The purpose of this post is to begin to articulate the conceptual and material differences between a stereotype and a stigma, as each relates to sex work. My hope is that it will be useful to students in the “Sex Work and Sex Workers” class that I TA (which is why it reads as a primer on these concepts—because it is), as well as to sex work activists who are looking for rhetorical and theoretical tools to better explain how social beliefs and attitudes about sex work affect their lives. Continue reading
Before I finished my BA, I encountered a social worker who was working on her MA. Her politics were generally pro-decriminalization, but she also liked to trade in horror stories about women whose vaginas fell out from having so much sex. She had secured the cooperation of a rescue organization that collaborated with police to be allowed to study their Very Marginalized Whores. She wanted my help nailing down her research question.
“Don’t do this study,” I said. “Find something else to research.”
“OMG why are you so mean?” was more or less her answer.
I’m finishing one MA and starting another right now. In my first MA, I have studied sex work for a few years. In my second MA, I will not study sex work. I am going to explain why, and I hope others in the same position will also choose not to study sex work. Continue reading
So I did not get a job teaching a sex work class — there is a guy with more seniority who usually teaches it, and happens to be qualified for it, who was maybe gonna leave, but then he didn’t. I get to work as his TA, though, and the course he designed, while very different from what I would do (and therefore ALL WRONG), looks like it’ll be pretty cool.
What struck me about it is that, despite having more or less the same analysis of sex work as work and work as a site of class struggle, and despite even using one of the same books, we produced very different courses. This is a product of our different disciplinary backgrounds. Dan Crow, the author of the syllabus pasted below, comes from a political science background, and my background is in literary and cultural studies. So my course design looks a lot more like a cultural studies course. With Dan’s permission, I’ve posted his syllabus here as demonstration of what a difference discipline makes — it’s not just a matter of who studies sex work or how they do it, but the different kinds of training we’ve had on what constitutes knowledge and how people go about “knowing” makes a big difference in what and how we want to teach about sex work and sex workers.
Another thing Dan’s class shows is an unexpected silence in two otherwise fantastic books on sex work, specifically around pornography and queerness. He’s used readings from other sources to make sure these topics are included in the course, but I was surprised to see that this was the only place he really had to go outside the chapters in the books. Is pornography less interesting to sex work scholars because we still look at it more in terms of the representation issues brought up by the sex wars? Why aren’t we talking more about the successes and failures of feminist and queer porn, as they attempt to address power relations in the workplace?
Listening to Sex Workers
Dan’s course, like mine, includes a requirement for students to use sex workers’ writings in their essay assignments. This is something we concocted with another instructor last year, and Dan has been trying out with his classes. It addresses two problems: first, that students are getting the wrong idea about who the “experts” on sex work are by just reading books by academics about them. It’s a lot harder to ignore everything sex workers’ have to say about their lives that doesn’t fit your preconceived ideas about what should be done about sex work when you have to actually critically integrate their ideas into your arguments.
Second, it addresses the problem of students taking up sex workers’ time with their essay assignments. Requests for personalized sources for research are something most sex worker organizations and advocates deal with regularly. And while it’s great that students are thinking about how to learn from sex workers, their essays don’t go anywhere that serves sex working communities and they often don’t have the skills (and sometimes the desire) to do their research ethically. As noted in both of the links directly above, what sex workers want from researchers are (1) research that is useful to them, (2) a say in the design of studies and reports and (3) critical reflection on the researcher’s relationship to the sex industry. Most undergraduates aren’t at a place where they can offer that. Sending them to talk to sex workers about their essays puts them in a position that is not give-and-take, but all take. Continue reading
Note: This class does not actually exist. I made the syllabus as a sample for a job application (for a job I am not at all qualified for and am unlikely to actually get), and now I’m just showing it off, in “here’s what I would teach” fashion. I cut the boring stuff about assignments and class policies and why you can’t hand your essays in late, so it’s mostly just a reading list. The imaginary class is a third year university labour studies class.
Where the readings are available for free online, I’ve posted links to them. A great many of them are available online, for folks who like to read. I have now found and linked either the original or a very similar replacement for every reading except “The Lone Streetwalker” by Shawna Ferris, which stinks because that’s actually one of my favourite things I’ve read about sex work ever, and “Is Sex Work Queer?” by Corinna McKay. I’ve briefly summarized those two articles.
Of course I am quite open to hearing from other sex workers on what I’ve decided should go into a class like this. One thing I regret — and which I want to think more about how to include — is that there is nothing really practical for sex workers in here. E.g., nothing on how people get into the sex industry, operate various sex businesses, or move on to other jobs.
The textbook for the imaginary class, in which about half of the readings can be found, is Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy and Research on Sex Work in Canada. Continue reading
I mentioned to a couple of folks that I had used their blogs or posts for a paper, and I promised to post a bibliography when I had one ready. For those who are curious, here it is. It’s far from every blog ever written, but if you want to sift through it, you will find the foundations of a very solid critique of sex-positivity and authenticity in political advocacy, from a pro-decriminalization standpoint. I also read and cited the comments on most of these posts, but cut them from the bibliography for brevity, and I read dozens of other online writings that I just ran out of space to write about — so there is a lot of knowledge that gets produced by the fact of having a community, but it’s not readily documented within the conventions of academic citation.
Here’s the short version, in other people’s words, of the argument in my paper about sex workers’ unhappy stories:
I feel like our culture, as a movement, has come to revolve around either the memoir or the closet, after work in the sex trades. — Sabrina Morgan
From early on, speaking for myself meant straining to somehow fit my experiences and my opinions of my own experience—at times, it felt, of my very self—into one of two dichotomous positions: for or against. — Melissa Petro
I remember when I first got involved in sex worker rights and was a naively impressionable young woman.… I mentioned that I didn’t like sex work myself I was chastised by fellow activists. — Wendy Babcock
And there are a lot of us, more than most folks realize. We frequently stay closeted … partly because we may lack the physical energy or emotional stamina to brazenly insert ourselves into the activist communities that dislike us. — Lori Adorable
It is no longer acceptable to maintain a barrier between conversations about the positive potential of the choice to do transactional sex and the injustices many people face when they do sex work because of circumstance or coercion. To do so is to maintain a class divide that is wide and deep. — Audacia Ray
The truth doesn’t have a sound bite. It’s complex. — Hadil Habiba
In a comment on my last post, I made an analogy to abortion advocacy, based on a paper I read about an activist’s decision to talk about all the “things we cannot say.” Here is that paper, authored by Jeannie Ludlow. It’s a bit thick over the first few pages, but the analysis is worth it, in my opinion. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
The lie that postmodernism believes it has uncovered is that there was never anything to lose in the first place. (Armstrong 31)
I’ve been meaning to write about DH Lawrence’s “Snake” for awhile because I really liked the poem. But I didn’t think I had much to say about it because I mostly just like it because the snake sounds like a good, handsome snake, who if I met him I would say something silly like “Hello snake! What a good snake you are! Yes, you are a handsome snake!” I just like animals, and I like stories that recognize their dignity. But Lawrence’s narrator doesn’t quite get along with the snake, so, while liking the poem, I found the narrator’s revulsion and anger about the snake’s retreat into the hole upsetting and kind of frightening to a degree that I can’t really make sense of or explain.
But it strikes me that there is something very odd in the commentary accompanying the poem in Representative Poetry Online. At the end of an interesting commentary expanding on Lawrence’s poetic allusions, the editor adds:
No doubt this poem can also be read erotically, as Lawrence’s vision of a phallic serpent, the demonic seducer of Eve in the garden of Eden, hanging out of and re-entering the body of a firy procreative Earth. Given Lawrence’s extraordinary visions of sex and death, such a reading can no doubt be sustained, although children of all ages, in and out of school, might be forgiven for missing the point, believing that he really did meet a snake one day at the water-trough and wrote about it in the same wide-eyed spirit as he did other living things in his Birds, Beasts and Flowers: Poems (1923).
Erm, why are we talking about children?
Of course I would expect children to fuck up most, if not all, literary readings. If practical criticism, the establishment of English as an academic discipline and criticism as a profession, was intended to produce “mature” readings, then children, by definition, can be forgiven for missing the point. And since children are traditionally barred knowledge of the erotic and the sexual, then naturally they would miss the poem’s erotic potential—at least consciously. I could argue that children still have sexualities and still would be affected on the level of sexuality.
But what’s this “children of all ages, in and out of school” business? Are there non-child-aged children who, reading for innocent pleasure instead of dirty, dirty study, should also be forgiven for ignorance of this huge piece of human experience? What’s so much more innocent about aggressively constructed and imposed ignorance of sexuality, than a simple erotic response? Not to mention: DH Lawrence was a giant kinky perverted violent queer, who struggled continuously with his homosexual desires and often gloried in his misogyny and penis-worship. “Extraordinary visions of sex and death” weren’t just an idle passtime, they were expressions of a lifelong struggle with identity and sexual and romantic practice. So that’s an odd turn in the criticism.
Jolene Armstrong writes about the poem in the course guide (this was my favourite chapter in the course guide, btw, because I felt like it made a lot of my own responses to modern and postmodern literature and criticism a lot clearer). She identifies the moments I found so upsetting as the moment of the narrator’s crisis of faith in the institutions of masculinity and Enlightenment education. Postmodernism, she says, is that jerk standing at the sidelines heckling: What? Don’t tell me you believed that? Loser. Which is still kind of the problem I have with postmodernism. It’s not that I disagree, it’s just that these crises, and the reactions of ‘believers’ to crisis, are really fucking things up. Like Lawrence’s narrator, for example, a lot of men have reacted violently to their crises of masculinity. So it seems like the myth of an ideal, better world, even when I know it’s a myth, could be a really useful thing.
Cited, but not linked
Armstrong, Jolene. “Modernism/Postmodernism: The Dialogues of the Modern Age.” LTST605 Study GuideAthabasca U, 2010. 26-32
This is a reproduction of a post from September 9th 2012 on my blog at https://landing.athabascau.ca/profile/sarahma108