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Respectability, Respect, and Rights for Sex Workers: An Open Letter to Kate Zen

July 4, 2013

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.

Dear Kate,

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.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2013 9:26 am

    [Original comment deleted]

    • July 4, 2013 2:51 pm

      Thank you so much for this really thorough and powerful response. I’ll reply properly when I have the time, but I just wanted to say that I hope I didn’t make you feel pressured to share more than you want to/ are able to safely, + I’m totally willing to delete your comment if + when you’d like me to do so. I don’t think the alternative to the ‘Respectable Ho’s Only Please’ attitude is ‘Disrespectable Ho’s Only; All Others Get Out’. I don’t want there to be pressure to behave any kind of way, just space for everyone to be however it is they’re comfortable being. You absolutely don’t need to change your presentation. No one does. That’s the point.

      • July 5, 2013 2:49 pm

        Your candidness is really inspiring to me, Lori. The more I read of anti-trafficking and abolitionist arguments, the more I believe it is important for the “unhappy hooker” narrative to be put at the forefront of a sex worker rights movement, because it is much more powerful that “unhappy hookers” demand and deserve labor rights and decriminalisation, than only happy hookers doing so. The funny thing is, I think a lot of “happy hookers” who emphasise the ways that sex work is a free choice by focusing on the happy parts of their story – are actually unhappy hookers much of the time.

        We would be more effective in our advocacy by being more candid about the ways in which the job can be really horrible, how it can feel exploitative and even degrading sometimes, and yet we still choose it over other circumstances. This is something you brought up, which I think is a really powerful and liberating insight. By focusing on how sex work helps to cope with even less happier circumstances in our lives, we can actually put up a much stronger argument for sex worker rights.

        However, rather than reducing it to only an issue of identity, I think we should think about it in terms of “presentation” and strategy as a movement. Because I think you are absolutely right that there are multiple axes for privilege, and it’s hard to judge the adversity that someone is facing using only identity metrics like “white, middle-class, educated.” Rather than putting things in antagonistic terms of privileged sex workers vs. other sex workers (falling into the exact same dichotomy trap that anti’s put us in) – we would do well as a movement to be more open about the ways in which we all struggle, as most of don’t don’t fully fit the stereotype of the “happy hooker.”

        As far as I know, there is nothing in the movement that prevents “unhappy hookers” from taking leadership in sex worker-led organisations. Please don’t feel like there is some kind of filter or conspiracy here. From my experience, the sex workers who take leadership in our voluntary organisations tend to be the ones who want to – the ones who are dedicated and do the grunt work in emailing and organising. I don’t personally know of any active efforts to “keep out” unhappy sex workers in sex worker-led organisations. However, in non-sex-worker-led service organisations, I think they tend to hire sex workers with degrees and qualifications, which tend to be more privileged sex workers.

        With all of this in mind, I’ll also try to be a bit more candid as well about my background in appropriate settings, and adopt less of the “good girl” image (although that’s my shtick in sex work as well – the Lolita shtick, a money-maker for shorties like me. Actually, my college education has never been more profitable than when I talk about school with clients, who think that this type of thing is somehow unusual and would pay a premium for liberal arts esoterica that other employers seem unwilling to pay.) Maybe my aspirations to academia are Uncle Tom-ish, but as I get older, I can’t see how sex work will always be a suitable job for me, and I want to exit gracefully. I don’t want to be the face of sex worker rights movement. I just want to be able to quietly and effectively do research and writing in the background, for support in policy change. Keeping in mind all the prejudices that people have, I don’t want to be limited by more confessions than necessary, or have things I say be dismissed as crazy. So I do ask you to please remove my comments after this week.

        Thanks again for your beautiful writing, and I hope we will always continue to exchange ideas with each other.

    • July 6, 2013 3:37 pm

      Here’s my longer response:

      Hi Kate,

      It does seem that we have more in common than I otherwise would have assumed. I’m left wondering, then, how it is we wound up on opposite sides of this issue. I suspect some of it has to do with what you astutely call being ‘flipped in presentation’. The fact that I can’t, and perhaps, unlike you, do not *need* to be seen as respectable has certainly given me an outsider’s mentality. And that outsider’s mentality may not be particularly justifiable. After all, as disrespectable as I become, I’ll always have the option of a comeback story. Girl, Interrupted wouldn’t have worked if Susanna hadn’t been so White + middle class. Maybe I’m opposite you because my privilege allows me to be.

      Not everyone who presents as disrespectable or unhappy can make that claim, though, and surely you’re presentable not just because you have to be, but because you can be. The Disrespectable/ Respectable divide is so interesting precisely because it’s so complicated. It’s not always correlated with privilege, and it’s frequently illusory. It’s a false dichotomy. Most of us have aspects that are respectable + disrespectable. All the more reason to get rid of this respectability divide and allow sex workers to be seen as fully human, with a range of privileges, presentations, and feelings. I don’t want to be slotted into the Unhappy Hooker role either, because that’s also not really representative of who I am. I just want to be.

      I really can’t see myself advocating for anything less. Though social change usually happens in stages, starting with assimilation, I’m not convinced that it has to happen that way. Maybe our disagreement is more a matter of pragmatism than anything else.


      • July 6, 2013 3:50 pm

        And here’s my response to your follow-up comment:


        I feel like we’re coming around to the same side now. Sex worker rights advocates need to step back, let go of the reactionary rhetoric, and define our demands (and our jobs and our lives) on our own terms. We need to stop holding sex work to a higher level than all other work, to start critiquing the sex industry the same way we should critique all industries. We need to separate rights from feelings and the notion of what we need now from what a utopian labor situation would be.

        Ideally, the sex work abolitionists would approach it from this angle as well. How much would sex workers lives be improved if everyone dropped the rhetoric and actually worked towards meaningful change? I feel like I should throw out a link to my ‘What Antis Can Do to Help’ series here: Talk about not being realistic, though :-/

        One last thing: as I said on Twitter, I don’t think it’s as much an issue of disrespectable/ unhappy sex workers not being a part of the organizations, as it is the fact that those narratives aren’t allowed publicly. We’re often allowed to complain in private, but the notion of being open about those stories + feelings is seen as too radical. It skeeves me out, how close it is to the way domestic violence was treated (and still is treated, in some places + by some people) as a private issue.


        P.S. I use the good girl image as my work persona too. Maybe we should do doubles!

  2. July 4, 2013 11:16 am

    Reblogged this on respectsexwork and commented:
    Lori Adorable, is lovely. I really like her writing and I’ve always appreciated her honesty because sometimes I feel like it’s lacking in my community.

  3. July 4, 2013 11:22 am

    Hey Lori, as usual I’m impressed by the clarity of your writing on a really muddy topic. I was especially struck by this: “And because anyone can be happy (at least theoretically), anyone can be respectable. Except for those of us who aren’t and can’t.”

    I’m not American, so the “pursuit of happiness” is a bit of a foreign idea to me, but it seems to strike at the idea of equality of opportunity fuelling global Northern (neo)liberalism. For me, opportunity is where “poor” and “disabled” stop being identity politics and start being the material conditions of inequality. As you say, tactics promoting “respectability” — especially, as they have in some advocacy here, as they get wrapped up in licencing and certification, awards and recognitions aimed at reducing stigma, and other class-markers — will always undermine substantive equality for the poor. I don’t have much interest in being included in a movement that undermines my material interests. (And I think Kate addressed that when she noted the difference between representation of identity and representation of interests, but acknowledging that does seem to leave open the question of “now what?”)

    • July 6, 2013 3:58 pm

      Thanks! Your post about giving up on the happy hooker image was a real inspiration for this (

      I’d love to see a further exploration somewhere of the particular American notion of ‘happiness’ as it relates to American sex workers’ rights. We have the strongest notion of meritocracy and the strongest tie to the value of happiness, as well as the worst legal situation for sex workers in the Global North. I feel like the so-called Protestant work ethic + the particularly American brand of evangelical Christianity are somehow related here, too.

      • Sarah Beth permalink
        July 7, 2013 1:36 pm

        I’m so pleased that folks are reading and writing about that post. It was *really* hard to bring myself to post it. I am going to a drop-in memoir workshop at the Red Umbrella Project later this month, where hopefully I will learn more about putting my story into words that are personally and politically and aesthetically pleasing.

        I noted your comment upthread about the privateness of domestic violence experience — a form of “privacy” that doesn’t add to survivors’ agency, but instead props up both the heteronormative fantasy of the “happy marriage” and abusers’ privacy to do as they wish with the lives and bodies of the people in their home. I feel very attached to my privacy, in terms of being in control over who accesses the details of my life, but I am always struggling to figure out how to make privacy serve my actually-existing agency (and not just the impression of agency we give when we claim to have unconstrained choice about work).

        Funny (?) story: there is a church in my region that I attended while growing up. After I left that environment, I always wondered how they could espouse such perfect, charming rhetoric about Christian goodness while being so thoroughly awful. I found out only last year that the church’s founders were American, and had founded the church with the specific intent of importing the evangelical model, along with its ideas about financial responsibility and merit. Not that we don’t have our own neoliberals here, but I definitely know what you mean about that particular attitude that somehow ties together money, morality, purity and merit.

      • July 7, 2013 2:43 pm

        Seriously, your post was amazing. I’m so glad you were able to share it. I hear great things about the Red Umbrella Project and am thinking about attending one of their workshops myself!

        To be clear, I don’t think there’s a wrong way of dealing with your own abuse + exploitative experiences. You have no obligation to others to share, and you may not have that obligation to yourself, either, as maintaining your privacy can be a positive and healing thing. I was referring only to silencing others. It struck me that the reactions I’ve encountered when sharing my experiences of abuse in the sex industry were similar to the reactions I got when talking about experiencing abuse at home: “you’re embarrassing us”, “that’s not anyone else’s concern”, “stop airing our dirty laundry”, “deal with that issue privately”, “you’re only going to make things worse for yourself + everyone else.” It’s not a perfect analogue, but the similarities are definitely there.

        Oh, and if you’ve never read Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, it’s worth checking out.

  4. July 4, 2013 3:51 pm

    Great stuff, it prompted me to look up labor identity politics. I haven’t had time yet to read it all through but I think that angle is interesting in light of your writing. Too, i’m curious to hear specific experiences of being ‘disqualified’ as activist/and or sex workers. Too, I’m totally guilty of struggling to make the ‘white man’s words’ when speaking to those audiences even though I’m white, just not educated. And it makes me think too, of how sw are caught in the class war but like most people are unaware of it.

    • July 6, 2013 3:54 pm

      I’m really interested in reading about organized labor in sex workers rights in general! As for being ‘disqualified’, I’m frequently shut down in forums and on Twitter by other sex workers for ‘making them look bad.’ I’ve also been at meetings + conferences that were carefully curated to feature only positive stories + voices (or, at least, were *not* curated to feature a range of experiences), and the obvious deep discomfort of everyone in the room when I spoke up made me want to wither away. All this despite the fact that most of us have these negative experiences. It’s a question of a respectable public image.


  1. Letter to Lori | Doodles on the Margins
  2. Who Gets Left Out: Respectability Politics Round Table, Part One

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