For some of us, politics is more than an intellectual exercise — it’s a lived experience.
I t sucks to log onto social media and see everyone — including people you admire — celebrating someone or something you know directly or indirectly harms the people you love.
“Sucks” is probably not the best way to articulate it, but in situations like this, I don’t always feel like being articulate. More often, I feel like making myself small and staying quiet. It’s an immediate, bodily reaction. When it shows up in my Facebook feed that four of my friends “liked” the supposedly feminist movie, Rough Night — where the premise is that a stripper literally dies (ha ha?) — or when I’m on Twitter and I see someone’s retweeted something related to Rashida Jones’ Netflix documentary, Hot Girls: Turned On, in spite of the fact that several sex workers featured in the film came forward to say they felt exploited by the production (not to mention that one time Jones told fellow female actresses to “stop acting like whores”) — I keep my opinions to myself. It’s isolating and, in most circumstances, I don’t say anything so as not to risk exacerbating the feeling. From not-funny memes and annoying hashtags to problematic Buzzfeed listicles, there are just too many daily examples of stigmatization to confront.
Once You Have Made Pornography
The world will view you as an object — but you cannot be broken.
Like racism, homophobia, transphobia, and all the rest, casual whorephobia and anti-sex work sentiment and views — even among so-called progressives — is endemic. This can leave current and former sex workers feeling deeply alone and without support.
The latest and most vivid example of this is the growing popularity of superstar Democrat Kamala Harris. The first Indian American U.S. Senator ever, and California’s first Black U.S. Senator*, Harris has been called a “liberal hero” and a “rising star” in the party. An outspoken member of the resistance against the Trump administration, at the Senate Intelligence Hearings late last month, Harris delivered one headline-making performance after another: first, after grilling deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein when he refused to answer a yes or no question, and later, when she challenged Jeff Sessions. Both times, she was admonished and shushed by her older, white male colleagues, prompting waves of praise and encouragement from the Progressive left. In an op-ed for CNN, Roxanne Jones proclaimed Harris “every woman who stands up to speak.”
Like racism, homophobia, transphobia, and all the rest, casual whorephobia is endemic.
There are lots of good reasons to root for Kamala Harris, who is a probable presidential candidate in 2020. But the fact that Harris was an active force behind a campaign that endangered the lives of sex workers makes it understandably difficult for people with experiences in the sex trades to throw her our support.
As California Attorney general, Harris led a charge against the free classifieds website, Backpage, in spite of years of vocal resistance from sex workers. Just weeks before her election to senate, she filed charges against three Backpage staff members — a move the sex work activist group, the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education Research Project (ESPLERP), called a “political stunt.” Backpage’s adversaries believe that shuttering online advertising is a strike against sexual exploitation. But in practice, online advertising helps sex workers avoid dangers associated with meeting clients on the street by allowing them to screen clients and more safely negotiate encounters prior to meeting. Shutting these resources down does nothing to curb prostitution; instead, sex work ads simply migrate to other sites. The problem is that other sites generally cost more than Backpage, or are less heavily trafficked, thus disproportionately affecting low-income sex workers, who are oftentimes immigrants, transgender, and people of color.
According to a 2015 report by a coalition of organizations, including the National Center for Transgender Equality, an astonishing 39.9% of black trans people reported having engaged in sex work. For many, sex work is an economic necessity, and other oppressive conditions drive trans people, especially trans women of color, into the sex industry in the first place. As Meredith Talusan articulated for Vice, by stigmatizing sex workers and interfering with their labor processes in the name of helping victims, “we continually oppress people who are already among the United States’ most severely oppressed.”
In spite of this resistance, and even though the charges brought on by Harris were deemed unconstitutional and the case was thrown out, Backpage shut itself down due to what it described as the “relentless pressure”; Harris proclaimed this a “victory.” Meanwhile, people who relied on the website scrambled to find an alternative and, in some cases, even more dangerous ways to survive.
Of course, it’s not unusual for a politician — even an otherwise progressive politician — to express problematic views on sex work, and so, for individuals with experiences in the sex trades, watching their rise in power can feel bittersweet. Earlier this year, for Daily Beast, I reflected on my ambivalent support of Hillary Clinton, and the fact that while I was #Withher, it hadn’t always felt like she was with me. Sure, she was obviously the better choice of the two major parties, but Clinton has a history of anti-sex worker views. And at the Democratic National Convention, Clinton gave platform to a speaker who intentionally conflated labor with sex trafficking.
Lena Dunham, arguably the most prominent public figure and “feminist voice” who’s earned political cache at the expense of sex workers, also spoke at the convention. In 2015 — when Dunham first came out in protest of Amnesty International’s policy and research promoting the decriminalization of prostitution — I was so honestly shook that I messaged Roxane Gay and asked if she could put me in touch with Dunham, naively thinking I could talk some sense. A day or so later, it was clear that Dunham knew the alternative position — she just didn’t care for it. Ever since then, I can’t look at her face without feeling infuriated.
I have friends who love Lena Dunham, who can’t seem to understand why I don’t.
It’s not unusual for a politician — even an otherwise progressive politician — to express problematic views on sex work.
The root of the problem, as I see it, is that when it comes to sex work — unlike certain issues such as abortion rights or climate change — there isn’t one “politically correct” position; there are two. Kamala Harris, Lena Dunham, and other anti-sex worker liberals believe they’re fighting against commercial sexual exploitation and on behalf of victims.
In some cases, these politicians and celebrities believe any and all participation in the sex industry is tantamount to abuse. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, for example, does not recognize “sex work,” favoring the term “prostitution” instead, which she defined in 2014 as “commercial rape.” Alternately, there are those who view “consensual sex workers” as a small and privileged minority whose concerns are less legitimate compared to true “victims.”
The alternate progressive position is that involvement in the sex trade occurs across a constantly shifting spectrum of choice, circumstance, and coercion, with victims of trafficking on one far end of this spectrum and some “happy hooker” stereotype on the other. Rather than interpret the fact that exploitation can be fuzzy as a reason to abolish the industry as a whole, experts recommend decriminalization as the best way to support and protect individuals with experiences in the sex trades across the spectrum, including victims of coercion and force.
In May 206, Amnesty International released a long-anticipated report which found that, due in part to the criminalized and stigmatized nature of the industry, sex workers were at a heightened risk of human rights abuses while receiving little or no protection from the law. Decriminalization, they said, would ensure greater protection, allow sex workers to participate in the development of laws meant to protect their safety, and help bring an end to stigma and discrimination. “To be clear: decriminalizing sex work would not mean removing criminal penalties for trafficking,” this Q&A of the report explains. “But criminalization of sex work can hinder the fight against trafficking. …Decriminalization of sex work would have a positive role to play in the fight against trafficking.”
We know decriminalization improves sex workers’ lives due to evidence-based research, as well as — in many cases — from personal experience. Rather than hiring charity consultants or researching it for a role, many sex worker advocates have literally dedicated our lives to this issue. Most people actually involved in sex work advocate for destigmatization and decriminalization; this viewpoint should be listened to.
‘Criminalization of sex work can hinder the fight against trafficking.’
Beyond my own experiences in the industry, these days I work with victims of trafficking and severe, multilayered exploitation who would — in some circumstances and for complicated reasons — rather sell sex than not. These women are not “high class happy hookers” at some far end of the spectrum. They’re somewhere in the middle or closer to the “victim” side, and they need interventions more thoughtful than campaigns that condemn or criminalize their sometimes desperate choice.
Week after week, I work to increase these people’s options, so that those who’d rather not sell sex don’t have to. I advocate for decriminalization so they’re not incarcerated and/or separated from their children for turning tricks. But go on, show me your cool bracelet woven by sex slaves “rescued” from brothels. Consider me humorless when I don’t laugh at your dead hooker joke. Engage me in a debate for the one hundredth time about the meaning of the word “choice.”
Meanwhile, it remains the popular conception that sex workers are victims or villains, dirty and depraved, sex object and/or the butt of jokes. When over 33,000 people retweet J.K. Rowling’s 14-part tweetstorm that starts by calling the word “whore” a “filthy, old insult” and “crude and humiliating,” and at no point shows any regard for what the word actually means, it’s… exhausting.
Bottom line: Sometimes, for some of us, politics is more than an intellectual exercise — it’s a lived experience. When it comes to the issue of sex work, I don’t think; I feel. I don’t know what politicians like Kamala Harris are thinking or feeling when they willfully ignore the voices of individuals with experiences in the sex trade. Although I no longer work in the sex industry and was never a survival sex worker and directly impacted by the brunt of what the most marginalized have to bear, I still empathize. When you support people with anti-sex work views or share whorephobic bullshit on social media, it suggests that you don’t.
*A previous version of this story inaccurately described Harris’ career path and milestones within the Senate. We have updated the piece, and regret the error.