Unhappy Hooking, or Why I’m Giving Up On Being Positive

Sex positivity isn’t cutting it

Sure, I see myself reflected in feminist writing about sex work. I come right after “although” and right before a list of stereotype-busting truths about those other sex workers, the ones who like their jobs. As in:

Although some sex workers come from backgrounds of poverty, mental illness or drug use, many sex workers come from the middle class, have post-secondary degrees and choose their work because it offers flexible hours and a high rate of pay, a chance to explore their sexual curiosities, and a challenge to mainstream sexual norms.

That’s not any one person’s writing, of course. It’s more of a patchwork, pulled together from the zillions of sex positive writings on the topic that I’ve read in the course of my sex work activism and degree work.

Late last fall, Audacia Ray published a talk she had given as a blog post, challenging sex positive feminism to develop beyond repeating this statement that sex work can be fun:

During the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the sex wars of the 1980s and 1990s, the struggle to define sex positivity with respect to sex work served a purpose. To say that not all people have a horrendous experience of the sex industry, and that many sex workers value sexuality and see themselves as complex sexual beings as well as sex educators was an important statement to make, and one that had not been spoken before. However, it is essential to put this statement in historical context. To continue making the statement that many sex workers have a good experience of the sex industry without also including those whose experiences are negative and making space for them to speak up reveals a deep doubt about the validity of the sex positive argument. If we believe in the positive power of sexuality, we must also examine what happens when people’s lives are infused with sex negativity, and we must listen and support people with this experience in sharing their personal truths.

pull-7I’ve been working lately on a conference paper that considers my story about doing sex work alongside those of other not-so-happy hookers, using blog posts from Audacia Ray, Lori Adorable, Melissa Petro, Olive Seraphim, Wendy Babcock, Hadil Habiba and others. It’s been harder than I expected to write—in part because there is so much excellent material in these posts that I want to do justice to, and in part because, even with so many brave and groundbreaking writings to pave the way, I feel afraid to write.

What I found was that I didn’t want to write “my story” into a paper and share it with a bunch of feminist academics. That’s actually a really scary idea, and I can’t imagine why I thought it was a good one. Between my fear of appropriation by abolitionists and my fear of rejection and ridicule by sex positive feminists, I’m paralyzed every time I try to write. I thought I might like it better here, shared with other sex worker bloggers.

Maybe if I just cut my tongue out…

Telling a story about sex work, for me, means negotiating with all the other times I’ve been asked – or forced – to provide an autobiography.

There was an award at my school for overcoming hardship that required me to lay out the details of my life to my supervisor, who wrote the nomination letter. I am grateful for the award, and to the workers in the union who fund it (not to mention providing my education), and of course to my supervisor for being an all-around lovely human being. A part of why I’ve been afraid to write about these experiences is that there are very few people, from the genuinely happy whores to the institutions I engage with to the sex positive feminists I don’t believe are listening to me, that I want to condemn. But the fact remains that when my supervisor asked me to read his nomination letter, to see if it raised any red flags, the best I could answer through my gut-churning panic was that the whole process had been a red flag. Gratitude aside, I felt violated and exposed, and absolutely terrified that I had become a victim in his mind and that he would never see me as a real human again. (That didn’t come to pass, so all’s well that ends well.)

pull-5When I received another request from the school to tell my story for their marketing newsletter, I declined. More threatening than the possibility of becoming an inhuman victim was the likelihood that as a marketing tool I’d be sanitized, scrubbed clean: “Former prostitute saved by education!”

One more story about telling stories: the time I was applying for welfare. They won’t give you welfare if you’re a student, and they won’t give you welfare if you have an undeclared cash income. But I had been raped by a client just a couple of months earlier, and I needed money to live. I was too afraid of being forced out of school – or worse, being arrested – to tell the social worker the story she needed to hear. So I was inarticulate, sullen, uncooperative and finally just silent as my mind raced through my options, to the conclusion that sex work was the only one. And then I started to cry, and didn’t stop.

Every time I’ve had to return to sex work after trying to stop, it’s been a bit different. Sometimes I’ve felt angry or sad. That time, it was just painful desperation. So I didn’t stop crying. I still couldn’t tell the social worker what was wrong, so after half an hour or so, she bundled me up in a cab and sent me to the Regional mental health authority, where they put me on suicide watch for the night.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking I had gone nuts in that situation, but it still seems like a point worth noting. The state demanded an acceptable life story from me, if I wanted their help surviving economically. And when I couldn’t deliver – when I couldn’t provide the autobiography they asked for – they sent me to the loony bin. This is a part of the history of autobiography as a genre; poor people end up telling their stories in response to powerful pressure, not their innate urges to reveal themselves. I think it’s a part of sex workers’ history, too, especially in the last thirty years.

“Aim for a more complicated truth”

All of that said, I still never stop wanting to tell these stories, either (or to read other sex workers’ stories). I feel like what I get out of them is the beginning of a more complicated understanding of sex work – of what my life is, and will continue to be – than is available to me in the abolitionist or sex positive stories. Melissa Petro, whose personal stories document, across a range of mainstream blogs, her own ambivalence about sex work, storytelling and sex positivity, pushes for more of this kind of writing:

If I could offer my sisters one word of advice, I’d say: be real. Be as real as you can be. Tell your truth as honestly and as often as you can tell it. Listen to other people, particularly when you disagree. Listen to yourself when you’re telling your truth. Root out your own inaccuracies. Aim for a harder, more complicated truth.

For the sake of writing a blog post, and not a book, I’ll just take on one of my own inaccuracies right now. Above, I said I’ve felt different every time I’ve had to return to sex work. My political conclusions about it don’t change; I still think decriminalization is the best thing for us. But my feelings do.

The first couple of times I quit, only to find myself rewriting my website, taking new pictures and putting my ads back up within months, it started to dawn on me that just changing jobs was harder than I realized. There were a couple of times that I blamed myself, some that I felt angry at my ex for not taking more responsibility to support us, some that I felt angry at the world because I was born poor in it.

And for a lot of that time, I kept repeating this idea that I don’t want public policy to be based on anyone’s feelings. Feelings about sex work don’t matter—facts do. (And the facts say we should be decriminalized.) But my feelings play a big role in how I experience sex work and how I understand the structural inequalities surrounding it.

A lot of the time, what has driven me back to sex work has been housing insecurity. I can put up with all kinds of poor, but I need a place to live. Eviction notices strike terror in my heart the way no client ever could.

On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense. When I was growing up, especially after Ontario changed to a workfare scheme that cut welfare benefits for many families like mine, my family was frequently homeless. We lived in half-finished apartments that my dad made deals in bars to get us into, in campgrounds a few times, on my aunt’s living room floor, and once, when it got too cold to camp, on the floor of a house we had recently been evicted from.

pull-6On the other hand, before anyone hauls out that tired “damaged goods” thesis, things aren’t always that simple. These periods of homelessness also marked periods of relative peacefulness for me. It’s a lot harder to beat the crap out of your kids when you live in a tent, surrounded by other families, than when you have the privacy of a real home. I still love going camping.

That’s what my story looks like when I tell it to myself. Memories that the standard sex positive telling says have nothing to do with sex work (and that the other side, naturally, says have everything to do with it) intrude on the narrative, but never quite explain it. It’s just all there, all at once.

My most recent decision to return to sex work has been the hardest. I just don’t want to do it, and I don’t see any way out of it. For the most part, I wake up, and it takes me a second to remember what’s going on. I feel that nauseating, desperate disbelief  that knocked my senses out of me in the welfare office a couple years ago, and then… nothing. I get up, I do my regular job, wait for clients to call, read academic papers, fake my way through whatever occasions force me to leave my house and be around people, put off writing, and sleep. Repeat.

I called my friend Amy and told her I feel trapped, and that I don’t think I can live my life if it’s just going to keep cycling back to having no options. And she was kind enough not to tell me why sex work is awesome, or to question my commitment to the movement, or to question whether I could really feel this bad about it. There is something really crazy-making about trying to pretend my feelings about sex work don’t matter, about continually tying the right of decriminalization to the obligation to be happy, when doing sex work makes me desperately unhappy.

Who wants to be happy anyway?

In The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed traces the rise of happiness as a personal and cultural obligation. Happiness is “the good life,” and good people are the ones that make themselves and others happy.  But we live in a world in which some people’s “good life” is necessarily dependent on others’ exploitation. The obligation to be happy, for Ahmed, is the obligation to let that continue. The history of unhappiness  in the 20th century – as it has been told and recorded, in literature, memoirs and other archives – has been the history of resistance.

I’m not sure precisely what a sex positive feminist theory of prostitution that embraces unhappiness looks like, or could look like. But I’m tired of only ever seeing my feelings about sex work represented in abolitionist writing that doesn’t reflect my politics (or my basic need for survival, thanks bitches).  And, like Olive Seraphim, I’m bored of the feminist research I’ve been reading.

30 comments

  1. Amy

    I have always found the happy hooker label to be troubling for a multitude of reasons. I see it being used by the prohibitionist to silence those who support the removal of bad laws for example – to frame it so that they can say we only support decrim because we just fucking love our jobs 24-7. The reality is much more fluid and deeper. Then we have those who I think often try to counter that – & by doing so make it so many cannot speak fully about experiences & feelings of their work in sex work, without appearing somehow to harm the sex worker rights movement in some way.

    I have personally never felt connected at all to sex positivity, in fact to feminism in general, again for so many reasons.
    Sex workers need to be able to express the full spectrum of our experiences without needing to fit into a set box to appease an ideology. This needs major work.

    Thank you for your writing Sarah.

    • rahbth

      You bring up an important point, Amy. Reading other sex workers’ blogs, and reflecting on my own experiences, I see over and over again that a part of why we feel pressured to tell “happy hooker” stories is that they are a defense against prohibitionist and criminalizing accusations that all sex workers are victims, damaged goods, acting without any thought or choice for the sake of survival. I think you are right that we are often speaking to ideology, not developing theory based on our complex experiences.

      One of the things that helped me get over the fear of appropriation was an article I read by an abortion provider, who chose to speak out about the “mundane” abortion stories she sees most often: women who haven’t been raped, and whose fetuses are not ill, who just want to terminate their pregnancies. She put forward the idea that “acceptable” narratives are created based on their political convenience, and often in response to a stronger lobby group that is promoting the “opposite” narrative (in this case, abortion as birth control, abortion on demand).

      She justified telling these politically inconvenient, “unacceptable” stories on the basis that they were already out there. The other side was telling them, and was using women’s every day experiences to advocate against their rights. I think the same thing happens when we let abolitionists and prohibitionists be the only people telling stories about unhappy sex workers.

      • Lori Adorable

        Thank you for writing this. You articulated perfectly all of the thoughts that have been floating around in my head for a while now, and I’m glad that my piece was useful for you as well. I think you touch on a great analogue with abortion. Feminists fight for access to abortion for everyone, regardless of why they need it or how they feel about it. The goal is safety and destigmatization, as it should be for sex work. Of course, the more mainstream the feminism, the more likely they are to focus only on the ‘acceptable’ narratives of abortion, and the same is true when the topic is sex work. I think it would be possible, though, to work on moving the more radical, grassroots, intersectional and so-called ‘sex-positive’ feminisms away from notions of acceptability in sex worker rights advocacy, partly by comparing it to abortion, and partly by focusing on the workers’ rights aspect.

      • rahbth

        I’ve actually found quite a lot of your writing useful, Lori, and also just generally a breath of fresh air — I’m glad you’re taking the time to produce it.

        I think the movement can get away from “acceptable” narratives, too. And I think a part of what I’m finding with this project is that that’s starting to happen. Just in terms of the dates on the blog posts I referenced, there were far more written in 2012 than in, say, 2010, when “great job, lots of money, flexible hours, never abused as a child or as an adult” formed the bulk of the pro-decriminalization narratives that were disseminated as sex workers’ rights advocacy.

        I’m also really loving the emphasis in your work and in others’ writings on seeing something useful come out of “abolition,” if they want to keep dealing in unhappy tales. My feelings, my experience, even if it’s “negative,” is simply not ground I’m willing to cede to abolitionists without a fight, and the great big hole in that ideology is that they have nothing of immediate material value to offer.

    • glitterandgirlpower

      This is an extremely interesting post. You brought to my attention the fact that the two polarised camps tend to have fairly one sided views that leave little room for middle ground. I think there is an issue with the fact that certain people in each camp don’t want to listen to sex workers whose opinions don’t fit their narrative. This leads to theories that are not as nuanced as they should be and which often reinforce one stereotype or the other without giving a complete picture. Also, the happy hooker label is damaging in that it is simplistic and in many ways, superficial. It doesn’t allow for the complexities of the experience of sex workers. Thank you for this post, it was very thought provoking.

  2. rahbth

    Housekeeping note:

    I’ve received a number of comments aimed at making me feel better. I want to express my warm appreciation for the sentiment behind them, while explaining my decision not to approve them at this time.

    Even when I choose to write about difficult topics, I don’t write for personal therapy. Frustrated as I may be with some facets of academic feminism, I am a feminist academic. I write to develop theory, to produce knowledge and for my own learning. I also do not see my feelings as an individual problem that needs to be fixed or changed — rather, I see them as a response to structural problems, in dominant class relations, in the sex industry and in feminism.

    I worry that by approving comments aimed at fixing my feelings, I foreclose on the possibility of having conversations with sex workers and feminists about developing our ideas as activists and theorists.

  3. jemima101

    See I am a happy hooker, and I find this whole new I do it but I hate it idea troubling. Mainly because I think anyone doing a job they hate troubling. Seriously if you hate the job this much, why the hell are you doing it? This is what gives those opposed to sex work their ammunition. Yes, you can earn money, I could pimp my kids out and sell my blood, the I do sex work but I hate it seems to be turning into the very i do not have agency and autonomy bullshit that the antis push

    You dont like whoring, find another job!

    • vita

      This is exactly what I was trying to comment on . Human rights and human feelings can be a case for anyone. Personal issues though are maybe related to your job but shouldn’t be confused with it. It’s not different to fight as your right as an unhappy coalminer or do we always think that a person in the sex business as a right is always miserable.

    • Caty Simon

      Jemima, the sex industry, like any labor force, has plenty of people that are unhappy within it, which isn’t really relevant when it comes to the question of whether we should have labor rights. The capitalist ideal of absolute choice doesn’t really work well here—obviously we are self-determining agents, but to say there’s a continuum of choices and they’re limited by economic factors as well as racism, transphobia, and etc is not to fuel the abolitionist fire. It’s simply an acknowledgement of reality. These people are all for decrim–to not allow any complexity or nuance when we talk about our relationship to our work, to say we all have to be absolutely blissful in it, is to allow the antis to win in a sense.

      • vita

        I had ages to view or think about this article and the one thing that has changed for me is this: it has come to my attention that there are many people trying to manipulate the discussions and the real work some activists are doing , to suit their own political or what- agenda. So because of all of this and because I’m not familiar about your, or others peoples’ work, I would say that I have no right to participate, in such a debate. I also think that Sex workers rights should be first of all regulated by and for sex workers, their safety and health. And I don’t want to dismiss what you’re saying about your activism. I’m just saying that in capitalist societies the matter of poverty is so wide spread that is of course affecting sex workers too. You can see very interesting documentaries on the why poverty channel on youtube like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ON_NQ1HnRYs#t=3. So I’ll leave it at this and I hope you have a productive and happy new year! Be well!

      • sarah m

        Vita, it is not appropriate to accuse sex workers fighting for decriminalization and harm reduction of manipulation, just because you don’t like to hear about the realities they live with. Yes, poverty is wide spread. And it has a lot to do with why people get into sex work and why they feel like they can’t get out, especially in countries like Robin’s and mine, where social safety nets have been completely gutted. We also live in places where HIV is being criminalized and mental health disabilities and drugs already are heavily criminalized. If you’re gonna pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you gotta have bootstraps to begin with. We don’t need a youtube video to explain to us what poverty is, how traumatic it is, or how it limits our options. Nor do we need to be told “shhh! That’s your personal issue, that has nothing to do with sex work!” It has everything to do with why we and thousands of other sex workers struggling to survive do sex work. In Canada, street-based and survival sex workers built and are the lifeblood of the movement. Decriminalization was won this December on the Supreme Court’s judgment that most sex workers’ choices to stay or go are very much constrained, and criminalizing and causing the rapes and murders of people with such constrained choices is a violation of our constitutional rights. So don’t tell us that unhappy hookers do nothing for the movement. Decriminalization is built on the labour and testimonies of whores who would rather not be whores.

        What I know about the sex industry is that no two people have exactly the same experience. Identity, personal history, regional attitudes, legal schemes, ambitions, sexual orientation, criminal history, health status, type of sex work, etc. all make a big difference in what happens to you in the industry. What I was saying with this post, and what Robin has been saying, is that the issues for people who *don’t* have it good in the sex industry are a part of our struggle for harm reduction and decriminalization. If we can’t talk about them because some other ho doesn’t want us to make her look bad, then we’re stuck either fighting in a movement that refuses to actually deal with our issues, or stuck with antis who acknowledge our experiences but oppose our rights. If you don’t like that we can come together and talk about how bad it feels to do sex work against our will because we live in poverty, well, too damn bad. This is our movement, and these discussions are a part of our political consciousness raising.

      • vita

        don’t twist my words. i said that MANY MANY people living in poverty do shitty jobs for even less pay than you AND hate it. ( and some don’t.) It’s not a sex worker- only situation.It’s a capitalist- life/ lifestyle problem that’s true for about 90% of the world. If you do not fight capitalist practices you will not have true freedom of choice in any work.And as I stated in my last comments I remove this from the sex worker rights field only because people manipulate all these situations to suit their own agenda -political, economical or what- which is still capitalist as shit. Do not patronize sex workers like that. It’s like “I make 800 $ A DAY AND I STILL CAN’T BUY LOUIS VUITTON”!? Don’t be part of the system if you want to be part of the solution.

      • sarah m

        Yeah, I don’t make $800/day. It’s rare that I’ve even made that in 2 weeks. You do realize when we say poverty, we mean actual poverty, right?

        You should check out some of my posts and articles about union activism, solidarty networks and anti-gentrification activism. I mean, telling hookers not to complain about getting raped on the job and having to choose between going back to it or losing housing is important revolutionary activism too, but I feel alright about my concrete participation in the class struggle even if my sex positive feminism isnt up to muster.

      • vita

        I actually had this long reply on your comment but I somehow deleted before posting, so second time round I’ll try keeping this short. You seem to mistake my comments as anti sex workers rights when I’m just trying to state that this is a broader problem with a different root aka capitalism. If you cant understand what I’m saying here there is not much point in debating about it.

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  5. thestoryofstory

    Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t let them choose the direction of the discourse. Stay calm.
    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/7.398926-Science-Proves-That-Trolls-Ruin-Everything
    Also, I loved this article and realize that I’ve definitely been part of pushing the Happy Hooker and using my narrative to silence others. What gives us the notion that we are living in such desperate scarcity there is only room for a certain type of story. Why is this an argument? There is an abundance of story-tellers, stories, and listeners and multiple perspectives can all be true.
    It seems to me the author should speak her truth to academic feminists and give it a good bulky disclaimer, much of what was included here. Not that you can succeed in demanding for certain lenses to be dropped but I think suggesting that multiple truths and experiences co-exist and that your story isn’t meant to be fodder for Politics A, B, or C is fair. It’s a vulnerable position, however, and it is fair to feel outraged and saddened again to be in that position.

    • sarah m

      You’re right about the trolls. I’d better cut off this buffet.

      It’s a really daunting prospect to include my own story in my research. There are a lot of people who will attack and shame and pathologize and individualize it, for one. And when you grow up poor you internalize a lot of shame about that too. Im also quite unsure about how to include it without writig over the voixes of other unhappy hookers–there is a lot of variation even in stories that are critical of the “positive” narrative. I have a chapter coming on “exiting,” which I’ll submit in non-academic language to tits and sass, so we can all see how it works out. I’m finding that the post-sex-work job hunt is where the happy/not-happy binary really dissolves for people.

  6. nadacat

    I’m a happy worker- however, it’s not at ALL unusual to hate your job. Any job ! I know people who are stuck in 9-5 that they HATE. At the very least, sex work will leave you with some time/money to live non-work life that you might like? I absolutely support ALL sex workers – no matter if they hate it , illegal, legal, drugs , mental health issues , educated , what ever – and I think there’s space for all here. Most of the workers I know that are fighting for decriminalization in peer based orgs that radical feminists accuse of being “sex positive industry supporters” are experiencing different difficult personal issues. It’s one industry that you CAN make money while dealing with difficulties in one’s life. We should fight for best working conditions and legal rights, less stigma – the more this happens, no matter how you feel about working, it will be just a little bit easier for all of us .

    • sarah m

      This and the comment below really get at what’s so great about sex work, even when doing it feels bad. It’s a way to survive. Survival sex working conditions are pretty brutal (even with the “right” to refuse clients, when you’re living payfuck to payfuck, you really can’t) and are made more so by criminalization. The Supreme Court of Canada decision was interesting in that it hinged on the rights and spectrum of agency of the most vulnerable sex workers, not on the rights of middle class sex workers, although the public is arguably more willing to acknowledge the rights and autonomy of the latter.

  7. margy

    Let me just state sex work is never easy money it is instant money that is what draws us back however our good intentions

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