Human beings sure do love their hierarchies.
Within traditional mainstream culture, hierarchies – and the power dynamics that accompany them – are everywhere. Some are determined by financial or social capital, others by achievement and accolade, and still others by factors completely out of one’s control, such as the color of your skin, your sexual orientation or your gender. While many folks see hierarchies as necessary dominance structures that support the functionality of our society, others see them as barriers.
For example, it has been my experience that social hierarchies are often implemented by privileged individuals reacting to feeling threatened by an individual or institution. Arbitrary lines are frequently drawn in the sand between those of different identities and experiences, with the end goal being to elevate one’s self through the denigration of others. Marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by the implementation of social hierarchies, and as such they’ve often pledged to develop their own subcultures free from the structures that have sought to oppress them.
Except, they haven’t. Not really.
The human species’ drive to create social hierarchies in order to improve how individuals are perceived by others is intoxicatingly pervasive. So much so that the most marginalized among us can’t help but fall victim to them – to the extreme detriment of our peers. It’s even permeated the sex industry, presenting as a class system colloquially referred to as “the whorearchy.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone self identify as performing one genre of sex work and then hastily follow it up with a “but.”
“I’m a burlesque performer, but it’s not stripping – it’s art.”
“I’m a stripper, but it’s not like I have sexual contact with my customers.”
“I’m a porn performer, but it’s not like I’m an escort who has sex with strangers who haven’t been tested.”
Why are we so eager to throw our fellow comrades under the bus? It depends. Some of us do it reflexively, subconsciously imitating the hierarchies we’ve seen modeled around us our entire lives. Some of us are looking to gain social capital within the community, using perceived respectability politics to “upgrade” our status. Some of us are invested in a deep cognitive dissonance about the nature of our work, opting not to address our own internalized “whorephobia” in favor of undermining our own peers. Regardless, those who choose this path frequently suffer from increased isolation, rarely finding it sustainable.
How do we combat hierarchies? Who even gets to identify as a sex worker? And, does it really fucking matter?
Almost every sex worker has their own unique definition of the term “sex work.” Some believe that if your income is tied to sex and sexuality, then it’s sex work. Some professionals are beginning to create new definitions for their labor that allow for increased specificity as well as nuance, moving away from the binary “sex worker or layperson” identifiers that are starting to feel limiting. “Direct erotic labor” vs “indirect erotic labor”, for example, or “sexy worker” vs “sensual worker.”
For me, the distinction is made via risk assessment. Thanks to the passage of SESTA-FOSTA in 2018, there’s been a surge of sexuality professionals such as sex educators, erotica authors, and sex toy retail employees [newly] identifying as sex workers. This change in self labeling typically comes on the heels of falling victim to online censorship in a way people have never experienced before; having their products removed from Amazon, for example, or having their business page shadowbanned or outright blocked on social media.
While the aforementioned are legitimate forms of discrimination, the potential impact this discrimination has on those individuals is almost always going to be less damning than that felt by strippers, webcam models, massage parlor workers, professional dominants and submissives, porn performers, or escorts (and trust me, that isn’t meant to be anything close to a comprehensive list). “Sex workers” face housing discrimination on a daily basis. They’re often excommunicated from their families of origin over their work. Due to a lack of participation in the traditional workforce, they’re disproportionately uninsured and struggle with finding culturally competent, comprehensive healthcare services. They’re regularly targeted by law enforcement in arrests that do not differentiate between non-consensual sex trafficking and consensual sex work. They are disproportionately raped, beaten, robbed, and killed. When was the last time an erotica author had to think seriously about those risks?
All of that being said, I believe social hierarchies within marginalized communities to be nothing but a self-imposed distraction, compromising community cohesiveness and therefore taking our attention away from authentic threats. Do you know how much time is wasted daily on matters of semantics, when that energy could be easily redirected towards empowering other workers and improving industry conditions?
The problem lies where it almost always lies – with mainstream society. Our hierarchies have no power if sex work is widely accepted as a means of legitimate labor. Trust me – once we strive towards eradicating our internal hierarchies, working together to change society’s perception of sex work as inherently negative, then our own patterns of denigration will be upset. I believe in us.