As International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers approaches on Dec. 17, I’ve been thinking about my experiences with violence in sex work, and one really stands out. I was working as a private exotic dancer and the woman who ran an agency I worked for called me and asked if I would dance for a group of young guys. She said another dancer had entertained them before and described than as playful, harmless guys. Of course, I had no way of knowing whether that was accurate, but I still decided to accept the gig.
When I arrived I saw that she was right about them being young. I was 22 at the time, and they were close to my age. However, that was the only way her description was accurate. They were anything but harmless. They were agressive, forceful, and doing things to me that I didn’t consent to or give them permission to do. Though I was initially under the impression I would be dancing, it was clear once I turned on the music and started dancing that this wasn’t what they were looking for.
Without getting into all the graphic details of what they did to me, I noticed blood streaming down my legs, and I wasn’t having my period. I was bleeding so heavily that it got onto the clothing of a couple of the guys, but they showed no concern for me, acting like the problem was with me, with somebody mentioning that because of me, these guys would have dry cleaning bills. Nevermind that their agressiveness and forcefulness which I didn’t consent to is what caused me to bleed.
I could discuss other negative experiences in sex work, but I don’t want to. Instead, I want to and need to focus on the positive, which doesn’t mean ignoring the negative. I just so often feel like in this society, that’s all I’m allowed to address. When I express positive attitudes about my work, I’ve experienced being treated like I have a false consciousness, like I’m too stupid and naive to know how bad sex work is, or like I’m promoting a romatacized image of sex work. Being treated in these ways is every bit, if not more, traumatizing and distressing than the physical experience I described above. The bleeding has gone away, yet the distress of people imposing their negative energy onto me and treating me badly for expressing perspectives about my work that are different from their notions of sex work elicit distress that hasn’t gone away. When people act so sympathatic when we experience violence in sex work or other bad circumstances, and then act apathetic or treat us badly when we express positive attitudes toward our work, that’s not the kind of sympathy I need or want.
What keeps me alive and going is my positive energy, and that’s what gives me the strength to challenge the violence, abuses, and hatred against sex workers. Despite the negatives, I feel privileged to have many positive experiences in my work, but no more so than people in other occupations who find their work important and meaningful. Thus, before you blow off my positive attitudes as coming from an overly privileged perspective, think about whether you assume the same about workers in more “socially accepted” occupations who express positive attitudes about their work. I’m not telling you to assume this, but just some “food for thought”. I hope that somebody, safety in the sex industry and treating sex workers with dignity as human beings making a living will be recognized as a rights, not just privileges.