When I was writing yesterday’s post, asking current and former sex workers to talk about their experiences in the industry and describing my own, I stumbled across an interesting Catch-22… one that I realized makes it harder to talk about my experiences in the industry. This particular Catch-22 has to do with my motivations for getting into sex work: did I do it out of economic necessity, or for personal and sexual pleasure, or for some combination of the two?
The Catch-22 is this: If I say that I became a nude dancer primarily for the money, then I feed into the stereotype of sex workers as victims. I feed into the stereotype that nobody really wants to do sex work, that sex work is always horribly unpleasant at best and abusive or exploitative at worst, and that there is no reason anyone would ever do it other than coercion or desperation.
But if I say that I became a nude dancer primarily for reasons other than money, I get targeted as a dilettante. My experiences in the business gets dismissed as trivial or fake, not the “real” experience of “real,” in-the-trenches sex workers. It’s basically a No True Scotsman fallacy. If you got into the business for any reason other than economic pressure, and/or if you enjoy working as a sex worker, then you’re not a “real” sex worker — since nobody could possibly enjoy anything about working as a sex worker. And if I didn’t feel great economic pressure to get into the business, and felt like I had other choices, then speaking about my own experiences is somehow seen as diminishing the experiences of people who did get into the business out of necessity.
Plus, of course, if I say that sexual pleasure was my primary motivation for getting into the industry, or even a significant part of it, I get dismissed as a slut.
The reality, for me, is that economic pressure and sexual pleasure were both motivating factors. Like I wrote yesterday: For reasons of sexual curiosity and pleasure, I was already interested in working as a nude dancer, and was already seriously considering trying it out. But I didn’t actually do it until I was hit with a biggish debt that I had to pay off. I don’t know if I would have gone through with it if it hadn’t been for that debt. And I don’t know if I would have stuck with it for more than a few weeks. And I know this is true for at least some other sex workers as well. Economic pressure was a factor — just like it is for most jobs, that’s what makes them jobs and not hobbies — but the sex itself was also a factor. If they/we hadn’t had a certain openness and adventuress-ness about sex, many of us wouldn’t have even considered sex work as a solution to our financial problems. As Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden said in her comment on yesterday’s post, “Although I made my choice within constraints, I definitely made a choice.”
But there’s no way to talk about either of these motivations without coming across as either a desperate victim or a selfish, trifling slut.
Realizing this immediately made me think of Natalie Reed’s excellent post on Catches-22, and how every marginalized group has one or more Catches-22 working against them, one or more ways in which nothing they can possibly do will be right. Women are either sluts or prudes; bimbos or ball-busters. Black people are either lazy criminals or “trying to act white.” Trans people are either caricatures of gender stereotypes, or aren’t feminine/ masculine enough and aren’t “really” trans. Atheists are either a hive mind/ echo chamber or are succumbing to divisive rifts and schisms. Poor people are either leeching off the system or “taking our jobs.” Etc. Reed argues — correctly, I think — that these sorts of no-win situations are a hallmark of discrimination, “the most direct and immediately recognizable way of knowing that a given group has been predetermined to be in the wrong regardless of what they do.”
And I would argue that the particulars of any given Catch-22 can reveal a lot about the nature of the marginalization. The “lazy criminal/acting white” Catch-22, for instance, shows that “lazy criminal” is considered the default for black people. The “slut/prude” Catch-22 for women marginalizes any sort of female sexual agency: we get slammed for saying “Yes” to sex to often, and for saying “No” to sex too often, and basically for taking our sexuality into our own hands. Etc.
So back to the topic at hand; This particular Catch-22, I think, serves largely to make sex workers invisible, to make it easy to ignore sex workers and dismiss what we say about our own experience. The myth that nobody would ever do sex work unless they had to is a neat little self-fulfilling circle. “All sex workers are forced into it, either literally or out of economic necessity… and if you didn’t get into it out of economic necessity, you don’t count as a real sex worker, and we can ignore and dismiss your experience… because all sex workers are forced into it, either literally or out of economic necessity.” And, of course, if economic pressure is a factor in getting into the work, then you either don’t have the intelligence or discipline to find another line of work, or you’re a poor helpless victim who needs to be rescued. And again, your experiences can therefore be ignored or dismissed.