Let’s Talk About Sex Work


Conner Habib thread on Maggie Jones’ New York Times Magazine article and other recent threats to erotica (twitter.com)
Do Trump’s alleged affairs even matter? (Washington Post)

For all that I understand the appeal of this whole Stormy Daniels thing to a lot of people — salacious “sex scandals” will always attract eyes and ears, even more so when they can be juxtaposed against a political group that still ties itself so closely to what it calls “family values” — I’m not comfortable with how much attention is being paid to it. For one thing, I’ve had enough polyamorous friends over the years that I never assume that any relationship I learn about is monogamous. More to the point, it’s none of my business what personal relationships one person has with another, and we should all be far more concerned with what’s happening in the West Wing right now, not what may or may not be happening in the Lincoln Bedroom (or the bedrooms of all those golf courses across the world). Besides, it’s not like opponents of Donald Trump are at a loss for examples of him lying, especially these days.

The other problem I have with all these stories about Stormy Daniels is how many of them, including those written by people I’d thought would know better by now, are using the words “porn” and/or “pornography” in relation to either her work or even, in some cases, her as a person. That is an incredibly loaded word, even when it’s only used to described work, but using it to define a person is downright base and vile. I fully admit that I’ve never seen any of Daniels’ film work (nor do I particularly care to), but I’ve been fed up with the use of the p-word to describe erotica since I first started exploring my sexuality. (Again, if you want to criticize Daniels because she associated with Trump, isn’t that fact more than enough to criticize her about?)

It’s only been a few weeks since I last blogged about the dehumanizing rhetoric often employed by people opposed to sex work and sex workers, but it feels like the dark cloud created by this problem has darkened several shades since then. The language being used to describe Daniels and her career is playing a good part in that, but reading Maggie Jones’ New York Times Magazine piece about teenagers’ use of erotica, and the resulting fallout, kind of put me over the edge. Conner Habib’s tweets do a spectacular job of enumerating the many reasons why Jones’ article is so problematic, but I’d like to contextualize them even further.

I should preface this by stating that I have no reason to believe that Jones deliberately misrepresented sex work or sex workers in any way. Determining who can be considered an authority on the topics of sex work and sex workers can often be very difficult; there’s certainly a growing body of academic work on these topics, but nearly all of that is written by people with no firsthand experience as a sex worker, and not only is that kind of experience as important to understanding sex work as it would be to any other field, but it’s more likely that journalists — even those who work for centuries-old newspapers — are going to prefer quoting someone “in the field” than some academic far removed from the business.

It’s not like sex workers don’t have advocacy groups out there, most of which are more than willing to provide reliable sources to journalists, and I think that criticism of Jones and/or the New York Times for (apparently) not approaching any of those groups is quite valid. Again, I have no reason to believe that this was deliberate, but it definitely led to the incredibly one-sided picture of sex work that got published, both in Jones’ article and the response, and that picture is what’s been bothering me most of all about this whole situation.

One of the biggest dangers of dehumanizing rhetoric is that it can easily lead people — whether they know better or not — to believe that a certain group’s viewpoints don’t matter. After all, if the people in that group are effectively portrayed as being somehow less than human, it invites the question of whether or not they’re smart enough (or moral enough, or whatever) to have viewpoints worthy of entertaining for even a fraction of a second. This is a huge part of the allure of this kind of rhetoric, because when you utilize it effectively, it allows you to instantly win a debate by essentially disqualifying your opponents. Sex workers have been dehumanized for so long now, from so many sides, that they already have to wage an exhausting battle to be recognized as actual people, as evidenced by the Stepping Stone Nova Scotia campaign I referenced a few weeks ago.

The fractious nature of present-day American conservatism has been one of the few saving graces of the past eighteen months, because the current administration and Congressional Republicans have proven themselves unable to get on the same page to pass legislation on a variety of issues. The bullying of sex work and sex workers, however, is one of those issues where not only is there broad consensus on the part of Republicans (since the party, as a whole, is still beholden to the far-right religious elements in their base), but there are enough centrist and conservative Democrats standing by to not only pass anti-erotica and anti-sex work legislation with significant margins, but also to do so with back-slapping self-congratulatory claims of “bipartisanship” afterward.

The kind of exclusionary feminism — anti-transgender, anti-sex work, anti-anything that doesn’t elevate their own selfish interests — that’s become more visible online these past few years is nothing new; that was the dominant wave of feminism I was exposed to growing up, which is the main reason why I didn’t identify as a feminist until I got to Antioch College and was exposed to inclusive feminism. These people will be all too willing to “cross the line” and join conservative Republicans in order to make their fever dreams of sexual censorship come true. This is a real threat, and as the current administration grows  more desperate to showcase anything resembling a “political win” to the American public, the likelihood of new laws targeting erotica, sex work and sex workers grows more and more.

I’ve never believed the argument that open discussion of sex and sexuality makes people more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour, mostly due to the wealth of quantitative and anecdotal evidence against such claims. More importantly, discussing sex makes it more difficult for conservatives and exclusionary feminists to utilize their hateful rhetoric against sex and sex-positive people, because when people realize that sex workers eat and breathe and dream like everyone else, opponents of sex work have a much harder time convincing people that sex workers are less than human, and thus unworthy of basic consideration and recognition.

This isn’t to say that we need to be talking about sex and sex work at every possible opportunity, but it does mean that those of us who stand to be hurt by laws against sex work — whether we’re consumers of sex work, engage in sex work, or just have friends involved with sex work — can’t stand by while articles like Jones’ go unchallenged. Obfuscating the reality of sex work and sex workers not only plays into the hands of those who would make it illegal, but it also prevents us from candidly discussing the real problems with sex work (such as those who are forced into it) and coming up with solutions for those problems. As the cloud of potential censorship continues to darken over our heads, it’s imperative for us to shine a light on what sex work is really about, and how sex workers are just as human as everyone else, before we lose any more of our freedoms.

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