This is our truth, tell us yours
“10 common things well-intentioned Allies do that are actually counterproductive” by Cody Charles is one of those posts I would hand out before getting into a conversation with anyone, about any political issue. I really suggest you read it if you haven’t already, go on, I will still be here when you get back.
I was struck by how useful one framed around sex work would be. Not because the original post does not apply to sex work allies, but because sometimes people need a little help actually seeing that wanting to be one of the good guys doesn’t actually make it so. It is also the case that whilst people who are academic (although it is not in any ways an intimidating or jargon heavy piece) and people versed in social justice theory, may be used to seeing intersections of oppression a lot of people are less used to thinking this way.
This does not make someone a bad person, nor does not knowing jargon, having a learning difficulty, processing problems, being older or unused to certain ways or arguing, or that certain things held as undeniable truths. It is perhaps particularly important when writing of sex work to be aware that the majority of sex worker voices, even in the UK are never heard, because they are not politicised, and many do not want to be. As it is for sex workers, so it is for the allies. Being in sex work activism, even on the fringes as I am makes this easy to remember perhaps. I inhabit a strange “between” space, where I am a working class survival sex worker with learning disabilities who is assumed by some to be an academically trained queer sex worker theorist. In reality I just read a lot. This betweeness means though that I am very aware that sometimes the conversation concentrates on the theoretical and ignores the practical.
So my intention in writing this is not to say that Cody Charles’ piece does not apply to sex workers, it does, every word, but that sometimes it is not wrong to try to make something more specific, and perhaps more manageable, to spoon feed if you will. And if you are an ally offended at the thought of being spoon fed, then I really suggest you go and read the original piece.
They didn’t mean it like that
One day someone who belongs to an oppressed group will explain why they find something offensive, and there will not be a chorus of people saying, “they didn’t mean anything by it”
Then hell will freeze over.
If a sex worker finds something problematic, then it is problematic, and no it doesn’t matter if the friend you just invented who sold sex in college was fine with it, or if Paris Lees said something similar, or if you think they are being “over sensitive”. Oppressed people are not a monolith, sorry, the borg might be easier to handle but that’s just the way it is.
And no, its not OK to use whore because you are talking about slut shaming, feminists this means you too. The word whore is one which directly references sex work, and can only be reclaimed by sex workers. (The AAV ho/hoe is a different matter).
And feminist men talking about how its OK for women to “dress like whores” and they back them 120%, Nope. I have lost count of the variations on this conversation I have had
Supposed Ally; “Even if she dresses like a whore, she deserves respect”
Me; “erm, even? and dresses like a whore? What does that even mean”
Supposed Ally; “I am on your side, why are you calling me out, all I was saying is even girls in short skirts and heels deserve respect”
This conversation never ends well.
If a sex worker finds something you said problematic or insulting, it’s probably because it was problematic or insulting. Your job from your place of privilege is not to defend, or try to convince them they are wrong. Basically, don’t be a dick. When you argue you are saying the hurt you’ve caused to the individual in front of you matters less than your opinion of that hurt.
Speak Up, there may be a sex worker in the room.
One of the basic tenets of social justice theory is to signal boost, to not speak over, and to raise up those on the margins. unfortunately due to stigma many sex workers are not able to be out. Furthermore the fear of outing themselves can mean that when there is a discussion of sex work its the sex worker who remains silent. This is a specific place where allies come into their own. If you hear whorephobic statements, challenge them. If someone is insisting all sex workers are pimped as embryos because Melissa Farley said so, challenge them. Of course if an out sex worker is speaking let them lead, but don’t wait for someone to be pushed to outing themselves before you speak.
When I was interviewed by Amanda Williamson I touched on how hard it was for me as a sex worker to have to sit silent when my classmates made whorephobic statements. As UK universities threaten sex worker students this silence hangs over many of us. Help by breaking it, by leading the charge, so we can sneak in behind you, there is safety in numbers. Arm yourself with facts, from reputable research, and read what sex workers are saying on various subjects. As Cody Charles points out, part of being an ally is being willing to educate yourself, rather than expecting to be educated.
Speaking up goes double for attending demos. The more allies attend demonstrations, the safer it is for us, the less likely it is we are outed to friends, family, employers, colleges and the police.Part of the power on the union has always been the power of anonymity, the power numbers give the oppressed, the power to be safer, even while marginalised.
If you hear whorephobic language, speak out, if you hear someone spreading whorephobic misinformation, speak out, dont assume someone else will do it.
It is especially important allies do not excuse whorephobia because of the otherwise “good” work someone does. Organisations like feminism in London and Reclaim the Night (London) are consistently whorephobic, but seem to get a free pass from allies because its just one issue. Allies need to get of that fence, you cannot support sex workers and support organisations which promote state violence against us.
Don’t @ me.
So you wake up, do the necessary morning stuff, shit shower shave, whatever, and its time to catch up with social media. Happily scrolling through, relaxed, looking forward to the day, and your mentions are full of people who call you a rape apologist, pimp, pedophile, racist, the whole bundle of joyful crap that gets targeted at sex workers active about our rights.
Want to link to what sex workers have written? Awesome! Want to link me, or any other sex worker into an argument you are having with other people? Pause and think for a moment, are they claiming we are raped for pay, pimps, don’t care about victims? Do you think we really need that trash in our lives? We, or indeed any marginalized person, do not exist to be your killer punch in an argument online or in meatspace. Treating us like this is not only ignoring our triggers, it is actually dehumanizing and assuming our mental health and wellbeing matters less than your argument. Its treating us as objects instead of people..
There are some sex workers happy to confront swerfs and antis, all power to them, I served my time in those trenches, but never simply assume we want to be involved.
Is it really so hard to ask first? To say can you talk about, or can I ask you about XYZ?
Never out a sex worker. But all my friends are really cool with it Never out a sex worker. But its a safe space Never out a sex worker. But they are fine, they told me, loads of people know. Never out a sex worker. But if people understood sex workers were like X it would reduce stigma Never out a sex worker. But everyone knows they are sex worker in our circle Never out a sex worker. But I think Never out a sex worker. But I Never out a sex worker. But
Charles mentions in his piece that tears are rarely helpful when someone is speaking of their lived experience. As a survivor of child sexual abuse I can only agree. Comforting someone who finds my life history just too upsetting has happened to me, it’s almost my default expectation, and partly why I rarely disclose any details. I don’t need your pain, added to my own.
However sometimes it might be nice if sex workers were given this compassionate, if useless response, especially when people ask “whats the worst thing that’s ever happened working”
Well let me see, we sell sexual services for a living, laws prevent us working safely in large parts of the world, and men very often see consent as something that doesn’t apply to them. What do you think the worst thing that’s ever happened could possibly be?
Sex work is work, it is also, in a variety of forms, sex. As an ally would you ask other strangers to disclose incredibly intimate details of their lives just out of curiosity? Some sex workers may be OK talking about details of their job (we are not the borg remember) however when you ask for these details consider first why do you want to know, and secondly, exactly what you might be asking.
I am going to directly quote Charles here, for the next bit
Giving Advice from a Place of Privilege
I heard Melissa Harris-Perry speak about this at a keynote, and it stuck with me.
I began to analyze the truth of it as it applies to me. I found that I indeed offer advice and solutions through my privileged lens. I moved with ease from conversation to conversation with friends, family, and students through my place of privilege.
This is something that we all do, mostly without being cognizant of the person and identities that sit in front of us.
I, and pretty much every other sex worker I have ever met, does not need your advice on our rates, our marketing, safely, alternative work options, ads, services including safe sex (unless you are a health provider I have specifically contacted)
It is patronising in the extreme to assume you know more than me about the industry I am part of. Usually people who give this advice say basic things like “have you considered raising your rates” as if this piece of brilliance has never occurred to us. They also generally are unaware there are a plethora of sex worker only spaces, forums, hell even twitter, where we can ask for advice.
All too often allies don’t treat the work part of sex work is work as a reality, its our job, assume we might actually have a clue about it.
This is especially important if a sex worker is talking about not liking sex work. You are incredibly privileged if you hear this kind of conversation, we often have to censor ourselves as we know our words will be used against us. It’s not helpful if someone then starts making lots of suggestions of alternative jobs we could do, guess what, we have probably considered them already.
A word to academic allies.
Read this by Lime Jello. Why you shouldn’t study Sex Work
I cannot write this without talking about clients.
Clients, you are not part of sex work activism, no matter how much you try to insinuate yourselves into it, simply consuming the end product of a workers labour does not give you the right to be heard in the debate for sex workers rights. If you want to be an ally be one, not because you are a client, but because sex workers deserve rights. Frankly there are very few clients talking about sex work who don’t just cause harm to the cause. This isn’t, and must ever be about you, and yes that includes clients with disabilities.
Imagine if Apple employees in China were agitating for better working conditions and instead of listening to them, people interviewed ipad owners about what they thought should happen? This is the situation all too often when clients speak on sex work. If you are a client, the first thing you could do is call out the misogyny and whorephobia on review boards. You can support sex worker organisations, signal boost sex workers, and like any ally challenge myths and whorephobic language/assumptions. Just dont make this about you, it isn’t. Which brings me to;
Part of the reason clients need to take a chair is they always seem to argue from the “I am lovely, so why criminalize sex work/ sex worker clients”. Newsflash, even if every single one of my clients was unrelentingly awful, I still deserve labour rights.
This kind of unnuanced argument is all too common among allies and it can mean we end up having to do work with those who should be supporting us, instead of fighting those who oppress us.
Sex workers are constantly having nuanced and complex conversations about sex work. Unfortunately because of how oppression works 50 posts by us can be washed away by one ally deciding its all about how we are sex positive radicals, or doing a social service for men with disabilities. As a non sex worker your voice is is already more likely to be heard than ours, be very careful about what message you send.
Part of this nuance combines with respectability politics in the desire to present us as non drug using, never abused, mentally and physically well, savvy business people who never fake orgasms, have a pension, a mortgage and are just like you. Of course for others the just like you means we are queer, barricade building, feminist, left wing, super activists. Everyone wants to have a sex worker on their parade, so long as its their sex worker, the construct from their head of what an acceptable sex worker is.
As an ally its great you want to support sex workers rights, but it should be about our rights, not your pet movement or theory. Recent protests against the Ripper Museum in London were a prime example of this. People who I know to be long term allies of sex workers saw no problem with those opposed to the sex workers rights movement using our deaths to make a point about “male violence”. This erasure of the specific dangers sex workers, and especially street sex workers, face, happens constantly.
Apart from using our dead bodies to speak about general male violence the area in which this happens the most is probably STI prevention. This is a complex issue, as in the global south decriminalization is a vital health issue for millions of sex workers. however it is not uncommon to see allies claiming that decriminalization reduces STIs (nope) or that sex workers all use condoms so therefore are “good” people. It is again using us to boost your pet project. We deserve labour rights because we deserve labour rights.
Buy A Dictionary.
I already mentioned the need to educate yourself, and not demand that education from others. In a sex work context it is vital allies understand what sex workers across the globe are fighting for, the decriminalization of sex work. I have lost count of supposed allies saying they think sex work should be legalised. Know also what decriminalization is, those opposed to sex workers rights have been appropriating the term for a couple of years now, and claiming it applies to the Swedish model. They need to be challenged whenever they do this, and an ally is ideally placed to call them out.
Examine your unconscious prejudices, or we dont need your Utopia
Its not uncommon to hear, or read, someone opening with “I fully support sex workers, but”. You know nothing good ever comes after that but. Usually the but is about the persons own prejudice rooted in whorephobia. We need allies not to claim *all* sex workers would prefer different jobs, need an education, have drug issues, were abused as children, are pushed into sex work by poverty. Which is not to say that these may apply to individual sex workers (not the borg remember) but support conditional on your assumptions about sex work is not support. It is objectifying us, turning us, yet again, into a representative of your beliefs rather than seeing us as human beings.
If you are a partner of a sex worker many of the thoughts here will also apply to you. Christian Vega wrote an excellent piece for partners which is really worth reading
Lastly support our organisations, our fundraising, our campaigns if you are financially able. Sex worker organizations are largely unfunded, most activists pay for what they do out of their own pockets, and we are fighting a multi million pound, government backed rescue industry.
This piece is not intended to be the final word, if you feel I have missed anything please feel free to add it in the comments.
Many thanks to Cody Charles for giving permission to quote from his article.