The Oxford English dictionary defines stigma as - 'a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person'. Invariably, when it comes to sex work, stigma applies right across the board, regardless of what form of sex work you undertake. Similarly, stigma bears no relation to your background, ethnicity or chosen faith. It's a badge which is acquired the first time you accept payment for sex, whether you like it or not - and it's what stops so many sex workers 'coming out'.
Time and time again I get emails from sex workers thanking my colleagues and I for the campaigning work we do but saying - 'I'd love to help you but you know what it's like'. I certainly do, and I'm not suggesting for one moment that every sex worker should come 'out', not at all. It's a huge decision to make and can have ramifications you hadn't even thought of, for instance read the piece here by Maggie McNeill and also the comment from Dr. Brooke Magnanti.
This is a society where should I wish to, I can go out on a Friday night, get hopelessly drunk and jump into bed with Mr. A. Random. Because I'm non compos mentis then the chances are any form of protection will go out the window, as will any form of valid consent. As a society, we deem that okay, because everyone does it, right ? If I go to a hotel, meet Mr. A. Random in the middle of an afternoon, spend a couple of pleasant protected hours and get paid for it - pearls everywhere are clutched and horror levels soar. But in my second example, I'm safer. I know his name, his phone number, where he is staying and I am in a hotel surrounded by people. I'm in charge of what I'm doing and am completely free to say 'no'. Once money changes hands, what started as a mutually beneficial and pleasurable experience becomes demonized, because stigma enters the equation.
I have a theory and it is simply this - I don't believe that sex work itself is inherently harmful, what is more harmful is the scorn, social isolation and constant questioning of integrity poured upon those of us who choose to sell sex, by a society filled with hypocrisies. Keeping what you do for a living a secret is very hard work and involves layers of deception and secrecy. For those who have been 'outed' against their will, it's even harder as large groups of people make huge assumptions about your identity and your standards and to have to defend yourself against those who rail against you on a continual basis is nothing short of exhausting.
If you're wondering what I mean by a 'society filled with hypocrisies' let's consider the 'Cougar'. Here is a woman who will proactively seek younger men to partner on an almost predatory basis and certainly because she can give him a better lifestyle in exchange for great sex. There's nothing wrong with that as far as I'm concerned but I do wonder why that exchange is free from stigma whilst the exchange of cash is not. A long time ago and in a brothel far away, one of my colleagues remarked - 'this is the most honest money you'll ever earn in your life', and I believe she's right. No strings, no bows, no promises of being elevated to a higher social echelon - I simply date for cash.
Although I am blessed to be surrounded by an amazing support system of friends and allies, I still experience stigma, albeit to a lesser degree. It's the beatific smile filled with pity, it's the group of women who fall silent as soon as I enter the room and it's the man who shook my hand in a green room and when he thought I wasn't looking, wiped his hand 'clean'. And that, my friends - is what needs to change.
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