Sex Work Part 1: Whose Narrative Do You Listen To?

About a month ago, a friend of mine posted a link on facebook to an article entitled, “Caught on Film: The Dark World of Truck Stop Sex Workers.”  I was at once repulse and intrigued; repulsed because the entire title seemed pandering to voyeuristic news consumers, promising a tawdry and sordid documentary film about an experience no one in the audience will have actually had, intrigued because the term “sex worker” was used instead of “prostitute” or “whore.”  Was this actually something really progressive and humanizing, masquerading as voyeuristic smut to entrap less forward-thinking viewers?

After reading the article, I was shocked the documentary-maker even knew the term “sex workers.”  He used it consistently, and yet his entire tone was one of condescension mixed with a white-male-savior complex.  He consistently assumed that sex work was a terrible, harmful choice of a profession and that no woman would choose it on purpose.  Even when the women themselves claimed agency over their own lives, the filmmaker adopted a superior tone and said that it was plain they really had no agency and were making terrible choices.  Typical of his white-male-savior complex was this comment: “They had no outlets, but like everyone else had a need to express themselves and sort out their personal histories.  Eventually we became their therapists…” [emphasis mine].

Many sex workers today would be surprised to find they have no outlets with which to express themselves.  There are sex workers on twitter, sex workers who blog, former sex workers who are now journalists focusing on sex work, sex workers who organize in order to bring their perspective and their demands for better working conditions to the attention of the public.

The writer of the article cuts straight to the crux of the matter when he says (immediately after a paragraph about the role of police which never once mentions how making sex work illegal only ends up harming sex workers): “The film depicts both prostitutes and truckers as victims in this larger drama of human appetites and loneliness.”

Victims.  That’s the filmmaker’s narrative.  That’s how he wants you to see sex workers.  After all, if sex workers are victims then he, the filmmaker who is finally getting their story out there, is part of the rescue operation.  And we all want to be Jesus, right?

No seriously, read the whole article.  The condescension is dripping off the page as the filmmaker transparently reveals his own control of the narrative, sometimes as direct contradiction of what his subjects tell him, sometimes in more subtle manipulation of interpretation, as when he tells us about the personal lives of some of the sex workers and suggests that we ought to blame their profession for the fact that they have some drug abuse problems and are in relationships with abusive men.

Oddly, the filmmaker managed to say, “Most of the sex workers have been robbed, raped, stabbed, shot.  It’s not a profession for the faint of heart,” without bothering to explore at all why sex workers are targets of such crimes and how that problem could possibly be addressed.  He seems to just shrug and offer up the details as more examples of why the women in the industry ought to get out.

Finally, immediately after imposing his own interpretation on the analysis the sex workers gave of their lives, the filmmaker has the audacity to say “The first step to helping the sex workers is humanizing them.”  And the first step to “humanizing” people, sir, is to listen to their own narratives instead of substituting your own.  Because there is a whole spectrum of opinions about sex work, held by people in the profession, just as there is about any other profession in the world.  But you don’t see someone making a documentary film about how we can “humanize” and “rescue” the “victims” who work in securities trading on Wall Street.  We assume that people who are in socially respectable careers enjoy their jobs and chose them of their own free will, while we assume that people who are in non-respectable careers hate the jobs, were forced into them, and would do anything to get out.

While the average citizen may not be aware that sex workers actually do have means of telling their own stories, a documentary filmmaker ought to do at least that much research before creating an entire film on the topic.  A simple google search of “sex worker blogs” turns up a myriad of blogs or links to blogs or articles written by sex workers. Additionally, sex workers write books, and organize for social and legal change.  Although this film may tell a small part of the story, it’s hardly representative and we should hardly draw broad conclusions about the sex industry based on this one biased film.  Yet by portraying himself as the person finally getting the story out there, the filmmaker seems to expect that we can draw such broad conclusions from his work. And how often do sheltered middle-class people do just that: “I saw this film today and oh my god you would not believe the horrible lives all sex workers have!”

Here’s what it boils down to: you cannot have the best interests of a group of people at heart if you’re not willing to listen to what they tell you they need.  There are some sex workers who want to leave, who want to enter other professions.  Fine.  Help those particular people do that.  There are other sex workers who want to be able to work legally, without fear of rape and murder.  That’s fine too.  Join with them in their lobbying and organizing efforts.  Help them change the law.  Making sex work de-stigmatized and legal will also make things easier for people who want to leave the industry.

The filmmaker claims to “let the story speak for itself,” but I have news: first of all, any act of creation is overrun by the creator’s biases.  What he chose to show, what he chose to leave out, and how he chose to present the message of the film in this interview itself, all are a product of his biases.  Second of all, the story cannot speak.  The people whom the story is about do speak, and they are the ones you should listen to.  The story is a narrative constructed by a man who is not part of the sex industry.  The workers themselves have spoken, and are speaking, not just the workers in the film but from all over the world.  Listen to them. Learn from them. And throw away the white-male-savior-complex narrative altogether. It’s not helping anyone.

This post is part of a three part series.  Stay tuned for a discussion of the harm done by placing all sex work into the category of “morally wrong”, which conflates consensual and non-consensual sex and makes it hard to rescue trafficking victims without also harming women who have chosen sex work.  And then I will discuss stigma, and how perpetuation of stigma implicates us all in murder.

Here are just a few blogs written by sex workers:


Harlot’s Parlor (contains a huge list of other sex work blogs on the lower right-hand side)

Post Whore America

Tits and Sass

This article has links to a bunch of other articles on the topic:

For something actually “humanizing”, check out this tumblr:

And most of these links I just lazily culled from the first page of google results.

3 thoughts on “Sex Work Part 1: Whose Narrative Do You Listen To?

  1. Leaving aside moral judgement (I’m a bit of a prude, but I dated a stripper for a time, and been friends with two others. All had not-insignificant issues), there’s a historical context here.

    For most of the last thousand years, women (And men) who trade sex for money have done so out of desparation. In the old west, for instance, the choices were “Marry, Whore, or Starve.” A relative of mine was a prostitute in the ’30s. It wasn’t because she was reclaiming her sexuality, or expressing her womanhood, or whatever. It wasn’t a career choice, it wasn’t a desirable trade. It was because her husband was dead, it was the great depression, she had no marketable skills, and she had a kid to feed. Leaving aside the morality, it was a dangerous, frequently violent job. And if you got in with a brothel (Which she never did), then it was generally safer, but you were essentially a slave.

    So that’s the way it was for a millenium or so. Assume it’s not like that now. There’s still a long transition period for people to adjust to the idea that hookers aren’t victims, because for such an incredibly long time they were. People’s basic cultural programming isn’t changed over night.

    So sometimes showing compassion for people isn’t patriarchal condescension. Sometimes it’s just compassion.

    (Says the guy who didn’t see the doc)

    Kevin Long
    (The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0)

    • This particular post is about in the here and now whose voices are you going to listen to? As I said, I am planning to write two further posts, at least one of which will get into historical and cultural contexts. I’m going to discuss the fact that the “victim” characterization is actually a fairly new attitude toward sex work.

      No narrative about sex work needs to be monolithic. Some people are forced into it, some people choose it. Some people like it, some people don’t, some people aren’t huge fans of doing it but stick around for the money exactly as any other person in any other job would. Some people do need a way out an others are okay with where they’re at. Implying that all sex workers need your compassion is buying into a monolithic victim narrative which just doesn’t square with reality.

      • I’m looking forward to reading those. The question of ‘who is the best person to listen to’ is always an interesting one because there’s no such thing as a neutral bias. Anywhere you find people being exploited, you’ll find at least some of the expoited saying “No we’re not, this is great!” THe reverse is also true.

        I’m not convinced the ‘victim’ designation being new is true. I’m given to understand that women’s groups from the 19th century looked at it that ways, and put a good deal of resources into rehabilitating prostitutes and teaching women skills so they maybe wouldn’t fall into it in the first place. Most of the 18th/19th century social reform and social engineering groups saw it as victimhood. Marx saw it as a shameful example of capitalism at its worst. Even the free love movement looked down on it. And of course Christianity’s continued disdain for the profession carries with it a sense of ‘how sad’ which implies – if not victimhood, then something very close to it..

        Kevin Long
        (The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0)

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