Respectability, Respect, and Rights for Sex Workers: An Open Letter to Kate Zen
As you may have noticed, I moved my site to an independent host over a year ago. That site has gone down, and while I work to get it back up, I’m returning to this old blog so that I have a space to continue writing. I’ve been feeling well enough to write regularly again, mostly at other blogs and under other names and on other topics. Apparently I’m also feeling well enough to write very personal things that need to go in a personal space, so here we are. This post is in response to this.
Note: I’m unsure whether it’s appropriate or even accurate to use the concept of respectability to talk about myself as a White woman in the context of sex workers’ rights. ‘Respectability politics’ was coined (as far as I can tell) by a Black woman scholar, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, in the early Nineties as a way to describe a phenomenon that had been taking place in African-American communities since the late 19th Century, whereby certain Black people tried to gain social equality with Whites by distancing themselves from those Black people who were least respectable, i.e. least like the White standard, and typically poor and uneducated. The term ‘respectability politics’ has since spread, but it’s still primarily referenced in Black discussions about Black communities. I could not think of an adequate alternative for the term ‘respectability’, and I’m unsure if coining a new term for what might be a permutation of the same phenomenon would be akin to intellectual theft. So I went ahead and used ‘respectability’, but I am very willing to examine that choice further.
I came away from your letter with the feeling that I’m something of your mirror image. I tried to divorce the subject at hand—the sex worker movement as inhospitable to the Unhappy Hooker—from the self, and from you, and as usual I failed. It’s hard to talk impersonally about something that will always be so deeply personal, for both of us. So even though I probably shouldn’t have, I latched onto the details about yourself you included in your letter, pieced together some image of the personal reflected in the political, and saw someone who is the same as me, but in reverse.
I was born into a solidly middle-class White American suburban family. Both my parents are educated, white-collar professionals. The town we lived in was small and White and full of trees. Had things gone according to plan (my parents’ plan, I suppose, but also society’s and, for a long time, mine as well), I wouldn’t be having this conversation. But lots of things went wrong, all of which can be summed up rather inadequately with ‘domestic violence’ and ‘sexual abuse’ and ‘mental illness’ and ‘chronic disability’. Were my life to end tomorrow, one would be able to say I lived the reverse American Dream, moving from relative wealth and privilege and opportunity into relative poverty and oppression and a lack of options.
Chances are I’ll live at least a couple more decades, though, and should current health trends continue, I’ll eventually find my way back to somewhere in the middle of the Great American Shitpile Hierarchy. It’s of course much more complicated than being More Oppressed or Less Oppressed. One’s Privileged/Oppressed Status can’t be plotted on a two-dimensional chart as a fixed point. It’s a constantly shifting location on a three-dimensional grid. It’s being in multiple locations at once. Real quantum physics shit.
So while I am lacking in access to a lot of resources (emotional, financial, educational and otherwise), I also have a lot going for me, including a continued access to culturally middle-class, educated (read: pretty fuckin’ White) spaces. Sometimes I feel like a spy, getting access to these places, although most times I just feel like a failure and a fraud. I wonder how long it will take people to catch onto the fact that I’m a college drop-out chronic abuse survivor with disabling mental illness and few people to rely on to keep me off the streets or out of an abusive living situation. It usually happens when they notice the self-inflicted scars, which, interestingly enough, have really affected my marketable value in this industry. “What a pretty, thin, young White girl, who drops phrases like ‘quantum physics’ so casually… and who destroyed herself with razor blades, holy fuck.” But I digress.
The point I was trying to make was that, sex work status aside, I am not respectable. Respectability isn’t quite like Privilege/Oppression, in that it’s usually pretty dichotomous. I fall on the unlucky side of that line. No one wants me as the spokesgirl for their movement, and I’m not particularly interested in being one. What I am interested in is having a space. On Twitter, I repeatedly mentioned a sex worker ‘movement’. That term mostly implies organized activism, but I meant it as a catch-all for any space where people who identify as sex workers come together for a purpose—online forums, published anthologies, social gatherings, and yes, activist meetings, too. I would expect that a space for sex workers to gather would be a place for all sex workers to gather, but as both of us have acknowledged, it doesn’t work out that way.
But let’s go back to talking only about activism for a second. I know you know that activism is not a thing only by and for the relatively privileged. It may be like that in the spaces you (and to an extent, I as well) have access to, but it’s not like that everywhere. To give one of very many examples, there’s the Philippine Sex Workers Collective, which you wrote about recently. Street-based workers and various other ‘disrespectables’ may not be organizing with you (or with me, for that matter), but they’re organizing. And while ‘sex worker’ may be a new and not-so-universal thing, being a whore is a well-established identity across the globe. Whores have been here and everywhere, helping themselves and each other in all circumstances. It’s just that not all sex workers/ whores have their actions recognized as activism. Activism isn’t just writing letters and standing outside with posters, but supplying one’s coworkers with condoms one night and offering emotional support when a colleague is hurt on the job. Activism is organized advocacy AND it’s small acts for community.
Sex worker spaces need to recognize all sex work activism in order to be inclusive of the disrespectable. They also need to allow and encourage multiple narratives, including the tragic ones. It’s not just about formal bougie activist meetings (which are indeed a luxury and something I’ve only just been able to start attending myself thanks to improving health), but about space to recognize each other + our work for each other, as well as our stories. Every time a sex worker wants to collect sex worker writings, a space is formed. Every new thread on a sex work forum or conversation between sex workers on a public platform like Twitter creates a space. Sex work space is about more than shiny organized activism, even if it’s also about that.
And space for sex workers is so, so necessary. When I talk about what it means for me personally, I keep coming back to ‘need.’ I need a space to talk about my sex work experiences with other sex workers. I need to know that my experiences will be accepted and understood. I need for people to stop telling me I make them look bad. I always look bad. It’s kind of my thing, what with being a crazy, damaged ho. Those of us who always look bad are all out of fucks to give about how bad others look in proximity to us. We need and demand to be a part of rights-based movements, and we need and demand that these movements be intersectional, because we don’t have the luxury of living one-issue lives. My stigma is multi-faceted, and it will go nowhere should the respectable ho’s manage to get the Serious Professional seal of approval.
These respectable sex workers have constructed the issue of respectability in sex workers’ rights in a way that is, on its surface, pretty inclusive. Poor sex workers are sometimes allowed in. Sex workers of color and queer sex workers are sometimes allowed in. Some disabled sex workers and some trans sex workers are allowed in. Occasionally even the abused and mentally ill and drug-users are allowed in, but only under the same condition as the rest: that their stories have a positive spin. The Respectable Hooker is the Happy Hooker; she’s the sex worker whose life is improved by the work and who feels good about it, goddamnit. And because anyone can be happy (at least theoretically), anyone can be respectable. Except for those of us who aren’t and can’t.
Respectability can never be inclusive, because it can only exist in opposition to disrespectability. Someone is always going to have to be disrespectable for someone else to be respectable. But no one has to be excluded for everyone to be respected and to be given space. And rights. Basic rights should not be contingent upon anything, least of all something so amorphous and fleeting as job satisfaction. Most Happy Hookers aren’t even that happy; they play up the good, because talking about the bad would get them kicked out of the club and possibly cost them money. I don’t blame them for lying. I would do it more often if I weren’t so fucking horrible at it. But I don’t deserve to lose my rights for being miserable and honest about it.
More and more, I see sex workers’ rights as needing to be, simply, workers’ rights. Then the absurdity of Happy Hooker= Respectable Hooker= Respected Hooker with Access to Space and Full Rights would be really clear. Can you imagine Cesar Chavez saying, ¡Sí se puede… disfrutar cosechando a las uvas! No (and not just because that Spanish is probably terrible, but) because the very idea of basing workers’ rights on how much workers’ love their jobs is incoherent, especially for lower-class workers, for whom enjoyment is not the fucking point.
The fact that I didn’t see this centrality of workers rights in sex workers rights immediately doesn’t mean it hasn’t always been there. It probably means that, in my ever-shifting position on the Privilege/Oppression matrix, I got confused about my (Dis)respectability and wandered onto the wrong side of the movement, the one for Happy Hookers. I forgot that my cultural access to spaces doesn’t mean that I belong in them. I belong with the Disrespectable. In the end, there aren’t two paradoxes to the sex workers’ rights movement; there are two movements. There are two ideologically, and I now see there are two demographically. And I think you and I are in opposite ones, at least on this subject, at least for the foreseeable future, at least right now.
[E.T.A.] P.S. To be clear, I don’t mean to imply anything about your ‘respectability’, or your privilege, especially as it relates to me and mine. I don’t really know much about you at all, just that we appear to be in ideologically opposite places inhabited by very different people.
Update: Conversation between Kate + I continues in the comments + is very much worth reading.