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Whorephobia Harms All Women

So why does society treat sex workers as criminals, when they have been such an integral part of civilization for so long?


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Meredith Kirby

4 months ago | 13 min read
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How epistemic injustice in the sex industry supports a sexist society

The sex industry has existed in various forms from the dawn of recorded human history. Sex workers have always been a part of societies, economies, and civilizations. Despite countless attempts at banning, regulating, shaming, and controlling the sex industry, it continues, relatively unfazed.

So why does society treat sex workers as criminals, when they have been such an integral part of civilization for so long?

Aren’t sex workers themselves often the ones who are the victims of crimes? Paradoxically, it is not the existence of the sex industry itself which causes this victimization to occur, but rather the way that we view sex workers as a culture.

Further, the way that we view sex workers is a reflection of the way that we view all women.

When a person experiences violence or abuse in any other line of work, she has both social and legal recourse to seek support and justice.

Sex workers, be they full-service, strippers, porn stars, webcam models, or otherwise involved in the industry, do not have this same recourse. While this creates a dangerous situation for sex workers, it also creates a dangerous situation for all women.

Our respect for women as a culture is often related to how we perceive their sexuality, and this is demonstrated by rampant violence against women of both a physical and epistemic nature. 

The way society treats a woman employed in the sex industry speaks volumes about the way it treats women in general. Sex workers are the canaries in a very deep and dark coal mine.

In his 1997 book, The Racial Contract, Charles Mills introduced the concept of “epistemologies of ignorance.” These epistemologies are systems of obtaining knowledge which benefit people in privileged positions of power and allow them to maintain their power (Mills).

The systematic silencing of sex workers who try to share their experience is a prime example of how these kinds of violent epistemologies are born.

Gaps in public knowledge about the perspectives of marginalized groups are not always accidental, but often intentional, with the goal of justifying the inhumane treatment of these marginalized groups (Tuana).

“Territorial imperatives structure and limit the kinds of utterances that can be voiced within them with a reasonable expectation of uptake and “choral support”: an expectation of being heard, understood, taken seriously,” writes Lorriane Code in Rhetorical Space, Essays on Gendered Locations.

Sex workers do not and have never had this expectation of being heard, understood, and taken seriously.

Recent legislation in the US has only made things worse.

On April 11th, 2018, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act became laws in the United States.

While FOSTA and SESTA were well-intentioned pieces of legislation, which appeared to fight the victimization and exploitation of sex workers, actual sex workers were not pleased with the results.

Intended to criminalize the “facilitation” of things like child sex slavery, these bills instead shut down websites that fit the ambiguous definition of having facilitated sex work of any kind, consensual or not.

The far-reaching and sometimes absurd effects of this went as far as to result in the tag #femalefitness being shadowbanned from Instagram. This started with Instagram hiding the posts of non-sex worker pole dancers who used pole dancing as a way to stay fit (Rodriguez).

These pieces of legislation serve as a glaring example of how workers in the sex industry are harmed by an epistemology of ignorance.

Those trying to help sex workers often end up hurting them, and this is caused by both an ignorance of the hard facts surrounding sex work, and a deep misunderstanding of the experience of sex workers.

According to sex workers, FOSTA-SESTA’s further criminalization of the means they use to support themselves has actually made them less safe.

“It’s my personal opinion, based on familiarity with many of the groups that pushed FOSTA/SESTA, that this ambiguity about acceptable speech concerned with sex and sex-adjacent work (like massage or dating) is purely intentional,”

writes Liara Roux, sex worker, and political organizer.

“In the aftermath of FOSTA/SESTA we’ve seen hundreds of examples of increased discrimination against all forms of criminalized and legal sex work, with major sites shutting down services and impacted groups including porn performers, webcam models, even sex educators. Every bit of that has been celebrated as a victory by prohibitionist groups. I don’t believe they are anti-sex trafficking, I believe they are anti-sex.”

While the reality of sex slavery is horrific, what’s even more horrific is how this reality is supported by the criminalization of sex work. The arguments used to support this criminalization largely revolve around faulty statistics, and the misrepresentation of data.

The problem with public information about sex work is that it generally does not come from experts in the field: sex workers.

Our collective image of the sex industry is being falsely engineered- not with the safety of sex workers in mind, but rather with the goal of pushing a specific moral paradigm which equates morality with sexual “purity.”

While various sex worker advocacy and human rights groups routinely push a strategy of decriminalization, destigmatization, and harm-reduction (Roux), the level of misinformation around sex work seems to be too staggering for these common-sense arguments to overcome.

The consequences of this include not only decreased safety for sex workers but a continuation of their stigmatization, marginalization and stereotyping, or as it is colloquially called, “whorephobia.”

“Most of the scary articles about sex trafficking are larded with inflated figures and phony statistics that don’t survive any serious analysis,” writes Maggie McNeil, retired call-girl, in an article for the Washington Post.

She goes on to give examples of how these statistics are deliberately misinterpreted:

“For example, you will often read that the average sex worker enters the trade at 13, a mathematical impossibility which appears to have originated as a misrepresentation of the average age of first noncommercial sexual contact (which could include kissing, petting, etc.)

Another common claim is that there are 100,000 to 300,000 children locked in sex slavery in the U.S. That number is a distortion of a figure from a 2001 study by Richard Estes and Neil Weiner of the University of Pennsylvania, which estimated that number of ‘children, adolescents and youth (up to 21) at risk of sexual exploitation.’

‘Sex trafficking’ was the least prevalent form of ‘exploitation’ in their definition. Other forms included stripping, consensual homosexual relations, and merely viewing porn.

Moreover, two of the so-called ‘risk factors’ were access to a car and proximity to the Canadian or Mexican border. In a 2011 interview, Estes himself estimated the number of legal minors actually abducted into ‘sex slavery’ was ‘very small . . . {w}e’re talking about a few hundred people.’”

This type of misinformation is what led to the passing of FOSTA and SESTA.

Of course, any well-intentioned public representative would look at numbers like these and assume action on their part was necessary, in order to prevent terrifying things like the rape and kidnapping of children.

While the majority of sex workers are not, in fact, raped and kidnapped children, but rather, consenting adults trying to support themselves, the law now often treats a happy and well-adjusted adult much the same as an abused and exploited child, or worse, the same as the people who would abuse and exploit that child.

Unable to safely advertise their services online, where other sex workers can share information to screen clients for safety, many full-service sex workers have had to resort to other less-safe means of connecting with clients, like finding them on the street.

Full-service clients also resorted to other means of finding sex workers, like going into strip clubs. This brought unwanted solicitation for full-service sex work to workers in other areas of the sex industry.

According to the dancers, this has led to increased sexual violence in strip clubs (Paulsen/Kimball). Since most strippers are not paid an hourly wage and instead are classified as independent contractors, their income is largely dependent on their compliance with customer demands in order to earn tips (Mount).

This, combined with the whorephobia created by misinformation makes for the perfect storm of a situation where the boundaries of consent are blurred, and workers are afraid to complain about inhumane treatment.

Portland, Oregon, is nationally famous for its strip clubs, boasting more strip clubs per capita than any other city in the United States. In a 2018 study done on Portland, OR area strippers, 84% reported being sexually assaulted in the workplace (Paulsen/Kimball).

“If we changed the way we view sex work in general and held people accountable for their fucked-up behaviors, we wouldn’t need to discuss this,”

said a participant in the study.

“ Like sex work is real work, emotional labor is real labor, lack of clothing does not equate to ‘I want to be violated’, and sexuality does not make us less than.” (Paulsen/Kimball).

Dancers in this study also reported other forms of abuse, like verbal abuse and “grooming,” not just from customers, but also from staff and management. Dancers are afraid to report this abuse to law enforcement, for fear of being treated as criminals, or of being publicly “outed” and shamed.

They also report a lack of protection from security guards working in the clubs, who the dancers are also often expected to “tip out” for their protection– on top of the hourly wage already paid to them, but not to the dancers.

“Security guards would just say ‘get used to it, you’re a stripper.’”

“Security guards would just say ‘get used to it, you’re a stripper,’” said one participant in the study. The experience communicated by sex workers in general (when we take the time to listen to them) seems to be one of dehumanization.

Sex workers are marginalized because they are not viewed as fully human, and deserving of the same rights as other humans, like the right to say no to unwanted to sexual contact or to be spoken to with basic decency.

“The dehumanizing behaviour abusers portrayed towards dancers made these participants feel as though their experiences of violence were acceptable and not suitable for sympathy or understanding,” wrote the authors of the Portland study.

The main disconnect between sex workers and the public seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of consent. What separates sex work from sex trafficking is consent, just like consent separates regular sex from sexual violence.

“Sex work is, at its core, about consent. Prohibitionists like to say it’s inherently exploitative, but that’s just a complaint about capitalism,” writes Roux. “If someone says ‘I’ll do this if you pay me,’ that is an explicit act of consent.

Sex workers constantly educate their clients about consent — every sex worker I’ve ever talked to has boundaries and limits. A worker is free to refund and walk away. A worker is free to say no. If there is the absence of consent, then it is not work, it is rape.” (Roux)

It is the fundamental misunderstanding of this difference, the difference between “work” and “rape” that allows violence against sex workers to continue. This is very similar to the public's “confusion” around what defines rape, sexual assault, or other sexual harassment outside of a sex work context.

The customers who “misunderstand” sex workers are actually a fairly decent sampling of society as a whole. Most people have used the services of a sex worker at some point in their lives, even if by simply viewing pornography.

Clearly, this kind of confusion about what “consent” means is not unique to the sex industry.

In or outside of sex work, a common theme in controversies about sexual violence is this misunderstanding. Sometimes, this is a fallacy; an expressed sentiment of “I didn’t know it was wrong,” is a lie.

What is more disturbing is the fact that the sentiment behind this misunderstanding is often honest, or can at least be portrayed that way. Common misconceptions about female sexuality can lead to honest confusion about what consent is, what a woman’s actual intentions are, and what it means when she says “no.”

This kind of confusion is amplified when encountering a woman in a pre-sexualized context, like a date with an escort or a night out at a strip club. Feminist philosopher Mary Kate McGowan gives a good example of how this can occur:

“A woman says “No,” sincerely intending to refuse sex but, although the man recognizes her intention to refuse, he mistakenly believes that she is doing so insincerely . . . and he proceeds to rape her. In this case, the addressee recognizes the speaker’s illocutionary intention (to refuse) but fails to recognize that the speaker is doing so sincerely.” (McGowan)

A situation like this is illustrated in Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Tape, in which three former high-school friends have a layered conversation in a hotel room about whether a past interaction between two of them qualified as “rape.”

Already enmeshed in pop culture, confusion about consent is a widespread problem.

The way we approach knowledge is closely intertwined with the way we approach power. Really, knowledge is power. She who has the knowledge has the power, or rather, she who controls the structure of knowledge controls the structure of power.

“If oppressive practices or structures undermine the trustworthiness of oppressed groups in any of these ways, they are thereby unjustly excluded from full membership in the epistemic community,” writes Nancy Tuana, a feminist philosopher.

“Even efforts by those who see themselves as allies can unintentionally undermine an individual’s or group’s trustworthiness.”

This undermining of the trustworthiness of sex workers, and as a result, the trustworthiness of women in general, is how the vicious circle of epistemic violence continues in the sex industry. By criminalizing and stereotyping sex workers, we are left with an image of female sexuality which is not to be trusted.

Women everywhere have to deal with the consequences of this, being treated as archetypal Eves awash in an unforgivable bath of original sin. But she was asking for it! Look at how she was dressed…

During the 15th through 18th centuries, women who rebelled against moral authorities or demonstrated that they possessed knowledge that threatened the epistemologies of the time were often burned as witches.

Here in the 21st century, we are still burning witches. Our modern fires are the fires of systematic marginalization and silencing, and the condoning of rampant violence of a verbal, physical and sexual nature.

Our modern witches are women who dare to be different, who dare to celebrate the sexuality that society so often tells them they should be ashamed of, who dare even to profit from it.

We burn them out of the fear that they will share some powerful information with us that we are not ready to hear. Centuries ago, a woman could be publicly shamed for making a pragmatic choice, like using herbs to treat an illness instead of prayer.

Sex workers make similarly pragmatic choices today, like using their gender and sexuality to gain some small power in a world where their social position as a result of their gender and sexuality is often at a great disadvantage.

Our witches are punished with similar brutality for the means they use to survive in the world, having their voices choked out by a black cloud of hermeneutical smoke.

What are we so afraid of? Are we afraid that we may begin to see women as something more complex than the false dichotomy of “virgin” or “whore”? Are we afraid that we might be forced to admit that we, too, are sexual beings and that our sexuality does not define us?

More bothersome still, are we afraid we might discover that we ourselves have been the perpetrators of violence? That we might realize that we ourselves were ignorant of our own violence, and become aware of how our ignorance has negatively impacted the lives of others?

In the wake of the #metoo movement, during which countless women came forward publically to share their experiences of sexual abuse, some people have come to such uncomfortable realizations.

“I am a part of the problem,”tweeted famous filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, confessing to what he now recognized as wrongdoing after his perspective had changed.

While it demonstrated some degree of integrity, Spurlock’s confession had consequences; the sales of his imminent Super Size Me 2 were crippled by the public’s new perception of him as a sexual predator (Guerrasio).

While Spurlock, like many perpetrators of sexual violence, has a lot to apologize for, I don’t believe that honesty such as his should be punished. Just as we need to stop the systematic silencing of women who complain about sexual violence, we also need to stop silencing the men who are brave enough to own up to their mistakes.

Spurlock is another witch being burned, for telling us what we do not want to hear. Just as real sex workers are erased by the distorted stereotype of the exploited sex trafficking victim, real abusers are erased by a distorted stereotype of “boys will be boys.”

While coerced sex work is abhorrent, and should be eradicated, this will never be a possibility until people actually understand what “coercion” is.

Since this piece of knowledge about coercion vs consent is so crucial, we need to go to experts to educate us about it, and nobody knows more about consent than sex workers.

If we want to end sexual violence against women in our society, our rules about whether or not it is acceptable cannot be conditional.

We can’t say that sexual coercion is okay because of certain circumstances, like what she was wearing, how late she was out, her age, her race, her religion, or what she does for a living.

Some people view sex workers as the lowest form of what a woman can be. Since such people often quote the Bible to me (a sex worker), I like to quote the Bible to them:

“in as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Works Cited:

Code, L. (1995). Rhetorical Space: Essays on Gendered Locations. New York and London: Routledge.

Guerrasio, J. (2018, June 25). Morgan Spurlock’s #MeToo confession crippled ‘Super Size Me 2,’ and a main subject of the movie feels abandoned. Retrieved March 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.com/morgan-spurlock-super-size-me-2-movie-crippled-by-me-too-confession-2018–6

McGowan, M. (2014). ‘Sincerity silencing.’ Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 29/2:458–473

McNeill, M. (2014, March 27). Lies, damned lies and sex work statistics. Retrieved March 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/03/27/lies-damned-lies-and-sex-work-statistics/

Mills, C., (1997). The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Mount, L. (2016). “Behind the Curtain”: Strip Clubs and the Management of Competition for Tips. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography47(1). doi: 10.1177/0891241616630608

Paulsen, H., & Kimball, E. (2018). Exotic Dancers Experiences with Occupational Violence in Portland, Oregon Strip Clubs. McNair Scholars Online Journal12(1). Doi: 10.15760/mcnair.2018.2

Rodriguez, J. (2019, August 6). Instagram apologizes to pole dancers after hiding their posts. Retrieved March 2020, from https://www.ctvnews.ca/sci-tech/instagram-apologizes-to-pole-dancers-after-hiding-their-posts-1.4537820

Roux, L. (2018, July 17). Why FOSTA/SESTA Harms Those It Supposedly Serves. Retrieved March 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/standard-deviations/201807/why-fostasesta-harms-those-it-supposedly-serves

The Holy Bible — King James Version. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.o-bible.com/kjv.html

Tuana, N. (2017). Feminist Epistemology. The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, 125–138. doi: 10.4324/9781315212043–12

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