There Is Nothing About Sex That Is Uncomplicated
I’ve got a friend I don’t see often. To preserve anonymity, I’m going to use gender-neutral pronouns and call zhim Robin.
Robin is, I don’t know how else to say this, the awesomest person I know. Sorry everybody else I know who thinks they’re awesome – you’re not as cool as Robin. Not by ten thousand longshots. I think zhe would probably be embarrassed to know I think this about zhim, or maybe I’m projecting my embarrassment at talking very openly and personally about feelings with other people. But, back to the point, I admire Robin in a way that is usually reserved for, say, Bob Moses. Robin is feet-first, hands-on, neck-deep in real and meaningful activism, and always has been. Zhe’s got a first-rate mind, a heart with room for everybody, and a presence and a personality that is just steady and fulfilling to be around. If I ever have a kid that makes me want to vicariously live the dreams I never had the courage to live, I would probably be trying to make them like Robin. Zhe is just good and smart and important down to the bone.
Just recently, Robin disclosed to me that zhe is a sex worker. I assume that Robin only decided to tell me this because zhe had made a determination that I wouldn’t be a total shithead about it. I hope I’m not being a shithead. But, as I told Robin (albeit not very eloquently at the time), I have some conflicting feelings about this.
Theoretically, I don’t have a problem with sex work. I don’t think there’s anything inherently, fundamentally wrongdirtybad with sex as a job, or sex for pay. But that’s based on a concept of sex work in a vacuum, and we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a patriarchy. And sex work situated within a patriarchal world is inevitably swimming in a pool of wrongdirtybad, and anything tagged with the wrongdirtybad brush becomes fair game for serious violations of humanity.
On the one hand, since my ideal vision of the world doesn’t differentiate sex work from any other kind of work, it seems like that should be the thing I’m working toward. I “should” be the kind of feminist that is all on board for decriminalization or legalization, or normalizing the sex trades so they’re not a dirty stigmatized mess — and often I feel bad that I’m not more so. On the other hand, I work in a profession where I frequently see young girls who have been trafficked and exploited, and/or mothers who have had to prostitute themselves in order to feed their children, and their desperation has usually caused them to be exploited as well. Some of the abuses I see surrounding exploited sex work are so heinous that it’s very difficult not to come away with a “SHUT IT ALL DOWN” view of sex work. And yet, I know it’s not something that can be shut down, not now, not ever. I often just don’t feel like my brain is large enough to find a way to integrate some of the worst horrors I’ve ever seen with a utopic vision of positive, healthy sexuality. I don’t know how to overcome my revulsion of abuse long enough to separate the tools (which are not inherently abusive) from the abusive people who are handling them. At some point, they just seem practically, realistically fused together, even if conceptually I know they aren’t.
Normally this would’ve just been something to chew over slowly and at my leisure. But Robin chose to tell me about zhis work the day before I was to attend a conference on young girls and human trafficking. So my conflicts were immediately brought to a huge, bubbling surface of confusion. Talking with Robin, I could so completely understand zhis point of view and I felt like climbing on the radical sex work advocacy boat. Knowing that I was later going to be hanging out with a bunch of people who consider Robin – awesome, incredible Robin – to be an exploited, miserable being who needs saving at the least and is ignorantly perpetuating a system of evil at the most made me feel very guilty. The next day, hanging out with bunches of social workers relating story after story of the beaten, raped, kidnapped, abused, purposefully addicted girls that they have worked with, I felt guilty for having ever entertained some ideas of “sex work – maybe it’s not pure evil?”
The social work side of me and the feminist side of me often come into this conflict, but it’s usually smaller and less personal. As a feminist, I believe very strongly in offering people options; people – and especially women – get picked up and moved around so much by their oppressors, the last thing you want to do is emulate them. And yet, as a social worker, I’m working with people who, if I do not pick them up and move them around, are going to rape or kill somebody.
I know our system is a broken one. It delivers law, and not justice. The long view is that government can change, slowly, or die, slowly, and new solutions can be brought to bear. The short view – which is the view that allows me to work for government – is that in the meantime, government is the largest resource out there. People can’t avoid interacting with it, and when they do, they deserve a friendly voice on the end of the phone, they deserve a worker who’s doing their best. When somebody comes into my office, they are likely having the worst day of their life. I don’t believe that I personally have the internal resources or intelligence or just plain strength to be the person who moves and shakes the big things, keeps that worst day from ever happening. But I do have the resilience to deal with people on the worst day of their life, and be polite, and help them with their paperwork, and be kind, and be efficient and hard-working for them. I can help them feel that, on this terrible day, they are not utterly alone or considered totally worthless or a lost cause. They have somebody who will hold their hand until this terrible day is over.
When there are no other options for a person – as is often the case with abused children – the biggest resource out there is likely the only one that can forcibly extract them from their abusers. In the long view, the government is fucked to hell and needs to change, and cannot manage this responsibility in a way that doesn’t perpetuate more horror. In the short view, there is a kid being horribly abused and they need to be taken to a safe place right now more than they need to hear about political change or theory. I don’t want a damaged child to grow into a damaged adult and say, “When I needed help, nobody was there.” I’m willing to accept the restrictions of giving imperfect help within an imperfect system, because a kid that doesn’t get helped as much as they should have still has more chance of growing up to change the system than a kid who gets no help and is abused until they’re just a shell. I consider my job to be life support. It’s worth more to stop the things that put people on life support, but until that happens, they need good, smart, genuine people manning the life support. That’s a position I’ve found I’m capable of emotionally dealing with, so that’s where I locate myself.
This doesn’t play out too well with sex work, I’m finding. There are people who come into our office who have been crippled by the sexual exploitation inflicted upon them. In the long view, we need to destroy the goddamned patriarchy so the word “sex” no longer gets paired with “abuse” as a viable weapon. In the short view, we need to get these people out. Like, now. And the solutions we have for getting people out are so imperfect that they actually inhibit us from ever achieving the long view. The legal system is a chainsaw where we need a screwdriver.
There is a girl who has been in our office lately. She’s actually a woman now, I suppose, but she is so young I have trouble thinking of her that way. She used to be one of our kids, the kids we work with. She’s grown enough that she’s not our kid anymore, has graduated from “victim” to “criminal” due to her age – but she’s still so very young that I cannot help but call her a girl. She’s got her own kid. Her kid is now a kid we work with. That’s always painful to us. She’s a really fun, friendly, wonderful person. Her kid, though very young, has obviously inherited her traits and then some. Everybody loves this kid on sight. The kid is like a shining beacon of light, zhe’s just so damned adorable – strangers are drawn to zher. The girl, she’s had a bad time. I probably can’t count how many evils of the world she’s fallen or been forced into. It’s pretty apparent to us that she’s also being prostituted. We’re not sure if she knows this. She might, and might think she’s hiding it from us. She might not know. She talks about her boyfriend and how much he loves her. But we hear the ways he loves her and we are pretty sure he is her pimp, not her boyfriend.
The only legal option for her right now — the only help the government is able to offer at this point — is to put her in jail and take her kid away from her. It’s a very strong possibility. Her pimp will probably go free. Her johns will probably go free.
That’s not life support. That’s the cutting away of healthy flesh.
And yet, that healthy flesh may not have a chance if zhe keeps living with zher mother.
And yet, the only reason we can help the child and not the mother is because the child is a victim, and the mother is a criminal, and the only difference between them is age. We can help this child, and 20 years from now, we will perhaps be cutting healthy flesh from them as well.
The only other thing I can do to help her that I know of is continue to work toward a world where sex is not abuse. Where, should she choose to be a sex worker, that would not be a black mark against her legally, and it would not be one further inhuman torture she must endure as opposed to a profession she has chosen. I can work toward a world where the ability to repeatedly rape, abuse, beat, and terrorize multiple human beings at once wasn’t a valid job description called “pimp,” because all those things would be actually and always illegal, instead of lip-service illegal and actually tolerated and normalized behavior between most men and most women.
But when I see her in the office, I can’t think that’s worth a damn. Right now, she needs something more. But the only something more I have to offer her is, I believe, only going to hurt her.
I’ve seen the sex worker vs. exploited woman conflict pop up frequently on feminist blogs. In the past, I’ve tended to skip over those blog posts. It’s just too much for me to navigate, and I haven’t really had to, either. The official right and wrong answer is pretty clear in my job, provided the kid is a kid/victim and not an adult/criminal. Girl comes in, she’s getting pimped, we move the fucking earth and stars to get her out. The end. We don’t bother ourselves with any concerns about whether this is good for her in the long term – we see an evil thing menacing a child, and we remove the child from the menacing evil. On my feminist side, it’s been equally simple: sex worker rights are women’s rights. Sex workers have the right to not be raped, to negotiate freely, to live happily, to make their own choices. Anything deeper than that didn’t need to be addressed. Any conflicts between those two beliefs and actions – any conflict between my personal beliefs and my professional position – didn’t have to be investigated. Until I had a friend who was a sex worker.
I’m chagrined now that I’ve declined to care about this particular topic. I’m embarrassed at all the times it came up, and I pushed it aside, because why bother investigating this further? Everything I’ve got for me works right now, and it’s not like this affects me, so, whatever. It’s a privilege I’ve had that I don’t think I get to have any longer, because Robin is the best and I want to be the best I can in return. I don’t want to be a shithead. If I disagree with aspects of zhis life, I want to be able to express those disagreements clearly and respectfully, instead of giving off a bad vibe of ambivalence that makes zhis wonder if zhe should have told me. If zhe is willing to answer my questions (if I have them), I want those questions to be informed and inoffensive, and as non-101 as possible, because it’s my responsibility to educate myself first, before I start asking zhim to help me out.
At the conference I attended, one of the speakers was describing several women she had worked with. She described their fear, their humiliation, the sorrow that had been their lives. I’ve met those women, too. I know they exist. But the image of those women, at that conference (and usually in that entire field), are synonymous with sex worker. Whenever anybody in that conference said “prostitute” or “sex worker,” that’s who they meant. And that’s not Robin. There’s no room for Robin in the phrase “sex worker” or “prostitute,” and everything my coworkers mean by it. The solutions discussed and debated had no bearing on Robin, and some, I imagined, might cause zhim more problems than it solved, such as a discussion about shutting down certain websites where sex workers can find clients. I don’t know how Robin finds zhis clients. Since zhe seems happy in zhis work, I assume zhe has found a way that is safe for zhim. I know websites can provide a significant vetting opportunity for any business, including sex work. And while I understand my colleagues’ point of view (new ways to find clients = new ways to pimp girls, or, new ways for clients to remain undetected = new ways for girls to continue to get pimped) I’m also invested in anything that keeps Robin safe and happy, and honors the fact that zhe’s a human being who can make zhis own damn choices. So, suddenly I find myself surrounded by intelligent, good-hearted adults saying, “Obviously, we need to go after Craigslist,” and I’m not sure how to phrase everything that goes through my head. That won’t work. That will hurt others. The Internet is not the patriarchy. The Internet is not the abuser. The handful of girls that will save doesn’t add up to the handful of girls who go underground.
Social work and feminism are very similar in a lot of ways. People get into these fields because they want to save lives, make the world a better place, create good where good previously wasn’t allowed to live. And because you’re taking on the responsibility to make things better, you also have to share the responsibility of making things worse if you fuck up. If your action can make the world a better place, your inaction can make it far more horrible. So, those two fields get populated by people who believe (rightly or wrongly, but often through experience) that the wrong decision will truly and literally destroy another person’s life. Which can lead to a certain degree of well-intentioned fanaticism. I have seen both social workers and feminists cling to “best practices” or “current theory” as if their lives – as if ALL the lives – depended upon it, and all those who aren’t zealously convinced be damned. They are the BAD people, their skepticism and flexibility and unbelief is corrosive and sinful. I don’t mean to make fun of this view, as if the people who buy into it are stupid. I’ve done it. If you tell me you haven’t, I don’t think your perception is worth a damn.
I know all that fanaticism comes from a very personal place. At the conference the other day, I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up and saying that I didn’t think getting rid of a website was worth anything, because for chrissakes, there are always more websites. I knew that there would have been people in the audience who had seen their clients, friends, or daughters get sucked in by a website, seen what happened to them after. I know they end up inhabiting the ugly place that some of us go to sometimes, the abandoned hell of: “Why didn’t somebody do something? It was there and it was so obvious and everybody saw it and NOBODY DID ANYTHING.” Their daughters end up on a website that is easily accessed, the whole world can see what the website is being used for, and yet, nobody does anything. Why shouldn’t we shut the website down? Why shouldn’t we do something, ANYTHING?
I don’t mean to paint that as an irrational way to think. There are some situations that can only be solved by the tiniest of steps possible. There are times where you have to put out the fire but have no control over the asshole running around with a box of matches. And if that’s the only option you have to make things better, and you don’t take it, then you feel responsible in some way for the blaze, and all who get caught in it. It is of no use to tell a girl getting pimped that her pimp wouldn’t abuse her if we ended patriarchy. It looks suspiciously like you care about the big picture – and being somebody who paints that big picture – more than you care about the actual, living human being in front of you. At the same time, when what you have is a rampant, systemic problem, I don’t think you can really say, “As long as we save that one girl, it’s all worthwhile.” That’s all worthwhile only if your solution for saving the one girl doesn’t make it harder to save the other girls. If shutting down the website saves one girl but drives the rest underground, you’re really saying that that one girl was worth more than all the other girls who go on being exploited harder. But try explaining that to the one girl you’re not saving.
I’m definitely guilty of both. On my feminist side, I have engaged in the big picture with sex work. I’ve read the theories. I know the lingo. And I can sort of generally say that by attacking patriarchy from any angle, I am doing something about the badness involved in sex work. On my social worker side, I engage in the little picture, putting out the fire. A kid comes into the system, they’re being exploited, and I really don’t care about questions of agency and careers and self-determination and feminism. I care about getting that kid out, right this very second. And, of course, these two areas in my life could use a little more connection. For example, at this conference about the sexual exploitation of girls, the word “patriarchy” wasn’t mentioned once. A speaker noted that, of course, sexual exploitation happens to little boys, and, of course, women exploit girls, too, but considering the overwhelming statistics in this field, they were just going to go ahead and talk about little girls and grown men. And yet, patriarchy and feminism were verboten words. When I mentioned feminism or patriarchy — not even by name but just by idea — I got crinkled up faces of distaste. I don’t know how you can come up with a solution to a problem that primarily affects an underclass without addressing what makes them an underclass, and how to destroy that particular noose. Otherwise you’re just shuffling them from one noose to another. Maybe the next noose is looser. Maybe that really is an achievement, in the absence of any other possible achievement. I don’t know.
On my feminism side, I do too much theoretical engagement, and too little involvement with real people. Talking with Robin, hearing about zhis life, makes me see this much more clearly. I’m not a very social person. I’m very analytical. In some ways, it’s worth noting my strengths and working with them – I’m the person to organize the SHIT out of your movement, but I’m not the one who gets feet moving. But in other ways, I’m cutting myself off from the most direct, immediate, and powerful method of education there is. Just having Robin disclose zhis work to me has already forced me to confront more things in a few days than I’ve managed in the last several years. Knowing zhim, loving zhim, admiring zhim, is making these issues important to me in a way they weren’t before.
I’m trying to figure out what I can do – right now – that will have an effect. As always, I have to start in my own backyard. Before I can engage more in education or action, I need to understand where I live in relation to these systems. There is a deeply personal side to this that I need to investigate. There has to be, or there is no meaning, no context. Social workers who don’t care about people are little more than abusive prison wardens. And feminists who don’t care about people are little more than a new breed of supremacists. And I have to include myself, first and foremost, in the definition of “people,” or I’m already starting out with a worthless foundation: some people count, and others don’t.
Starting in my own backyard, I realize that I have to address something I usually prefer to avoid. I need to talk about sex. I have talked about a lot of personal things on this blog, some of them very difficult. I have talked about rape until I am blue in the face (or fingers). I have rarely, if ever, talked about sex. When Robin told me zhe was a sex worker, I expected to be filled with deeply curious questions. And I had none (okay, I am a little curious how zhe does zhis taxes). I realized I had none because I could not even begin to conceive of what zhe does. To have sex be that large a piece of your life, you’d have to know so much about your boundaries, your wants, your needs, your desires. You’d have to be able to connect with others, routinely, in a very intimate way. That’s alien to me.
Robin has known me for a long time, but we haven’t seen each other in quite a while. Lots has changed in my life since I last spoke to zhim. In many ways, I feel stronger. But talking with zhim, I realized how much of that strength is an illusion, a shield. I found myself feeling very vulnerable with zhim, because zhe knew me during a time when I hadn’t been so broken, or, more accurately, when I had been more honest and forthcoming and confident about my brokenness. When I hadn’t been so ashamed and afraid of the years I’ve lost and the strength I discovered was fake. I could see my shame and my fear so clearly in comparison to zhis strength and genuineness, zhis comfort with zhimself. I have built up a life full of things that make me proud and different from those around me, but much of that has served to distract me from what are still my most vulnerable places. I do not connect with others. Sometimes, I feel that I cannot. The part of me that needs still operates in full force, but the part of me that fulfills feels broken into and destroyed, so destroyed that I often wish I could take a pill or a therapy that would inhibit forever my desire for sex or desire for friends. I run away from challenges. I run toward my areas of competence, and I bury myself in them. I am competent when others are vulnerable. I am challenged and incompetent when I am. Spending time with a person so together as Robin made me realize how useless I feel interacting with somebody who doesn’t need me, doesn’t want my help, doesn’t look up to me. No wonder I have looked for the work that I have, where I can help those in need, but I am never in need myself. No wonder I have avoided the many, many opportunities there are to make friends, because I only feel worthwhile and useful if I am the strongest, strangest one in the room. And no wonder I have so many inhibiting problems with sex, because I do not even know how to fake sexual strength or competence. In my belief, successful sex requires vulnerability, and I am never willing to give that.
I realized that was the only question I had to ask Robin, and I had no way to vocalize it. And, I suspect, zhe would have no way to answer it. It’s a question to ask myself. How can you give of yourself to so many people? How does it feel to be a part of their lives? How does it feel to know you are making them happy? How does it feel to enjoy doing that, not for the self-sacrifice, but because you are vulnerable enough to take? To like? I mean, sex work requires such a blatant, grounded trade: you need sex, I need money. Even something so bare and basic as that, I can’t manage to imagine. Even if I translate it into something relevant in my life – you need sex, I need sex – I cannot do that. Instead, it’s you need sex, I will give you sex. I will take only from what I give, attempt to fulfill myself only with the satisfaction of giving; I will not take from the satisfaction somebody else offers me. My tongue goes dead if I have to ask, if I have to reveal that I want or need and only another person can fulfill that want or need. I also know that Robin enjoys zhis work, so I assume there’s something more than the cash that does that, because lord knows I’ve had well-paying jobs that I hate, and crap paying jobs that I love. Zhe is getting something out of this, and I cannot even fathom what, because I cannot fathom having an itch and asking somebody else to scratch it. I cannot fathom taking as well as giving.
Before I can address sex work as a larger concept, address its problems and work towards solutions, I have to investigate the fact that I cannot understand on a basic level how Robin can like sex SO MUCH that zhe makes a job of it. That has to do with me, and my serious fucking problems with sex. So, because I want to be as good a friend as I can to Robin, and because I want to help the people who need help in the best way I can, and because I want to live a happy and fulfilling life, I need to address this very private, very vulnerable part of my life.
Which I will do in another post because, as per usual, this one has gone on for a decade.
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