Once upon a time, a many, many years ago, there was a struggle of titanic proportions. It was a bitter civil war between middle class white ladies, partnered with their sensitive new age boyfriends, and the unwashed, uneducated sots who worked in the industry of carnal knowledge. This conflict was called the Sex Wars. The white ladies hurled insults at the sex workers, calling them brainwashed. They said that those poor women, because queers and transfolk didn’t count, were not respecting themselves and were participating in the ongoing war against women. They said that those women were participating in their own rape. They said that women could not truly consent to participating in those acts because, not only were they immoral, but also because they didn’t know any better. They couldn’t possibly know the damage that they were doing to themselves! Because if they did, then they wouldn’t do it. Besides, who would choose a life of such wretchedness? They believed that if porn was not abolished, if sex was not restricted to very precise forms of expression, then these middle class white ladies will continue to suffer and be enslaved in their middle class white lady lives.
But the sex workers set them straight, no pun intended. They told the white ladies that its much more complicated then what their limited experience showed them. They told them that, in fact, they have every mental faculty available to them that the white ladies have access too. And they came to the conclusion that sex work was right from them; although we now know that most of those cases involved middle class white ladies, right? The sex workers told them that their profession was not inherently oppressive, for look at the queer and straight men who were sex workers. How could you say that women cannot consent to it and yet in the same breath say that men can? The admitted that, certainly, there were many problems with the sex work industry, like lack of safer sex resources and police harassment. They said, however, that the solution was not to abolish it or censor it because that would lead to the whole industry to go underground which would result in poorer working conditions for them. Rather, the solution was to create supports and resources so that they could break into the business safely and also get out it if they wanted to. The solution was to promote their autonomy, not restrict them in any one place. And besides, sex and the body were amazing things, they said, and it should be enjoyed!
The middle class white ladies were so moved by the sex worker’s argument that they joined forces and created the most ethically run industry in the history of capitalism. And they all fucked their way to a blissful utopia.
It may come as a surprise to many of you but that was not the case. Obviously there were deep flaws in both arguments, mostly due to the lack of critical analysis of how race and racial exploitation factors into sex work and how the root of all exploitation come from capitalism. What is so shocking to me, however, is the amount of anti-porn sentiments still exist in many of our radical activist circles and in the wider anti-oppression discourse. I thought we left all this shit in the 80s. It’s 20-fucking-11, don’t folks know that anything involved in our capitalist system is going to be exploitive? Don’t folks know that because of the lack of resources and the amazing amount of poverty that effects communities of color that for many women of color sex work is their only option? Does it not occur to folks that instead of attack their only means of income we should be attacking the structures that make it so that it’s their only means of support? The same is true of transwomen, especially transwomen of color, who can’t find work because they don’t conform to the binary. When one is in that postion of sex work or starve, there is only one option. And don’t even get me started on anti-porn activists view of gender varient people.
The other thing that frustrates me about this discourse, specifically on the side of the white sex workers, is the lack of analysis around the experience of sex workers of color and how racism works in their lives. Women of color are part of the racialized “Other” in our white supremacist society. Because of that, their bodies are seen as exotic and by extension are seen as being always sexually available. Their brown bodies are perceived to still be the property of white folk. It is more difficult, therefore, to talk about how to support those women. How do we challenge racism and the objectification of the brown body while at the same time support those brown sex workers who want, and sometimes need, to do sex work? The first step is recognition and validation. The second step is attacking those racist institutions that force folks to rely on sex work if they don’t want to. If it is their calling, then we should be giving them the resources to do is safely and successfully.
I would argue that the most effective way to support any sex worker is the listen to them. Listen to their experience, understand that their experience does not speak for other people’s experience. Listen, and hear that they have to say. If we are going to make this world into a more equitable place, we need to start hearing each other and instead of saying, “This is what I think you should do,” we should ask, “What do you need?”