Sex Work Activism – Is It Really Worth It?
Sex work activism is hard work. Like, really really hard work with little rewards. Tangible rewards that is. I’m a results driven person. Before I do anything I need to know what the point is, what the reward is; and only after I think about it, will I act. This is why I struggle sometimes with sex work activism – hard work, little reward. In my escorting, its different – sometimes hard work, sometimes easy work – always high rewards. After a hard booking, when I’m left alone and depleted, I just look at my stack of cash and everything seems ok. I can see, with my two eyes, exactly what all the work was for and in the grand scheme of things, I can compartmentalise the harder times. I make a choice: either I choose my wage or let someone else choose my wage. I pick the one with the more zeros. I often feel as though I’m trapped in a maze of locked doors, the key to any door being a sum of $. That’s why I choose to work in escorting, this is where the money is. Money, a synonym for a key in a maze of locked doors. Because of my work I’ve opened up doors of opportunities that I would have otherwise been deprived of. Some doors are essential for my personal development and future like education. Some provide for my general well-being like freedom of movement. Some of them are just plain old self-indulgences like a fun night out. Yes, work can be difficult at times but life, in general, would be much harder without work. Sex work has given me more choices than I had before. I should know, there was a time where I practiced my life without sex work.
Do you know what happens after a hard day of sex work activism? Nothing, most of the time. You’re left alone with a sick feeling in your stomach and there is no stack of cash to glance at. In fact there’s nothing you can see to justify a swelling of discordance, taking its fine time to be done with you, not unlike a bad hangover. While I can get an undesirable client now and then, I know that at the end of the day, I still have my money. When you do your activism, you’re abused, dismissed, slandered and treated as a second class citizen and as any reasonable person would ask after such treatment: ‘why did I willingly put myself through that?’ There is no excellent answer. I personally do it because I love a bit of confrontation, I’m passionate, I’m territorial about my workspace and life and I’m self righteous. The touch stone reason: for once, just once, I would like a sliver of respect for my existence, not just as a sex worker but as a human being, not unlike anyone else.
Sometimes I think to myself ‘wow I have it pretty good as a sex worker and I still have problems. I can’t imagine how bad sex work must be for others, those that really have to bear the grunt of any political, legislative or social changes’. After all this reasoning though, cash still sounds better and I imagine how many bookings I could have taken if I didn’t give a damn about activism. Is activism worth it? After a hard day, you wait, hoping you’ve catalysed a movement, a positive chain of events, something, anything!
The results are never instant. They’re never that grand either, there’s no real ‘big wins’. Maybe you’ve swayed one persons opinion, maybe you’ve opened up a door of thought for another. These are the little things which could turn into big things but not anytime soon. Bills get pushed back, policy changes are overthrown, you’re not going to get a whole new set of rules for sex work overnight. The devil is in the details – if you watch carefully to any changes made to anything sex work related, may it be small, its purpose is to act as that grain of rice that tips the scale. That’s sex work activism, deflected any seeds of false knowledge or propaganda to be planted in the minds of powerful people (look at Canada’s recent sex work reform bill proposal) and trying to gain influence, respect and reliability for your own cause. Raising awareness, dispelling myths, debunking theories and sharing knowledge, all of those things are the core of fine sex worker activism.
As a sex work activist you need to be able to say what your goal is and why. Regardless of this, you must subscribe to the fact that sex work activists are painted as pimps or serving the interests of pimps. Being a former sex worker means you can call upon your own experiences and you will be listened, especially if you’ve identified as a victim or survivor. Oppositely, being a current sex worker can mean you’re untrustworthy, deluded or unreliable (we call this stigma or whorephobia) which would explain your continuos involvement in the industry. Being able to distinguish which parts of your life you’ve been a victim to, I feel, is the best approach because it demonstrates your skill of thoughtfulness and retrospect. Catch 22 means that you need to out yourself as a victim and confront your victim self, whether you’re ready to or not. By presenting yourself as a victim, the world has permission to victimise you again. And they will, repetitively, by recalling your experiences and questioning them again, again and again.
Sometimes people respectfully reject your arguments, usually due to morale rigidity or a feeling of uncertainty, unreadiness or unwillingness to what you’re saying. They are unsure of which side to take and what it entails in the long run; and they don’t want to make the wrong decision, so they stay out of it. This is okay, you can’t force anyone to do anything they’re not comfortable with. All it means is that they don’t agree with you and they probably won’t agree with anyone else.
The worst is when someone has listened, understood, agreed and has chosen to not openly support you. They might approach you or message you in confidence like ‘yeah, I totally agree with you, keep it up’. It’s nice and I need those sorts of messages but it also breaks my heart. The problem is not what has been said, it is what has not been said. It’s a ‘I wish you the best on your endeavour, I won’t be there but I’ll be thinking of you.’
With your opposers you already know what they’re like, you know that you’re probably not going to be able to change their minds in any reasonable way. The people with their morale uncertainty have a chance, they just need a bit more convincing, maybe some one on one time. It’s the worst when someone has listened, understood, silently agreed and yet, they refuse to support you. It’s not that they don’t want to, they just feel like they can’t. They, quite simply, do not care as much as you do. They’ve decided to sit on the fence where it’s safer because the battle is ugly. I’m someone who would be directly effected by any change and I empathise with every sex worker across the globe, so it makes sense why I’d put myself in the middle of a battle. Someone who agrees with the points and discussion is also clever enough to realise that if they showed their support – they’ll be met with same indignation as sex work activists. So of course, they silently show their support – there are no rewards and only risks for them. This disheartens the activist the most, it tells them that after all their hard work, there is some agreement but no movement because, simply put: no one cares enough. It means you’ve got to comb through the crowds of people again and again and again to find not just someone who agrees with you, but someone who agrees to help you. Once again, activism is hard work with little rewards. Is it really worth it?
I’m the type of person who needs not just rewards but constant positive reinforcement or encouragement, especially in the face of negativity. I cannot be fuelled by silent support, not from strangers, not from pity looks from afar. I need someone to say ‘yes I love your work, keep going, keep going, keep going’. Sex work gives me my reinforcement because it pays me and because whenever I need my ego stroked, I turn my bambi eyes to my clients and I get it. Superficial yes but very essential for the upkeep of my confidence required for my work and my activism. I’m satisfied with that. Sex work activism itself does none of these things. It can be hard to compartmentalise which is why I think many sex workers are not proactive with many forms of activism.
At the end of the day, any changes to policy or law isn’t going to stop our work and we know that – it’s just going to make it harder. Since sex workers are adaptable by nature, well practiced in the art of navigating through difficult times, it’s just a period of adjustment for us. Those established workers already have their client base, it’s new workers who bear the most dangers. Any new brothel or agency is discouraged to open shop and trust me, that’s a bad thing because it means there’s no competition and existing workplaces have all the power. It means workers can only pick from 2 workplaces rather than 20 and if those 2 workplaces aren’t very good, well then too bad sugar. It widens the divide between the satisfied and the unsatisfied workers because if you can’t adjust or if you do a terrible job at it, then you get caught in the crossfire of bad laws and poor working conditions. And guess what anti’s, the big guns who actually run the brothels and the agencies, they’re not going anywhere. They already have their clients and their workers. They get the most out of bad laws because with lower competition, workers are more likely to seek refuge and safe passage through them. Do you know why? Because unlike any government or rescue initiative provided for sex workers, they will encourage their sex work, which is what the worker obviously wants to do. When you’re a worker and you’re afraid of bad clients, that’s ok, you can compartmentalise, make friends with others, learn as you go. But when you’re afraid of the police or being caught, you go to where you feel safe, a brothel or agency whose interest aligns with yours.
When you lose a battle as an activist, it makes a shit situation shitter. Not only do you have a knot in your gut, but now you’ve got to go to work worrying for your safety and health. And still, it doesn’t stop the workers, nothing ever does, nothing ever has and nothing ever will.
A now retired, senior feminist activist (who eventually was cooed into an ally of sex work) once told me: ‘activism will cost you your soul’. She warned me that there will come a time where I will need to choose what is number 1, me or the cause. Her warning haunts me every time I do any sort of activism, even a little retweet.
And then I just think to myself, I’ll have to stop one day anyway (much like my sex work) so why not stop when my soul has stretched to its zenith. It’ll bounce back. Why not use it to its maximum capacity and keep things interesting? I’m not a half glass full, half glass empty sort of person. I’m the the type of person who drinks the whole cup, slams it on the table and accepts what once was full, is now most certainly empty, as it was originally designed to be.
Sex worker activism – is it worth it? Of course it is and someone’s got to do it.