Thursday, March 24, 2011

Some really good posts about Sex Work

The first one I shall repost in it's entirety. Written by @harleyquinnaid it is titled, Sex Worker Characters in Comics: What not to do.  Here we go:

This list is not intended to be exhaustive, more a crash-course in the simplest things you can do to avoid coming across as a vile whorephobe in your work.
What this list deals with is overused tropes and cliches that contribute to widespread misinformation and pathologisation of sex workers.
It’s not that these things never happen or are beyond the scope of possibility.
It’s that these things are depicted to the exclusion of all other experiences and that has a negative overall effect on society’s perceptions and understanding of sex workers and the sex industry.
When you come from a marginalised group of people who are discriminated against and oppressed within society, depicting them in a very limited and narrow range ultimately has a hugely detrimental impact because people begin to overwhelmingly believe this is the default experience.
And when that perceived default experience is also overwhelmingly NEGATIVE, it enables society to continue to marginalise and oppress, to pathologise and VICTIMISE.
And this plays into an overall culture that perpetuates the discrimination far beyond Law & Order: SVU - but into the very laws and governings that impact the daily lives of sex workers. The laws that create unsafe environments for sex workers to work in. The laws that mean sex workers have to be terrified of being outed as it may uproot their entire life. The laws that mean sex workers have no legal recourse if something bad DOES happen.

What NOT To Do When Writing Sex Workers
1. Give them a childhood filled with sexual abuse
No really, this is paint-by-numbers pathology. Not everyone who works in the sex industry was abused as a child and not every person who was abused as a child goes onto become a sex worker. By giving your sex worker characters an abused childhood you are basically saying you believe that sex is so broken, ugly and wrong a thing that only damaged and broken people can do it commercially. This is bullshit.
Were some sex workers abused as children?
But so were some lawyers and some doctors and some psychologists and some hairdressers and some salespeople and some jewellery makers and so on and so on.
The idea that abused people become so denigrated that they end up ‘selling themselves’ is offensive on a couple of levels - it demonstrates the most superficial understanding of what is a very complex reality which is dealt with in myriad ways AND it demonstrates that you believe sex work is the last refuge of the degraded, which means you have no respect for sex workers.
So how the fuck do you expect to write about them in any sort of real and sensitive way?
It also means you have some pretty fucked up ideas about sex.
No, really. If you believe sex is inherently corrupting and degrading simply because an exchange of money is involved you have some really fucked up paranoid, phobic ideas around sex. And guess what? That’s about YOU, NOT sex workers. So. Stop projecting, okay?
Either way, you clearly don’t regard sex workers as human beings enough to give them anything but a lazy and cliche background in lieu of actual character development. -Insert tragic childhood here- is just as sloppy and unconvincing a way to build character as we have all discussed ad nauseum that having a female character be raped to give her an agenda is.

2. Have them raped by a client and/or a pimp
Believe it or not, hookers and strippers do not get raped on a nightly basis. What happens between a client and a worker is negotiated beforehand and the entire process usually involves an ongoing negotiation if necessary (just like recreational sex generally does!). Sex workers develop methods of communication with clients in order to maintain boundaries. If drunk or disrespectful clients are pushing boundaries, sex workers have ways of distracting them and their attention in other ways to maintain control of the situation. Flirtation and coyness is a tactic, not a default state of being. Sex workers are not obligated or forced to see clients. Sex workers can walk out of a booking without giving a refund if the client is disrespectful.
More sex workers work without pimps than do. Pimps are largely an overblown media fantasy. They exist, but they are nowhere near as prevalent as media would have you believe NOR are the relationships between hookers and pimps always as simplistically abusive as is ALWAYS portrayed.
But once again it is reinforcing dangerous, harmful and bluntly insulting preconceptions about sex workers because it is placing us into the fixed state of perpetual ‘victim’. And we’re NOT. Okay? We’re REAL people, with agency, with complexity, with diversity, with varied lives and experiences. Stop imagining our lives as this grotesque excursion into endlessly-violated depravity for your own sheer VOYEURISTIC satisfaction. Because that’s what it is. You like to imagine us as constantly raped because rape culture has characterised sexual abuse as something almost fucking *sexy*, something *juicy* and it’s easier to imagine it happening to sex workers because you don’t think of us as truly human, not really.
The other reason not to do these things, apart from the fact this ‘plot’ device once again forces sex workers into a permanent victim position, is that it demonises clients and pimps.
Now, MOST clients are just average people who want a service.
No, really. It’s really as simple as that.
They’re not base, grotesque, anti-social, disgusting perverts who just want to degrade women, trans* folk and other ‘cast-offs’ of society.
They’re just regular shmoes who want to get their rocks off. Or who want to talk. Or who want to be taught something. Or who want to experiment with something they have no one else to ask about. Or who just need a goddamn hug.

3. Give them a stalker
This also reflects the ‘permanent victim’ fixation and again demonises clients.
Stalkers, it has been proven time and time again, do not simply fixate on ‘loose’ women. Anyone at all for any reason at all can become the target of a stalker.
Do sex workers get stalkers? Sure. And yes, they’re often clients who have become obsessed.
BUT once again, it’s about BALANCE.
I SHOULDN’T have to be afraid of admitting that sometimes, now and again, some sex workers (out of the millions worldwide) will get a stalker. I shouldn’t have to be afraid of admitting that, but I am because I KNOW a whorephobic audience is going to pounce on that one concession and conflate it with reality.
And when you are CONSTANTLY depicting sex workers with inherently negative lives - lives that are constantly violated in one way or another by boogeymen like stalkers and pimps and drugs - and associating those lives with our work, YOU ARE contributing to the ingrained societal mindset that sex work itself is inherently negative and that is really, really dangerous. Because it allows people to continue to justify their pathologising, victimising attitudes to sex workers, allows unfair laws and discrimination to remain intact and protected, allows the continued popularisation of false information and allows fantasy to stand in the way of fact.
And this allows the world to continue to not think of us as really human.
AND it ALSO is just another facet of the old virgin/whore dichotomy - of rape culture. The patently FALSE notion that if you lead a certain kind of life, you will naturally attract violation and assault. That such terrible things can be avoided if only you toe the line like a good virtuous, well-behaved, complacent little virgin - but is only to be EXPECTED if you are ‘loose’, ‘slutty’, ‘trampy’ - indeed, if you’re any of the latter, well, you just DESERVE it, don’t you? Not only is this dehumanising of sex workers and permitting people to hold discriminatory and prejudicial attitudes towards us, it creates a false perception of reality, a blame-the-victim mentality that deceives people. The truth is, predators like stalkers and rapists are not exclusively ‘attracted’ to sex workers. Anyone could be targeted by them at any time. It just allows society to ignore the real problem - that BEHAVIOUR by predators and how it is nurtured and perpetuated by society - which just loves to blame the victim.
How hard is it to really imagine a sex worker without some constantly horrible thing happening to them, just leading an average life, working hard to pay the mortgage and the bills and the kid’s school tuition. Truth? That’s the most common reality. Oh, but that lacks drama, right?
You know, if you REALLY want to violate your sex worker character over and over, how about you examine how that is done LEGALLY, within the very infrastructure of the law? How about you look at the laws and institutionalised statutes that make a sex workers life and work harder for them, the stupid rules and obstructions we have to navigate just to make a living? That’s a violation too! A violation of human rights and freedom to work. But I guess that’s just not as sexy as a crying woman in her underwear tied to a bed whilst getting threatened with a knife. Vomit.

4. Have your hero save them from a stalker/rapist/serial killer/pimp
To put your sex worker character in a horribly abusive situation just to have your hero be more heroic is one of the more petty, grotesque, lazy and discriminatory plot devices you can come up with.
It’s become colloquially known as ‘fridging’. For fuck’s sake, don’t do it.

5. Kill them
Another dehumanising technique, used with rash abandon over the years on promiscuous women, queers, trans* people and sex workers alike. Even in ‘sympathetic’ stories, these ‘underdogs’ must die tragically and preferably horribly for their cause - to make a point. And that point is? To atone for their sinful lives by being scrubbed out of existence.

6. Do not have your non-sex worker characters use words like ‘whore’, ‘ho’, ‘hooker’, etc
I know it tends to invite ridicule to say things like ‘don’t use those words! Those are our words!’ but - well - how else to say it?
Like racial or homophobic or ableist slurs, or any other slurs focused on a particular aspect that is the direct reason for discrimination against a marginalised group, the ownership of those words with the purpose to reclaim is exclusively that of the group they are used against.
This is not your language. It’s OURS. You don’t get to use it. No, not even through your characters unless your point is to draw attention to the fact your character is a whorephobic douchebag.
And THAT has to be very clear.
Words like ‘ho’ and ‘whore’ are offlimits. We use them amongst ourselves (though, like any reclaimed slur, there is debate around this), but it’s really not okay for people outside the community to adopt them, certainly not in the grotesquely casual way that so rarely goes challenged.
And no, don’t go telling me that will make your character’s dialogue ‘unrealistic’.Comics are unrealistic!!! By nature!! In intent! No one reads comics for realism!
And don’t try and flip THAT around by arguing that ‘if comics are unrealistic, you have no obligation to not write seedy, gross & exploitative stories about sex workers’. Both the issue of language and of plot choices comes back to the fact that they reinforce negative stereotypes which feeds into a broader attitude of active discrimination that has real negative impacts on sex workers’ lives. And that’s not acceptable.

7. Don’t give them HIV/AIDS
The rate of transmission of HIV/AIDS between sex workers and clients is so miniscule it doesn’t even register.
That’s not to say there are no sex workers with HIV/AIDS, but the likelihood of them having contracted it on the job is extremely low, as is the likelihood of them contracting Hep C or STIs.
Because a sex worker’s body is literally OUR BUSINESS in most forms of sex work, excepting phone sex. Without our health, we cannot work. And we live in a capitalist society. We gotta be able to work.
Furthermore, because of the pervasiveness of discriminatory laws against us, we are obliged to take measures on our own initiative to protect ourselves.
This means that sex workers aggressively and consistently practice safe sex. We are educated, informed and aware about the risks, we supply our own condoms and other PPEs (personal protective equipment) such as gloves and dams, and we use them in our work with our clients, often times educating them along the way as well.
Sure, accidents happen, as they can do to anyone. But, overwhelmingly, sex workers have better sexual health than the rest of the population.
(Incidentally, in places where this isn’t true, there is also a marked lack of condoms & safe sex education available to access - which is the fault of archaic law and governments, not sex workers)
So once again this trope is perpetuating false information and actively contributing to the ongoing negative stereotypes about sex workers and sex work.

8. Write them with respect
All of the above are crucial factors in depicting sex worker characters with respect, but considering how you place them within a story and how they interact with other characters all contributes to the sense of respect shown for the sex worker character - by the other characters and by YOU.
If you have your other characters-  particularly your leading characters, the ones the audience is meant to empathise/symapthise with - making snide/discriminatory/abusive remarks to the sex worker character about their ‘sluttiness’, about their work, about their lifestyle - without those remarks being corrected/chided/called-out/slammed and without that character facing any sort of censure or exile for their whorephobia you are sending a pretty fucking strong message to your reader and that is that it’s totally okay to debase and degrade a sex worker because of their work.
So WHAT if some stripper did topless movies? So. Fucking. What? If you have to write a character being evidently offended by that, rather than pass it off as comic relief - or worse, as righteous moralising - why not have another character ask them what their fucking issue is? Point out how fucking ridiculous they are being.
Like any marginalised group, sex workers simply need more balance in the way we are depicted. Overwhelmingly, our depiction is done in the most negative, fetishising and trivialising way possible, preventing any understanding of the true diversity of our experience and reducing it to one exoticised, voyeuristic cliche, used mainly to satiate some perverse ‘normal*’ person need to see horrible things happen to those they conceptualise as sub-human as well as reassure their own smug and complacent sense of self-satisfaction in what they believe to be their superior lifestyles.
If you want to ring the bell for anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, anti-misogyny, anti-ableism, anti-classism and anti-fatphobia, then know this: SEX WORKERS ARE OVERWHELMINGLY OF COLOUR, QUEER, TRANS*, FEMALE, DIFFERENTLY-ABLED, POOR AND WITH A WIDE VARIETY OF BODY TYPES.
Sex work offers a flexibility and income for people with varying intersections of marginalisation that many other industries simply do NOT. In the sex industry, people can make a good income for being ‘different’ compared to other industries where that ‘difference’ will see them discriminated against. It is VERY complex and not at all perfect but part of the solution is TO NOT:
- demonise
- pathologise
- victimise
us, not to reduce our existence to the easiest and simplest trope to write.

And all you tumbloggers out there, the ones who are sharp enough to see the subtlest discrimination in comics when it comes in form of homophobia, racism, transphobia, misogyny, ableism, classism and fatphobia then I am, as of right now, calling on you TO SEE THE WHOREPHOBIA AS WELL. If you are really serious with this anti-discrimination, struggle-for-equality objective, then you need to broaden your gaze still further and that may involve taking a really hard look at some of your own preconceptions and ideas. I am sick of feeling like I am the only person to see this stuff. It is just as important and just as relevant and just as intersectional. 
And you know what? It’s great to like this but… reblog it. This issue gets nowhere near the exposure that other issues do and it SHOULD because it intersects with all of them AND deals with humans being treated as sub-human in a variety of ways. Get it out there and try and participate. Put your politics where your mouths are.

I recommend you go to the post and have a look at the comments, as some interesting discussions have started, for example see here for someone not really having a clue, and here for Gail Simone's response to the post, referencing the recent Secret Six book.  And on top of all that great stuff The F Word have a guest poster talking about 'Tera Myers and the Anti-Porn Folks'.  Which, with harleyquinaid's posts, is probably the best thing I've read in weeks.  Until you read the comments, and then it gets incredibly depressing as it's feminist vs feminist, and it makes me sad that my community infights in that manner.


Korvar The Fox said...

Okay, this is a bit grammar-nerd-ish, but you really need to have Number Eight proceeded with a "What TO do" heading, 'cos at the moment it's "What NOT To Do When Writing Sex Workers"
8. Write them with respect

And I'm guessing that's not what you meant!

Saranga said...

You're right Korvar, that is very grammar nerdish. Especially as I didn't write the post.
I do appreicate all comments, I really do, but I'm not really seeing your point in that comment!

Aside from the grammar, what did you think of the content of the post?

Super-Duper ToyBox said...

it was pretty aggressive. the post i mean. it made me feel like i was being lectured on my narrowmindedness, though i have no beef with people of different sexual orientation, or sex workers. i have bisexual friends and gay friends, friends that have been abused, but no sex-worker friends, so i guess i'm somewhat removed from it in a way.

Super-Duper ToyBox said...

...i mean, if you are in that kinda work... i mean if I WAS, i'd probably expect that some people wouldn't respect me on a certain level (myself not included- "do your thing", i say). i guess i'm trying to say is: do sex workers, on a large basis, even care how they are portrayed in literature/comics?