Harlotry: How Sex Work Led Me To Abandon Feminism

Cate is something of a renaissance sex worker and has held numerous interesting jobs in the adult industry. Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.

I have a confession to make, guys: I’m not a feminist. Most people seem to assume I am, after all I’m a very, very proud sex worker who firmly believes that a woman’s body is hers to do with what she likes. To quote the immortal words of Salt ‘N’ Pepa, “If she wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekend, it’s none of your business.” I also firmly believe that the construct of femininity is ridiculous and everybody should have the same rights, and all that good stuff. However, I cannot in good conscience call myself a feminist.

This wasn’t always true. Back when I started working, I had firmly parked myself in the third wave of feminists. I hunted down a copy of Whores and Other Feminists. Not long after that, my bookshelf was full of books by sex- and sex work-positive lady writers. This was real feminism! This was what it’s all about!

And then I got a little bit older and I started to notice that while there were plenty of little pockets of feminism that accepted me and my ability to freely choose sex work, the movement as a whole was deeply, deeply unfriendly toward me, a woman, doing what seemed on the surface to be a very feminist thing: using my body to provide a livelihood for myself, and to hell with anyone who judged me for it.

I don’t want to be part of a club that’s full of people who support a system that endangers me by criminalizing my clients or think that ending demand for the services I provide is a positive thing. And I definitely don’t want to be part of a club that’s full of people who don’t think I deserve to choose what I do with my body–especially when one of the club’s supposed goals is giving me that exact freedom.

When I first started to realize that feminism wasn’t one big happy sisterhood, I picked a totally different path. Sad to say, I did actually identify as an antifeminist for quite a while.

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    • Samantha Escobar

      While I have always considered myself a feminist (well, at least since adolescence when I first started arguing against anti-choicers in health class), I was never the type of person who looked down on sex work. However, I’ll be totally honest: it was not something I thought very much about as a feminist issue until probably mid-college, around 3 or 4 years ago.

      I knew (and still know) a fair amount of women and men who consider themselves feminists, yet still say things like, “C’mon, if that was YOUR daughter, you wouldn’t want her to be a whore” or “If your kid wound up doing porn, wouldn’t you be ashamed?” So basically, the “freedom of choice” extends to everybody, except those who choose to, well, choose…they are somehow lesser than those who choose something else? It is bizarre to me. Totally bizarre. I recently reblogged this little comic that perfectly summed up my feelings on how some feminists view other women:
      http://thegirlwithbluehair.tumblr.com/post/78521037129/rosalarian-feminism-is-having-a-wardrobe
      Granted, it’s regarding wardrobe, but I think the message applies to so many areas of women’s lives: how we dress, where we work, how we speak, where we live, who we choose to fuck or not fuck.

      Your column has, IMO, opened up my mind a shit ton regarding sex work. I would say this is tooting our own horn, but considering you started writing here months before I got hired, I feel like it’s still very valid. So there.

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cate

        Aaaaah, this means so much. Seriously, whenever I get comments from people who basically say “your column made me realize sex work is a complex, important issue!” I feel all glowy and happy because it means I have succeeded.

        That, really, is my biggest beef with feminism: the fact that sex work, an issue that affects women so massively (male sex workers are mainly ignored by, well, everybody) so rarely gets addressed. Then, when it does get brought up, women* tend to fall back on the old, tired, second-wave internalized oppression story because that’s what we’ve heard from our mothers.
        As you say, freedom of choice extends to everyone except the people who choose something other than what is considered the norm in Western society and that’s super, super gross to me.

        Ps, I LOVE that comic.

        *I don’t believe in feminist men. I have never once met a self-professed feminist man who wasn’t just claiming feminism in order to get laid, and the minute they realize their professed love for strong women isn’t about to get them any action, they fall right back into chauvinistic, misogynist grossness and their pretend feminism completely disappears.

      • Gen

        So my dad was trying to get laid with me whenever trying to teach me about feminist issues? and that’s why he wanted me to be aware the stigma of being a strong women from age preschool on? All those times he put on Hilary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, and taught me all the things my dead mother wouldn’t get the chance to? I learned more about feminism from him than anyother role model he tried to give me, and alot of his students at his university have expressed the same sentiment to me.

      • anna

        Same! Yay for good parenting. My dads also the most empowering person I know, not just in feminism but in every thing. He’s by far the most respectful intelligent man I’ve ever met, and equality is what he fights for, not just for women but all underrepresented groups. I have to admit my hackles are a bit raised

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cate

        Y’all are super lucky, then. My dad is pretty much the opposite of empowering to anyone, male or female, and even aside from him I still haven’t met a single man who’s supposedly lady-friendly politics are actually a sham.

      • EmmaFromÉire

        You clearly haven’t been meeting the right guys then. My best friend is an active male feminist, working for the mayor’s office in his town as a women’s policy advocate, and part time in a sexual crime victim’s centre. He’s not doing it to get laid, he’s not doing it to white knight, he’s doing it because he genuinely wants to make his town in Utah better for women. He’s not the only guy in the office like that either, and has been advocating to get more women onto the mayor’s payroll, particularly in his division where it matters the most. Not all men are doing it for their own benefit.

      • mathmaehem

        I don’t think it’s right to lump all “self-professed feminist” men into that category…. especially when you identify as egalitarian. I’m not huge on generalizations, and from everything I’ve read you don’t really seem to be either, so that note really confused me. Not all men are the same, just as not all women are the same.

        I have met men who are very proud feminists ranging from genderqueer to cisgender.

        That being said I don’t consider myself feminist either, for many of the same reasons you gave. I advertised the fact that I am waaaay into sex-workers rights (shout out to SWOP!) on a dating profile and low-and-behold one of the more common messages I got was: “I think it’s awesome that you’re into that!” … Now let me describe how awesome I am because I’m a feminist too!!!! –At which point I kindly explain why I’m not a feminist. And their response is usually along the lines of what you said with the feminists who accept us usually say, and that is telling me how awesome of a political statement I’m making.

    • K Landoni

      I read a theory of feminism that really spoke to me not that long ago, basically, that feminism boils down to appreciating 1) Gender is a tool for social ordering, 2) Women’s experiences are shaped by our gender, and 3) Those experiences are important and deserving of respect. Maybe it’s an oversimplification, but it makes it really hard to justify being super judgmental and still call yourself a feminist. Anyways, I appreciate you sharing your experiences!

    • Jennifer J. Reed

      It may not be an intentional political statement to work in the sex trades, but as it challenges the dominant system of power, it inherently is.

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cate

        I definitely believe that all forms of “deviant” sexual expression are inherently political, and since sex work, especially the sex work I practice (fetish-based escorting) falls under that “deviant” umbrella then yeah, it’s political.
        That said, it is not PRIMARILY political, and to act otherwise is actually pretty classist, something that I’m going to write about more in the future.

      • Jennifer J. Reed

        The sex work I practiced was primarily for financial purposes as a young single mom. I became homeless with two kids when I left a partner who became abusive after I refused to give up pursuing a higher education. People who choose to engage in sex work to primarily make a political statement are making a choice from a position of more privilege and economic advantage, however, that doesn’t necessarily make it classist (just for different immediate reasons). I recognize in retrospect the political statement I made, albeit not my primary purpose, and many of the consequences were the same (e.g., social stigma, police targeting).

    • Lucy

      My problem with classifications like “egalitarian” or “humanist” ignore the fact that men and women are not on equal footing. If they were, we could go from there with an egalitarian, humanist mindset. Currently, using those terms seems like putting equal validity to “men’s rights” which is completely unnecessary since they’re not suffering from the same oppression (I do realize that the patriarchy is damaging to men, and I’m against that).

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cate

        Okay, just wanna make it clear that I really don’t care about the men’s rights movement even a little bit. Basically that movement can be summed up with a bunch of dudes saying “life isn’t always a nonstop party of me getting my way so how can I have privilege?!” and crying into their fedoras. I don’t care. I drink their stupid boy tears instead of morning coffee.

        That said, there are issues that affect men, and while they may not be as visible or even as important as a lot of women’s issues, they exist and need to be paid attention to at least sometimes. I mean, you can say “the patriarchy hurts men too” and it does, but there’s stuff that needs to be done to fix the specifically male problems as well as the lady problems and the more universal issues.

        I’m not saying egalitarianism doesn’t have its problems, but it is true that I’ve never come out as a sex worker to a self professed egalitarian and encountered a strong, unchangeable negative response, while I find that at least half the time when I come out to a self-professed feminist, her hackles raise and will not go back down. I don’t want to be part of that club, because so many of the members have been downright dehumanizing towards me.

      • mathmaehem

        I can’t speak for the egalitarian group, but the humanist groups that I participate in have a pretty big focus on leveling the playing field. So, no they (at least the humanists) don’t “ignore” that fact. In fact, in an email update I received today from TheHumanist.com, the headline of it was “Women’s Equality in Pakistan.”

        However, they also help people that are in need of help REGARDLESS of gender. One of my biggest issues with the feminist movement is that they tend to say fuck men they have it so easy, when there are instances in which men are just as suppressed. I’m acknowledging the fact that men are almost never suppressed because of their gender (at least not by the patriarchal society we live in), but they are humans and people too who also need the support of other human beings. I’d also like to point out that there are scholarships that you cannot be awarded unless you have a vagina (I would also like to acknowledge that these in no way make up for it being legal for women to make less than men solely because they are in fact female). There are inequalities everywhere. For everyone. For different reasons.

        So my problem with being a part of feminism or the MRM (and while I do respect many feminists, I have zero respect for MRM) is that it gives members of those movements an excuse to completely ignore the other gender and to step on their rights in order to get their “equality.” (I am also aware that not all feminism is like this, but it is the majority of what I’ve come into contact with in the midwest.)

        Instead of getting women’s equality at any cost, how about we keep men in mind as human beings with rights too. Let’s keep men with rights instead trying to suppress them back.

        All of that being said I’m not a fan of labels in general… at least not on a personal level. If there is a movement, of course there needs to be a word or phrase to describe it so that we can communicate about it, but when it comes to individuals… well actions speak louder than words.

    • guest

      To Gen and Anna, please consider yourselves super blessed to have had fathers in your lives that were for women’s equality, and taught you that you had awesome power to behold as women. Sadly, that is not the case for most of us. I love this column. It is incredibly eye-opening and relevant, not just to sex workers, but to all women on some level or another. The comments below the articles are particularly interesting to me because of the varied experiences we, as women, have faced, and sometimes overcome.

    • Elizabeth

      I’m sorry that you feel this way — not because I’m of the “everyone needs to call themselves a feminist!” mindset (I’m not) but because it sucks to feel forced out of a group that you wanted to be in.

      I consider myself a feminist, I suppose, though honestly I don’t care much about the semantics of it. I think the inherent issues of equality — and how do we make equality happen — are far more important than what people choose to call themselves. If someone agrees with the principles and particularities of feminism (the not-excluding-anyone kind), but they don’t want to use the word “feminist” — I don’t really care. I’d rather have more people on the right side of history than drive them away by yelling CALL YOURSELF A FEMINIST until I’ve alienated them entirely.

    • http://baubobee.com Sophrosyne Mysia

      Right on, sister. Thank you.

    • https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawlHeYGVyWjBiyUXp5h123FDJy-_ll5Dq6s george

      The radical “feminists” who hate sex work are ironically members of the patriarchy they hate. Anti-sex laws are enacted by male politicians and police. If sex work was instead regulated so sex workers and consumers were safe like every other worker and consumer, we’d be talking about the occasional bad apple, not an entire field of devils.

      I encourage you to define your own feminism and teach others about it, rather than avoiding the word altogether. There is a big problem with how the word has no meaning because it has so many conflicting messages. But maybe the good people can redefine “feminism” in the future, instead of leaving it to the haters.

    • Ian Hartman

      I think it’s important to see sex work as work. Part of capitalism, an economic system that forces all who don’t own factories, farms or porn studios to sell our bodies and minds to live. When we work we aren’t ourselves, we are automatons alienated from our bodies. Obviously this varies, a teacher in a rich school has more autonomy than a Vietnamese factory worker. But hey are both workers. Looking at it like this the solution is the abolition of all work. In that sense I’m a sex work abolitionist, but I’m also a farmer abolitionist and a cashier abolitionist. The key is organization, unions, direct action and ultimately communism. Where society creates goods based on need not profit.