The H-Word: "I'm a Whore"

This series presents first-person stories from current and former sex workers across the US. The following is from Mariko, a 35-year-old activist and artist living in South Central Los Angeles. She has a Masters from UCLA in Social Justice Education and works for ImMEDIAte Justice, mentoring queer youth and allies ages 14-24.

close-up photo of Marika, the author of this postI'm a whore, a proud whore. What does this word mean? A whore is a prostitute, sex worker, hustler, degenerate, scum in a female body. I call myself a whore revolutionary. I consider myself a survivor.

I am a survivor of sexual and relationship violence, racism, the patriarchy, state violence, and arrest. I was disowned and kicked out of my house at 22, so I pulled myself up by stiletto bootstraps and got my own apartment. I started working as a stripper to support myself and to pay for school. I made more money at 22-25 than most of my peers with BAs from the same top 10 school I went to, and I had more freedom. I traveled to Hawaii and other places with my newly acquired time and money.

Prostitutes are survivors because sex work is often the last resort for many women trying to feed mouths other than their own. They have agreed to bear society's conditions and treatment in order to do this. In many labor-rights-loving folks' eyes, prostitutes are heroines. When I was a stripper, I used the labor commission to fight to be renumerated of all illegal stage fees that were charged to me as a dancer. I've been robbed twice and arrested once, as well as been involved in countless other close calls and verbal altercations. I am in the belly of the beast, the heart of rape culture. I see myself as a warrior, sword drawn, ready to not take it lying down.

Four years ago, I quit my full-time teaching job to be a whore—to travel the world and to make art. I've done a lot of art projects, writing, and performance pieces relating to the theme of Asian sex workers. I write to understand my own actions, and to understand people's treatment of me. I promote voluntary sex work and fight human trafficking hysteria and anti-immigration laws. The sex worker rights movement saved me from the shame and stigma I acquired when I first started stripping. Through my art, I create a solidarity with other sex workers and clients who are isolated or ashamed in their own skins.

These days I continue to work as an escort in LA, but I am at the tail-end of my sex work career. Burnt out and jaded, I have seen and done it all. In the past, whenever I wanted to get out of the sex work profession, I wasn't able to. So often you make a choice but then for different reasons you have to continue doing the work, so it isn't a choice at all. Without sex work I was mostly doing shit minimum wage jobs like hustling for donations for the environment outside of grocery stores. Because I feast and famine quite frequently I find myself doing survival sex, and this can be very traumatic. I can't go back to teaching because I have a criminal record. I was banned from the district for five years.

I use the word whore to reclaim it, but I must confess, recently, I have felt shame again about the word. I feel that there is a keloid scar of a scarlet letter burned in me but I "chose" that fate of course so I have no one to blame but myself. To wear my t-shirt that says WHORE in the CocaCola font seems silly some days. I have faced so much rejection from so many different venues—feminism, non profits, leaders in LA, etc.—I feel I have been effectively silenced. I just want to find a place where I can be real about the experiences that I bring to the table and not have to hide.

Mariko in front of a sign that reads Everyone's Work is Equally Important

Read more from Mariko at her blog.

 

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Comments

4 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Off to a good start!

It sounds like there's a lot more to your story than I realized before, so I'm looking forward to hearing more of what you have to say and also hearing from others in the industry.

While I understand the condemnation of sex work by the broad spectrum of self-righteous people who envision a world that conforms to their narrow view of right and wrong, I have never understood how other women could join in the persecution, prosecution, and imprisonment of women sex workers. It seems that a woman who isn't free to choose under what terms she has sex isn't free, period. It just doesn't seem like it's very hard for women to all be on the same page in that regard.

Of course, that isn't to say that anti-sex laws don't prohibit men from having consensual sex on their own terms as well, but they haven't been animated by an equal rights movement of global proportions nor have they suffered nearly as much under the enforcement of these laws.

Good luck with your new Bitch Media column.

Freedom to Be

I think there is an important distinction to be made when you choose to do something and when you are forced to do something. Human trafficking is a growing industry and many of the "prostitutes" that you see on the streets, in countries all over the world and even in the United States, aren't actually making the decision to sell sex. Laws have been passed to prevent human trafficking in some countries. For an example, in Sweden the client will be arrested for attempting to purchase sex and the prostitute will not because the government recognizes that there is a lot of overlap between prostitution and trafficking.

That being said, I think it says a lot for any person to embrace who they are and not be ashamed; especially when they can be easily condemned for it. In my opinion, it seems that a lot of women do not agree with those who choose prostitution as a career because there is an overwhelming number of women and children who are forced into it. It is hard to combat it when there are some women who uplift. I am not at all saying that women who choose it are condoning the actions of traffickers or pimps who force women into it. Some people are unable to distinguish the two.

I agree with the comment above by Dave, "It seems that a woman who isn't free to choose under what terms she has sex isn't free, period." I think that it is incredibly important to have the freedom to be and choose whatever you want as long as it is not infringing upon others.

I commend you on being so open about your experiences and I definitely think that people will be able to learn from whatever you share.

The Swedish law isn't about

The Swedish law isn't about the overlap of prostitution and trafficking, it's based on a view that all sex workers are victims (at least the female ones) whether they were trafficked or not. Ironically Sweden tends to deal with foreign sex worker by simply deporting them, which doesn't indicate a great amount of sympathy for those who may have been trafficked.

sex work isn't necessarily sex

i chose, and still choose, sex work. i chose it because i knew i needed to expose myself to the stigma of sex work, before i could ever feel entitled to write about it. in the ivory tower, we call that "epistemic privilege."

many sex workers do choose what circumstances they have sex under. but here's the thing--sex work isn't necessarily just about sex.

when i turn/ed tricks, i never came back from work going, "i just got laid." i will continue to hold the position that, "sex work isn't sex, it's work."

i think you're misconstruing the stigma of sex work, and the gendered enforcement of anti-sex work laws. the stigma needs to go. so do the laws. but just because those two things tend to suck, you know, a lot, doesn't mean that we can't still freely choose sex work, or that we can't enjoy it, or that we can't help others do the same.

i'm a sex worker, and i am free. the money isn't easy, but it is plentiful.

and just like feminism means something different to everyone, so does sex work. so it is VERY HARD for "all" "women" to be on the "same page" in terms of what constitutes "freedom" within sex work.