Last Friday, I published an article about Ms. R, a woman who was raped in her Oakland apartment and denied compensation by the State of California because her rapist was a client she met through Redbook.
This Monday, Ms. R and several activists went to a hearing in Sacramento to petition the government to eliminate the regulation prohibiting sex workers from receiving aid when they’re assaulted or raped as a result of “involvement in an act of prostitution.” The final decision has yet to be made, but things are looking good: a lot of supporters showed up to speak at the hearing, and Ms. R and her supporters are hopeful. To make things even better, she says that the cops arrested her rapist on Tuesday night.
If the regulation falls, that will be a good thing, but it doesn’t change a much more depressing fact: there’s a million more laws just like it on the books at local, state, and federal levels throughout the country. Shutting sex workers off from the resources they need to be equal citizens is the norm, not some bizarre exception. It would take forever to index all the examples in which this is true, from local police using possession of condoms as evidence to make arrests, to the infamous anti-prostitution oath that the U.S. Government forced international organizations to sign to qualify for HIV/AIDS funding.
The logic behind policies that criminalize sex work is masterfully Orwellian: every single one is implemented with pious appeals to protect the welfare of sex workers (or more often, “prostituted” or “trafficked” women); yet nothing guarantees that nonconsensual sex work will continue like laws that cut workers off from healthcare, social services, abuse resources, or the simple freedom of not being arrested if they talk about what they do for a living. When someone argues against making prostitution legal, the argument invariably boils down to, “We need to arrest them for their own good.”
Once you stop to think about it even briefly, the philosophy of “jail ’em for their own good” is transparently absurd and does no one any good. But that doesn’t make it any easier to promote. Advocating for decriminalization of sex work is still a radical position in this country; to many, you might as well be openly advocating for the right to abduct, rape, and batter women.
But ironically, decriminalization is as inadequate as it is radical. The stigma around sex work is at least as damaging as the laws. Stigma adheres to all branches of sex work, whether legally or not. It might be perfectly legal to make, market, and sell Lesbian Spank Inferno, Vol. 17, but having it on your résumé will guarantee you don’t get a job teaching grade school. The idea of sex workers as “fallen,” broken, or amoral is the soil in which the laws grow. The State of California was able to enact a regulation denying aid to victims of rape because stigma allows people like Ms. R to be considered disposable.
In the end, decriminalization isn’t enough: we have to say that sex workers — like any other legitimate work — can be a positive thing, not an inevitable blight that has to be tolerated. That’s not just radical in the current climate, but unspeakable. Right now, it’s hard enough to get people to use the phrase sex work without a lewd, patronizing grin.
It’s unspeakable, but I think that those of us who aren’t sex workers have a special responsibility to make sure it gets said, and to make sure that the work and the people get respected.
As I said, I’m not a sex worker. I never have been. But a lot of my writing — elsewhere as well as here at Slixa — deals with the politics and culture of sexuality, and that includes sex work communities. Many of my friends are escorts, pro-dommes, models, or porn stars. Both personally and professionally, I have a responsibility to always speak up about the inevitable costs of criminalizing and stigmatizing sex work. One can’t just be a tourist, enjoying the sexy bodies and listening to tantalizing stories, then stroll off to the safety of the straight world while the cops or bureaucrats sweep in.
There are two responsibilities of being a privileged person allying yourself with a marginalized community, such as being a civilian who writes about sex workers. The first is to listen. This is harder than it sounds: it means you have to be willing to stop defending all your stereotypes and preconceptions — every well-intentioned story you ever heard about nymphomaniac drug fiends who went into porn because of abusive or absent fathers — and listen to what actual people are saying about their lives.
But ultimately, you also have to be willing to speak up. Your support has to become active at some point. In the last twenty years, sex workers have become increasingly vocal about speaking up about their own interests, and lobbying for their own rights, but even now they do so at great risk. If those of us who are their friends, family, clients, lovers, don’t also stand up and speak for sex workers’ rights, they take that risk alone. The consequences of making them do that are intolerable.