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.