Good girls and whores

Rule one of remaining sane on the internet: don’t read the comments.

Corollary: you’ll let your curiosity overpower your good judgement at least once.

This is how I’ve ended up reading several comments from people across the internet who, despite undoubtedly believing themselves feminist, are happy to judge women for looking, acting or dressing like “whores”. Be it a woman with multiple sexual partners, a woman who wears revealing clothing or one who’s marrying for financial security, these women are dragged through the mud, their reputations tarnished by association with the proverbial world’s oldest profession.

Their skirts are too short – don’t they know how unbecoming that is? Their sexuality is too aggressive – don’t they realise they’re making spectacles of themselves? They’re willing to “settle” for someone with more money than sex appeal – how do they live with themselves?

Apologists will generally respond that it’s not like that. They’re not like those women – you know, the ones who make a living selling (gasp!) sex. They’re not real “whores”. They just like dressing sexy or expressing themselves or being financially secure. Nothing wrong with that, right?

And thus, the core of the problematic argument being made is left untouched:

There’s nothing wrong with being a whore.

I know a lot of sex workers. I know girls who work in brothels, girls who work on the streets, camgirls, well-paid escorts, glamour models and adult film actresses. Pretty much the only thing they have in common is that they sell a sex-related service for money and do so voluntarily. True, some of them have turned to sex work out of financial need, but these still aren’t women who’ve been trafficked – they’re women choosing to sell these services of their own free will, women making autonomous decisions regarding their bodies and their boundaries. Hell, one or two of them aren’t even women. And none of them look like what you’d think.

Some of them are university students. Some of them are raising kids. Some of them just need to make rent. Some of them do the work they do because they enjoy it and find it liberating. None of them are being degraded by anyone other than people who pass judgement on their chosen profession. These women aren’t “selling their bodies”; they’re selling a service that just happens to be sex or sex-related. I assure you that they retain full ownership of their bodies afterwards. (At least, none of the ones I know have woken up to find themselves disembodied spirits, cursing themselves for selling their bodies to the highest bidder the night before. Maybe I’m missing something?) So what, exactly, is the problem? And why is “whore” the go-to comparison for any woman who dares express herself sexually, dress revealingly or exchange a service for money?

An elderly woman I know has worked for several decades with a sex worker advocacy group in my city. She tells a story of a conference she went to once, where she challenged an anti-sex work campaigner to describe what a sex worker looked like. You can probably guess what the woman said – the fishnets, the high-heeled boots, the lingerie-as-outerwear, the hanging out on street corners (despite the fact that registered brothels are legal in Australia), the cigarette dangling from nicotine-stained fingertips. So my friend asked a follow-up question: what does a male sex worker look like? Flummoxed, her opponent was forced to concede that they probably looked “just like everyone else”. Moral of the story: funnily enough, sex workers neither look nor act like you think, and you know far less about them than you realise.

I’ve been called a whore several times, generally (and very paradoxically) by men who are upset with me for not giving them what they want. I’ve been called a whore for dressing revealingly. I’ve been called a whore for talking openly about sex and sexuality. I’ve been called a whore for not hiding my sexual desires like the shameful thing society apparently thinks they are. And you know what? I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the idea that being called a whore is a negative thing, that by the association with sex work, these people are trying to degrade me – and women who actually are sex workers in the process. I have a problem with the idea that “whore” is a way of branding a woman as shameful, sinful and depraved. I have a problem with the idea that women who make autonomous decisions regarding their bodies are seen as subhuman and lesser, while the people who attempt to shame them into silence are held up as moral paragons.

Yeah, I have a whole lot of problems with “whore” being used as a pejorative descriptor, but none of said problems are related to sex workers. They’re related to the scumbags who judge them.

The sex workers I know are, generally speaking, a diverse group of women who do what they do for a number of reasons. They’re not mindless. They’re not subhuman. They’re definitely not immoral, whatever that means. They’re exchanging a service for money. Some of them service elderly clients who don’t get to have sex any other way. Some of them shoot porn because they have fun doing so. Some of them are paying their way through university degrees and would rather sell sex and remain more or less their own bosses than be subject to workplace sexual harassment in low-paying jobs where they’d be viewed as nothing more than dispensable cannon fodder. (But sex work is dehumanising by comparison…how, again?) Mostly, they’re just girls doing a job. They aren’t “selling their bodies” – they’re selling sex, or simulations of sex, and getting money in exchange. That’s pretty much how most service jobs work. The only difference is that this kind of service is viewed as immoral by the kinds of people who think women making decisions about how, when and for what reasons they have sex sets a dangerous precedent.

I have no problem with being compared to sex workers because in my mind, there’s nothing wrong with sex work. And maybe if more people thought that way, sex workers wouldn’t be disproportionate targets of violent crime, including sexual violence. Maybe if more people thought that way, sex workers wouldn’t be driven underground and into unsafe working conditions by moralising governments who think they’re “saving” women by depriving them of a source of income and legal protections. Maybe if more people thought that way, a sex worker and advocate named Jasmine wouldn’t have been murdered by her abusive ex-husband earlier this year after police repeatedly ignored her reports of stalking, harassment and abuse. Maybe if more people thought that way, we’d finally stop treating sex workers like women without minds of their own and recognising that autonomous decisions deserve to be respected, even if they’re not decisions we’d make ourselves.

The next time someone compares you or someone you know to a sex worker, your knee-jerk reaction shouldn’t be moral outrage. It should be outrage over the fact that in the year 2013, “whore” is still an insult people use to degrade and dehumanise women who dare to be sexual beings outside the limitations society has set for them. You should be outraged that an entire profession has been deemed immoral simply because it involves the selling of sex by women (and some men) who’ve decided for themselves what their own boundaries and limits are. You should be outraged not at being compared to these women, but at the way society treats them. You should be outraged by the disproportionately high levels of rape, physical abuse and homicide perpetrated against women selling a service for money. You should be outraged that these women are seen as subhuman solely due to their profession of choice.

Maybe, if you can spare a little outrage, you should be upset that we live in a society where women are so marginalised, even in the supposedly developed world, that sometimes sex work is the only viable profession for them. You should be upset that sex workers are being driven into unsafe work conditions and being stripped of all legal protection by moralisers who end up killing more women than they save. You should be upset about women’s shelters and rape crisis centres who refuse to accept sex workers. You should be upset by a society that looks at the murder of a sex worker and decides that she brought it upon herself for daring to work.

You should be upset by a lot of things. But you shouldn’t be upset that you’re being compared to a class of women who fight fiercely to defend their autonomy and their right to choose. You shouldn’t be upset that you’re being compared to a group of women who are, on the whole, some of the most strident and outspoken feminists I’ve ever met. You should be upset that people consider association with this group of women an insult. You should be upset that “whore” is still a dirty word used by people trying to shame women for daring to have sexualities.

Dress how you like. Have sex with who you want. Decide for yourself what the value of sex is to you, and what you’re prepared to exchange for it. And stop shaming women who’ve done the same, or shaming other women by association. You’re not just degrading them – you’re degrading yourself by sending the message that society has the right to shame and shun women who take charge of their bodies and their sex lives.

If you’re a feminist, that should be the opposite of what you want.

2 thoughts on “Good girls and whores

  1. Thank you for expressing these thoughts so clearly. I’m new to understanding sex work, but not to caring about people & fairness or to seeing how self-righteous & judgemental some of the “better or moral” people can be. -Dan Buffington

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