“But I’m Otherwise In Compliance With Your Bigoted Cultural Norms!”

NB: “gay marriage” is a bit of a misnomer since not everyone getting “gay married” is, in fact, gay. And do marriages really even have sexual orientations? Suspect. However, that is the term most commonly used for legalizing marriage between two adults of the same legal sex.

It’s a sentiment that crops up a lot, especially in the gay marriage debate, but also in the is-it-okay-to-call-yourself-a-feminist debate (“but I shave my legs and have a boyfriend! Feminists aren’t all ugly, socially-awkward dykes you know!?!?”) and—apparently—the can-we-stop-pretending-that-all-sex-work-should-be-criminalized debate.

Pro-sexwork legalization poster

As in, “guys! This sex-worker is middle class pays her mortgage! She has heterosexual privilege children and a nuclear family! She is, very explicitely, “not so different,” after all! Maybe we should think about not throwing her in  jail, then?” Many, many sex workers are queer and trans*. Many of them are young; many were kicked out of their homes. Many are very, very poor. But you won’t find any of those people represented in the “Turn Off The Blue Light” campaign, because who gives a fuck about a transgender teenager who moved out of an abusive home? There are cis women with mortgages and husbands and athletic children and middle-class lives to lead!

The gamble is a cynical one: people would rather hear about the most privileged in a group, the people who would benefit the least from social change, than actually put up with stories about the least privileged sexworkers, for whom it’s this or starvation. But, we’re told, it works. And so POC shut up about how the anti-prop 8 advertisements were overwhelmingly white, and LBGT youth don’t speak up when referred to collectively as “gay,” and I guess it fits that people engaging in survival prostitution allow themselves to be spoken over by the reassuring intonation of presumably-straight, middle-class, cisgender white ladies who are “not too different” from the way every bigot in the West would like them to be.

After all, gay marriage should be legal, some representation is better than no representation, and consensual sex work should not be equated with criminal activity. So in that sense, I’m not ready to start shaking my fist at commercials that say (implicitly), “we’re two white, cisgender, monogamous, middle-class, college educated gay men, so please don’t devalue our relationship.” Because the rights of white, cisgender, monogamous, etc. gay men are important to me, and holding minorities specifically to a higher standard than the majority generally is bigoted. (Confidential to white queers who complain about “black people’s intolerance” as though it is more offensive to you than white people’s intolerance: STOP).

But a big part of the reason gay marriage should be legal is specific to the ways in which heteronormativity (which is already objectionable in and of itself) can coexist with bigotry against things like disability or poverty or immigrant status or some kind of “social deviance.” Because that coexistence tends to bring fears like “will my kids be taken away from their home and forced to stay with my abusive parents when I die?” or “will my wife be able to stay in this country?” and not just “will everyone please recognize that my marriage is valid?”

I think that similarly, questions like “how can I support myself now that my parents have kicked me out of the house?” and “will I be killed in jail for being trans* after I’m arrested for being a prostitute?” are being ignored in favor of “how can I put myself through college?”

And I’m loath to tell marginalized people that their narratives aren’t marginalizedenough for them to deserve space on a poster. I think that becoming a sex worker because you have kids and a mortgage is really fucking valid, and I wish more people could understand that.

But I would also like to see some recognition of the people who would most benefit from social change, not just the beneficiaries who are most “acceptable.”

3 Comments

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3 responses to ““But I’m Otherwise In Compliance With Your Bigoted Cultural Norms!”

  1. Thank you for your feedback on our poster campaign. I wanted to say that we are a new organisation and I think our first posters reflect how our founding members see themselves. The sex industry is highly diverse and you are correct to point out that not all sex workers are heterosexual women with reasonably comfortable lives. We welcome all sex workers to join us and we hope to become a more diverse organisation as we grow, and to run campaigns that reflect that once we are. What we don’t want to do is, for example, start running campaigns featuring male sex workers, before male sex workers have joined us and we have real male sex workers in our group who can talk about male sex work with the authenticity of really having been there. So, in short, we don’t disagree with your points, but for us realism is important, and we want to become more diverse, but until we are, we don’t feel confident portraying things we don’t have experience of. Hopefully as we grow, we will become more diverse, and then we can challenge public portrayal of sex workers better.

    • I can definitely understand not wanting to speak for other people (that would be awful, actually), and at any rate, a lack of diversity certainly doesn’t make your advertisements invalid or unimportant :D

      It’s worth developing a plan to actively recruit other marginalized sex workers, I think; people tend not to show up if they can’t be assured that they’re wanted.

  2. Melissa

    i was a ‘high class’ escort for years. and the reality, is very very very different to those shiny posters…

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