It is probably safe to assume that most of society, even those who pride themselves on thinking progressively, in their heart of hearts, looks down on sex workers, but are mostly too polite to say so to our faces. In the media, society’s attitude toward sex work is reflected often, even in the supposedly more intelligent of the media offerings. In almost every single interview, when an interviewer asks, after a cosy little open-minded discussion about fucking for money, “how would you feel about your daughter doing sex work?” the underlying suggestion is that sex work is something so shameful that most right-thinking people, even if they happen to be sex workers or former sex workers, would not want their family members doing it.
For example, I was at the WORD Writers and Readers event in Christchurch late in August and attended a wonderful session where three writers, Julie Hill, Kate Holden and Leigh Hopkinson, talked about their experiences working in the sex industry, then at the end was The Question: “how would you feel about your daughter doing sex work?” In another interview, two former sex workers were interviewed on the BBC about making sex work safer, and again, the final loaded question was “how would you feel about your daughter doing sex work?” Both the interviewers in this case were women by the way.
Maybe sex work would be safer if the general public did not have this idea that sex work is so shameful or that sex with people prepared to pay for it must be so unpleasant and that our daughters hopefully are far too good for it, therefore the ones who are doing it are Not Good. Sometimes sex workers will publicly say they would be fine with their daughters doing it if they were Much Older (presumably that is much older than the legal age for sex work, which is 18, even though many of us began work in the sex industry at 18 – in my case, I was 19 – and even though the youngest women in the sex industry have potential to make quite a lot of money, more than even their slightly older sisters). It’s a very old-fashioned notion that an 18 year old woman, no matter whose daughter she is, can’t take ownership of her sexuality and decide if she wants to profit from her youthful desirability or not.
It seems to me that the purity of young women is so highly prized that a career in, or temporary dip into, sex work is the worst of all outcomes when raising children, probably equal with drug addiction or serving time in prison. To have two family members doing it at the same time is slightly worse than separately and an ex-sex worker will always be a sex worker, which is why it is recommended to keep it under your hat.
I wondered why people don’t ask, “how would you feel if your mother was doing it?” Or would that be too below the belt? I read recently in the newspaper about a child (who had died at the hands of his young step-father), that his mother had been a sex worker. It seemed that she had not been a sex worker after the child was born or during his short life and it was not relevant in any way to the action of the step-father who killed the child, but somehow it was worth including in the article. As if it explained something to do with the child having been killed. I just cant see the connection, except that there is a belief that sex workers, or ex-sex workers, are bad to have as mothers, or any kind of family members really.
Unrelated but relevant to my story, I heard recently how Michael Pollan, champion of eating well and the importance of eating together as a family was criticised for being an out-of-touch, rich, white male – the argument against Pollan was that many financially disadvantaged people are overweight because they are so time-poor having to work such long hours because their time is literally valued so low. In other words, they earn so little and therefore have to work such long hours to make ends meet, that they can not afford to shop at farmers markets, or have time (or energy) to prepare and cook nutritionally balanced meals so the fat-causing $1 bottles of sugary drinks and cheap but unhealthy fast food deals are the best they can do with the energy/time/money they are left with.
Those who are time-poor are also unlikely to have that luxury of the middle class: time, money and their own land so they can have their own organic vegetable garden, from which they can harvest food for their delicious home-cooked meals. Many women who are sex workers who happen to be mothers are doing sex work to get around this issue of being time poor, so that they can have time for raising their families and still have money to eat well with their children, to garden, to sew, to knit or buy investment properties etc if it is their thing. Many mothers are doing this to give their children opportunities they may not have had – so that their children may develop their interests in horse-riding or dance or sport or education or travel or whatever.
I heard of a fantastic woman who posted on social media that she found papers after her mother had died that indicated that her well-respected and amazing mother had been a sex worker. In fact I think she may have begun working as a sex worker in her 60s. I was delighted that the daughter who posted it was so respectful and really honoured her mother for her bold choice. But maybe it’s easier when sex workers are dead.
Actually, sex workers in family trees are ok. It livens things up a bit. It shows that there was someone in the family who was a bit naughty, brave, daring even. Maybe sex workers are just more lovable or deserve more respect when we are dead. A friend was telling me the sad case of a girl in her daughter’s class who was bullied by a group of fellow classmates. After the victim suicided, naturally there was an outpouring of grief and love, most vocally apparently from the same group who had been bullying her, telling of how special she was, and how much they had actually loved and respected her. Recently in New Zealand, a sex worker was named (in this case, essentially, as it turned out she had been murdered by a client) in the media as a sex worker and on social media there was an outpouring of support for her privacy and regret that she had been “outed”. It was fantastic that there was such respect for her and her loved ones after her death. My hope is that sex workers can also be seen as worthy of privacy and dignity being respected when we are still alive.
So will society ever change its view of sex workers? The sad truth is that we can’t make them understand us or respect us. When women criticise sex workers saying they deserve mistreatment, or suggest they feel sorry for those who are tempted by sex workers’ naked bodies and the sex workers should get better jobs, or when a man says that a sex worker’s standing in the community suggests she was culpable, it is slightly reassuring when at least social media points out the absurdity in those attitudes, and this feedback is published by the media. You may think heaven help us when the hoi polloi via social media influences the fourth estate (who can in turn influence society as a whole by providing – or limiting – the information received) but I’ve noticed more often that the press are creating entertainment or even news stories based on even a small post from social media, including using images posted by the general public. There is no doubt that society is influenced by what we are exposed to in the media, online etc. However, this is unlikely to be mostly in favour of sex workers and it depends where you are and what you are exposed to which provides new information to seep into ones thought processes and opinions. The internet being more pull than push, we are more likely to seek out that which supports our already existing opinions anyway (confirmation bias).
The reason I write so much about my own experience of sex work, rather than trust it to a ghost writer or a media person, is because I want my own take on it, my story to be told in my own voice. I can’t make you love me, or even like me, but I’d prefer it if your opinion of me really is none of my business and not impacting on myself or my safety in any way. For myself, I can honour myself and my choices by accepting my life and this part of the story and making sure that it is told from my point of view.
Those who know me can understand me and why I do or have done things including sex work. Those that matter don’t mind, and those that mind don’t matter and therefore don’t need to know any more than I am prepared to disclose and actually, I am unlikely to ever be in their orbit so it is a win win situation for us all.