Aotearoa/New Zealand sex workers speak: two testimonies

From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Socialist Feminism: Against TERF and SWERF”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

1. LUCY SKY

In a capitalist society, all labour is exploitative; to treat sex work as any different to manual labour is reductive and discriminatory. SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists) often use a rhetoric that sex work is “selling your body”. This lacks any nuance, or critique that under capitalism all labour is commodified and is therefore “selling your body”.

A manual labourer is required to engage in physical labour in order to survive; sex workers are no different in that regard. The commodification of the body is a systemic issue under capitalism, and needs to be addressed as a whole, not just when it comes to those who are most marginalised, such as sex workers.

This marginalisation however causes sex workers to face exploitation in very unique intersections, those that a general labourer may not face. Drug use, poverty, racism, gender discrimination and other intersections can all exclude sex workers from engaging in “normal” or “acceptable” labour, as defined by the status quo.

To give a personal viewpoint, I engaged in sex work to sustain a drug habit; a drug habit that precluded me from working due to pervasive drug testing attitudes in New Zealand. This drug habit wasn’t a leisure activity, it was formed out of an aversion to trauma: sexual, emotional, and derived from poverty.

This drug habit took primacy above my own safety, and I was re-traumatised over and over again by engaging in sex work. However, sex work is not the issue in my situation. It was a means to survive in the face of a welfare system that didn’t provide support, mental health systems that didn’t provide support, and communities that were happy to turn a blind eye to the marginalised population.

I felt hopeless, and that there was no escape. There were no systems in place that would humanise me or treat me with the respect I desperately needed.

Sex workers, just as any human, are required to engage in the coercive system that capitalism has created in order to survive. They (we) shouldn’t face further alienation from their communities for engaging in the same activities that are required of any human to survive.

Sex workers deserve the same protections and rights that any labourer deserves, as sex work is work. As one of the most marginalised populations, perhaps these protections and rights need in fact to be given even more primacy.

2. JUDY

I’m a transgender sex worker. People have lots of other names for me, it almost seems there’s an approved list of them. I have my favourites from the list: “scarlet lady” and “coquet”. But one of those words is the one most commonly associated with sex workers, whore.

I proudly call myself a whore. Most of my friends hate me doing so, they see it as most people do: a horrible insult meaning you’re the most degraded thing a woman can be. But when you look at the word whore, where it comes from, what it actually means, you find something very interesting.

“Whore” started out in the 16th century as a polite euphemism for another word for sex worker we’ve now lost. When you strip it right down, whore just means sex worker. Thing is, the reason it no longer means that is we don’t like acknowledging sex work is just that: work, just like being a plumber or carpenter, no difference really.

So I’m a whore, a sex worker. And I’m proud of being one. More than that, when someone throws whore at me as an insult, I can just smile, say “yes I am”, and let the insult bounce. That’s the thing about being a sex worker, people don’t like accepting you are a worker. You’re either some kind of moral degenerate or a fallen woman who needs to be saved. Either way you have no say in your life, other people know far better than you what to do with your life. You’re a child who can’t be trusted to make your own decisions about what you do.

Oddly enough, I feel quite capable of making my own decisions about my life. Before I was a sex worker I had a variety of jobs, including manager of a graphic arts department in a printing firm. Not only did people trust me to make decisions about my own life then, they trusted me to make decisions about other people’s lives. I really don’t think my mental capacity has diminished since then.

People of course will argue I must have been forced into sex work by desperate circumstances. No, not at all. I’m a sex worker due to a conscious, logical choice. I could work 60 to 70 hours a week in a supposedly “respectable” job, or earn the same money working five to eight hours a week. A no-brainer, really.

Then we get the argument, there’s no skill involved in my job. It’s easy money, all you do is lay back and “think of England” (or whichever country takes your fancy). Nothing could be further from the truth. In my previous employment as a department manager I developed a wide and varied skill set. Time management, interpersonal relations, financial control, conflict resolution, understanding clients’ needs; the list is really quite extensive. And I use every single one of those skills extensively as a sex worker. More than that, I’ve extended and sharpened those skills.

It’s a damn sight harder being a sex worker than managing a group of graphic artists. It’s not easy money and there’s a hell of a lot of skill involved and in areas you’d never expect. I often tell people the most useful parts of my body as a sex worker are my ears and my vocal cords, listening to my clients and communicating effectively with them. You really can’t do this job if you can’t do that.

So, sex work is work. Really honest to goodness old fashioned hard decent labour. And like any other worker, a carpenter, lawyer, plumber, doctor, whatever, we deserve respect for what we do. We deserve protection from harm. Yes, the job involves risk, but to be honest, there are riskier jobs: nursing springs to mind. We deserve protection from exploitation. Biggest step in that was decriminalisation. We now have access to all the legal protections any other worker has in their employment. Sex work is hard work, it can often be very draining. It requires a wide, varied and unique skill set, one I don’t think you’ll find replicated in any other job. It can also be immensely rewarding; I get to meet a huge variety of people and get to know them on an incredibly intimate level.

Sex work is real work, and those who choose of their own free will to engage in it deserve to be respected and treated as any other worker might be.

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