by Furry Girl

06.16.10

I've long contended that one of the best "quiet acts" of sex worker's rights activism is for us to be out of the closet in our "real life" friendships and interactions.  I think it's a very powerful statement in and of itself, without even delving into complex politics with people.  I realize that it's not an option for all sex workers, but it is an option that I think more of us could and should take, even in baby steps like striking up a short conversation that involves you disclosing your occupation to someone you're sitting next to on a train/bus/flight and will never see again.

I'm out to pretty much everyone I come into regular contact with, and have outed myself to strangers countless times.  I personally draw my line at coming out to my neighbors.  It's too much of a safety concern for me to risk setting someone off who knows where I live.  (Although, a previous next-door neighbor found my blog last year and emailed me to say how much he liked it.)  I did, however, unsuccessfully lobby my homeowner's association from a libertarian perspective that we should drop a lease requirement that renters must not engage in prostitution on the property.

Being out will definitely create some awkwardness and tension with discovering haters in your extended social circles, but you're also doing loads of good by humanizing a stigmatized part of our society, of which almost no one openly admits they're either a creator/provider or consumer.  You can help dispel stereotypes simply by showing people that sex workers are not a monolithic caricature of abused, drug-addled illiterates covered in open sores.  As much as I'm loathe to hear people trot out the standard condescending "Wow, but you're so smart!" initial reaction, I know it's ultimately a good thing for everyone.  I also want to scare away potential friends and lovers as soon as humanly possible so I don't waste my time with them if they're decidedly anti-porn or anti-sex work.

Recently, Andrew Sullivan posted "Why The Gay Movement Is Winning" about a new poll.  He notes, "It confirms what we already knew - that ending the closet is the key to equality.  By far the best way to do this is as an act of positive affirmation."

I immediately wondered what such pie-charts would look like over the decades for how many people say they know a sex worker.  While the issues surrounding the struggles for queer rights and sex workers rights aren't perfectly analogous, I think there's much sex workers can learn from a movement that is, in many ways, hopefully where sex workers will be at within my lifetime.

When your opposition depends on secrecy and shame to influence public opinion, openness is a powerful weapon.





20 Comments

  1. I totally agree! This is a fight I've fought more than a few times. Disappointing that a lot of people who can be out choose not too because it can be "uncomfortable". I can think of a lot worse that comes from remaining in the closet..

    Comment by Patricia — June 16, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

  2. Yes, yes, yes - and the comparison between the social change brought about by exiting queer closet and coming out of the sex work closet is very apt.

    Personally I'm out to my immediate family, out to my SO, out to my friends, out to the IRS and on my other financial documents, occasionally out to strangers depending on the situation.

    I wasn't out to my SO's friends because of his concerns but I've (finally, I was about to explode) been experimenting over the past year with being open-if-not-out with them. I started with jokes, then with "jokes," then with hints about work, then with comments about sex work issues, then with a few stray facts, asides and anecdotes. At this point it's an open secret, which works well because I can be out, discuss sex work issues, even to a degree go on about work, without having broken a promise I wish I'd never made.

    I've found out which of my SO's friends know other sex workers, and which ones are or have been sex workers (the answers surprised me). I've seen some attitudes change in that small circle just through humanization and exposure to a different perspective. I think sometimes we look at out-ness as an all-or-nothing thing instead of as the continuum I've found it to be, and there's a lot of room along that continuum for those in almost any life situation to be just a little more open, a little closer to out, even if only selectively.

    Comment by Sabrina Morgan — June 16, 2010 @ 7:46 pm

  3. There is the flipside of all this though, coming "out" as a user of sex worker's services. I can't begin to imagine it! Every woman I talk to - whereever the conversation has gone that way - is utterly repulsed by such a man. I have two quite separate models of womenkind in my head, sexworkers (the nice, warm hearted "bad" girls) and the rest (the mean spirited "nice" ones). What do you think?

    Comment by Ivan Appleton — June 17, 2010 @ 12:58 am

  4. I think that's the next wave, Ivan, and I hope for your sake it comes soon. I feel like we've fought to reduce sex worker stigma while leaving it for clients - in some cases we've actually offloaded it onto our clients. That's something that came up at Sex 2.0 this year, actually. There are supportive folks out there, but they're hard to find.

    It's going to take both brave clients and compassionate sex workers to reduce client stigma - but I don't believe sex work will be fully legalized until client stigma is greatly reduced. Thank you for raising that point.

    Comment by Sabrina Morgan — June 17, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

  5. Sabrina and I agree on this one - we'd both love to see the de-stigmatization of clients.

    As I've said before, sex workers aren't actually the most reviled people in the world - it's our customers. If you read anti-porn/anti-sex work arguments, they paint the most villainous portraits of men. (And, of course all customers are men and all providers are women in their rigidly-gendered argument.) We might be the fucked up and fallen, but ultimately, the argument is that we're helpless brainwashed victims of the inherently evil oppressor that is maleness.

    Comment by Furry Girl — June 17, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

  6. I'm also fully out to everyone except my neighbours. I own my flat so throwing me out would be tricky, but I work from home and if my neighbours decided to hassle my clients, word would spread and my business would be over. My parents know and are pretty cool with it (on the other hand, if my mum found out I smoke a little weed now and again she'd probably die), my friends know and my fiance knows. I often tell random strangers - taxi drivers mostly, but also staff at the bank (one very pretty lady behind the counter asked me how the hell I had £1000 cash to pay in - I told her, and she asked where I advertise. I think I may have just created competition :/), randomers on trains, and staff in shops when I'm buying more lingerie than a normal person could ever use.

    But, I'm comfortable doing that because my job is legal, I never do anything illegal (like letting another lady work in my home) relating to my work, I don't have children who could be taken into care and I don't intend to have any, and I don't have a day job. The worst that could happen would be it getting back to my neighbours, and if they reacted badly then I'd have to get a hotel room for incalls. The end of the world? Nah.

    Comment by Krystal — July 28, 2010 @ 11:00 am

  7. Krystal: thank you for being out and sharing your story.

    Comment by Furry Girl — August 13, 2010 @ 9:04 pm

  8. Thank you so much for writing this. I recently came out to my family and it was really difficult but felt like a real accomplishment.

    Comment by Dv — April 16, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

  9. DV: Congrats on coming out. It's not easy for everyone, but it really is an accomplishment.

    Comment by Furry Girl — April 24, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

  10. Great post! This topic has been on my mind for awhile. We ran a "Positions" column back when I was still at $pread between Robyn Few and Dick Hardy on this very question, and similar points were covered. The main disagreement was on occupational lines, but obviously everyone agreed that this is a desirable outcome if not possible for everyone (as you point out early on). The fact is that being "out" as a porn star can, potentially, be good for business, while being "out" as an active hooker opens a lot of people up to policing and unsolicited propositions for shit pay (not that out porn folks are exempt from this reality!).

    Being out as a sex worker will categorically subject people to whore stigma, but I don't think it's the stigma that is stopping most of us so much as it is the threat of arrest or exclusion from professional options we may pursue in the future, such as law, medicine, or other "gatekeeper" professions.

    Comment by Will Rockwell — May 6, 2011 @ 11:35 am

  11. I've always said that the most radical act we can do as sex workers is to be out. I'm out to everyone, my children, parents, landlord, strangers, and it's gotten me in trouble a time or two, fired from my other job as an art teacher, my x tried to sue me for custody of my then two year old. While it's been challenging at times, I feel like it's my duty, my obligation to be true to myself, and to challenge societies hatred of the whore, and question the dynamics between men and women

    Comment by Kymberly — May 6, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

  12. Will: Only a teeny tiny little minority of sex workers are working towards a law or medical degree, so I really don't think that that's what holding the masses back from coming out.

    Kymberly: Rock on! And I'm sorry you've had to go through so much! I see parents as having something of an exemption, because it's a very real and massive problem to be battling an ex for custody. I think that's a valid reason to stay in the closet, whereas I don't have sympathy for people who won't come out because they think their mom might be disappointed in them.

    Comment by Furry Girl — May 6, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

  13. I think you're taking this the wrong way. The reason why it's hard to come out is BECAUSE of the stigma. Of course, if more of us (and our clients) come out, to more people, our movement will eventually, as you write, become more successful, and the stigma will get less heavy. But it's not because we're cowards, or not brave, or not committed enough to the cause, that we're not coming out in great numbers yet. It's the other way around. The stigma isn't there because we're closeted, we're closeted because there's stigma, because there's many people for whom it's dangerous to be out as sexworkers. Very concretely and materially, it can put some of us in extremely risky situations - violence against sex workers is rampant. You can lose a non-sexwork job, be denied health care, lose custody of your children, go to jail, get harassed, get assaulted, get murdered. Not everybody lives in NYC in privileged spaces. Not everybody is a white, cisgendered sex worker. Because I'm privileged enough to come out without much risk, I very often do. And I think it's our job as privileged sex workers to come out and take that risk for others who can't, for our movement to get stronger. I think it is an efficient way that the stigma will be lifted, and that public awareness of our cause will begin to grow. But I don't think it's fair to tell other sex workers they have to come out. It's a personal choice to make and it has very different consequences depending on each person's context. Most of the time, we would like to come out, and it's not for "comfort" that we stay closeted - the closet has never been comfortable, it's a crampy, stuffy place to be in. We stay closeted not for comfort, but for safety, to protect our lives from a world that hates us. It's not the sex workers' responsibility to come out and risk our lives so that the world accepts us. It's the world's responsibility to stop hating us so hard that we're scared of what will happen to us if we come out. Same for LGBT people: it's not because they came out and people started to know LGBT people around them that the movement gained success. It's because the movement gained success that LGBT people were able to come out in safer environments and be more visible as queer in their daily lives. It's only as a movement, as a collective force, together, through organizations, that we are now able to feel strong and safe enough to talk about who we are. Individually, in our daily lives, for most of us, it still isn't a step we can safely take.

    Comment by JudyMinx — May 7, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

  14. JudyMinx: You have to start breaking the cycle somewhere. People can't endlessly justify to themselves that it's not safe to come out until there's less stigma, because if no one comes out, that stigma remains. Most of your nearly-unreadable paragraph-free rant was already addressed by the first paragraph of my blog post, but way to lambast me over positions I've never taken.

    Comment by Furry Girl — May 19, 2011 @ 7:14 pm

  15. (just a plug from the other side)

    I would assume - as a consumer myself - that it would be an interesting experience meeting a sex worker and learning about their life. After all, I get curious about the people behind the bakery counter, and I know how my hairdresser ended up in her job and what she thinks about it, and why a career barista I see often converted his vocation into a profession..

    Further: a real-life meeting would be far more authentic an occasion for dialogue and learning than the media spectacles that are 'biographies' in calendar glossies: if I meet a sex worker, I don't want to know their stats or whether they consider a moonlit walk on the beach romantic - I would want to know about their life journey, the challenges they face, or the ways in which their understanding and experience of sexuality compares with mine. In other words, all the bits that are not about sex, but about sex work.

    Comment by Anoumenous — June 3, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

  16. PS: I don't mean to imply that the most interesting thing about a sex worker is the fact of their being a sex worker, but that it is a crucial starting point for breaking stereotypes. For instance, it is merely interesting to hear a yoga teacher talk about embodied experiences; it is *far* more interesting to hear a sex worker expound on sexuality as yogic practice, because that is precisely what you don't expect.

    Comment by Anoumenous — June 3, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

  17. Comment by Trackbacks — October 20, 2014 @ 3:31 am

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