Home Activism Who Gets Left Out: Respectability Politics Round Table, Part Two

Who Gets Left Out: Respectability Politics Round Table, Part Two

One of Melissa Gira Grant's Carceral Feminist Cat memes at carceralfeministcat.tumblr.com
One of Melissa Gira Grant’s Carceral Feminist Cat memes at carceralfeministcat.tumblr.com

You can read part one of this dialogue here.

Emma Caterine: Red Umbrella Project has definitely encountered issues around pressure to conform to respectability politics from larger groups who fund or sponsor us in different ways. It is telling that I can’t mention many of the specifics for fear of re-opening old wounds. Particularly the issue of trafficked people, especially children, is presented as something we “have” to deal with, account for, and fight against despite the fact that it does not fall under our purview. I know not at all groups that work with sex workers restrict themselves from working with survivors of trafficking (i.e. Sex Worker’s Project) and I admire their work. However, I think the pressure to always bring up trafficking any time sex work is mentioned is definitely a part of respectability politics, even replicated by advocates who are or have worked in the sex trades. Thoughts and experiences?

Sarah Patterson: This is definitely an ongoing discussion within Persist. Since some of our founding organizers have had experiences in the sex trades that might be regarded as trafficking by some definitions of the term, a need to hold space for trafficking survivors has been of particular import to us. Also, health access for all people in the sex trades is part of our mission, so trafficking survivors are absolutely included as folks who can and should access our services. But how to do that, without playing into the binary-driven debate of trafficking survivors versus sex workers, rather than trafficking survivors and/or sex workers? Even using the phrase “trafficking survivors and sex workers” suggests that they are independent groups, which we know is not necessarily the case, based on individuals’ experiences or whose definition of the terms you are using.

Sometimes it seems as though any deviation from the heavy emotionality and highly negative filter given to most anti-trafficking language/semantics is read as “happy hooker” code. I aim for as much neutrality as possible when I speak about the sex trades, in an effort to be as inclusive of as many experiences as possible, but it seems as though even neutrality gets skewed to the “pro-sex work” side in such a highly ideological debate. I suppose therein lies the trap of it…

Cyd Nova: Sarah brings up some issues that we at St James Infirmary have also struggled with. There are words that connote someone who has largely positive experiences in the sex industry and other terms that imply negative or coercive experiences. As Sarah mentioned, there is more overlap than it feels easy to talk about, politically. Someone may be an independent sex worker, doing work out of her volition one day, and then run into a bad situation and owe a bunch of money and so the overarching structure that she is participating in the sex industry in shifts. The client that she saw last week as a carefree happy hooker, may this week be defined as a secondary party to her victimhood in sex trafficking.

I’ve recently noticed a shift in sex worker organizing to engage more with discussions around coercive sex work or trade—which is great because they are not as disconnected as we’ve often in the past claimed—and also that the conversation about sex trafficking is dominating any conversation about sexual labor, regardless of our stance.

At St James, acknowledging the different experiences people have in the sex industry enables us to build alliances with people who may have different perspectives or experiences but similar goals.  The majority of people who come in for services here do not identify as victims of sex trafficking, but law enforcement around sex trafficking still impacts them in negative ways and that’s the lens that we usually talk about it through.  Or, also, there’s a conversation that needs to be had about how current practices around law enforcement can negatively impact victims of sex trafficking—they can’t access condoms, get arrested during rescues, have any prior history as consensual sex workers work against them if they try to access legal support, etc.

While I do hear that it is annoying to be a sex work organization and have everything shifted to ‘so what about sex trafficking,’ sometimes that’s the only conversation people are going to be willing to have, and you have to be able to maneuver it to fit your communities’ needs.

Have any of you ever bought into the umbrella ideology we’re calling “respectability politics”? If so, how and why did your opinions change? What arguments do you find are most effective with people who espouse these beliefs/tactics? Are there any ways in which your beliefs might coincide with “respectability politics”? ARE there any compromises you think the sex workers’ rights movement should make in favor of those less marginalized, because those advances are more achievable?

Emma: 1. I actually feel that I’ve gone the opposite direction of what you insinuated. I find myself moderating and presenting myself (not just my dress but my attitude as well) in more ways that conform to respectability politics. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that it is difficult for trans women to be successful in any way, let alone while holding political and social views so dissonant with the mainstream.

2. In the Red Umbrella Project we have a media advocacy training and in it one of the things we say is to be conscious of how you dress. Notice that we don’t say to “dress up” or “dress nice”, but dress effectively. If you are conscious of how you dress nine times out of ten you’ll be inclined to dress more nicely. The example that my boss so illustratively chose was that, while I was dressed very nicely for our presentation, the first thing a reporter would probably notice is that I was wearing “h***er heels.” Also, I have major issues with internalized Protestant work ethic and have very little tolerance, for myself or others, for what I perceive as “laziness”, which I have learned and am still learning is often what systems of oppression have convinced me is malicious personal failure when it is actually problems with mental health, problems with social conflict, etc.

Cyd: I am not, and have never been, a very ‘respectable’ person, so I didn’t really come into sex worker politics from that lens because it wouldn’t have benefited me or my friends very much. But as I have shifted into a role of representing the clinic, I’ve definitely moved into a place of acting, looking, and talking in ways that are more palatable to people who aren’t radical queer separatists or unrepentant hookers.

(Via Meme Generator)
Caty Simon plays with Meme Generator

In an interview I used one line that is pretty common in framing decriminalization in a positive light to the general public—the one talking about how when sex workers aren’t afraid of being arrested themselves they can be allies to law enforcement in combating trafficking—so kind of drawing on that idea that sex workers WANT to be upstanding citizens and help cops, if only you’d let us!  I used that line in an interview and someone called me out on it which was pretty fair—because it implies that I think that the way that law enforcement deals with ‘sex trafficking’ is adequate, which I absolutely don’t.

However, the truth is so complicated. I don’t agree with the way that ‘sex trafficking’ is dealt with on an institutional level and would probably not look to the cops to solve issues of coercion or violence happening in sex trade as a first step, but as a harm reduction move I would like people to be able to report abuse without getting arrested. That framework is pretty much going to go over the head of most non-sex workers though.

I think this is the allure of respectability politics— they appeal to the lazy in activists and consumers of concepts. “The nice and respectable sex worker is victimized by institutions/cops/clients and once decriminalization/patriarchy ends then all the problems will disappear!’ sells a lot easier than talking about the complexities of people’s lives, that decriminalization will not eradicate all the issues that people face working in the sex industry because many people in the sex industry are not just facing oppression from that one facet of criminalization. Talking about that shit is fucking overwhelming, and so it can feel more achievable to advocate for say…independent, indoor sex workers only…instead of opening up the conversation to the multitude of issues faced by people who aren’t that.

And there are times when compromising is necessary, when you frame something in an easily consumable way to get the shit you need to get done, done. But the line between playing your cards right and selling out your community is a very thin one. One where everyone is going to have a different perspective on what falls into which camp. But I think that in general, the respectability politics game is how we end up becoming divided as a community, and the benefits of assimilating are way overwhelmed by the troubles of tearing each other apart.

Sarah: 1: I echo what Emma said regarding this question. I remember early on in my organizing, a veteran telling me that my “respectable” look would be useful to me in getting a seat at the table. But I was confused by this assessment. I felt like such a weirdo and an outsider (and at the time, was living a life pretty off the grid in terms of a respectability quota.) I couldn’t understand how that could be possible. But I have since become more aware of my privilege of both appearing respectable and now, straddling the line of respectability (pun of course intended.) I see more clearly the ability these things have to get me a seat at certain tables, to insert myself in certain conversations and to advocate.

2. I’ve been working in health education at non-profits for a few years now to support my sex workers’ rights habit (and also, to learn what not to do.) During this time, I have been acutely aware of how everyone is playing respectability politics all the time, some of the worst culprits unsurprisingly being those at the top of the pyramid. And I grew tired very quickly of watching great people in just ok organizations try valiantly to make a difference,despite the odds, for groups they were a part of/identified with. Part of co-founding Persist was all about knowing that sure, there are other people who say they provide health care for sex workers, but what exactly do they consider affirming and non-judgmental care? What do we as a community think they are? And for me, it’s about bringing as many voices and definitions from communities involved with and impacted by the sex trade into that conversation. But then also, what does “community” mean in the context of sex workers’ rights?

Also, as someone who organizes by night and acts respectable by day (talking to funders, representing services and managing institutional culture at a nonprofit), it’s a relief for me that most parts of running Persist allow me to be out, sharing more aspects of myself and my experiences.

I would argue that there is something universal about the shaming and stigma of sex worker status, but beyond that experience, people who trade sex have really varied realities and that is part of the difficulty of advocacy on their behalf. And in terms of “bowing” to respectability politics or really, altering a message to include more people (rather than less), I think that’s something we at Persist are aiming to do. And as Cyd said, it’s very slippery and it’s a very fine line, but as a movement, I think we need all the allies we can get.

Melissa Gira Grant: Have I bought into or put “respectability politics” to use? Cyd and Emma have mentioned how this plays out in frontline work and in advocacy, and I can see some of my own experiences there, too. In my work now writing and reporting, I’m more engaged in the reverse—a politics of ill repute?When I first started writing about sex work as a sex worker, I know I did play into respectability politics even without intending to, as a way to work around stigma, that pressure to demonstrate that sex work wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me. At a certain point, I became more curious about the people who uphold that stigma, and made them my subject. That took the pressure to perform a perfect sex work narrative off, and also exposed the pressure for what it was: misogyny, whore stigma, a politics of exclusion disguised as demands to prove some simplistic idea of “empowerment.”

Emma Caterine plays with Meme Generator
Emma Caterine plays with Meme Generator

So what I’m doing now feels less about wrapping my work in more “respectable” terms by telling stories about how sex workers are “regular people just like you!” (and I’ve had sympathetic editors say how boring that tactic is) and more about figuring out who is making sex workers’ lives more difficult and putting the focus on them. It’s only aided by the sense that journalism itself could do with being less respectable these days, less eager to tell the “right” stories about the “right” people. The other writers I turn to for advice usually come back with some version of Mother Jones’ description of her job: to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. So I’m not worrying a lot about how I’m received as respectable. I need be trustworthy and accurate, and sometimes dress for the occasion, but I don’t have a particular line I feel I have to tow.

I thought I’d be more concerned about respectability with editors or sources, but that’s not been the case. Where it has come up is with what is honestly just a minority of readers. I’ve had those readers question and complain (in comments, over email, on social media) that they feel I owe it to them to disclose that I’ve done sex work in each story I write—which, mind you, are not actually the stories I am writing. I feel like I’m quite an out person, to the extent that I thought it could actually be a problem. And yet I find myself coming out over and over. Or, and this just happened again a few days ago, some readers will debate if I ever really was a sex worker, because it’s not sufficiently branded across every piece of media I produce, and if it’s not obvious to them, then I can’t “really” be a sex worker (again, not what my stories are about, but). So there’s being out, and then there’s being out in the ways that satisfies someone who seems to believe that unless you have the scarlet letter of your personal brand livestreaming 24/7 directly into their brain, you’re hiding something. Because you know, once a lying whore, always a lying whore? And of course, this is all taking place on the internet, where any woman who writes anything will find “whore” written underneath it eventually. (Welcome to our stigma, everyone.)

I can’t tell if this a problem of the media, or sex work stigma, or likely both. I look at Barbara Ehrenreich’s Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a fund to support working class journalists to cover stories about other working people, because journalism is rapidly becoming an elite profession. I think, this is a problem of journalism, a structural problem, where readers don’t expect the person on the other side of the screen to share much with them or their subjects, where we’ve been told that maintaining absolute distance is a marker of “objectivity” and anything else is bias. But then I also reject this idea that sex workers only have something useful and true to say about sex work if it’s about their own sex work experience. Those stories are important, but they aren’t what I want to lead with in my work. So when I choose not to write about myself, I don’t want that understood as me saying “oh no, this shameful past!” or that I’m withholding it because I want to shy away from the “gritty reality” of my own life, or to appear virtuous. If people were really curious about “the reality,” they need to accept this reality, too: they are not my editors.

Which is why it’s a bit of a mindfuck, to now have some readers saying, “We want to hear your story, because it makes you more credible in our eyes,” well. Credible as a what, a source of diversion for them? I don’t write to please. My argument against respectability politics is in my refusal to tell the stories people want to hear, whether that’s a suit or a sympathetic reader. In my work now around sex work, I am encouraged to displease powerful people. If that’s disreputable in their eyes, I’m honored to keep at it.

How do we most effectively include those who get left out by respectability politics?

Emma: I would argue that it isn’t about including those who get left out by respectability politics: if we really want to empower those people, to help them gain more agency, then it should be about working with them as equals. Having them in positions of leadership and power. Crafting policy with them rather than for them. And above all, remaining vigilant over how we judge others “less respectable” than ourselves and checking our privilege before we make biased decisions.

Right, “include,” is definitely the wrong yucky liberal word. Thanks for pointing that out.

Cyd: Emma kind of nailed it.  And I would say, for people who are perceived as ‘respectable’, it’s about getting comfortable calling out classism and racism in sex worker circles.  I remember at the Desiree Alliance Conference a few years back, being in a hotel room with a bunch of hos talking about how anyone who charged under two hundred dollars a session was ruining it for everybody, didn’t know how to do business, blah blah blah.  Myself and another sex worker, who was street based, just stared at each other uncomfortably through this discussion, silent.  I wish I had said, “Yeah sometimes I’ve charged three hundred dollars, and sometimes I’ve charged twenty, and its none of your business and doesn’t make me a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ hooker either way”.

Sarah: I will share a similar experience and say that in a recent Persist workshop on burn out, we had a worker who solicited predominantly in hotel bars and other informal settings, asking questions about how to make their business practices safer. A lot of those who responded were independent workers in urban settings with large social networks and the answers included “getting a website” or “using a local SWOP chapter.” All of the answers were well-intended, but they would have more been useful for someone who shared similar working conditions. The isolation of working in informal, non-urban settings where the lack of safety (or the feeling of not being safe) came from those very circumstances meant that it couldn’t really be resolved by some of the suggestions. So for our own part, we challenge ourselves at Persist to fill in some of these gaps in how we provide support for people whose work looks different, not better or worse, than our own experiences.

Melissa: Two quick things: resources and real representation. Probably in that order. On resources, Dean Spade broke down those issues in a recent interview about trans* inclusion in the military, where he tracks how funding shapes political priorities and can undermine grassroots movements with top-down agendas. Verónica Bayetti Flores has raised similar concerns with reproductive rights activists who want to base their organizing on marriage equality activism and points instead to undocumented youth movements as a different source of inspiration. (And I don’t mean to harp on marriage so much here, but it’s also come up when I’ve done talk on sex work at universities – students are asking how sex workers’ rights are like gay rights, and how wins on marriage equality might open the door on sex workers’ rights. Which says something about respectability politics around sex: sex work is almost always pitched as the moral opposite of marriage, and yet, if you do define yourself as a victim class, maybe that changes – or, maybe that’s not the route you want to go down. I leave that question to the folks who are doing organizing and community work and wrestling with tactics and strategies, unlike me, who is mostly talking to the people opposing all this.)

Funding is always the primary question for me, as someone who has sat on pretty much every side of that equation: the activist looking for funding, the funder working to support activists, the reporter pulling apart the relationships between money and politics. Sex workers can probably learn a lot from how not to do inclusion (also a yuck word) from the more mainstream work around marriage equality and reproductive rights. Looking at how queer and trans people of color have insisted on economic justice as liberation politics, or how women of color and trans and queer people have identified reproductive justice as a more all-encompassing way to argue for both the right to end a pregnancy and to parent on one’s own terms – of course, sex workers have been part of those demands, too, even if they haven’t been visible as such, and will have demands to make of one another as the sex workers’ rights movement grows.


  1. “Someone may be an independent sex worker, doing work out of her volition one day, and then run into a bad situation and owe a bunch of money and so the overarching structure that she is participating in the sex industry in shifts.”

    I really appreciate this statement and relate to it. My personal relationship with sex work and agency/consent has fluctuated on a spectrum from “fun and easy way to make extra money for luxury items” to “pure act of desperation to survive, made under financial duress, and essentially experienced as rape.” All dependent on my circumstances.

    There are happy hookers and traffiked victims and I tend to think there are so many SWs who fall between these two poles and whose situations change throughout our lifetimes so conceptualizing a sort of “spectrum of consent” has been useful to me.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.