Sex Work Snobbery

by Charlotte Shane on October 13, 2011 · 28 comments

in Activism, Prostitution

One of my favorite aspects of sex work is the camaraderie. I often feel that I’m in a secret society; I’ve had people pull me aside and confess their own sex work past (or present) after learning of my own. There’s a level of honesty and candidness I assume with other sex workers that I don’t have with civilian friends whom I’ve known for longer. The girl I met on my first day of webcam, eight years ago? We still talk on the phone. The girl I met through an agency once I started doing in-person work? I was the officiant at her wedding. I find sex worker bonds to be more durable and more intense than the connection I form—or rather, don’t form—with civilians.

But it’s not all group hugs and gossip sessions. There’s a tremendous amount of classism and snobbery among sex workers. It runs both ways, existing within each facet of the industry and also cutting across job descriptions. That means an incall escort may trash talk street workers and turn up her nose at strippers, while a massage girl might think that her colleagues who offer more than handjobs are super skanky and dominatrixes aren’t “real” sex workers. The pressure of stigmatization and often operating in environments where one’s boundaries aren’t respected leads to this demonization of co-workers and other sex workers on the whole, when instead we should direct the frustation where it belongs: on bad laws, bad bosses, and bad customers.

Here’s how it works: every sex worker has at least one virtue that they can hold up as being socially acceptable regardless of how reviled their profession may be. Maybe they diligently use protection even for oral, maybe they dress elegantly and drive a nice car, maybe they never allow their genitals to come into contact with a customer’s, maybe they only perform heterosexual sex. That virtue (the condom use, the charging for multiple hours, the no-genital contact rule) becomes a shield against sex worker stigma; it’s what keeps them from being like those real “whores.”  We know we’re doing work that is labelled wrong and shameful so we try to legitimize it—and ourselves—by clinging to certain details that might distinguish us from others doing the same labor.

One of my favorite activists, Theirry Schaffauser, recently wrote an eloquent appeal for this in-judging to stop:

Don’t accuse each other of feeding stereotypes because like all stereotypes on minorities, some are true. We know that all sex workers are not the representation of what the whorephobic system describes. But some of us are sometimes. We have a duty to support each other and to support the most vulnerable among ourselves. Even if some may fit with caricatures, all voices in our movement are legitimate. Don’t be afraid of other voices and you will learn from them. No sex worker is giving a bad name to other sex workers. (Emphasis added.)

His piece is particularly timely since Kat and I were recently discussing Oriana Small’s frequent anti-prostitution comments in her memoir, Girlvert. Small, a porn performer, expresses disgust at the idea that she would be thought of as a “whore” and is adamant that she is nothing like a “hooker,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that her emotional problems, drug addiction, and tendency towards grueling and taboo scenes (double anal, pissing in mouth) would have many prostitutes and, I’d guess, many porn performers, rejecting her as trashy and pathetic.

This porn star vs. prostitute nonsense is a pretty deep and persistent rift; Small’s attitude is a common one. I’m sure it stems primarily from the completely ludicrous legal logic that deems one profession criminal and the other not. Many escorts are insulted by the fact that if they only allowed their paid sex to be filmed they wouldn’t be breaking the law, while most porn performers seem loathe to give up their recently-won cultural cache by taking on prostitute stigma and admitting that, fundamentally, they have sex for money. The anger that should be directed at the system ends up directed at each other. Escorts think having sex for a camera is classless, and porn stars thinking leaving the camera out makes you a common criminal.

Not all escorts or all porn stars think that way, obviously. And there is a real difference in the experience of an escort and a porn star, as there is a real difference in the experience of a porn star who keeps a solo girl site and doesn’t perform with men versus a porn performer who usually films scene with more than one guy at once. And there’s an experiential difference between a prostitute who charges by the sex act and one who charges for her time and requires that all dates start with dinner. Acknowledging those differences isn’t wrong, but nor should it be elevated to an indictment of the character of the sex worker in question. I’m not better than a girl who likes to drink before she works or who offers half hour appointments—I just don’t work that way. One dominatrix isn’t selling out all others by ending her sessions with a handjob. A massage girl who gives blow jobs isn’t a slut just because other girls in the agency don’t.

But another facet of sex worker vs. sex worker animosity is a legitimate complaint about labor dynamics. If one stripper regularly gives extras in the VIP room, strippers who don’t are going to be pissed because 1) they’re being put at higher risk for a police raid by her behavior and 2) lots of customers are going to put extra pressure on all other strippers to do the same. The massage girl who gives a blow job for $20 is undercutting those who ask for $40, and really annoying those who don’t offer them at all, since Mr. Wants-a-BJ will probably be rude and even retaliatory (thanks, review sites) when he doesn’t get from one girl what he learned to expect from another. But part of being in a service business is negotiating customer satisfaction with your own bottom line, which, for sex workers, includes boundaries. What makes this game extra grating for sex workers is that most of us don’t have bosses who are interested in maintaining a fair working environment with clearly enforced rules or bosses who want to support those obeying the rules allegedly in place—or we don’t have bosses at all, and we feel at the mercy of clients who regularly rally on message boards to get more for less.

When it comes to making social and political progress, however, we can’t let these internal complaints divide us. We can’t demand an end to police violence against only the “good” prostitutes, the ones who always work sober and use protection and ask to be fed before they’re fucked. We won’t de-stigmatize sex work by ignoring raunchier porn performers and asking truly sadistic dommes to stay home, nor will we earn society’s (or a judge’s) respect by pointing to what may have once been a point of pride: our prominent, “high class” clientele or our spiritual motivations. Our differences might matter to us but they don’t matter to a world that systematically devalues and punishes sex workers of all stripes. Standing up for yourself as a sex worker necessarily means standing up for all sex workers. If you’re not willing to do that, you might as well sit down.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Susie Bright October 13, 2011 at 9:17 am

I agree with every single word you said, but then I looked at that photo of that smug kitten, and realized I was probably as guilty as anyone else.

Xxxxoooo

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Maggie McNeill October 13, 2011 at 9:32 am

Hear, hear, well-said! The only point on which I slightly disagree is that “NO sex worker” gives others a bad name; I’d amend it to say “no HONEST sex worker”. Girls who rob customers, commit cash-and-dash, etc definitely give us a bad name because they reinforce the police claim that we are criminals and our profession should remain criminal.

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Charlotte Shane Charlotte Shane October 13, 2011 at 9:48 am

This might be intellectually contortionist on my part, but I don’t even think of cash-and-dashers as sex workers, just con artists—because they never interact with the customer nor are they doing any work. I agree that it’s hard to defend thieves, though I don’t want them (or anyone) targeted for police or client violence/extortion/etc. because they advertise as offering sexual services.

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Maggie McNeill October 14, 2011 at 9:44 am

No, I totally agree; they’re not sex workers, just thieves taking advantage of our underground status as a cover for theft. But police use them as examples of what we’re supposedly like, so I think we can’t just ignore them.

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Elle Elle October 17, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Yep. One of my good friends actually used to do this; we could drive around town and she would point out houses that she had ‘robbed’. I always felt conflicted by this; she felt empowered by it. But really, it does more harm in the long run than good, when other sex workers feel the reverberations of one thief’s actions.

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Holly October 27, 2011 at 8:24 pm

Apart from cash-and-dash, where no interaction is taking place, you don’t need to distinguish between honest sex workers and those who are less scrupulous. If a sex worker robs, then they should be dealt with as a robber, but it’s still important that their sentencing is not more harsh because of their profession. Also this distinction implies that some people are inherently bad… but we can imagine that if sex workers are treated more fairly, then fewer will need to commit actual crimes.

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Jolene October 13, 2011 at 11:28 am

As someone who’s worked in many different aspects of the sex industry, I’m always shocked when I hear this kind of talk. When I’m at the peepshow, for instance, I hear a lot of negativity about the occasional “working girl” in with a client (usually much more derogatory terms used), and it makes me very uncomfortable. Thankfully, most of my current peepshow coworkers are also Jills-of-all-trades, and therefore in the same place when it comes to that kind of snobbery and derision.

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Madison Doll October 13, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Love this article. The HOE-Heirarcy has always been so interesting to me. Much like you I have built life long deep and intimate personal relationships with women whom I have worked with in the sex industry. I can also relate to the work-ethics-drama-politics as that has also been a part of past relationships with other working girls.

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mj October 13, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Love this article, totally agree about the bonding in sex-work. I just returned to my strip club after a few months away and it was like coming home. I’m a long-time reader but first time commenter, just wanted to say that all of you guys are so, so awesome.

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Vixen October 16, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Great post. Just wanted to say that I too have felt sex work is like a secret society. My relationships with fellow workers feels so much deeper than many of my other friendships. “Nobody understands like another sex worker” may be an overused cliche but I find it quite true.

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Catherine Catherine October 16, 2011 at 4:19 pm

I don’t see classism as being much of an issue when it comes to activism and the quest for social/political progress, as most sex work activists are very aware of these issues. Classism that I’ve seen runs more rampant among workers who are not activists at all, and do not necessarily even identify with the word “sex worker” (like the majority of women I’ve worked with). It’s a word used in activist circles more than work environments. Not every person in the industry sees his/herself as part of a sex worker rights movement, and it’s harder to make the issue of classism relevant to people who don’t have a social or political agenda.

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Charlotte Shane Charlotte Shane October 16, 2011 at 5:02 pm

That’s not consistent with my own experience. I’ve heard and read otherwise very smart and outspoken sex workers still say some really snotty things about others who just don’t work the same way they do. I think it’s a big mistake to assume that just because someone is progressive or politically active in one sphere that they’re not guilty of replicating the same -isms that are pervasive at every level of society.

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Catherine Catherine October 16, 2011 at 5:15 pm

It wasn’t an assumption as much as an observation. But admittedly, I’m not as deeply connected to the sex work activist community as you may be. I’ve had vastly more interactions and friendships form in strip club dressing rooms than political organizing, and so I suppose I’ve been spared the experience of elitism in that community. It’s disappointing to hear about.

I do think that, for workers who are only interested in making money and not organizing politically, encountering elitism in this industry is no more surprising than it would be in any other business. Every industry has a hierarchy of some sort, people who are more successful, higher ranking, more experienced, more respected, etc.

It does baffle me a little to hear a stripper put down an escort for being “trashy,” when the vast majority of society already calls strippers trashy. You’d think they’d know better! But unfortunately a lot of people in this business have shame about what they do (it’s honestly hard to have no shame at all about it in this society, no matter how confident you are and how strong your personal convictions are), and want to distance themselves from people whose work seems even more extreme or stigmatized.

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Alice October 19, 2011 at 3:13 pm

I very much liked this article and it actually made me hold out an olive branch to another escort that I have previously out down.

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stella October 27, 2011 at 1:01 pm

To maybe oversimplify a bit because I don’t want to take the time to spell out the whys and wherefores…there are two issues–one is internalized oppression (“I.O.”) which is when we internalize the feelings about ourselves that society says–these “common knowledge” values are drummed into us from the day we are born. That is, whores are bad, I am a whore, I am bad, etc. Then we have to justify why she is bad but I am a step up from that (but inside I still feel bad about myself). The second issue is capitalism that separates the working classes and makes them go against each other, diverting their attention away from their true oppressors, the owning classes.

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Lilly Muse October 28, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Thank you, Charlotte, this is a concept that’s been on my mind for a while. I became aware of my own sex work snobbery a few months ago when I was getting disillusioned with the Tantric sexual healing I was offering. At the time–for a while, at least–I legitimately believed in what I was doing, and I felt very attached to the idea of my clients taking away more than just a “superficial” sexual gratification. Because of that mindset I naturally fell into the habit of contrasting my services from those of others as a way of not only legitimizing myself but also as a way of making the hustle; it seemed clients who were visiting me for this “deeper” work also wanted to distinguish THEMSELVES from other clients who just wanted to have sex with whores (they all think they’re not like other guys, don’t they?), so in an attempt to elevate our entire experience above that of more crude ones, I often found myself speaking negatively of the enigmatic “other providers” who were, in our collective mind, sketchy and skanky.

In reality, many clients who expressed relief at my “no oral sex or intercourse” boundary back then (because they weren’t looking for sex, of course) enthusiastically returned when I ditched the Tantra label and opened it up to a more comprehensive escort experience! After letting go of the ritual and language behind which I had been hiding for so long, I discovered I actually do enjoy providing sexual gratification for its own sake, and I instantly felt freer because of it. I also realized that I am not just one type of sex worker. I have a nice house in a nice area where I offer private escort services at an hourly rate, but I am not opposed to charging more for a specific service if and when I deem it appropriate. I’ve never stripped as a steady job, but I did have a very raunchy one-time gig at a bar in New Orleans, totally drunk on tequila. I’m pretty sure it was even illegal.

I have certain standards that I do always adhere to, but there is so much wiggle room in the sex industry, and I am not afraid to push some boundaries once in a while. It was when I began embracing my own multifaceted nature that I started seeing myself in others and others in myself. We’re all just doing what feels best to us at any given moment. I couldn’t strip at a club every night, but I’m so grateful there are girls that can and do, just as some of those strippers can’t imagine having sex with strangers nearly every day like I do. I appreciate all the workers that are not like me because just as there is a variety of workers/providers out there, there is a variety of clients, and I for one am thankful that I’ve got my type, and others have theirs. I think we can all recognize that because there is already so much competition anyway, we should love our sex-working sisters even more for NOT doing our thing!

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Leah November 5, 2011 at 11:28 pm

Thank you, Charlotte, this is a concept that’s been on my mind for a while. I became aware of my own sex work snobbery a few months ago when I was getting disillusioned with the Tantric sexual healing I was offering. At the time–for a while, at least–I legitimately believed in what I was doing, and I felt very attached to the idea of my clients taking away more than just a “superficial” sexual gratification. Because of that mindset I naturally fell into the habit of contrasting my services from those of others as a way of not only legitimizing myself but also as a way of making the hustle; it seemed clients who were visiting me for this “deeper” work also wanted to distinguish THEMSELVES from other clients who just wanted to have sex with whores (they all think they’re not like other guys, don’t they?), so in an attempt to elevate our entire experience above that of more crude ones, I often found myself speaking negatively of the enigmatic “other providers” who were, in our collective mind, sketchy and skanky.
+1

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Jaeleen November 9, 2011 at 9:48 pm

Thanks so much for writing a great article!

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maxine doogan February 23, 2013 at 7:37 am

Here’s some codes of ethics from the cyprian guild, our trade association from the 90′s in San Francisco that I’ve modified to fit the idea of industrial organizing.
1.) Have a sincere commitment to provide the highest quality attention to those who seek our professional services.
2.) Conduct our business and professional activities with honesty and integrity. Project a professional image in all aspects of our practices.
3.) Acknowledge the confidential nature of the professional relationship; with clients, other workers and support staff and respect union member’s right to privacy.
4.) Perform only those services for which we are qualified, and utilize techniques which protect health and safety.
5.) Keep all business agreements or renegotiate in a timely fashion.
On another note, almost everybody had run ins with the law in some form or another.

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Douglas Fox February 23, 2013 at 9:57 am

Sorry but could not resist a giggle when I saw Theirry Schaffauser being quoted as an example when he is probably one of the worst offenders when it comes to “snobbery”, especially of the inverted kind against fellow sex workers. That observation aside I would suggest that snobbery within sex work is often a reflection of a sense of pride in “your” work. Rightly or wrongly people naturally want to feel better about their work which often results in adopting what appears to be a negative attitude toward others in the same business.
Indoor sex workers for example commonly sneer at street workers but if we examine why it is usually because indoor sex workers hate being caricatured and that caricature is inevitably of the problematic street girl. How many times for example do we see articles on sex work with a photo of a scantily clad female on the streets? How many times do abolitionists and some leftist sex worker activists use examples ie she was a teenage runaway, on drugs, blah blah blah etc….These populist images, caricatures of sex work experiences feed a populist mythology that all sex work is always problematic. When the average sex workers argue against these caricatures, often clumsily, they are curtly dismissed as privileged whores and unrepresentative whores. Sex work activists on the left are ( re Thierry) often the worst offenders in silencing voices of sex workers who do not fit their politically motivated narrative that all sex work is the same, by dismissing such opposition as classist and privileged etc.

I suggest that we should be more understanding of snobbery rather than negative and use the inevitable snobbery of sex workers to create a more reflective narrative that is more representative of the diversity within the the sex worker experience. Diversity can be strength if used imaginatively.

Arguments about who or who does not use condoms for oral etc are not really snobberies but more reflections of jealousy in that the sex worker doing oral with out may get more work etc. Sex work is a market where the client rules and unless condom use is enforced for oral then inevitably some sex workers will loose out. I would argue that enforcement however is an infringement of liberty which is another argument.

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