Editor’s note: This post was originally erroneously attributed to Victoria Joy. The piece is actually by Ruby Rue.
Victims of violence are more likely to have experienced violence at the hands of someone they know. The same goes for sex workers. There seems to be a lot more concern about stranger-danger in the industry than there is for what I’ve seen as the bigger threat—the people already in your life. I’m not suggesting you don’t screen clients, of course that is important. I’m also not suggesting isolating yourself from friends and family. But, article after article I’ve read about sex workers’ partners reflects some of my own experience. Now, luckily, the situations I’ve been in have never escalated to physical violence. But—verbal abuse? Manipulation? Sexual harassment? Sexual assault? Check, check, check, and check. Let’s break down this potential mine field and see how sex work stigma and abusive partner behavior collide in the worst ways possible.
I think about how many times I’ve had a friend who was a good decent friend, a decent, “good guy.” I figure, he’s pretty great, I should date him. And almost immediately, the whole situation sours. I wonder, “Did I do something wrong?” Maybe if I had a clearer head I’d see that the deterioration of the relationship is related to his resistance to my standing up for myself. Still, in the context of abuse, it’s going to be branded as my fault. There is no way of knowing that a guy will treat you the same way when he’s dating you as he did when you were just friends. For whatever reason, dating can open the can of crazy douchebag worms in a seemingly otherwise wonderful man in your life. The beautiful wonderful man you are dating can make this very same quick switch the second he discovers you were or are a sex worker, though I will bet you anything that if he reacts poorly to that information that there were already other problems in the relationship.
The first instance is misogyny and the second instance is whorephobia. Both misogyny and whorephobia are leveraged in relationships in order for the abuser to gain:
1. More outside support—a rallying cry against you
2. More sympathy—they’re broken hearted, you’re just a slut
I’m going to break down some intersections between whorephobia and abusive partner behavior, based on my personal experiences. You can use this to help identify whether your partner is an abuser or not. Much of this will be familiar, because the world is still pretty shitty about these issues.
Let me dispel some of the bad ideas I had about dating. You can never really know or guess whether or not someone will treat you badly in a relationship or whether or not they’ll react poorly to or treat you badly for being a sex worker. I’ve had good friends, people that I trusted, that I’ve had to part ways with the minute I opened up about sex work. Some of the most “radical” “anarchist” zines will include whorephobic comments, and you ask, “Hey, are you an anarchist or what?” Politically forward-minded people notoriously do not have the best track record as far as domestic violence goes either: “I mean, the big picture is what’s important, man”—ughh. So, I wouldn’t rely solely on what someone says or believes in regards to… anything. The bottom line is: do they understand your side in arguments, do they make that effort? Are they someone who would rather fight for you than against you, even when they don’t always understand where you’re coming from? For instance, I would prefer the meathead boyfriend who is willing to beat up a dude who harassed me, even if his actions are motivated by a more traditional inclination that I don’t agree with, rather than the leftist boyfriend who shrugs and says it’s my problem.
You’re dating a guy (or chick), and you’re a sex worker. And you feel really really lucky that he is so understanding and so “good” about it, and you believe that you hardly deserve him…and hold up a minute. Does that add up? You’re so grateful for what—for his being less than perfect in regards to whorephobia? What else are you going to overlook in this guy/chick?
When I was working at a dungeon, on top of having abusive management, I stumbled into an abusive living situation as well. And every day, I thought to myself, “I don’t deserve to be loved by anyone at home because of what I do.” Which is totally backwards, but we live in a crazy whorephobic world, so it’s very easy to slip into these bad personal situations and ideas while working. Most of the rest of the world supports these kinds of ideas, but that doesn’t make them any less abusive. Just know you deserve to be loved, period. You aren’t “lucky” to have found a guy who vaguely accepts what you do most of the time but calls you a whore when he’s really angry. He hasn’t truly accepted your work, and he’s a dick. I was being told things like, “You don’t deserve food” by people at home and at work. Recognize when people are saying insane shit like that. It is verbal abuse and nothing about your job changes that. I am still recovering from that experience, and it happened over a year ago.
Jealousy and Possessiveness:
In jealous, whorephobic partners you will see the conflation of clients with affairs. This can operate in a number of ways. Perhaps your partner is okay with your job, so long as they have as much control over your working situation as possible, such as driving you to locations they want you to work at, picking out clients for you, deciding your hours for you, etc. Such a wannabe pimp boyfriend presents a very dangerous situation, preventing you from screening clients and rejecting the ones you have a bad feeling about using your own judgement.
Then, there is the guy who thinks you’re constantly having affairs, who blows up about it all the time. These guys will exercise their paranoia regardless of what you do for a living, but they are even worse when they date sex workers. This kind of argument is exhausting, and can potentially lead to more dangerous situations as it escalates.
Again, here we have a partner’s conflation of clients with affairs:
Abuser: “Why can’t I sleep with whoever I want to when you get to sleep with whoever you want to?”
This guy (or woman) clearly doesn’t understand what sex work is. It’s work. This isn’t your way of trying to cheat on them at all. This argument is not justification for their cheating in the context of a monogamous relationship.
Okay, so I’ve been here. It was all implied. Nothing was explicitly said relating to my job, but essentially, the implicit rationale for their violation of me was, “Well, you’re a sex worker, so that means you’re up for anything!” No, I’m not up “for anything,” and neither are you. I count myself “lucky” insofar as it was only attempted rape. I left him after that and pretty smoothly too, thank God.
More explicitly, these are the kind of ideas behind this sort of partner violence:
Abuser: “You can’t get raped because you’re a sex worker.”
Abuser: “All sex work is rape, ergo, by batshit circular logic, it’s okay if I sexually assault you.”
No. You do not deserve that. You do not deserve that at work, and you do not deserve that at home. I can’t tell you how to live your life, but I really hope that if you’re in a situation like that that you will reach out for help and/or escape.
Physical Violence and Threats:
Physical violence does not exist in a contextless world unaccompanied by all of the above. It makes no sense for it to happen, unless one of the above situations has escalated. Even those relatively minor incidents that you feel you can write off or excuse—please take those incidents seriously. If it happened once, I can guarantee you it will happen again unless there are some major limits set, complemented by counseling. But even then… I know I can talk myself down in those situations, telling myself, “It was just a slap, it’s not like he punched me. He didn’t really harm me.” Or, “He was raised in a home where this was normal, so it’s just not a big deal to him.” Or, “I think it was just play-fighting.” I really hope you don’t do this, or if you do, recognize that you do and work from there.
And I will add this for the BDSM crowd: Yes, there is play fighting, play slapping, play degradation. This is fine, so as long as code words and limits are predetermined and used. If your dom (or domme) does not respect your limits or ignores you when you safe word, that is abuse. If your dom punishes you in reaction to or in spite of any limits you set or any safewording on your part, that is abuse. That is not play, that is abuse.
In any abusive relationship, there is a cycle. After they hurt you, eventually they’ll come around and apologize and try to make it up to you. I’ve found that when sex work is also on the table, they’ll say things like, “I just don’t want to see you degraded,” “I wish you’d leave that awful work,” or “It’s illegal and that worries me” like an abolitionist organization on loop. It was especially confounding to me when “friends” would say things like that about an abusive workplace I was working at at the time. Your concern is legality? Not that the management treats me like shit? Apologies such as these, however sincere they might seem, are way off target and whorephobic. Nothing about these people or their attitudes has changed.
So you’re out, whether from bad management or a bad home. You don’t have very much to work with, and don’t feel like you can’t open up to those around you about why you are there without your safety net falling through again. I felt really pathetic, and I blamed myself for everything. In every case, a victim has some part of their agency still intact, however small. The myth that agency has to be completely removed from the victim in order for the victim to be a victim is a fallacy that limits the definition of abuse and therefore perpetuates victim-blaming. Abuse is always an abuse of trust. You trust that someone you love isn’t going to harm you, or if they have, that they’re going to change and never do that again. You trust that the people you work with aren’t going to harm you. These are basic assumptions that we carry in our lives in order to live, and abusers are people who disregard and take advantage of that trust.
I’m still working on how to navigate acknowledging both my agency and my status as a victim of abuse. It’s difficult, but all I can say is that I have both, and I had both. If you can’t open up to friends and family, I encourage you to reach out to people and organizations you can talk to about your experiences. I can’t tell you how much this relieved me. I wrote a novel-sized journal about my abuse history, too (which hey, if you have the downtime and space—why not?), but what was really the turning point for me was getting in contact with people who wouldn’t judge me or hate me for what I’d suffered, people who understood me and offered me support. I hope you know you’re not pathetic, or, if I can’t convince you of that, that it is okay to feel somewhat pathetic when you’re healing and rebuilding your life.