Thursday, June 18, 2009

"mothers, tell your children not to do as I have done": sex work through the viewpoint of parents

So, this country music video, affiliated with this organization, tries to get those slavering, sick, depraved men who are into porn and strip clubs to "maintain their self-control" by reminding them that the stripper or porn starlet they are watching is "somebody's daughter/somebody's child/somebody's pride and joy/somebody loves her for who she is inside/she has a mother and father/she's somebody's daughter.../ when her beauty is defiled I demean us both.."

Bitch offers some weak second waveish criticism here:
This is actually only one of several music videos made for, offering “freedom from the crushing grip of porn.” Are strip clubs and pornography frequently problematic? Yes. If it’s ruining your family life should you seek counsel and remedy? Well yeah. Are there better ways to address it than imagining her mom and dad at her college graduation/birthday party/dance recital? And reinforcing images of all women as “our little girls all grown up?” Oh yeah! This video adds to some recent conversations on the prevalence of porn in society, and while I'm pretty uncomfortable with most porn and strip clubs, if the Somebody's Daughter campaign is all about casting men as sexual perverts for liking porn and women in the sex industry as a dependent innocents, then I doubt it's adding anything new or progressive as far as curbing the more harmful aspects of pornography and "gentleman's clubs"....though I have to give them some credit, this is by far one of the unsexiest videos I’ve ever watched.

(But thanks for the bit about how casting women in the sex industry as dependent innocents isn't progressive, Bitch magazine.)

What I really think we need to talk about in reference to this video is the question it raises, a question that opponents of sex worker's rights & decriminalization of sex work often ask, a question they ask as if it's the ultimate question and all debate can be defused by it:

"What if your daughter wanted to be a prostitute too?"

[Or stripper, or porn actress, or phone sex operator, sex cam worker, etc etc etc, insert relevant branch of sex work in the right spot...]

I think it's important to face the melodrama and taboo evoked by this question head on. Though perhaps my opinion might not matter that much, because I'm not planning on having children, I say, "If my daughter wanted to work in the same profession I do, I hope I could be proud of her and respect her choices."

The question posits workers in the sex industry as passive victims of objectification, rather than skilled artisans controlling the way they are viewed. It implies that any work that has to do with sex is shameful and victimizing, not a part of "who she[you] is [are] inside", as the country video puts it. That no mother *could* be proud of a skillful sex worker daughter, or be anything but horrified, ashamed, and deeply concerned. That sex work could never be seen as a respectable profession. And that has much more to do with this society's view of sex than with what actually takes place in the sex industry.

(Furthermore, it is not a universal view, but culturally specific, as demonstrated by the fact that geishas, Japanese sex workers/entertainers/artists, were honored and mothers put their daughters through a several year apprenticeship in the exacting art so that they could continue the family name within the trade--which was obviously viewed as a positive outcome.)

The fact that my mother isn't proud of all the work I do, not just the more wholesome activism, but my escorting, does disappoint me. I understand the cultural context, the prejudices that have been passed down to her, behind her view of my working as being a horrible fate that's befallen me, and I don't blame her entirely, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. As I write in my interview in Alexa of The Real Princess Diaries' My First Professional Sex project:
They know. My mother prays for me. She thinks it’s a symptom of a mental disorder, as does my father. The one time I was arrested, my father wrote a letter to the DA calling me a heroin addicted mentally ill prostitute who should not be allowed to leave the court room, who should be sent to jail or drug treatment immediately. He wrote a pathos ridden paragraph about how every day they worry I might contract HIV (although I practice safer sex than the vast majority of the general population–I practice safer sex than *he* does.) I always wondered why he was dumb enough to send that letter to the DA–not my lawyer or the judge–why he was dumb enough to think the DA could possibly have my interests, rather than the goal of a conviction in mind.

I know my father did it because he thought it would help, but with good intentions like that, who needs malevolence? I haven’t spoken to him since. I don’t *blame* my parents–there’s a huge cultural divide there, they are Russian and come from a culture with totally different values. But sometimes I do long for a mother who would be proud of me, like the depictions I see of Carol Leigh/Scarlot Harlot’s relationship with her mom.

So, yes, as Carol Leigh/Scarlet Harlot's mother's support attests--her mother appears in many of her video documentaries about her sex work and sex worker's rights activism, standing firm in her approval of what her daughter does in interviews--there is a way for parents to move beyond prejudice in their view of their child's sex work. But that's not the reality for the vast majority of us. In fact, most of us don't even bother to come out to their parents b/c of the overwhelming disapproval, pity, and anguish we're (justifiably) sure we'll experience--most of the time I wish I hadn't been dumb enough to come out to my mother and brother, who then told my father. Some of us internalize our parents' and this culture's whorophobia and sadly, are even ashamed of ourselves sometimes.

I'd love to hear any comments about this touchy subject I've brought up. The less silence there is around it, the less prostitution abolitionists can use the question of parents and children to silence debate about sex work in general.


  1. That video is a buzzkill of the highest degree.

    I really hope that I would be able to be proud of a child, of whatever gender, going into sex work. I would want to make sure that it was really their choice, that they knew about safer sex options & had contingency plans for self-defense, etc. The real litmus test for me would be if s/he was still into the work after a year and a day in the industry.

    And really, not long ago, it was taboo for people of a certain class to go into the 'legitimate' theatre as performers, to say nothing of burlesque or other professions. Keep up the good work, and the taboos and laws surrounding sex work will crumble, too.

  2. This is great.

    I think it's really useful to tease out the bias against sex work from the legitimate concerns a parent should have about their child working in criminalized or otherwise potentially hazardous arena, but of course those kinds of distinctions are not a part of the mainstream discourse, it's just sex work = degrading = dangerous = etc. I would hope that if I ever have kids and they ever chose to go into sex work...well, I hope the laws will be better by then, but I also hope that it would encourage me to fight even more urgently for legal rights and protection.

  3. JGS--good pt. about the illegitimacy of acting etc in the 19th century. Who are you again, though? I've prob. asked before.
    & Constantina, great caveat that I should've included about parents realistically evaluating the risks of an adult child of theirs being in a stigmatized and criminalized industry vs. succumbing to unrealistic prejudices.

  4. The guys don't care if the women are somebody's daughters.

  5. Mary, I think you missed the entire pt. of the post. Why are you here, anyhow?

  6. Okay, I'm reading your blog, & you're obviously not the typical Evangelical Christian. I mean, for one thing, you do sex work, even if you don't consider yourself a sex worker. So how do you feel about sex work in general?

  7. Hey Caty! Just wanted to say that my jaw literally dropped (I thought that was just an expression) when I went on to Feministe to check out the latest, as I often do, and saw your name there! You're big, girl! I'm happy for you that you're doing the advocacy and activism that you've always been interested in :)

    - Keshet from Framingham

  8. Hi, Caty. You're in my Google Reader, which brought me back to your blog. I read your interview on feministe. I'm impressed by the work you're doing and your knowledge.

    I've met some prostitutes but haven't become friends with them. I don't know much about sex work except what I've read and seen on TV. I fuck a lot of guys. If I did get paid for sex I wouldn't write about it because I don't want to get arrested. I think I've found a good niche with the Evangelicals, though. I'm trying to keep it organized and not do anything that I'll regret.