Prejudice is the child of ignorance. - William Hazlitt
Every so often a reader asks a question so important that I feel it needs an entire column; this is one of those times.
I am a woman in my late twenties, and have been a part-time sex worker on and off for the last seven years. I’ve been a prostitute, done porn, worked in a jack-off booth and am currently working as a stripper. It has always been a way for me to get by or pay off debt while in school or pursuing some non- or low-paying interest. I would like your opinion on coming out as a sex worker. Aside from generally feeling that honesty and openness are key parts of close relationships, I also feel like this is important because I believe the impact of knowing someone who does (fill in the blank) can be huge in terms of changing prevailing attitudes (which is a big part of changing bad laws, in my opinion).
So then, it seems we should be out to our parents, our hairdressers and everyone in between. However, I fear the backlash. I fear that my very loving family would feel hurt by my choices; I know that people lose jobs over sex work done in the distant past; and perhaps most of all, I don’t love sex work. It’s been a great help to me in life and I’m glad I’ve done it, but still it is and has been a part time job that I do for money, not a career I pursue because I love it. I certainly don’t think there is anything wrong with it and I am not ashamed, but I also don’t want to come across to people I meet as if it’s the most important part of my identity. To me it is much like waiting tables, bartending or any other job that simply suits one well enough that they can stand it and do it competently. For example, I volunteer with a program to tutor school kids; I love it and would hate to give it up so when a fellow volunteer asks what I do, I lie. I am much more interested in helping kids than I am in stripping; but guess which one people will pay me to do? Yeah. And that’s fine, but I wish prevailing attitudes were more understanding of this reality.
So – do you wish sex workers were balls to the walls out to all? I want to fight the hypocrisy. What do you think is the best way for sex workers to do so, ideally without completely compromising their futures that may or may not involve sex work?
It’s a very tough decision, and one every sex worker must make for herself because everyone’s situation is different. You’ve done an excellent job here of summing up the pros and the cons: on the one hand honesty, clarity and helping to fight prejudice; on the other family reactions and potential exclusion from things you really want to do.
I think it’s extremely important for women who don’t love the work to come out, because I honestly believe they’re the majority. Everybody hears from the “happy hookers” and the “survivors”, but as I explained in my column of one year ago today that presents a false dichotomy; for most of the women I’ve known it was a job like any other, with its own advantages and disadvantages, and they did it as long as it worked for them and stopped when it didn’t any more. They didn’t need to be “rescued”, and they weren’t so “damaged” they couldn’t do anything else; they entered sex work and left it as it suited them, just as one might do with any other job. And that in itself forms a strong argument for decriminalization; how many of that middle group might really be able to enjoy it if it weren’t for the problems imposed by criminalization, and how many of them are eventually driven to hate it by those same problems, yet locked into it by the inability to find anything nearly as lucrative due to a criminal record? If you’d like more reasons, Furry Girl and Amanda Brooks have both written eloquently on the subject of why more of us should be “out”.
However, the reaction of family is a very real concern for many of us; my mother stopped talking to me when I became a stripper, and I don’t think my husband’s family would take it too well now. My husband’s job is also an issue; though I don’t have any regular job to be fired from for having been a hooker, it’s certainly possible my husband’s employers might take a dim view of both my past and my activism and decide that he wasn’t the sort of person they wanted in a highly-paid position of trust. There’s also the reactions of neighbors to consider; though sex workers who live in large, cosmopolitan or accepting cities probably won’t attract a lot of attention by being “out”, it would be the talk of the entire county where I live. And while that’s good from the point of view of letting people know that sex workers aren’t freaks and criminals, it does open one up to the same sort of persecution as “sex offender” registrants have to deal with (though obviously much less severe).
Then there are government actors to consider; this is an especial problem for hookers due to criminalization. Though most of the lawyers to whom I’ve mentioned the issue agree that the police can’t really arrest a woman for simply saying “I am a prostitute” in public, the information may certainly motivate them to spy on her, plant evidence, make false accusations, etc. Nor are police the only concern; so-called “child protection” agents are infamous for using any excuse whatsoever to abduct people’s kids, and many a whore’s children have been stolen from her in this way. And though their jobs are not illegal, I’m willing to bet other sex workers (including strippers, porn actresses etc) have similar stories. Furthermore, there are tax officials to consider; the American IRS is often employed as a weapon against people the government wishes to harass, and European tax authorities have a long history of making outrageous client-volume estimates and then presenting huge bills to uppity whores (fortunately, that’s largely a thing of the past in most of Europe). Because of these concerns, being “out” is less of an option for women currently working in prostitution than in other forms of sex work, and more of an option for those without children, a husband or an occupation which might fire her for her “sin”. We only have to look at the stronger, healthier sex worker rights movements in countries where prostitution itself is legal (even if oppressed by avails laws, soliciting laws, etc) to see the advantages of being able to come out, but the disadvantages are equally obvious.
So though I’d love to be fully “out”, I’ve adopted a sort of middle path; perhaps you or some other ladies might be able to do something similar, if you find it impossible (as I do) to opt for complete disclosure. I am fully “out” to my friends, a few trusted family members and primary physicians; I use no cover stories with them, and speak as openly about my profession as I would if I were still a librarian. To everyone else from neighbors to store clerks, I openly admit to having been a stripper and to having done nude modeling; furthermore, I’m an outspoken libertarian and (loudly and publicly) denounce laws against prostitution and other consensual crimes to anyone who will listen. It’s not a perfect compromise, but at least I can come out as a type of sex worker and to call attention to the stupidity and tyranny of anti-sex worker laws without bringing disaster down on my head.