Society’s Split on Sex Workers: The Impossible Web In Which We Are Trapped
Updated: Oct 20, 2021
My last blog post was very personal and emotionally charged, this one is going to be a little different, I wasn’t kidding when I shared I was going to write whatever I felt like. Here I’ll be discussing societies attitude toward sex workers and our attitudes toward one another. The truth is that I’ve found myself racking my brain trying to think of why it is so hard for society to accept sex work as work. Why we’re othered, marginalized, dehumanized. Why we’re told we are unworthy and undeserving of love, safety, and care. And why it feels near impossible for the collective of society to make a shift toward humanizing us, As someone who has been a sex worker for the entirety of my twenties I've grappled with these questions of 'why' more than I'd like to admit. As sex workers most of us want sex work to be destigmatized and humanized. I say most because I avoid making universal statements. Ultimately people have varying experiences. I have no doubt that there are sex workers who have been harmed by the work and believe the bad reputation the sex industry carries is a justified one. Or there are those who have internalized whorephobia and are grappling with that as they navigate the work themselves. Who am I to invalidate or speak over experiences that differ then my own? Point is – there are no universal blanketed statements that go well because very few experiences can be universally true. Which leads me to my next point: society expects us as sex workers to all speak from a universal perspective in order for us to be deemed worthy of being heard, humanized, and seen. This is an impossible trap to get out of.
Society has created a split of sorts when it comes to sex workers. Meaning broader society often views us as all good or all bad. This is not a ‘good’ thing for any marginalized group looking to garner human rights. In this split we are often viewed as ethereal beings on pedestals or as social lepers. Intelligent and business minded or stupid and lacking life skills. Resilient and empowered or sick and victimized. These mental splits are at the core of the ‘us vs. them’ mentalities that have led to colonization, genocide, slavery, wars, and people like Trump landing in office. In psychology splits serve a purpose - to protect the 'good' parts of ourselves from the 'bad'. Sex workers are more commonly viewed as a ‘them’ or 'bad', something other, because of the split we are not included in the ‘us’ society is protecting. If you’ve read psychological theory you can think about Melanie Klein’s work surrounding object relations. If you don’t know it I’ll try to simplify it without getting too psycho-babbley. In this theory mentally splitting between the good object and the bad object occur in order to protect the ‘good’ object from things that induce anxiety or fear in us or in short that which can not be understood or tolerated. An important part of early development is to learn to move past the stage of splitting and into a stage that allows space for complexity and nuance. In moving past splitting we learn people are complex and can remember their 'goodness' even when they do something we don't like or understand. If we can not accomplish this during early developmental stages we have some work cut out for us in adulthood. I hold this theory in mind as I think of society. I believe that as a society we are stuck in an early developmental stage where we have not progressed past the splitting stage and we continue to harm ourselves by remaining stuck.
Sex work may be one of the only jobs where we are expected to have a universal experience in order for the work to be deemed valid – society has set us up for failure. As sex workers many of us, myself included, have fallen into the trap in hopes that we will be heard. None of us will ever have the same experience because we’re all different. Sure, we can absolutely share common ground such as; income brackets, sexual orientation, language, race, fetish work, even have clients in common. But to have an experience that is exactly the same as one another? Impossible.
I’ll give an example of what I’m talking about. I can be in the same income bracket as another sex worker, share some clients in common, and live in the same area – that’s quite a bit of overlap! Lets add more common ground. Let’s say this sex worker is also queer and partnered like I am. Even with all that in common our experiences may be vastly different. Do we have the same ethnic and cultural background? Are they an immigrant, American, or like myself first generation US born? What about their ‘vanilla’ (non sex work) career? Do they have one? Does sex work put their vanilla career at risk? If so, how does that stress impact them? Are they working multiple jobs making sex work burn out more likely? Do they have a trauma history? Does that trauma overlap with sex work? Are they neurodivergent or neurotypical? Are they disabled? Do they have a support system and community? Are they isolated? Has their community ostracized them? Have they been able to access forms of healing to care for themselves while doing such physically and emotionally labor intensive work? I could go on for a while with this, I’m hoping you get the point. No two sex workers will have the exact same experience because no two are likely to have the same positionality! For fun lets say there are a few folks with the same positionality and experiences then we can get into DNA, epigenetics, and ‘nature vs. nurture’ type of questions that impact how we metabolize experiences and move through the world. At the end of the day, we are all different even when we are similar. Holding the expectation that we will have ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’ feelings about being sex workers is unrealistic. The splitting is a trap because we can’t split on ourselves our work isn’t all good or bad. We ourselves aren’t all good or bad (despite what our incredible marketing may tell you).
As I scroll through my twitter feed most often what I see when this comes up are sex workers speaking at each other instead of with one another. I've done this myself when I’m activated although I try not to tweet when I’m in that space. In these interactions it usually looks like: Sex Worker 1 (original tweet): My experience is that _(statement about enjoying/not enjoying something about the work)___ Replies: Sex Worker 2: That’s so true that’s what my perspective is as well! Sex Worker 3: This is wrong your tweet is wrong I haven’t had that experience and I don’t hold that perspective Random Reply guy: Here is my opinion I agree/disagree even though I am not a sex worker!
Obviously this is excruciatingly simplified, but it is simplified to make a point. Maybe you'll notice it more now as you scroll through your feed, perhaps you already have noticed? If someone speaks on their experience I can almost guarantee there will be sex workers (and civilians) sharing that isn’t their experience or that the original tweet is simply untrue. To that I often ask how can another decide that someone else’s experience isn’t true? We can’t. Its someones lived experience there is no right/wrong here unless they’re making a universal statement based on their own experience (like I said, its best to avoid those ‘all’, ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘no one’ type statements). We need to stop speaking at and over one another. It’s step one. I know that’s a big ask in a world where things aren’t black and white even though we are told to split, think in binaries, black and whites, all good and all bads. This is where society fails time and time again. By speaking over one another we often invalidate one another. By shouting our experiences after invalidating another's experience in hopes that we will be seen as valid we are falling prey to the web. Deeper into the trap society has placed us in.
There is room for all of us and all of our experiences, even if society tells us there isn't. Mainstream society and dominant culture sucks. Period. It's patriarchal, white supremacist, hetero/cis normative, and hyper-capitalistic. It is, for all intents and purposes, a dumpster fire. I understand why we invalidate and speak over one another I don't fault anyone for doing that. Surviving in these systems is driving us mad. We are fighting for space and safety. With that being said it is important to acknowledge that because of the systems we must all navigate we are not all facing the same barriers there are nuances in our positionality. We are all grouped together by our job, sex work. But as I’ve stated we are not all the same and as such some of us need to take a seat and let others speak. Some of us need to resist taking the bait if someone is activated and tells us our more privileged experience is ‘wrong’. It isn’t wrong, but there isn’t a need to get into a debate about it with someone who is navigating things more heavy than what we are. Some of us need to reflect on how much space we are taking up and if it is balanced with supporting and uplifting those who hold more marginalized identities than we do. How much space do you take up? How much space do you give? Have you fallen into the web? Are you stuck in the trap?
It is a lot of work to share space, listen to one another, and collectively work our way out of the web. We need to start somewhere if we’re ever going to get out of this trap and we can’t solely count on society to catch up. Society is stuck in its own developmental stage. We've got to count on ourselves and one another.