A friend of mine recently shared with me that she is thinking about registering with an escort service to make some extra money. We had a long conversation about what resources were available to support her in her decision, what research she might do before pursuing a job, what steps she might take to be sure that she could stay as safe and healthy in the process as possible. We talked about how her decision might impact her relationship with her longterm partner. We talked about some of our other friends who have been involved in sex work of various kinds, of some of the risks she might be facing, and how to best prepare for them. She was already clear on the fact that she would not be telling anyone in her family about the decision, as she felt she already knew what their reactions would be. She thought it better to make the choice independently, and avoid the lectures about the dangers she would be subjecting herself to and the sad direction in which she was leading her life. Given her stance, I was glad that she felt comfortable talking with me, and I hoped I was providing her with some useful places to start.
After having this conversation, however, I started to worry. Was I being irresponsible by supporting my friend’s decision? Was I not thinking enough about her range of options and power to choose? Though I have never been a part of the sex industry, I have many friends who are strippers, part of escort services, and who regularly perform sexual acts to gain basic resources or make extra money. I know that not all of them feel sex work was something they had a choice in pursuing. I know not only the judgements they face, but the ingrained social disrespect, the threats of violence leveled at them by those who seek their services as often as from those who decry them. I know that even my friends who are perfectly comfortable with these realities still have a hard time acknowledging and openly discussing them with family and friends. This inability to speak is at the root of the stigmas which surround sex work, and is particularly oppressive for queer people. For as TLBG people, but especially as Brown, poor, trans, homeless, immigrant, incarcerated, undocumented, hood and working queer people, sex work is not only a piece of our realities, but a foundational component of our history. Understanding it is necessary for understanding where we come from, how we identify, the ways we organize, our strategies for survival, and how sex work’s ties to other oppressed communities and identities is part of what maintains its marginal status.
The struggles which my friend may face as she continues on her path have little to do with sex work, for sex work, I believe, is itself no more or less risky than being sexually active is. What makes sex work dangerous are the social stigmas with which it is imbued—the shame, self-hatred and desperation we project onto members of the sex industry. It is dangerous because of the precarious role women occupy in our society, the thin line they walk between reverence and worthlessness, the long list of simple ways they can slip up and lose all of their symbolic value. It is dangerous because once that value has been lost, assault, violation and murder are no longer seen as heinous crimes, are often not even deemed worth looking into. It is dangerous because we fear anyone who takes their gender, sexuality and relationship with their body into their own hands. It is dangerous because trans people are targets for violence at a higher rate than any other queer identity, and combining that reality with sex work can be lethal. It is dangerous because it challenges almost every state-sanctioned institution, from the cult of marriage to the regulation and taxation of (certain people’s) profit. It is dangerous because the legal system declares it to be, and targets it for extensive policing. It is dangerous because even as the most basic of workers’ rights and abilities to organize come under global attack, sex workers have long had to rely on one another for support in the face of corrupt law enforcement, greedy management and abusive patrons.
Given all this, is it wise for us to participate in sex work, or advise our friends to do so when they ask us for our advice? I don’t think this is the real question that conversations like the one between my friend and I raise. Sex work is dangerous because it continues to represent what many of our struggles have always represented—the dignity of oppressed people, and our ability to maintain ourselves in the face of seemingly insurmountable and purposefully-imposed barriers. Should we or shouldn’t we is not the point, for many members of the sex industry have rarely felt the need nor had the opportunity to ask such questions. What we should do is continue advocating for the rights of all working people, regardless of their legal status, criminal history, or the type of work they perform. We need to listen to the needs of women and trans people. We need to advocate justice for sexual violence which acknowledges the legal system as one of its major perpetrators. We need to talk about how to make our communities safer and more supportive places for all our members, carve out space for conversation, and collectively provide the resources that will help to get us there. We need to celebrate sex worker history as queer history, inexorably and unavoidably. Our inability to examine it openly not merely distorts an accurate view of our identities as they stand, but keeps us from grasping the true breadth and depth of the ways in which we and our ancestors have challenged power through the practice of sex.
This is not to romanticize sex work, or the role it plays in our radical history. Part of the conversation is acknowledging how members of our communities may be forced into the sex industry against their will–either through channels of human trafficking and abduction, or because they feel forced into it for social or economic reasons. When the choice to pursue sex work is made for us, it is far more difficult to claim it as an empowering piece of our identities and legacies. Yet these voices and their perspectives remain as marginalized as any others in the sex industry, the questions and struggles they face just as unlikely to be raised as problems which all of our movements are responsible for addressing. Opening the conversation on a larger scale and connecting it to all our struggles is the beginning of a real reimagining of the role sex work plays in our daily lives and ongoing battles, and the rejection of shame is universally crucial for the empowering of all our stories.
Sex work is not simply about sex, nor is it an inevitable exchange of bodies for money. Its branding as “the oldest profession” is not about the desires of its patrons, but the obvious outlet for survival it presents to those who have few others. More than anything, sex work is about self-determination—of gender, of sexuality, of the navigating of class and legal status, of access to resources. And if we are serious about loving, protecting and standing up for our friends, our partners and ourselves, then we should be committed to being dangerous, and to critically honoring all of our methods for survival when so few systems prioritize it.