April 24, 2010

Sex Worker Storytelling, Activism, and Dominant Narratives

Over the past few months, I’ve been working really hard and not taking the time to write about it here (or anywhere else for that matter). The days when I structured my time around writing and thinking and pondering what was going on with me appear to have become a thing of the past (oh navel gazing, how I miss you… kind of).

A lot of my personal storytelling on the internet (er, I mean, blogging) has been about finding myself – not just finding but also locating myself in the greater context of the wild worlds of sexuality, activism, and various movements and communities. Over recent years, I’ve been evolving away from telling all the intimate details of my life to the internet, and though there are some aspects of that frenetic, gut-spilling writing that I miss (and which I still give audiences at Sex Worker Literati a taste of that personal confession stuff), it’s also revealed a lot for me.

Public storytelling – as many anonymous sex bloggers who’ve been outed to friends and family members know – is a risky business. But it’s a risk taken with some intentionality. If you’re publicly telling your story in some capacity, even if it’s with details obscured, it’s partly because you want to be known. “Known” not necessarily in the famous-with-a-book-deal way (but also – that) but you want to strike a chord with other people who can relate to you, either through mirrored personal experiences (“me too!”) or because they value your perspective (“I never thought of it that way”).

I’ve been wrestling with storytelling, with the value of not just my stories, but how sex worker stories get told and promoted – who is doing the telling? how? who is listening?

Sex Worker Literati promo card In particular, I’ve been thinking about these issues with respect to the two major projects I’ve done in the past year that related to sex worker media and storytelling: my monthly series Sex Worker Literati and the Speak Up media training.

I know these projects are important and valuable and that they shift thinking and assumptions about the ways sex workers experience the world and the ways in which sex worker stories can be told. But for the last bunch of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which these projects also uphold some cultural norms, create a dominant narrative of sex work, and value some stories and experiences over others. And I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do to fix this.

Although the rallying cry for the gay rights movement has been “come out!” and there are people in the sex worker rights movement that urge this as a priority as well, coming out doesn’t benefit all (or even most) individuals in the sex industry. In fact, being out puts many people in the sex industry at risk of violence and discrimination. The sex workers who are most able to come out are people like me: middle class, educated (though I don’t necessarily mean degreed), white, cis women who can use coming out to their advantage in some way, whether to get a book deal or to promote a political agenda. Yes, sex workers of all stripes are stigmatized and discriminated against, but chosen coming out is a privilege.

I think there is value in being able to, as a sex worker, say “I’m a lot like you” to the Average American. I have certainly been told “You seem so normal” and “You don’t look like a prostitute” while watching the gears in someone’s head turning and reconsidering their bias. This is useful. But there are also other messages embedded in this re/presentation.

We discussed this during the Speak Up training during our session on Crafting Your Message. Here’s a blurb from the training manual:

Think about the unintended messages of things you say. How can things you are framing in a positive way also have negative effects? For example, you say, “Not all sex workers are drug addicts and street prostitutes.” The subtext of this phrase is, “There’s something wrong with being a drug addict or a street prostitute. I’m better than them. I’m not asking you to respect or give them rights, I’m asking you to respect me and give me rights.” In this example, the intent might be to show you are like other people and humanize yourself. This can be done by saying, “People have extreme and fantastical ideas about who sex workers are, but we’re people just like you.” This conveys diversity without marginalizing anyone in the community.

Especially because I run a monthly event in which sex workers are exposing their stories in public, I’ve become hyperaware of the fact that the public performance of sex worker experiences in the United States is very much about the personal adventures of middle class, white, cis women. I’ve been trying to take a hard look at how this came to be, and at what points along the way trans women, cis men, trans men, people of color, and people from a variety of class backgrounds have been shut out of this movement – and what role I have played in all that mess. I’m certainly guilty of wielding my privilege along the way.

Not all stories need to be public, with a face and a name to match (that’s another post for another day). However, the fact that the sex workers who are public and part of the movement tend to fit a particular profile certainly has meaning. Not insignificantly, it means that the American sex worker rights movement, despite being frequently shunned by the mainstream feminist movement, has mimicked the problems of the feminist movement with regards to representation. This is hugely disappointing and hugely problematic. The sex industry is such an interesting site of intersection between issues of gender (by which I don’t mean “cis women,” but the broader consideration of gender roles), race, ability, international migration, public health, and capitalism. Potentially, activists who talk about the sex trade could be discussing all these things and creating a platform for diverse viewpoints and solutions. But that’s not happening here in the US right now.

Which is all a long way to say that, in my absence from writing here, I’ve been doing some thinking and laying of foundations to make some shifts in other people’s thinking (and my own, too). I need to get back in the swing of sharing that thinking here. In my non-blog life, I’ve been having lots of conversations and trying to figure out ways to do this better. Which is good, because doing this work is really what this is all about, not just bitching about it on the internet (sorry internet, you’re clusterfucky – but I still love you).

6 Comments on “Sex Worker Storytelling, Activism, and Dominant Narratives”

Sarah Sloane
1:49 pm

Dacia, thank you for putting this up. As someone who has an incredible amount of privilege, I really need the kick in the ass about what that might mean – and most especially checking my own assumptions about what “out” might mean for others.

I love how you think…and mostly, I love how you don’t try to think for everyone.

5:47 pm

I’m so glad you updated! I felt my IQ stagnating during your entries’ hiatus. I read your blog for that fresh perspective on things that generally (especially in Southern Baptist Oklahoma) have one dominant narrative/ moral judgment in the conversation about it. We need more and more of new angles on thinking about sex work. How will you represent the people who can’t risk being outed? I can’t wait to see how that works out, especially with SWL.

Jacq Jones
4:14 pm

thanks for this thoughtful post – you’re on to some really important stuff here!

Violet Stonefish
5:13 pm

“But it’s a risk taken with some intentionality. If you’re publicly telling your story in some capacity, even if it’s with details obscured, it’s partly because you want to be known. “Known” not necessarily in the famous-with-a-book-deal way (but also – that) but you want to strike a chord with other people who can relate to you, either through mirrored personal experiences (“me too!”) or because they value your perspective (“I never thought of it that way”).”

I’d certainly agree that coming out as a sex worker, online or in public, is a privilege I feel I only do under this name, in a large Canadian city. Yet I disclose because I feel I have nothing to lose. I need witnesses more than I need anonymity, but most importantly, I give my breath to add noise to the rabble, for our future, as bodies deserving of respect and dignity.

Thank you for all your work!

Violet Stonefish

Female escorts london
6:37 am

I stumbled upon you’re blog and it’s quite interesting, you are well experienced I can say that by the words that you are using.


[…] I wrote about back in April in my post Sex Worker Storytelling, Activism, and Dominant Narratives, the last year of doing this project and other movement building, media training, and personal […]

Leave a comment