Both Ways, Always

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Trump, Putin talked comparative beauty of hookers in phone call (Yahoo!)
Trump Just Signed SESTA/FOSTA, a Law Sex Workers Say Will Literally Kill Them (Vice)

Whenever you’re trying to sell any piece of writing, you want to market it as being timely for when it will be published. Back when magazines only existed in print versions, this often meant trying to sell winter-based articles in the summer and vice versa (due to long “lead times” between the editorial cycle and publication), and although online publications have definitely altered the old publication timeframes, many print magazines still like to have a good deal of lead time for most pages of their publication. Whenever a piece of writing will always be relevant no matter when it’s published (tips for getting rid of belly fat, for example), it’s called an “evergreen” piece, and these are often much easier to sell to publishers, simply because they’re always wanted in any venue that’s appropriate for the topic of the writing.

As I started pitching my first novel, The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban, to literary agents several years ago, I marketed it as an evergreen novel because, as I pointed out in my query letters, sex work will always be in the news as long as we have a Congress. If past is prologue, one or more politicians will almost certainly get embroiled in scandals involving sex workers every few months or so, which means that as people have sex work on the mind thanks to the news, they should be more inclined to purchase my novel. I never counted on the President of the United States getting into a pissing contest (no, I won’t apologize for that metaphor) with another world leader about whose country has the best sex workers, but that’s 2018 for you.

I was watching the news last Thursday when James Comey’s memos were released to the public, and as Comey’s records of President Trump and Vladimir Putin talking about sex workers were being discussed, I knew that it was a good time to push my novel, so I made a couple of posts on social media about how “everybody knows that Lake Wiishkoban has the best sex workers in the world.” As I took advantage of this opportunity, though, I was remembering how FOSTA/SESTA had been signed into law the previous week, and even as the “I need money” part of my brain was focused on the potential book promotion opportunity staring me in the face at that moment, the rest of my brain was preoccupied with how this episode was only going to reinforce the existing structures that put sex workers in so much danger.

Much is made these days of how the current administration is allegedly bombarding the American public with proclamations and such in order to numb us all to what they’re really trying to do, but I’d argue that this is hardly a new phenomenon. Besides the relentless drumbeat of right-wing media, think of how many virulently homophobic Republicans have been caught in extramarital same-sex relationships of some kind; it’s practically a laugh line now for a good part of America (and the rest of the world). Instead of focusing on the implications of an elected official being so deliberately duplicitous, or the broader issues of how condemning a certain behaviour just drives it underground instead of eliminating it, most people shrug these stories off, or else try to extract some measure of schadenfreude from them.

There are plenty of examples of right-wing hypocrisy to go around — Republicans passing a spending bill that balloons the federal deficit after campaigning on balanced budgets comes to mind — but many of the most pungent examples revolve around sex work, in large part because conservative bloviating about sexuality has been such a cornerstone of the religious right since its rise in the seventies and eighties. Again, the male conservative who rails against two gay men kissing in public, but drools at the mere thought of watching two lesbians having sex with one another, has practically become a trope now, and hardly anyone even thinks to challenge the bald-faced hypocrisy on display.

We’d be having a much different dialogue right now if American conservatism writ large really did want to eradicate sex work. If that were the case, then we could start debating the real problems of such an approach, like the inherent difficulties of policing private behaviour and how to deal with the economic shift resulting from the deletion of an industry that employs hundreds of thousands of Americans on some level. The fact that so few conservatives want to even entertain these discussions shows that most right-wingers really don’t want to get rid of sex work. The practical impossibilities involved with such a proposal are probably only part of the reason for that.

I realize that trying to document all the hypocrisies of Donald Trump would likely be more than a full-time job, and we’ve all had a crystal-clear picture of his views on women and sexuality since that Access Hollywood tape came out, but his mindset on sex workers needs to be understood so we can unravel the greater dangers that such thinking — practically endemic in American conservatism — poses not just to sex workers, but women as a whole. If Trump, or other conservatives, were really concerned about sex workers, then none of them would care about the purported quality of American versus Russian sex workers. That fight would be a non-issue at best, and conservatives would probably want American sex workers to be sub-par compared to those of other countries, to make it the easier to eradicate sex work from America. If you want American sex workers to be seen as the best sex workers in the world, then that inherently implies not just the acceptance that there are sex workers in America, but that sex workers will continue to be a part of the larger American tapestry in the future.

This creates a dichotomy for sex workers — vociferously condemned (by both conservatives and some on the left), yet accepted as an inevitable part of society — that places them in a dangerous position. Because they are seen by so many people as less worthy than other members of society, that creates a sanction for mistreating them, and because there is this silent acknowledgement that no real action to eliminate sex work is likely to happen, the mistreatment is likely to be seen as inconsequential from the perspective of those who use/abuse sex workers, because no matter what happens to sex workers, “They’ll be there for me anyway.”

If FOSTA/SESTA had tried to totally eliminate sex work, then there could at least be a discussion of how that would affect America as a whole, culturally and economically and so on. If any politician would so much as propose legislation to help sex workers transition into different lines of employment without a significant loss of income, then there would be at least some challenging of the notion of sex workers being less worthy than other Americans. Instead, this new legislation just pushes sex workers further out into the margins, where they’re more likely to be taken advantage of, while continuing the silent acknowledgement that sex workers will always be part of our society.

The plight of sex workers in America should be an evergreen topic, because the horror stories of everyone from escorts to semi-amateur models are legion. Because right-wingers have done such a thorough job of advancing their “sex workers aren’t as good as the rest of us” narrative, though, those stories are on the margins just as much as sex work is. If hypocritical politicians are going to push sex workers further out into the margins, and subject them to even more abuse and mistreatment, then the rest of us need to raise our voices to make sure that sex workers’ stories get pushed into the mainstream, so the broader public becomes more aware of the real human costs of how we currently handle sex work and sex workers, both legally and culturally. If this new wave of right-wing attacks on sex workers is successful, then they’ll probably use the same tactics against other groups as well, and too many of us could easily be their next target.

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