No people do so much harm as those who go about doing good.
– Mandell Creighton
I’ve often written about how important allies are in the struggle for sex worker rights; it’s why I call for them to speak out every Friday the 13th. One of the reasons is that we’re an awfully small minority, and another is that we need third parties to fend off the inevitable circumstance ad hominem accusations:
…we’re often accused of distorting facts to make ourselves look good, and no matter how assiduously we work to present a balanced view this is a natural and credible accusation against anyone who advocates for some issue which directly concerns her. That’s why allies are so important; it’s much harder for the prohibitionists to shout down people who don’t have a dog in the fight, but merely support prostitutes’ rights on moral grounds.
I think male allies are especially important, because the majority of men have directly paid for sex at least once and a sizable minority do so regularly, yet one wouldn’t know it by listening to the public discourse; vocal male allies help to give other men the courage to speak out.
Unfortunately, both male and female would-be allies tend to undermine our cause with depressing regularity. Some of them do this inadvertently, by failing to check their facts with sex workers and thereby buying into prohibitionist talking points such as the myth that “sex trafficking” is a huge problem, the naïve belief that the police can be trusted to “manage” sex workers, the lie that legalization increases “trafficking”, the ill-considered notion that licensing and registration decrease exploitation or the demeaning canard that we have more diseases than other non-celibates. Some make good arguments against criminalization, but feel compelled to insist that they disapprove of sex work, or opine that we live an “immoral lifestyle”, and they’re only defending us on principle. And some even vomit out agency-negating poison like “People don’t choose to become prostitutes” or “they should go after the pimps”. But even the ones who commit none of the more egregious errors and insults will often use the incredibly-insulting phrase “selling their bodies”; I recently saw an essay in which the writer (who was clearly pro-decriminalization) used the phrase “rent out their bodies for sex.” And because that incredibly stupid expression is so very common and so incredibly insulting to literally everyone, I think it’s high time we purge it from polite use, preferably with fire.
My most succinct argument against the phrase was probably this one I made on a newspaper story some time ago, and would never have remembered had a reader not immortalized it on Tumblr and recently tweeted the link:
The claim that sex workers “sell our bodies” is not only logically absurd (I was a prostitute for years, but my body is still right here with me), but totally sexist because it is based on the notion that a woman’s sexuality is her entire worth. The belief behind this expression is that since a woman has nothing of value to offer except her sexuality, if she “sells” that she has “sold herself” and there is nothing left. The fact that anti-sex worker activists use this expression so often says a lot about them.
This is of course the same pernicious and demeaning concept of a woman’s worth which lurks behind the horrible belief that rape is a “fate worse than death” from which a woman can never, ever recover. Those who prefer my mocking idiocy to getting sort of feministy over it may like this more outre demolition of the phrase from two months ago:
It’s almost as though some people actually believe that after one transaction whores become spiritual beings (after all, when one “sells” something the buyer generally takes it with him when he leaves) who then, presumably, reincarnate like the Dalai Lama and return to the brothel to “sell” their instantly-grown, identical new bodies again. One wonders what happens to all the old bodies, however; I reckon once the men are done with them, they flush them down the loo like unwanted goldfish or “child sex slaves”.
Now, my objections to the word “selling” don’t apply to the word “renting”, but the use of the word “body” to mean “services” conjures a whole host of issues on its own. The idea that sex requires only a woman’s body and not her mind is just as absurd as the “selling” part, and insults both whores and clients: whores because the very real talents and skills we bring to our craft is ignored, devalued and reduced to mere physical presence; clients because it essentially casts them as necrophiles or desperate men who can be wholly satisfied with inert dolls. Any woman who believes that men are satisfied with a girl who does little more than show up has some deep issues with men, and any man who believes it…well, let’s not go there. It’s clear that neither of them has ever read a review of an escort who acts that way, and equally clear that such beliefs say far more about their own expectations (if male) and bedroom behavior (if female) than about the sex workers and clients they insult and demean by the use of such expressions.
Allies, we really appreciate your wanting to help us, and Aphrodite knows we really need your help, especially these days when the crusade to exterminate us is running hotter than it has in a century. But if you’re going to spout prohibitionist propaganda, stop short of saying that our work is valid work, refuse to respect our agency and choices and use moronic expressions which perpetuate harmful, ignorant stereotypes about us, our clients and our associates, it’s probably better if you just go away and keep your mouth shut, because you’re doing more harm than good.