The Assumptions We Make and the People We Protect

This weekend, Stuff published an article entitled Bodies for Profit.  It might have about models, professional sports players, labourers or any one of the hundreds of other ways people use their bodies to make a profit, but of course it was about the only way that the general public routinely has a case of the vapours about: sex work.  Specifically, it was about rescuing trafficked sex workers in Thailand.  More specifically, it was about one man’s quest to rescue trafficked sex workers in Thailand.

There is a lot written about the problems with the rescue industry, most of it by people who know a hell of a lot more about it than I do.  I’m not going to write about that here.  Besides, this article seems to be far more about this one man who is involved in the rescue industry than it is about either the rescue industry or the sex industry.

What I want to talk about is the photos which accompany this article.  It is a lavish long-form piece, with eye-catching web coding and a lot of accompanying images of sex workers.  How can we tell they’re sex workers?  Well, they’re photos of women accompanying a story about sex work.  They’re photos of Asian women accompanying a story about sex work.  Some of these pictures, fair cop, do clearly illustrate an aspect of the sex industry: a woman in a bikini beneath a sign saying “Sexy Night”; a woman in underwear, labelled with a number for easy reference when booking.  Others – in fact most of the accompanying photos – require many more assumptions to connect them with sex work.  An Asian woman in a short blue dress being looked at by a white man.  A couple photographed from behind walking down the street holding hands: him white, her with long straight dark hair.  Two young Asian women walking down a flight of stairs looking at their cellphones.  We only “know” they’re sex workers because their pictures are alongside a story about sex work.  Our assumptions about Asian women fill in the blanks.  And, conversely, the pictures reinforce our assumptions about Asian women.  And that is highly problematic.

While the article mentions that Caucasian and South American women are also trafficked into the sex industry in Thailand, all the dozens of women shown in the photos are Asian.  Because we don’t automatically read white and Hispanic women as sex workers.  A photo of two young white women walking down a flight of stairs looking their cellphones would be confusing to us in this context.

Due to the nature of the photos, I am highly doubtful that the photographer paused to ask each women if they were indeed sex workers and do they mind if he takes their picture and publishes it on the internet to illustrate a story about Thailand’s sex industry.  Which is problematic for another reason.

The second standout feature of the images took a while to click for me: the white men in these photos uniformly have their faces blurred.  The only white man whose face is revealed is the sex worker rescuer who is the subject of this artible, Our Intrepid Hero Daniel Walker (for a man who takes pains to mention that his name is a pseudonym which he feels is necessary for the protection of himself and his family, he sure seems to like having his photo taken a lot).

Every single other person in the photos has their face visible and recognisable to the world.  All the Asian men (we are supposed to read these men as the traffickers, I guess.  Because Asian men are never clients and white men are never traffickers?)  The dozens of presumed sex workers who Daniel Walker’s organisation claims to be interested in protecting.

You could argue that the white men are more likely to be recognised from an article published in New Zealand than the Asian women are.  But men travel from all parts of the world (including other parts of Asia) to visit Thailand’s sex districts.  There is no presumption or likelihood that the men are New Zealanders.  And this is published on the internet, accessible by the whole world – a white client’s wife in Britain just as easily as an Asian sex worker’s mother in Thailand.

We are terribly concerned about women being sold by sex traffickers, but perfectly happy to publish photos of them in their underwear alongside an article outing them as sex workers without their consent, while protecting the identity of the men who would utilise their services.  We might want to think deeper about that.

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Acceptable Narratives of Prostitution

There’s been a blog post kicking about in my head for the last week or so.  It stems back to when I hadn’t been working for very long and I was talking about my work with one of my friends, who was trying and struggling to understand my career choice.  And she said, “Even if you quit tomorrow, you’ll always be an ex-hooker now.”

That thought really stuck with me over the years.  There’s almost as dense a mythology about ex-prostitutes as there is about prostitutes – whether as a tragic history or a triumph over adversity.  It’s rare for people to be so defined by what they’ve done in the past.  No one thinks of being an ex-nurse or an ex-labourer as a particularly defining characteristic.

I kinda wanted to ruminate on that – on being always an ex-hooker, on the feeling that what is my past could still be considered relevant if someone decided to make it so and that if I was to do anything in the public eye that it would be brought to light.  Because if there’s one thing the media loooooves, it’s a good sex-related scandal.

But then Maya Angelou died, and amongst the many tweeted tributes, this one from Annie Sprinkle stood out:

It put into sharp relief how not talked about Angelou’s experience as a prostitute is, and that kinda turned my ruminations on their head.  Here is a very public woman – poet laureate of the US, best buds with Oprah Winfrey and the Clintons – and the media at large do not talk about her sex work, or if they do, it’s the briefest side-note.

It’s not something she tried to hide at all, not something she was ashamed of – she wrote about it in her autobiographical novel and talked about it in interviews.  It was there, spoken for all the world to hear.  The media could have uniformly referred to her as “Maya Angelou – ex-prostitute and Poet Laureate”, they could have raised it every chance they had, as they do with some other former sex workers.

But it doesn’t fit in with one of the acceptable narratives of prostitution.  Ex-prostitutes are supposed to be ashamed of their past.  It should be hidden away and avoided, or renounced, overcome and put in a box.

There are a limited number of ways prostitution is discussed in our mainstream media.

A wretched end to a tragic life: Boy, does the media like to talk about prostitution when the prostitute in question is a murder victim – Mellory Manning, Jane Furlong, Arawa Bain.  Even when the victim’s sex work didn’t have a thing to do with their murder, somehow it’s still vital that the public know about it (see Carmen Thomas, and then the Herald’s creepy voyeuristic photo gallery).

Adversity overcome: Prostitutes are allowed to make good, as long as their sex work is denounced and configured as an impediment to be overcome – “[Georgina] Beyer knows about doing it tough. She’s been on the streets, been a sex worker…”

Being “forced into it”: literally or figuratively; traffickers or drugs or financial desperation.  Their stories are legion, apparently, but they are largely nameless – “She entered a string of violent relationships and resorted to prostitution”, “‘In Brazil, our greatest concern is linked to the increase in the exploitation of child prostitution,’ said Sister Gabriella Bottani, an Italian nun who is an organizer of the coalition involving 240 religious congregations from 79 countries.”

The high-class call girl – exposed!: Such as Heidi Fleiss and Dr Brooke Magnanti, whose stories are told breathlessly and with such colourful adjectives – “the scintillating memoirs of a prostitute commanding £300-an-hour prices”, “the high-octane glamour of Hollywood’s famous madam Heidi Fleiss…”

(I’m not minimising or negating any of the stories mainstream media tells.  Every story of prostitution is an important one to tell, good or bad. But I do think it should be the workers and ex-workers ourselves telling their own stories, not the mainstream media constructing a story around us. Would Jane Furlong or Mellory Manning want their sex work to be central to their story? They’re not here to answer that – but, while I love talking about sex work, I consider that there’s a hell of a lot more to my story than that and I imagine they would too.)

An unashamed, phenomenal woman like Maya Angelou does not fit into any of these categories – a woman who spoke freely of her own history, a woman whose complex, exquisite history so deeply informed the words she gifted the world.  And so her personal, self-defined story of prostitution is rarely spoken of, because it does not fit into an acceptable narrative of prostitution.

This brings home to me yet again how important it is to tell our own stories, to put our own narratives out there.

The Time Our Neighbour Figured Out We Were Running a Brothel Next Door

A few years ago, one of my friends and I ran a SOOB (small owner-operated brothel) in what I guess would be considered an upmarket Auckland suburb.  It was just her and I working there (hence the term “owner-operated”, eh), but we were pretty busy.

Then one day between clients, our neighbour showed up at the door.  She was holding some letterbox numbers and she said, with arched eyebrow, that she was getting a bit tired of all the men knocking on her door and could we please put the numbers on our gate.  My dear friend and colleague tried to spit out a little white lie, but our neighbour said, “I’m not stupid. I know what’s happening here.  And I don’t care, but I don’t want these men knocking on my door.”

We were, of course, mortified.  We had numbers on our gate – not huge neon numbers, but we couldn’t believe that our clients hadn’t been more careful when coming to a brothel to be sure they were knocking on the right door.

Anyway, we apologised profusely to our neighbour.  We put the numbers she gave us on our gate and were sure to be very specific when giving clients directions from then on.  The next week, we took our neighbour over a pot plant and some chocolates to say thanks and sorry.  She didn’t start inviting us over for Sunday roasts, but she was good natured about it, and she didn’t start a crusade against us or call up the Herald or publish our clients’ licence plates on the internet or circulate flyers with our landlord’s name and phone number.  She got on with her life and we got on with our business.

Because it’s no big deal.  Truly.  If there is a brothel in the house next door to you, it is no big deal.  You know your neighbours are almost certainly having sex mere metres away from you anyway, right?  Does whether it’s for money or not really make any real difference?  Clients generally don’t wish to announce their presence and intentions to the world.  They are not interested in you and they are certainly not interested in your children.  Sex workers are not going to go door-knocking to drum up business if it’s a bit quiet.  Sex work does not create a fog of iniquity which will send your dog mad and sour your milk.  A brothel is just another business in your neighbourhood.

And if for some reason the brothel is having an impact on your life, here’s a novel idea – go have a chat to them.  It might come as a surprise to you, but sex workers are people just like you.

Fairytales of Prostitution – Hookers are Forced into Prostitution

The first question I often get asked when someone finds out that I used to be a prostitute is “Why?”  There is an assumption that there must have been some terrible underlying circumstance which forced me into hooking.  Was I addicted to drugs?  Was I burdened by debt?  Was I forced into it by an abusive boyfriend?  Was I unable to find other work?

No, no, no and no.  When I entered prostitution, I already had a perfectly good and respectable job.  I had no addiction issues.  I had no debt, aside from student loans.  I had a girlfriend at the time who most certainly didn’t force me into prostitution but was very supportive of my decision (and I’ll forever be thankful to her for that).  I just decided that I wanted to be a prostitute.  OK, that is a bald-faced lie.  But the reasons that led me to that decision are long and complex and for another fairytale altogether.  Certainly, there were no circumstances forcing me.  But to me, it was like deciding to study or deciding to move to Auckland – a notion that I’d thought about for a while that had reached its time for fruition.  I did meet some women* who were more or less forced into the industry by one or more of the above factors, but they were in the minority.  I also met some women who, like me, were genuinely drawn to prostitution – also something of a minority.  The majority of women I met in prostitution were there because “I need to earn money somehow, and this pays better/has more flexible hours/is more fun than waitressing/call centre work/being a shop assistant.”  Some found it to be perfectly good and acceptable work, others tried it for a short while and decided that it wasn’t for them.

Having made my decision, I rang up and made an appointment at a massage parlour.  It was a place that ran lovely welcoming ads for prospective workers, promising that it was a friendly place and women who wanted to work should come in for a “chat” with their female manager.  I was shown in, put in one of the “bedrooms” (a tiny room with a vinyl bed and mirrors everywhere) and left there for about half an hour.  Then a bloke came to get me and I was led into a tiny office where he and another big burly guy asked me a series of very blunt questions.  The whole time I was wondering how I was going to extricate myself should they ask to “test my skills”.  Thankfully, they didn’t (it would be illegal for them to do so, by the way).

I can’t even tell you how relieved I was to get out of there and never, ever go back.

But I was undeterred!  The next parlour I went to, I did indeed speak to a friendly female manager who didn’t ask me a single question but got me to fill in a form at the front counter and told me to come back the next day to work a shift.  Then she briefly showed me around the place.  It was hilariously tack-tastic, the stereotypical cheap brothel – neon lights, vinyl sofas, full of women in blonde wigs wearing next to nothing who didn’t so much as look at me.  I felt enormously out of place.

However, the third place I went to was just right.  I was greeting by the female co-owner, who invited me into the lounge to talk to some of the girls.  They were cool, friendly people (some of whom were to become good friends); the place was fairly classy for a brothel (I was starting to think myself something of an expert in brothel decor!) – all leather couches and plush carpet like an old-fashioned gentleman’s club; and the manager seemed lovely (and it would transpire that she genuinely was lovely – a former hooker herself who wanted to run the sort of place she would have wanted to work at).  I filled in my form and reported for duty the very next evening.

So, to recap: not only did I choose to enter into the sex industry of my own volition, I also had in mind the sort of place I wanted to work and kept looking till I found it.  No coercion here!

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*Obviously, there are plenty of male prostitutes too.  I just haven’t come across too many.

Fairytales of Prostitution – an Introduction

I was a prostitute for four and a half years, give or take.  During that time, I worked in several massage parlours, I did independent outcalls and I co-ran a SOOB (small owner-operated brothel).  I was briefly a dominatrix*, which I was rubbish at, but I was a much more successful professional submissive.

I left the industry a whiles ago now, and I think enough time has passed that I have some perspective on it.  While I was in it, I was staunchly pro-sex work to the point that I refused to see anything but positives in the industry.  Now with distance and hindsight, I see it for what it was – like anything, it had awesome aspects and it had some pretty shitty aspects.  On the whole, however, I’m really happy for the time I spent as a prostitute.  I loved most of my work, I learned new skills (not even the sort of skills you’re thinking about!) and I think it made me a better person.

So I thought I’d start writing about some of the myths that surround prostitution.  Of course, it’s all my own perspective informed by my own experiences.   Other prostitutes’ experiences will no doubt be completely different.

I use the term “prostitute” quite consciously.  “Sex worker” seems to have become a bit of a catch-all euphemism which I have heard applied to everyone from strippers to phone-sex workers to paid erotica writers!  I’d rather own the term “prostitute”, because that’s what I was.  I’ll probably also refer to myself as a hooker and a whore.  These terms, to my mind, have more poewr and more history than the bland “sex worker”.

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* The dominatrices I know will want me to mention that their line of work is not the same as prostitution and that as a rule dominatrices do not have sex with their clients.  Indeed, in my brief stint as a dominatrix, I didn’t.  I did, however, have sex with clients as a pro-sub, although only in specialised sessions.

Robot Hookers from Mars!!!

OK, not from Mars*, but this entry is indeed about robot hookers.  No, I can’t believe it, either.  A couple of researchers at Victoria University have suggested that the future of the sex industry is all about robots.  There’ll be robot strippers, robot lap-dancers, robot massages and, yep, robot hookers. Now, I can’t access the full paper in the Futures journal (why must all academic work be concealed behind a paywall?), so sadly I don’t know the nitty-gritty of this theory – just what’s in their abstract and on the Stuff website.  Moreover, I don’t know if their theory is entirely serious or if it’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek academia.  But because I’ve got nothing better to do today, I’m going to engage with it completely po-faced.  Superficially, the idea has some awesome benefits.  OK, one awesome non-debatable benefit: zero risk of sexually transmitted diseases with no need of condoms.

However, there are some glaring assumptions inherent to their theory; the major one being that consumers of the sex industry are just looking to get their rocks off.  In my experience as a hooker, yes, the vast majority of clients wanted to get their rocks off (although some notably didn’t), but as a rule that was only part of their decision to hire a hooker.  Here are some of the other reasons, good and bad, why clients came to see me when I was a hooker:  for conversation, for therapy, to feel power over another human being, to feel ashamed, to shame someone else, to cry, to snuggle, to read someone their poetry (OK, that only happened once), to confess, to feel skin on skin, for the smell of a woman, to fantasise about how things might have been, to fall in love, to be listened to, to feel the thrill of being naughty, to discuss philosophy, to argue politics, to get revenge on their partner, to laugh, to share their worries, to scandalise the neighbours, to learn, for compassion.  In fact, I’d hazard to say that for most clients I saw, feeling a human connection in one form or another was at least as important as getting their rocks off.  Robots have a very long way to go to be capable of fulfilling half of these things.

Which is why, although the authors believe that a robot-based sex industry would put an end to sex slavery**, I believe that unless in some dark and distant future we are able to create robots which are absolutely indistinguishable from living, breathing, flesh-and-blood humans, there will always be a call for the real thing – at the very least from the power junkies who get off on purchasing another human being (assuming that robots are able to fake conversation, laughter, scents, etc before then).

Of course, ending sex slavery is a fantastic goal to have and I totally applaud any ideas which might work towards that.  And so I had a brief moment of thinking myself selfish.  If robots can take over the sex industry and eliminate trafficking of sex slaves, isn’t it a bit selfish to go “Nuh-uh, some of us real people still want to do it”?  But, like I say, even if that theory was enacted in the science fiction future and the official, legal sex industry consisted of robots, I’m convinced that there would still be a black market of “real” men and women providing sexual services.  Anyway, surely a better (and much, much simpler!) way of working towards ending sex slavery is to provide support for those who do want to be sex workers, and making the industry a safer place to work and an easier place to leave?  Sci fi stuff indeed!

A final word: the title of their paper – Robots, Men And Sex Tourism – betrays their assumption that all consumers of the sex industry are men, which is patently untrue.  Sure, women are a smaller percentage of the market base in the sex industry, but they’re most certainly there!  (Indeed, I’ve been a consumer before, as well as a provider).  I really dislike being reductionistic about things (“Men are like this, while women are like that!”), but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that female consumers of the sex would be far more resistant to the idea of robot hookers than men.

And on that note, I’ll leave you with The Dresden Dolls’ “Coin Operated Boy” playing on your head radio.

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* I was, however, tickled to note that one of the authors of the paper is named Michelle Mars.

** I really have to come up with a better term than “sex slavery”, which has positive connotations of consensual BDSM-related slavery in my mind.  Any ideas?