Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sex workers -- a queer perspective

By Thierry Schaffauser
GMB Sex Work and Entertainment Branch

WHEN THE sex workers’ movement was born in the 1970s it was women only and most of them were identified as straight. It is only in the last few years that more and more trans and male sex workers have been involved in the movement and that activists have brought new ideas influenced by “queer” theories.


Queer workers can very easily compare the similarities between LGBT phobias and the “whore” stigma. In both cases, we have to hide our identity or even to lie sometimes to avoid violence and repression. We are told that we need to be cured or rehabilitated.
The only way to be recognised is to accept the dominants’ rules, and sometimes some of us indeed accept and act as the victim the system expects us to be. The alternative is to take a big risk and claim your pride or at least refuse to accept the imposed shame. But those who refuse to be “rescued” will then expose themselves to repression. Being LGBT could send you to prison. Being a sex worker can also jeopardise your citizen’s rights such as parenthood, housing and protection from the police – and according to the way you work you risk getting jailed.
As homophobia serves as a gender police for men, whorephobia does the same for women. We are what we must not become when we are taught what a man or a woman is. We are those who betray their sex. The insult “queer” is the only limit to men’s sexuality and actions. The insult “whore” is also an instrument to control women’s freedom. Each time a woman transgresses the gender rules, she knows she will face the whore stigma. That’s why so many people will distance themselves from these identities even if it means fighting against us as persons.

Solidarity of minorities

Being a queer sex worker helps you to understand the intersection between different discriminations. We are working class women, queers, drugs users, HIV positives, transgenders and migrants. Our enemies often say that we do sex work because of a lack of choice. And indeed, as minorities we often don’t have the same choices and sex work appears as one of our only options. But when sex work is so repressed and criminalised, what is described as a lack of choice can also been seen as an economic strategy to get the resources we would never have in a system which excludes us.
As a migrant, I know I can work in any country and will always find clients. As a young queer I know I could leave my family and escape from a father’s authority. Without sex work I would never have been able to pay my tuition fees and have the same access to education. So instead of criminalising further the sex industry in thinking it will force us to do something else, why is the problem never looked at from the opposite side?
There are people who indeed have a lack of choices, but rather than taking away the sex work option in criminalising always more our clients or ourselves, we could once think about giving more options and more choices in fighting for minorities’ rights. But it is probably easier for the Government to claim being feminist in targeting prostitution while at the same time cutting single mothers’ benefits, deporting migrant workers and doing nothing against women’s economic apartheid.
Sex workers have a lot to bring to the labour movement. We have to build tools to avoid exploitation. Many of us used to work in hard low-paid jobs before choosing sex work and thus avoid now exploitation from a boss. We can choose when we want to work and not to wake up early in the mornings. We always ask to be paid first and we can have better incomes. But other sex workers work for escort agency managers or brothel keepers and can’t benefit from the same social protection as other workers gained thanks to our ancestors. This is the result of our division. Many workers keep thinking that we are not proper workers. The system divides us between the public and the private sector, the intellectual workers and the manual workers, and those who like sex workers are not even considered as workers. The system pushes you to think that at least you are not selling your body and that you are better than these prostitutes. But what are you selling?
The idea of separating our mind and our body doesn’t come from nowhere but from religion. Women used to be burnt as witches for selling their soul to the devil. Now they say sex workers sell their body. The consequence is always to reduce us to non-political objects who can’t make decisions for ourselves. The abolitionist ideology was born in the 19th century by the meeting of social Christian philanthropists and upper class feminists. Their will to reform us was for our own good for sure, but like when they wanted to educate the working classes or when they thought they brought civilisation to the colonies, they maintain a hierarchy between those who are the helpers and those who need the help.
What sex workers want is that you treat us as equals because we share the same struggle for our liberation, not as an under proletarian class who need to be saved. The emancipation of the workers must be the act of the workers themselves.