“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
― Toni Morrison, Beloved
You can access the updated version of this post here: heauxthots: Deﬁned/Deﬁners: My thoughts on common terminology around erotic labor & trafficking
There’s an ongoing debate about terms within and without the so-called community of erotic laborers that I find both frustrating and interesting as a person who has straddled the lines of advocate and prostitute off and on for almost a decade. I have worked in many areas of what allies, “abolitionists,” researchers, and sex worker rights activists call sex work. I only recently began using the term sex worker to describe myself because I found it helped the right people find me, and vice versa. I am highly aware that most sex workers in my tax bracket do not use this term to describe themselves, so I am often wary of employing this term in everyday conversation, and I struggle to find terms that suit the needs of the women around me. I say women because my work mainly focuses on cis and trans women of color, and comes from my perspective as a queer Black cisgender woman who is a self-defined sex worker. I have engaged in several areas of “the trade,” from stripping and street prostitution to camming and phone sex, and what some might call “companionship,” aka indoor prostitution. Here is a short, but not exhaustive, list of some of the various professions and terms we use to describe ourselves:
Hoe/Heaux (racialized: Black vernacular)
Slut (racialized: white, but not exclusive because reverse racism doesn’t exist)
Usually when I speak to other women in similar lines of work they do not use the term “sex worker” to describe themselves, though I will use it throughout this article to describe this amalgamation of diverse individuals. Many struggle to define what they do as work because in American culture work is defined as “labor performed legally in exchange for money” (Susan Dewey & Tonya Germain 2016). So despite the fact that our work is labor-intensive and time-consuming, very few of us see it as legitimate labor. Why would we when many of us are engaging in sex work purely to survive, in a country that denigrates feminized labor as a rule?
I have often likened sex work to what Dewey and Germain termed “service sector work,” especially the most feminized areas such as housekeeping/cleaning, food prep/cooking, caregiving, and other forms of domestic work. These are all areas that I have worked in, and they all feature jobs that provide little to no benefits, have low pay and rare pay increases (and even those are low), and offer little room to adjust your work schedule. I worked at a hotel in Milwaukee from April 2009 to April 2010. The reason I had gotten into stripping and dipped into street work and occasional hotel/motel prostitution was because I couldn’t find a “regular” job to pay my bills. I applied for several jobs and went on interviews, but it was a small, racist college town and nobody was checking for me. With my back against the wall I applied at the only strip club in town and got to working. I danced 50+ hours per week just to get by. When the money dried up, as so often it does, I “prostituted” myself fully, for the first time (and a large sum of money--in my mind), and got the hell out of Bloomington.
Strangely, I did consider what I was doing to be work because I defined work as “something that gets me money to pay the bills on a regular basis.” However, I was hyperaware that other people looked down on my kind of work. If you had asked me then what I was doing to get by I would have answered the same as any other young Black woman: hustling. “Dancing.” I never told anybody I had been fucking for money until I joined groups on Facebook. The work I was and am doing is widely considered immoral both culturally and religiously. At eighteen I was ashamed. At nineteen I began to wonder why I was ashamed. I had been reading bell hooks and Black feminist work that was anti-porn, and as a young skeptic I often found myself questioning or in disagreement. My complaints were, and are, often met with anger, deflection, or ridicule. How dare I disagree with my (better educated or reasonably established and revolutionary) Black feminist foremothers?
At that young age I didn’t know enough to disagree with purpose and persuasion. So I read, and I disagreed inwardly, until I found the words I needed to articulate what I meant, so that I could out-inform everyone who came at me sideways.
On Carol Leigh’s “sex worker” and respectability politics
Over time my language has shifted. Even in the past year I have questioned my and others use of certains words and terminology to describe what “we” do. I have had to adjust to accommodate varied perspectives of women like and unlike me who struggle and straddle the lines (or lie on the spectrum) between what so-called abolitionists and sex worker feminists have termed “sex work” and “sex trafficking.” I have had to ask what it means to legitimize my and others labor, what to call myself, how to describe these issues in a multicolored way. How to globalize my perspective to include my indigenous diasporic sisters. How to respectfully dissect and deconstruct the racialization of the term “indigenous” and ask why it often doesn’t apply to my African (and Asian) siblings. How to express my needs and take in concerns about the needs of others. What is consensual? What is coercion? How to self-define in a world where I am not seen as a definer by definition. Most of these words or terms have been used in a derogatory way or to insult non-sex working cis and trans women, particularly Black women.
So what does this mean in the grand scheme of things when we are struggling to form coalitions and communities around these politics? There are researchers, academics, and white women classed above me who are giving lessons on terminology and using the words “consensual,” “empowered,” and “choice” to comment on what constitutes “sex work” and what is “sex trafficking.” This is really the crux of the issue. The two main reasons that this conversation is not being had more widely is 1) because the sex worker movement is dominated by white women who are usually better off than me or academics and researchers who feel they set the standard for the rhetoric/theory surrounding our issues and, 2) because we lack a clear intersectional politics that firmly decenters whiteness and wealth. The latter is what I am trying to help remedy with my politics of proheaux womanism that is geared specifically toward Black and Brown erotic laborers and can be utilized by allies and nonblack sex workers to gain insight and understanding.
There are many who have argued that we should strike the words “prostitution” and “prostitute” from our wider vernacular and that we should use the terms “sex worker” and “sex work” as a rule. I am not always sure how I feel about this. The word itself is useful, same as queer, but it doesn’t work as an umbrella term for obvious reasons. However the suggestion to use a “better” term, smells of respectability politics to me, and that’s grody. I don’t think the wording matters so much as the context, since it was outsiders who made the term prostitute derogatory in the first place, by denigrating the profession and its subjects. Feminized work is derided by the general populace. Note how service work is not considered career work unless one is in a position of power. “Sex work” caught on in research and academia and the trickle down effect has been for them to turn around and tell others: “This is what you call them now.” Yet when Dewey and Germain went out into the street, they said the women were offended by the term and many preferred to call their labor “hustling.”
Sometimes I refer to the “law” of self-definition. But what does all this mean when we are trying to convene under one umbrella? I call myself a proheaux womanist which is my own invention and has more to do with politics and turning theory into praxis for a wider group of (Black and Brown) people. Most people involved or interested in our politics use the term “sex worker” which was coined by Carol Leigh aka Scarlot Harlot, a white woman and prostitute activist. White women of all social standings have already begun their appropriation and co-optation of Black vernacular terms such as “hoe/heaux” and “thot.” I sometimes fear that in our quest to protect and connect we are removing vital descriptive language. The point of language is efficiency and understanding. Will we ever come a to consensus on what terms to use to further our cause?
L.H. Stallings suggests engaging sex work as a form of antiwork, which I and many other sex workers (as we are termed) have directly and indirectly determined to do via our critiques of capitalism and labor. She calls this “transing” sex work theory. I don’t think sex workers need her to do this but she seems determined. She claims that “trading sex and sexual culture in [B]lack communities had already been conceptualized as postwork imagination.” This is what is interesting to me. It is interesting to see how other Black people, Black women in particular, not in my social position but above, see me and my (anti)work.
Later in the same chapter and section she begins: “Instead of beginning from the position of the state and entity that implicitly gets to authorize and define what constitutes sex work, even as the term was created by prostitute activists reacting to state policing, we should all reconsider and rethink the term and meaning with questions such as: Why is it that the only individuals classified as sex workers are those whose labor is connected to sexual pleasure? (Stallings 2015)” I love the phrase “prostitute activists” but this question answers itself, without all the extra stuff Stallings sandwiches it with and her implicit bias that drives her to push to include researchers/academics and others as sex workers in order to supposedly broaden the community and support. In reality, the constant attempt to push the term sex worker to its limits to accommodate those who feel “left out” does not do anything real to help us, nor do I think people should have to be included in order to support us politically or otherwise. Neither does allowing people outside of the sex worker community to define who and what we are. Any reconsideration of the term should be led by sex workers, and the rest should follow. In the end, all Stallings is doing is exactly what many others, including the state, have continued to do: attempt to define and redefine us (in this case the us is only Black sex workers) without our input or sufficient knowledge. The push by many academics to switch from “prostitute” to “sex worker” mirrors my query: Who gets to define what? Who or what is a sex worker? Will “sex worker” become a respectable term as folks deem the words we call ourselves derogatory and correct others without referencing us? Does “sex worker” apply when so many of us (Black and Brown and poor) sex workers reject the term entirely? Even I do not use the term outside of organizing and political work. This is the hard work of building and maintaining community and developing a language and discourse that suits all of us and not just a select few or the (white) majority.
what it means for our work to be “consensual”
Consensual. That’s the word I keep seeing on my timeline as I flit from tweet to tweet examining the politics of my peers. Sex work is consensual. That’s what makes it different, supposedly, from sex trafficking. I used to say so too, though when I would read and talk and probe I would ask myself what I meant. I recall Raquel Savage probing this a year or so ago. I had quoted someone in a tweet (now deleted) and said something like “nonconsensual sex work is an oxymoron.” That’s ridiculous, right? Now that I type the words out by themselves I know exactly where they fit, and it’s an area I try to stay far away from: “higher-calling discourse” (Heather Berg 2014). I was trying to stop the person from conflating sex work and sex trafficking, but in attempting to skirt the binary I ended up erasing, not only other sex workers who have experienced trauma or came to the profession via trafficking, but myself as well.
I have experienced lots of nonconsensual moments within sex work, where I have consented to one thing and have been pushed into another. Once you are in the room or in the car your options are limited--you are the one who will be arrested and possibly further assaulted or raped by law enforcement should you get caught up. There are people who have been trafficked and forced into sex work, and this language is demonstrated by Melissa Gira Grant in this tweet. There are sex workers who have been assaulted/raped while on the job. Similarly, there are people, mainly women and children who come to America and are forced into domestic work or other exploitative situations. There are people in this country who are forced into performing erotic labor by family members or other trusted adults, partners, or caregivers. What we need to do is acknowledge that, even though there are some people who have been forced into sex work or other types of exploitative work, they still deserve consideration. People who trafficked into sex work are still sex workers, just like people who were trafficked and forced into sweatshops are still seamstresses deserving of basic rights and safety, and the ability to enter other areas of work (if they desire) and secure affordable housing and childcare (all of which should be free but, capitalism).
It is mainly those sex worker feminists who traffic in “empowerment” rhetoric who continue to use this language. The intention is to draw firm lines in between sex work and sex trafficking (another binary) to circumvent or undermine sex trafficking legislation that targets independent prostitutes and cyber prostitutes (erotic webcam models), and to stop people from stereotyping sex workers as victims who need their kind of saving. However, while doing it this way might protect sex workers who are actually sex workers by choice, it does not protect the rest of us who fall into that murky gray area in between. In reality, trafficking exists within sex work in the same way it exists within other industries including the garment industry, the service work industry, the hair/beauty industry, and the food industry (sharecropping). The laws that are being made are made that way deliberately, because these laws are not made to protect anyone--not trafficking victims in the sex industry, nor sex workers who may not have been trafficked, but are being abused or are suffering in various ways.
Calling all sex work consensual or voluntary as a rule means that any negative interaction while sex working that is non-consensual will either be lumped into sex trafficking (which will probably involve state intervention and/or removal of or disregard for agency of the subject) or it be will written off as “stolen goods” or the perils of the job. This is a way that the language of “choice” is used against us. It becomes more dangerous when you factor in rape culture and the politics of consent, and disingenuous when you factor in class. Consent is an ongoing process, and once you start saying things like “actual sex work is consensual” you are wading into dangerous waters and running the risk of erasing a large demographic within the community. When I was being harassed people asked me why I chose such a dangerous profession. When I ask(ed) for money even certain Black feminists suggested low-wage service jobs, as if I have never been or wouldn’t be sexualled harassed or assaulted in those professions. They suggested putting my son in public school, as if I don’t have valid reasons for homeschooling. If I decide these suggestions are not suitable for me, they become exasperated and say “You’re basically choosing to be _____.”
Beyond the aforementioned there are then the Marxists, communists, and socialists who will attempt to draw us into their cause by connecting with us via labor theory. They either advocate for the eradication of all work (but sex work definitely) or they boldly barge into our conversations about whether our work is consensual to talk over us, almost breathless: “No waged work is consensual under Capitalism!!!!” I promise y’all we get it, but this is about us right now, and the criminalization of erotic labor specifically. Though I suppose we could also connect to pleasure politics and ask ourselves why sex work, similar to art and creative work is mostly denigrated until it becomes highly lucrative.
In closing, we must eradicate the choice/coercion and sex work/sex trafficking binaries completely by creating new discourse that suits our unique needs. We must come up with our own language to define ourselves politically. We must stop engaging respectability politics or appealing to folk’s capitalist fantasies in order to strengthen our cause. We must stop trying to decenter (whether intentionally or not) actual sex workers--actual sex workers being people who engage in erotic labor for profit whether consensual or otherwise. We must make/keep space for and elevate the voices and perspectives of those sex workers who have been trafficked into the industry. And we must allow for gray areas and stop pushing binaries in the name of “protecting” victims, because it’s clear that it doesn’t.
Berg, Heather. "Working for Love, Loving for Work: Discourses of Labor in Feminist Sex-work Activism." Feminist Studies40, no. 3 (2014): 693-720. Accessed December 13, 2018.
Dewey, Susan, and Tonia St. Germain. "Women of the Street." 2016. doi:10.18574/nyu/9781479854493.001.0001.
Horton-Stallings, LaMonda. Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures. Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015.