Prostitution

(Photo by Flickr user elasticsoul)

(Photo by Flickr user elasticsoul)

When I was just a teeny tiny bottle of airplane-ready champagne, I was called a whore by a boy in my middle school science class for having the audacity to own breasts and opinions at the same time,while only being willing to share the latter. Once I got to college, men started to call me a whore in the streets when I refused their advances and they called me one even more loudly when I taught myself not to allow their presence to register on my face. I was called a whore by clients more often when I would refuse certain services, but not when I would provide them willingly. But since you could put a pair of eyeglasses on a calcified ostrich turd and its opinion would have as much gravity as those of boys, strange men, and clients, these words never especially bothered me.

I’ve always been peripherally aware of the importance of reappropriating the language of sex work but never felt I really had skin in the game until I felt how badly “whore” burns from certain tongues and with certain intentions. Since “whore” was thrown around my whole life as shorthand for “woman who does things I don’t like,” I never felt especially connected to it as it related to sex work, even when doing sex work that reflected the most literal understanding of the word. I’ve even been known to say things like, “Um, sex workers are dying out there. Does it really matter what we call ourselves?” I’m aware now that starting a sentence with “um” reflects fluency in Sanctimonious Cunt more than it reflects nuanced understanding of the issues sex workers face. Forgive me, I was an unsophisticated bottle of André at the time, a mere shadow of the Dom Perignon White Gold Jeroboam I am today. But back to being a whore.

In late July, a man who claimed to love me and who had never taken issue with my profession before called me a “whore” to my face. He told others I was a “whore” when he needed to discredit me as quickly and mercilessly as possible. Prior to our falling out, my work in the adult industry had been something that concerned him only when I reported pushed boundaries or feelings of regret and insecurity. He was supportive and sometimes downright titillated, insisting on christening my new work outfits by getting lap dances in them before anyone else did. I happily obliged because I loved him and got to choose my own soundtrack. When things quickly deteriorated and I feared for his new girlfriend, I warned her about malicious and dishonest behaviors of his which I thought she should be aware of.

His first line of defense to her was my work and it was his first line of offense against me. Obviously, he had been driven to threaten me with violence because I was a deranged stripper that thought he loved me; he just had to set me straight. The very idea was ludicrous, loving a sex worker. When he used whore stigma against me, it was to explain why he never wanted monogamy with me and how I had always been just a source of fucked up sex and that all his stated affections had been part of a game designed to entertain himself.

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(via Wikimedia Commons)

Though most don’t consider the word “prostitute” pejorative, it’s more damaging to sex workers than any other slur. There’s no true neutrality to be found in a word whose verb form Merriam-Webster defines as “to devote to corrupt or unworthy purposes.” But precisely because it is used in polite language, because of its patina of legitimacy, its harmful connotations can be used against us with impunity in the media every time a street sex worker is murdered and every time a sex worker in the public eye  is outed. Every time this medico-legal term, used to justify our pathologization and criminalization for centuries, is utilized to label us, we are discredited subtly but effectively just that much more.

In a surprisingly insightful take for a non-sex worker, Lizzie Smith, Research Officer at The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health, and Society at Le Trobe University, wrote in the academic news commentary site The Conversation last year:

Referring to female sex workers as “prostitutes” in the media is not new, but it is a sobering reminder of how pervasive negative understandings of sex work and sex workers are. These understandings originate from various “expert” fields of knowledge including psychology, medicine, sexology, religious doctrine and various feminist perspectives, through which sex workers are positioned as dirty, diseased, sinful, deviant and victims. The term “prostitute” does not simply mean a person who sells her or his sexual labour (although rarely used to describe men in sex work), but brings with it layers of “knowledge” about her worth, drug status, childhood, integrity, personal hygiene and sexual health. When the media refers to a woman as a prostitute, or when such a story remains on the news cycle for only a day, it is not done in isolation, but in the context of this complex history.

When the Chicago Tribune described Indiana serial killer Darren Vann’s victim, Teira Batey, as a “prostitute,” it made it clear it was using this “complex history” against her as it detailed her past with police encounters and her family’s reports that she was a drug user. When the Irish Examiner called Kate Mcgrew, TV star of the reality show Connected, a “prostitute” after she came out as an escort, you can bet they also mentioned her “tight jeans and towering heels,” her “flamboyant” style of dress, even going so far as to say she looked “cartoon-like.” They may as well have called her a silly slut and been done with it.

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(Photo by Julie Bates, via Jane Green and sexliesandducttape.)

(Photo by Julie Bates, via Jane Green and sexliesandducttape.)

As a writer, a former sex worker, and someone who has been quite vocal in my writing about the industry, I’ve been approached quite a number of times to write about the play Ugly Mugs by Peta Brady.

I’ve declined each time. Firstly, because I have not seen the play. I’ve only read about it online and read sex workers’ concerns about its content. Secondly, because I wondered how much I could really contribute after reading such powerful and articulate pieces by people such as Jane Green on the subject. But I was asked again, and this time I had just been on the phone to an old friend talking about an incident that happened many years ago. And something inside me clicked, something that made me feel compelled to tell my story.

When I was in high school I had a diary. Like most teenage girls’ diaries it was full of angst and bad poetry, interspersed with observations of the people and situations around me.

I was not a popular girl in school. I had been given the “slut” label very early on and it stuck. I guess, if you were using the vulgar base meaning of the word “slut,” I was one.

I ran around with boys. I liked getting their attention. I was not afraid of sex, sexuality, sexual pleasure, and sexual gratification. I masturbated as often as I could. I watched porn videos and read Playboy magazines.

I was very lucky that despite being shunned and shamed by the “popular kids,” I had a friend, a girl who was pretty much just like me, who shared my obsession with sex and sexuality.

My girlfriend and I would swap my diary back and forth and fill it with our own dirty stories, our fantasies about the different boys (and sometimes girls) that we knew. We would tell our deepest secrets and horniest stories to each other within those pages. We also used it as a way of communicating what others were saying about us. What the rumors were about which girls were going to “fight us” after school. Where they’d said they’d be “waiting for us.” Which boys to stay away from because they were the ones who ran around telling the rest of the school about the things we had done.

It was our little safe haven. Our solidarity. Our secret.

I’m not quite sure how it fell into the wrong hands. I think I had it in my bag at a sleepover party. I don’t know why I would have even taken it with me… but I did. And when I got home the next day I realized it was missing.

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QueenieBonBon via http://www.melbournefringe.com.au/

Queenie Bon Bon (Photo via the Melbourne Fringe website.)

Deeply Leisured, a one-woman show by local Melbourne talent Queenie Bon Bon that details the joys and battles of being a sex worker, played during this season’s 2014 Fringe Festival. I was fortunate enough to see one of the six nights of Queenie’s show—her final performance was last weekend. It’s always fun supporting a fellow sex worker (or a “co-ho,” as Queenie would say) with whatever they’re doing outside of their work, but I didn’t think it would be this much fun. Queenie narrated her short stories on her experiences as a stripper, brothel worker, and all-around fantasy maker. The performance took place in Melbourne’s historically queer Hares & Hyenas bookshop in trendy Fitzroy. She sat, illuminated in symbolic red light, on a desk decorated by books and miscellaneous items. She looked like a modern-day Aphrodite, with her beehive and dangling condom-pack earrings.

It was enthralling and relieving to listen to her hilarious diary-entry style recollections. Her portrayal of sex work, while still being personal to her, seemed to encompass every thought and feeling I’ve ever had about the profession. She managed to put a comedic spin on even the smallest details; from having worlds collide when your butt plug tumbles over your toothbrush in your bag while you’re on the phone with mum to stringing out a service to savor the opportunity to pick the brain of a knowledgeable client. Navigating the simplest things, like choosing which song you’re going to jerk your client off to, are skills specific to sex work, requiring a thought process non-sex workers are unaware of. All sorts of situations require sex worker troubleshooting, like suddenly having stage fright during a golden shower upon finding yourself gazing down at your client’s expectant eyes and ajar mouth.

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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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