March On Vancouver 2018
Sex work and stigma
Good morning everyone
My name is Hailey Heartless, real name, no gimmicks.
I didn’t come to last years rally. After seeing some of the stuff happening online, and the mishandling of sex worker and trans inclusiveness, I thought maybe I wasn’t allowed to be here.
This year, my presence caused a stir online, and so many reactionary, transphobic people told me that I wasn’t allowed to be here.
I know what we're trying to do here is build a movement, and I've been told that sex workers will be a part of that movement.
I feel that has yet to be shown, but if there's an attempt to create a mainstream social justice movement that includes sex workers, I could try my best to lay the foundation for that inclusiveness.
I know this discussion will be difficult for some people to hear. Sex work is a difficult topic for a lot of us, but that's not a good enough reason to tiptoe around it. Sex work is work, and sex workers rights are human rights.
I also know that it can be difficult to look inside ourselves, analyze our own behaviour and commit to change.
This isn't about what we've said or done in the past, it's about how we can be better and more inclusive going forward.
I ask that you listen to me with an open heart and an open mind.
I am coming to you today to share my truth, and as feminists, when women are sharing their truth, we listen.
There's so many things I'd like to say, so many things I'd like to teach you, but I feel that in the interest of building a movement, it makes sense to talk about the biggest barriers to sex worker inclusion, stigma.
When I talk about sex worker rights, stigma is such a huge topic. It permeates nearly every aspect of what we do.
So, I’m going to touch on many topics, and I might inspire some questions, but my goal is to help you create a movement where other sex workers can provide the answers.
My hope is that by tackling stigma, by giving you the tools to identify it and to stamp it out in your spaces, the answers can come from the sex worker community, and not a single dominatrix with a microphone.
Given that it’s such a broad topic, it’s difficult to know where to start, so perhaps I’ll just share some of the ways that we face stigma in social justice movements.
We faced it recently during the #metoo movement, when well meaning people would see these violators being exposed and quip, “just hire a sex worker.”
It's one thing to tell someone to hire a sex worker if they say, “my partner and I are looking for a third for a threesome,” or, “I sure wish someone would put me in a mask and give me a spanking.”
It's another thing, a much more insidious thing, to tell someone to hire a sex worker when they say, “I habitually harm women.”
It's not our responsibility to fix sex offenders.
It's not our role to be an outlet for potential rapists.
If they violate your boundaries, they're going to violate ours.
Please don't push people who use sex to cause harm onto us.
That’s not why we’re here, and it shouldn’t be a part of our job.
We face it when sex work is conflated with trafficking.
Trafficking is to sex work as rape is to sex.
Conflating the two is a knife that cuts both ways. It takes away the agency of sex workers, and it trivializes the actual horrors of human trafficking.
Trafficking survivors are speaking, and asking for their voices to be heard, but they're being drowned out by self proclaimed “prostitution experts,” who call any form of sex work, “trafficking.”
And the only people who seem to be doing any active work in stamping out actual exploitation are sex workers.
Sex workers can be your greatest ally in fighting trafficking, we're on the street and in the forums, we can spot when it's happening.
It affects our bottom line and lowers the bar for our health and safety rights, and we want to stamp it out, but if you all keep calling us victims, keep perpetuating the stigma, it silences our voices and binds our hands. It makes us unable to speak out.
We face it from feminists who push us into diva-slash-victim narratives.
Narratives that tell us if we’re not empowered all the time, we’re victims.
Sex work is the only job where you need to feel empowered at all times for people to consider it valid. We’re not allowed to have a bad day. We’re not even allowed to have a “boring day at the office.”
This makes us afraid to share our stories in feminist spaces because we don’t want to be pigeonholed into one narrative or the other.
Placing us in a position where we're either on a pedestal or we're victims keeps our wisdom and our stories confined within our community.
Sex work is real work, and a lot of times, it's not much different from other contact work. It's just something we do, either every day or on evenings and weekends.
It involves a lot of boring aspects; bookkeeping, filing taxes, keeping receipts, building a website and creating a social media presence.
It's work. It's what we do. There's no need to pretend it's something extraordinary.
We face stigma from activists who refuse to call us sex workers, but instead call us prostitutes.
This language is owned by police and the prison system as is designed to rob us of our agency.
Some of us are reclaiming that language, and use it with each other, but when an outsider uses it, the message is clear, you think lesser of us.
You think of us as victims. You steal our voice.
Instead of saying, “prostitute,” use the language we use: sex worker, hands on sex worker, full service sex worker, service provider.
When you use the language of the people trying to cause us harm, you're sending a clear message of exclusion.
We face stigma from laws that deny us our agency. Laws that treat us as victims and our clients as criminals.
Laws that make it illegal for us to work together for safety, or negotiate consent openly.
Laws that make it so both I and my colleague can be charged with trafficking each other if we work together for safety (or fun).
The laws, advocated for by people outside the industry, designed to protect us, make it easier for us to be manipulated and controlled. People we allow into our lives can threaten to have us fired, have our children taken away, or have us evicted.
These laws, Nordic Model and asymmetrical criminalization, are preached by outsiders: “we're not you, but we know what you need better than you do, and we're going to give it to you.”
This is the work of a savior, not an ally.
A savior believes they're better than the people they're trying to help, but an ally lifts up our voices and centres us in solutions.
Don't be a savior. It doesn't make any sense to advocate for solutions or spaces without the input of people directly affected.
In social justice circles, we have a saying. It originated in disability activism, but it's often applied to other fields of social justice activism:
“nothing about us, without us.”
There can be no solutions, and no inclusive movement, without giving us agency and the right to advocate for our own needs.
Canada's laws also put us in an adversarial position with law enforcement, so we’re afraid to approach them when we need them.
And when there is a crisis, we face stigma from rape crisis centers who sometimes turn us away or place the blame on us because of who we are.
Even rape crisis centers who don’t turn us away often have policies behind the scenes that rob us of agency and treat us as victims, so even though most won’t turn us away, you can’t really call them a safe and accepting space.
When you welcome us into your spaces, and allow us to be open and honest, you'll find that we have so much knowledge to bring you, and not just about how to have amazing sex.
We can teach you life skills, like how to take amazing selfies, how to use bitcoin, how to build a following on social media.
We can teach you lessons about yourself, like how to practice excellent hygiene, how to do amazing contouring for low light venues, or how to practice radical self care.
We can also teach you valuable lessons about boundaries and consent, and how to quickly spot potentially harmful people.
Sex workers need feminism, and feminism needs sex workers.
Hopefully you take away some of these lessons. You change your behaviour. You listen to the stories sex workers are telling you and you stop conflating abuse with sex work.
Hopefully you call in your comrades when you witness whorephobia. All it takes to create a safe space for intolerance is for allies to say nothing.
Hopefully next year you can have someone else on this podium, sharing their truth, and they can proudly declare:
I am a sex worker, and I'm allowed to be here.
Let's March On together.