When I was 15, a stunning article in Allure magazine introduced me to luminaries Veronica Monet, Tracy Quan and the irrepressible Norma Jean Almodovar. All three women talked about sex worker rights and changing the law. That article was the only bright spot in the next eight years of reading about sex workers.
By the time I began stripping, I knew what a sex worker activist was: a lesbian vegan living in San Francisco who didn’t shave (let alone wax) and was often very overweight. She had a useless degree in philosophy or women’s studies from Berkeley (unlike my highly-useful photography degree!). Sex worker activists were overly-represented in my readings about sex work and they never, ever described me or any other strippers that I knew. I remember emailing Jill Nagle and complaining that Whores and Other Feminists was not representative of all sex workers, I wanted stories from sex workers who looked and sounded like me and my co-workers, workers who walked in our shoes too. I never heard back from her.
Maybe because I and the sex workers I knew looked mainstream. Veronica Monet and Tracy Quan were the only two public sex workers who looked normal to me (I did not find other interviews with Norma Jean, sadly). I was so happy to discover the books of Dolores French, Lily Burana and Heidi Mattson because I could identify with them, though Lily and Heidi weren’t “activists.”
Everything I read told me activists discounted you if you looked mainstream sexy, as though they believed a sex worker with implants or blonde hair has nothing of value to add (just like everyone else in society).
There is a deep prejudice permeating the sex worker rights movement in the US. Just because some of us have a mainstream appearance doesn’t mean we don’t deal with the same stigma that every other sex worker does, that we somehow work under a different set of laws. Just because we look much like the “pretty” depictions of sex workers in mainstream media doesn’t mean we’re not “real,” it means we’re making money (most sex workers are in sex work to make money). Does the movement think that because mainstream media depicts a certain look that it’s somehow representing or speaking for those who have that look?
Just because we’re hetero doesn’t mean our sexuality should be ignored or dismissed — it’s as meaningful to us as it is to LGBTs. Whore Stigma is based on fear and hatred of female sexuality in any form. Just because we’re female doesn’t mean our “female-centric” views should be automatically discounted. Women have made up the vast majority of sex workers ever since women were invented. The majority of the issues sex workers face are parallel with women’s issues, and sometimes parallel with issues confronting those who identify as women.
“Inclusiveness” and “diversity” are such huge preoccupations in the movement that they often derail energy and focus on the real-world issues staring all of us in the face. In the stampede to be inclusive and make sure that all ethnic/gender/occupation/whatever boxes are ticked and that a token representative is present, a huge majority go unnoticed and unwelcome. Many in the movement seem to think that because a certain type of sex worker are a majority, that somehow their concerns are being met or they don’t face serious, often universal, issues. Because they are a natural majority, they are punished by being given no voice.
meet the invisible majority
The invisible majority I’m talking about are the lower to middle -class independent online providers all over the US. They are the majority population of sex workers in the US (strippers would be the next most-populous category, I think). Most do not live in San Francisco or NYC (because there is a lot more to the US than those two cities). The slight majority are white (because the majority of the US population is white), but an almost equal number are non-Caucasian — the overall split is very nearly 50/50. A higher percentage are mothers than in the movement. Their politics span the gamut but they usually have very definite liberal views on sex work!
They’re generally an open-minded bunch: they have almost zero tolerance for racism, understand the discrimination gay people face and most are cautiously open to transgenders. The most unfortunate thing about them is a widespread adherence to the sex work-hierarchy and their profound dislike of street workers. This is something that a little education and mind-opening personal interaction could change.
One thing they do feel is excluded, and rightly so. They are. The Internet has allowed the invisible majority to connect and share ideas. They’re reinventing the wheel by trying to start activist groups because (surprise!) they want the laws to change and they want a voice in that change. There is energy.
There is also a sad lack of information and leadership skills because they’ve been excluded from the movement for so long. They, like I used to, don’t see many in the movement they can identify with.
The ultra-PC concerns the movement spends so much energy on is foreign to the majority (their idea of getting things done is to just get on with it!). There are more and more of the majority types coming into the movement, but sadly, their concerns are not taken as quite as valid as someone who represents a sliver minority. So many people in the movement have internalized their stigmatization by mainstream society they lash out at anyone who appears to represent mainstream society. Activists deliberately ignore the reality of the bell curve.
The movement forgets that sex workers do not live and work in a vacuum. Sex workers are the girl next door. They cannot live and work anywhere else.
I have often wanted to point out to the ultra-PC types who look at me, see a blonde white girl wearing business-casual clothing and have knee-jerk prejudice — they are prejudiced. Prejudice is prejudice. It doesn’t matter what your motivations are or how ultra-PC you are. If you judge someone by the color of their skin or outward appearance, then you are prejudiced.
In my mind, there is no difference between ultra-PC prejudice and the KKK-style prejudice I grew up with. Both are based on stereotyped assumptions of appearance, both discount the value of the person based on that appearance. This is neither inclusive nor diverse. It’s prejudice.
The invisible majority — whom I long to bring into the movement — feel this as clearly as I do. They feel excluded because they don’t look the part or use correct terminology. This unnecessary fragmentation hurts everyone. It certainly hurts the movement because, frankly, the numbers are sorely lacking. Actively welcoming the thousands and thousands of online providers would change that in a hurry. It hurts the invisible majority who lack the years of experience in organizing, debating and research that so many in the movement have.
The exclusion leads to apathy. The movement is not accessible or relevant to the majority, so they turn away from “activism.”
A prime example is the [lack of] reaction to the worldwide removal of the Craigslist’s Erotic Services section. A massive, frightening victory for US-based anti-prostitution activists. The majority just move onto another website to advertise. Their lack of context leads to a dangerous apathy. I daresay the majority hardly realize there are home-grown anti-prostitution activists out there changing their lives out from under their feet. (Hapless sex workers in other countries probably don’t realize this is the work of US-based antis. Another topic, another day.)
That big-picture apathy disappears when it comes to acting locally. The invisible majority very often respond to calls for help from their fellow workers. They’re being activists — but don’t tell them that! “Activist” is as dirty a word to them as it used to be to me.
This is a sad commentary on a movement that spends an inordinate amount of time/energy/money on anti-racism/anti-oppression training for its members more often than it values accomplishing tangible goals. It’s a circular thing: so inclusive as to be hugely exclusive. (They should be giving AR/AO training to police and mainstream media because they’re the ones who seriously need it, but never mind that.)
privilege vs the invisible majority
This became crystal clear at the Desiree Alliance conference this summer. It was a fabulous event. As always, all sex workers are welcome and there were scholarships for those who had trouble affording the conference (never enough money, though; never enough). This conference is seen mostly as an “activist” thing and that turned off a lot of the invisible majority who might otherwise have attended.
Due to huge efforts in publicizing the event, more of the invisible majority were there than ever before. They seemed excited about mingling with LGBT workers, workers of all colors from all over the world, workers with vastly different types of work experience. It’s a rare sex worker who does not have a healthy curiosity about other sex workers.
The feedback on the social-mixing was hugely positive. The feedback on the “safe space” aspect of the event was hugely positive (the invisible majority more often live and work with a sense of isolation that activists don’t). The feedback about the activism side of things was somewhat negative, mixed with quite a bit of confusion, such as wondering how anything gets accomplished.
Basically — the movement as it currently stands isn’t for the invisible majority. A pity for both sides but I think the movement loses the most in this equation.
Within the event itself, there was obvious lashing out at whatever mainstream-looking representatives were there (there was lashing out at the 2008 conference too). The last day of the conference, a group of attendees put together a little zine and I bought one. It included several diatribes against the “privileged” “white” people at the conference who were somehow excluding and offending the makers of the zine.
In sex work, it is often the “privileged” “white” women who can make the most money and they tend to foot a lot of the bills of the conference out of their own “privileged” “white” pockets. The hard work and donations of “privileged” “white” women are part of the funding that go into the conference scholarships every year (probably a few of these zine makers were enjoying the benefits of said scholarships).
As far as I can tell, “privilege” is simply the hierarchy turned inside out and upside down. Accusations of heresy witchcraft privilege are easy to make. If someone charges more than you do, has their life more together than you do, or chose their parents better than you did — they are “privileged.” (The easy privilege test is to throw them into the hotel pool. If they can swim, someone obviously paid for swimming lessons at some point in their life — they’re privileged. If they drown but have life insurance to cover funeral costs — they’re privileged.) The invisible majority are “privileged” just by being the majority.
Mainstream society does not split hairs over hierarchy or privilege. A whore is a whore is a whore. And all whores are drug-addicted, disease-riddled, parasitic victims. The movement has a lot bigger issues to work on than internal debating over who is oppressing whom because someone can charge more in the open market or chooses to wear clothing that blends with the general public.
There are wise people in the movement who are points of light — they can see the bigger picture, truly and equally welcome every sex worker who crosses their path. Their wisdom is often ignored because they tend to lack the blunt-force righteousness of the ultra-PC types.
Okay, I think that’s everything, or at least the broad strokes. This has been building for the last 16 years or so. No doubt I’m just opening myself up to fire from every side, including from people using PC-phrases I’ll have to Google. Happy 2011.