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.