An additional thought on self-care.

Ooof, I wanted to do a big post on trafficking, because I’ve seen this topic come up a lot recently (as ever), – on Jezebel, but also in the ‘statement of reasons’ attached to the proposed Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex Bill that’s heading towards the Scottish Parliament. (Yup, you guys: its here. This is it. At least now we’re not up against rumour, I suppose.) And (again, as ever), the topic is not perfectly illuminated by anti-sex work moralists, despite what they’d have you think about the pure flame of their righteous anger. However, the day has run away with me and soon I must leave the house, so you’ll just have to wait for those thoughts.

After writing Sunday’s post, I walked to Sainsbury’s in the glorious, glorious heat, thinking about how many sex workers I know go on to become therapists and counsellors. The link is kind of obvious: loads of the skills that sex work foregrounds (oh, stop snorting) are really transferable: listening, a non-judgemental attitude, boundaries. Just for instance. (I’ve actually looked into this a bit myself; it kind of draws together a couple of strands in terms of my double-life.) One of the things that I hugely admire about feminist second-wavers is that they fucking built so much: y’know, there was no women’s library, until a bunch of women were like, ‘hey, there’s a need for this’ and fucking MADE IT SO. There were no Rape Crisis Centres, and then there were. That is amazing. I remember reading somewhere a thing – I wish I could recall where – that was like, ‘if you think paedophilia is shit, thank a feminist’. Because child abuse really wasn’t talked about at all until the women’s movement in the ’70s and ’80s started kicking up shit about all the rape that happens within families. Second-wavers really changed (substantial bits of) a whole culture, through building institutions and discourses wholly from scratch. And basically, I’d like some of that ambition, pls. (But with less of the weird crap politics around sex workers, trans people, queer women, women of colour … Just less! of the weird crap politics. Please!)

The link between those two thoughts – about sex workers-turned-therapists, and second-waver ambition, is, wouldn’t it be great to create some kind of sex work equivalent to Rape Crisis, so you could call and speak to someone about whatever: legal stuff, or emotional stuff, or whatever. In confidence, to a person who was trained in counselling skills, and also knowledgeable about the various legal and social issues around sex work. Like you can with Rape Crisis: they’ll know about legal stuff as well as asking how you feel, you know.

That is an absurdly big, nebulous thought, especially given that I’m yet to organise a piss up in a brewery. (Furthermore, the technological context has changed hugely since the second wavers did their thing – so much sex worker information sharing is done on the internet now that I wonder if it would even make sense to take a technological step back into the 1600s by having a telephone-based service. Dunno.) However, it would be eminently possible and doable to sort out a directory of therapists with experience of (or sympathetic to) sex work, which would serve a double purpose of enabling sex workers to find appropriate, knowledgeable, sympathetic support (time, money, and assorted access barriers and stigmas providing), and supporting the work of former sex workers. Hmmm. That would be a start.

Self-care with a side-order of professional development.

One of the many things I’m getting from this excellent article on self-care for sex workers is affirmation that it is sometimes okay to feel sad. (I should probably add that I don’t particularly feel that way just at the moment: this isn’t the equivalent of cryptically posting a Bon Iver youtube clip to Facebook – if I was sad right now, I’d be in bed, not on wordpress.) Which should be obvious, really, but one of things I’ve noticed from life in general is the extent to which people struggle against perfectly natural, common emotions: sometimes it is a relief to just give yourself permission to feel whatever you do feel, and not fight it. That’s okay.

Obviously, in a public sex worker context, being okay with feeling sad is doubly difficult, because you don’t want to give people ammunition to claim that you’re damaged. If you’re a marine biologist who occasionally struggles with depression, people won’t generally run you through their stereotype flow chart and emerge with “sad victim/marine biologist with a heart of gold: make marine biology illegal/patronise”. (Which isn’t to say that being a marine biologist with a diagnosis of depression is a walk in the park: mental health stigma is everywhere, and everywhere it is bullshit.) I think talking about this stuff in public is important, though – if we give up on nuance, then the prohibitionists have won*.

Anyway, those people aren’t that important (we’re winning the argument, slowly). What is important is looking after yourself. How can you fight patriarchy if you’re too tired and sad to get out of bed in the morning, hmm? I’m always saying that to a friend of mine, but frankly I should probably buy a small plane and write it in smoke in the sky above Glasgow, because it bears repeatin’. Feminist lady friends, I have you in mind.

Hark, sex workers. I don’t know what looking after yourself actually means for you. I’m not an expert in my own life; let alone yours. (My non-expertise in my own life is probably around GCSE level. B grade.) Personally, I’m yet to fully understand what ‘making time for you’ actually means for me: I get bored in baths, I can never seem to motivate myself to just go for a walk (though when I do walk – home from a friend’s house or a night out, it is lovely). Watch an episode of Girls, maybe, but I can hardly rely on Lena Dunham’s creative output to succour my mental health indefinitely. Anyway, maybe you know something that works for you, or maybe you’re more like me and still looking for that peace that one is supposed to find in baths and walks.

I guess I do feel a bit burnt out. Which is strange, because I haven’t been working very hard recently; but I guess that’s why these articles tend to advise you to make time for you before you get burnt out, in order to avoid it. As I apparently have not. Ugh, apologies; I did want to avoid foregrounding myself and my feelings so much (yucky feelings). I was reassured to feel like the self care article I link to affirms all that emotional labour that goes into sex work: all that maintaining of boundaries (which really doesn’t come naturally); or, conversely, realising too late that your boundaries aren’t good enough and getting – well, that word again – burnt. Tiredness. Stuff that’s difficult to talk about because you don’t want to confess to screwing up, or don’t want to make people worry. Or because its invisible even to you: how d’you fucking maintain successful boundaries? I feel like, outside of the context of a structured workplace environment, this is both exhausting, and mysterious, like producing a (Harry Potter analogy alert) patronus.

If you’re also feeling burnt out, and you think that refreshing your knowledge of safe working practises might help, you should have a gander at the SCOT-PEP toolkit (er, if you’re in Scotland, that is. The legal stuff in particular is obviously quite location-specific). They’ve got all sorts: health and the law and safety, in various contexts, and even if those working practises aren’t yours, sometimes its good to know what’s out there, right? Or the saafe.info forum frequently deals with – pretty much any issue under the sun, really – but I’d say they’re pretty good at the more nebulous, emotional stuff, just because its so busy there.

If you’re specifically dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault, I think one of the best resources on the internet is this article, ‘We’re Called Survivors Because We’re Still Here‘, from rookie mag. (Dear Tavi, I love you. Love from, me.) Obviously its just one thing, and obviously its US-based, but just as a piece of writing I think it really excels in all the crucial stuff. My experience of women’s organisations in Scotland is that they tend to have a prohibitionist analysis of sex work: I don’t know to what extent that’s manifest in their support work (for instance, if you call a Rape Crisis helpline), but my personal tendency has been towards wariness and non-engagement. However, looking through the website of Rape Crisis Scotland doesn’t bring up any heinous howlers from a sex work perspective, so maybe that’s a positive sign. Their number is 08088 01 03 02, open 6pm – midnight every night.

If you’re looking to refresh your professional skills in order to stave off boredom-burn out (a totally legit thing), diversify, or keep safe, then X:Talk and SWOU are jointly hosting a series of workshops covering Swedish massage and IT skills, and one-off self-defence classes in London over the summer. Nice work, you guys. This looks really, really good. Actually, there’s a thing that works for me – reading up on the ace stuff that everyone is doing, which is making the world a wee bit better (coz the world, frustratingly, declines to get substantially better very quickly). Like, it is such an honour to know these people, and feel part of the same, like, thing (albeit minisculely on my part), and that makes me chuffed even when I’m a bit sad. I can’t really remember what caused me to wander into the sex worker rights movement (aside from, y’know, being a sex worker), but I’ve stayed because the people here are fucking top.

So yeah. Stay safe, you lot.

* a statement that in itself is perhaps a wee bit lacking in nuance, but y’know what I mean.

Leaving present.

I will be away from my laptop for a week. I know, right? I too will be looking on with interest to see if I can survive this severing of my cyborg self. (Donna Haraway ain’t just a river in Egypt, you guys.) Anyway, I don’t want you to think I’ve abandoned you, or that I wouldn’t basically spend every single minute of all the days of my finite life checking my hit counter if I could (and furthermore consider that to be good use of my afore-mentioned finite life), so here is some lovely multimedia to last you through until Sunday/Monday. (You may have already seen all of these. Sssshh. Pretend otherwise.)

Advice to the dates, sweethearts, partners and lovers of sex workers:

 

“I am a sex worker”. This actually makes me tear up a little sometimes. Telling a camera your various non-controversial traits – “I talk to my family every day”, “I love baking”, and then adding, “and I’m a sex worker” – its just so simple and so powerful.  (I also cried a tiny bit at Slutwalk, for approximately the same reason, so.)

 

Shit They Say To Sex Workers. (My particular favourites include, “do these earrings make me look like a whore? … oh, sorry“, and “I guess we’re all prostitutes really”.)

 

scrapbook-y quickness.

i. “No coarser insult, no baser defamation, can be thrown against the workers than the remark, ‘theoretical controversies are only for intellectuals.’” – Rosa Luxemburg.

ii. There is a party and fun[d]-raiser for the Sex Worker Open University. Which is doing exciting things like holding workshops and becoming a workers co operative (and holding parties). On May 31st. In London. Here are the details. I will probably be there! We can hang out, anonymous internet dwellers! Hmm.

iii.

8,000 sex workers took part in this march (titled, “justice for sex worker mothers”) in Maharashtra and Karnataka, India.

vi. And, finally, someone else says “stop policing our morals”, on a Lambeth poster. “Police should get real crime”. I want to write a lot more about “end demand”, especially as I’ve got my paws on a wee propaganda booklet from the Women’s Support Project (a reasonably legit women’s organisation here in Glasgow) that’s all over End Demand like a clingy boyfriend. (It is titled, in srs bsns caps lock, ‘ADULT ENTERTAINMENT … OR EXPLOITATION?’ Oh, I know the answer to this one! Pick me pick me!) They are in horrid l.o.v.e, and it is gross. Sorry. Anyway, I shall be saying more about that when I’ve had less wine. Night, loves.

Occupy History/Occupy June.

Well, hello. I got an up-tick on the hit counter that made leaving the house temporarily difficult. “I’ll just click refresh one more time! One more time!” Do say hey, lovely, disconcerting strangers.

The last time I saw Thierry and Luca, they were fairly bouncy with glee at having unilaterally declared June to be Sex Worker History Month. And so it is! Go forth and multiply that knowledge; let’s make this happen. As Amber Hollibaugh says, “I believe that history matters, that it is one of the few tools within our grasp to re-constitute our understanding of our individual human lives [ … ] and our larger collective experiences”. Aw yeah! I want that on a BANNER.

No, but seriously, we’ve gotta hang on to, unearth, and re-create the alternative and marginal histories that root us more securely in the present. This stuff is a direct link to  identity, community, power, and ways to change the definitions of power, ways to up-end the bullshit and talk about hope. Or, as I explained to my brother last night, “I think on some level, my crush on Rebekah Brooks is a signal from my unconscious that I need more strong female role models in my life”. I’m like a baby bird that has inopportunely imprinted ‘mother’ onto the first thing it saw upon emerging from the egg, even though that first thing is actually (oops!) a weasel. Let’s pretend that ‘imprinting ‘mother” is the same as ‘big ol’ girl-crush’ (paging Dr Freud), and that analogy is literally true. (I actually have plenty of strong female role models in my life – such as, my best friends (hi yous), and Kathleen Hanna. But I think in this instance my brain is seeking out the UNDISGUISED SIGNIFIERS of traditional power as wielded by a woman, and Rebekah, with her weird combination of running the world + hair like a delicious Medusa, fits the bill. My unconscious is not subtle.)

Anyway! Back to the point. Throughout the month of June, I’m thinking of writing a whole load of stuff about sex worker badasses and sex work-related badasserie from the past. These people and events/collectives will include: Kathleen Hanna (fucking duh), Colette (I love, love, love Angela Carter on the topic of Colette, talking about the legibility of all those years as a stripper in Colette’s writing, how she “… celebrated the status quo of femininty, not only its physical glamour but also its capacity to withstand the boredom of patriarchy [ … ] She is like certain shop stewards who devote so much time to getting up management’s nose that they lose sight of the great goals of socialism”. Hee!), Maya Angelou, Andrea Dworkin (ooh! Did you just double-take? I actually kind of love Dworkin: I think she is a fantastic author of political prose, probably one of the best of the 20th century. When I read her, I feel energised by the quality of her writing, whereas when I read, say Kat Banyard, I can never decide whether its the terrible politics or the terrible, sub-hack, psychology-undergraduate-essay-style prose [which veers wildly between po-faced pseudo-objectivity, and poorly expressed attempts at what I can only assume is supposed to be ‘passionate anger’] that depresses me more.)

… where was I? Oh yes. Those are all the people I’m definitely going to write about – now, events: the occupation of the church in Lyon in 1975, and in King’s Cross in 1980, for starters. I want this stuff to be mainly positive, but I might do a thing looking at something Laura Augustin talks about in her book, Sex at The Margins, on how the rise of middle-class feminism in the latter half of the 19th century led to a whole discourse of virtue and temperance, deploying the supposed universality of women’s superior moral traits as a trojan horse for fucking over working class women, and in particular, ‘othering’ sex workers. Because I think the prohibitionists see history as a kind of bad Victorian oil painting in which the past is static and they are perpetually on the side of Good, and I’d like to push back on that – not only are they not on the side of Good, they’re not some ahistorical saviour-movement like St George stepping out of a cloud above a battlefield; they came about as a result of a particular set of circumstances in a particular time and place, and by tracing those circumstances we can locate the origin of a bunch of problems that are still very much in evidence today.

So that’s where I’m at. I’m interested in further suggestions for this: I’d like to write about historical badasses/badasseries who are based in Scotland (or, oh! Glasgow! That would be ace), to which end I might use the SCOT-PEP ‘history of the sex workers rights movement in Edinburgh’ as a jumping off point, but further suggestions of all kinds are very welcome. I might write about some men, although, to be honest, I’ll probably mainly focus on women (because I love them). But suggestions for male sex worker badasses, please! And spread the word that we’re occupying June with our amazing role models and our amazing models for different ways of living. Fuck yeah, sex workers.

Survey! Sex workers, a survey for you!

A friend drew my attention to this survey, from Glasgow NHS. Sex workers, they want to know who you are* and what you want! Like you’ve kipnapped their children and are now having your demands met, except with much less child-kidnap! Excellent. Also, by way of asking if you’ve heard of “X, Y, Z services” they draw your attention to X, Y and Z services, which is vair vair useful (“vair”? Why yes, my French is second-to-none, why do you ask?).

*Ahem. As in, ‘they want to know approximately who you are, roughly, ish’, not ‘they want to know exactly, definitely who you are so they can call your actual mum and ask her what went so wrong in your upbringing’.

Open letter to a former sex worker.

I’m not going to be polite to non-sex worker prohibitionists; so far as I’m concerned, Object and UK Feminista et al are what happens when feminism gets dutch elm disease and rots from the inside out. However, because I’m arguing in good faith, I think it is appropriate to assume that other people are too, and so when I come across (former) sex workers who have very different opinions to me, I think a good starting point is one of respectful engagement. We don’t need to try to shout each other down. We’ve all experienced the way that the stigma around sex work is used to silence us; we don’t need to silence each other, too. That’s doing patriarchy’s job for it.

So I was very interested to read this piece, ‘What is a representative prostitute?’ (trigger warning for rape and childhood sexual abuse). The first thing I should say is, many of the experiences you describe are awful, and you have my utmost empathy. I can’t promise not to disagree with your politics, but I will never, ever disbelieve a rape survivor, or judge how you’ve processed those experiences.

Here’s a thing I agree with, to start off on. The author writes: “A good hint as to the intentions of anyone posing this question is in how they will construct it.  Members of the pro-prostitution alliance will far more likely use the sanitising/normalising language of ‘sex work’; therefore will most likely ask ‘What is a representative sex-worker?’”. Well, yes. I can’t really dodge that one, huh? What I think is concealed in the way this sentence works, though, is the possibility that the ‘pro-prostitution alliance’ also contains sex workers prostitutes, and I don’t see why we don’t get to politely ask that you call us ‘sex workers’. I personally prefer it, by and large, – and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone else to use whatever terminology they find most comfortable: if you think the phrase “prostituted woman” best describes your experiences, then that’s fine. (I mean, its not fine that you experienced that, but if you ask me to, I’ll use the language you prefer when referring to you!) It seems to me that we have different words and phrases in order to express different kinds of experiences, and – that’s okay? That’s kind of good? English comes in many different shapes, to match the world, and we don’t have to use just one phrase for everyone.

… Which leads nicely onto the central crux: who mostly closely approximates “everyone”? The author of piece talks about some of the women she met while working in the sex industry (is that a reasonably neutral phrase? I was genuinely aiming for reasonably neutral there) – an example of their experiences being, for instance, “Anna”, who “left home at fourteen because her stepfather had been sexually molesting her for years.  She was prostituted at seventeen, and found prostitution nothing very new”. Well, that is really shit: I’m sorry. I’m also not pro-rape or child abuse: if I could post my CV here, you’d see a reasonable amount of work (with varying degrees of formality) in the fields of supporting survivors, both in the context of sex work and in women’s organisations more generally. I too would like to rid the world of rape; I just don’t think that (further) criminalising the sex industries is the way to do that. Can you see that I’m not denying the validity of your – or Anna’s – experiences by thinking that? That I’m not a pro-rape monster?

At the start of the post, you write “A representative prostitute is somebody who’s lived experience of prostitution and consequential attitudes towards it are those experienced by and held by the majority”. I think this is a little problematic in the way that it elides ‘experiences’ with ‘attitudes towards [prostitution]’. This erases the category of people who have had similar experiences,  but who haven’t reached your conclusions, implying that the only people who disagree with you are those who have no experience of what you’re talking about: anyone who’d experienced what you had would agree. Well, that’s not my – to use this word for the millionth time – experience. I’ve met sex workers with stories not a million miles from what you’ve recorded: people who’ve swapped sex for survival on the streets as adolescents. Teenagers who traded sex for alcohol. Survivors of rape and childhood sexual abuse. People who’ve experienced violence from managers and clients, transgender people who’ve gone into sex work because our transphobic society offers so few other options, sex workers who are drug-users. None of those people would agree with the conclusions that you draw.

In fact, a while ago I was talking to a friend about how he started out in the sex industry, and he specifically said that the reason he is involved in the sex worker rights movement is to help out the scared, desperate seventeen year old kids on the street – because that’s who he used to be. I don’t see that that’s a political position deserving of scorn.

The statistics you cite – that twenty nine of out thirty sex workers would leave the sex industry if offered a job of equal earning potential – don’t surprise me hugely, but I don’t think you allow for the possibility that these statistics are both true, and don’t quite suggest what you argue they do (that “the vast majority of the women polled here, would not, if they could make the same money elsewhere, choose to experience another moment of prostitution ever again”). I would probably leave the sex industry tomorrow if offered a job under those conditions (depending on the nature of the job, I guess – ghostwriting David Cameron’s memoirs? Not so much), because a job in the ‘legit’ world that paid so well would probably be quite prestigious. I used to be an au pair – if you’d asked me then whether I had plans to quit au pairing, and whether I’d take an equivalent job outside of the childcare industry if offered, then I’d have given an emphatic yes to both. That doesn’t mean I think au pairing is The Worst Job In The World (actually, I sort of do think this) or that the purchase of childcare should be criminalised.

Incidentally, I had a swatch online for the Haughey and Bacik study that you cite, because I’m interested in the methodology of studies that focus on the sex industry, but I couldn’t seem to get my hands on a copy. So I can’t comment on that. I’ve learnt to be interested in methodology (this is a not an inborn trait, surprisingly), because this field is swamped with dodgily cooked stats. There’s a famous Farley study that found eighty-nine percent of sex workers wanted to quit the industry – this stat is quoted all over the mainstream (o hai kat barnyard!), as if its good science, when in fact it has a huge selection bias which makes it barely worth the time it takes to refute. (To quote that link, ” … a bit like selecting people at a jobs fair to find out if they’re looking for work”.) Incidentally, that Farley-debunking link tackles some of the other stuff you talk about: the percentage of sex workers who work in the street, the extent to which the sex worker rights movement is a product of the Global North (short version: not loads).

You talk about how, “My own expressed opinions in prostitution were always constructed in the effort to protect myself. I berated myself over that for quite a long while afterwards, but to the best of my ability, I don’t do that anymore, because it was only natural that I would protect myself anyway I could.” I really glad to hear that you’re trying to not berate yourself anymore: you did what you had to to survive, and that’s a sign of strength. However, I feel like you’re denying me the agency to name and describe my life when you talk about how that form of surviving is inevitable or universal. (“I don’t see how it could be any other way.”) It is possible to have similar experiences and process them entirely differently, it is possible to have different experiences and for those experiences still to be valid, to exist, to be a way of being in the sex industry that is not so unusual. It feels like, by implying that I must be – on some level – lying to protect myself – you’re not engaging with me as a person with different politics, you’re taking away the possibility that I might just disagree, and replacing that with the inevitability that I’m self-delusional. That’s not kind. That’s not a great way of doing politics.

I feel like, in the UK at least, the question of “representativeness” is used to silence sex workers. Amongst prohibitionists, it seems like a sort of catch-22: if you’re ‘together’ enough to disagree with them, then that’s a sign of your privilege, so you need not be taken seriously. And yet, who is a representative sex worker? I quoted you at the start, talking about how the way this question is framed betrays the ask-er’s bias – absolutely – but I also think that to an extent, even asking the question has become a signifier of a certain flavour of politics. We need to find out who sex workers are, where they are, and what their needs are, in order to lobby for and create services that better cater to our needs – whether those needs are to exit the industry, to fill in a tax return, to protect ourselves from violence, or to form communities that can sustain us. We don’t need to find out who is an ‘average’ sex worker in order to berate non-average sex workers with that straw man: how many people are an ‘average’ or representative anything? (Two point four kids, anyone?) Am I an average Scottish woman? Probably not (in fact, ipsos mori came to the door the other day, as if to underline my non-averageoisity. The man did not even slightly smile when I told him that I thought the biggest problem facing Britain was “the Tories”) – but that doesn’t mean I don’t exist, or deserve services.

There’s room in my analysis for you, and for the truth of your experiences. But there doesn’t seem to be room in your analysis for me, or mine. And yet, I do exist. So where do we go from here?

ETA: I left a wee comment on the post that I’m responding to – just saying, like, “hi, thanks for writing this, I wrote a thing” – and it got deleted. Which is fine – no one need respond to anyone that they don’t want to. But I did feel like I was genuinely trying to find common ground, and I didn’t get a lot of reciprocity on that. Maybe I was naive.