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.