This week, Morgan Page, Trans Community Services Coordinator at Toronto's 519 Centre, posted over at PrettyQueer.com on her concerns about how "just about every non-sex working trans person alternately use[s] your existence as a political pawn in their campaigns for middle-class privileges (often called "rights") and condemn[s] you for either being a victim or making the movement look bad." She talks about some of the problematic things she hears, such as "Sex work is perfectly fine as a choice, but we need to talk about how survival sex work and "trafficking" are hurting our community!" and "I wish the media would stop making it look like we're all hookers!" Take a look at her post to get her full perspective on these issues.
As a person with plenty of middle-class privileges who campaigns for that neo-liberal fantasy of "rights," I have often wondered about this. Do I stand in solidarity with trans sex workers and their right to dignity and protection in their chosen work? Or am I fighting for rights so that trans people won't have to engage in sex work when their educational and employment opportunities are enlarged?
I have a lot of complicated feelings about sex work. As a firmly middle-class person with middle-class values who grew up very religious, I intuitively feel that sex work is degrading. But when I think about why I have such a feeling, I cannot help but notice the contradiction: the "degradation" comes from the fact that it is unacceptable in "polite" (read: middle-class) society, but it continues as a trade because people with money (i.e., middle class men) continue to pay for it even as they publicly snub and shun those who engage in sex work. (The rich do not consort with prostitutes. They have mistresses. Is there a real difference there?)
This public/private contradiction is as old as human history, and there are stories about it in the Bible. The classic opera "La Traviata" tells the story, as does the popular movie "Pretty Woman." But even as we all root for Julia Roberts as Vivian in Pretty Woman, we look down on the trans prostitute as the lowest of the low. (I say "we," meaning society, in which we all participate, even if it is by our silence. Qui tacet consentit.)
We also portray trans prostitution as one of the negative effects of employment discrimination, implying that sex work is an evil to be remedied by law. Is prostitution evil? I do not think so; I think our hypocrisy is the source of that evil. And yet, I am not ready to embrace liberation of sex work as a cause. Is that because I do not believe in the liberation of sex workers? Is it because I do believe in the liberation of sex workers, but it's easier to argue for liberation for respectable middle-class people, without engaging that intractable age-old social hypocrisy?
But I remember a time when sex work seemed like an option, and I also remember when I was abandoned and more than willing to be bought as a mistress. I remember being handed $40 by a man in a bar, and being grateful to get it, and I remember flying to Paris to have dinner with my married paramour and retiring to a small hotel in Ile de la Cite. Who am I to look down on anyone?