New sex worker writers often justify their sex work with respectability politics.
I did it. I fucked up with my very first piece, in a big venue, the Guardian, contrasting my sex work to that of hypothetical trafficked workers, so-called “miserable slaves.” Even after taking feedback about that mistake, it took me a while to quit using my own favorable personal circumstances to make sex work more palatable to my readers.
I think that I did it because I was intoxicated with the power of my writing, and I thought my experience was important. Guess what—sometimes it’s not. My education and my privilege and the good working conditions I enjoy doing sex work are far less important than the broader picture—the narratives of austerity, migration, and marginalization that are the true story of sex work, the one that needs to be told in order to defuse myths and build support for sex worker rights. While I campaign for sex workers’ rights, in part, because they would benefit me and my family, I need them far less than the most marginalized, criminalized, and stigmatized among us.
I hope to educate others with an account of the process of making my writing better reflect the sex worker community. This essay is meant to be a start of a conversation. I invite reply, correction, and contribution.
Tell all the stories.
A sex worker writer should learn as much as possible about the conditions of all kinds of sex workers, from porn stars to street-based workers to parlor workers. This is not only essential for a good perspective, it’s good journalism: keeping track of multiple streams of information can produce great story ideas. I learned about the Merseyside murders and the Soho raids; about the rescue industry and about the party politics behind recent parliamentary debates on the Swedish Model and decriminalization. Through Google alerts, blogs like this one, and the indispensable Honest Courtesan, Sex Work Twitter, and Facebook groups like COYOTE and My Favorite Abolitionist, I keep track of sex workers’ rights news across the globe. Even when I am not covering an issue, perspective gained through continual study has helped me to put my reporting in better context and choose better stories.
Treat sex workers and sex worker organizations with as much respect as you would wish to have in their stead.
In sex work we charge for our time. Our time—and indeed the time of all people, particularly marginalized people—is valuable. When you’re doing a story, you’re using the time and the mental and emotional labor of your subject. Treat it with respect: do your homework before you engage with the people and groups you’re talking to. Get consent— remember that as the writer, you have the lion’s share of the power. Have a general chat with your interviewees about the story and where you’re going with it, and provide links to things you’ve written on sex work in the past when you reach out.
Sometimes what you want a contact to talk about is triggering or stressful for them. I always try to put the welfare of the person I am talking to ahead of my zeal to get the best or the most sensational story. A writer can find herself torn between appealing to readers—or clicks —and the respect of sometimes tender boundaries. If you need a harrowing tale to make your point, there are often other ways to find it than asking someone to share something painful and personal: statistics; excerpts from published accounts; or anonymous stories passed on by fellow sex workers, allies, or service providers might fit the bill.
When you’re writing about sex work, keep your allegiance to the movement, not your editor or your publication.
In general, when a writer writes an article for a publication, the editor and writer are working collaboratively. While there may be differences of opinion, they’re both aiming for the same goal. When a political advocate is writing for an editor who does not necessarily share her affiliations—even if the editor is sympathetic to the advocate’s views —the writer and editor can sometimes have conflicting goals for the piece.
I don’t mean that one shouldn’t be correct and factual in one’s writing. It’s crucial to check your facts, and to cite them. In sex workers’ rights journalism, opponents are always ready to poke holes in our work. So both journalistic ethics and good campaigning demand objectivity, even when working with people and groups whom a writer supports personally. But in opinion writing, it isn’t necessary to give opposing viewpoints equal space, although it is important to mention and address them. In reported pieces, particularly those that invite controversy, it’s useful to acknowledge other views more fully; this is often an opportunity to refute them.
I am very lucky that my home publication—the New Statesman—has given me complete freedom on what I write, but other publications have given me a steer that is potentially politically problematic. As the writer, it’s my job to use my creativity to politicize a piece, no matter what angle I’m assigned on a story, or what kind of publication I’m writing for.
I regularly pitch to a US mainstream website on kink and BDSM. This publication offers good, thorough edits. My editor is great at her job, has taught me loads about writing, and has supported my choices on matters like using gender neutral language in reference to people’s partners in how-to features. She tends not to pick up explicitly campaigning pitches, but I’ve gotten a lot of sex worker rights’ stuff out there indirectly—I’ve interviewed Kitty Stryker on feminist porn, and a Canadian dominatrix on sex work and disability.
Even in a piece that’s not directly related to your advocacy, you can get a lot of good politics across.
For example, I wrote a piece about fitness and diet regimes for pro-dommes. I made sure to include a group that was diverse in age, body type, and lifestyle. I also made sure to offer activist sex workers I know the opportunity to participate as sources.
When I asked questions I ensured that they encouraged interviewees to step outside of narrow conceptions of fitness. Then I edited the questions and answers down for the published piece. The results were far from a litany of Crossfit and crunches. Alternative medicine, mental health, self-care, and stress management all came into play. The dommes’ answers offered the reader a good picture of the rigors involved behind the scenes in sex work and the diversity within the pro domme community.
I hope that the piece offered a few casual readers a chance to see some alternative to the myths about pro-dommes. Even though the piece was limited in scope and did not cover all sex work experience, it had broad reach. This sort of thinking can be applied to assignments from all kinds of publications and editors.
Know when it’s time to say no, and when it’s time to say yes.
You don’t need to trade your integrity for your story. There are lots of publications that might like the interest and added views a sex worker writer’s articles can provide them. But if you’re being pushed to sensationalize; to share more of your experience than you want to; or to put a false “balance” in a reporting or opinion piece, giving credence to abolitionist myths; it’s okay to walk away from a story.
That decision is—must be—yours to make. In all of our lives, we balance survival against ethics and happiness. Just like I sometimes take a client when I would rather be doing something else, I will write a piece on how to get your partner to tie you up when I would rather be writing about the Visa Backpage ban. But I mix up my writing life, combining articles that pay well and are high profile with other assignments where I have a freer hand, and even articles for publications I like where neither pay nor profile are on offer, but which give me an opportunity to say something I would rarely get to say in another venue.
Search your soul and debunk myths and internalized whorephobia.
Society is good at fucking us up. It tells us that SEX WORK IS SHAMEFUL! And you’re about to write about sex work—whether about your own experience or someone else’s—and associate your name, or pseudonym, with the topic. You’re going to be EXPOSED! ABOUT SEX WORK! AND SEX!!!! It can be scary. Feeling the pressure of internalized shame, we try to justify ourselves as we write. We partake of respectability politics, highlighting our educations, or our good working conditions, if we’re lucky enough to have them. We glorify our clients. We make excuses for why we’re doing sex work. We distinguish ourselves from other sex workers, putting rhetorical space between ourselves and workers whose work is seen as more dangerous or lower status than our own, reifying the whorearchy. We say that we’re not like those sex workers over there.
This sort of thing is widespread, and it fractures our movement. It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing it. How do you stop? Education over time is key. The problem with whorephobic bias is that it’s difficult to see unless it’s pointed out, and without constant vigilance, it fades back into the shadows. One way to avoid whorearchy and its associated mythology is to bring quantitative data like statistics (be sure to grab those from sex work friendly researchers; many abolitionist statistics lie) into reports.
Build a writing community—carefully.
Both sex work and writing can be profoundly isolating jobs, so it’s important to have a community of fellow sex workers and fellow writers. While I have found my fellow sex workers to be understanding about the vagaries of both sex work and writing, sometimes my fellow writers who aren’t sex workers or allies have harbored assumptions about sex work, or have sexualized their interactions with me without my consent—for instance, asking me a question on Facebook chat about my work, and then making a comment about my looks, or their arousal. It’s okay for me to decide that I want to educate a particular writer, or conversely, that I want to withdraw from a conversation that I find offensive.
Over time, I’ve developed a community of writers, sex workers, and sex worker writers that offers me essential feedback on my work. I can get pulled up on a political mistake in a draft, and I can hear critiques of my style or structure. Sometimes, these come from the same person, and sometimes not. On an important piece, I try to have two or three people read through a draft, especially if I’m feeling nervous about it, and incorporate any feedback I find useful.
One of the best parts of having a community is that I have the opportunity to assist others with their work. Helping other writers clarify their lines of inquiry, referring them to resources, and critiquing their drafts is one of the most efficient ways I have found to improve my own work. And, of course, it’s useful to have someone to cheer you on as you race towards a deadline, or to hold your hand as you wait for a response from an uncommunicative editor.
Knowing how to take criticism is an important skill. I’ve learned that it’s much easier to hear it when it’s given one-on-one rather than in public, on Twitter! It’s dangerous to take feedback from prohibitionists and other opponents of sex workers, and it takes time to build a good rapport with other sex worker writers in which you can exchange comments on each other’s work respectfully.
At the end of the day, though we’re a movement, and we work hard to stand together, the final decision about a piece is up to you. Over time, one thing that happens is that your confidence in writing about sex worker rights will increase, and you will develop your own distinct style and approach. While it’s essential to take feedback about any errors or unexamined privilege in your piece, the challenge and joy of writing is crafting your piece in order to interest and persuade the reader. If there were only one way to do that, then there would be no media industry.
Fortunately, there are infinite ways of getting the point of sex worker rights across. First person narratives have long been a powerful way of winning people to causes and campaigns, and sex worker writers know that though criminalization wreaks havoc everywhere, it is still worthwhile to report each new policy campaign for sex worker rights. It is still worthwhile to share the stories of individual sex workers who want to tell them. One never knows which personal detail, which logical argument, which political victory or defeat will make the difference to any given reader. I’m glad of the opportunity, and the responsibility, of being one small voice in the growing chorus making the case for sex worker rights.
Lucid, comprehensive and scrupulous.
Thank you so much for the great piece here. You have made me more aware of a few things I need to include, and sometime not inckude, when I write.
I’ve only written a few pieces so far, mainly for our website blog, have gotten a lot of praise for them, but you are on target, when you suggest the never-ending learning one must do.
As a newbie to activism but a lifer in the Commercial Sex industry (over 35 years) there is ALWAYS an opportunity to expand your skills, be it in writing or turning tricks.
I would love for some critique on the few pieces I’ve written so far, if you’re ever uo to it or just have nothing else to do, but me up, I feel you might be overbearingly honest with me on them, lol, for which I would appreciate .
Peace and Smiles,
Ms Sassy Sherry
SWOP San Antonio
Please do feel free to contact me if I can help with anything 🙂
Hi Margaret, I’m an ally to the sex worker movement and read your piece from the FIRST list serve – FIRST is a Canadian coalition of feminists who support sex worker rights.
Anyway, just want to say that I think the article is really terrific – covers all the bases and will be a really helpful dos and don’t reminder for all who write on sex work.
Thanks so much for the thoughtful breakdown of this topic, Margaret! First, as much as I advocate legalization, kindness, and engaging in conversation on all forms of sexuality, it’s a daunting task to consider, how do I talk about the horrendous working circumstances for some sex workers without killing the “vibe” of empowerment? Meaning, if I’m talking to a single person or a group, I encourage an open-minded, light-hearted interest that coincides with fantasies and passions they have yet to reveal and look at. The more they experiment and play, the more empowered they become. In my head, and with enough hard work and dedication, the future I see is made of sex workers and advocates demanding protection and change and we’re thankful for those in better situations, better educations and working environments. They are the visionaries who know it can and must get better for the survival of the whole. Then there’s this GAP. How to include a call to arms for all those empowered sexually-explorative creatures to fight for those who have not been given that choice? Obviously, you’re doing it with articles like this and now I’m brainstorming the kind of influence necessary to bring about such change…Long story short, how do we to educate and empower without making the victims more victimized?
I’m a bit confused by this to be honest. You write, “when you write about sex work, keep your allegiance to the movement, not to your editor or publication”. Sorry, but what does this mean? It feels a bit self-congratulatory to write about your “allegiance to the movement” and your “accountability” to the movement – I’m not totally sure what this looks like in theory, and tbh I don’t feel like I’ve seen it from you in practise? For example, when *several* SW-led organisations in the UK were planning to call a strike in terms of sex worker activists participating in a particular (exploitative) media event, that collective of organisations couldn’t put that strike together because you pre-emptively decided to break it, to participate in that media event against what you knew were the wishes & advice of SW-led orgs – and the reason you cited for your participation was precisely your loyalty to your editor and publication. Which took precedence over us. I wouldn’t bring this up – its history, albeit recent history – but it is strange to see you writing here about your “loyalty” and “accountability” to ‘the movement’. It feels like *you’ve* chosen to bring it up, and yet your self-reporting of your own qualities doesn’t match up with the reality. To give another example, you talk here about how “lucky” you are that your “home publication, the New Statesman” gives you such freedom. That’s great for you, but you must be aware that the New Statesman is *notorious* for propogating a feminism that is whorephobic, racist, and transmisogynist. If you search twitter, you will find numerous examples of your editor deflecting criticism of her whorephobia and the whorephobia she consistently commissions by citing the existence of your column. Your writing at the NS is literally being used to deflect and shut down sex workers’ and allies’ concerns about NS whorephobia. Are you happy to have your writing used like that? Is that an instance of your “accountability” to sex workers? Maybe rather than writing how accountable to the movement you are (& receiving all these acollades in the comments for being such a great person), you should have … asked ‘the movement’? Isn’t that how SW activism is supposed to work – asking the people effected?
I know that this will probably inevitably feel like an attack. It’s not meant to be – it is meant to be critical of your self-representation above, obviously. I’ve fucked up too, and I get that this is hard, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only UK-based SW who read this article with a degree of disbelief. You’re a good writer, but I don’t think your thinking on accountability is as rigorous as you’ve portrayed it here.
I was feeling optimistic about the article, and you have some good points. I’m not an author and don’t really read many online publications. Thankyou pastachips for your comment above. It made me search online (as to be honest I followed a trail here via twitter – I’d not even heard of New Statesman) and one of the first articles I read started with “When we talk about “sex work”, we endorse the idea that sex is labour for women and leisure for men”. This seems to imply men/trans aren’t sex workers, and women can’t enjoy fucking for money? (as I do?)
I’m am hoping Margaret your views and passion help to balance articles like this written by Sarah Ditum.
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