My Mother Kind of Freaked

My mother kind of freaked out when I told her about the book proposal for Sex Workers Unite! I never thought of her as a prude. When I was growing up, she rarely seemed embarrassed about sexuality matters, and her several non-traditional but heteronormative relationships definitely influenced my critique of the whole white picket fence family idea. But for her daughter to write about prostitutes’ rights threw her for a loop.

There are huge stigmas against sex work. For my mother, who came of age after World War II when the sexual double standard was as popular as drive-ins and girdles, embracing the women’s movement and sexual liberation of the 1960s was a radical rejection of her parents’ protestant conservatism. As a feminist, she rejects the idea that a woman’s sexual history is evidence of her worth or her integrity.

But sex work and the sex industry are another matter. For her, women “shouldn’t have to” be prostitutes; women should have education and employment opportunities and enjoy wage equality and childcare. My mother is also a successful businesswoman, a pioneer in a field that had very few women when she entered it in the early 1970s, rife with sexism, harassment and even sexual violence. She’s a feminist because the movement was supposed to liberate women through economic independence so they didn’t have to exchange sex for money or other support.

I don’t know any sex worker, male or female, who doesn’t support ending the wage gap between women and men, or better, a living wage for all workers. The sex workers’ movement has always spoken out again sexism, sexual harassment and sexual violence too. Sex workers with children understand acutely the burdens of organizing their care and the costs of raising children; indeed, they do sex work because they earn more and have flexible hours to care for their kids. My mother and Margo St. James, the founder of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, the first feminist prostitutes’ rights organization) were born only a few years apart; I think they would agree about a lot of things.

For all that Margo and COYOTE accomplished, sex worker activists today have other views about the movement’s direction. Their perspectives have been shaped not by the “bra burners” of the 1960s but by HIV/AIDS, immigration, the prison-industrial complex, gentrification and even the revival of burlesque. Sex workers have fought the war on drugs, educated clients and the adult public about sex and HIV prevention, and are challenging the anti-immigrant sex panicked rhetoric about human trafficking, and demanding #BlackLivesMatter and #TransLivesMatter. These are matters literally of life or death, of freedom or imprisonment, of empowerment or impotence.

Burlesque, Beyonce, and sex-positive feminism have helped to overcome some of the stigma against sex and sex work. Cultural attitudes towards the sex industry and alternative sexual expression have shifted, emphatically so in some areas of the U.S. Burlesque and boylesque performers, professional and amateur, enjoy titillating their audiences, celebrating the public display of the human body, while Beyonce declares herself “FEMINIST” in cut-to-there spangled high-cut briefs. Feminism is sexy.

The sex workers movement recognizes that no one “should have to” engage in prostitution because they have no other choice. That’s why activists are involved in efforts to change immigration laws, to provide safe, nonjudgmental health services to drug users and others at risk for HIV or impregnation. It’s why sex workers volunteer in shelters for battered women and for homeless lgbtq kids. It’s why they’re out protesting with Occupy and in Ferguson. But however narrow or wide the choices are for those who engage in sex work, stigmatization is violence.
Stigma remains and stigma kills. Slut-shaming, what my mother and Margo called the double-standard, can be found everywhere, online, in real time, in Tickfaw, Louisiana as well as San Francisco. Girls and queers are bullied by their classmates when perceived as sexual or otherwise transgressive. SlutWalk participants rightly denounced law enforcement procedures that question the “virtue” and integrity of female sexual assault victims. Transwomen of color are being murdered every week, but the media mis-genders them, suggests they had it coming because there bodies were found in areas “well-known for prostitution.”

Sex Workers Unite! is about sex workers who became political organizers and cultural activists to fight against stigma. “Brazen hussies,” “crack ‘hos,” “American gigolos” and “screaming queens” dare to believe that they deserve respect and human rights. These are stories about their many campaigns for justice.

One thought on “My Mother Kind of Freaked

  1. Amber Dawn

    Unfortunately, I think any followers of the common culture, regardless of age, believe sex workers to be victims, below morality and worthy of an undercurrent of shame and ridicule. I found this to be true recently within an organization that works with sex trafficked youth. I had a position working as a mobile crisis counselor, providing support to a short term shelter for homeless youth and a longer term shelter for sexually trafficked youth. I worked with the organization that provided advocacy and case management to these youth.
    I became livid when during a training put on by the organization, the fact was stated that “all teenagers under 18 working in the sex trade were trafficked and put into the trade by pimps”. I agree with what you stated above about sex workers being supportive of removing the systems of sex trafficking and exchanging sex for money or a place to stay by young or older women that may feel a lack of choices. I wouldn’t feel this judgment from women that worked within the sex trade, but its sad to hear it from advocates of sex trafficked girls. I asked the leader of the training, “what about all the girls under 18 that choose to work to support a family or themselves and choose the sex industry to earn money, what about cases like those?”, I asked. The leader of the training responded that there weren’t any cases like that, end of story. Although I was angry, I chose to continue to work with the organization until the mayor of Portland cut our funding partially because the shame he felt by our young clients showing up to the budget hearings and telling their story in front of his voting public. He was ashamed as the girls from our told their life stories. The mayor funded the pool and more park rangers for a public park that year instead of money for sex trafficked youth in the form of mobile crisis responders. My job was ended, as were many others. I found these experiences to be horrifying examples of the shame and victim hood the common culture puts on sex workers. I wanted to scream out, “I was one of these girls, under eighteen yes, but no one forced me into the sex trade, I am not a victim.” In truth, I picked up a copy of a sex worker magazine when I was 16 and thought it would be fun to call and work for an escort company, which I did off and on for several years.
    Additionally, I think my mom (an artist from the hippie movement) understood when I did a sex worker art show piece about the accessibility of sex work to any woman and the judgmental and harmful attitudes of women shaming sex workers, as if the work were below them. I’m glad your doing this work.


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