TW: Graphic descriptions of violence, sexual assault - Labor intensive: In defense of sex work
September 2, 2014
The attempted murder of Christy Mack is sickening. On August 8th, Mack’s former partner Jonathan Koppenhaver (also known by his Mixed Martial Arts name “War Machine”) broke into Mack’s house; for hours he viciously beat her, threatened to kill her and sexually assaulted her. Only after he left the room did Mack manage to escape with her life. At the end of it all she had 18 broken bones in her face, shattered and knocked out teeth, broken ribs and a ruptured liver. Her leg was so badly injured by Koppenhaver that Mack has trouble walking.
The public response to this heinous act has been equally gut-wrenching. Right-wing pundits and internet commentators have trotted out a predictable but no less destructive line: that Mack’s history as a pornographic actor somehow made her deserving of this horrifying abuse and torture. It is unfortunately par for the course, a continuation of the vicious and disgusting cycle of victim-blaming and slut-shaming that normalizes violence against sex workers.
This is the last fucking straw. As sex workers, we have had enough. We are sick of the public (including much of the left) clinging to the vestiges of a puritanical past. Therefore, with all due defiance and anger, we welcome you to a nuanced position on sexuality and labor: the work of sex.
Those of us in the trade have watched as our mischaracterization has populated literature, conferences, news articles and often the very minds of those claiming they want to “build a better world.” We say: no more.
Sex workers have been done with this sort of “blame the victim” stance — from both the mainstream and the political left — since its early circulation. But we are equally through with the so-called “savior mentality,” the perfumed version of the same refuse that has shamed us into silence and relegated us to the margins of movements for worker’s rights, union representation, and feminist struggles. Those of us who perform, cultivate persona, create fantasy and pay our goddamn bills how we goddamn please, are workers and artists. We are sitting in classrooms, courtrooms, bars, cafes, bookstores, and beside you on the couch. Respect us, as you would any worker struggling to make it in this world. And if respecting workers is not a position you start from, reevaluate how you were able to complete the most essential and menial tasks of the day. We did that. We make this world turn, and we make this world cum. Respect us.
Pornography is not a shameful dance with the devil. Those that engage in pornography are engaging with a business, a craft, an entertainment industry. Certainly it is a business that is waged under Capitalism, and therefore is fraught with the same exploitative nature that all labor is conducted under. We are not claiming to be “off the grid” even while the grid often does not claim us. We understand that our work is negotiated in different, complex ways and in the context of the most oppressive economic system the world has ever known.
It is a racist, heteronormative, ableist, fatphobic, queerphobic system, and then some. We acknowledge this, and we actively fight back against manifestations of these oppressions within our own communities. We also understand our labor to be particularly situated under the institutionalized rape culture of our society. This creates a specific intersection of oppressive dynamics that performers, artists, and cultural workers must navigate. That being said, all workers have to survive under these conditions. We do not want to just survive, we want to thrive.
Specially oppressed groups have an even more arduous existence because of these conditions. Women and female identifying folks should not be bullied to regret any safe and consensual acts — whether they be personal or transactional. The sanctimonious attitudes toward pornography and women’s’ sexuality only maintain the limited scope of the mainstream industry. We demand acceptance, as it is intolerance that restricts us from leading healthy, fruitful lives.
Education is a right
Some of us seek higher education, and are still met with discrimination. Colleges are in denial about sex work on their campuses. The old stereotype of women stripping their way through grad school does not reflect the diversity of sex work practiced on campuses or by students, staff, and faculty members. American student debt is over one trillion dollars. Young women, female-bodied, and female-identifying students have bills that sex work can do more to pay than any low-wage service job. This is a reality that underpaid staff and adjunct faculty know just as well.
Miriam Weeks, or Belle Knox the so-called Duke University porn star, is only the most famous example of students engaging in sex work. She is also only the most recent example of the ways that university rape culture devolves on sex workers in academic communities. It is apparently less embarrassing for Duke to crush a young woman’s pursuit of education than it is to acknowledge that students actually engage in sex work to offset their looming student loans.
Miriam put it eloquently herself saying, “Everyone is focused on my decision to perform in porn to pay my tuition. Let’s start paying attention to what got me here. Sky-high tuition bills result from a culture, from our President on down, telling every kid to go to college, regardless of their future plans or ability to graduate. And they result from schools being all-too-happy to raise prices to catch all the money flowing from the federal spigot.”
The dismissive puritanism so rampant in university administrations is particularly putrid considering the endemic nature of rape and sexual assault on college campuses. What the struggles of Belle Knox and other student sex workers show us is the constitutive intersection between sex worker disempowerment and rape culture. These fights are one and the same, and feminism can no longer purport to fight the latter without destroying the former. Miriam also spoke out in an interview with Elle magazine, “First I’d like to see the decriminalization of prostitution. Sex workers should be given equal protection under the law. I want our jobs to be treated as legitimate. Right now, if I were to go to a policeman and report something that happened to me, he would say, ‘You’re a prostitute, I don’t care.’”