This blog is more of a response to a conversation than a work of inspired wisdom, insight, or deep thought. It’s an attempt to clarify this tweet: “I don’t sell sex. I sell an experience; an opportunity to be honest, vulnerable, unjudged, in which eroticism is celebrated. It’s different.”
It received a lot of “likes” and retweets, but there’s a lot left out when you’re compressing an idea into 120 characters. When someone commented on it being “a whorearchy thing,” I figured it was time to share some additional thoughts.
First, a disclaimer: These are two of the ground rules from which I try to operate, both online and in my real-life, personal interactions in the world at large:
(1) Don’t try to define anyone else’s experience. The only inner world I know is my own, and claiming to know somebody else’s intentions, thoughts, feelings, motivations is an act of control that perpetuates conflict and division rather than empathy, understanding, or connection.
(2) People are not their behaviors. When a person’s behaviors are not OK with me, I can make and enforce personal boundaries without attacking the person.
These are important to point out, because anything that follows will probably fall on deaf ears to those who don’t subscribe to a similar philosophy.
Sometimes it seems we’ve gotten to a place where mentioning “the whorearchy” acts as a trump card, threatening to shut down constructive conversation. It doesn’t feel good to be accused of perpetuating stigma and shame, and that’s what’s at stake when the “whorearchy” card gets pulled. (I’m glad that’s not the case this time!) I believe that much of the time, it’s well intentioned: knowledge is power, and bringing things into the open is certainly one way to help instigate positive change. But I do also think that suggesting every act of differentiation is inherently harmful is neither accurate nor constructive. Similar to the concept of color-blindness in racial justice, ignoring difference does not erase the consequences of difference. In sex work, insisting that all actors are the same is similarly counterproductive. While a sense of sameness may seem like the best option for promoting solidarity, it’s frankly no more accurate than other tropes like, “All sex workers are trafficked or coerced.” There is no such thing as a singularity in sex work, and that is true whether we’re talking about what is exchanged, why it’s exchanged, or the conditions under which it’s exchanged.
I support and do active advocacy work for all types of sex work, and that’s grounded in a core belief that there’s nothing wrong with the consensual sale of sex or activities related to sex. I don’t think anyone better than or worse than. It is from that mindset that I contend: It is not the same to say that differentiating oneself as a matter of description is the same as reinforcing a harmful whorearchy that’s grounded in judgment.
When somebody says, “We’re all selling sex, no matter how you dress it up!” I find myself feeling perplexed, because that is not my experience. I wonder if what they’re trying to say is, “Don’t think you’re better than anyone else!” or if it’s something else entirely. I wish I had a way to effectively communicate that my statements are not a matter of hierarchical posturing. It is possible to point out the differences among things without those differences defining classes of people.
The conversation bears an uncomfortable resemblance to me to 2nd wave RadFems who insist, “There’s no such thing as consensual sex work!” or, “All sex work is coercive and harmful!” We retort, “You do not speak for me! You don’t know my experience!” to this sort of definition by others, and yet we turn around and do it to others when the content seems to fit our position? That’s not something I can get behind.
When we stop to consider what’s actually for sale, I keep coming back to the same question: Who decides?
It doesn’t happen often, but yes, some gentleman do pay for social-only time that involves us never being alone together; others pay for intimate time together with the explicit agreement (per their request) that it doesn’t include certain sexual activities. When somebody interjected in a conversation on this topic, “Yes, but that’s not what we’re making a living off of now are we?” I gave it some serious thought: what am I making a living off of? My honest response was reaffirming of my original statement: it’s not sex. I am a companion; a courtesan; a temporary girlfriend. By far, the majority of my time with gentleman is spent at dinner, shows, and conversing. Still, these things are ignored or discredited when others insist, “but that’s not what it’s really about!”
If we wanted to be literal, we could make a list of what constitutes “sex” and ask how often those activities occur. But there’s a problem with this approach:
(1) Who is going to agree on what exactly goes on the list?
(2) How do we account for things that are not explicit activities, such as feelings? intimacy? eroticism? connection? friendship? emotional synchronicity?
(3) This does nothing to account for context, and context matters.
(4) What good does it do?
For some clients and some providers, sex may be the driving force for the exchange, and that’s OK! I wish we lived in a society in which the details of such transactions could be negotiated openly between consenting adults, but that’s a topic for another day. For others, sex may be a necessary but insufficient reason for hiring an escort, companion, or courtesan. For others, sex may be an afterthought. The same parallel can be drawn for why escorts choose to work in the erotic industry. For some, it’s about the money. For others, the money is a necessary but insufficient reason for escorting (this, for example, might sound like, “I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t being paid, but I don’t do it just for the money”). Why does any of this matter? Because it’s important to find a good fit between client and provider, and oversimplification doesn’t help people do that.
At the end of the day, I tend towards being a pragmatist; I am interested in the why’s and the impact(s) associated with certain approaches. Sure, it may be easier to simplify complex phenomena, but we lose important nuance in doing so. I am neither satisfied nor comforted by the false sense of homogeneity that is produced by putting people into boxes or by claiming authority to another’s “objective” reality. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then I am interpreting it to be a duck; that’s different from it actually being a duck.
When I say that I really don’t sell sex, that’s not a play on words for me; it’s not just semantics. It’s not something I say to try evading law enforcement, nor something that implies judgment about others. The sooner we realize that describing difference is not the same as defining status, I think the better off we will all be.
The morning after I posted this blog, I awoke to quite a storm of comments on Twitter. In response, I’m additing a few additional thoughts:
(1) I refer back to the disclaimer at the beginning of this blog: I see very little constructive dialogue emerge from insisting that we know someone else or what they do better than they do for themself. It’s one thing to say, “I see it differently, and here’s my experience to explain why,” and quite another to say, “This is the way it is, whether you realize it or not.”
(2) This brand new research article was posted as I sifted through Twitter comments, and it’s very apropos to the conversation. It’s a new addition to a very long list of peer-reviewed research articles I’m familiar with that discusses characteristics of, and experiences associated with, various sectors of the sex work industry. Why do I point this out? Because there’s an impact here that I would hate to see lost on this conversation, which is that acknowledging differences among different types of sex work and sex workers isn’t always about elitism or hierarchical whorearchy. To the contrary, failing to identify differences can cause harm, since providing effective advocacy and/or legal resources requires an accurate appraisal of needs. I refuse to impose on someone else my interpretation of their work by saying that “all sex work is about sex,” knowing that doing so undermines our ability to identify the nuanced experiences of people in the industry and the needs associated with those varied experiences.