Recently someone I know well told me that stripping is “not an honorable profession” and strippers are “not good people.”
Here are my five stages of reaction.
Some of y’all don’t know me, but fighting stigma against sex and sex workers is pretty prominent motif in my writing. I just honestly felt stunned that someone could know me, know my work, and feel like this. I expect people to be whorephobic. I see it online all the time. But the people I actually hang out with are, for the most part, either down with whores or at the very least know not to say that shit to me.
You don’t see sex workers as people.
You see them as negative stereotypes.
But if I’m real what I’m mostly mourning is my previous perception of my own powers of persuasion.
In the past I would have said the exact same thing. Then a bunch of things happened, among them was that I met sex workers. I listened to their stories. I hung out with them.
There are lots of things I have said and will say about sex workers. But one thing I could never say again is that they’re not good people or their profession isn’t “honorable.” Work is work, it’s honorable because it’s trading value for value. Making a latte isn’t honorable in and of itself. It’s honorable because someone wants it and giving people what they want in exchange for something you want is what makes innovation possible.
I imagined for a second going through life expecting people to react that way to me. Even well-educated, urban, non-religious people. Even people who know sex workers.
I was legitimately taken aback. I talk a big game about ending bigotry and Black Lives Matter and whorephobia and I think of myself as a wannabe ally. But damn. I don’t know shit about stigma. That shit hurts. The worst thing about it is it’s demoralizing.
Harvard Business Review wrote up a study of corporate diversity programs’ impact. The funniest part to me was the finding that when white men expect to be discriminated against on the basis of their race and gender they literally freaked out and threw their interviews.
“They also performed more poorly in the job interview, as judged by independent raters. And their cardiovascular responses during the interview revealed that they were more stressed. Concerns [that they might be undervalued and discriminated against] interfered with their interview performance and caused their bodies to respond as if they were under threat.”
Imagine what it must be like to know you will be undervalued and discriminated against on the basis of your color and gender.
I tried to have some empathy for the offensive and stupid position that stripping is “not an honorable profession” and strippers are “not good people.”
And I guess if you consider it from the perspective of whether you’d want your sister or daughter to do it, I could certainly see not wanting that.
Of course the reason that’s so is all the people who think that.
The fact is that because whorephobia exists, sex work mostly attracts two kinds of people: Those with everything to gain, and those with little to lose.
When you don’t come from money or have connections, it’s extremely difficult to break into certain worlds. Art, writing, comedy all require knowing the right people, plus years of unpaid or low-paid work. Ambitious women who don’t have those things often turn to sex work. Angela Keaton, Margaret Cho, Molly Crabapple, Alana Massey all funded their hard-scrabble years with sex work.
On the other hand you have people whose lot in life makes earning enough to eat and feed their kids a stretch goal. They also turn to sex work.
If your daughter or sister isn’t a future comedian or artist or writer, I can see you wishing she’d work at Whole Foods and spare your family the embarrassment.
Finally, I took some deep breaths, and chanted, “It’s not about me.”
Minds are really hard to change.
I used to be the mind-changing profession, writing op-eds I hoped would sway opinions. I gave that up, mostly.
People finally know enough gay people that they can’t be homophobic anymore. Soon they’ll know enough sex workers. My carefully crafted op-eds about how sex workers actually have lower rates of STIs than slutty people who don’t get paid isn’t going to make someone not feel “icky” when they think about sex work. You have to know and love sex workers to get it. I mean I didn’t, but the part of my brain that goes “icky” is missing or broken.
Changing someone’s mind is nearly impossible because doing so requires them to admit they were wrong. There’s little the human brain hates more than admitting error.
What I’ve realized since then are that there are only two phases during which someone is likely to change their mind.
The first time is when someone is miserable as fuck. It’s still hard then because miserable people tend to blame other people for their misery. But if they can admit to themselves that maybe they could be a tiny part of why they’re unhappy, that’s a crack in the mental armor through which you might be able to wriggle some information which contradicts what they thought they knew.
Being a miserable fuck hasn’t been fun for me. But it did help me change my mind about nearly everything, blow up my entire life, and become a much happier person.
The other time you can change someone’s mind is when they are riding high on a self-esteem wave. It takes an incredible amount of believing in yourself to admit you’re wrong without feeling like you are a stupid person. This is the person I’m trying to become.
My mom always said that good people are the hardest to bring to Jesus. They don’t feel like they need him.
Happy but slightly insecure people are the hardest minds to change.
I accept that people are bigoted. I’m bigoted. I recently got excited that someone had been telling people about having sex with me for a year. Then I found out it was because I’d said something casually racist to him about penis size. I am a giant asshole and I say that not in a self-deprecating way but in a way that says that this is what it is to be awake.
It hurts my feelings when people discriminate against some of my best friends. But it is what it is. I’m gonna do what I can over here while recognizing that stigma is deeply embedded, vast, and entrenched. My greatest hope for changing minds is that miserable fucks and high-self-esteem people read it sometimes.
But all I can really hope for is to help people who love sex workers, who hurt when they are slandered, feel less alone.