here with them?

    • Thank you for making the health care connection! I had not thought about that, but you are totally right, and that definitely adds another component to the critiques you are making. I need to think more about that, too.

      I do have family and non-queer friends that read and help me with my blog, which is something I am very grateful for. We tend not to take the same things away from our discussions, but we do share and hear out each others perspectives, and I’m lucky to have a lot of people in my life who are willing to listen. Is that ever something you ever struggle with?

  4. Pingback: Of Sex Work & Sex Workers (Part One Thousand?) | Cult of Gracie·

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