choice

“Patients Waiting To See A Doctor, With Figures Representing Their Fears” by Rosemary Carson (via wikimedia)

Most people have some form of a lurid narrative about drugs, exploitation, childhood abuse, and mental illness come to mind when they imagine the life of a sex worker. However, sex workers’ relationships to their identity are far more complex and difficult to characterize than that trite narrative allows for. When it comes to sex workers who do live with the stereotypical trope of also having a mental illness, it becomes even more essential to uncover what these sex workers themselves have to say about their lived experiences of that mental illness and sex work.

People diagnosed with mental illness frequently have their decisions invalidated and undermined by the dominant culture. Many individuals who do not have much experience with mental illness will attribute any socially unacceptable behaviors to “mental illness.” In much the same way, people who have never been in the sex industry tend to sideline the decisions of sex workers by inferring that trauma or abuse must have predestined them to a life in the sex industry. When people who are neither mentally ill nor in the sex industry say these things, they are robbing us of our ability to exert agency.

Amber, a full-service worker from Washington DC, states, “I very strongly believe that the way that society treats sex workers, mentally ill people and other marginalized communities (that often intersect)…[is] based on kyriarchal/patriarchal, colonialist, and capitalist systems of control. In order to treat marginalized people better, I think we all have a lot of work to do regarding the unlearning of certain stigmas and stereotypes.”

The presence of stigma is one the key aspects of institutional violence keeping communities and individuals subjugated. It proliferates because it benefits those in power in this way. Stigma creates legal and moral justifications for the criminalization of sex work in America. It also creates an environment in which mentally ill people can be stripped of their rights through court-ordered institutionalization, coerced medication, and the assignation of relatives as proxies to control them legally and financially. The disqualification of the decision-making abilities of communities on the margins is a weapon of the oppressor.

Tara Johnson, a stripper from Portland, Oregon, elaborates on the ways in which decision making can be invalidated based on association with the sex industry, especially if one also has a diagnosis of mental illness: “Just because I’m (sometimes) crazy, doesn’t mean I’m wrong. My sex work was not me acting out, or indulging in yet another form of self-harm. It was nothing that entitles people to belittle my full humanity. It’s nothing that automatically means that mentally ill sex workers, especially ones who may have other issues too (drug use, etc.) should automatically be deprived of the rights that privileged, able-bodied civilians are entitled to.”

Sex work is not a dysfunctional behavior stemming from our disease. Rather, it is often the best choice we can make to adapt to our mental illness. In truth, many people with mental illness find sex work helpful in a variety of ways as an occupational choice. It gives us a less rigorous schedule which allows for more emotional instability. Sex work can also affirm us as something we can excel at when mental illness has hindered our success in more traditional pursuits.

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(Image by Flickr user IoSonoUnaFotoCamera)

(Image by Flickr user IoSonoUnaFotoCamera)

It is not incidental that Prop 60 in California mandating condom use in porn was defeated in the same election cycle as marijuana was legalized in many states and Donald Trump ascended to the presidency. We are witnessing the inherent contradictions of a neoliberal marketplace, contradictions that should make sex workers and our allies reconsider our “my body, my choice” rhetoric. This rhetoric, like our new president-elect, is ultimately unsustainable. We cannot fight the ills of neoliberalism with neoliberal rhetoric. We, as sex workers and labor rights advocates, must reconsider our individual-centered framework for one more structural.

It is no longer enough to talk about individual choice or populism. It is no longer appropriate to support a libertarian insurrection, even while that insurrection fights for sex workers’ rights. The rights of bodily autonomy gained from our allegiance with libertarian parties don’t do jack shit in the face of mounting hate crimes. They don’t do jack shit for all those arrested sex workers in the Global South forced to toil in sweatshops, making all the whips and ball gags we in the North use as evidence of our “liberation.” It is time for sex workers and our allies to adopt an anti-imperialist, anti-individualistic mindset.

I know this will upset the sensibilities of many vocal sex workers who claim that a right to privacy and individual autonomy eclipses “communist” collectivism. Despite libertarians’ claims that their political model is value neutral, it is most certainly a normative philosophy, one which makes ethical judgments. But sex working libertarians and their allies tend to only pay attention to the bodily autonomy and individualism promised by this political philosophy, a concept of individualism that Donald Trump shares. This is perhaps why many so-called libertarians now unapologetically boast support for our President-elect.

And that’s why I call fucking bullshit. Bullshit—to everyone who refuses to acknowledge the interconnectedness of bodies; bullshit—to any sex worker or ally who voted for bigotry, silence, or violence on Tuesday; bullshit—to any populist fury that scapegoats entire ethnic and racial groups in the name of “freedom.” And even in the wake of significant gains for sex workers in California, I call bullshit on any labor rights ethos centered entirely on “choice.”

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afeminismmeansWhen I make porn I find it to be a positive experience. That is based on a wide range of factors that I’ve spoken and written about in depth over the past eight years. For one, trans women’s sexuality is greatly misrepresented in media and it’s important to me to be able to create representations of sexuality on my own terms. I also take great care to address and incorporate ethics into every level of production. My porn includes Audre Lorde references. My porn has been nominated for and won several feminist awards. My porn includes complex discussion of police violence, immigration politics, post-traumatic stress, and other social issues.

Yet, inevitably, I encounter individuals who point at my work and declare that it is objectifying on face—typically without having even watched it. Then they demand that I come up with a thesis worthy defense of my claim that making my porn is a positive thing. Anything I’ve already said or written in defense of my work is ignored. Any reasoning or argumentation about my informed decision to work in porn is lost. My argument is simply represented by my detractors as “because I chose it.”

Choice feminism is the idea that anything that any woman personally chooses to do is a feminist act. The most commonly given example of this argument is that choosing to do sex work—or to take pole dancing classes, be in porn, sext, fill in the blank—is empowering simply because a woman has chosen to do it and criticisms against perpetuating objectification are irrelevant.

The problem here is that in most cases women are simply trying to point out that they know their own lives and are making an informed decision. They are not claiming that any woman’s exercise of her agency is by definition a feminist act, but that denying a woman her agency is an inherently un-feminist act— especially coming from someone who doesn’t have a shared understanding of the context of that decision in her life. [READ MORE]

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One of Lime Jello's ancestors?  (Image via Wikipedia Commons)

One of Lime Jello’s ancestors? (Image via Wikipedia Commons)

This piece is adapted from a December 17th speech the author gave this year.

“You’re so lazy, you’ll never be anything but a whore. And you won’t even be a good whore because nobody wants to fuck a girl with a book in front of her face.”

When I was about twelve, as I lay on my bed reading, my father walked into my bedroom. When he saw me reclining and reading, that was what he told me. Funny thing, though: the student schtick really sells. Clients like to think they’re “funding” something worthwhile, like my education and not my drug habit. (I have both.)

My point is this: entry into and tenure in the sex industry is both constrained and conditioned by personal, historical and socio-economic contexts. In the movement, we talk about constraint whenever we talk about poverty. I think we avoid talking about conditioning, however, lest we reinforce stereotypes about hookers who were abused as children. But I don’t believe I became a sex worker by accident. I think I was conditioned, and I want to talk about it.

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This post was removed at the author’s request.

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