Sex work and abuse: whose fault, again?

A few content notices before we go on: we’re talking about sex worker stigma, abuse, and generalising that to other abuses done to women.

Electra Fyre wrote a brilliant piece in Tits and Sass the other week, describing her experiences as a stripper and the abuses that the men in she and her coworkers lives perpetrated. It’s a gorgeously written piece that pulls no punches and shows a fierce sense of solidarity and empathy- if you’re okay with reading about partner violence, I highly recommend it.

What is so important about this piece, though, isn’t that she describes abuse as being almost ubiquitous in her line of work. It’s where that abuse is situated- vehemently and explicitly not at work.

One thing I noticed early on in my career is that stripper locker room talk is brazen and honest. There is some high speed bonding that goes on over trays of eye shadow and half-finished drinks. As a more-or-less good girl going to state college on my parents’ dime, I was no stranger to boozy heartbreak stories, but stripper stories almost always went somewhere darker, faster. Without even knowing a co-worker’s name, I might hear the details of how her ex-husband broke into her house, or how she was borrowing a phone from another girl after receiving threatening texts from a stalker. I’ve had girls show me pictures of men on their phones with the warning, “If he shows up, tell the bouncer and come warn me. I don’t care if I’m in a VIP, just come tell me.”

There’s this recurring theme in our love lives— a man will admire us for our independence and freedom, and of course, our money. We’ll thrive on the attention for a while and we’ll enjoy spoiling him with gifts or trips. Maybe he moves in because his roommates are irresponsible, or maybe we move in with him because we’re sleeping over all the time anyway. And then the fights start.

“Where the fuck were you until five in the morning?”

Do you see? While Electra is clear that abuse is almost ubiquitous in these women’s lives, she is also very clear that this is perpetrated largely by romantic partners, outside the work context.

This is important. You see, the dominant discourse around sex work and abuse is that it is something that happens to women at or as a result of their work. And yet.. for the strippers in this article, their workplace wasn’t described as a site of violence. It’s a site of support- from the clear implication that security can deal with abusive (ex)partners to the closeness between coworkers that Electra describes throughout the piece.

The abuse that they do experience? Is overwhelmingly caused by the insecure masculinity of their partners. These men who are so unable to deal with what they’ve always known about their partners that they turn to escalating forms of verbal and physical violence when they are no longer able to pretend it isn’t happening. I think it’s no mystery why Electra speaks about live-in relationships- by the time you move in with someone, you can no longer hide the shape of their everyday life from yourself.

And these women are doing everything ‘right’. They’re disclosing their occupation to their partners. They’re being honest about what they’re up to- not that anyone should have to detail every minute of their day to appease someone else’s insecurity. There’s no mystery. And these men have plenty time to make their own decisions over whether to accept their partner’s occupation or to go find someone else.

But they don’t.

It’s not so surprising, really, how this cliche about how women should know what to expect if they do that turns into one about male insecurity and violence.

And it’s not surprising either, that there’s nothing about stripping for money that is necessarily abusive- and if you think that there is, then you’re feeding the idea that women are somehow to blame for the abusive actions of others.

The abuse the women Electra speaks of isn’t something they brought on themselves. It’s not something they were somehow asking for. It’s something that was done to them by men to whom women are never, ever truly human. To whom women are always, even if they don’t know it, things whose treatment as people is dependant on not acting in a way that reflects badly on their perverse sense of dignity and status.

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Sex work and abuse: whose fault, again?
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3 thoughts on “Sex work and abuse: whose fault, again?

  1. 1

    One of the biggest myths about sex workers (of any variety) and their love lives is that of the “hooker with a heart of gold,” who needs a big strong hero to bust in and save her (the implication being that once she is thus saved, she will give up sex work).
    Many men seem to believe that they are this hero, and are rudely surprised when their fantasy fails to play out.

    1. 1.1

      Oh, seriously, that myth needs to die so hard.

      I think the worst thing about it isn’t even the men who fall for it. It’s the very idea that it implies that to be a sex worker means there’s necessarily something wrong with you. Like that if you sell sexual services (as opposed to any other kind of labour, including other kinds of physical and emotional labour) then aside from your ‘heart of gold’ you must be a certain kind of tough/careless/mercenary. Which is some serious bullshit and connects so well with all the other myths about sex workers as being less than human.
      Like if your heart isn’t actually made of gold, you’re not a person. Fuck that.

      1. There’s also the two neatly entwined memes of “isn’t my love/penis enough for you?” – as if love/penises is solely why people do sex work – and “but you’ll fall in love with them!”

        (If the couple met because he was initially a customer, this latter one is especially common.)

        A lot of men (minus the creeps who get off on the exact opposite, of course) who see sex workers are emphatic in their belief that the women are 100% into it, totally orgasmed, and would love for someone to sweep them off their feet and take them away from that sordid world. It’s hard for them to to understand that sex workers see it as a job that sure, has its moments, but isn’t necessarily an endless party, fake it from time to time, and are actually pretty happy where they are. If a man has this attitude, it can be very hard for him to get that his sex worker SO isn’t actually planning on leaving him for John #5.

        Incidentally, I see a shade of this attitude (that if you’re doing any sort of genitals-related work, you’re getting some emotional/sensual kick out of it) in my own work (nursing). I’ve had patients give me a pick-up line (often spectacularly crude) after I finish helping them toilet, for example, with the expectation that I was just in there, I must have been enjoying the show.

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