Lived experience and the experience of being out-feministed


I should avoid feminist blogs and websites. I am growing quite disillusioned with the so-called feminist movement.  I have held in my mind since I discovered the feminist movement that feminism is about empowering the lived experiences and choices of all women. However, it seems that only the lived experiences and choices that support certain agendas are validated. Perhaps I should disavow myself from this circle jerk of more feminist than thou politics.

I thought that feminists were the open-minded ones, the critically reflective ones. I think I have been wrong. Prolific researcher and intellectual Patricia Hill Collins redefined for me personally what feminism is in 2000 with the publication of Black Feminist Thought. This cornerstone of feminist knowledge raises up those who do serious critical thinking, though they may not have a PhD or even formal education, as intellectuals, and argued that the day to day reality has more wisdom in it than decades of scholarly research. (Granted, Hill Collins condemns prostitution writ large as exploitation.)

Many feminists again and again discount the stories and lived experiences of those who are working toward labor rights for sex workers as class privilege or (my personal favorite) Stockholm syndrome. Pardon me, but you have got to be fucking kidding me. It is markedly unfeminist to tell another person how that person should or should not interpret what that person has lived through.

When sex work abolitionists talk about drug abuse or past or current sexual, physical, or emotional abuse among sex workers, I become incensed.  I am unable to speak clearly. I only seeth. It is incredibly condescending and presumptious to claim that you know what someone’s experiences have made them do or feel. It is up to that person to say. Furthermore, let’s play along. Let’s say ninety percent of sex workers were sexually abused as children. So what? To continue to talk about continues to objectify that person and rob that person of his or her agency as a human being. Once a victim, not always a victim!

But I should address the class privilege argument. Yes, I am middle class. I have not always been middle class. I have only acheived middle class standing in the past ten years, parly thanks to the economic advantages of sex work. I have teetered between working class and middle class most of my life. No, I have never known abject poverty. Do I know what those who turn to sex work to escape poverty have gone through? No. But does this mean what I have experienced is not valid? Absolutely not.

To call people like me the privileged few, or the minority, presumes you know the demographics of absolutely every sex worker out there. I’m sorry, but you don’t, and you can’t. That would require a census of every person working the street, employed by an escort agency, a bachelor party service, a strip club, a massage parlor, a dungeon, or as an independent escort, erotic massuese, dominatrix, or submissive. In short, there’s no way to obtain all of this information. Some University of Chicago economists tried to calculate the number of escorts working in Chicago by looking at online advertising. Many, many sex workers don’t advertise online.

None of this is to say that I know right and no one who wants to see prostitution abolished is right. Every voice is a piece in a larger patchwork reflecting the lived reality of working in the sex industry. I have experienced some very traumatic things, and I cannot say how my trauma compares to another’s. I only know that what I have experienced has made me who I am. I cannot defend sex work as a noble professional choice for absolutely everyone. I know that I am not suited for several different forms of sex work. But I do know that sex work has enabled me to achieve things otherwise unimaginable. Call that class privilege and discount it all you want, but that does not mean I will go away and shut up.

I have been counseled by someone very wise that I must know my enemy, so to speak. I try, I do, but I just can’t wrap my brain around logic that would ignore or belittle what I’ve lived through, what many close to me have lived through.

So, I lay aside talk about abuse, talk about Stockholm syndrome and class privilege, and I put forward two points that I would hope everyone can agree on. First, sex workers are people. As such, the stigma against sex work hurts those involved, those who want to get out, those who want to stay in. American society is incredibly backward about sex. Stigmatizing and denigrating sex workers is harmful. When sex workers are slut-shamed, they can’t speak up about labor and human rights abuses. They can’t leave the industry because they will always be sluts.

Secondly, the way things are now isn’t making anything better. Wasting millions in tax dollars (which, yes, sex workers contribute to because, yes, sex workers pay taxes) to arrest and convict sex workers doesn’t help anyone. Maintaining the chained to a bed in a brothel myth of trafficked persons wastes tax dollars on deporting survivors of these situations. Arrest records prohibit former sex workers from getting other jobs. (How human rights is that? You need to get out of sex work immediately, but good luck finding another job with your felony conviction!) Prostitution laws prevent sex workers and clients from reporting trafficked persons, abuse on the job, and prohibit sex workers from receiving competent medical care.

And furthermore, the ways prostitution laws are implemented are sexist, classist, and racist. I may be a so-called privileged middle class sex worker (a pro-domme). I acknowledge this. And it infuriates me that a working class street worker is going to suffer a whole hell of a lot more than I am at the hands of the law. (Which may lead yourself to ask, but Jane, what you do isn’t illegal. Well, tell the enforcers of prostitution laws that!)

Or maybe I should just stay off the internet all together?


3 Responses to “Lived experience and the experience of being out-feministed”

  1. It’s SO tempting to just get offline sometimes. Because the shit just gets to you. On the other hand, the internet helps with the activism at times and it is a safe place (relatively) to make our voices known.

    And you’re so right about the victim mentality that is foisted on survivors by those claiming to help. Yes, I’ve had a bad experience with domestic violence but that has shit all to do with my decision to pursue sex work as a career. But I can’t tell EVERYONE that because they will make that connection and stubbornly keep it even if I ask them not to.

    I’m going to do a blog post about the experience you told me about on Feministing wrt sex workers’ rights movement. If you don’t mind supplying the link.

  1. 1 Being Amber Rhea » Blog Archive » links for 2008-10-24

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