On Sex Workers' Rights and the Nature of "Guilt"
In continuing my thoughts to Beverly on the subject of sex worker activism, which I'll repost here:
"I do agree with you, Beverly, that sex worker rights deserve more attention from within escort ranks and also among those who've retired. My issue is that I've looked into various sex worker rights groups over the years but found myself inadequately represented in their messages. For example, the "sex-positive" feminist aspects trouble me with their blindly hedonistic approach that runs contrary to my own view of human sexuality and social responsibility.
"Maybe that "guilt" or sour feelings some of us experience is warranted and not simply a result of archaic religious traditions ingrained in our psyches. Maybe that's not a fair assessment to begin with and there are deeper reasons for a person's discontent and unwillingness to promote escorting as just another profession, no different from working in other sales and service jobs. I personally feel escorting to be a very unique line of work unlike anything else in terms of the psychic toll it takes, the intimacy involved, the stigma attached, the potential risks, etc. It's not the same as anything else, and I can understand that others might not wish to paint it as belonging right along with the rest of the greater workforce (even though sex workers' civil rights clearly deserve to be protected as much as anyone else's).
"An organization I've been donating to for over a year now is GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), located in New York and dedicating to providing services to young girls (12-21) who have been/are being subjected to sexual exploitation by adults. This organization pulls at my heartstrings, and I appreciate all the work Rachel Lloyd (a former prostitute) has put into it. I first learned of the organization while watching the film "Very Young Girls" and can recognize the need for services of this sort in our sex- and youth-obsessed culture.
"I also take many opportunities to talk about the escorting lifestyle with others out here in civilian society. Civie women can be pretty judgmental, more so than men I've found, and especially those claiming to be feminists. But it remains worthwhile to engage in dialogue and not attempt to sweep the past under the rug, which I would be incapable of anyway.
"But joining an organized group and calling public attention to the rights of sex workers? That holds little appeal to me personally. I speak for myself and from my own experiences and wouldn't wish to try to speak for others here. Furthermore, I'm of the belief that the best course of action is decriminalization, not legalization, and I in no way support the latter.
"Stigma is reduced through connections, through knowing people personally and appreciating them as individuals more complicated than stereotypes suggest. A political movement alone can't give us that -- a lesson I'm learning through my involvement with the peace and social justice movement. Attempts to legislate morality, even when it's nobly intended to reduce discrimination, doesn't actually penetrate beneath the surface and may lead to unforeseen backlashes cropping up elsewhere (one might argue that the celebratory embrace of porn and the sex industry followed closely on the heels of second- and third-wave feminism in response to attempts made by women to level the proverbial playing field).
"So, I guess my question becomes what exactly is being sold to us here? The notion that sex work is just like any other profession under the sun and deserves as much recognition and equal protection under law? That argument ignores the deeper implications of the work we do/did. Sex work is NOT like any other form of work, even though it is work and we do deserve protection from violence as much as anyone else. Pretending that what we do is no different than clocking in at a factory, to me, ignores so much and paints an inaccurate portrait of the realities sex workers face."
That's what I said so far, and here are additional thoughts I'd like to add:
Working as an escort caused me to question the types of work people engage in, generally speaking, and the competitive economic climate we've all helped create, so that's where I focus my energy nowadays. In my thinking, sex workers don't represent one unified voice in the crowd, but rather a collection of varying opinions and life experiences that have much to say about the economic realities people are faced with today all across the globe. Should we be trying to legitimize a profession built on, and catering to, social and economic disparities born out of a patriarchal legacy? I don't personally think so.
I'm more interested in figuring out why we do what we do, why the demand exists as it does (for what it does), why exploitation takes so many forms and is specifically geared toward the young and financially-strapped, and why we women go along with it and claim to feel "empowered" as a result. What's so empowering about accepting stigma and differential treatment? What's empowering about being sexualized at too young an age and thence groomed toward providing sexual favors to strangers later on, some of whom care nothing for us or our own frustrated desires toward self-determination?
Sex work has potential, and theoretically I support anyone's right to choose to do with their own bodies as they see fit. HOWEVER, what seems like following one's own volition at age 21 looks very different years on after much learning, pondering and gaining direct experiential knowledge. I'll speak for myself here when saying the arguments I held at age 21-23 are NOT the way I see things now at 29 after 6.5 years of working as an escort. My youthful idealism crashed into disturbing realities, leading to unavoidable introspection. My studies in the social sciences only accounts for part of my perspective change; mostly I blame lessons learned through personal and professional experiences. My Libertarian ideals were taken out of the abstract and brought down to ground level, so to speak, where they've been forced to undergo a transformation (or radicalization, if you prefer, which means to strike at the root).
Sex work, as it is commonly carried out here and abroad, is one symptom (among many) of larger social ills that plague societies. The problem isn't with having sex or with exchanging money, per se -- it runs far deeper than that.
This reminds me of past conversations with hobbyists who admitted they'd wish for "better" for their own daughters than the life of a sex worker, even as they help create demand for the prostitution of other people's daughters (and, in some cases, sons). This hypocrisy, expressed in various ways, hit me like a ton of bricks and shattered the illusions that allowed me to befriend my clients.
An important lesson I've learned over time is that there's no such thing as no-strings-attached sex. It's a myth. Because strings may not be readily apparent to both parties involved does not mean they do not exist. Those "guilt" feelings it's become fashionable to tease escorts for having speak to these invisible strings, the toll on the individual's psyche to submit to that which does not deserve submission. I don't feel guilty for having had sex or made money in the process. I do, however, feel guilty for having petted the egos of egotistical bastards that did not deserve my attention and affections. And I do feel some guilt for not being a better guardian of my body and mind, having relied on myself to act as my own internalized parent since my early youth (due to reasons that aren't the world's business). I feel guilty for not having known any better than to equate sex with acceptance, to mistake fucking for having intimate value (both as an escort and in my personal life), and for naively trusting wolves in sheep's clothing time and time again. Though plenty of young women fall into this trap, we shouldn't so easily dismiss it as youthful trial and error when we live in an undeniably exploitative culture bent on taking advantage wherever opportunities are presented.
Vultures circle and look for the weak, the unprotected, the innocent. This is true in the sex industry just as in regular civie society. My grooming began long before becoming an escort, and by that time I had internalized that way of thinking to where I willingly went along, believing myself to be in control and making the best decisions considering my circumstances. And, to an extent, I still feel that way because I can't imagine having gone down another avenue. But I have come to understand that people who were deprived of affections and stable, loving conditions as children have a tendency toward seeking redemption in the empty promises of predators and scoundrels. This is not an indictment of the hobbying community specifically; I only acknowledge that it overlaps with what I'm speaking of. Certainly there are exceptions, though I don't believe nearly as many as claimed. The problem is in our mindsets, speaking categorically here of Americans (that being the only country in which I have lived, though undoubtedly the problem extends globally).
To me, it does come back to values, and we're not talking religion here. Values transcend religions. What do we value anymore? Is nothing sacred? Youth are actively corrupted, adults are turned into cogs in corporate wheels, honest intimacy is reduced to pornographic caricature, legislation determines morality for many, and televisions have replaced reading and thoughtful inquiry and wreaked havoc on our interpersonal relations. I can't stand what I see around me in this world I was born into. What do we value any longer? Is "post-modern" just a fancy way of saying diabolically nihilistic?
These are questions that eventually came to bear on my mind during my twenties. Before we speak of rights, I'd prefer to come to terms with what exactly it is that we're defending.