You’ve Got Problems: Sex Worker Childhoods

by Charlotte Shane on December 6, 2011 · 31 comments

in You're Not Funny

By RedSofa on Flickr

It’s supposed to be common knowledge that I ended up in my job as an escort because, as a child, I suffered some serious emotional damage. But from the inside looking out, it’s clear to me that non-sex workers have plenty of issues all their own. Last week, one of them kept jumping out at me: civilian women’s cavalier clichés about sex workers’ pasts.

I know plenty of men believe that every sex worker has had a screwed up childhood. For me, though, accusations of familial damage cut a lot deeper when they’re thrown around by women, particularly women with otherwise feminist chops (*coughcough* Tina Fey.) We all suffer from slut/whore/man-hater sexism—meaning we’re all vulnerable to the stigma against a woman expressing sexuality in any “deviant” way—so shouldn’t we all reject that misogyny? It’s obvious that the abused sex worker myth is a symptom of our culture’s need to pathologize sexual women, and it should be obvious why the “some adult must have screwed you up when you were little” jab is a mean-spirited, ignorant, and completely trite accusation—but apparently it isn’t. For women like Mary Elizabeth Williams, let me break down the myriad ways it sucks.

It’s classless. I don’t think we need to eat dinner with finger bowls at hand, but there is a real reason for some manners to stay in place. Family dynamics are so wildly personal and such an intimate matter to begin with that confronting anyone with your assumptions about theirs is graceless, insulting behavior. That’s why it’s pretty much never done except with regards to sex workers: suddenly, because we’re such a highly stigmatized and (often) invisible population, people feel fine about saying atrocious things they’d presumably never say about any other group. What exactly was your family like, Stupid Joke-Makers, that child abuse was the most reliable way to get a laugh? Would you be making this “joke” to some of the alleged Sandusky victims? No? What about if some of those boys grew up to be gigolos? Now is it a cool punchline? Now is it hysterical? Of course it isn’t. That’s because…

It’s not funny. Why in God’s name would another human being’s childhood of abuse or neglect be something to laugh about? Tee hee, your uncle raped you! Your mother never loved you! Look at me, being witty! Aren’t we having fun? If you think you’re speaking the truth about someone’s past as a victim, and you’re using it to a) criticize them or b) make a joke at their expense, you’re pretty much a monster. I know comedians in particular are supposed to be edgy and un-PC, and many pride themselves on having no boundaries when it comes to race, kids with cancer, violent crime, or terrorist jokes. But most successful comedians do not pack their sets full of jokes about child rape and it’s not because the audience is a bunch of wet blankets; it’s because it’s very hard to make someone laugh about an atrocity.

For instance, The Onion, which is notoriously unconcerned with offending sensitive readers, has barely any online articles using molestation or incest as a punchline—except one about a sex worker who “overcomes years of child abuse to achieve porn stardom.” It includes lots of mentions of how often she does gang bangs and ATM scenes, as well as how many step-fathers raped her and called her “Daddy’s little fuck toy.” But this article wouldn’t exist if the woman weren’t a porn star; it’s only funny (and titillating) because she’s a sex worker. That’s because once someone engages in commercial sex, the gloves are off. They become such a reviled non-person that their victimization, which would have otherwise been cause for lamentation and empathy, is now fair game for a laugh. It’s as though choosing sex work makes someone reverse-deserve their abuse.

This pales in comparison to the above, but it’s also worth mentioning that ye olde molested sex worker is one of the most tired, unoriginal “jokes” in circulation. You know how no lawyer can stand lawyer jokes in part because they’re all so stale? I’ve heard exponentially more sex worker slams than I have lawyer cracks, and lawyers aren’t habitually murdered, raped, assaulted by police officers, and separated from their children. So, yeah. Call us touchy, but we’re probably not going to “get” the hilarity, Nameless D-Bag From Kat’s TV Show.

It’s redundant. The number of people with painless, permanently sunny childhoods has to be sub 1% for the entire world population. No one lives free of suffering. If you think holding a straight job is a sign of an emotional wounds-free upbringing, I’m sorry to put it so bluntly but you are a certifiable simpleton. And if you think you have to be a woman to have “daddy issues,” you’re even more clueless. I regularly listen to highly successful, straight-job-holding guys talk about their distant fathers, their strained relationship with their mothers, their history of family tension and lies. So to claim any large group of people has some undefined sadness in their past is to deliver no new information at all. Thanks, Sherlock. Great to have you on the case.

It’s very challenging to find reliable, agenda-less statistics, but it’s possible that female sex workers have a rate of childhood violation comparable to the population at large, though this is not readily apparent since, strangely, no one’s probing into the sexual history of female chefs or female marketing execs or female professional decorators. Colorlines just released a graphic indicating how tragically common child abuse is. Clearly, not all or even most of those victims grow up to work in the sex industry.

It’s often not true. Can you imagine how infuriating it is to have strangers regularly make salacious assumptions about your past? To have someone you’ve never met make themselves an expert on your life? If you’re a sex worker, chances are you don’t have to imagine, because you come up against this shiz all the time, and from complete strangers no less. And denying it only makes it worse. Somehow, the more we say “no one molested me!” the more molested we seem. It just makes all the haters smirk knowingly, like, “Wow, only someone really molested would be protesting this much.”

It’s not the point. Usually when the issue of sex worker pasts comes up, it’s because some absolutist (read: BS) claim about sex worker essence isn’t far behind. What made her—and it’s always a “her” here, isn’t it—a stripper? What made her a hooker? Oh right, that terrible childhood. Normal women like us would never do that. The “logic” is that, for women specifically, a crappy upbringing consigns them to a life of sexual commerce. They surely won’t be able to succeed in any other job, if their twisted state even allows them to attempt straight work. The Onion article is predicated on this very idea: the celebration of the porn star’s profession is a joke because sex work is another step in a long life of tragedy. She hasn’t “overcome” anything. She’s doing exactly what her circumstances prescribed for her and further perpetuating her own degradation. This pervasive mentality means prohibitionists can dismiss all sex workers as broken, confused, and brainwashed if they claim to have chosen their work or indicate a desire to continue doing it.

This is cruel and it’s senseless. Sasha puts it perfectly when she writes, “Thanks for humiliating me for my familial shortcomings while I’m working. Thank you for trying to mine my heartbreak in search of reasons for my vileness.” If sex work is the refuge of abused former children, sex work still isn’t the problem—the abuse is the problem. We want child abuse to end whether or not it means the end of sex work, right? Nadia Payne speaks movingly about her desire to help other molested girls in this same article where she supports legalization of prostitution and says that, if she had a daughter who wanted to strip, “I would tell her the good and the bad. [...] ‘I love you no matter what you do for a job,’ is what I’d tell her.”

Furthermore, sex workers eagerly offer up the explanation of what “made” them that way—it’s the economy, stupid! Over and over again, we say we do our jobs for the money. There are other perks tied to that: the flexibility of the hours, the independence, the ability to come and go from most clubs or agencies without much hassle. Those might also be listed as answers to the “why do you do this?” inquiry, but they’re all part of the same single answer, which is that, right now, for that person, it’s the best way to make money, “the most stable and sure way to support themselves.” Mystery solved. It’s not something constitutional after all. As one of our contributors has said, “I think the most empowering thing for people from dysfunctional families is financial independence, not to mention being able to afford therapy.” If someone does turn to sex work largely because of a nasty past, why does that necessarily de-legitimize what they’re doing?

Bottom line: Not all sex workers were molested or beaten or criminally mistreated while growing up. Some of them were, just like some doctors and some teachers and some plumbers were. But it doesn’t matter because—here’s a radical thought—whether or not any given sex worker has a tragic past is profoundly none of your business. And your speculation is profoundly unfunny.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Mina Gorey (@minasmusings) December 6, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Awesome article as always.
Regards, A Not-Molested/Not-Drug-Addicted/Not-Pathological Webwhore

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Katie December 6, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Thank you! This article thoroughly addresses so many aspects of this accusation that have bothered me for some time – in a way I certainly couldn’t have expressed, myself.

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Aspasia December 6, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Fantastic!

Especially bravo on deconstructing the “daddy issues” thing. It’s amazing how any woman’s disagreement with her father is classified as having a “daddy issue”, just like how two women arguing is automatically a “catfight” instead of a genuine disagreement. I suppose that goes back to an idea that women are always supposed to be agreeable? I have arguments with my father and they are on the same issues that I would argue about with any other person who is narrow-minded and ignorant. In fact, my friend Nick and I compare our fathers all the time– Nick works as a chemical engineer so clearly, a straight job. Yet, he has some serious “daddy issues” according to prevailing “logic”.

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Appoline December 6, 2011 at 2:23 pm

I am so glad somebody wrote this.
It makes me so fecking mad, all I can usually do when someone tries to argue the toss with me over how damaged I/ other independent escorts must naturally be and why, is turn into a raging ball of anger and/or weep from the literal frustration of not be able to spit my words out in such a way as to make anyone really hear me.

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Vid Tuesday December 6, 2011 at 2:36 pm

If you think you’re speaking the truth about someone’s past as a victim, and you’re using it to a) criticize them or b) make a joke at their expense, you’re pretty much a monster.

I wish people could actually see that this is what they’re doing. It saddens me how easy it is for society to dehumanize sex workers. Thank you for writing this!

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Jessie Nicole Jessie Nicole December 6, 2011 at 3:07 pm

THANK YOU CHARLOTTE!

Once again, you nailed it just about perfectly. I don’t have a lot to say. I feel like you took all the frustration and anger I have on this and made it eloquent and to the point.

“Furthermore, sex workers eagerly offer up the explanation of what “made” them that way—it’s the economy, stupid! Over and over again, we say we do our jobs for the money.”

I just about died laughing and shrieking “YES!”

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Maggie McNeill December 6, 2011 at 7:49 pm

{Standing up and clapping}

This deserves to be read by a very large mainstream audience. Have you considered submitting it to one of the big sites like Salon? Because if you haven’t you ought to.

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Tonya December 6, 2011 at 11:50 pm

Charlotte, you wrote the article I’ve been wanting to write. I had a Lemondrop post of mine about phone sex work make the front page of DIGG, and I remember one comment that floored me. In regards to the photos on my website: “She looks like she was molested as a child.” The ignorance blew my mind, although you’d think by now I’d be used to it. (And how fucked up is it that that last sentence is true?)

Thank you!

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Of many names... December 7, 2011 at 12:02 am

Thank you! Cracks about my alleged daddy issues or how many times I must have been raped (guess what – none!- and the only attempt that was serious enough to frighten me was somebody who knew I was a stripper and thought I’d be easy in general) make me want to punch the people who make them.

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Olivia December 7, 2011 at 12:03 am

Thanks for this post! I always struggle with people who really want to totally distance themselves from this stereotype because, honestly, I’ve known a shit-ton of sex workers who were abused as children (and DUH– about the same percentage of my non-sex-worker friends were abused as children, too), and I think seeing sex work as a negative outcome of that awful early trauma is often pretty backwards (even if it’s very, very clearly not a necessary outcome). I remember sitting around a dungeon with a group of girls sharing their experiences of abuse and it was like, THIS is sex work’s connection to abuse– an incredibly supportive group of women (and men! just not in that case) who didn’t let something fucked up inflicted on them as children ultimately dictate what their sexuality/sexual “deviancy”/career path should or shouldn’t be, and being able to safely and openly discuss it.

Reminds me a bit of Ann Cvetkovich’s book, An Archive of Feelings, which speaks to a kiiiind of similar relationship between incest trauma and queerness. From Amazon–

“An Archive of Feelings makes an extremely important contribution to queer and feminist cultural studies by insisting upon the public, and indeed national, dimensions of sexual trauma. Ann Cvetkovich’s book argues for the productive rather than repressive power of trauma and accounts for its role in the production of queer identities and queer counter publics. This is queer cultural studies at its finest!”
—Judith Halberstam, author of Female Masculinity

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Sex Mahoney December 7, 2011 at 3:24 am

Point taken. We’ll begin training the police to assault lawyers immediately.

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Charlotte Shane Charlotte Shane December 7, 2011 at 9:46 am

Aw, shucks, thanks everyone.

Tonya, behavior that evil leaves me speechless!

Something I kept thinking about while writing this: When I was in high school, one of my guy friends told me he suspected a mutual (male) friend of ours was molested by his father. The two boys had known each other since they were children and been neighbors for their entire lives. I listened to him explain why he thought that, we talked about how sad it would be if it were true, and that was it. We never, ever—even as two people who loved and knew him well—tried to confront him with that suspicion or force a disclosure. I am just incredulous that there are so many human beings who think this is an okay (let alone a cute or funny) way to act.

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Vegan Vixen December 7, 2011 at 2:38 pm

So well written. You’re right that we’re not probing into the past of people in other occupations to get the “dirt” on why they do the work they do. Yet, this is routinely happening with sex workers. This issue of abuse has been used against sex workers so much, to promote oppressive policies against us, to discredit our voices and decisions we make, etc. Also, even if somebody was abused, that doesn’t mean the abuse is all they define themselves by. I’ve experienced violence in the sex industry, but it doesn’t mean that defines who I am nor does it mean I’m incapable of thinking clearly or making informed decisions. If anything, it has made me a stronger, more socially conscious person, even though I don’t wish violence on anybody.

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Sera Miles December 8, 2011 at 10:42 am

Awesome piece! I was not molested/abused/neglected as a child. But, as a long-time PSO, I have heard terrible, heart-wrenching stories of abuse from many of my clients. Gotta wonder: what about the link between childhood abuse and becoming a client? No one seems to be studying that possibility.

Bravo for this article–and thank you.

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Logan Wright December 8, 2011 at 11:34 am

Well put Charolette.

-Logan Wright
Straight Male Companion
[link removed per commenting policy]

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Lily December 9, 2011 at 11:57 am

As a sex worker who was, in fact, molested as a child, I can attest to the fact that when you do happen to be right (ONE OUT OF FOUR, those aren’t impossible odds for any woman, anywhere) in your ‘hilarious’ molestation jokes, what you are actually doing is ripping at one of the most vulnerable parts of a human being. I’ve had a few incidents where I left the floor and cried in the bathroom after one customer or another pushed the ‘daddy touched you, didn’t he’ crack on me. It’s not funny and it’s not okay. I suspect there’s some sexual component of those jokes, though, as in some customers simply get off on the idea that we’re somehow ‘damaged’ or vulnerable–and that is whole other orders of reprehensible.

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Elle Elle December 9, 2011 at 7:52 pm

This is excellent, in so many ways.

It’s also why I don’t endorse “comedians” like Daniel Tosh, shows like 30 Rock, and cartoons like Family Guy.

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Shar Rednour December 15, 2011 at 2:20 pm

There are so many points here that are awesome that I agree so I don’t feel compelled to repeat them. One point I would like to add is that when a someone, either as a “water-cooler” joke or in a larger way in the media, makes these sex-worker/abuse correlations (as joke or otherwise) in efforts to shame sex-workers it actually shames all abused people and furthermore makes it even more difficult for them to speak up or reflect upon their own abuse/trauma in order to ask for help.
I, with my wife, made HealingSex: a mind body approach to healing trauma based on Staci Haines work. I was submerged in the work for over 4 years and let me tell you how much I learned as I thought about this topic from many many perspectives–in more ways than personal (since we dealt with SO many people’s stories). ONE simple example: I no longer think that boys are raped 1/2 as much as girls. (even incest “experts’ still will say this). No. Boys just do not tell.
Also let’s go with positive assumptions for a minute: Let’s say I am a big ol’ out-there empowered, out-spoken, feminist sex-worker and this shame is hurting me then can you imagine a meeker person dealing with this? Alone and too shamed to tell anyone else? No community?
Bad stereotypes hurt the person forced into the role AND those outside that role.

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Nova December 15, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Thank you! I am so sick of men coming into the club I work in, going, “You must be fucked up, have no education, and/or are stupid…since you’re a stripper.”

Thanks again,
A full-time student, a faithful wife, a part-time dancer.

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Cheriphim December 23, 2011 at 7:49 am

Brava! Well said!

Frankly, regardless of who the jokes are aimed at, they are despicable. Abuse. Is. Never. Funny. Period.
It says a TON about the person making the joke. It shows the nasty, fetid lump where their heart should be.

I think fondly of Joss Whedon’s TV series “Firefly” that aired on the Fox Network, where prostitution was legal, and the art of the courtesan was exemplified with his portrayal of “Companions” and their well-educated, sophisticated dedication to just that–Companionship! Escorts, at their finest. And very well paid! Its undoubtedly the reason for the series’ terrible time-slot when first aired, and its almost immediate cancellation–Fox is so touchy about their core Christian values being challenged.

What two consenting adults choose to do together should not be demonized or forbidden or slandered. If we can charge for food, water, shelter, medicine (including sexual performance drugs), entertainment (including pornography), education, travel, religion–heck, even air–why not sex? How is it I can pay a woman to have a baby for me, but I can’t pay her for the necessary ACT that LEADS to conception of said baby…?

Further, marrying for anything other than love, is a form of prostitution. It is exchanging sex for housing, MONEY, privileges, prestige; often with mistresses and love affairs on the side. But I guess its fine as long as the upper class are “calling” it something else…and surely, their childhood traumas are not brought into question when they land themselves a million-dollar sugar daddy, or a twenty-something trophy wife. They openly flaunt it. Hypocrisy at its finest.

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beautiful girl December 27, 2011 at 5:22 am

First of all, you are an excellent writer. I can understand both sides of the argument. I am an escort who has borderline personality disorder, as a result of severe childhood trauma. Had I been normal, I would likely not be an escort today. I would have graduated college and married a successful man. I am very attractive and was an honors student at one point. But I did not, because I was too busy being belittled and I thought I couldn’t do anything right. Studies have demonstrated a disproportionately high incidence of childhood abuse in women in the adult industry. We cannot deny that a girl from a broken home is more likely to be in the industry. On the other hand, society should still treat women individually, without making assumptions, because the statistics are not representative of each and every woman in the adult industry. Sociological studies have also shown a higher incidence of violence in blacks, but to judge every single black person based on that study would be ludicrous. Blanket statements can’t always hold true. There is something that you wrote that truly touched my heart; its about the abuse, ending abuse. So often I’m judged for what I do, or even for my erratic moods and anger. But what about the parents who caused this emotional instability? Who didn’t give me a fair start in life, just pain? I didn’t have the a clear mind and a healthy soul, how could I have made better choices? Shouldn’t we then focus on prevention in future generations? That is precisely my goal. I plan to finally begin college in 2012 to become a therapist. I want to be a part of preventing and healing child abuse. I can still do it. I didn’t start driving until 27, and I will likely have my Masters when I’m 34, but its never too late.

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Domina Elle December 27, 2011 at 10:23 pm

I was recently lecturing at a local college about what I do for a living (professional Dominatrix), to a human sexuality studies class. The teacher asked me if I considered myself a sex worker, to which I answered a resounding and proud YES. Somewhere in their text books they were being told that basically all sex workers have been sexually abused, so they asked me if I had been sexually abused.

I told them truth be known, I had actually traumatized my parents! The poor mom and dad did not know what to do after finding their daughter in her walk in closet doing self bondage at a very tender age (yes, comic books rot your brain and cause fetishes for catsuits and VERY HIGH HEELS among other things!). They didn’t address the situation in the least, but they shamed me and wouldn’t speak to me for what seemed like eternity.

I should have also told them that I also traumatized the first partner I had when I did get sexually active (with a partner that is), as my partner was so overwhelmed (he was shocked that I was enjoying his hands so damn much, as he had yet to insert what he obviously considered the more important appendage) that he attempted to shame ME for being as sexual and uninhibited as I was!!

Now I must state that I do believe that this form of SHAMING is indeed abusive and causes a LOT of unnecessary issues for MANY people that will span over lifetimes and generations and is the root of many a relationship sexual issue! In my opinion it’s a very close relative of the shame sex workers deal with for being sex workers, an incestuous relative!

Nope- the sexual abuse I have suffered has been at the hands of a hypocritical culture that shames people for being sexual!!

The same culture that allows for the sexualization of childhood and children through media, a culture that tolerates the use of sex in just about every form of advertising, and a society that runs and hides from itself when very real topics need to be addressed (and without the bullshit and the dogma PLEASE)!

I happen to LIKE myself, in fact- I LOVE myself and it is this love of myself that refuses to allow shame to be a part of my mental and emotional construct anymore!

I have spent plenty of time healing the ‘shame program’ that was introduced by well meaning yet extremely misguided parents who bought the ‘shame program’ that was passed on via THEIR parents and this culture.

I broke that cycle in my life.
I assure you, I am absolutely SHAME-LESS!!!!

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