On the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, Karen Pollock speaks to sex workers about why sex work is an LGBTQ+ issue, and the need for LGBTQ+ organisations to do more to support decriminalisation.
TW: Use of transphobic language within the context of sex work
December 17th is marked across the world as the International Day to End Violence Against Sex workers (IDEVASW). It began as a vigil to commemorate the victims of the Green River Killer, a serial killer who specifically targeted sex workers. From the mythologised Jack the Ripper, who is treated with heroic status by many, to the current day, sex workers have been targeted by those who believe crimes against them will be ignored, or even seen as brought on by the sex workers themselves. The recent conviction of Daniel Holtzclaw highlights how those with power in our society have also often targeted sex workers. As the Amnesty International report on decriminalisation of sex work showed, police often rape and abuse sex workers, secure in the knowledge that they will not be believed if they report.
The December 17th official website has disturbing, and tragic statistics about the violence faced by trans sex workers in the United States. This is within a global context of an increased risk of violence faced by all sex workers, that risk varying largely due to race, gender and the legal status of sex work in their country. In those countries where both sex work and being LGBTQ+ are criminalised, sex workers face even higher risks, of violence, arrest, police violence, exposure to HIV and stigmatisation.
I do not intend to rehash the arguments here about the decriminalisation of sex work. I do have a question though that I feel needs to be answered. Why are so many LGBTQ+ organisations still silent about sex work, or at best lukewarm, in their support for its decriminalisation? The only time I have seen mainstream organisations speak out on the issue was in light of the Rentboy raids, when other similar attacks on Backpage and RedBook had been met with a resounding silence. I spoke to three sex workers about this, and the general issue of being a queer sex worker.
Mentioning the Rentboy raids evoked strong reactions from all three of the people I spoke to. One, V., a lesbian sex worker based in the UK, perhaps summed up how they all felt.
“What happened to Rentboy was crap, especially the anti-terrorism laws they used, but so was what happened to RedBook, so were the Soho raids, so were the Edinburgh raids, yet all of a sudden, listing sites were part of the community.”
The Soho and Edinburgh raids took on what is known as ‘working flats’ and brothels in 2014. Police and local authorities had taken a lenient view of such sex work venues, as they were safer to work in, and provide outreach to services. However, this leniency was removed for a variety of political and economic reasons in both places in 2014. V. continued;
“It really pissed me off seeing so much stuff about safe working coming out of LGBTQ+ organisations after Rentboy. It was no different to AdultWork (the main site where sex workers can advertise in the UK). There was lots of stuff about how clean and respectable these people were, as if they were better than normal sex workers.”
T., a trans sex worker from the US, took this theme up too;
“I got the impression after the Rentboy raids that because these were men, it was different. It’s not even about being gay. Before I transitioned, I was a male sex worker, I used sites like Rentboy. There are lots of people there – straight, queer, trans, gay – but the way it was reported, that this was a site where gay men met other gay men, meant that it suddenly became an LGBTQ+ issue.”
V. felt very strongly that assumptions are made about the sexuality of sex workers;
“I am a lesbian, I have a partner who is a woman, but for work, yes I have sex with men, it’s my job! There seems to be this idea that all sex workers are straight, because they have sex with men, and therefore it only gets mentioned as an LGBTQ+ issue by trans organisations or when it’s men having sex with men.”
S., a non-binary sex worker, wanted to emphasise the support of trans organisations;
“Trans organisations are so far ahead of LGB organisations, but that’s probably because so many trans people end up selling sex because of transphobia and the need to find work somewhere. I am NB but obviously in ads and on AdultWork, I advertise as a woman – I have to, and I think V. is right, LGBTQ+ orgs see our ads, and the fact it’s largely cis men who are clients, so assume we are all straight women. But this is an LGBTQ+ issue, the biggest one I can think of.”
T. felt this fluidity of identities was part of the reason organisations did not speak out;
“Sex work is often about selling a fantasy, being what the client wants, you use terms like ‘she-male’ because that sells to a certain market. You will use other stuff on other sites. But even when I was out as trans to my friends, I still had a gay male profile I occasionally used because I needed the money. On there, I presented as an effeminate queer man. Sex workers are shape shifters! We have to be, but all anyone sees is a cis woman giving head to a cis man.”
I wondered if there was an air of respectability politics about this, and put the question to all three.
T. – I am sure of it. The Stonewall riots were led by queer trans sex workers of colour, but look at the film, it’s suddenly all about a nice cis gay man. People want to say we are just like you, so we deserve rights. Well, hell, I am a 6-foot-tall trans sex worker, I am not like you, I don’t want to be like you, and I still deserve rights!
V. – Undoubtedly, T. mentioned Stonewall. The UK organisation seems to want to say that LGBTQ+ people are OK because they are ‘normal’. Supporting sex workers would challenge that, but they need to be there for all LGBTQ+ people, not just the ones who want to be as ‘straight’ as possible.
S. – I think so. Sex work is still seen as something dirty, which sad drug addicts* do to pay for their fix. It’s lots of different things, but for most of us, it’s our job, nothing more. LGBTQ+ organisations need to accept that queer people sell sex, and start standing up for us.
Finally I asked what words they might have on this, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
T. – I will go to the December 17th memorial, as I did to the Trans Day of Remembrance memorial, and I will hear the same names being read out. If you cared on TDOR, if it was more than fine words and a photo op, you have to care on December 17th – you have to see how these things link.
V. – Sex workers face huge levels of violence and stigma, and LGBTQ+ organisations need to stop assuming we will go away, or shut up. I am a lesbian, I sell sex to cis men, I exist, and I am not going anywhere.
S. – Fighting for LGBTQ+ rights means fighting for all of us, not just the ones who want to get gay married and settle down. Decriminalisation of sex work will save lives, the lives of LGBTQ+ people across the world. It’s time for the community to stand with sex workers rather than pretending we do not belong with them.
My thanks to V., T. and S. for participating. You can find out if there is a IDEVASW event near you here
Follow Karen on Twitter (@counsellingKaz)
* S. would like me to clarify that her comment about ‘sad drug addicts’ reflects the public perception and not her personal views about those who use drugs.