Can a Good Scientist Be a Good Whore? (And Other Thoughts About Whorephobia)

Neon Sign From the Lusty LadyNow that the whole situation with Danielle Lee and Biology Online has mostly been settled, I’m getting ready to write up some of the things that bothered me about how the science/skeptic/atheist communities supported Lee. On the one hand, I think that it was great to see the outpouring of support against a wanker who deliberately insulted a professional scientist because she wouldn’t write for free. On the other, the overwhelming majority of support for Lee implied — if it didn’t come out and say it outright — that there was something foul and distasteful about being a whore. It seems like we need to talk about ways to we can support women against misogynist jackasses without kicking sex workers under the bus. Because that’s exactly what happened: when everyone rushed to stand by Danielle Lee’s side, they made damn sure that they ran away from the sex workers.

I’m not sure if I’m going to write this for this blog, Godless Perverts (which really, really needs to get some new content up), or Slixa. Either way, I’d like to ask for some help. I definitely have my own thoughts, but in the end, it’s the thoughts and feelings of sex workers themselves that are important. If you’d like to contribute your viewpoint on either the DNLee situation specifically, or the use of the word “whore” by civilians more generally, either fill out the contact form below, or use the regular comments. I’d also be happy to do interviews by phone/Skype/IM.

I’m especially interested in hearing  from sex workers who identify as atheists or agnostics, but any viewpoints are welcome, godless or not.

 

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What Kind of Person Goes to a Sex Worker?

Kitty Stryker

Kitty Stryker

Kitty Stryker answers this question today in a very lovely and touching article at Slixa, based on her experiences taking clients in London. It doesn’t actually tie in with the common stereotype:

Working with TLC Trust in London, I found myself encountering a very different sort of client than the media-projected stereotype. I was a companion for an autistic man whose sister wanted to help him learn how to navigate flirting and dating with hands on experience. Just coming to my space was difficult for another person who had social anxiety. I had more than one female lover who sought me out for erotic massage so they could relearn how to be touched intimately and communicate triggers after sexual assault experiences. Sometimes the people I met wanted to snuggle and cry in my arms about the restrictions they felt about their faith, or their struggle with expectations of gender roles, or relationships they had lost. I hadn’t fully realized how being a switchboard operator with psychology experience gave me training on how to be a better provider!

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Feministe Can’t Just Make Their Sex Work Problems Disappear [Updated]

[Update: Thanks to Donna L for calling to my attention the fact that Feministe's editors have said that they removed the post at the request of the author. However, that still leaves a lot of questions unanswered, such as: why they made the whole thing disappear without a trace, along with the comments; why didn't they address the removal in a more public manner, instead of burying it in a "spillover thread"; and what positive steps they'll take to center the voices of sex workers in the future.]

Sometime late last week, the editors of Feministe made a very embarrassing and controversial post about sex work disappear from their site, along with several hundred comments. As of this writing, they have not posted any explanation, apology, or retraction for the post, apparently hoping that they can just make it vanish down the memory hole.

Jill Filipovic, Editor of Feministe (Image from Wikicommons)

Jill Filipovic, Editor of Feministe
(Image from Wikicommons)

I wrote about the problems with “Dear Feminists” by Sarah Elizabeth Pahman last week, just before the Feministe staff decided to make it disappear. To summarize: it was not only whorephobic, but racist and classist. Although it pretended to be about poverty in America, and specifically about impoverished sex workers, it was all about Pahman, and how seeing them for the first time made her feel.

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New Post at Slixa: Decriminalization Isn’t Enough

"Belle" -- Statue in honor of sex workers in Amsterdam.Although I shamefully neglected to mention it in the actual piece, my most recent post at Slixa was done as part of Maggie McNeill’s Friday the 13th event, in which she encourage non-sex workers who are allies to write about the decriminalization of sex work. Mine talks not only about decriminalization, but about how we have to destigmatize it as well. Tolerating sex work with a distasteful grimace is little better than calling for its prohibition:

But ironically, decriminalization is as inadequate as it is radical. The stigma around sex work is at least as damaging as the laws. Stigma adheres to all branches of sex work, whether legally or not. It might be perfectly legal to make, market, and sell Lesbian Spank Inferno, Vol. 17, but having it on your résumé will guarantee you don’t get a job teaching grade school. The idea of sex workers as “fallen,” broken, or amoral is the soil in which the laws grow. The State of California was able to enact a regulation denying aid to victims of rape because stigma allows people like Ms. R to be considered disposable.

In the end, decriminalization isn’t enough: we have to say that sex workers — like any other legitimate work — can be a positive thing, not an inevitable blight that has to be tolerated. That’s not just radical in the current climate, but unspeakable. Right now, it’s hard enough to get people to use the phrase sex work  without a lewd, patronizing grin.

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Quote of the Day: Sex Workers and Feminist Allies

Forum-Quote-iconIn yesterday’s post, I made a deliberate point of saying that I wasn’t going to go into detail about specific steps for Feministe and other sites to improve their relationships with sex work communities. As I said, there’s already enough non-sex workers talking about what sex workers need. But I think that reading Olive Seraphim’s “How to Be a Feminist Ally to Sex Workers” would be a good first step for the Feministe staff. The excerpt below seems particularly germane. And like most good things, it doesn’t apply only to sex workers, or feminists.

Acknowledge how feminism actively pushes sex workers out of feminist spaces

A non-sex worker said to me the other day something feminists have been saying to women they’re trying to silence for years; but your analysis isn’t nuanced! (Insert whatever excuse to ignore our perspective you like, as there are many feminists like to use against us and this is but one example). Of course, this is actually code for; I don’t like what you’re saying so I’d rather shut you out of the conversation completely by getting an academic who has no experience with what you’re saying to word things in such a way that you can’t understand them while complicating the issue into a philosophical argument so we don’t need to address the real life shit you have to deal with on a daily basis. Feminism needs to stop being academic to the exclusion of everyone else, especially if you take privilege theory seriously and realize that those with intersecting identities may well have had less access to education than your privileged ass.

Feministe Needs to Face Up to Their Hypocrisy About Sex Work

Feministe‘s coverage of sex work is pretty seriously fucked up, and it is far past time that they face up to that and do something about it. I feel like that’s so painfully obvious that it’s embarrassing even saying it, but apparently it does need to be said.

Photo by Steve Rhodes. Creative Commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ari/5269901585/

Photo by Steve Rhodes. Creative Commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ari/5269901585/

In February, Feministe editor Jill Filipovic published a troubling post about how she supports sex workers, but hates sex work. When is the last time that you saw any marginalized person respond positively to the “hate the sin, love the sinner” line?

Filipovic’s post got a lot of criticism,1 but not as much as the guest post by social worker Sarah Elizabeth Pahman2 that went up last week. [Read more...]


  1. For a really good example, check out Jadehawk’s rebuttal

  2. Sometime after the Feministe post went up, Pahman’s blog was marked “private” and blocked off. You can still find a 2012 interview with her here, in which she cites Melissa Farley as one of her inspirations. If you’re not familiar, Farley is an anti-sex work activist whose research has been so thoroughly debunked that it can comfortably be described as either fraudulent or grossly incompetent. 

Can Carrying Condoms Be a Crime?

I have a new piece up at Slixa, about the fight to ban New York police and district attorneys from using condoms to arrest people for prostitution.

"I was walking towards the LGBT youth center I'm staying at because right now I don't have another place to live, and the police stopped me. They searched my bag & took away my condoms." Art by Lauren McCubbin

“I was walking towards the LGBT youth center I’m staying at because right now I don’t have another place to live, and the police stopped me. They searched my bag & took away my condoms.”
Art by Lauren McCubbin

In light of the decision yesterday that stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional, my piece seems to be especially well-timed. “Condoms as evidence” is little more than a sub-category of stop and frisk that’s used to target the people who need safer sex resources the most. The fact that it’s been allowed to exist as long as it has is due to the fact that over the last couple of decades, it’s become more and more acceptable to criminalize whole populations of people, instead of behavior that actually does harm.

But in the eyes of district attorneys and police departments, condoms aren’t for everyone. For white, middle-class, straight-looking people, a few condoms in their pocket or purse represents a sophisticated, responsible sexuality. For those who fit police profiles of sex workers, having condoms on their person might be the thing that gets them arrested on prostitution charges.

“That’s something that we’ve had to clarify again and again,” says Emma Caterine, from New York’s Red Umbrella Project. “I think it’s just a habit in any kind of rights-based activism and organizing to say, ‘Oh, this could happen to me,’ and of course, that really isn’t the case in this situation. The people who are affected by this legislation are people who are profiled as sex workers. That includes sex workers, of course, but it also includes people who are profiled as sex workers because of different stereotypes we have about sex workers.”

The people who fit law enforcement profiles of sex workers are overwhelmingly young, low-income, people of color, or visibly queer or transgender. In other words, arrests target precisely those populations most at risk for transmission of HIV and other STIs.

This seems like a particularly cruel joke in New York, the only major American city to issue its own official condoms. Since 2007, the city’s much-acclaimed “NYC Condoms” program has distributed tens of millions of male and female condoms per month to the five boroughs. In 2012, the city distributed 37.2 million condoms — about 70 per minute. This February, NYU commemorated the program’s five-year anniversary with a retrospective of graphic design and public relations material.

But even as New York’s elite celebrate the condom as a pop icon, thousands of residents are faced with a dilemma: carry condoms to protect themselves against STIs, or risk harassment or arrest by police. “These are the populations that the CDC and other public health authorities have targeted for universal condom access,” says Megan McLemore, a Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch. “They’re really trying to make sure that these populations use condoms every time. So the fact that people who are doing this work and who are profiled as doing this work are carrying fewer condoms than they need has serious consequences for HIV prevention.”

To Maryam Namazie and Taslima Nasrin: No, You Are Not Whores

Atheist Sex Work SymbolAs much as I value what Freethought Blogs brings to the atheist community in discussing social justice, I think that Maryam Namazie and Taslima Nasrin have seriously fucked up with this post, and really need to be called out for it.1

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  1. I left the following comment on Maryam’s post:
    I’m sorry, but I really object to this. If you’re not going to support real whores, then don’t appropriate their identity as your own. So far, FTB hasn’t been very vocal in supporting the rights of sex workers to do their jobs safely, legally, and without stigma. Taslima in particular has an extremely bad history on the topic, having equated prostitution with slavery and insulted actual sex work activists like Maggie Mayhem in the process. To my knowledge, she’s never apologized for either her treatment of Maggie in particular, or of her abuse of sex work activists. And yet, she’s willing to adapt that identity for the purpose of making a statement.

    In addition to our issues with misogyny and racism, it’s time for the atheists to start dealing with whorephobia in the community. Silencing women and men who do sex work, then grabbing their identities for your own use is in no way progressive or just. 

Celebrate the Living While Mourning the Dead

Shannan Gilbert

Picture of Shannan Gilbert, a 24-year-old sex worker who disappeared in 2010

The news sites are ablaze this week with stories about the discovery of human remains on Long Island that may turn out to belong to Shannan Gilbert, a 24-year-old sex worker whose disappearance last year triggered a search that turned up the bodies of nine other sex workers who advertised on Craig’s List. Gilbert showed up at the house of Gustav Coletti at 5 AM last year, panicked and begging for help: [Read more...]

Ms. Magazine Speaks Up Against Sex Work Stigma

The famous statue in Amsterdams red-light district paying tribute to the worlds sex workers.

This is something to be optimistic about. Ms. Magazine has long been ambivalent at best about the rights of sex workers. Far more commonly, they’ve fallen in the camp which casts all sex workers as equally victimized, as “trafficked” or “prostituted women.” When something as unreservedly pro-sex work as this piece shows up in such a standby of mainstream feminism as Ms., it says something profound. I was heartbroken to see $pread‘s demise recently, but this kind of acceptance can be said to be its legacy: [Read more...]