Stripping away whore stigma

Sex on Tuesday

Our dance routine included lots of hip rotations, more than a few butt moves and several body rolls. In a dance class where I had been mostly outshined by my classmates who were more educated in modern dance, this was my moment. Finally, some moves I knew I could do with aplomb. My classmates noticed and asked me about my dance background, assuming it was belly dance. When I told them that I learned to dance while working as a stripper, the conversation came to a tense halt. A moment before, we had all been reveling in our sexualized movements that some outside the studio would have surely labeled as slutty, but now, I was the slut to the sluts.

I am terrified of writing this column. I’m so terrified that I turned it in a day late to my editors after gnawing on my fingers for two days thinking of just how the stigma attached to the material could come back to haunt me in the future. But in a way, I feel like I have to: I’m part of a community so routinely oppressed that nobody thinks twice about us when we are killed and/or jailed, the public ignores our voices, and most of us can’t speak up anyway for fear of violence, ostracization and more complete isolation. Our oppression thrives off of our imposed isolation and after years of silence, I’m done with it. I’m here to talk about sex work and today, I’m here to talk about whorephobia.

Whorephobia may not be a common term but the idea is pretty simple: It’s the stigma, fear and oppression of sex workers. Paid sexual labor includes escorting, street walking, stripping, phone sex lines, professional dominatrix services, sugaring (i.e., being a sugar baby), massage parlors and more. Within the industry there exists what sex workers like to call a whore hierarchy: The closer one gets to full service sex work, the closer one gets to being a whore and the further she is from being seen as a whole, complete woman. As though the qualities of being a whore negate one’s humanity. At the bottom of this hierarchy are the full-service sex workers who are most at risk by the stigma and fear mongering.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of whorephobia is the legal action and surveillance surrounding sex work. If a full-service sex worker is caught by law enforcement, not only will she go to jail but so will anyone who benefited in any way from her wages. This law, and others like it are supposedly put in place to prevent trafficking within the sex industry. Instead, those who actually are trafficked are told by their traffickers to not report any names while those who are unaware of these laws and inadvertently incriminate their partners, roommates and even their children (who can be detained for the crime of having a sex worker for a guardian). In addition, sex workers of nearly every kind, including myself, know very well that we can never go to the police when a crime is committed against us because they will tell us that our choice of livelihood is to blame for the crime and may just violently arrest us anyway.

Ironically, whorephobia also exists within our own industry. Many women in the stripping community harbor a widespread disgust for escorts who come into clubs with clients, porn workers who occasionally perform at clubs and strippers who offer customers “extras” (i.e. more than just a lapdance). Some even label fellow strippers who dance more aggressively or work at fully nude clubs as “more whore-ish.” As if by distancing themselves from those further down the whore hierarchy — in this case, those who show pussy or grind harder — they can save themselves from experiencing whore stigma.  

The most insidious form of whorephobia, however, comes from sex-worker exclusionary radical feminists. SWERFs believe in a woman’s agency and right to make her own choices but assume that when it comes to the sex industry, outside forces control women and therefore they are in need of rescuing, or they are gender-traitors who play into patriarchal values thereby harming the feminist cause. SWERFs fear that being sexualized for pay drives the sexualization of all women and that being sexualized renders a woman less of a person. This logic however, is fundamentally anti-feminist as it plays into the idea of a woman’s body being attached to her worth as a person. Ironically, this is the definition of dehumanization — something that SWERFs so adamantly insist they are fighting against.

As Melissa Grant says in her book “Playing the Whore”: “What if being sexualized is neither dehumanizing or empowering, and is simply value neutral? That the harms here reside not in the looking or feeling but in what actually impacts the body? Should women be more concerned that men want to fuck us or to fuck us and fuck us up? These (sex workers still find themselves insisting) are not the same.”

The isolation of sex workers is what keeps our opinions unvoiced and the stigma prevents them from being taken seriously when they are voiced. But stigmas only exist in environments of ignorance, and I intend to keep working until sex work is considered legitimate work and the humanity of sex workers is recognized.

Trixie Mehraban writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected].

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