If you’ve been hanging out in the digital sex work community for long enough, you’ve learned a handful of things. One is that some men really like to interrupt your conversations uninvited to assume that you do your work for the sake of your sexual liberty, and to assure you that they’re totally cool with it. Secondly, sex work statistics are kind of like recipes and can be tampered with to fit the occasion of the person whose hands they’re in. And the third is that sex workers are really fucking funny. In the very likely event that I out myself one day in an effort to feed an ego that is starved for affirmation from strangers, I want to start by writing a book called Everyone Is Basic But Us: The Story of Some Funny Paid Sluts I Know From Twitter. I am currently accepting submissions for the collection.
I came across this brilliant satirical press release from Sex Worker Open University that pokes fun at the plans of Scottish Police to conduct “welfare visits” at the homes of sex workers as part of “Operation Lingle.” Putting aside for the moment that “lingle” sounds like a medieval wasting sickness, the plan itself was clearly a surveillance effort dressed up as charity. The response from SWOU instead suggests home visits for the 17,000 known police officers “plying their trade” in Scotland. It turns the tables on law enforcement and makes clear just how invasive and ridiculous such visits would be if directed at any other profession. It was one of many examples of how sex workers have used humor to their advantage when combatting the grave injustices and daily humiliations to which we are constantly subjected.
But in the same moment that I was applauding another job well done, I was reminded of a recent conversation I had with a civilian dude who loves Sex Work Twitter for its entertainment value. He isn’t a client (to my knowledge) and isn’t an activist, he just thinks sex workers are really funny. Seeing as I think of Sex Work Twitter as an impenetrable digital slumber party where we make fun of shit clients and antis, it hadn’t occurred to me that people outside of sex work or the surrounding debates paid it much mind. So if you were wondering what remarkable naivete looks like, add me on Snapchat and I’ll send a selfie. It made me wonder to what extent our movement is taken seriously when so much of our public discourse is decidedly unserious.
I don’t mean to dismiss the incredibly serious writing and activism that sex worker do on digital platforms, in the streets, and in their communities. It is abundant and important and my gratitude for it cannot be adequately expressed here. It is work that is performed with earnestness that I, in my self-consciousness and desire not to seem to want anything especially badly—even basic decency in my workplace—eschew in favor of humorous outrage and tongue-in-cheek dismissals of our opponents because, like many sex workers, I feel vulnerable to anti-sex work critique from antis and figure that if I can laugh at myself first, their judgment isn’t as painful.
The death of Robin Williams has unleashed countless essays and blog posts about how it is the tortured souls that don’t fit in that find strength in humor. Some of them are incredible and some of them are abysmal but they all raise important questions about the use of humor to mask suffering and vulnerability. There are a lot of awesome brassy broads from the sex worker community that mock the pompous shitlords that seek to destroy and belittle sex workers with what appears to be extraordinary confidence and I fucking love it. Seriously, if they want to leave sex work and start a TV show, I will be the first in line at their Kickstarter. But there are others too, myself included, who are at their funniest when they feel defensive, when they feel legitimately threatened and outraged by antis.
My point goes back to that dude I had no idea was reading Sex Work Twitter and my increased sense that there is an audience for sex work discourse beyond ourselves, our opponents, and a handful of clients that really really want us to pay attention to them for no fee. For those of you brave souls that go out and brilliantly antagonize the antis, you know very well that their digital presence is grim. As. Fuck. It has to be when they trade in hyperbolic, condescending language that paints all sex workers as either compromised victims well beyond any agency that might give them a voice or as laughing, oblivious, privileged harlots seeking to fortify the patriarchy with the bones of exploited women. Their tone is dour because their message is dour. They stick to the script and rarely flinch when rattling off the evils of commercial sex and the virtues of criminalization. And while the self-righteousness of that message might make our stomachs turn, to outsiders, theirs might look like something of a worthy cause.
In a world that is awash in grisly tales of the sex trade and impossibly bad information about sex work and the people that do it, sometimes I’m afraid that our humor might be perceived as callous. Sometimes I think that perhaps we needed to button up and put on our serious faces to be participants in this discourse. That maybe we’d be taken more seriously if we acted more seriously. But then I realize that this is precisely the kind of capitulation that antis would love to see, because it would rob our discourse of the texture it is given by our laughter, our triumphs, and our sorrows. It would reduce us to what they are: a series of talking points with an agenda rather than a movement of diverse human experiences.
And the thing about having a movement rather than an agenda, is that it is going to move and be moved. It will not have as firm a foundation as an agenda will nor will it be as easy to build a consensus around. But its value will not be in its funding capabilities but its human dimensions, the ability to laugh over deeply disheartening experiences and to make fun of something because that is often the only power we possess in the situation. Sex work activism doesn’t need to look like a list of talking points. It can instead look like a series of simultaneously ridiculous and heartbreaking vignettes, the humor of them demonstrating their heart and the vulnerability of them demonstrating their strength.