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Why You Shouldn’t Study Sex Workers

adontstudyThis is an edited version of a post originally published on Lime Jello’s blog autocannibal

Before I finished my B.A., I encountered a social worker who was working on her M.A. Her politics were generally pro-decriminalization, but she also liked to trade in horror stories about women whose vaginas fell out from having too much sex. She had secured the cooperation of a rescue organization that collaborated with police to be allowed to study their Very Marginalized Whores. She wanted my help nailing down her research question.

“Don’t do this study,” I said. “Find something else to research.”
“OMG why are you so mean?” was more or less her answer.

It does seem a bit mean, since in my first M.A., I studied sex work myself. But it’s for the good of everyone involved that I say this: don’t study sex work. Sure, there will be exceptions—someone out there will have something genuinely new to say on the topic that warrants the research. But academics…we all think we’re that Someone Special. The truth is that most of us aren’t. So let’s find something else to study.

Find Something Else to Study…

1. …because sex workers are human beings, with whole entire lives outside of their jobs.

Once upon a time, I took a couple of classes at a nearby Fortress of Smartitude. The environment was one of relentless bullying by an abolitionist professor, so it was an unhappy time for me, but matters were made worse by my other class. That professor, despite knowing that my interest was in communication and not sex work, pushed and pushed for me to do a “sex positive” project about sex work. After I submitted the first draft of the project I wanted to do, he wanted nothing to do with me. Relatedly, for months after I began my new grad program, my program director introduced me to people as a researcher of sex work—even though my research is on academics’ emotional labor. The point was received: once a whore, always a whore.

But not only are sex workers marked as always whores, they are also marked as only whores. People are truly surprised to learn that I do not plan to make a career out of researching sex work. What else could I possibly be interested in?

Sex work is often only researched in the context of the “empowerment v. exploitation” debate. Making sex work a “special” topic by taking it out of the context of the rest of the world is a way of dehumanizing sex workers. Only when we are seen as our jobs and nothing more can we be carved out of everyday life and marginalized as a field of study unto ourselves.

Hypothetical Sex Work Memoirs

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image via flickr user Brendan Riley

Beach season is upon us, which means it’s time to exploit the opportunity to read trashy books free of judgement. Gone are the days when it was protocol to leave ashtrays out for your houseguests, but you’d have to hide your copy of Valley of the Dolls. Nope, these days sexless secretaries commuting in pantyhose and sneakers can ride public transit proudly rocking a real (not Kindle) copy of Fifty Shades, because she’s advertising her deeply buried kinky side.

If a terribly-written BDSM novel by a layperson is at the top of the bestseller list, I’m thinking ACTUAL sex workers can do better; or we can simply indulge in penning one of these cheesy hypothetical sex worker reads (warning, political incorrectness to follow).

The Hooker Booker: Sympathetic tale of a former escort who is washed up and is now a phone madam.

From Slippers to Stripper: A clichéd downward spiral tale about a classically trained ballet dancer who started stripping.

Whore in Times of War: The exploits of a traveling prostitute who follows areas of conflict to service sex-starved military men and United Nations workers.

Phone Sex Train Wrecks: A collection of phone sex blooper transcripts.

Highbrow Hooker: The story of a well-bred WASP whose is left to her own devices when her family disowns her.

Gold Digger Pulls the Trigger: A wronged sugar baby gets the ultimate revenge on her deceitful “daddy.”

.XXX Domain Ads: “Can You Afford Not To?”

Last month The Fearless Group released some video spots advertising the .XXX domains now available. They feature Vice Magazine founder Gavin McInnes and this spot has him making it rain with, I guess, the money he saved? It’s sort of like a porny Geico ad.

 Here’s the message at the end of the ad (and the two other spots):

This Week in Pole Dance and Popular Culture

Enrique Iglesias’ “Dirty Dancer” premiered Wednesday with what I think is the best actual pole dancing (and floor work) I’ve seen in a music video. I don’t think the athletes in the video are what any of us would refer to as “dirty dancers.” The futuristic strip club reminds me of a defunct Portland club that opened in the former space of a super-mod sushi restaurant called Electrofish Lounge. They kept all the furniture and decor and added a pole, and it looked a lot like this except for the surveillance camera hawks. Charlotte wants to know why Enrique is dressed like Justin Bieber.

Taking a cue from Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears pulled a male audience member on stage during her performance at Staples Center in LA on Monday night. He looks a lot more comfortable than Steve Nash, no? While one, let alone two feather boas is a total no-no (they shed everywhere and sweat plus feathers is a bummer), it’s pretty accurate. The jumping on the pole and straddling the guy from behind is a classic bachelor/birthday stage dance move.

America’s Got Talent featured an androgynous self-proclaimed “pole-fessional” who made it past the first round using two spinning poles and dancing to Katy Perry. Catherine says, “Gotta love a man in stripper heels and body glitter!” I kinda don’t think the black Mary Janes go with the silver though.

It’s Not About Me: Responsibility In Sex Worker Writing

writingishard4New sex worker writers often justify their sex work with respectability politics.

I did it. I fucked up with my very first piece, in a big venue, the Guardian, contrasting my sex work to that of hypothetical trafficked workers, so-called “miserable slaves.” Even after taking feedback about that mistake, it took me a while to quit using my own favorable personal circumstances to make sex work more palatable to my readers.

I think that I did it because I was intoxicated with the power of my writing, and I thought my experience was important. Guess what—sometimes it’s not. My education and my privilege and the good working conditions I enjoy doing sex work are far less important than the broader picture—the narratives of austerity, migration, and marginalization that are the true story of sex work, the one that needs to be told in order to defuse myths and build support for sex worker rights. While I campaign for sex workers’ rights, in part, because they would benefit me and my family, I need them far less than the most marginalized, criminalized, and stigmatized among us.

I hope to educate others with an account of the process of making my writing better reflect the sex worker community. This essay is meant to be a start of a conversation. I invite reply, correction, and contribution.

Tell all the stories.

A sex worker writer should learn as much as possible about the conditions of all kinds of sex workers, from porn stars to street-based workers to parlor workers. This is not only essential for a good perspective, it’s good journalism: keeping track of multiple streams of information can produce great story ideas. I learned about the Merseyside murders and the Soho raids; about the rescue industry and about the party politics behind recent parliamentary debates on the Swedish Model and decriminalization. Through Google alerts, blogs like this one, and the indispensable Honest Courtesan, Sex Work Twitter, and Facebook groups like COYOTE and My Favorite Abolitionist, I keep track of sex workers’ rights news across the globe. Even when I am not covering an issue, perspective gained through continual study has helped me to put my reporting in better context and choose better stories.