I have written a few op-eds about my experiences as a sex worker, most notably this one which appeared in the National Post. Since having my writing published, I have received emails from readers congratulating me on being so “articulate.” I wonder: Do all authors of op-eds get this kind of feedback on their writing?
I can’t imagine a social worker or police officer being called “articulate” for producing a decent piece of writing about sex work. I suspect that what people are really saying when they call sex workers “articulate” is: “you’re pretty smart…for a prostitute.”
The reality is that sex workers come from all backgrounds. Some of us are smart, some are average and some are lacking in the intellectual department. Some of us dropped out of high school, others went to graduate school and others pursued an education in the trades. Some of us have done sex work our entire working lives, while others have worked in a variety of jobs.
The point is, there is no “representative” sex worker. We come from all walks of life. It should not surprise anyone that there are sex workers who can string three sentences together. The stereotype of the utterly desperate, drug-addicted and intellectually deficient street walker is not an accurate characterization of the people who work in my industry (nor is it an accurate characterization of all street workers or all drug using sex workers). Are there people who fit this stereotype? Yes. They are not representative of all sex workers, just like I am not representative of all sex workers. All of our experiences are legitimate and all of them matter. There is no one sex worker who can speak for all of us.
When making government policy, it is essential that the experiences and perspectives of all sex workers are taken into account. Legislators need to consider the views of those who choose sex work from among several options, as well as those who choose it because they feel it is the only option. Legislators should also consider the most vulnerable members of my community, and determine what course of action would be most beneficial for them (the available evidence suggests that decriminalization is the model which best helps all people who work in the sex industry).
I have no idea what it’s like to be an Indigenous sex worker, or a sex worker with children. I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans or male sex worker. I don’t know what it’s like to do sex work on the street.
I do know what it’s like to be a sex worker who is white and university-educated. I know what it’s like to work in massage parlours and for escort agencies. I know what it’s like to run my own business as an independent escort. I know what it’s like to choose sex work over a desk job. I know what it’s like to have good clients and I also know what it’s like to be harmed on the job.
Here’s what I would like to tell the people who feel the urge to characterize all sex workers as being one way or another:
There are many types of sex workers, just like there are many types of mechanics or accountants or bus drivers. There is no “representative” sex worker, and no sex worker should speak for all of us. If you ever feel surprised after talking to a sex worker or reading their writing, take that as a sign that it’s time to challenge your ideas of who a sex worker is and what type of person does sex work.
Sex workers are trans, female, male or otherwise identified. They come from all ethnic, class, and religious backgrounds. They can be straight or gay or bisexual or queer or otherwise identified, and they don’t necessarily see clients of their preferred sex or gender when they’re at work.
Sex workers might use drugs or they might not. They might have a university education or they might not. They might feel like sex work is their only option, or they might genuinely prefer it over other options.
The point is, you don’t know what we’re like or why we do sex work unless you actually know us, so don’t make any assumptions about us without at least talking to us. Finally, never speak for us or over us. We are capable of speaking for ourselves, so listen to us when we do, and seek out our perspectives if we aren’t fortunate enough to have access to a communication platform.
Celine Bisette has been a sex worker in Canada for nine years. She blog about her experiences in the sex industry on her personal website and has published editorials on sex work in theNational Post and the Ottawa Citizen.