A few weeks ago I Tweeted: Afternoon w/Zi Teng. The power and ability to say “no” defines privilege â€“ it has nothing and everything to do w/money. (Zi Teng is a sex worker rights group in Hong Kong. I will be writing more about them and you can see some photos of their office in my album.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about that enlightening day with Zi Teng (I’m still in contact with them but obviously am not physically close). Power and agency are two very big words sex workers and the antis in the US like to toss around. I can’t define how anyone else uses/abuses these words. I like to define power and agency as a self thing. Power over one’s life and one’s body; agency over one’s life and how one chooses to work. It’s a very loose and open definition. Sometimes I feel like I have a lot of both, other times not so much. That’s all part of it.
Meeting with the HK sex workers and learning about their main style of working led me to think about the word no. There’s so much power in it. It’s taken mostly for granted in the US. It’s not for these sex workers.
In this case, the myths are correct: what we sex workers learn in childhood echoes into our sex work. The power and agency learned in childhood by applying the word no leads us, as adults, to believe (or not) we have the right and ability to say no in any other situation. I have no studies to back this up but I’m guessing that children learn far more from being able to apply the word no to their own lives than saying yes.
Even the ultra-paranoid child-safety programs believe this. They teach children to say no to inappropriate touches, to say no to strangers, to say no as a way of protecting their physically-vulnerable selves. Female adults are taught that yelling NO! is a way to prevent rape or assault.
No is a powerful thing.
The HK sex workers, by and large, have their power of no taken away by how their sex work is structured by society and by their clients. I don’t know much about how HK society raises its girl-children but I’m going to guess most of them are not given the power of no.
If you can’t say no, you can’t set boundaries with clients. You can’t demand payment up front. You can’t demand condom-compliance. You can’t say no to doing something that disgusts or physically hurts you. You can’t demand your rights because you cannot say no to societal practices and laws that cause you harm.
The lack of no does not render these women helpless victims. The sex workers I met were spirited, fully-aware adults. They were not different from the sex workers I know in the US except they spoke a different language (and had a different work situation). Their lack of no erodes their rights, their strength, and causes them harm.
Nor do I believe that society must give one the right to say no before it can be said. Obviously not. A society which values the word no does make it easier to say. A society which believes that at least some people are allowed to say no makes it easier to say. It’s not that one be must graciously allowed to say no before it’s said, it’s only worth being said if it’s heard. I think part of Zi Teng’s mission (and the mission of sex worker orgs around the world) is to get no to be heard and acknowledged.
Having your no trampled on is deeply painful.
Some might think the word no is completely negative. It’s not. It’s far more powerful and positive than yes. Ask any sex worker which of those two words she wants her clients to hear when she says it.
I’m just musing on this one word and its meaning for sex workers. I’ll get into detail about HK later on. I don’t want anyone reading this to think I’m talking of victimization or exploitation. I’m talking about inequality. That does not always and automatically equal victimization or exploitation. I think suggesting such things to the women I met would get their “Are you an idiot?” response. It would be offensive to them that I assume they are victims just because their work situation is different from mine. All I’m commenting on is what I noticed. (I’ll get into the money/class/status thing later on too.)
The big chasm I noticed between their work and mine is that I can say no almost with impunity. They cannot.