Prostitution

Phillip and Elizabeth showing off sex worker skillz with their wig stylings (Screenshot from The Americans)

Phillip and Elizabeth showing off sex worker skillz with their wig stylings. (Screenshot from The Americans)

Whether we’re dancers or dommes, escorts, cyberworkers, or some combination or variation thereon, we don’t see ourselves on television very often, and when we do, it’s often a balancing act between how disappointingly horrible the portrayal of people who do what we do is, and our excitement that we’re there on screen at all (I’m looking at you, entirety of  Satisfaction season three). Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a show that’s all about sex workers, but puts the lives of sex workers ahead of the work of sex workers? Wouldn’t it be cool to see sex workers managing romantic lives, children, and the ups and downs of a weird job that not a lot of people understand, without the underlying hysteria of  “everyone you see is in the process of ruining all that’s good in their lives”? A show that covers jealousy between sex working partners, and violations of trust, and even clients who act out, sometimes violently, without the implicit sentiment behind it all being “well, what did you expect?”

I have good news and bad news for you. You need look no furtherThe Americans is just what you’ve been waiting for: a wonderful, heavy-hitter cast; gorgeous, tight scripts; a miraculously not-grating commitment to early 80s period production design; overall, a show that has as much effort and love poured into it as a Deadwood or a Twin Peaks. All of this, lavished on an ensemble cast of sex workers from a variety of different backgrounds. And while dead bodies certainly abound, not a single one fits patly into any of the dead hooker tropes that make up the bulk of our representation on television, given that nearly all of the bodies are rendered corpses by our intrepid band of sexually laboring heroes. This is a show about men and women performing professional sexual labor that’s garnering millions of viewers, critical acclaim and has a third season around the corner.

What’s the catch? If the lead couple, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (née Nadezhda and Mischa) filed their taxes honestly, they’d list themselves as “spies,” not sex workersthe show opens in 1981, just after Reagan’s election, as the two of them struggle to raise two children who have no idea that their parents are deep-cover Soviet spies. But a huge portion of their work is emotional and intimate labor, as they manufacture both long and short term sexual and romantic connections in service to their calling. In this sense, Phillip and Elizabeth represent the epitome of the “empowered, happy hooker,” working not just for personal fulfillment, but to further a world-changing, patriotic cause. Lest you tune out in understandable boredom at this point, never fearthe viewer doesn’t get even as far as the end of the pilot before this rosy view of sleeping with the enemy is challenged and complicated, as Phillip tries to convince Elizabeth to defect after a mission goes awry and unexpectedly kills a colleague. While the existence of further episodes spoilers the fact that they ultimately stay on task and loyal to their homeland, the debate accurately oracles the murkiness of transactional sex for a cause that characters continue to struggle with as the seasons progress. Like anyone with a difficult job, both Elizabeth and Phillip sometimes fall prey to doubts about the rightness and value of what they’re doing, but even as they grapple privately with their life choices, they publicly keep chugging through their work without faltering, not unlike the way we all manage to finish that call despite dealing with burnout, frustration, or not liking our job in the first place.

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Do not use our passive bodies as props for your agenda (Photo by Anton Marcos Kammerer, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

Stop using our passive bodies as props for your agenda. (Photo by Anton Marcos Kammerer, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

I am a sex worker who was coerced into doing work I felt violated by, and I am horrified by SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Reactionary Feminists) who insist that all sex work is by nature coerced and non-consensual.

Recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing rise in anti-sex work rhetoric that rests on the premise that all sex work is coerced. The proponents of this claim argue that because the workers may need the money and thus feel unable to turn down a proposition they are uncomfortable with, sex work encounters are always non-consensual. As far as they are concerned, if money is involved, sex can never be consensual. They claim that by promoting the criminalization of all forms of sex work, they are “protecting” sex workers and engaging in “feminist solidarity” with us.

I’ve already seen a number of brilliant sex workers debunking this argument: by discussing their own consensual sex work experiences, by pointing out that all professions involve money and thus a potential for coercion or abuse of workers, and so on. Tits and Sass contributor Red wrote a particularly interesting piece on her tumblr in which she notes that she finds the term “constrained consent” a far more accurate term than “coerced consent.” All of those points are valid and important, if often ignored by the audience they’re intended for.

But I’ve noticed one perspective missing from the discussion: that of someone who was sometimes unable to consent to sex work, and is harmed by those who would tokenize that experience and devalue the experiences of other sex workers. After seeing my experiences casually commandeered by SWERFs as a talking point, I’ve decided to speak up.

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Annie Sprinkle: a woman who needs to get back in touch with her movement rather than speaking over it (Photo by Creatrix Tlara, via her flickr and the Creative Commons)

Annie Sprinkle: a woman who needs to get back in touch with her movement rather than speaking over it (Photo by Creatrix Tlara, via her flickr and the Creative Commons)

As a general rule, I absolutely love being called “adorable.” It reaffirms a lifetime of well-intentioned cheek pinches and makes me feel like I still look youthful as I approach 30. But being an adorable person is a very different thing than being part of an adorable movement. So when Annie Sprinkle took to Facebook to chastise sex workers who decided to “act up” at a conference called “Fantasies that Matter–Images of Sex Work in Media and Art,” and used condescending terms like “adorable” and “well intentioned” to describe sex workers who seek a voice in discourses about them, well, I got just adorably incensed.

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(Image via St James Infirmary's flickr)

(Image via St James Infirmary’s flickr)

I have experienced a lot of abuse in my life. The realization of each instance was a gradual process, despite how accustomed I should be to identifying it by now, despite how thoroughly I understand the dynamics, the signs, the underbelly of the beast. I have always believed, since I was 18 years old, that talking about the abuse was not only cathartic but a small step towards ending the silence surrounding it. It’s not my fault, so why should I be ashamed? Why should I protect abusers with my silence? Still, the realization that I am in fact someone who was forced into the sex industry, that group of silenced victims fauxmanists and policy makers alike claim to care so much about, was a realization that happened in stages. It was a slow process right until I was shouted down by a sex worker exclusionary radical feminist because my views on sex work and decriminalization weren’t taking into account the lives of people who were forced or coerced into the industry or abused in it and unable to leave. And I was livid, because that is my story.

The definition of what constitutes sex slavery and sex trafficking is intentionally blurry. Obfuscating the reality of sex industry abuse is a deliberate tactic utilized to attack the industry in general. Most people I know imagine trafficking victims to be forced to travel from South East Asia or Eastern Bloc nations in terrible conditions to arrive in affluent countries where they can be bought and sold as objects by sadistic rapists while being kept under lock and key. In truth, NGOs and governments usually define trafficking as involuntary participation in the sex trade. In essence, the term sex trafficking is a misnomer; the “trafficking” itself may be no more than a 15 minute drive from home to the brothel, like it was for me. It’s a phrase that brings up very specific associations that are generally inaccurate.

By the definition above, I guess I’m a trafficked person. Wider definitions also include underage sex workers, so a lot of people I know who started before they were 18 years old are as well. This is fairly well understood in most sex worker activism and yet there seems to be no emphasis in our movement on acknowledging and supporting survivors who enter the industry through force or coercion. Through describing some of the difficulty of my experience within activist circles, I hope to be able to offer some insight as to how to better support all members of our community while tackling head on the erroneous idea that antis are trying to help survivors within the industry.

When I was 21, I went to a queer event at my university and met a bunch of people, including a few sex workers. We hung out, chatted, and exchanged Facebook info. I went home and told my partner about the experience. I was primarily interested in talking about the workshop I’d run and the friendships I’d made but my (now ex) long term boyfriend was fascinated with the idea of my becoming a hooker. During our relationship he’d visited various brothels a number of times (though he’d sworn he wasn’t doing that anymore) so I guess at that point he knew more about the industry than I did. Behind my back, he began talking to my friends on Facebook through my account, pretending to be me, asking about the work and how to get into it. Meanwhile, he would bring up the idea whenever the issue of money came up—which it often did, with him being a meth addict—when we were in bed together, really any time he could. When his cajoling, against the backdrop of his verbal, sexual and physical violence didn’t work, he delivered an ultimatum: if I didn’t start hooking, he would start cooking meth again. I had been through this before: visits from the cops at all hours of the night; waking up and walking into my living room with ammonia gas filling the house my children were sleeping in; strangers coming through the door and cutting up, weighing and bagging ice in the kitchen; and his escalating violence under the influence of his constant use and paranoia. It wasn’t something I could go through again. The potential money I could be making working with a friend at the parlor, $100 to $500 a night, seemed like a much better choice. He was already using my bank card to take all of my money to the point where a friend of mine had to steal a container of formula so I could feed my daughter because my ex spent my last $50 on half a point. Sex work seemed like an out. And you know what? It was.

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Photo taken by Silvia Escario

Visual approximation of Ms. Harm Reduction back in the day. (Photo taken by Silvia Escario.)

Dear Ms. Harm Reduction,
I’m an escort with an Oxycontin habit. For the most part I can plan ahead and maintain, but sometimes supply runs out and I have to go to work when I’m in withdrawal. I serve a middle class clientele, and I’d lose clients if they found out I was a drug user. I’m also afraid some of them might even become violent if they discovered I was a “junkie.” How do I hide the tell tale signs of dopesickness while working?

Best,
Sniffling Isn’t Cute y’Know

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