I should tell you about how it feels to deal with anti-sex-work stigma every day.
But this essay isn't about us.
It's about the demand to prove we're worth sympathy. It's about how if that sympathy shows up, it's wrapped up in deliberate misunderstandings. It's about the people who make the demand. It's about how "Show us your humanity!" is more belittling and damaging than "Show us your tits!"
It's about the people we should no longer respond to with anything other than protest or dismissal.
In other words, it's about bigotry. It's about bigots.
I'll refer to anti-sex-work and anti-porn campaigners here for clarity and honesty as "anti-sex bigots." When that word gets tiring, I'll call them "anti-sex activists."
Why? Because sex is what makes sex work so special for them. Sex makes this line of work a singular profession, mystically distinguished from other jobs. But their analyses and understandings of sex lack depth. There is no substance to their arguments. Their tactics are strung together not with understanding or data, but with hate. Their bigotry is visceral, and their goals are clear:
1. Distort and destroy consent.
2. Create a framework of good vs. evil.
3. Cherry-pick voices.
4. Play the victim while holding the power.
5. Create apocalyptic urgency.
This list might sound like an exaggeration to outsiders. To sex workers, it's exhaustingly and overwhelmingly familiar.
Distort and Destroy Consent
With his new state wad of money, he had sex with employees of the spa on four separate occasions. The information he gathered provided no new or important facts about the spa, just "proof" of what was already known, that yes, yes, okay, some of the women at the spa offered sexual services for money. What ensued was what polite people like to refer to as a "scandal."
After two years, a judge dropped the case, citing the police's "outrageous" conduct.
"Outrageous" or routine? Earlier that year in Pennsylvania, similar methods were employed in at least two other cases. And after the ruling about the 2006 incident being "outrageous," there wasn't a significant change of police policy in Pennsylvania. In 2013, Homestead, Pennsylvania, police detective Ronald DePellegrin received oral sex from a prostitute. After he put his penis in her mouth, he arrested her.
"In the course of officers doing undercover work, sometimes they have to do what they have to do to effectuate an arrest," a member of a police union said, explaining DePellegrin's actions.
Police and informants can consent to having government-funded spa sex vacations, effectuating as often as they'd like, so long as they're willing to consent to turn their effectuatees over to the state when they're finished with them.
Sex workers, on the other hand, can't consent to sex at all, no matter how clear the terms are.
The exchange of money is the iconic moment of sex work. In movies, in the cultural conversation, and in arrests, the money exchange is the moment things go wrong and become illegal. But what is money if not a symbol of consent? While money is not the be-all and end-all of consent, it can symbolize and clarify it. Sex workers and their clients use money as a component of mutual understanding.
When it comes to sex workers in the eyes of the law, that all changes: The thing that symbolizes and clarifies consent is the exact thing that gets you arrested. It's a familiar scene from movies and TV: Money in a sex worker's hands is quickly replaced by handcuffs. No matter what, sex workers cannot consent, anti-sex bigots say. Not by saying they consent. Not by symbolizing consent. Not by being happy or healthy. There's no such thing as consent for a sex worker.
"It does not, therefore, matter whether women claim the right or choice to be prostituted or whether they see themselves as victims of men's abuse." —Anti-sex bigot (1)
Distorting and destroying consent is the foundation of anti-sex activism. It has to be, because otherwise the bigots have no ground to stand on when sex workers state, again and again, they are working out of choice.
This is the precedent anti-sex bigots want to set: outsiders calling the shots on who does and doesn't get to consent.
Christopher Columbus's men could (and did) rape "New World" women freely. In the long tradition of raping the conquered, the victors faced few consequences. Slave owners forced sex onto their slaves well into the 19th century. Not so long ago, men were allowed to force sex on their wives whenever they wanted, since the men determined the consent. "To have and to hold," as the vow goes, which is why women then would sometimes turn to prostitution, to escape marriage.
In Europe and the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries, religious belief turned inward, and so, too, did sexual life. Sexual consent was up to individuals, but only within the ideological framework of what the church said was permitted or not permitted. Don't have too much sex with your spouse. Don't do this act or that one. If you must choose to be attracted to that sort of person, know that there will be social consequences. There was a fear that people would be swept up in "pagan" impulses.
Sex workers are still often seen as pagans or heretics, swept up in the culture of pagan lust. Whenever someone deviates from the kind of sex an anti-sex activist believes should be practiced, when someone is "too" promiscuous, when someone engages with desires "deviant" from what is "normal," well then, they must be compulsive in some way and therefore outside consent. So arrest them. Deny them autonomy. Dehumanize them. Pin them down and force them to take a "normal" definition of consent whether they consent to it or not.
Wait a second, wait a second, I can hear the fumbling voices of protest. Stop talking about bigotry. I mean, after all, we're not talking about race, right? We're not talking about something people can't change. That's what makes speech against those groups hate speech. Sex workers, well, they...
What? Were you finally going to say we choose our careers?
Listen, nice try. I almost got distracted. But remember: This isn't about sex workers. Whether anti-sex activists think of themselves as bigots or not, they fall in with bigots' tactics. I'm not even naming anti-sex bigots in this piece, because I think we should ignore them and stop giving them a platform for their hateful views. But if you really want to know who they are, see the endnote.
Create a Framework of Good vs. Evil
The world is full of essentially evil people, and the funny thing is, you might be one of them. You might be caught up in evil if you don't agree with this statement: "Maybe there's a difference between a blowjob and a slice of pie... To acknowledge that sex work is exploitative—that it involves a particularly intimate form of male privilege, which bleeds into other areas of life—would be too sentimental, and too disturbing." (3)
Here's an alternate version of the same sentiment:
"Jihad as warfare against non-believers in order to institute 'Sharia' worldwide... is a constant element of mainstream Islamic theology." That's Robert Spencer writing in the Emory Wheel, February 21, 2007.
Many anti-sex bigots are also Islam-ophobes. On the right, Muslims (often conflated with all Arabs) and sex workers are attacked because they are supposedly inherently evil: The "they're all towelheads and whores" argument. (What a pleasure that I get to be both!) On the left, the way of life and the framework of identity are attacked. Hate the sin, love the sinner.
Lately, people who love "essential evil" stuff are promoting the "Swedish" or "Nordic" model of controlling sex workers. The idea behind the Swedish model is this: Those poor prostituted women need our help, let's stop arresting them and start rounding up those horrible johns who pay their wages. The model sends a false message that sex work is wrong and harmful to sex workers, while at the same time obfuscating how the model itself is causing them harm.
The effect of "end demand" policies has been to abruptly destroy sex workers' abilities to be selective about clients. It has led to impoverishment for sex workers unable to keep things extra-secret, extra-clandestine.
And as far as johns go, in the eyes of anti-sex bigots, they might as well be bodies to be confiscated by the state until they are programmed properly.
To brainwash johns into thinking like anti-sex bigots, some cities boast "john schools." Seattle is one of them. The anti-sex facilitator of Seattle's court-mandated program for arrested johns says, "Prostitution is not a victimless crime... there's a lot of harm that's involved in the commercial sex industry." —Anti-sex bigot (4)
If it were not merely bigotry in action, a john school would educate on differences between distinct forms of sex work, intersections of class/race/gender and sex work, differences between sex work and trafficking, problems with anti-sex-work laws, and so on.
Let's reprioritize with actual sex workers in mind, not theoretical ones. Let's reeducate police who have sex with sex workers before arresting them. Let's reeducate legislators implementing stab-in-the-dark policies not rooted in reality, written after listening to anti-sex activists. Let's stop magically linking sex work, as the facilitator of the john school does, to statistics like "one in four women will be raped in her lifetime." Anti-sex bigots trying to ban porn do similar sleight-of-hand tricks, equating porn with rape, demeaning both sex workers and actual rape victims. Let's reeducate about how serious rape is instead of throwing it around as a bid for more followers. I can say with certainty that if we asked rape victims what the painful, frequently traumatic experience of being raped is like, few would say, "Like being paid for consensual sex."
Does this rant from an anti-sex activist sound familiar?
"The insistence that there's nothing unusual in 'work' that involves male strangers penetrating your body and ejaculating inside of you goes right along with the 'sex positivity' popular with young Leftists. Women are likely to sustain injury (vaginal tearing) during heterosexual intercourse if we are not genuinely aroused (rather than performing for an audience); we are more likely to contract infections and diseases than our male partners; we are more likely to be harmed by male sexual partners (who are almost always larger and stronger than we are); and we are 100% more likely than our male partners to face unwanted pregnancy." —Anti-sex bigot (5)
Compare that to this, from a video called "Medical Dangers of Anal Sex" posted by Christofer L, an antigay Christian You-Tuber:
"Let's look at some simple biological truths... The rectum... [is designed] strictly for the removal of waste, moving it outward away from the body. This is why the blood vessels in the rectum break when a phallic object goes against the natural flow of movement by its muscles. Believe it or not, this causes rectal/anal damage. Many sexual experts and medical personnel discourage anal sex because of the danger... Safe sex? Mechanical damage to the rectum will happen regardless of the safe-sex measures."
Same gesture, same hate, same simplifications.
When it comes to sex work, professionals who are generally invested in keeping their bodies healthy often know better than most how to avoid damage. Sex-worker-advocacy groups provide sexual-health resources, like the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee's Porn 101 video and in-person services like the sex-worker-operated St. James Infirmary in San Francisco. And sex workers aren't repeating the same sex acts over and over. Many clients want different things.
The deeper problem here isn't that there is no such thing as rough sex or anal tearing. The problem is moral crusades like these dressed up in science.
Here's porn performer Stoya addressing this on her Twitter feed in June of 2015:
"Performing in porn is work that you use your body for. Maybe upper & upper middle class should also examine their ideas about manual labor? My grandpa destroyed his back as a stone mason. A football player might get tackled. Sometimes at work I injure my cunt."
Biological "proof" stuff is nothing new for bigots. In the early 20th century, bigoted scientists argued only certain groups of people should be allowed to procreate. It was quite a sensation: Race-mixing would create undesirable babies with repulsive characteristics that would erode society.
Take out the factor of having a baby: Only certain people are allowed to have certain kinds of sex with certain other people. If we don't obey this "scientific" maxim, we'll have a class of damaged people and a society that's falling apart at the seams.
The "damaged pussy" argument is eugenics for anti-sex bigots.
"Read Linda Lovelace's book Ordeal... about the sexual enslavement and 'pimping' of women in the porn industry. Until that is understood and addressed by this multi-billion dollar industry, it is difficult to give it any voice."
Until I read Linda Lovelace's book, I guess, I couldn't, like, know know about porn. I assured my contact at the school that I did of course know Linda Lovelace's deal, or, excuse me, ordeal, and that I'd be happy to address that in my talk.
The invitation was withdrawn in a fever of I'm-sorry-buts.
One of the most exploitative things anti-sex bigots do is select voices of former sex workers who've had terrible experiences and prop those voices up as representative of the entire population, even though they're not.
Cherry-picking is common among bigots and takes many forms. Fundamentalist clerics and misogynists cite the voices of women who support female genital mutilation in Northern Africa and the Middle East as representative of all women in those regions. In India under colonial rule, cultural mimics—Indian people who opportunistically mimicked British customs and oppressive belief systems—were held up as the true voice of Indian citizenry.
Anti-sex activists "prove" their points by similar gestures, making "exited" women, who are now anti-sex-work, representative. Of course, if you only listen to people who left a job because they hate it or had bad experiences in it, you're not going to get a representative sample.
Listening to sex workers' voices is key. Sex-worker activists and allies like the Rose Alliance and the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, not to mention the Sex Workers Project and Amnesty International, are constantly working to improve the conditions of sex work, to support each other, and to take into account the voices of women and men who have reported negative or damaging conditions.
But anti-sex bigots, like fundamentalist clerics who only allow the voices of women in favor of female genital mutilation, allow no other voices to be heard. The vast majority of sex workers I know do not have terrible experiences overall. Many are happy doing what they do or are at least willing to continue to consensually engage in sex work and make the best of it.
To the anti-sex bigots, these people may as well not exist.
"Pimps, traffickers, and buyers of sex revel in the misguided notion that individuals sexually exploited for commercial gain are willing or consenting 'sex workers' a term invented by the sex industry to normalize its exploitative and violent multi-billion dollar business." —Anti-sex bigots (6)
What's more dehumanizing: showing your butt cheeks to an audience or having someone tell you that you don't exist?
We need a varied, active, and dynamic picture of sex workers, not a muffled, stunted one. I started porn after going to grad school for writing and biology and being a college English instructor. I know plenty of porn performers with other jobs: meteorology, fashion design, dairy farming, law, freelance writing, directing, nursing, nonprofit organizing. Those are just off the top of my head. Yes, there are porn performers who—like many writers, actors, etc.—have no other job and are struggling. And there are other sex workers working out of various causes of necessity. The point isn't that doing sex work out of need doesn't exist. Nor is the point that we have to absolutely love sex work to do it. Not everyone loves their job, and sex workers should not be singled out and forced to simply because of the "sex" in their work. The point is, your picture of who sex workers are must be multifaceted. It's a picture that's ineluctably complex, yet anti-sex activists want us to hear one voice and will symbolically kill the rest of us to achieve the effect.
Play the Victim While Holding the Power
"It doesn't matter what custom you've got... they're gonna make you conform to them. You're going to say you like anal sex, you like oral sex, you like bestiality... and sooner or later, you're gonna have to conform your religious beliefs to the group of some aberrant thing." That's from a YouTube video called "Gays Will Force You to Like Anal Sex, Bestiality."
Another example: A celebrity anti-sex activist, whose net worth is something like $10 million to Robertson's reported $200 million, was scolded on the internet and her dedication to feminism was questioned after she tried to popularize the hashtag #stopactinglikewhores.
"When I first started talking about the 'pornification' of our culture, I was accused of being antifeminist—which both hurt my feelings and felt inaccurate." —Anti-sex bigot (8)
After this, she went on to make a popular anti-porn film filled with factual inaccuracies and direct slut-shaming of sex workers.
Hold up, hold up, everyone! Bigots, even rich ones, have feelings, too!
In 2013, I was invited to speak at Corning Community College in New York by the on-campus LGBTQI group (EQUAL). The contract was signed, the talk was confirmed... and then the administration canceled my talk in a flurry of anti-sex activism. Students protested and told me members of the administration began to intimidate them. Keep in mind these are LGBTQI students in a small town. They said members of the administration instructed them not to approach any media outlets with the story. "I hope you are grasping that this issue is bigger than you," an administration member reportedly said to the student organizer. The student told me it was "an absolutely intimidating conversation."
I went anyway and spoke at an off-campus location. After I left, flyers condemning EQUAL started to show up around campus. The message on the flyers wasn't written by students opposing my talk, but by a professor. Once an adviser to EQUAL, she'd been asked by student members of the group to resign after she'd sided with the administration's anti-sex views and their decision to cancel my talk.
The flyers that appeared on campus stated that EQUAL had "alienated an OPENLY LESBIAN FEMINIST FACULTY member (me) simply because she supported the president's decision... ignored and silenced... lesbian feminists, who since the Second-Wave of the Feminist Movement have argued that the pornography industry demeans women, men, and children and leads to rape and aggression, mostly against women and children... I find ironic that a group so quick to point out that its free speech has been violated has also been so quick to silence opposing voices... I still find indefensible (as in... without a shadow of a doubt) the participation in an industry that degrades and dehumanizes individuals and is also part of a capitalistic system that oppresses and lulls the masses."
That my talk was canceled by the administration wasn't enough. Nor was the alleged intimidation of the students. Now LGBTQI students were being told that it was unfair to not work with a professor whose interests directly contradicted their own. This was a person in a position of power, a college professor, with considerable influence over her students, insulting them publicly.
This isn't about sex workers silencing anyone who disagrees. There are plenty of disagreements to be had within our community and among allies. This also isn't about mere ignorance or misunderstanding. Of course, ignorance is one foundation of bigotry. But ignorance is miles away from people who make careers of attacking sex workers—people who have anti-sex-work laws, lawmakers, cultural stigma, media, and money on their side.
They are not powerless victims.
And their words are not mere "ideas" or "opinions."
If someone called me a "faggot sand nigger whore eroding American society, traditional marriage, and the right to be monogamous," I wouldn't gently avoid hurting his or her feelings by saying: "I can see how you feel that way. I believe this informative website will key you in to the points where we differ. Let me know what you think!"
I'd protest. I'd shun. I'd say, I don't want anyone I'm associated with funding your message of hate. I'd say, you are not a victim. And then I'd stop engaging.
Create Apocalyptic Urgency
Whose world is ending?
What world are they talking about?
Like almost everyone who wants to save the world, anti-sex bigots have to fabricate a fake world that's being destroyed first. KKK members fabricate the idea of a pure white race that's being destroyed, fundamentalist Christians fabricate pure heterosexuality corrupted by gays, US warmongers fabricate pure democracy threatened by Muslims, and so on.
The end is near! Anti-sex activists create a world in danger from sex work, though our world without sex work never existed. To make sure the end is always near, they shift the goalposts. It's not the porn, goes one argument, it's the distribution!
The 1965 anticommunist, antigay, anti-porn video Perversion for Profit states:
"Pornography and sex deviation have always been with mankind. This is true. But now consider another fact... High-speed presses, rapid transportation, mass distribution all have combined to put the vilest obscenities in the reach of every man, woman, and child in the country."
In 2015, an anti-sex activist proclaimed with the certainty she was saying something new when she said that "porn 15 years ago is basically Playboy and Penthouse, which as sexist as it was... those are the good old days. Today pornography has shifted rapidly, and it's shifted because of the internet... [the internet has made porn] affordable, accessible, and anonymous..." (9)
We must act urgently! To save our neuropathways from online porn! To save young men's desires! To save women! To save anyone we want to control!
All—yes, all—of the adverse conditions sex workers face are created or exacerbated by anti-sex bigots who directly harm sex workers or indirectly harm them by silencing them, spreading misinformation, blocking paths to sexual health education, and cultivating stigma.
"We're here to save you!" sounds promising, until the statement is completed honestly: "We're here to save you... from the damaging conditions we've created and continue to perpetuate."
Sex workers often see the great pain the distortion of sex has caused so many people in our culture. We work to transmute that pain others feel into pleasure. Sometimes the pain is slight and everyday; it's merely a longing a john feels or a pang of desire before a porn viewer discharges it. Other times it's a client locked into a restrictive relationship, or someone who doesn't know how to ask for sex without the framework of a paid environment, or a person with disabilities in constant care with little access to sex without the assistance of a sex worker.
Anti-sex activists, on the other hand, find their pleasure not by transmuting the pain of the world, but by wallowing in it.
In one of hundreds of interviews she's given—this one just under 50 minutes, but this is how she always talks about these issues—a notorious anti-sex bigot talks about porn using the following phrases:
"...[in porn] women are filthy dirty sluts and whatever you do to them, not only do they enjoy but they actually seek out and they deserve...
"...[I watched a porn with] a woman with semen smeared all over her face to the point where she can't open her eyes. Exhausted, crying, gagging, vomiting..."
"...in order [for women] to be noticed or as I like to say 'fuckable'"
"...the best porn you have is... when you can take that bitch whore slut whatever you want to call her and totally... drill her 'til there's nothing left."
"...when I was watching porn for my book... I literally didn't know what to do with myself. I was almost weeping on the floor. There was one scene... where you've got a guy with a woman's head down a toilet and he's penetrating her from behind, and people should just know there's a sort of trigger alert here, and he's got her head in the toilet and he's flushing it and he's screaming at her, I am gonna fuck you 'til your motherfucker comes up from the fucking grave... I couldn't do anything, I literally just rendered... I was like, I was like paralyzed." (10)
This is why the bigots will always be unreachable, illogical, and not worth engaging with. Their fake, substanceless ideologies represent a void they prefer to keep. It's misery delighting in itself, crying on the floor because it feels good. It's staged victimhood that never wants to end.
Sex workers, queers, allies: Refuse to interact with or give a platform to anti-sex bigots. They are too invested in the pleasure of their misery to hear you. Your participation gives them a partner, it validates them, it pleases them. They will take their misery out on you, forcibly, without stopping, without your consent.
Don't engage. Or, if you decide to, recognize them for who they are and what they want, and charge them for your time.
Conner Habib is an author, porn performer, lecturer, and Vice President of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee. His Twitter is @connerhabib.