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Aug 24 16 6:41 PM

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Uprooting Whorephobia: Why We Must Change the Stigma of Sex Work

By Pluma Sumaq

 

Counting money on a bed is taboo in my family. Growing up, I never fully understood why but I suspected it was another one of our countless every day South American customs that ensured we were in right relationship with the spirit world. The world that allowed us to live a long healthy life, and that kept the doors of abundance and opportunity wide open. Eventually, I grew up to be a brilliant hooker and to count money habitually, wherever privacy presented itself. Not being able to count money on a bed became a much greater obstacle than I could have ever imagined. I decided to ignore the warnings of my tias that bad things would happen. And the first time I did, I instantly understood that this belief was actually rooted in whorephobia and not our culture.

Over time I began to notice the overt and subtle ways that the fear of sex workers, including people like me, imposed itself into my every day life. And how a lot of whorephobia is rooted in classism. I have become very aware of the micro-aggressions that are directed at sex workers and how the way we are portrayed reinforces whorephobic cultural beliefs. Some of these are as ridiculous as the assertion that only whores wear red lipstick, others are dangerous assumptions such as calling the police to “rescue” sex workers from violence. As for bedroom accounting, I initially blamed my family for not questioning why counting money on bed should be forbidden. But the truth is, I had not questioned it either.

I eventually asked my mom why it was not ok to count money on a bed. She said she didn’t know exactly where she had heard this but she knew it was true. She had known several women who had done this regularly and ended up losing all their money, including my aunt whose husband was a bootlegger and she regularly counted their earnings in the bedroom. Their business soon folded. The distinct tone in her voice reminded me of the time she asked me not to mark my skin because that’s only for drug dealers and prostitutes. It became clear that this was not a traditional or spiritual belief, this was a modern anti-prostitute internalized-criminality mindset that when left unquestioned settles into our passive present-day world view.

I once heard that sex workers are not “underrepresented” but are in fact overrepresented and dangerously so through very limited and over-simplified (basic) images of us. We are overrepresented when we appear on the cover of newspapers exploiting our “sexual slavery.” We are overrepresented when you Google “prostitutes,” and the pervasive image is a dark night and a faceless woman leaning into a car window. We are overrepresented when the movies show us happily exiting sex work, wealthy husband in arm. We are overrepresented when we appear as a tropes, as a black woman high on speed, low on morals giving trouble to our pimp.

fashion-person-woman-feetImage: Shot of a person below the knee outside wearing black studded heels. Pexels.com

Being a sex worker means that I walk a very invisible yet hyper visible path. The cloak of invisibility is netted onto us when it is too risky to reveal ourselves as hoes because we fear losing our housing, being judged as unworthy parents, having our children taken away from us, being discriminated against for healthcare, housing, car loans, personal financing, losing our social capital, losing our resources, or our dignity.

When the dilemma of being “out” is really a negotiation for our safety, regardless of which choice we make.

We are equally made invisible when we are not recognized as people who trade sex for resources, when conversations about our rights do not also include conversations about resources or about sex. When “solutions” to “social problems” forget that we exist in this world as people alongside everyone else.

If you can imagine that something is classist, ableist, racist, or sexist, then likely it is also whorephobic. Our everyday conversations and subconscious expectations that life should be job or career-centric is very whorephobic, in addition to being just plain lazy. The next time you wonder about the gap in someone’s resume, consider the many assumptions that may be coming up for you. The next time you politely ask someone what kind of work they do, please try to remember that not only is this classist, ableist and whorephobic, but it also doesn’t help you to actually connect with someone.

More Radical Reads: What I Would Tell My Teenage Self About Sexuality

It is whorephobic when the skills we have gained and honed from our work – like being able to make impactful connections, leave a lasting impression on others, put people at ease, become easy to talk to, or allow others to tell us things they have never told anyone else – are not recognized as valuable. Or, when they are, we deny them having any connection to our sex work.

It is whorephobic when our emotional, sexual, or intellectual labor goes unrecognized or worse, is expected to be given away for free (which I also find unmistakenly femme phobic). It is whorephobic when we assert that women (or anyone for that matter) should not get paid for sex because it is something that is expected to be given away at the whim of others. It is whorephobic when we view women who carry around rolls of cash as “red flags.”

It should be explicitly stated that whorephobia along with the hatred of anyone, comes from unresolved fears, fears that ask for our attention. I urge you, if you find yourself hating sex workers or engaging in whorephobia, please stop and work to redirect that energy into resolving your internal conflicts and wounds instead of directing that violence externally, towards us. Instead, take a moment to consider how your reactions may be rooted in the fear of your own sexuality and power.

Your whorephobia perpetuates violence against women. However subtle or benign we might view our silence during anti-whore jokes, or even our participation in them, the truth is that sex workers are violently targeted and murdered regularly, and this violence is considered normal in a context of cultural stigma.

Prostitution is a highly stigmatized form of labor and survival. We become allies when we acknowledge that everyday we come in contact with someone who has participated in some way or another, at some time or another, in the sex industry and we make room to understand that likely this person will never come out to us. And this is because it is physically, emotionally and spiritually unsafe to do so, because we may be attacked on all levels, because in many cases the stigma of prostitution has cost us our lives.

The fear of violence and retribution is very real for us, especially since we are not protected under most laws due to the criminalization of prostitution.

I believe we become better people when we publicly recognize that this is an unspoken identity that is often very present with us. The next time you organize a meeting, a keynote speech or open space for a gathering, please consider acknowledging the presence of people in the sex industry, in your present space and in the world, who do not have the access that you may have to speak this identity or experience. I promise it will make a difference. It may initiate important conversations, or allow the sex workers in attendance to gauge the reactions of people in the space and make important choices for themselves about their own physical, emotional and spiritual safety.

I urge you to begin treating people in the sex industry with dignity and respect, the inherent respect that we all deserve, but also the kind of respect that we have earned. Our very being contributes to a culture of holding, of considering others, of being available. This is not to say that as sex workers we all walk around being joyous and emotionally available to everyone. Our emotional autonomy is dynamic just like everyone else’s. But emotional competency and companionship are skills we have and when we share it with others it is palpable. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this (and maybe have without even knowing it), you realize that it is truly a gift.

More Radical Reads: Treating My Friends Like Lovers: The Politics of Desirability

The stigma, criminalization and whorephobia that makes sex workers vulnerable to violence and keeps us from being seen, also keeps us from appreciating the many invisible contributions that we make in the world. Prostitution does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in an economic, political and social context where poverty and capitalism create limited resources for many communities, and ask us to ignore our own needs in order to access these already limited resources.

The insights that sex workers offer from navigating these systems – from having to work in the underground of this context, holding space for others and connecting emotionally amidst numbness, being hyperaware of subtle energetic shifts in a space, working in ways that feel more sustainable to us as sex workers (which includes choosing not to work when we know it does not serve our emotional, physical, spiritual health) – these insights are invaluable.

Sex workers can offer these critical insights, with our practiced capacity for generosity and giving, if and when we are finally included in political movements, and the everyday imaginary of who we can collectively become.

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"I would no more be a Master than a slave. It does not conform to my idea of Democracy." Abraham Lincoln 1856.