Prohibitionists’ comparing sex work and straight work: they are dead wrong.

Authorization to repost granted, except if material is used to replace an actual interview with one sourced by this.

Prohibitionists’ comparing sex work and straight work: they are dead wrong.

There are people who believe ending sex work (abolishing prostitution, pornography, and other forms of erotic labor) will end harm being done to women in these fields. These sex work prohibitionists coolly assume that jobs in the “straight world” are safe, protected, equitable—all the things they believe sex work is not.

They are wrong. Many of these people are a certain breed of feminist academic elite, comfortably ensconced in their Ivory towers. They may be well intentioned. As I know some of them like Donna M. Hughes myself, I’d even say they are genuine in their desire to advance constructive social change.

But reality can shatter even the best of intentions.

My journey into and out of sex work is unique. My first experience in sex work lasted 3 years. I was (literally) a sex slave: no safe words were needed, and I didn’t even know safe words existed. I was coerced.

The coercion was the true injustice I endured, as millions of Americans suffer the injustice of coercive workplaces that have nothing to do with sex work. That’s the reality “end the sex industry and get a real job activists” routinely and tragically dismiss.

10 years after I was trafficked, I returned to sex work as a stripper. While I worked occasionally at clubs, I mostly did outcall bachelor’s parties. The agent got 40 percent, I got 60 percent. That’s 60 percent more than when I was a sex trafficking victim.

Later still, I gave up on stripping and went to work on my own as an independent escort. I was my own boss and there were no comparable problems. No one hurt me, I set my own boundaries, I got paid what I asked for—all 100 percent of it.

While it wasn’t the greatest job in the world, it was work; it was nothing like my coerced experience. Anti-trafficking activists like Donna M. Hughes, anti-pornography activists like Gail Dines and Shelly Lubben, anti-prostitution activists like Melissa Farley willfully ignore this fact: there is a world of difference between being a sex trafficking victim and being a sex worker.

Make no mistake: ending sexual slavery is a great thing. Ending sex work is not. The two are entirely distinct. Conflating them is deadly for trafficking victims and for sex workers.

Now, let’s talk about the reality of “straight jobs.” I’ve worked a bunch of them in many different industries, usually as an entry-level employee. A lot of my experience is in the air travel industry.

I’ve been assaulted by airline customers more times than I can count. I’ve been kicked in the face while trying to screen a passenger’s leg while working for the TSA. I’ve been spit on. The list goes on.

The result is always the same: the company sends the customer on their way without reprimand because they don’t want to lose business or risk the bad press. In other words, I get told: let it go, or get fired.

I’ve had 6 surgeries from injuries suffered at work. In my State of the Union (North Carolina), workers comp is highly regulated in favor of the employer. That means you can’t pick your doctor, and so you have to see the doctor the carrier chooses. Needless to say, you get biased doctors. You also get a “nurse case manager” (appointed by the carrier) who joins you at every appointment and diligently argues with your already-biased doctor to avoid any expensive diagnostics, medicines, and other treatments, and also reminds the doctor that you are to be returned to work immediately.

When I was working as a valet parking attendant, I was sent back to work for 10 days with a fractured knee, torn MCL, and two torn menisci (one in each knee). The job required running three-tenths of a mile. Three-tenths of a mile for each customer. Three-tenths of a mile for each customer in the 95 degree heat of North Carolina’s Summer.

Why did I take that job? Why did I run three-tenths of a mile on a fractured knee for 10 days at the behest of my “nurse case manager” in my mid 40’s? Because, thanks to the emphasis misguided activist academics like Donna M. Hughes have placed on “rescuing” trafficking victims, the police are so indiscriminately arresting sex workers in my area that running on fractured knees as a valet parking attendant was actually safer than working as an independent escort. Safer, perhaps—I don’t need a jail sentence—but not better.

By the way, it took 6 months for the workers comp carrier to approve surgery to repair the fracture. Oh, and given the recession, it took me 10 weeks just to find that valet job.

When I worked for the TSA, my job entailed lifting 100 pound bags all day because it was more cost effective to have employees do it than to have a conveyor put in. Unsurprisingly, I was struck with repetitive injuries. Surgery was ultimately needed for these injuries, too. The TSA paid nothing as they didn’t feel it was “work-related.” I could appeal that decision, of course, in which case my motion would be decided by the TSA’s appeal board. The TSA’s appeal board, in case it isn’t clear, works for the TSA and, naturally, sides with their employer.

So after working the straight jobs, many times I’ve ended up just like the worst experiences in sex work: no rights, no food, and in a lot of pain.

Go beyond the economic coercion embedded in this capitalist system, however, and you’ll find that straight jobs are not, in and of themselves, safer for women sexually, either.

Back at the TSA, I was sexually assaulted on a federal checkpoint by a male co worker. The assault was filmed by a security camera tape and there were 6 witnesses (5 male and 1 female). They all went to court with me to support my restraining order efforts against my workplace harasser. Now, it isn’t often that men will side with a woman in situations like this, but these 5 men did. The harasser plead no contest—all but an admission of guilt.

However, the TSA management were buddies with the Greensboro Police Department and Guilford County Sheriffs Department, the agencies that would enforce the restraining order. The same day the restraining order was issued, a Greensboro PD officer told me he didn’t believe my claims, and that filing a false police report was a crime. He threatened me with arrest if he or the department could find any proof I was lying. (They never found any.)

Neither the Greensboro PD or Guilford County Sheriffs department enforced the restraining order, the TSA management assigned me to the same work station with my harasser and when I attempted to transfer, that motion was blocked. The manager that supported me was terminated. Same with the supervisor that supported me in court. My other supporters were moved to other stations or had their careers stalled—passed up for promotion time and again.

I went to DC and filed a formal complaint with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). However, the TSA has its own EEOC. Needless to say, they sided with the TSA. I pressed on, eventually speaking to Internal Affairs, but I quickly learned their role is risk management (damage control), not justice. My harasser, who I learned had confessed to Human Resources was terminated a month later for sexually assaulting a third woman; I was the second. And his confession? The audio tape failed because the HR investigator “failed to push the record button,” and the video tapes of the assaults “could not be located” by the airport police.

Now I work at a job in which I have no breaks regardless of the length of my shift (no lunches either), and an expectation that I will never be sick, injured or need personal days or I may be terminated. Yes, this is all legal in North Carolina. I could go on, but I think this makes my point.

To anyone who believes that ending the sex industry and forcing sex workers to take on straight jobs is some great achievement, please look at the reality. The devil is in the details. Ask those of us who have gone from sex work to straight jobs what really transpired.

Please, do continue to rescue trafficking victims but stop conflating sex trafficking with sex work. Start focusing on realities rather than just mass-rescues that do us real harm, that hurts and kills sex workers, and often has no real basis in the reality of the lives of those involved.

I have been far more harmed by “straight jobs” than I ever was as either a stripper or an independent escort.

Who feeds me when injuries knock me out for weeks and I have no more income? Does Melissa Farley’s Prostitution Research Education provide these services? Does Donna M. Hughes’ Citizens Against Trafficking? Does Gail Dines’ Stop Porn Culture? Does Shelly Lubben’s Pink Cross?

Melissa Farley, Donna M. Hughes: where is the justice you promise to bring us trafficking victims? Do you even care about us?

28 Responses

  1. This is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time thank you.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this Jill. I hope lots of people read this for the truth it is.

    XX

  3. It’s too long, it needs an editor.

  4. feel free to send it out

  5. Jill, if you need an editor, email the piece to me. I can clean it up a bit and send it back.

    Thank you for writing this. It’s an important message that lots of people — not just the Donna Hughes contingent — need to hear.

    aagblog at gmail

  6. The reason the feminist in this country are not credible is because they failed to take up the real fight and that would be one of economic justice.
    Unionize Now!

  7. Wow. What an incredible story. I have to link to it on blog, and add you to my blog roll. Thank you so much for speaking up!

  8. @Maxine, this is a fight feminists need to take up on every front. Unionization, I mean. Labor laws in north carolina are awful

  9. ALL workers deserve protection from their employers and customers. I don’t care what your job is/was, if you get sick you should have sick days, if you are injured on the job due to the job you should get worker’s compensation, and if you are harassed/abused/attacked then the attacker should be punished and not the victim.

    I am sickened at the horrible treatment that the author of this piece has experienced. A nightmare that is probably a lot more common than most people are aware. I hear similar stories all the times across the social economic barriers.

    I experienced my coworkers purposely doing things to make me sick (weekly ambulance rides to the ER as result) despite me trying to work with the company and my coworkers to stop the behavior that was causing me Anaphalyctic Shock. The company was actively trying to get me to quit for years because they were sick of dealing with someone who paralyzed and had severe food allergies. However, I refused to quit so I was eventually injured enough at the job that I could no longer sit up (at all) and had such bad weakness that I couldn’t move five feet without falling. My coworkers and management purposely triggered the paralysis attacks. HR was constantly blaming me for my falls and Anaphalyctic Shock. There was verbal harassment as well by the co-workers and managers.

    I support the rights of all people to a job where there should be fair compensation if you risk permanent injury and full treatment coverage of injuries you receive on the job.

  10. I am a Feminist that believes that sex work should be legal as long as the workers receive proper health care access (the worker chooses their own doctors and care), worker’s compensation for on the job injuries (may be baked into the prices that the worker would charge), and easier ways to save for the time when they can no longer find regular customers.

  11. […] risks, too, and problems and violations encountered on the job aren’t always well addressed. Prohibitionists’ comparing sex work and straight work: they are dead wrong. [Trigger […]

  12. Damn, Jill. This is seriously powerful.

    I am putting this up on the SmackChron as a special page…PRONTO.

    Too long??? HELL TO THE NO…Just right for me.

    Well said and said well.

    Anthony

  13. […] Prohibitionists, where are the answers when comparing sex work and straight work « Bound, Not … – I have been far more harmed by “straight jobs” than I ever was as either a stripper or an independent escort. […]

  14. Well, I know what you mean about straight work. It’s not like the sex worker can give up and get a job as an esteemed lecturer at Harvard with a six figure salary. I mean, that one sex worker who was hounded to suicide in DC was moonlighting from her college professor job because it didn’t pay the bills.

    There are plenty of jobs that have high mortality rate. For example, nowadays most coal mines have been deunionized. You get the possibility of being killed quickly in a mine explosion, or slowly from black lung (which has made a comeback). Or working in a slaughterhouse, or a fishing boat, or a oil rig. Let’s not even mention the armed forces, which are well known to be a deadly dangerous career field and has the opposite reputation (for political reasons) than sex work (which gets its bad reputation for political reasons).

    All straight work is not created equal (of course, neither is all sex work).

  15. And then your jackass boss actually had the nerve to complain about your need to actually, you know, recuperate after surgery. The nerve!

    If we didn’t have a consumerist culture, I’m pretty certain retail work would be classified as severe exploitation.

  16. I’m so angry reading this, especially the part of the assault.. how can such a thing be possible?? I feel for you.

  17. your experience is disturbing and sad, but not actually any kind of proof that sex work is not worse than other kinds of work. just comparing the sheer numbers of prostitutes who suffer from ptsd and other people who suffer from ptsd speaks volumes. as do the statistics of suicide, substance abuse and mortality. your experience brings one thing into light, one that is frequently ignored in our modern society which sees work as empowerment — the fact that workers are not actually empowered, even if we like to believe so (or ignore the stories of abuse). that is certainly something that needs to be discussed and emphasized more, and we need to fight for greater worker’s rights. but to claim that your, one person’s, experience can allow us to evaluate the conditions of an entire industry or workforce is not very plausible. for every person with a positive experience of sex work, there are others (probably many more, if we’re to believe the statistics) with a negative one.

  18. Kali,

    You missed Jill’s point entirely. Re-read the piece.

    XX

  19. Kali,

    I am very aware of the PTSD that victims in the sex industry suffer. And that many want to get out. Although, survey people at most jobs and they would want to get out.

    My point was to illustrate that there is suffering at “straight” jobs just as there is suffering at sex work jobs. The need is imperative for workers rights at every kind of employment including sex work. Instead of segregating sex work out as not being work, it is far more practical to include it as work and to realize there are huge problems that need to be resolved in both sex work and non sex work jobs.

    I have never claimed that my one viewpoint is the experience to evaluate an industry. There is no basis to your assertion that I am making that claim. Not to mention, I haven’t ever been much of an advocate of sex work.. Certainly the events of two weeks ago illustrate to me why. But I do advocate for human rights for sex workers Kali. This isn’t 1864 US and there is no Lincoln or an Emancipation Proclamation, nor are there huge amounts of slaves that will be freed in a moment by decree. So my goal is to focus on the tenable which are rights, humanity, freedom, and ending all the evils that oppress everyone. Racism, discrimination, etc.

    It’s great that you posted here Kali. I hope you keep doing so. We need different voices. My only hope is that you read my posts more closely before chastising me for alleged unilateral experiences defining who suffers.

    and Kali, back to the PTSD issue, a bit of reality, when a client decides to “bag and shag” a sex worker by pulling a trash bag over her head, she begins to breath faster as the oxygen disappears and panic sets in, then realizing what is happening, she holds her breath for long periods of time, breaths in and out via her nose. Especially when the client is punching her in the head demanding she stop fighting to breath. That isn’t PTSD, that is 3 weeks ago. She is me. The client is Law Enforcement, thus with no rights for sex workers, especially in the South,,,, She being me, got a concussion, and a lesson on how to not suffocate during paid sex that had turned totally non consensual. So please know, I understand PTSD. This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened to me. Not even the 10th. Just the first in recent memory. Why do I not just say no? I need the money and there isn’t another viable alternative at this time. I’m not worried so much about PTSD from the past. But from right now. So please don’t presume to advise me on the differences between straight work and sex work. Ironically the client and I worked for the same straight employer at the same time. BTW, the headaches from lack of oxygen and concussion suck. Yet still I back sex worker rights. Because no one should suffer things like I have, like I just did. So there is some proof about the suffering in the sex industry and why we need rights as sex workers and full adult consenting decrim. Not just experts who want to stop the problem by pretending sex work will be eradicated, That is my proof. Go figure,

  20. In cases where people work in prostitution due to lack of other job opportunities, prostitution is not the core issue…lack of job opportunities is. There are multiple realities in sex work and in some cases, sex work allows me more freedom than “square” jobs do. For example, when I do webcam, I have the freedom to set my own rates and work my own hours. I’ve never had that kind of freedom in a “square” job. I’m not trying to promote an overly romanticized vision of sex work because not all sex work allows this type of freedom, but some does.
    Something else that’s problematic are these over generalizations where people assume that we all become sex workers because we don’t have the education to do anything else. For some people, pursuing an education is what gets them into sex work. Some people get into sex work to pay college tuition or pay off student loans. For people who get out of college with major student loan debt, it’s college that put such people into debt, not sex work.

  21. As the US economy currently proves — education does not guarantee a job. The sex industry does not guarantee a job either, but one at least has the opportunity to try and earn an income. Having an education is often an asset for sex workers, where it may not be an asset in mainstream work.

    XX

  22. Great article! Thank you for writing this.

  23. @Michelle, you’re welcome. And thank you.

  24. Great article Jill. The comment I always heard against prostitution while growing up is that nobody actually “wants” to be a prostitute. Women are forced into that lifestyle and getting them out, even by arrest, is rescuing them from a horrible situation. It wasn’t until I read your article that it hit me that nobody actually “wants” to work at the TSA either. If I had my choice of sex with a stranger once or twice a day or an 8-hour shift of manual labor dealing with angry passengers at the airport, the choice would be simple.

  25. […] has written many times about her three years as an involuntary prostitute and she is quite clear on the differences between trafficked sex work and normal sex work.  If Jill knows the difference, so should Bedelia before presuming to set herself up as an […]

  26. I’ve worked a number of “straight” jobs (that’s what I’m doing these days) – and I would much rather go back to escorting – dealing with mostly pleasant clients doing mostly pleasant work – than deal with what I deal with these days.

    And I’m an office manager.

  27. Reblogged this on The Ethical Villain and commented:
    Again, Jill Brenneman shows that no matter what type of work you engage in, you’re gonna get fucked — be it sex work, non-sex work, entry-level, middle-management, blue or white-collar, or what have you. When faced with employment environments such as the ones Jill writes about, is it no wonder people give up and resort to taking public aid? When will employers start respecting their employees and understand that there is NO industry without them? When did humans become so disposable?

  28. […] Comparing Sex Work and Straight Work:  They are Dead Wrong”, which originally appeared in Bound, Not Gagged.  If you’ve never read it, now’s your […]

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