Long ago before I had ever begun to use the term “sex work” or could even have guessed at what aå Sex and Justice conference would entail, I began processing my experiences in sex/work by telling my story. For a long time I kept that story in the place where I had left it: journals, then later in an edited and now-forgotten anonymous blog. I open up about parts of it here and there and I wonder, and worry, about the consequence of being completely open and honest and telling the whole story in a place that is not private or anonymous.
I went to the Sex and Justice conference in Ann Arbor to try to figure out what it is about sex that invites regulation and criminalization. More and more, however, I began to focus on the act of telling stories about sex (particularly when criminal law is a part of it): the consequences, obligations, and complications of telling something that is personal and yours alone. Speaker after speaker, in the context of “sex and justice,” had something to say about sex workers telling the truth of their experience.
At the first plenary (Sex and the State: Registries, Rights and Punishment) Deon Haywood, executive director of Louisiana’s Women With a Vision had 10 minutes to talk about her group’s successful “NO Justice” campaign. The campaign had successfully overturned a 19th century “Crimes Against Nature” law, which required people who offered oral or anal sex for money to register as sex offenders—disproportionately affecting poor women, people of color and trans individuals.
I am a sex worker who hates the sex industry. As an anti-capitalist, I hate all industries. It’s not quite as if I’d prefer another system in place of capitalism. If I had to describe my ideology in positive terms, I’d call it fatalistic socialism, which I define as the belief that socialism would be really nice if we wouldn’t inevitably fuck it up. (Maybe I’m a Voluntary Human Extinctionist.) However, just because I have no solution to the current state of affairs and happen to be a misanthrope of the highest degree, doesn’t mean I can’t keep my hate-boner for capitalism in general and the sex industry in particular.
I’m not alone in my hatred of the sex industry, of course. Sex work abolitionist feminists* (see note below) — or as they are often known, the Antis — are right up there with so many religious zealots, conservatives, liberals, anarchists, and ecofeminists in the anti-sex industry brigade. They’re known as “Antis” because they’re also anti-porn, anti-prostitution, and anti-sex work in general (and typically anti-kink, anti-transgender, and even anti-penetrative sex as well.) A particularly perverse sort of second-wave radical feminists, Antis are a loose collection of mostly white, middle-class, able-bodied women from the Global North, the vast majority of who have never been in the sex industry. Still, they make it their mission to eradicate the industry by “ending demand” for ALL sexual services, so as to free ALL women from coercive male sexuality.
I find plenty of their theoretical points (if not their attendant practical solutions) agreeable to my own ideology. The sex industry is about satisfying male sexual desire at the expense of female sexual desire. Its continued existence is predicated on the economic and sexual exploitation of women, particularly queer women, trans women, poor women, disabled women, and women of color. But, just like I wouldn’t try to tear down capitalism and free all the “wage slaves” by burning down factories and leaving the workers jobless, I’m not going to destroy patriarchy and “save” myself and my fellow sex workers by scaring off—er, re-educating our sources of income. If sex work abolition succeeds, it will liberate millions of women (and men, third gender, and agender folks as well) right into homelessness. Further, in the interim, advocacy for abolition results in the kind of social marginalization and shitty public policies that exacerbate the discrimination and violence we as sex workers face on a daily basis.
Audacia Ray is perhaps most renowned in the sex workers’ rights movement for her longtime editing of the now sadly defunct $pread magazine. But as a sex workers’ rights movement activist, Audacia has really been everywhere and done everything: blogging for years about her sex working experience as Waking Vixen; publishing her book, Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads, and Cashing In on Internet Sexploration; and working as an adjunct professor of Human Sexuality at Rutgers University as well as for the communications consultant for the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. Amazingly enough, in 2010 she had time to found the Red Umbrella Project, a peer-led, community-based organization that “amplifies the voices of people who have done transactional sex, through media, storytelling, and advocacy programs.” RedUP is now where her creative, media, and advocacy energies lie. Tits and Sass asked her some questions about this project.
In the introduction to the Red Umbrella Project’s writing workshop’s literary journal, Pros(e), Melissa Petro theorizes that sex workers teaching each other the art of storytelling can increase agency because by writing our stories, we can better understand our choices. This kind of storytelling will also hopefully decrease stigma by increasing understanding (rather than bolstering whorephobia like the memoir pieces full of disdain for co-workers, like so many of the sex worker bios out there.) How do you think telling our stories helps sex workers?
One of the Red Umbrella Project mantras is that we believe storytelling is the building block of social change. I think we need to be able to tell our stories and insist on making space for them in the world if we are ever going to make change for ourselves in the world. Our creative programs, especially the Red Umbrella Diaries events, are really the entry point for many people into the RedUP programs. It’s an easy thing to wander into, be curious about, and then hopefully we get sex workers into some of our programs, building their skills and community, while also getting potential allies to care and think more deeply about the many experiences in the sex trades. I think its important for creative expression to be individualized because there are just so many different kinds of experiences that people have doing sex work. It is also important to constantly look at the bigger picture – which sex workers’ stories are being represented and which are not? What experiences are being documented that indicate areas in which our rights are being denied and violated? And to me, the creative work cannot be an end point or a stand alone thing, it has to be linked to greater social change. I want to validate art for arts’ sake, but we’ve got a revolution to do here, and it’s important to link personal storytelling to cultural and policy change. That said, not everyone is an activist, and when sex workers show up at the Diaries or participate in one of our creative programs and feel awesome – that is enough.
I am a sex worker who not only hates the sex industry, but, more often than not, sex work itself. At the very least, I am not the Charlotte York of Sex Work and the City; I didn’t set out on my current career path screaming, “I choose my choice!” Rather, I got here mostly through a series of shitty happenstances primarily relating to my mental illness.
I’ve been crazy for the entirety of my life, but I managed my poor mental health well enough for most of it. In what should have been my last year of college, my overall health rapidly declined, aided by a series of sexual assaults. I might have been able to continue school part-time, but the conditions of my scholarship meant that I would lose the remaining $20,000 if I couldn’t manage twelve credits at once. So I chose to take some time off from college and work instead.
I searched for a job for five months. I sent out dozens of applications and got rejected repeatedly, including from being a hostess at restaurants. Given that my peers with BA’s were now desperately applying to the same low-wage jobs, the fact that I was unemployable without a degree shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I might have joined those peers in returning home for a while in debt and defeat, except that I don’t really have that option. I grew up with an abusive father, and I spent most of my teen years dealing with child protective services and the family court system. And so, with two weeks left until I’d have to either move back in with my father or become homeless, I chose to answer an ad on Craigslist about becoming a dominatrix.
That was eighteen months ago, or approximately five years in sex work time. Since then, my health has gotten even worse. I wouldn’t be able to work a full-time job now even if I could find one, so I continue on as a pro domme—a pro switch, actually. I’m pleased to say that the work has proved more enjoyable than I originally anticipated. It’s intellectually challenging, creative, and occasionally fun. Unfortunately, any enjoyment I get out of it is overshadowed by the risks it entails. I’ve already dealt with almost every kind of nastiness at my job, from verbal abuse to grand larceny to petty wage theft to yet more sexual assault to the constant threat of arrest (some things pro switches do are more legal than others). My welfare has improved since transitioning to independent work, but I still spend far too much time worrying about my physical, emotional, and financial security in this job. I want out of this business, sooner rather than later. But I fell stuck for a lack of other options.
Mine is exactly the kind of situation that anti-sex work feminists claim to want to remedy. Their plan for helping me, though, involves not much more than “ending demand” for my services. Even if that were an achievable goal, it would leave me back where I was eighteen months ago: unable to pay rent. Any solution to my dilemma and to the dilemmas of so many sex workers who feel trapped in our work to varying degrees will be far more complex than eliminating our clients. It will need to be systemic and holistic. It will need to attack multiple issues at once, and it will need to be spearheaded by sex workers.
“Respectability politics” has been a recurring phrase coming up lately in conversations within the sex workers’ rights movement. In discussions on and off the site we’ve had about drug using sex workers, sex workers with disabilities, survival sex workers, etc., we’ve been bumping up against this idea constantly. The Tits and Sass editorial staff decided to bring together a group of veteran sex workers’ rights activists and service providers and ask them how respectability politics ideology affected their work and how we in the movement can best counter these tropes.
How do you define respectability politics? How have respectability politics affected your service work in the sex workers’ rights movement?
Emma Caterine1: That’s a pretty broad question and Red Umbrella Project (at this time, we have been considering expanding to this role) is not a service provider, but let’s see if I can answer:
Respectability politics is something incredibly tangible in our legislative advocacy efforts. We are effectively told time and time again, although we are on the executive committee of the No Condoms as Evidence Coalition, that we shouldn’t “make it” an issue about folks in the sex trades. Which is a bit perplexing since there are two major populations whom the practice of using condoms as evidence affects in direct regular ways: those profiled as being in the sex trades and those who are in the sex trades. The former is comprised of identities associated with the sex trades both culturally and institutionally: trans women of color, gender variant people of color, low income women, undocumented women, etc. While it is certainly a travesty that these folks are being arrested, harassed, and even physically attacked by the police over carrying condoms, it has been extremely important for us at Red Umbrella to not imply that they are the ones who “do not deserve it,” since that insinuates that those in the sex trades deserve to be subjected to this oppression. Not to mention that the two groups are hardly mutually exclusive.
And it is certainly the attitude and language the decision makers (politicians and other public figures) have adopted when they do come out to support the No Condoms as Evidence bill: it will be prefaced with a “I in no way condone prostitution”, it will be followed by pulling one of the largest stings on clients of sex workers, or any number of methods or statements to absolve themselves of being in any way in support of something that is associated with the sex trades. You do have to buy into it to a certain extent though: I mean I was a well-dressed smiling trans woman who was ever so interested in what a staffer from DA of Nassau County Rice’s office had to say to us. His advice was important to our strategy for getting the legislation passed. But as a member of a peer-based group dedicated to empowering those in the sex trades, there needs to be a balance. Kathleen Rice and I won’t be getting coffee in the near future or posing for a photo op. I didn’t even give this staffer my card when he gave me his because outside of that meeting there is no utility in us interacting and I am not going to pretend there will be for the sake of respect. Because I don’t respect those who throw people in jail that are not only the people I am fighting for but also friends and loved ones. And in my experience confident adherence to your principles garners respect just as often if not more than playing to some idea of respectability.