Reader Question: Is Sex Work Empowering or Degrading?

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Last night, I invited y’all to suggest topics or questions for blog posts via my contact page. The first question landed in my inbox this morning. It’s a complicated one.

Rebecca H. writes:

“My question to you and one I’ve struggled with in the past is the line between feeling gorgeous and sexually empowered and the feelings of being a vessel men use and abuse for their own gain . . . In the U.K., stripping is one of those ever growing things and more and more clubs and bars are opening. It’s one of those topics that most women cannot agree on. Is this degrading or are we showing how strong and beautiful we are by getting naked for paying men?”

This is a difficult question to answer because it’s one that must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. There’s no single opinion about sex work among sex workers. Our stories and experiences are too varied. Some people are forced into sex work. Many enter the industry by choice. Others do so out of desperation. And these factors are just the tip of the iceberg. Sex work comes in a multitude of forms — stripping, fetish work, camming, prostitution, the list goes on — which makes it impossible to pin down.

Here’s the quick answer to your question: Yes, sex work can be degrading. Yes, sex work can be empowering. Yes, sex workers are exploited. Yes, they are strong and beautiful. There is no singular narrative. (This is true of most things.)

All I can do is share my own story. The spectrum is too enormous for me to try to tell anyone else’s.

For me, sex work was addictive and devastating. I was exposed to STDs, I was degraded, and a few of the men I worked with were emotionally (and sometimes physically) unpredictable. My experience was particularly bad for two reasons: 1.) I didn’t know what I was doing and 2.) I hated myself and didn’t care what happened to my body.

Unfortunately, that eventually caught up to me and the reality of having had these (sometimes disgusting) encounters with strange men sank in and registered as traumatic.

My feelings about the sex industry have wavered since then. Because prostitution ultimately traumatized me, I do struggle to read pro-sex work narratives. To use a word I’m not particularly fond of, it’s “triggering.” That isn’t to say that sex work can’t be empowering — it just wasn’t that way for me. Again, my experience does not reflect the whole. I put myself in danger and lacked an adequate support system. I was 19 and stupid. I know there are much safer ways to do sex work and that my own experiences have rendered me biased.

When my best friend expressed interest in stripping last summer, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I was irrationally upset and didn’t know why. I wanted to advocate for her and offer support, but I couldn’t quell my uneasiness. Eventually, I asked her to stop talking to me about it, citing PTSD as my excuse. I realize now that it wasn’t just because she was triggering traumatic memories. The bigger issue was that her interest in sex work reignited mine and I felt myself romanticizing prostitution again. This is where the addictive aspect comes in. Sex work is a seductress and I couldn’t risk falling back into its net.

Things have improved between my friend and me. She knows not to reveal too many details and I’ve gotten better at offering support. I can at least recognize that my discomfort with sex work stems from personal experience and not from some moralistic hatred for the occupation as a whole.

I would like to address exploitation, though. When I was prostituting, I liked to say that I was being exploited just as much as I would be at McDonald’s but for better pay. That’s not entirely true. There’s a difference between working with your clothes on and working with your legs spread. The latter, for me, was unspeakably intrusive. It disturbed my relationship with sex as a whole, reducing my partner (in my mind) to a trick. The industry is inherently exploitative and I can no longer stand to equate sex with cash.

I caught flak from a couple of sex workers after my short piece about prostitution was published, simply because I shared a negative experience. I didn’t make any grand, sweeping statements about what sex work entails, but that’s how they interpreted it.

If you’re curious, I’m including the screenshots of what was said. Read them from the bottom up because Twitter sucks. (P.S. this all relates to what happened between me and Natasha VC.)

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It’s unfortunate that some can’t make room for more than one narrative. I suppose I shouldn’t give a shit. I have people in my life who respect my stance and whose stances I respect in turn. If you’re trying to live that black and white, “I’ll bully you if we disagree” life, I don’t want anything to do with you. I have lived that life. It’s miserable.

So yeah. Sex work isn’t my cup of tea, but my tastes aren’t indicative of everyone’s. There’s room for multiple narratives and, trust me, we need them. When we address the good, the bad, and the ugly of life, we can learn from each other’s mistakes and successes alike.

That’s my long winded answer to your question, Rebecca. I hope it helped. Keep the questions and topics coming! This is fun.

xoxox

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6 thoughts on “Reader Question: Is Sex Work Empowering or Degrading?

  1. Thank you for letting us into your experience. And I agree it’s not easy to form an opinion about this. I guess if YOU want to do it you are not being exploited. But I agree there are many different situations and it’s not black and white.

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