“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. – Melissa Grant (Playing the Whore)
The term ‘whorephobia’ was originally coined by sex workers to describe the oppression and marginalization that occurs to us on a daily basis; separate and distinct from racism, misogyny or transmisogyny. This oppression is so ingrained into our culture that it affects our laws and rights, our language and the way that society has shaped our view on women.
The most insidious form of whorephobia, however, comes from sex-worker exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs). These are people who believe in a woman’s 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, whether the worker themselves believe so or not. SWERFs fear that selling a sexual service drives the sexualization and objectification of all women and that being sexualized renders a woman less of a person.
(Funnily enough, this logic is fundamentally anti-feminist as it plays into the idea of a woman’s body being attached to her worth as a person)
When somebody uses the word “wh*re”, “h*oker”, or “pr*stitute”, what kind of image is conjured up?
Not a positive one most likely.
Now, most women have been called at least one of these in their life. They most likely weren’t a sex worker at the time. The reason that it is an insult is because it is considered immoral or dirty to engage in sex for money.
Using slurs such as these might not seem like a big deal, but they help to perpetrate this idea that we are somehow lower-class citizens, the scum of society. How do you think this might affect how people actually treat us? Might they think that it is okay to be violent and hateful towards us? Maybe make it hard for us to have other jobs/interests/relationships? Make gross assumptions about our character based on myths surrounding the industry?
Most sex workers find it easier to lie to their friends and family about what they do for work, which can become exhausting and isolating. Personally, I was outed in my first year of escorting and as a result I was shunned by my entire family. Most of my friends didn’t want to be associated with me and didn’t talk to me again. Or when they did, it was just to pry about any horror stories so they could feel sorry for me. Not so nice. I had my money stolen, was laughed at and taken advantage of by people I cared about, because they didn’t respect me or what I do.
Using the correct language to describe sex work is a great way to start tearing down the stigma surrounding the industry. Don’t use gross slurs. Examine where this language has evolved from. Call out other people that oppress us. Chances are that you know a sex worker or former sex worker. Do you really want to alienate them or think that they can’t talk to you?
Whorearchy and Lateral Whorephobia
People outside the industry aren’t the only ones who do this though. When society teaches us that it is a Bad Thing™ to sell sexual services, we get to a place where we constantly try to justify our decisions by putting other workers down. Strippers and sugar babies don’t want to be seen as sex workers because ‘that’s disgusting’, escorts look down on other escorts who charge less or provide different services because ‘they have no self respect’, male sex workers somehow don’t exist at all.. See where I am going here? This ridiculous notion that we are somehow special little snowflakes in this attempt to not be seen as a yucky wh*re divides the community, which isn’t empowering to anyone.
This brings me to my next topic..
In Women of the Light, Carol Queen writes a brilliant essay about her time as a FSSW (full service sex worker) and how sex work is directly connected to worship of the goddess and a celebration of life. She describes the way that ‘we wh*res are doing the Goddess’s work in a culture that would brand it the devil’s work’. This can take a toll on us.
I still struggle with internalized whorephobia, as a lot of sex workers do. For me this manifests itself as germphobia, obsession with material possessions and a constant drive to achieve ‘more’ outside of sex work. Now maybe these things don’t seem so bad, but when they are coming from a place of guilt and shame it starts to make a bit more sense.
For most workers that I know, they create an entirely different persona when they work. This is actually encouraged by other workers and definitely so in the brothels I worked in. Masked as a way to ‘cope’ with the intensive emotional labor and a way to preserve safety, people separate their “work clothes” from their “normal clothes”, create an entire backstory and sometimes even change the way they walk and talk. This separation might seem normal or expected, but it automatically creates this “other” that we subconsciously treat as ‘abnormal’ and inherently shameful.
Melissa Grant – Playing the Whore: the work of sex work (2004)