Sex workers self-identifying

After posting about the National March for Sex Workers Rights, I wanted to address something that I think a lot of activists, if they’re not directly involved with the sex workers’ rights movement (and even many who are), do not think about. A comment from Zenobia on a post Anji wrote about Reclaim the Night (which I found via Debi) made me think I should post something:

Although I’d be more on the side of the one screaming about sex workers’ rights, but still, where are the sex workers themselves actually involved here? At the moment, they’re just the audience being informed that feminists have opinions on them. How’s that useful to them in any way?

In response, I left a brief comment:

Keep in mind, too, that sex workers may not always self-identify, due to concerns about being outed. They may face very real concerns about the possibility of facing stigmatization or even arrest.

Zenobia’s comment bothered me because of all the assumptions wrapped up in it. Why does she assume there were not any sex workers among the activists shouting for sex workers’ rights? Is it because in her mind, like the minds of so many people, “sex worker” means “street-based prostitute” or “down-on-her-luck stripper?” Or, what, do they have to be wearing a T-shirt that says “I’M A SEX WORKER” in order for her to believe it? Sex workers of all stripes are the ones leading the sex workers rights movement, and yep, many identify as feminists. Does Zenobia assume those identities are mutually exclusive?

People, even those who consider themselves feminist or progressive or whatever, have lots of ignorance, stereotypes, and unquestioned assumptions about sex workers. One is that they can “spot” a sex worker. Guess what? Not true. You see sex workers every day; you just don’t know it. As PlainsFeminist writes:

In fact, one of the things that continually surprises me (because I, too, fall prey to stereotypes about sex workers) when I meet sex workers is that they look just like everybody else.

When you really think about it, this assumption is pretty stupid. Do people really think sex workers walk around in 7″ heels and a thong all the time? That they all have bleach-blond hair and breast implants? That they’re all women (an assumption that both the previous stereotypes rest on)? Unfortunately in my experience, lots of people who are otherwise very intelligent do subscribe to these ridiculous ideas.

So back to Zenobia’s comment – if she can’t “spot” the sex workers, then they must not be there, right?

As I wrote above, something that even well-intentioned activists often don’t consider is that sex workers often have reservations about self-identifying. This is one reason why it’s so difficult to organize for sex workers’ rights on a local level. In some areas it is easier than others, but for example, this is one of the biggest hurdles we faced organizing the IDTEVASW event at Charis last year – and it’s why, I think, no one other than Caitlin and Tabby (the other two organizers) came up to do anything for the open mic. We restricted the open mic to current and former sex workers because we wanted to make sure the event was not co-opted by non-sex workers; but, it’s asking a lot of someone to get up in front of a room of strangers (even strangers who, ostensibly, are there because they support the cause) and say “I’m a sex worker.” Having reporters from media outlets in the room only adds to that pressure. Of course we wanted the event to be covered by the media, because sex workers’ rights activism gets little to no coverage in the media; but at the beginning of the event we specifically told people from the media NOT to take photos or use quotes from anyone without getting their explicit permission.

In fact, this is part of why it’s so difficult to achieve adequate representation for sex workers in the media. Dacia covered this in her session at WAM!2008, “Sex Workers and Media Representation.” Mainstream media organizations often want certain information about people’s identities when quoting them for a story (for some reasons that are valid and some that are spurious); but for sex workers, this is highly problematic. Some sex workers that have trusted mainstream media have then been outed and faced the repercussions – thereby instilling in the community even less trust in the media.

While it’s certainly not easy to go on record, whether at a small community activist event or in the New York Times, as being a member of many other marginalized/oppressed groups, most of those identities don’t have the potential for arrest, eviction, job loss, or loss of custody of your children. Most people don’t think about this dilemma that sex workers face, because they don’t have to – and that, of course, is the definition of privilege. It’s not on your radar, it never even occurs to you that it would be something to put on your radar because you have no idea it exists. As a tangent, this is helpful yet again in dispelling the myths and misunderstanding around the concept of “privilege.” You’re not a bad person because you didn’t know about something; but you tacitly benefit from not having to know about it.

10 Responses to “Sex workers self-identifying”

  1. 26 Nov 2008 at 11:37 am Renee

    It would seem to me that part of the problem is that the minute that someone says I am a sex trade worker people step out of the woodwork to slut shame and demean her. The disciplining begins immediately and they forget that this is the same person that they knew before the revelation. It comes as a great personal cost to openly work for rights when the backlash is so immediate, personal and hurtful.

  2. 26 Nov 2008 at 11:40 am Amber

    Another great point, Renee.

  3. 26 Nov 2008 at 12:35 pm RenegadeEvolution

    Amber & Renee:

    You’re both right. Outing oneself as a sex worker is full of peril, especially if involved in illegal sex work. There are criminal, social and civil reprocussions, and sure enough, whorephobia and slut shame to boot. I wasn’t ever going to post photos of myself with m face in them until someone threatened to do it for me…so rather than let them have the power- I did it myself.

    And I do grin at the idea that people can spot us…parts of sex 2.0? Did I look like a sex worker? Yep. Chicago and MN? Nope. Hell, Chicago, I was still in bandages LOL.

    And the following is sad but true, but the DC march, I am going, but I won’t be speaking and avoiding any media coverage because myself, my husband, and my brother all live and work up here…me ending up on the news? It could affect them adversely, and I cannot allow that. I’ll probably even wear a wig to the event.

  4. 26 Nov 2008 at 2:13 pm RenegadeEvolution

    damn it Amber, now I had to go and post on this too!

  5. 26 Nov 2008 at 3:37 pm SerpentLibertine

    Yeah, this is a struggle every day I feel when I’m trying to organize locally in Chicago. Either people don’t want to label themself as a sex worker or are afraid of being outed by aligning themself with a sex worker rights organization. We had these problems when we were organizing Desiree….it was a private event with no outside media presence and there were people who were afraid to attend because they thought they were going to be “outed” to the public.

    Here’s what doesn’t make sense to me, though. I’ve always kept a low profile as a worker, not maintaining a website and advertising in places where I didn’t have to post photos of myself. Most people don’t do this. They have high profile websites, have their pictures posted all over the internet advertising their services for the world to see, but some of them still won’t identify themselves publicly as sex workers? So I’ve always been conflicted about that. If anyone can view a website with photos of you and the services you provide…you’re “outed”, right? Really, if someone’s going to get busted from illegal sex work, it going to be as a result of a advertising website or posting online and not because they identified as a sex worker at a community event or rally.

    It’s not to say i don’t have issues outing myself in certain situations. i just don’t talk about being a sex worker in “unsafe” company if I feel there will be a backlash. I also work in another industry and realize that being a known sex worker could compromise the work I get.

  6. 27 Nov 2008 at 9:10 am Amber

    SerpentLibertine,
    That’s a great question and one I have wondered about too. I suppose some people have valid reasons. Also, when I think of “outing” I think more of either a) workers who don’t have pictures of their faces all over the internet; or b) workers getting their full legal name exposed.


  7. [...] Amber Rhea, Sex workers self-identifying РZenobia’s comment bothered me because of all the assumptions wrapped up in it. Why does she [...]

  8. 11 Dec 2008 at 10:20 pm Aspasia

    I always snark that people like Zenobia expect sex workers to be wearing buttons that say, “I’m a sex worker! Ask me how!” Also, it’s a very subtle judgment that sex workers (and by extension everyday non-sw sluts) are such ALIEN women that they’ll be easy to spot. Well, I got my horns shaved down years ago. They were just in the way.

  9. 11 Dec 2008 at 10:25 pm Amber

    Well, I got my horns shaved down years ago. They were just in the way.

    Ha!!! :D

    Okay, you win for that comment.

  10. 10 Feb 2009 at 8:28 pm Unnaturalfem

    Hi All,
    I just happened upon this site when I was researching some info on “outing as a sex worker”. As much as I totally agree with the truth that many sex workers are also hard core politically active feminists, there is something to be said for the arguement that loudest voices in the historical discourse on sex work haven’t been those of the sex workers themselves…THANK THE GODDESS FOR THE SEX WORKERS WHO REFUSE TO BE SILENCED!!! I personally understand how exhausting it is to constantly be outing yourself as a sex worker…It’s one, and only one, part of the many facets of who I am in the world!