I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the Boston University forum on “Understanding Commercial Sex Policy: A Global and US Perspective.” Our champion and member of the Massachusetts Sex Workers Ally Network, Bobbi Taylor, had given a marvelous speech using quotations from members of SWOP-Boston (Sex Workers’ Outreach Project) that she had solicited after being offered the speaking slot. She was the only speaker that day to do so.
We listened to her from the safety of the audience, quietly exalting at being represented in such a public way. And then it was time for questions. It was inevitable: A young man, clearly a student without much life experience under his belt (I’m going to call him Randy), raised his hand and asked, “Can you explain…I just don’t understand why someone would choose to do such a dangerous job. Why wouldn’t they just do something else safe and legal?”
This is a question we get a lot. My last post was about sexual violence. Let’s clear up a few points first. In that group, it was an achievement that Bobbi’s talk had put the idea of “choice” into his head in the first place. A lot of the world and most of our elected representatives (in public, at least) deny the existence of people like me: people who chose sex work and continued doing it because we want to. No one can understand human trafficking better than sex workers, because chances are we have a friend who has been trafficked or were trafficked ourselves before choosing to continue sex work as a primary means of income. Not all sex workers enjoy their work. Not all sex workers had a choice or work under circumstances that can be universally recognized as coercion. What the sex workers’ rights movement wants is simply for our culture to recognize that we have the right to do what we want with our bodies–that traffickers and pimps should be found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but that the rest of us should be left the fuck alone. Even for people who don’t enjoy sex work, they still should have the option to choose to do it if they feel it is their best option at any point in their life. A friend of mine who is fully gay fucked men for money to get off the street and into housing and to get an education. No, she doesn’t love the work, but she will advocate long and hard for her right to choose to do it, because she never could have escaped homelessness and earned an undergraduate degree working for minimum wage at Starbuck’s.
But what about the danger?
Right now, I am sitting in the guest bedroom of a friend, and I am looking at the Eiffel Tower. It’s a hell of a view. Presently, it’s vanishing into a cloud of mist. I love looking out windows; the further I can see, the better. It brings with it a sense of spaciousness within the body, which, for me, translates to spaciousness of the mind. It is a matter of curiosity why I find such vistas entirely fucking necessary.
I got a serious talking to before coming to Paris to work by a woman who knows all the worst-case scenarios. The trip is going wonderfully well, but, as she predicted, men in France are even worse than Americans about screening. Screening mitigates danger. Period.
So, I could do what I sometimes do to clowns who won’t be screened (yes, I actually have a folder in my e-mail account called “clowns”) and respond: You’re worried about discretion? Telling me where you work is more of a risk than getting into a sting? Getting robbed? Getting stabbed? Getting involved with a gang? Because, Ronan, those are the risks you run when you see a provider who doesn’t screen for her own safety. Your safety, believe it or not, is entirely dependent upon whether or not she takes precautions to avoid police, coercive pimps, gangs, cartels, human trafficking rings–you name it. It blows my mind when the boys don’t put this together.
Lisa the Assistant gave the the primer on working in Paris. Here are the dangers: cops (you don’t have a work permit), gangs, particularly African and Eastern European, stepping on the turf of other women or agencies and getting blackballed, etc., etc., etc. You get the idea. I bet Randy had no idea it goes that deep, no idea there are so many things to watch out for. Sometimes, even I need to be told about things that could happen that I don’t know I’m risking by practicing my chosen profession. But that’s rare these days. Just avoid the Mafia! You’ll be fine! (Lisa tells the Sicilian–no, my family have never been Mafiosi and I have no intention of becoming one except for that one time in Florence.)
So now you’re asking yourself, “No really, what are you doing? That sounds terrifying!” I will let you in on a secret. Ernestine is afraid of no one, but I am. Sometimes we chat and I’m like, “Sister, this and this and this could happen,” and she slowly, laconically looks up from the mirror, puts down the eyeliner pencil, and says, in a voice dripping with disdain, “Sweetheart. Grow a pair.”
There are times when danger becomes irrelevant. I can’t tell you all the reasons why I love being a prostitute. This post would become ridiculously long; and bedsides, I’m fairly certain I don’t know them all. Suffice it to say, if you were a lion, would you try to stop being a lion because you were afraid of savannah grass? If you were a hippopotamus, would you stop rolling in mud on hot days?If you were a peacock, would you coat yourself in dust to blunt the sheen of your plumage? If you were a siren, would you pluck out all your feathers because you were afraid to fly?
If you were a courtesan, would you swaddle every inch of yourself to disguise your particular peculiar light and go out into the world and show up for your shift at a nondescript restaurant?
I didn’t think so.