Why You Should Care About Violence Against Sex Workers

[CN: sexual assault, anti-sex work stigma]

Last month, the Chicago Sun-Times published a shameful column by Mary Mitchell regarding a recent case in which a sex worker was raped by a would-be client. Unusually, the rapist was actually charged with rape. Mitchell refers to this as “making a mockery of rape victims” and states that she is “grateful [the rapist] isn’t being accused of snatching an innocent woman off the street.” She says it’s “tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim” and that “because this incident is being charged as a criminal sexual assault — when it’s actually more like theft of services — it minimizes the act of rape.” She also includes this amazingly contradictory bit of reasoning:

I’m not one of those women who believe rape victims are at fault because they dressed too provocatively or misled some randy guy into thinking it was his lucky night.

But when you agree to meet a strange man in a strange place for the purpose of having strange sex for money, you are putting yourself at risk for harm.

Anyway, that’s enough of that. I recommend reading these excellent responses from sex workers.

First of all, if you care about the issue of sexual violence, as Mitchell claims to, you should care about sexual violence against sex workers. Even if you aren’t one. Even if you don’t know any (although you probably do). We can’t restrict ourselves to caring about problems only when they affect people who look and act like us, or else things will only get better for the people who have the most people who look and act like them. (Who might those be?)

But even from a more self-interested point of view, it makes no sense for anti-rape advocates to excuse sexual violence against sex workers.

If you think you’re going to find success by portraying yourself as pure and good compared to those nasty women* who “sell themselves,” you’re mistaken. Sex workers aren’t stigmatized simply because there’s an exchange of money involved. After all, many of the women who cheerfully dismiss sexual violence against sex workers would be horrified at the idea that a woman “deserves” to be raped because she went on a date with a man to get free dinner. (Of course, though, there are plenty of other people who nevertheless accept both scenarios.)

Women who do sex work are stigmatized for many reasons, many of which intersect with class, race, and other social categories. One of those reasons is that their sexual behavior is “improper” and therefore suspect. We can’t seem to trust a woman who actively pursues sex (whether for pleasure or money or both) rather than letting herself be “chased.” People who don’t understand consent think that a sex worker can’t be raped because she already agreed to have sex (never mind that sex workers can be assaulted by people who aren’t clients at all). They believe that consenting to one sex act means consenting to all sex acts, forever, and that “putting yourself out there” as a person who’s willing to have sex means that people can do whatever they want to you.

But sex workers aren’t the only people impacted by these myths. You know who else’s experiences of sexual assault are routinely dismissed because of their perceived sexual “availability”?

Most survivors’.

If you’re assaulted after agreeing to do something else sexual with someone, you’ll be blamed for agreeing to that. If you’re assaulted by someone you’ve had sex with in the past, you’ll be blamed for having had sex with them in the past, even if you made it abundantly clear that you didn’t want to do it again. If you’re assaulted by someone you never agreed to have sex with but did go on a date with, you’ll be blamed for agreeing to go on a date with them. If you’re assaulted by someone you’ve never gone out with but did flirt with–or were perceived to be flirting with–then you’ll be blamed for flirting. If you never flirted but dressed “revealingly”; if you never dressed “revealingly” but drank alcohol; if you never drank alcohol but let yourself be alone with them for any reason; if you did none of the above but have a race, body type, or gender identity that people devalue and treat as sexually “available”…and on and on it goes.

The point is that as long as we treat a survivor’s prior sexual behavior, actual or perceived, as relevant to the question of whether or not they were really assaulted, nobody is safe. The justifications we use to dismiss assault of sex workers are basically identical to the justifications we use to dismiss assault of anyone else.

Sex workers pursue sex with people; non-sex workers pursue sex with people. Sex workers agree to do some sexual things but not others; non-sex workers agree to do some sexual things but not others. Sex workers may have had many different sex partners; non-sex workers may have had many different sex partners. Sex workers may have sex with strangers; non-sex workers may have sex with strangers. The only difference is the exchange of money.

And if you claim that these victim-blaming narratives suddenly become acceptable and proper when the exchange of money is involved, then you’re claiming that being a sex worker is so bad that it means you deserve to be raped.

In which case, you should just say that so that people know what you mean rather than obfuscating the issue needlessly.

Keep in mind that if you believe that sex workers deserve to be raped, you’re including the ones who don’t experience sex work as a choice. (While activists rightfully challenge that idea that all sex workers are exploited, some certainly are.) Can a sex worker forced to do sex work be raped? If so, why can’t one who chose sex work? Can someone who used to do sex work but stopped be raped? If so, why can’t a sex worker who’s not working on the day they are assaulted, or whose assailant is not one of their clients?

You can see how tricky things get when you claim that there are cases in which the absence of consent does not equal sexual assault.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise me when people who have a vested interest in violating others’ consent oppose the idea that yes means yes. All those men in my Twitter mentions yelling “But that would make me a rapist”? Well, yeah. But it does surprise me when people who advocate against sexual violence twist themselves into the same arguments.

It is apparently tempting for some of these people to create hierarchies of survivors with themselves or the people they care about at the top. Maybe they think there is safety in that, in always having someone below them.

But there isn’t. The prejudice and violence of others is not a force you can harness and control so that it always points away from you. That’s why what we call victim-blaming is always invalid. If directing others’ prejudice and violence away from you were a real option, then there’d be no such thing as victim-blaming.

Besides that, though, it’s monstrous to use people who are more marginalized than you as shields. Too many people take it for granted that sex workers should serve as bait, to redirect male violence away from women who do not “deserve” it.

I can’t live at ease in a world in which we’re shifting the burden of violence onto other people rather than ending it. Of course, ending it is easier said than done, but it begins with acknowledging the problem whenever we see it, including when the victim is a sex worker.

We will not be safe if we throw sex workers under the bus. We will not be safe by creating categories of people who are rapeable, expendable. Those chickens are always going to come home to roost.

The only way to fight sexual violence is to keep centering consent in the discussion. Not what the victim looks like or acts like. Not what the victim did in the past. Consent. And once we’ve finally got that down, maybe we can even go beyond it.


*Although I’m mainly talking about female survivors in this post–because the tropes that Mitchell used are based on that–it’s important to note that sex workers are not all women, and that the violence and stigma faced by sex workers applies to sex workers of all genders.


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Against Role Models

Whenever a famous person does something of which the general public disapproves, much is often made of that person’s status as a “role model” and how it influences the public’s judgment of their behavior, and whether or not it is time to revoke that status.

It seems that celebrities cannot escape being seen as “role models” no matter what made them famous. We expect an athlete or a singer or an actor to be good at not just sports or singing or acting, but at upstanding, ethical behavior, too. The assumption is that children should look up to these figures not just because they represent talent and achievement that (supposedly) comes from lots of hard work and sacrifice, but because their behavior in the rest of their lives is something to emulate, too.

This makes sense to an extent. We know that children learn by modeling the behavior of adults, and we want them to have adults whose behavior they can model. While a parent is normally the one expected to serve that function, most parents hope for their children to achieve more than they (the parents) have been able to in their own lives. Choosing and fixating upon a random successful but unknown doctor or lawyer or scientist or writer seems odd, but famous people already serve the role of entertaining the public simply by existing. So, perhaps some parents hope that celebrities can be good role models for their children and inspire them to both professional and personal success.

In fact, there is absolutely no reason why someone’s success at sports or music should be taken to mean that that person’s treatment of others is just as admirable. There’s no reason why being a great actor means you keep your promises to your partners and respect the law. There’s no reason why being in a famous band means you are very careful about your health and avoid dangerous drugs. Expecting celebrities to be able to model these types of “good behavior” makes no sense.

And even when we try to see someone as a role model in a specific domain only, it never seems to quite work. We fall victim to black-and-white thinking–people are either “good” or “bad,” and if a talented, successful athlete cheats on his wife, he goes from “good” to “bad” very quickly. Even though many people cheat, and even though occasional bad behavior doesn’t necessarily mean someone is a “bad person.”

The expectation of being a role model places undue pressures on celebrities, especially women. Tracy Moore writes:

Critiquing famous (or any) women’s behavior in terms of whether what they do is good for the girls or not is a sticky trap. It prevents them from being complicated, actual people working themselves out — you know, individuals? The thing we want women to be seen as? It keeps us in an endless loop of chasing after this One Correct Way for Women to Conduct Themselves. It’s exhausting, and I refuse to buy into it, and I don’t want to help christen it.

I also think it insults girls, who are more individual, and already far more developed as people than we give them credit for by treating them like blank slates who will copy and absorb every thing they ever see on command. That may be true for fashion, and I’m not disputing that teens copy famous people’s behavior too (and yes I’m staring down a princess phase with a toddler), but that doesn’t mean they instantly absorb the values and ideology of everyone they admire.

What I want is for women to be seen as human, which means, flawed, misguided, shitty, awesome, talented, cool, all of the above. In order to be treated like equal people, we have to have the latitude to have the same range of profound greatness and disturbing awfulness as men. We have to be ordinary, boring, fascinating, idiotic and brilliant.

Moore notes that female celebrities seem to bear a greater burden for Making Sure Our Children Turn Out Okay than male ones do, and male celebrities do seem to have an easier time recovering from Scandals with their popularity mostly intact (see: Bill Clinton, Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, R. Kelly).

And what about non-celebrities? What happens when they’re expected to be role models?

I don’t know how this plays out in other professions or contexts, but within social work and mental healthcare, there is an immense amount of pressure put on professionals to be role models. We’ve talked about this in my social work classes.

People look to social workers and mental health professionals for more than just “help me fix my brain bugs.” They also look to them as examples of how to live well, and they often expect them to be wearing the same professional “face” even if they encounter them randomly outside of the office.

Our professors ask us what we would do if we encountered a client, say, at a bar or on public transit or even at a party. How would we manage their expectations of us with our desire to behave as we usually would at a bar or on the subway or at a party? Would it harm our relationships with our clients if they saw us acting like, well, normal people?

It’s true that if our clients think that we’re always the way we are in a session–calm, empathic, curious, mature, “wise”–it might disturb them to see us drinking at a bar or kissing a significant other in public or dancing at a party. They might wonder if we’re “faking” when we’re in a session with them. They might wonder who we “really” are.

For some professionals, this seems to be enough of a reason to significantly alter their behavior if they see a client out in public, or leave a bar or party where a client happens to be. They might even consider whether or not doing things like going to bars and parties after hours is even compatible with who they are as professionals.

When we discussed this in class, I was glad that most of my classmates reacted with minor indignation. Why should we be expected to be professional 24/7? Why does everyone else get to take off their work persona when they leave the office, but we don’t? Why is it our fault if our clients judge us as immature or irresponsible just because we go to bars on the weekends?

I think there are two reasons why expecting therapists to act like therapists 24/7 is harmful. One is that, on the individual level, it’s stressful and takes a toll on one’s mental health and freedom to live life the way they want to. Deciding to be a therapist should not be a life sentence to never behave like a normal person outside of work again. That’s too much of a burden for someone whose work is already very stressful and difficult.

Second, part of our role as mental health professionals is encouraging clients to think rationally, accurately, and adaptively about other people and their relationships with them. “This person is drinking at a bar therefore they are immature and I can’t trust them as my therapist” is not a rational, accurate, or adaptive thought. (Well, it could be accurate, but you’d need more evidence to come to that conclusion.) Neither is, “This person is behaving differently after hours than they are at work, and therefore the way they behave at work is totally fake and they’re just lying to me.”

But speaking as someone who’s been on both sides of that relationship, I have to say that we are really, really patronizing our clients if we think that they are incapable of realizing that we have selves outside of the office. We are treating them like children if we presume that they need to be carefully prevented from seeing any part of our non-therapist persona, including kissing a partner in public or getting tipsy at a bar.

But it’s possible that some clients might be confused or bothered by seeing a therapist acting non-therapisty out in public. I think that the best course of action then is to discuss that in therapy, not laboriously alter one’s public behavior so that such an issue never comes up to begin with.

Because our classes are mostly discussion-based and there’s little in the social work code of ethics about situations like this (dual relationships, though, are a different matter), my professor never gave a definitive answer on whether or not we should endeavor to be role models to our clients no matter where we encounter them. His intent, I think, was mostly to spark discussion and let us know that this is something to consider.

The examples of celebrities and mental health professionals are two very different examples, but my conclusion is largely the same for each: being expected to be a “role model” in every context, at work and outside of it, in one’s chosen domain (be it sports or entertaining or counseling) and in every other domain in which it’s possible to judge a person’s behavior, is too much.

A final reason holding people up as “role models” is harmful: the criteria by which we judge them are largely based on social norms, which can be a very poor barometer for determining how ethical an action is. That’s why, when Miley Cyrus was vilified for her performance at the VMAs and reprimanded by many commentators for not being a good enough “role model,” the focus of most of the criticism was not the racism inherent in her performance, but the fact that she dressed revealingly and shook her ass. And she shook it…at a married man! How dare she. The married man, by the way, made a clear show of enjoying it, and he’s the one who’s married. And the one who sings a song about “blurred lines.”

It’s also why, when Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson (to whom she was not married) with Rupert Sanders (who is married), it was Stewart on whom the majority of the public opprobrium fell, and who was finally compelled to publicly apologize. (A hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: I think breaking a promise to a partner is wrong, but I also wish people didn’t make promises they couldn’t keep in the first place, and I don’t think cheating is the worst thing a person could do and I don’t think a person who cheats owes an apology to anyone but the person they cheated on.)

And women of color in particular are held to impossibly high standards as “role models,” as public reactions to Beyonce and Rihanna attest.

Sometimes the intersections between the expectation of role model behavior and various types of prejudice affect people’s livelihoods in really crappy ways. To return to the example of therapists, I’ve been reading this blog by a woman who is studying to be a therapist and also works as a stripper. The faculty of her program are pressuring her to either quit sex work or leave the program, because doing both is necessarily an ethical violation. They also told her that being a stripper “contributes to further injustice in the world,”  and is therefore incompatible with her other role as a therapist.

That’s a slightly different type of role model that she’s being expected to perform, but that demand that therapists be perfect in every aspect of their lives is still there. The role of therapist is supposed to take precedence over everything else she may want to do in her life, including making enough money to get by and finish her education. And in this case, these expectations are intersecting with stigma and prejudice against sex workers.

So, whether you’re a celebrity or just a regular person trying to make the world better, it’s rarely a neutral expectation that one be a “role model.” Like all social expectations do, it comes along with lots of baggage. And it’s incredible how often, for women, being a “role model” means having no sexuality.

Children may need adults to look up to and clients may need therapists to learn from, but that’s not a good enough reason, in my opinion, to expect or demand perfection from people.

I think a more realistic view is that almost everyone can teach us something, and almost everyone has done things we probably shouldn’t emulate*.


*And to be clear, wearing revealing clothing and/or being a sex worker are not the sorts of things I’m particularly desperate to discourage.