Sex work from a dipshit perspective

2013 February 24
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by Harriet Jay

Content note: rape, abuse, and whorephobia

So, I had a lot of reasons for abandoning my blog. I wasn’t prepared for what it turned into, and didn’t know how to manage it back to something I preferred. It took up a lot of time. Having so many people all into me was weird. I don’t know how to explain that; it’s just weird, and it takes a very particular skillset to deal with that level of weirdness in a successful and healthy and fulfilling way. It was none of those things for me, just weird and anxiety-provoking.

But the thing that started the blog abandonment was sex work. I met up with an old friend who I hadn’t seen in years, and zie told me they were a sex worker. And I had a lot of thoughts/feels/confusions about that, and I felt like it was necessary that I think those things through and make a blog post about them. And I did and it was kind of meandering, amateur, and knee-jerk. And I thought, okay, now I need to get informed and write an thoughtful blog post about that, not just some What About the Crack Whores?!! shit. The deeper I went into learning about sex work, the more complicated my thoughts and feels got. And, too, the more I started to hate feminists and their sex work problems. Seriously, the shit feminist bloggers get up to on sex work blogs? Absolutely vile. I didn’t want to be that. I didn’t want to open my mouth and come out with some privileged, contemptuous, paternalistic shit. I wanted to learn more, and more, and more before I felt like I could even begin to address the topic.

So it’s a few years later. I have learned a lot more than I used to know. I’ve tried to learn all this directly from the willingly shared experiences of sex workers (and guys, there are A LOT of willingly shared experiences by brilliant, engaged, amazing sex workers out there, so none of that “teach me” shit, you go and find your education). I feel fairly conflicted about making this post. I’m making it from a privileged place. What I have to say about sex work is maybe going to be taken more seriously than what a sex worker has to say, because guess what, whorephobia is a fucking thing, and feminists ride that wave hard. But I’ve been reading through my emails and trackbacks, and I’ve been seeing all the people who really respected me, really felt like I contributed something to their lives. I don’t think I have the right to speak to the reality of sex work (you need to talk to a sex worker for that, anybody who has researched a lot about it and wants to tell you like it is, they’re just being an appropriating dick), but I do have a personal need to speak to my beliefs.

So what I’m going to do is post about my last few years of learning. Which necessitates a trigger warning: this will be discussing rape, this will be discussing abuse, and this will be discussing sex work from the perspective of somebody who is a moralistic dope about sex work. This is about where I started, what I learned, where I ended up. I strongly encourage you — I fucking exhort you — to make your own journey, do your own learning. If I’m the start of that, cool. Awesome! I want the perspective of an actual sex worker to be the next step. Talking about sex work without talking to sex workers is the dumbest, easiest, most likely mistake for a feminist to make. Let’s be better.

But Drug Addicts, Pimps, Trafficking, Rape, And Abuse! Cry for everything bad that’s ever happened, and never fuck for money!

Okay, so this is where I started. It was the first thing that popped into my head. It was the hardest hurdle to jump. Everything after this cleared much easier (though still took work).

The concept of sex for money, in a vacuum? Yes, sure, fine. No problem with that, conceptually! But in reality, the person accepting that sex for money is addicted and abused and trafficked and raped and abused and beaten and living the most tragically pornographic life ever, right? And the person giving that money is vile and cruel and disgusting and rapetastic and pedophilic, right? And sure, yes, I get that people have to make certain decisions to survive, and I would certainly never condemn them! I would never be mean to a forced sex worker! Such respect I would show them, such compassion! But also, they want to get out of this life, right? If they had a choice, they would do something else. Because unless you’re some kind of high-class, privileged hooker, you only fuck for money to survive, and your life is a tableau of misery. Obviously.

This perspective was informed by one half-part truth, 3 and a half parts propaganda. For absolutely sure, there are trafficked people. There are people who don’t have anything like what you could call a choice, and people who have had their choices whittled down coercively and callously. And there are certain obvious patterns in who those people are (I’m talking isms here), how much the full measure of their lives are worth to society, which cannot and should not be ignored (and again, the source of your information, and what you should base your opinions on, should be based in the populations that are affected by this — cotton out of your ears and into your mouth and listen to the people this actually affects).

I used to separate sex workers into two categories. Tragic, and privileged. No choice, and choice. Stereotyped and the-sex-worker-who-writes-memoirs. It doesn’t matter how you dress it up, what kind of respectful language you use, or how much compassion you have. This effectively amounts to object vs. subject. Tool vs. complication. Doll vs. humanish. Narcissistic savior fantasy vs. narcissistic bawdy entertainment.

Because the thing is, sure, there are some doing-totally-okay sex workers out there. Choice! Empowerment! Rigid Victorian standards to be done away with! Racy memoirs! Look, they’re fine, we don’t need to worry about or listen to them. I mean, when the revolution comes and we get rid of the bad sex work, they’ll probably disappear, too, because we’re not exactly known for crafting nuanced, helpful, appropriate laws about sex work? But anyway, the good ones will still be around to spice up our Women’s Studies curriculum or cable channels, maybe. But the REAL sex workers are the ones ON THE STREET, and there are SAD TRUMPETS playing as they stumble up and down alleys, and look, let’s be honest, NOBODY CHOOSES to be an exploited sex worker, these motherfuckers got to get saved.

I had to make this about me to understand it, get it to click into place. I couldn’t get it from a sex worker perspective, because I was too used to devaluing that perspective, assuming the person holding it didn’t have the power or privilege or ability to think straight and clearly about their own lives, their own experiences. So I thought to myself, what would it be like, to be devalued and abused and unloved, and the work you do is ugly and wrong? And I remembered when I was a child, and I told my dad I wanted to be a therapist when I grew up. He snorted and said, “Of course. Every fucked up person wants to be a therapist.”

This is not an uncommon idea, right? My dad said it outright, to a fucking 12 year old, because he was goddamn damaged and insecure, but it’s not news to you, right? Damaged people want to help damaged people; this shit is a stereotype. Obviously, I think of it differently. I think, damaged people know what hurts, and how, and don’t want this to happen to anybody else. Damaged people know that damage exists. But that’s exactly how a damaged person would think, isn’t it? Subjective, rationalizing, trying to find choice and power in order to feel a sense of mastery or competence, explaining away their brokenness, making it something positive, so sadly sweet. Obviously an objective, undamaged person would, I don’t know, be a lawyer? An accountant? They wouldn’t do this pathological work, for sure, if they were whole and decent.

When my dad said that shit to me, I couldn’t say he was wrong. I was fucked-up. You know, on account of him, mostly, but the point is, that ship had goddamn sailed. There was no going back. But did that mean this was a bad choice? A wrong choice? A crazy choice? Look, who cares? I mean, somebody might, okay, I don’t want to be a dick to that person for whom it is really important, to uncover the true reasons and motivations, but for me, at some point, I just go forward or I don’t. If I’m a fucked up person, and that makes me want to be a therapist, well, okay, it’s either that or be a fucked up person who isn’t a therapist. If that doesn’t make me any happier, why would I do it?

So, sex workers. Do they have a choice? Do they have autonomy? Do they do it because they’re damaged, because they’re hurt, because they’re fucked up? If they weren’t damaged, would they want it? Would they do it? Do they do it because their life choices were restricted due to pain and abuse and terror? Who the fuck cares? Are they safe? Are they citizens? Look, I get to have a fucked-up childhood and become a therapist, and if I get assaulted and call the police, I have half a fucking chance that they’ll believe me. If somebody rapes me, it won’t be because I was giving out all that emotional care, and what did I expect? If I work to treat and heal and be kind to terrible, terrible people, I mean, some folk will hate that. Some folk will think it’s gross and wrong, to try to heal people so hurt that they have lashed out at others. But there’s at least some people who will think it’s worthwhile work. Even if I’m only doing it because of child abuse, because of brokenness, because of damage. How much would I rage and seethe and spit if I faced a world that told me the only reason I make the choices I do is because I am a puppet of my own pain? Because rapists and abusers still control me? So why the fuck would I treat another person that way, if I have any sense, any empathy, any kindness at all?

So that perspective canned my raw and open paternalism. But even with the willingness to listen to sex workers who said their work wasn’t entirely coerced, even if they were on the streets, even if they had a pimp, even if they were on drugs, even if they were poor, or abused, even with the willingness to privilege their perspective over mine out of a self-centered empathy, or a tit-for-tat belief that I should treat others the way I want to be treated… did I believe them? No. Not a bit. Their lives are tragedy and terror and I know it, no matter what they say. Their clients are cruel, their pimps are worse, and landlords and dealers and all the other low-lifes make their lives a living hell, and so sex work can never be anything but a nightmare.

My sex worker friend, zie pointed out something I had never considered, and I had to chew over it for a long time before it bloomed. But that shit? That is victim-blaming. If a client is cruel, the client is the problem. If a pimp is abusive, the pimp is the problem. If a sex worker is abused, the abuser is the problem.

I had to make this about me again, before I got it. I was married to a terrible man. I was raped by him. I was emotionally abused by him. He used a lot of drugs, and I used them with him, sometimes because I wanted to and sometimes to make things easier. I gave him my money to keep him calm and happy. Despite all this, I still feel okay with the idea of marriage, and I might want to be married again someday. I still like to feel BIG THINGS in BIG WAYS. I still like and want sex. I still have a glass of wine or two. I still buy people presents, or help them out when they’re in a rough spot. Marriage didn’t do this to me. Emotions didn’t do this to me. Drugs and money didn’t do this to me. And most importantly, I didn’t do this to me, not by getting married, not by wanting love, not by wanting sex, not by smoking pot, not by helping others. He did this. And as far as he was able to get away with it, privilege and dehumanizing fucking helped.

If we got rid of sex workers, if we pulled them off the streets, sucked the drugs out of their systems, made them leave the pimps, made them refuse the shitty clients, guess what. That shit would still exist. Sex workers don’t make sex work exploitative or abusive; exploiters and abusers do.

When I last thought about this concept, I had a specific client in mind. Zie was on drugs, on the street, and had a pimp. And every time I tried to think, “Maybe sex work isn’t so bad?” I would think about hir, and feel like I was betraying hir, betraying hir pain, in thinking that. But then I tried to piece things out. If zie wasn’t addicted to some pretty bad drugs, how would I feel? If zie didn’t have a pimp, how would I feel? If zie wasn’t on the street, if zie had other options but still chose sex work, how would I feel? I wouldn’t give a shit, is how I would feel. So is my problem with sex work, with sex workers? Or is my problem, as always, with the perpetrators of abuse and inequality? With the people who choose to benefit from it, and the people who let that happen? If I had been married to a non-abusive man, I would still be married. But I was married to an abusive man, and I left him because he was abusive, not because marriage was bad and should be abolished as a concept and practice forever and ever.

(Yes, yes, I know, marriage is a complicated topic, some people think it should be abolished, because it aids and abets the kind of abuse I’m talking about. I get it, and don’t exactly disagree. But if we abolish what we currently call marriage, people are still going to find a way to hook their lives to one another, because that is a basic human need, and they will do it symbolically and ritualistically, because that is a basic human need. If we get rid of what we currently call sex work, we will still have people placing value on sex/intimacy/love, because those are things that have value to us, and where there is value there is negotiation, trade and compromise.)

None of this is to say there aren’t people involved in sex work who need assistance, support, love, kindness, and power over their own lives. This is not to say trafficking doesn’t exist, not to say rape doesn’t exist, not to say rape that involves exchanges of money doesn’t exist. But none of that has anything to do with sex work, anymore than my rape condemned sex as a concept, need, or want forever. If you take a stereotypically tragic-porn version of a sex worker and give them all the assistance, support, love, kindness, and power they can get, if you insulate them magically from abuse and terror, they can still choose to be sex workers after that, and that doesn’t mean they’re not free or real or thinking, living beings with choice and will.

Sex work is not where abuse is created and born; it’s where abuse goes to live. Always and forever, abuse will live with those society has decided are barely real, barely human, barely worthwhile, unworthy of defense and unworthy of the tools they need to defend themselves. If we want abuse to go away from those people, we make them more important, more human, more worthwhile, less easy pickings, and we can’t do that while telling them what they may do with their bodies, what they may think with their minds, how they may live, what they may do with their time and abilities and desires. Real, autonomous, fully sentient beings do not need permission to live in their own bodies, and if we treat sex workers like they can’t know what they need, can’t judge it accurately, can’t acquire it well, we will continue to label them as something less than inalienable, and abuse will always have a home with them. Sex work isn’t the problem; abuse is, and as far as abusers are able to get away with it, privilege and dehumanizing fucking helps. That’s not all coming from the abusers, okay — some asshole white middle-class feminist spouting off about exploitation of the poor street walkers who need to be saved is nothing if not privileged dehumanization.

Where all this brought me is here: I don’t know fuck-all about what the actual lives of sex workers entail. And to that end, I don’t know fuck-all about what can go wrong, what needs help, and what hurts. I know something about abuse.  I know something about rape. But that is not all I am. If somebody were to look at me and tell me I am programmed entirely by those two things, I would know they thought I was less than human. I would know they were a predator, because that is what my rapist and abuser thought of me, too. So I needed to learn more about the actual, human, real life experiences of sex workers, and I needed to do more than keep my mouth shut while I did it. I needed to look at sex workers like they were something more than a collection of terror, exploitation, pain, and abuse, or all I would get from their stories is a more nuanced, more textured tragedy doll. Humans are more than pain, even if their lives are very painful. Victims are more than victimization. Their stories are bigger than that. I thought I knew that, because I believed it about myself, but I didn’t allow people who exchange money for sex the same benefit of the doubt.

So that’s where I began. From there, I just googled. Really. I found blogs. I found books. I read them. And I read the awful, horrible comments and reviews, left my well-intentioned feminists like me. And I learned just how ugly my caring could be.

But that’s where I’m going to leave shit for now. I’m not allowing comments on this, because moderating comments takes FOREVER and NO, and also, because I have seen what kind of concern trolling inevitably pops up when sex work comes into the picture and goddammit I am not having that, do it on your own blog.


2013 January 13
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by Harriet Jay

I haven’t done any plugin updates for a million years (two, okay). Doing them all now, site may be wonky for a bit.

Now that I am getting through my emails…

2013 January 13
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by Harriet Jay

Would like to officially announce that anybody on the Internet since 2010 who has been posting comments using my alias is totally not me (and I don’t know who was doing that, but I’m not through my last two years of email yet, either). Seriously, what the fuck was that about, wow.

Holy shit, this thing is dusty

2013 January 12
by Harriet Jay

Hello, internets!

It’s true, I am alive.

Before I get your hopes get up, I’m not restarting the blog. I never gave it a proper ending, is all, and that wasn’t how I meant to end things. But life got in the way, and then it was SO NICE to not be blogging and the comments and the emails and ugh (your comments and emails are really nice! it’s just, you know, work still), and interacting with the feminist blogosphere without being a part of it is also pretty keen, I found.

I have a little window of time right now, and I think it would be good if I used that time to finish this thing up. That’s not happening tonight! Because tonight I’m actually pretty deep into a box of wine. But hello, this will be happening, okay?

Quick summary on the life of Harriet J:

  • Totally alive and happy and doing good.
  • Going to grad school!
  • Still with the bear. We had a rough time and now it’s a good time again.
  • Got sociable in real-life instead of internet-life. That’s a thing.
  • Dove nose-deep into a lot of different kinds of blogs and learned about a lot of different stuff, all begun by my friend Robin smashing up my rather easy, superficial thoughts on sex work. Guys, sex work blogs, go get some, you don’t even know what a shitheel you are yet.
  • Been writing a bit on the fiction side of things, which is much harder and is full of rejection notices and somehow nobody recognizes my brilliance and I don’t trip and end up in the New York Times. Kidding, kidding, I like that better — the popularity thing is scary, I did not care for it and absolutely was never prepared.
  • TOTALLY EMBARRASSED by a lot of stuff I put on this blog.
  • TOTALLY IMPRESSED by a lot of stuff I put on this blog.

At least one more post coming! I would like to write a post on my new thoughts on sex work, and a post on what the hell it was like doing this blog, because that was a THING. I promise nothing. My only obligation is to this box of wine, and I take my vows very srsly.


2010 December 31
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by Harriet Jay

I wanted to signal boost this. Not just ’cause she’s talking about me, but I like the cut of her jib overall. Check her out.

wrongly labeled as curmudgeonly, unkind and arrogant by those who prefer to, in deep denial, swim peacefully with the tide not rage valiantly and vigilantly against it…
i am a…
42 year old, fiery WYSIWYG, Black conscious, caribbean (not at all the same thing as a Black amerikkkan), north amerikkkan raised, first born child of divorced parents, capricornian, anti- (capitalist/imperialist expansionist corporate) war, 9/11 truther, dark(er) skinned, matriarchal, polyamorous, class conscious, fat, tall, rogue scholar happily living in exile, eclectic/solitary practicing pagan ancestor/universe/ goddess worshiping, kinky (doesn’t mean i’ll be sexual with just anyone), queer’d (i lived a good portion of my life as a lesbian turned dyke before i decided queer as a way to indicate my radical sexuality-oriented political worked…that’s in flux…oh, wait…identity related dimensional shift in process…in my head i’ve been trying on “heterosexual” for size), cisgendered, femme, polymath, bottom (who can but doesn’t really prefer to switch), far-seer, verbal, confident, introvert who presents as extrovert, RADICAL lefty, feminist, anti-authoritarian, socialist, homebirther, full-time radical attachment oriented parent.

I mean, how can you not like that?