The problem with “privilege”

05Nov09

I’ve been grappling with this a lot lately. On one hand, those most involved in sex workers’ rights are those with more privilege (economically, educationally, racially), while on the other hand, privilege is used to discount their arguments and experiences. I’m struggling to find a way that acknowledges my privilege without completely negating what I have to say.

Part of this is the fact that most people, when I try to make a point, immediately go to the place where they want to talk about how most sex workers are coerced, abused, etc. Which makes many of us go to the place of completely talking up our own agency in being sex workers. And I think this is a terrible approach. The problem isn’t that we’re privileged and can’t speak for all sex workers. The problem is that privilege really shapes the experience of sex work. We’re all affected by the laws that criminalize and the stigmas that shame our work. But some are more than others.

So if all I hear is that I can’t speak for all sex workers in response to my statements about my experiences, I feel like my point is being missed. Of fucking course I can’t speak for all sex workers! There is not one single fucking universal statement that applies to all sex workers (other than that we’re real people with real lives and feelings).

The point is that we need to develop a comprehensive solution that equalizes the playing field and negates the affects of privilege.

One thing I really want to have a conversation about is the fact that yes, I entered sex work when I was actively first seeking treatment for a life-threatening mental illness. I was your stereotypical crazy girl when I started. But I also want to talk about the fact that sex work was one of the ways in which I was able to learn to appreciate my body and develop the strength to stand on my own two feet. Those early experiences taught me that sex work is neither exploitative or empowering. It can be both simultaneously.

So yes, I am privileged. I can’t speak for all sex workers. But no one can.

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6 Responses to “The problem with “privilege””

  1. 1 FW

    Great post, I totally agree. There is this pressure to not let on to weaknesses or situations or traumas or whatevers that shaped us. I’ve realized for a couple of years now that I’ve had ADD all my life, which made it hard to focus and keep organized, and right before I made the decision to go into sex work my mother died and that more than anything made me choose to do it. I dunno, the honest truth is I was horny all the time and too emotionally raw to do the casual sex thing and too emotionally raw to pursue a “relationship” and too emotionally raw to just tough it out. Friends? Hah. I’m an introvert and usually only have a couple close friends, and when my mom died they *poof* disappeared, and that was the hardest part. But amazingly, astoundingly, what I discovered through sex work helped me in ways I just can’t put into words. And yep, I know that the anti- answer to that is “oh well you felt great because you finally got that approval from men you always wanted” or something… which omygod is just so fucking funny that anyone thinks I give a fuck what men “approve” of… that’s just me though… hehe

    Damned if you do damned if you don’t… if you keep the mental illness to yourself, you are told you have privilege, if you tell others about the mental illness you risk being told ‘well that explains why you were “vulnerable to exploitation” and got caught up in this sex biz’.

    The gall of people who are not, never have been, and swear they never could be sex workers telling actual sex workers that they are too white or too middle class or too educated or all around too privileged to understand the real suffering that goes on – it’s just fucked up. The attitude of “you privileged bimbos shouldn’t bother us REAL feminists while we are talking about important stuff” blows my mind.

    And one thing that I especially loath is the assumption that so many people have that if a person is on the internet it means they are more privileged than “the average sex worker” because ya know, average sex workers are too poor or uneducated to have access to a computer or figure out how to get online. The funny thing is that the people making the assumption don’t even realize that libraries have rows upon rows of internet connected computers that people can use, and kinko’s gives you access for a couple bucks…

    But I believe that the tendency of antis to use these weaknesses as evidence of instability does a disservice to every woman… we are all screwy, we’re all learning as we go, we all make the best of what we have. Should a woman who’s got the ADD and the griefs and the friends abandoned me blues not be allowed to live the life she wants to? Should I have sat there alone, humping my pillow in a frustrated sexual frenzy, while life and people and experiences passed me by and I felt more and more isolated? phffth no! And yes, I know the next line too: “That’s great you meet people and have experiences but you’re upholding the patriarchy and teaching men to rape and way to go you rape-culture cheerleader!” argh. Oh and I also love the “well that’s great you have socially acceptable looks so that you can trade on your appearance, but many women aren’t able to conform to that standard and you reinforce those false ideals blah blah blah” argh argh. NO.

    K sorry for my rant, but like I said I totally agree with your post 🙂

  2. 2 Amber Rhea

    I’m fed up w/ the “privilege” thing too, because 99% of the time when I see it used around the blogosphere, it’s being used *incorrectly*, as a way to silence or one-up someone.

    For all the people who are so quick to appeal to the archetypal poor coerced sex worker – how about considering for one minute that sex workers *as a class* lack privilege *because they are sex workers*, and this situation is greatly perpetuated by the continued policing of which sex workers are and aren’t allowed to speak.

  3. FW, Amber, totally agree with both of you. FW, yeah, the thing about other people making judgments about why we do what we do, ugh. Just because someone becomes a sex worker as a response to a bad situation (mental illness, loss, poverty, etc), the situation is bad, not the choice. Sure, sure, it can be and certainly is for many people. But I’m just tried of being told I don’t know shit about my own life!

    Amber, we’ve definitely had this conversation before about “privilege” as a weapon. (Which is why from now on I’m typing privilege to mean privileges I have, others have, etc, and “privilege” as the way the word is used.) You’re dead on about the policing of which sex workers are allowed to speak. Whenever I talk about sex work, I’m very clear about the difference between the facts as books I’ve read put them (because I do read!) and what my life is like.

    I’ve been noticing a weird evolution in my own life. I used to think I was “normal,” then I thought, my god, I’m oppressed! And then, my god, I’m so privileged! And now I’m realizing more and more that privilege isn’t an either or thing. It’s not a game show where you win it all or lose it all. You win and lose at the same time.

  4. 4 Amber Rhea

    “It’s not a game show where you win it all or lose it all. You win and lose at the same time.”

    Excellent way of putting it! I might have to quote you on that.

  5. 5 serpentlibertine

    Excellent post. As you know, this is something that I struggle with everyday especially as an activist when certain people (ahem) point fingers at us and basically say “you don’t know what it’s like to be coerced, trafficked, abused, etc. as a sex worker.” No, I don’t. I can only speak about my own experiences and encourage others to speak about theirs. I’m a little tired of having to battle people on what’s become the sex-positive “privileged” sex workers vs. the defenders of the trafficked or coerced workers. I think it’s very disrespectful for others to try to speak “for us” without knowing what our experience is like, but they want to try and help women who may not have the opportunity to speak out or fight for their basic human rights. However, calling us privileged and saying we don’t understand what it’s like to have experienced certain hardships because of our race, economic class, and education basically devalues all of our experiences. It’s like the Melissa Farley approach…we don’t want you to speak about anything positive about being a sex worker, so shut up about it.

  6. 6 misscgirl

    Great post, I have been trying to come up with a topic for my own blog about privelage and survival sex to try and paint a picture of what it looks like and the diffrences and similarities of the two and I am very happy for your blog to give me an idea of what I could be missing or what I already know but didn’t know how to put into words.


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