I got an anonymous message on my Tumblr after a recent post I made complaining about how fashionable it seems to be for the sex workers’ rights movement to focus on the voices of clients of sex workers. Like me, the anonymous poster felt that clients’ feelings and experiences were being prioritized over theirs. This poor anon felt obligated to give a fuck about men’s feelings. I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I really don’t give a shit about clients’ feelings. If I’m not being paid to deal with male bullshit, I have no interest in it.
Yet I, like anon, feel like I’m alone in that position a lot of the time. The illustrious Morgan M. Page/Odofemi, a Toronto-based trans writer, artist, activist, and former sex worker, has written about the clients of trans sex workers and described them as “the missing link in obtaining trans* and sex workers rights”. Entire blogs are dedicated to telling the stories of punters. It seems like people are really keen on the idea that the men who use our services should be there to stick up for us. And why not? They’re being criminalized too (though we’re the ones who suffer the truly awful consequences), and I’m sure many other sex workers will agree that we do get a sense from some clients that they appreciate our humanity. It all sounds very good on paper. So, what’s the problem?
Well, first of all, have a look at the link to the blog about punters’ stories I posted. One of the posts is even titled “Women only sell sex because they have to.” Really? You’re speaking for us now? Excuse me, dude, please do not tell me why I do anything. I am entirely capable of doing that myself. Sadly, the voices of non-sex workers have long been used to drown out those of actual whores, and this divergence into punters’ points of view doesn’t seem any different from here. What are they actually contributing? Are they calling out whorephobia, talking to their friends about how to treat us with respect, designing laws and social policies that make our lives easier? No. What I’m seeing is eerily reminiscent of review-culture, which is about them, not us. I could live with that, if they stopped it there and didn’t tip-toe over to our side of the fence and, armed with their male entitlement, start speaking for us in ways that usually re-affirm victimized whore tropes. I remember one post in particular in which a man moaned woefully—and creepily—about the breakdown of his marriage, his ex-wife’s daughter, and his mental illness (hi, I have one too and I’m not a twat), then suggested that an escort he contacted clearly wasn’t “a real professional” and wasn’t “dedicated to her work” because she didn’t want to deal with him calling her repeatedly weeks before his fucking booking. Why should we listen to that kind of shit? Who is it helping? Hint: NO ONE. Oh look, here’s the post in question. Somehow I don’t think “everyday whorephobia” understands how ironic their blog name becomes when they post this trash.
The point I am trying to make here is that if clients were contributing something valuable or even something innocuous to our movement, I could deal. Instead, they are perpetrating whorephobia. I fear that people who don’t know better will see posts like this and think these men somehow have more knowledge of our lives and the realities of our work than we do. After all, the conversations surrounding punters and activism are largely cisheteronormative, and most of these men bring their male privilege to the table, while not even being aware of these advantages.
Beyond that, this issue seems to cause a divide between sex workers and, as evidenced by my anon friend, makes those of us who don’t subscribe to this thinking feel isolated, as if we’re doing something wrong. As if it’s our responsibility to listen and care about what men have to say. After all, it’s part of our socialization as women and marginalized people to listen to men, just as it’s part of our male clients’ socialization to speak over us and for us. How can we even begin to broach the subject of clients’ input regarding our rights if we’re not examining the dynamics of privilege? In addition to the gender differences at play here (remembering that not all sex workers—or clients—are cisgender), as sex workers we’re routinely silenced by everyone from fauxmanists to governments and police and even, sadly, our own communities. By radical feminist logic, if we’re able to assert any conviction of our rights, we’re too privileged to be representative. Of course, if we agree with them, then that privilege goes out the window. Thankfully, they don’t listen to punters’ self-involved bullshit either, but their influence—and silencing—is effective against us all too often, another hardship which clients never experience.
Those of us who have additional marginalized identities in addition to being sex workers are probably more aware of the problematic nature of self-declared ally status than the more privileged workers among us. Alliance always comes with a few fundamental problems. Firstly, an ally is always going to be approaching a marginalized person from a point of view that has internalized toxic shit against us, and having that privileged position means they can still act on those views in ways that harm us. When we then allow them into our spaces and into our conversations, we’re increasing their power both by giving them credibility to outsiders and also by giving them access to, well, us. The other major problem is that their voices inevitably drown out ours. Their experience of sex work is always going to be more valid than ours to society because non-sex workers are considered more valid than we are. We end up in a situation where people more powerful than us, whose ideas are skewed with bias, are representing us, speaking about realities they’re only vaguely aware of.
Since posting an earlier version of this article on my blog, I’ve received a number of comments, including one from a mod at everyday whorephobia. Predictably, they took objection to what I posted, as did some of their “ally” contributors. These “allies” felt slighted by what I wrote and proclaimed that they would now remove their support for us. Then, when another sex worker defended the allies, the allies responded again to me by saying, in essence, “I can ignore you because one other sex worker in the whole world thinks what I said was okay,” thereby tokenizing their sex worker friends and homogenizing sex workers as a group. The response of these ally friends was a perfect example of the problem of allies. They were able to pick and choose whose voices were valid and whose were not, thereby creating a Good Whore/Bad Whore dichotomy and using their support as leverage to try to force me to revoke my criticism of them. Having no actual stake in these discussions beyond their own self image, they prioritized their own feelings over important discussions about our rights.
The current practice of alliance to sex worker communities doesn’t allow us to critically examine the role that allies play. The assumption that all sex workers are the same is a problem even between actual sex workers trying to navigate the enormous variety of lived experience and perspectives we have as a group. That is, trying to create space for the huge variety of lived experience, feelings and views we have is a challenge within sex worker communities even without the complicating presence of outsiders. Intrusion from outsiders only makes this problem worse by prioritizing certain experiences over others and legitimizing some while in turn, delegitimizing others; in particular, those that do not agree with allies’ views or welcome their presence and input. The last thing we need is self-proclaimed allies using their token whore friends to further perpetuate a one-size-fits-all approach to activism. Beyond that, the ability to withdraw support when criticized is a highly manipulative, and I would even say it is an abusive misuse of power on the part of so-called allies. Anyone who does this has fundamentally misunderstood the fact that our struggle is not about them, nor is our entitlement to basic rights dependent on our placating them. Communities utilizing allies need to be able to educate and call out allies on problematic behavior.
Simply proclaiming themselves to be on our side because they pay for our services is not enough. If clients’ support is only due to their dislike of being criminalized for paying for our services, then their support is fundamentally selfish and missing the point. Support as it benefits the client is never going to address the wider problems we experience, such as whorephobia in dealing with the police, matters involving children such as custody and child protection, employment discrimination in non-sex work jobs, abuse from clients, and the like. In addition, the similarities between client alliance and review culture reek of class privilege, which leaves the most marginalized among us (e.g. street-based workers, drug users) out in the cold. The marginalization of street-based workers occurs in every context from review culture (which characterizes them with some of the worst whorephobic tropes around) to sex worker communities and even sex workers’ rights activism, where some still support criminalizing street-based work and view it as less desirable than indoor sex work. The dynamic of review culture is already dehumanizing, often reducing us to objects in very degrading ways; there is obvious danger in the fact that people who participate in both review culture and client support of sex workers’ rights will carry review culture attitudes and values over to activist work. When reading many client-written activist pieces, it’s plainly obvious that this is already happening.
We, as sex workers, deserve rights simply because we are people and people should be able to work and support themselves and their families without being criminalized and harmed. Even when clients are criminalized, we are the ones who live with the lifelong stigma of being branded prostitutes and dragged through the court system. Misogyny and whorephobia intersect here when we note that a man’s conviction for paying for the services of a sex worker virtually never interferes with his life afterwards, yet women can lose their careers if their sex working past is made known.
Clients could do the sex workers rights’ movement a world of good, if they were inclined to. Their role could be one that focuses on breaking down stereotypes of abusive, exploitative johns and uplifting our voices rather than dominating discussions with their own. Recounting their experiences of hiring sex workers is always going to be problematic, placing us as subjects under the male gaze. Instead of anonymously recounting salacious stories of hiring escorts as if they were writing a forum review, I would rather see client allies highlight the fact that they exchange money for a service in a situation which is consensual, in which both parties get what they want.
Sadly, being a true ally is more than most clients, or most people, want to deal with; it requires too much effort, too much examination of one’s own internalized prejudice, too much thankless work. I would like to suggest—while knowing that this is very difficult in and of itself—that our families would be much better poised to do this sort of P.R. than clients are. While I have no statistics on how many sex workers are ‘out’, I think it’s a fair assumption that most sex workers have at least a few non-sex workers in their lives whom they’re close to and who know what they do. It’s these people who love us, support us, care about us, and share this world with us.I would like to see a blog written by our mothers, our daughters, our husbands and wives. They are the best shot we have of being seen as actual people outside of stereotypes, because they love us and see us as actual people who exist outside of the benefits we provide them.They are more invested in our humanity and in our safety than clients can ever be, and perhaps they can be the missing link we so sorely need.
While there’s no doubt that the myth of the murderous woman-hating bogeyman who purchases sex adds to our stigma or that it’s only through the visibility of our clients that this can be diffused, that is about as far as we can really get with punters. They need to stick to their own shit and leave us to deal with ours.
Mia McKenzie, editor of the Black Girl Dangerous blog, compiled an amazing list of attributes and behaviors that sincere allies possess. Clients of sex workers who actually wish to support us, rather than giving themselves an ego boost while prioritizing their own rights ahead of ours, could learn a lot from it.