The H-Word: Who You Calling a Hooker?

As important as it is for activists to establish sex work as work, it is equally important we acknowledge that not everybody who sells sex calls themselves a sex worker. As the current feminist debates about the Slutwalk march make all too clear, there is power and privilege in reclaiming a word and—like slut—to call oneself a "hooker" or even a sex worker is not everyone's preference, nor is it a privilege everyone can afford.


For me, sex work did not start out as some big political statement. Sex work began as work. Sex work activism, on the other hand, began as "participant-observational" research—the only socially permissible way I knew for a sex worker-feminist to admit that she existed, let alone contribute to the conversation about women's participation in the sex industry (i.e., my life). The fall semester following my first experiences working as a stripper, I began interviewing prostitutes and other sex workers across Europe and in the US. That research became my graduating thesis at Antioch College and was subsequently published in Research in Sex Work andSex Work Matters: Exploring Money, Power and Intimacy in the Sex Industry. In the back rooms of brothels, I invited women to speak about themselves and their professions. I listened to sex workers define sex work as work, similar and dissimilar to other jobs. They told me what they liked about their jobs, what they put up with and how the money made it all worth it in the end. Importantly, not one of the women I interviewed referred to herself as a sex worker. They were "dancers" or "models," "entertainers" or "escorts." They stressed their education. Those who had "real" jobs were quick to speak of them. They described themselves again and again as "normal." Clearly, normal was how they wished to be seen, although they were happy enough to not be seen at all. All the women I spoke with preferred to remain anonymous rather than identify themselves publicly and put that normalcy at risk.

By positing their work as such, and by describing themselves as normal and focusing on their lives outside of work, the women I spoke to buffered themselves from the stigmatized identity imposed upon them by their professions. Ironically, by calling myself a "researcher" and adapting the politicized descriptor "sex worker," I was doing the same. Like the women I interviewed, I worked exhaustively to protect myself from having to think of myself or be thought of as a whore. 

Nearly a decade later, "sex work is work" continues to be sex work activists' most important political claim. In an article by Melissa Gira Grant, "Men buy girls, not sex, and other myths of anti-prostitution moralists," Grant challenges the notion that men buy actual people not a product skilled and marketed. She writes:

It's tempting to imagine that sex workers will do whatever men pay them to do, and that sex workers exist to cater to male desire. What sex workers are actually selling is our ability to make our customers think they are getting what they want, and we try to sell that with as little strain on our time and our bodies as possible.

Whereas some anti-trafficking activists believe that all sex workers are beholden to traffickers and pimps, sex workers themselves argue that they are beholden to no more than the same financial responsibilities as everyone else. Sex workers need money to pay babysitters and loan officers, landlords, grocery bills and car payments—demands no more excessive than what most working people struggle to meet. Without our input, even well-meaning feminists get it wrong, misplacing their energies supporting campaigns to shut down strip clubs, fine our employers, and censor cites like Craigslist and Backpage—efforts which only further hinder sex workers' labor processes. As activist Audacia Ray points out, the so-called advocates who devise these campaigns do a disservice not only to consensual sex workers—who, as Audacia says, are perceived as "an extreme minority whose opinions are irrelevant"—but to victims of trafficking as well (Audacia cites the 2009 Sex Workers Project report)—evidence, in her eyes, that "most anti-trafficking campaigns are anti-prostitution campaigns full stop." 

Like it or not, prostitution's not going anywhere. The economy being what it is, in fact, "the world's oldest profession" just may be becoming more popular than ever. Television shows like HBO's Hung popularize the idea that sex work is a viable option when a girl or guy's gotta do what a girl or guy's gotta do. The media, always slow to catch on, recently reported that the "sugar baby" phenomenon is becoming a popular way for college women to pay off student loan debt. Even scientific studies are willing to concede that affluent, educated white women are choosing prostitution under certain circumstances (seriously?! who knew!?). 

These stories are interesting, but ignore the fact that there has always been a class of women and men who would rather sell sex than be poor, as well as people who choose to engage in sex work for reasons besides those economic. As we see more and more white, educated, middle-class faces speaking out as sex workers and speaking up for sex workers' rights, we just may be willing to believe prostitution and other forms of sex work are "normal." But let us never forget that the sex workers who speak, and who call themselves sex workers, represent only a part of a whole—and let us never stop working to include, however possible, everyone else in the conversation. 

Red and white sign that reads BE AWARE OF INVISIBILITY

So what do you call a sex worker if not a "sex worker"? The best answer I've heard was suggested by sexuality educator Sarah Elspeth Patterson: "If you are unsure as to what to call someone who works in the sex industry, ask them. They will tell you what they want to be called." When I was selling sex on Craigslist, I would never have referred to myself as a prostitute. Somewhat ironically, when soliciting clients I called myself a "non pro"—short for "non professional or "not a prostitute." As anti-sex worker as this reads to me today, this is how I marketed myself then. In an effort to be inclusive and to buffer the person we are labeling from that label's sting, prostitution is oftentimes referred to as "transactional sex." Sex workers are "people who exchange sex for something they need," including people who participate in street or informal economies. A campaign in Uganda calls it "something for something love." When I think of a sex worker, I might include anyone who has sex or is in a romantic relationship for reasons economic, or anyone who uses their sexuality to get what they need. With language this inclusive, sex worker activism escapes the trap of being considered the politics of individualism. It becomes easy to see how the work of sex worker activists benefits the poor and economically disadvantaged, although inclusivity works in both directions: with language this inclusive, it's hard not to concede that someone you know who you'd never think of as a "hooker" just might be a sex worker. Maybe that someone is you.  

Comments

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The H-Word has been one of my

The H-Word has been one of my favorite column series on the website. Really great, important ideas. Thanks for writing!

Not quite all ...

I have a couple of issues with this article: first, that it doesn't address the fact that there are women for whom sex work is NOT a choice ... and until sex work *can* be a choice and not a necessity, we shouldn't pretend that this isn't the case. Second, "As we see more and more white, educated, middle-class faces speaking out as sex workers and speaking up for sex workers' rights, we just may be willing to believe prostitution and other forms of sex work are "normal." Ummmm - excuse me? This implies that in order to be taken seriously, any group that is attempting to get its point across needs to have white, educated, middle-class people fronting as spokespersons in order to be taken seriously. NO. Just ... no. This is particularly galling given that coloured women and sexual minorities are the ones most likely to *have* to turn to sex work, instead of making a free and conscious choice to be involved. There is an extremely high correlation between childhood (usually sexual) abuse and people who decide to sell sex ... this doesn't of course, mean that this applies to every single sex trade worker. However, it's enough of a red flag to be worthy of sincere investigation, particularly given that addiction is also highly correlated with both sex work and traumatic childhood experiences. Third, I note that there is no mention of sexual minority sex workers. This is not only a glaring omission but it also does the disservice of dismissing an entire group the way that the author contends sex workers are dismissed.

I do agree that sex work needs to stop being demonized and that moralizing asshats who want everyone to live by their rules should just find another hobby. But I DO NOT believe that absolutely everyone who enters sex work does so because they honestly want to do it. Given the number of girls that I've seen die on the streets from bad tricks, overdoses, assaults, etc., it's appalling to me to suggest that because white, educated, middle-class women are now saying that *they* turn tricks, it's all fine. While it's true that there are a variety of ways to engage in sex work (from massage to escorting to stripping to peeps shows to phone sex to webcam shows and so on), please do NOT assume that everyone who comes into it is coming from a position of conscious self-determination. I don't claim to have all of the answers, and I do support the rights of anyone who wants to do sex work to do so safely, consciously and in whatever form they choose. But I do NOT support the assumption of some sex trade workers that because they are working voluntarily, everyone else is, too.

Thanks for this

Hey Raine,
Thanks for your comment. I have always struggled with my views on sex work and your comment pretty much encapsulates my feelings. I support sex workers but struggle with the aspects of the sex trade that I see as exploitative and misogynist. I think your comment points to important issues that need to be part of the larger discussion around sex work and sex workers' rights.

Not Quite

I didn't interpret this article as the author stating that everyone who is in sex work does it 100% voluntarily. The point of the saying "sex work is work" is that not everyone chooses their job based on how much they love it. Did I work at Taco Bell because I "chose" to? I worked there because I had rent to pay. The amount of choice that I had available depended on the amount of my monthly bills. Some people choose sex work because they enjoy the work; others choose sex work because it's the most economically viable option at the time. Some people choose it for so-called "unhealthy" reasons, and still others choose it for a dozen other reasons that I can't think of right now. The point, though, is that most people in this world choose their jobs based on need. This makes sex work a job; not a good job, or a bad job, because that's subjective. It is a job, though, and that is what needs to be recognized in a larger context. Sex work as "work," not some sort of symptom mental illness or trauma or whatever.

As far as the author's comment about "middle-class, educated white people," I think she was actually pointing out that marginalized voices are rarely taken seriously within the larger culture. The comment, I think, was more sarcastic than anything else. "Oh, look! Middle-class white women are sex workers! Why, that must make it a legitimate source of income, because everybody knows that the poor and people of color don't know what the hell they're doing!" /sarcasm.

On Point

Thanks for this clarification. I think you're right about the article's intentions. And I would add that this column has been one of the more interesting, thought-provoking and educational series this blog has seen in a while. More of it, please!

Melissa Petro has been challenging common-place thinking while simultaneously speaking to Bitch Blog's core concerns. That's no small feat for what, at this point, can be considered an institution, but exactly what any institution needs. Thanks for the thoughtful writing!

"I think she was actually

"I think she was actually pointing out that marginalized voices are rarely taken seriously within the larger culture. "

I totally agree on this interpretation ! - and almost all other sex workers rights activists I have met and worked with are totally aware of this !

Woman sex workers are just normal woman

I recently published my first book PUTAS OF THE CARIBBEAN (Prostitutes of the Caribbean). The book takes you on a journey into legal prostitution in the Caribbean. In the book I attempted to explore and celebrate these women, rather than exploit them. I can relate to the interesting comment where you mentioned “They described themselves again and again as "normal." I recently interviewed a woman in Canada for my next book which will deal mostly of her and her friend’s lives in the sex industry. She too made the comment to me “if we three women had to sit down at a table together: one a spar girl (massage parlor worker), a stripper and an escort. I don’t see us as hookers or sex-workers, I see us all as just women”.