All Work Is Exploitation, Not Just Sex Work

I signed up for a workshop for sex worker activists tomorrow at HIPS presented with the Red Umbrella Project. It’s called “Personal Storytelling for Social Change” and encourages sex workers to tell our stories in the face of widespread ignorance about the realities of sex work. We are claiming space within a dialog that is overwhelmingly dominated by non-sex workers, especially white, middle class, cis christians and feminists.

So, I was thinking about what I would say about my experience in the industry. Then, my Facebook displayed an advertisement for an organization called “Porn Harms.” (Targeted advertising: fail! Usually I get ads for “socially-responsible” wedding rings and trans-male top surgery. At least those are trying to pay attention to my interests…)

It’s just another group dedicated to exposing the negative impact of porn on women (presumably by perpetuating sexist ideas) and men (presumably by degrading their morality/masculinity). The website is full of questionable research about how porn is addictive and obligatory appeals to how it “destroys families” and “corrupts children.”

Can porn perpetuate sexist/racist/cissexist/transphobic ideologies? Absolutely. Is most porn ethically bankrupt? Of course. Can it be fun and empowering? Sometimes.

Some sex-positive activists — particularly relatively better-off ones who do sex work purely by choice[*] — focus on this last one. They talk about how porn can be reclaimed, and even make anti-oppressive porn that is by and for female, queer, and trans people. I think it’s amazing that we have stuff like Doing it Ourselves: The Trans Women Porn Project working to portray trans women’s sexuality in a realistic way, and not based only on some cis guy’s fantasies.

But the reality is that a lot of mainstream porn is exploitative and degrading. A lot of people do it purely for money. If we only defend porn that is understood as “queer” or “empowering”, we still leave ourselves open to attack from the right and from anti-porn feminists. If pro-porn activists only focus on queer/liberating porn, the reactionary fundamentalist and feminist accusations about mainstream porn (and the people who work in it) will go unchallenged. If we don’t speak explicitly about mainstream porn (the oppressive, cis supremacist kind), they will keep dominating the discourse on this type of porn — and by extension, the people who depend on it for a livelihood. People who have worked in mainstream porn should be allowed to tell the story from our points of view.

So, yes, mainstream porn is exploitative and degrading. But it’s more complicated than that. The reality is, all of the shit I’ve done to survive under a capitalist economy is exploitative and degrading in some way or another.

In order of how long I lasted at each job (many of them I only did for a few days or weeks when I was homeless for spare cash), here are some of the things I’ve done to survive:

  • Selling blood/plasma
  • Scraping copper from abandoned buildings
  • Agricultural laborer in fruit fields
  • Political canvassing for shitty nonprofits
  • Door-to-door advertisement distribution
  • Childcare and house-cleaning
  • Submitting to medical/psychological studies at universities
  • Dog-walking/pet-sitting
  • Janitor/cleaner for an industrial bakery
  • Dishwasher
  • Telemarketing
  • Cafe barista
  • Selling pot and other drugs
  • Pan-handling, shoplifting, scamming, and bumming
  • Case manager for an abortion hotline

How is porn any more (or less) degrading than picking up dog shit, trying to sell car insurance over the phone, begging for money on the side of the highway, making lattes for douchebags, or trying to raise funds for nonprofits that will use the money to pay their own CEOs more than 10 times my salary?

Even case management, by far the most fulfilling, was degrading in its own way. Absorbing secondary trauma and being constantly triggered. Putting band-aids on as many people as I can, but never doing anything to stop more people from ending up in the same place left me so riddled with anxiety and panic attacks that I nearly died.

That job left me feeling broken and devalued (i.e.: degraded). I wouldn’t have been able to get out of this situation if I had not been able to rely on porn as a backup income. And now, hopefully it can supplement the minuscule amount I make serving coffee. (It pays less, but at least it’s easier to ask “Would you like nonfat or whole milk?” as opposed to, “Is this abortion the result of a fetal anomaly?” or “Can the man involved in your pregnancy help pay for this?”)

Maybe someday I will be able to do that type of work again, if I can even find a job at all. And then maybe I won’t have to do sex work anymore. Or, maybe I will still do it when I want to, and I’ll be able to be a bit more picky about what I do and who I work for. But until then, I can undoubtedly say that porn is helping me survive.

I once spent two days on my knees, in the dirt, picking strawberries for eight hours in the cold September haze just outside Montreal. I made well-under quebec’s minimum wage, and came home with bloody hands and severe back pain. The money barely paid my rent. I quit after 2 days, because I am a spoiled light-skinned girl that had never done that kind of manual labor. I was the only anglophone in the field, and one of the only people who wasn’t Guatemalan. All of us were undocumented immigrants.

Or, I spend a couple hours getting a makeover plus three hours getting off in a fancy hotel. I make enough money to pay my rent for two months. And when I turned tricks, I could make in one hour what I used to make in one week at the coffee shop doing grueling labor on my feet for six hours every day. If anything, the ability to do porn (and, to a lesser degree, to escort) is a privilege I did not earn, just because I conform to enough transphobic/sexist/racist beauty standards.

In the hotel lobby, with lots of makeup, before a shoot

I

I can spend all day critiquing porn, especially the mainstream “tranny porn” industry that I have worked in. They provide coercive incentives to do unhealthy things with our bodies. They pay us extra if we do things that we ordinarily would never agree to do. They encourage us to compete with each other. They often portray us as deceitful “fake women.” We let them call us words that we would otherwise slap someone for saying. They feed narcissism and make us self-conscious by constantly holding us up to inherently cissexist, trans-misogynistic ideas of beauty and hetereosexist concepts of sexuality.

But it pays. I have fun doing it. And I like most of the people I worked with. My photographer is also a trans lesbian, and explicitly got into the business because she was tired of seeing all her friends out on the stroll freezing their asses off all winter and she wanted to help them make money without going to the street. She’s friendly, professional and respectful of my body and identity. (And, to be honest, so were most of the clients I had while escorting, although I also experienced sexual assault from some of them.)

I’ve also talked to photographers and johns who were totally misogynistic jerks. But the point is: misogynistic people exist in all industries. The reality is, in porn and the specific kinds of sex work I have done (I’m relatively privileged), I actually have far more control than I had at other jobs. Unlike every other job I’ve ever had so far, I don’t have a boss, I set my own schedule, etc.

***

Under a capitalist economy, we’re all forced to sell our time somehow. (Another thing: Sex workers don’t “sell our bodies.” We sell our time, just like everyone else.) Judging or focusing on one group of marginalized and oppressed people (a) makes no sense and (b) perpetuates the harm done to them. The same moral condemnation used against porn and those of us who make it is directed at prostitution and other forms of sex workers, who often have it a lot harder than people like me who aren’t working dark alleys at night.

Porn performers have to deal with stigma and certain levels of fear, while street-involved sex workers face the brunt of physical violence. The contrast is no accident, by the way. Porn is legal and regulated. “Prostitution” is criminalized. Abusive photographers can be reported. Abusive pimps get away with it precisely because the cops are just as abusive. Escorts who don’t work the streets have it sort of in-between. We’re still criminalized and have to fear arrest and abusive johns, but we’re much less likely to face physical violence.

But it is the same whorephobia underlying both kinds of oppression. The prudish voices that condemn porn are usually the same voices (even the “feminist” ones) decrying the “moral depravity” of prostitution. And that’s the idea behind the criminalization of prostitution, policies that put more sex workers on the streets, behind bars, and in danger. Prohibition only makes life harder for people who are already screwed over.

We should be focused on dismantling a society that forces us to sell our time, not one particular industry within that society — especially an industry that is currently (for better or worse) the livelihood for some of the most vulnerable people in our culture. When you make sex work (including porn) harder without changing the fundamental relationships that define our society (capitalism, racism, transphobia), it would just mean lots of people who already can’t get jobs would have no options left, and would probably end up dead or in jail. This isn’t theoretical; this is happening every day. So we shouldn’t be trying to abolish or even restrain porn or sex work. We should be trying to build a world where, instead of working for the profit of others, we work for pleasure and for the benefit of ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

Focusing on porn/sex work, and ignoring the larger context of capitalism, only serves the interest of those in power and harms those with the least power. We need to destroy oppression in all spheres of life, including the sexist, transphobic, etc oppressions that are rampant in the porn industry. So why single porn out, when those oppressions are pervasive?

***

One final thought: Growing up in an overwhelmingly conservative household and a (relatively) rural part of the country where I had no access to queer communities or information on trans people, seeing trans women in porn was probably the first time I ever realized that it was possible to be trans. So, no matter how much I hate it sometimes, I owe “shemale” porn for that much at least. It exposed me to radical new possibilities, long before queer theory or trans activism did.

Yes, this type of porn contains poisonous themes of disgusting (trans)misogyny that pour fear, self-hatred, and domination into the minds of millions of people. But it’s more complicated. People who work in porn, and people who look at porn, have agency too. Some of us can even take the ideas that porn exposes us to, often as young and lonely teenagers, and rework it for our own purposes. We can take apart the imagery and rearrange it into something that gives us hope for the future.

For many trans girls (including me, to a degree), sex work is the first environment where they are treated with respect, viewed as beautiful and worthwhile, and even able to connect with other similar people and create mutually supportive communities. This is why I will always have a loving affinity for sex workers, especially the trans ladies in the industry.

Maybe I will have more to say about my personal experience after the workshop tomorrow, but I felt like I had to get this stuff off my chest. And don’t forget! December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. In my opinion, we in the trans movement should be focusing just as much energy into that day as we put into the Trans Day of Remembrance.

Really old photo of me at Int’l Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

[*] The “agency” question around sex work is a silly debate. Aside from a really small number of people who make porn with their friends and distribute it for free, and the minority of people who are actually victims of human trafficking and sex slavery, most sex workers come into the industry from a dialectic of choice and necessity. It’s not as easy as “these people are empowered sex workers who enjoy it and do it for fun” versus the tired stereotype of the tragic whore who begrudgingly sells her body and hates herself for it. For example, I did porn for the first time because I was unemployed, on food stamps, and had no other way to pay rent or buy hormones. I probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise. However, I still had fun and it was still an overall positive experience that I chose to continue doing. I still use sex work to pay my bills, but I also quit my coffee shop job and chose to go back to sex work. Despite that, though, my choice was very much constrained within the context of capitalism. Like everyone else, I have to make money somehow and I chose to do so via sex work. I merely chose sex work, as opposed to other kinds of equally-demeaning work,  because it fits my needs under current realities.

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3 comments

  1. Unfortunately many sex workers throughout the world are humans beings who are injured and very different from the middle-class folks who are depicted by red umbrella. Not telling THEIR stories is called creating a dominant culture through marginalization. How’s that different? That said. I support sex workers and their dignity and status as equal to any other worker. I agree wholeheartedly with legalizing prostitution. I am an anarchist and am not interested in legal remedies to what my own experience and knowledge tells me is a problem with deep cancerous roots and widereaching effects. But not telling the stories of children (and the now adults) who haven’t free choices because the impact of pornography, is also marginalizing them.

    1. Yes, my own opinions have changed a bit since I wrote this. I’ve been meaning to do some processing and maybe some writing around the ways in which I was harmed by sex work and by the (white middle class) sex worker rights movement, and specifically the culture and uncritical goals of that movement. I likewise still support sex workers’ organizing and the decriminalization of (literally) everything, and I continue organizing in and creating space with the primarily trans and of color sex worker communities in which I spend most of my time. But my view of the “SW Rights Movement” is a lot more jaded these days. Anyway, well said.

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