A parallel top-down dynamic coexists with our servicing of the male workforce—that of the enforcement of “caring” upon sex workers (particularly those who perform illicit, undocumented, full-service, or street-based work). The logic of “saving” women (savior rhetoric tends to ignore people who aren’t women) from performing this kind of marginalized labor is a direct legacy of the emerging middle-class social-working women of Victorian England and their contemporaries in the US. Rarely discussed is the classist, coercive, and hypocritical history of women’s entry into the “caring professions”—particularly with regards to the construction of the “prostitute” as a particular subject in need of saving, reforming, and steering into respectable middle-class life by “benevolent” ladies during the “rise of the social” of the late 19th century. During this era, “those doing charitable works entered into a governmental relationship with the objects of their charity, and created themselves as important social actors in the process….‘Helping’ became a profession that relied on identifying subjects and then placing them in closed spaces where they could be worked upon and controlled.” Modern non-sex-working feminists who support abolitionist/savior tactics or engage in these caring-projects themselves presume a more dignified identity than that of the sex worker, and often end up replicating a system of enforced docility based on misogynistic, bourgeois notions of respectability and the proper placement of women within the public sphere. Middle-class academics and writers who make their living off promoting a framework that casts sex workers as an inherently victimized identity “for their own good” do so at the direct expense of the agency and economic livelihood of women of lower socioeconomic status. Statist feminists’ rhetoric of “fighting the sex industry” typically relies on State power in the form of legislative reform that criminalizes at least some aspects of sex work, increases the power of law enforcement, & overregulates the sex industries in ways that further marginalize the least privileged workers by making their participation in these economies prohibitively expensive or difficult (see Britain’s Policing and Crime Act of 2009)
Thus, sex workers are triangulated in a system of caring labor—that which is enacted upon us (sometimes forcibly) by carceral feminists, paternalistic liberals, the prison-industrial complex, the surveillance State, and the superstructure of capitalist-patriarchy, and that which we perform for (primarily white) middle- to upper-class men (to say nothing of the unpaid reproductive labor we are often mandated to perform in our homes and communities). In some ways this system self-replicates harmoniously—“From homemaking to professional housekeeping—not to mention nursing, hospitality, and phone sex—women and people of color are disproportionately responsible for the care that keeps this society functioning, yet have disproportionately little say in what that care fosters. Likewise, a tremendous amount of care goes into oiling the machinery that maintains hierarchy: families help police relax after work, sex workers help businessmen let off steam, secretaries take on the invisible labor that preserves executives’ marriages.” (“Self As Other: Reflections on Self-Care,” CrimethInc. 2013). Other times, the State and the hierarchical institutions that collude with it to oppress sex workers (such as academia and the nonprofit-complex) are positioned in contradiction to the selling of sexualized services, often by way of support for or enactment of various forms of direct or indirect/“backdoor” criminalization; more indirectly, these institutions control the discourse around sex work, feminism, and labor via the creation and maintenance of a professional class of “experts” on these intersections, who have often never engaged in sex work themselves but assume entitlement based on their positioning as members of “the sex class.”
There’s a predictable but rarely-acknowledged irony that the privileges of scholars, authors, non-profit representatives, policymakers, abolitionist activists, professional feminists, and other “experts” on sex work come under less scrutiny than the supposedly “privileged” sex workers who critique non-sex-workers’ skewed analysis of the industry. It’s a fallacy to assume that non-sex-working feminists are more qualified, more entitled to speak on behalf of the “most marginalized,” than actual sex workers who are assumed to be “not representative” of the “average” sex worker, or who don’t fit into our culture’s perception of what the “worst off” looks like. That’s not to say that these experts are always blinded by their economic and social privilege, that none have adopted their views as a result of their experiences working in the sex industry themselves. Identity itself isn’t always the deciding standard for sound analysis. The problem is that (usually relatively privileged) non-sex-working feminists do overwhelmingly take up space at the table where sex workers, especially sex workers who are particularly marginalized & institutionally disenfranchised (street workers, drug users, trans women, single parents, people of color, etc.) should be debating effective strategies for liberation, resistance, and survival, in whatever forms these may materialize. We should be finding ways to help each other avoid exploitation, violence, and desperation, without contributing to a culture of stigma or perpetuating rhetoric that makes criminalization of sex work a winning strategy for politicians and good PR for celebrities and CEOs.