How many more sex workers need to die before we, as a society, realize that stigma kills? Sure, you can keep your blinders on, cover your ears and sing to yourself “lalala, it’s a dangerous job, it’s not our fault” but the fact is that it’s not the job that’s dangerous. It’s the laws, based on stigma, not facts, that make the job dangerous.
While participating in the Sex Worker Panel at UBC, I was privileged and honoured to see Susan Davis give an amazing presentation that illustrated exactly that. She showed us the history of sex work being driven out of doors, out of business, and onto the streets in Vancouver. As sex workers were denied the right to work indoors in brothels and other such establishments, you could see the statistics for yourself, deaths of sex workers were rising with every new restriction, with every push. The pinnacle of that being the Pickton case.
As horrible as that was, especially since it hit so close to home for us living in the area, I was really hoping that it would wake people up. There had to be at least that tiny silver lining to such a horrific tragedy. It was a travesty, a failure of the system to protect those it is sworn to protect. Nowhere does it say “to serve and protect the select few deemed morally fit to be considered human beings”, right? So we thought. But, honestly, if it wasn’t for the stigma that made sex workers seen as subhuman, disposable, Pickton would have been caught much earlier. There were many cases where sex workers reported abuse, attempted kidnapping, attempted murder, at the hands of Robert Pickton. Nobody listened. If they had, so many lives could have been spared.
Stigma silences us, makes the work dangerous, makes it a self perpetuating cycle. Abolitionists claim to wish to “save” sex workers who are at risk because of laws that endanger them, laws that the abolitionists support and put in place. Can you imagine? We’re trying to save you from the danger we’ve placed you in! Aren’t we such good people? Unbelievable.
The thing that sickens me is the fact that people claim to be anti-sex work because of moral standing. How is it in any way moral to sacrifice countless human lives for the sake of your emotional comfort? Does sex work make you feel icky? Oh, sorry, we’ll just keep letting people die to protect your feelings. Because your feelings are obviously more important than the safety of human beings. And you claim to be standing on moral high ground? That high ground is a pile of bodies, tread carefully.
I worked as a dancer, so I was not affected by the same laws and conditions people in other areas of sex work are subjected to. I speak from a place of sex worker privelege, in that my occupation was completely legal, in all ways. I would never fear that my roommate would be arrested for “living off the avails” of my work. Other sex workers in Canada lived with that fear. I would never fear that I’d be arrested for talking about my work, for talking to clients. I didn’t have to live with the fear of walking down the street and having things thrown at me. I am grateful for that, and I am fighting for sex worker rights because we all deserve to be safe in our occupations.
Personally, I can vouch from my experience that while for some of us, sex work may not be putting us in mortal danger, but stigma kills us emotionally, psychologically.
When I started dancing, I lost many “friends”. I would hear from other friends, ones who don’t get the sarcastic quotation marks because they are real friends, that these fair-weather acquaintances would say things like “I can’t believe she’d do that, it’s so degrading”. Yep, cuz I’m totally the kind of person who would go out of her way to be degraded. That’s totally how I roll, you really have me there. You know nothing, Jon Snow.
Unfortunately, even those who should have known me better were often just as ignorant. It’s as if the moment you become a sex worker of any type, that label overrides any previous labels you had. It’s like the person you were is somehow wiped out by just those words, now you’re not a person, you’re a sex worker. That’s stigma. When preconceived notions and stereotypes somehow override practical firsthand knowledge. When you don’t see me anymore, you just see the labels, that’s a goddamn problem.
That gets to you, it drains you emotionally, it keeps you up at night sometimes. When your boyfriend makes assumptions about your job, when he picks a fight with you about dancing because he’s “not comfortable with it”, and can’t articulate his feelings beyond that statement. So, you trust me, you know me, I keep telling you that it’s just a job and I’m up there performing, either thinking about the music I’m dancing to and the choreography that works with that song, or going over my grocery list because the audience sucks. But you don’t believe me, not really, and I know. That’s a breach of trust, not on my part, but on yours, yet I am somehow held accountable for it, because of your feelings, not mine. My feelings don’t matter here, because I’m a sex worker, and I don’t matter. I quit dancing because of that boyfriend, and I regret it to this day. Sure, I was convincing myself at the time that I quit dancing in order to seriously pursue my wrestling training, but I was mostly lying to myself. I know that now.
It was just too hard, going through that same argument, but never being heard. Over a year later, that boyfriend and I went to a stripclub, I practically dragged him. One of my friends was dancing, and she was a fabulous performer, so I really wanted him to see her show, see that it’s more than just tits and ass in your face. We sat front row, and at first I wasn’t sure if she recognized me, since I did what most dancers do… I quit, I can finally go back to being a brunette! Fuck this platinum blonde hair! In the middle of her second song, she’s lounging on the stage, striking a very sexy pose, and she leans a bit towards me and greets me, asks what I’ve been up to. I was in school at the time, and as she remains looking seductive and totally into her show, she says to me;
“Yeah, I really gotta do that, too. Need to get the fuck out of this industry.”
(At the time, the industry was in quite a decline, clubs were shutting down all over, it was getting harder to get good bookings and decent show prices, so a lot of girls were getting bitter, it’s why I didn’t end up back in it years later.)
Boyfriend hears this, his jaw literally drops.
“It’s all a work!” (wrestling term for it being an act) he cries.
Yeah, brilliant deduction, Sherlock. I had only been telling you that for the past year and a half.
Guess I could say that stigma kills my love life. I really wish I was kidding! Last guy I attempted dating was out of the picture after two dates because I was honest with him about my former occupation, and while he tried to act like he was cool with it, he didn’t seem to realize that I’m not an idiot. I can read body language, and when I start to talk about anything remotely dancing related, you look away, turn your body away and fidget, it doesn’t take a behavioural psychologist to get the hint.
Okay, the “feminism, huh? Does it empower you?” didn’t help, either. Ugh. I now don’t even care that you know who Septicflesh are, or that we had similar experiences growing up and took away the same lessons, I just can’t.
Now, I find myself exhibiting this self-preservation mechanism where I out myself as a former sex worker before I get attached to anyone, potential friend or potential lover, just to spare myself and my feelings. I can’t take it anymore, and really, I shouldn’t have to. Nobody should have to fear how people will react when they reveal their occupation or former occupation. A person’s worth should never be determined by their job. It’s a fucking job. Like any other job, it has positive aspects and negative aspects, it can’t be painted with one brush. Judging a person based on their occupation is discrimination, plain and simple.
Sex work is one of the oldest occupations, it’s not going away, no matter how many people say “icky”. Trying to deprive people of their jobs, putting their lives at risk, because your knee-jerk reaction is to say a word that nobody past the age of ten should say anymore is not valid reasoning.
Isn’t it past time that we stopped stigma from killing people, and killed stigma instead? Doesn’t that just make more sense?
(author’s note: well, I feel like a complete tool, I just figured out how to followback people on here. trying to do it on my mobile app really failed, so I’m sorry to those who followed me before that I didn’t follow back, I tried, I swear, and I wanted to! My apologies!)