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.
I’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.)
When 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.
On 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.