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A day to respect and understand sex workers

Sex workers don’€™t need saviors; they need help in the fight for labor rights

December 17, 2014 2:00AM ET

Dec. 17 is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, when people with experiences in the sex industry come together to address the violence and exploitation we often face.

Sex workers are often portrayed as helpless, lacking agency and in need of rescue. But most sex workers resent these characterizations, pointing out that even though they need more labor protections and economic security, they’re capable of organizing and fighting for those rights.

Even individuals with experiences in the sex trades who don’t consider themselves workers — individuals who are struggling to free themselves from the industry, not organizing to attain rights in it — resent being viewed as criminals or victims instead of full human beings.

In the five years that I worked as a stripper — and in the four months that I sold sex online — I was never the victim of physical violence at the hands of a client. To assume that all sex workers are victims invalidates the experience of those who are. But to believe that sex work carries no risk, as I did for so long as I was selling sex, equally denies the truth of many sex workers’ experiences.  

Sex workers are at risk for violence at the hands of their clients. According to one study published in 2004 by The American Journal of Epidemiology, the homicide rate for female prostitutes is estimated at 204 per 100,000. This constitutes a higher occupational mortality rate than any other group of women studied. But what often goes unmentioned in the commentary on risk and violence is the abuse sex workers face at the hands of police. Disenfranchised populations, such as people of color and transgender sex workers, are in the greatest danger.

Beyond overt violence, sex workers experience violence in other forms — sometimes though not necessarily related to our work. Growing up, many of us went through some level of trauma and survival. I came from a disadvantaged home, was neglected by my parents and became a sex worker out of economic desperation. My mother was a secretary at a racetrack, and my father was frequently unemployed and emotionally abusive to my mother and physically abused my brother.

Unlike many of my coworkers who considered the sex work undesirable, I found my jobs exciting. Today I recognize how that precarious work environment mirrored my experience growing up, when my father’s gambling addiction created a seesaw of scarcity and abundance.

Even today, as a former sex worker, I’m constantly under the stress that my past will be used against me.

Even if you grow up with the most supportive, loving family, we mature surrounded by institutions that continually exploit and undermine us as individuals.

For a long time I refused to be a labeled a stripper with daddy issues. A victim. A cliché. And yet my father left my senior year of high school, less than one year before I started selling sex. To be abandoned by one’s father is profoundly affecting, and I denied the trauma of my experience. Denial only made things worse.

As a sex worker, I shut down a part of myself in order to survive. In order to find a sense of belonging, I hid aspects of myself and my life from everyone. At work or at home, I was never my true self. My personality was compartmentalized. When we present a false self, any sense of belonging we may find is never true belonging. So long as I sold sex, I never felt truly seen.

Less fortunate sex workers experience overt abuse, and sex workers of all stripes tolerate the rigors of the work, along with the isolation and alienation that come with the stigma imposed on us by society’s view of our professions. Sex workers need, more than anything else, a place to heal and re-excavate the worthiness that’s being constantly eroded by these perceptions. Instead, those of us with experiences in the sex industry are marginalized.

When my mom found out I was working in the sex industry, she confronted me in an email. She blamed herself. “Maybe if I wasn’t so broke and had given you adequate spending money,” it began. She said she felt humiliated. Whereas a supportive response may have mitigated the impact of my experiences in the industry, my mother’s response was hostile and shaming. The fear, distrust and isolation I was already experiencing as an individual working in the sex industry was compounded. My sense of self was shattered. My trust in my mother was irreparably damaged.

I was shamed again in 2010, this time publicly, when my image and story appeared on the cover of The New York Post. Three years after I had stopped selling sex, I lost my career as a public school teacher — something I had worked hard for — because it had been brought to my employer’s attention that I was once a “whore.”

Even today, as a former sex worker, I'm constantly under the stress that my past will be used against me. Even though I’m completely transparent about this history, I fear I will be found out and somehow punished. Underneath all that, I still struggle for a feeling of worthiness.

For people with experiences like mine, we cannot skip grief. We must do the work. I thought if only I worked hard enough — if I were smart enough — I could make up for the privileges I lacked. I could become someone different, someone better than I was. I learned that no matter how far we go, we cannot escape ourselves and the truth of our experience. The more the past was disavowed, the more it remained alive, immediate and present in some corner of my mind, ready to overtake me. My recovery began by my taking ownership of my past, which I began to face by writing and sharing my story.

People who care about the lives and experiences of sex workers need to think differently to support us. We don’t need rescue; we need rights. And you can keep your sympathy. Instead of pity, give us space to make sense of our experiences. 

Since coming out as a sex worker and losing my career, I’ve taught creative writing to underheard writers at nonprofit organizations, including LGBT youth, active drug users, victims of commercial sexual exploitation and current, former and transitioning sex workers. I also teach other writers — “normal” people from all walks of life. From my students, I’ve learned that everyone’s got a story. I’m not unique.

For me, moving on has meant reconnecting to my community and learning to trust by focusing on commonalities rather than differences and by acknowledging difference without seeing it as better or worse. Healing work is social justice work, and it begins from within.

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and the founder of Becoming Writers, which provides instruction and support to new writers from all backgrounds and experiences.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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