Let’s Talk About Privilege!

26Jun08

Ah, god, do we have to? The dreaded p-word rears its ugly head again, this time in the sex workers’ rights movement. Privilege is the elephant in the room, if the elephant in the room allowed some people freedoms and protections that it doesn’t allow others. If elephants’ weight went down when you talk about them.

So, yes, we have to talk about privilege. Here’s a shocking truth about sex work I’d like to share with you: we’re not all the same. I know, I was shocked to learn that, too. It’s this very denial of the diversity of sex workers that has me questioning my place in this movement. Much like the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the mainstream sex workers’ rights movements seems to be so caught up in the privileged that privilege is a dirty word.

It’s a problem with all social movements. Those with the most privilege tend to dominate the movement because privilege is as privilege does: it opens doors. The feminist movement worked because educated, monied white men could talk on some level with educated, monied white women. However, these women who were lobbying to enter the workforce completely forgot about women of lower socioeconomic status who had been in the workforce since Day One.

The fact that we all share a profession does not put us all the same level of society. Privilege is not a ladder. We are not all on the same step because we’re all whores. Privilege is a matrix of education, class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and all the other things that people divide themselves on. I’m a barely middle class queer white woman. That’s where I locate myself. When I walk out into the world and talk about sex work, I immediately look different than a poverty-level transgendered Latina woman.

I want to see rights for all sex workers. Somewhere, somehow, the sex workers’ rights movement got onto the track of arguing against the stereotype of the “AIDS infected crack whore on the street”. Sure, it’s important to point out that not all of us are like this, that a lot of us choose this and are happy with our choice. But it’s also important to point out that privilege operates in this profession just like any other profession. For example, a college-educated white woman of middle-class standing can get out of the business. A working class high school graduate might not have the same avenues. Street workers are subject to higher rates of arrest, which always looks good on a job application, and which is a direct reflection of why prostitution laws are racist and classist. But a movement that ignores these members of its cohort enforces that racism and classism.

There, I said it. I know many people will not be happy with me because I do want to talk about the ways privilege plays out in this system. It’s about time those of us with more privilege stop defending ourselves against the Melindrea Dworkley types and shift the conversation back to why we want some goddamned rights in the first place. No one deserves to suffer abuse at the hands of clients, the police, or the criminal justice system. Not AIDS-infested crackwhores working the strip. Not manicured, PhD holding whores at the Hilton. Not a single sex worker. If I can use my white middle-class college educated privilege to open a few doors, then I will. But I’m not going to dominate the discussion because I’m not the one most affected.

And that’s what I stand for. How about you?

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