E. Winter Tashlin

'Sex-Work' Deserves A Nuanced Discussion

Filed By E. Winter Tashlin | October 04, 2012 5:01 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, The Movement
Tags: BDSM, LGBT, porn, privilege, prostitution, Reddit, sex workers, sex-work


"Sex-worker" is arguably one of the most loaded terms in modern sexuality & gender discussion. It's a descriptor with wide-ranging connotations and assumptions, from the image of empowered women reclaiming sex as a central element of their personal power, to modern-day Fantines forced into a dangerous, degrading, and all too often fatal, last-resort method of survival.

Like so many other debates in our culture, issues around sex work are often difficult to discuss with nuance. People have a tendency to pick a side of the debate and hold fast to it.

I should point out here that while "sex-worker" isn't a word I typically use to describe myself, it is arguably an appropriate one. I'm a sexuality/BDSM educator and assistant producer for a BDSM event company, and my workshops on sex and BDSM frequently include live demonstrations.

I've appeared on film engaging in sexual contact (in an instructional context), and as a photographer I've done erotic and porn work for publication. These days I'm also working closely with a new indie queer & feminist porn company, both behind, and most likely in front of the camera.

Falling into this line of work has undeniably closed doors for me. For instance, unlike other Bilerico editors, it is highly unlikely I'll land a paying job in the LGBT movement when my tenure here is up. My partner and I have talked about wanting children someday, but my work isn't what foster care or adoption agencies want to see in one's background (not that a cis/trans* queer poly couple/family stood a great chance to begin with).

For a long time my mother felt she couldn't tell her friends what I was doing for a living, although as the economy worsened, she started taking pride in the fact I've got a job of any kind. When people ask, now she just says "Oh, Eric teaches people how to have kinky sex."

Of course, none of those things can measure up in any way to the horrific price that many of the most vulnerable people, particular trans* women and women of color who have resorted to sex-work to survive, face. And this is where the whole sex-work discussion tends to go off the rails.

I have friends and colleagues who make considerable money as escorts and pro-doms/pro-subs. They often have advanced degrees, and many of them live quite well. In many ways, their issues are grossly different than those of women forced to street-walk or take whomever and whatever comes their way. Lumping the two populations (and everything in between) together can be problematic. And yet, there are fundamental needs that they/we all share. Issues around legality and legal rights, healthcare, and how society views people whose trade is in sex, effect us all, albeit in different ways.

This topic has been on my mind today because of an interesting post I came across on Reddit. In response to a question of whether sex-work was inherently degrading, user Reddit user /u/littlemew said this:

Hi! I'm a sex worker. And I'm avoiding doing my homework so I'm going to go on a rant. I've done many different kinds of sex work. I've been a cam girl, a porn performer, a professional sub, and a performer at a peep show (similar to a stripper). I've also been working in retail and food service simultaneously.
I get so frustrated at how I'm treated at work. It really gets to me. I find myself involuntarily crying once I get into my car to drive home. I hate how dehumanizing it is. People don't acknowledge me as a person. They think I'm less than them because of my job. Maybe they don't actively think that, but that's how they treat me. Oh, by the way, I'm talking about the food service job.
When I'm doing sex work I can refuse a customer. I can be rude to them if they are being rude to me. I don't have to apologize for their mistakes. I don't have to be sweet when they are being inappropriate. I negotiate my limits, and I only do what I feel comfortable doing. They don't get to order off the menu, I'm not going to bend over backwards for them.
I find it oppressive to work for minimum wage. I find it oppressive to act like the customer is always right. I find it dehumanizing to apologize for things that aren't my fault, like how much something costs or if you order something wrong and you want it remade the correct way. I find it dehumanizing to say "Hi! How are you?" and in response get "Yeah I just need a blah blah blah" and then have a customer go back to their cell phone conversation. I hate being reduced to a cash register.

As far as I know, I don't know /u/littlemew in person, but what she has to say could have come from any number of my friends and colleagues. This is a legitimate experience of sex-work, and its importance shouldn't be discounted.

At the same time, to engage in gross generalization, I'm going to guess that /u/littlemew is white and cis, she identifies herself as female in the above quote. The fact that she's on Reddit implies that she has some level of affluence, at least enough to have regular access to a computer and the internet. This surely influences her experience of the sex-work industry.

To be clear, I'm not saying the people of color and trans* people can't have positive experiences of sex-work. They absolutely can, and there are good examples out there. I'm merely making the point that the privileges we carry can have an impact on our experience as sex-workers.

It's conversations around of the impact of privilege and power that need to be an active part of the sex-work conversation, and are more and more. Sex-work is a huge field, and one that's been with us throughout human history. We need to stop looking for one-size-fits-all solutions, and pat good/bad binary views on what role sex-work should be playing in society, because it isn't going away.

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