in defense of sex workers

(apologizing in advance for the rambly nature of this post. it’s taken me weeks to finish it.)

i am privileged. i come from a middle class background, both my parents are college educated, i went to prep school, and i attended a liberal arts college. i am privileged. i grew up with access to healthcare, to many resources in my neighborhood and in my city at large, and access to the information that can be used to improve just about any situation i’ve entered. the golden standard of my life has been one influenced by steady employment, education (self or institutional), and class-based values.  i have never taken a pay cut or been in a situation where i had no choice but to claw my way to the top. i’ve always been “employable” in situations that would improve my financial standing.  and, within my privileged status i have had the opportunity to do something that folks a the bottom of the capitalist ladder do not do: i have chosen to reject many facets of (if not all of) this privilege in the name of satisfying myself first.

my privilege, my access, my black bourgeois status means i have not yet in my life faced a situation where i had no choice but to work illegally to take care of myself.  i have never been a dope girl in that conventional sense; my existence has never hinged on the distribution of any package.  i have never robbed folks, participated in identity theft or other fraud, and i have not ever become a sex worker to support myself.  this is because often, choice is directly linked to access. it’s linked to privilege.

within my very strong interest in human sexuality, i have always considered sex workers in my conversations and thoughts.  sex workers are prostitutes, sex workers are porn stars, sex workers are phone sex operators and everyone in between. many (if not most) sex workers live lives devoid of fortune, fame, and glamour. instead, this is about the commodity of their bodies’ abilities to perform — not unlike those of us who work in settings viewed as “legitimate” by the larger society — and the profitability of their skill sets as well as the rate at which they produce.  this is about making money.  do not get it confused.

and though there’s a prevalent notion that anyone who does sex work is contributing to the decline of society as a whole (and that their morals are non-existent or “wrong”), i think it’s safe to say that a lot of folks know sex workers personally.  in my personal experience, stripping was a rite of passage for some friends. it was what you did to hustle up some money when there wasn’t any available.  lots of shake dancers are single moms; lots of women who turn tricks have mouths to feed. it’s a simple fact. and if nobody wants to hire you because you have kids (let’s face it, emergencies at school turn into hours lost at the plantation), or if you’re competing with dozens (even hundreds) of people with identical or better qualifications for the same job, your chances for hire are simply not that good.  everyone’s taking applications & resumes, but ain’t nobody hirin’. we all know that.  the present economic climate is beyond volatile; brown folks and women are feeling the pinch most of all.

i said all that to say that most ppl who know the life do not actually aspire to the life.  it is dangerous.  it is a source of shame. but it’s money. fast, usually, getting paid the same day you work (perfect for those emergencies, like food!), and almost a guarantee that you will spend less money on child care because the hours are shorter than day jobs or retail gigs.  it makes sense if you have an immediate need, it makes sense if you’re trying to stack a lot of money in a short period of time, & it makes sense to be a sex worker (namely a stripper or prostitute) when you cannot find a “legit” job that will pay you what you need. 

i have quite a few girlfriends who’re trade school grads, high school grads with some college under their belts,  and  college grads who’ve been sex workers. we live in a world where money is what you need, almost always, to get what you want/ need.  anyone who says they’d clean toilets for a living before being a sex worker probably doesn’t know that cleaning toilets for a living tends to have a 30 day (or more) turnaround period from inquiry to hire.  again: immediate needs tend to trump the “legitimacy” of a job.  this, to me, means that most of the folks talking shit about what’s wrong about sex work in regard to morality have no idea what it is to be that close to nothing.  this is beyond hand to mouth, beyond two checks away from poverty; this is poverty.  stepping away from privilege creates a whole other consciousness around what poor is, what poverty is, and what might be required of a parent (or of a family) to even begin to make ends meet.  i daresay that when some poor folks indict the character of sex workers it’s the result of internalized classism combined with the comfort of being able to point a disapproving finger at someone.  

the choices we make about the jobs we accept are framed by privilege, including the kind of work we do. my forays into sex work have been limited to working as a pro domme & subject of foot worship. i am not a prostitute.  i am not a shake dancer. i am not an escort. i am a pro domme.  i had the opportunity to research this type of sex work before deciding to participate. i have access to resources that have enabled me to decide the kinds of domme work i’m going to do, to advertise myself in arenas that maintain my anonymity & privacy, to do all of these things that give me a certain level of protection not afforded to women or men who walk the street or dance.  i am able to shut my business down or take it to another level whenever i’d like. i have more control over the whole situation because i’m informed enough and can create safety measures for myself. there’s time and space for me to create the situation i desire. though my privilege does not guarantee my safety i know that i at least have a buffer between myself and danger.  there’s something like a respectability factor that, if i got “busted” by someone’s wife, i could always throw prostitutes and strippers under the bus.  “at least i’m not fucking your husband, lady. i’m a domme, not a whore.” 

if i were selling my ass on the street, it’d likely be a different story. whether i had a pimp or not, i’d be in immediate danger of being subjected to attacks by citizens and police alike.  if i were dancing, i’d be subject to all manner of abuses both inside of the club and out.  as a matter of fact, as i type these last sentences there is very likely someone on the loose in philly poisioning girls who dance, either with drinks or drugs. (more on that later)

i could very easily, with a few changes to my life story, be one of these women.  the women we blame for being sex workers when they are assaulted or killed.  the women  whose lives we assess with two or three words because it’s convenient for us to do so (whore. dirty slut. home wrecker. trash. good-for-nothing).   with a few modifications to my background — or even my present situation — i could be the conspicuously invisible or missing family member who died mysteriously but has nobody to speak up for her.

& maybe that’s my whole point. there’s misrepresentation and misunderstanding around sex work.  regardless of whether you domme, you’re a porn star, you dance, or you escort, there’s an automatic marginalization.  the idea is that you are lesser than, you don’t deserve to walk with dignity or hold your head up high — especially if your station in life is not “honorable.”  but, in this structure, there is not built-in honor for all. there is no common knowledge that reminds folks of the idea that none of us deserves to be degraded or downtrodden by virtue of who we are. we do not earn or deserve suffering or mistreatment because of what we do to make money any more than by simply being who we are.

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mel
    May 28, 2009 @ 22:20:21

    what’s your take on the “high end” escorts like Ashley Dupre? that seems to be a world of privilege unto itself, not to mention the obscene amounts of money that get thrown at the women. there’s a level of glamour that is ascribed to that lifestyle, and yet basically it’s no different to the woman in the cheap motel who’s earning her $20. why is such a disparity made?


  2. sparkle
    May 29, 2009 @ 01:07:43

    mel, i think the packaging has a lot to do with it. you’re an ‘escort,’ not a prostitute. selling ass when you know the john is paying for a full-out experience versus paying for one act is a whole other situation, in my opinion. it’s like having chicken parm at your favorite local restaurant versus having it at dry-ass applebee’s. you know what you’re getting, and don’t usually mind paying more, or paying for parking at one location because it is so clearly not the other.

    also, the word escort implies a class status that the words prostitute, hooker, and whore do not. my best televised examples are cathouse (on hbo), which features mostly white women & hookers on the point, which almost exclusively features poor women of color. cathouse is a ‘bunny ranch’ in nevada, and there’s a lot of glitz and glamour. the working girls (not whores. not hookers) have tea parties once a week. each girl brings in thousands of dollars per week, if not per day. totally different with the women who work the point. their lives are threatened, it’s almost a given that these are the women whom you can kill and get away with it. when serial killers murder sex workers, they do not go into the shake clubs and start picking off dancers. they do not kill dommes (most dommes have entirely too much security involved for that to happen). they kill nameless, essentially faceless women who work streets. let’s face it: most poor women don’t matter to anyone who’s not directly impacted by the presence of those women. and that doesn’t mean the person whose house they clean, or the people whose lunch they pass out in a hospital cafeteria but their kids/ husbands/ wives/ mothers. it’s very sad, but very true. i feel like the work that escorts do often implies (if not outright guarantees) that sex is not necessary. it’s a girlfriend experience, it’s a date. it’s selling the dream to someone who dare not show up to something alone.
    that julia roberts pretty woman shit is a joke. it’s a bold-faced lie.
    cuz nobody brings the hooker home.


  3. Trackback: in defense of sex workers « Raven’s Eye
  4. phillygrrl
    Jun 03, 2009 @ 00:06:40

    Such a fan of your writing. I keep reading this post over and over again.


  5. nosnowhere
    Jun 11, 2009 @ 15:45:12

    i like this post a lot.


  6. sparkle
    Jun 11, 2009 @ 17:56:40

    thank you, nadia!!! :)

    and thank you, phillygrrl!


  7. pietrobruno
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 10:33:47

    Movies often portray sex-workers, but their customers remain well hidden – faceless and nameless. I’ve recently made a feature called Girlfriend Experience that shifts the cinematic gaze onto the john. Check it out. It’s on DVD under this title – GFE: GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE.
    Also, you might find the director (Pietrobruno) interview in Toro Magazine interesting.


  8. stan
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 03:01:12

    That was an excellent read!

    I found your blog from jumping around on Twitter, I think it was Thembie’s stream.

    The sex industry is full of hypocrisy because we men tend to bash the very women we scramble to meet at the strip club. In Philly we have a new gentlemans’ club called Onyx and Pinky & Cherokee were there last week. There’s not a man who wouldn’t hit (whether they admit it or not) but those very same dudes would also downplay it or turn on the very girls they’ve lusted after. “Man fuck them hos!”

    The more you talk to dancers and see inside of some of their lives you hear exactly what you are talking about. Fast money, fast times, too much drinking-drugs, not enough planning and education + the trap.

    Sorry, too much typing this late .keep up the good work.

    Ps- a woman with your intelligence (plus freaky side) might like this porn message board where the subjects vary from just sex.

    check it out


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