As a general rule, I absolutely love being called “adorable.” It reaffirms a lifetime of well-intentioned cheek pinches and makes me feel like I still look youthful as I approach 30. But being an adorable person is a very different thing than being part of an adorable movement. So when Annie Sprinkle took to Facebook to chastise sex workers who decided to “act up” at a conference called “Fantasies that Matter–Images of Sex Work in Media and Art,” and used condescending terms like “adorable” and “well intentioned” to describe sex workers who seek a voice in discourses about them, well, I got just adorably incensed.
The main thrust of Sprinkle’s argument is that sex workers are isolating potential allies in their resistance to groups that wish to share their title. She writes:
We have to more clearly define the words “sex worker” and “whore,” and I feel that we have to include the more specific, defining word “prostitute” in the mix. This weekend there was a lot of confusion as to who could define themselves as “sex workers” and as “whores.” Seems to me, these are broad general terms that need to be really inclusive in order to build the size of the prostitutes rights movement.
My first question is where on Earth I can find these people that are clambering to be identified as sex workers? Did she get an email list? Can she send them to our meetings and protests? We could use the bodies. The truth is, the majority of sex workers are so fearful of stigma and violence that they go to great lengths to go undetected by forces that want to take away their incomes, their housing, their children, and sometimes their very lives.
But back to Sprinkle’s point about the need for inclusivity to build what she calls the “prostitutes rights movement.” The great thing about renaming a movement is that you don’t have to use apostrophes if you don’t want to and you don’t have to truly do sexual work even if you want to be called a sex worker! But to rename sex work activism as a movement of prostitutes is to neglect the solidarity that’s been built over decades between people providing full-service sexual services and those performing other forms of sexual labor but still beleaguered by police aggression, stigma, and marginalization. This includes porn performers, cam girls, dommes, subs, strippers, and more. It does NOT include “sex toy people” and “sex educators” or “bloggers about sex work.” The reason to me is simple: these forms of work involve a sexual element but do not involve a client.
The introduction of the client, whether that is a customer at a strip club or the booker for a porn shoot, is the mechanism that differentiates work with a sexual element to actual sexual labor. It introduces a transaction related to intimacy that is absent from teaching sex education classes to groups and making paintings of vaginas, and it is that transaction that carries whore stigma.
The desire to adopt the identity of “sex worker” is a fairweather ally’s attempt to slum it with sex workers without having to engage in the intimate sexual labor that has at times put workers in real danger. It is a refusal to empathize with their marginalization and give them the microphone and is instead a co-opting of the experience that widens the definition so much as to render it meaningless.
The final insult in the post is the assertion that sex workers mustn’t hurt the precious feelings of the privileged and powerful by excluding them from the title:
If prostitutes don’t allow other people who stand with them to be self identified as “whores” and “sex workers” then prostitutes alienate their allies and people in power and privilege that can help them in their movement towards freedom, safety and justice.
In what other activist movement are the people who need advocates expected to surrender so much? People manage to support LGBTQ rights without asking for one of the letters on their jacket too. Racial solidarity can exist without everyone getting to be an honorary minority during Black History Month. Being a meaningful ally should not start out as a hostage negotiation over who gets access to the terminology. Being a good ally is leading with questions about how to help, not a list of demands that will determine your level of commitment.
There can be no freedom, safety, or justice if sex workers are beholden to the ally’s terms of their liberation. A real ally doesn’t dangle the keys to the kingdom over a sex workers’ head and make her jump. Such attempts to make demands wildly underestimate the skills of sex workers to pick locks and jump fences themselves.