Does anyone need a reason to be sexually reckless? I’m not sure. For much of my adult life, I’ve been sexually reckless (or careless, or heedless—take your pick) and I don’t know that a camera following me around would have picked up on any explanations as to why. But we expect more from art than we expect from life, which is why Sleeping Beauty, an Australian film about a young woman who will submit to anything for money, is such a disappointment.
Main character Lucy (Emily Browning) is like a lot of college students: pretty, promiscuous, apathetic, and broke. She holds a variety of odd jobs, including cafe janitor, human guinea pig, and Girl Who Operates A Xerox Machine, yet she never makes enough to pay her rent. Her family situation is uncertain, though we are let in on the existence of an equally broke astrologer mother. We have no indication of what she’s studying in school, what matters to her in life, or who matters to her, except for an alcoholic peer named Birdman whom she brings groceries and pointless chat. She and Birdman go back a few years. We know there’s an unfulfilled promise of a romance between them because Birdman says as much, but that’s about it. When we’re first introduced to him, Lucy casually makes him a bowl of vodka and cereal as they banter with each other in affected tones (“And how are you?” “Oh, I’m very well.”) It’s so dumb.
I am a sex worker who was coerced into doing work I felt violated by, and I am horrified by SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Reactionary Feminists) who insist that all sex work is by nature coerced and non-consensual.
Recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing rise in anti-sex work rhetoric that rests on the premise that all sex work is coerced. The proponents of this claim argue that because the workers may need the money and thus feel unable to turn down a proposition they are uncomfortable with, sex work encounters are always non-consensual. As far as they are concerned, if money is involved, sex can never be consensual. They claim that by promoting the criminalization of all forms of sex work, they are “protecting” sex workers and engaging in “feminist solidarity” with us.
I’ve already seen a number of brilliant sex workers debunking this argument: by discussing their own consensual sex work experiences, by pointing out that all professions involve money and thus a potential for coercion or abuse of workers, and so on. Tits and Sass contributor Red wrote a particularly interesting piece on her tumblr in which she notes that she finds the term “constrained consent” a far more accurate term than “coerced consent.” All of those points are valid and important, if often ignored by the audience they’re intended for.
But I’ve noticed one perspective missing from the discussion: that of someone who was sometimes unable to consent to sex work, and is harmed by those who would tokenize that experience and devalue the experiences of other sex workers. After seeing my experiences casually commandeered by SWERFs as a talking point, I’ve decided to speak up.
Sex workers are a profoundly diverse group of individuals, with wildly different backgrounds, circumstances, and work tactics. But I’ve been around the block enough times to know that within this corner of our lives, our experiences often coincide. On a near-daily basis, I recognize another escort displaying the signs of an attitude I too once held. So without further ado, here are five common hooker states of mind that I suspect most of you will recognize, in others if not in yourself.
Everyone Must Know — The most embarrassing, cringe-inducing mindset is also one of the earliest to appear among a subset of privileged, politicized, very young sex workers. Think about the worst qualities of most middle class college kids: their naiveté, which they’re (naively) convinced is actually a very sophisticated and hard-earned understanding of the world; their youthful earnestness; their awkward, hyper-self aware social skills or lack thereof. Throw in a job at the local strip club/jack shack/full service incall and it’s a recipe for humiliating disaster. I was convinced that I could single handedly eliminate at least, like, 50% of the stigma around sex work by making it clear that I — a white, educated, intelligent young woman! — was selling sexual services and was TOTALLY EMOTIONALLY FINE and THRIVING and indeed, STILL WHITE AND EDUCATED in spite of it.
In the FBI’s 2013 Uniform Crime Report, released in November 2014, Alaska reported 648 prostitution arrests: 1 juvenile and 647 adults. This number is up from 38 arrests in 2012 and 69 in 2011. How could prostitution arrests have jumped so much in just one year?
They didn’t. Alaska maintains a report entitled Crime In Alaska, based on the same numbers that are submitted to the FBI for the Uniform Crime Report. In Crime In Alaska 2013, released in 2014, the state reports only 46 prostitution arrests in 2013: 22 sellers and 24 buyers of sex. This number seems correct: the Anchorage Police Department reported 41 prostitution arrests, and the state made five prostitution charges in 2013. Stephen Fischer, an FBI spokesman, explained that the issue was caused by “an error for entering data.”
Just what kind of trouble can 602 imaginary prostitutes created by a typo by the FBI cause?
With the coronavirus hitting a market which has still not recovered from SESTA/FOSTA and the Backpage seizure, sex work has taken a double whammy in a two year period, and it is most adversely affecting those of us who have the least power, influence, and resources. Still, for us survival sex workers—people who work just to survive or barely survive, people who aren’t making a revenue, people who may get one or two clients in a week even though we work tirelessly all day and night to hustle for clients—while this situation has only made it harder for us, it’s always been hard for us. When a reporter asked me recently how the coronavirus had affected my work, I told them that it’s hard out there right now, but low income, survival, and street-based workers have always struggled. Whether hardships come in the form of SESTA, coronavirus, scary/sketchy clients, or law enforcement stings, survival sex workers have always had to bear the worst of it. Along those lines, for example, sex work/tech collective Hacking/Hustling’s recent study “Erased: The Impact of SESTA/FOSTA And The Removal of Backpage” found that SESTA/FOSTA’s passing had very little effect on the lives of non-internet-using street and survival sex workers of Whose Corner Is It Anyway in Western MA, whose work was already fraught with vulnerability, surveillance, and criminalization and whose earnings were already meager.
In this way, experiencing a drastic change in circumstance because of the coronavirus is in many cases a sign of how good someone has it in the whorearchy. Recent articles in publications like Buzzfeed News or the Huffington Post focus on interviewing sex workers who have experienced a severe and swift change in their economic stability as a result of COVID-19. Of course, the negative impacts of coronavirus on sex workers are tragic and warrant the public’s and the greater sex working community’s compassion. However, the unspoken truth about many more upwardly mobile workers who’ve experienced these negative impacts is that for them, life and death struggles for survival may only just recently have become a reality. I.e.—one has to be up before they can come down.
This isn’t to dismiss or make light of the real pain many workers are feeling now. It just hurts my heart that I feel like nobody—not even other sex workers—cares about the survival workers for whom things are perennially difficult no matter what. I hear other workers complaining about the low ball offers they are now getting from clients and I think to myself that I’ve never had the luxury of setting a target fee and turning away anyone who won’t meet it. Before this whole coronavirus thing started, I was offering bareback anal for $40, because that was all I could get and I didn’t have the luxury of telling guys to fuck off. I still can’t say with certainty what my HIV or STI status is because all of my clients wanted bareback and I was too scared they wouldn’t want to see me if I made them wear a condom. I feel like mainstream society gives zero fucks about those of us for whom this has always been a reality, and sometimes I feel like a lot of sex workers who aren’t survival or street give zero fucks too.