Sex Workers Have Been Saying #MeToo, We Need To Listen

Newsflash: Sexual abuse isn’t part of the job description.

I scrolled down the cracked screen of my phone, bewildered and feeling my heart rate quicken as I started to understand the meaning behind the hashtag #MeToo. A year ago, I distinctly remember sitting on my couch and reading– some people just posted the phrase itself. Others’ testimonies were accompanied by trigger warnings, with detailed accounts nestled under “read more” links, heartbreaking in both their unique specificity and utter commonality. I felt my face get hot and my throat constrict.

What I felt was complicated—solidarity, yes, but also a profound sadness and anger. After a few days, I decided to share my own account—the most recent of many, and one specifically related to being a sex worker. I don’t feel as though I need to hash out all the gory details here. More importantly, I don’t want to.

I can’t help but wonder, like many, the usefulness of such a deluge of trauma. Were we just screaming into the void? Others have since lamented the fact that we as survivors feel obliged to rip ourselves open, over and over again, for others to gawk at us, and we debate amongst each other whether or not they believe we’re telling the truth when we relay our trauma. This happens on small, personal scales, and at the global level.

This October marks the one year anniversary of the #MeToo movement—though not the one year anniversary of the phrase and sentiment behind “Me Too” itself, which was created by Tarana Burke at least a decade earlier. The #metoo anniversary comes right after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave her testimony against Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Every woman, femme, and non-binary person I know is absolutely raw. Many are feeling re-traumatized. But Kavanaugh—I suspect with dismal certainty—will be confirmed to the Supreme Court, anyway.

Another day in the United States of America… another day in the world.

My #MeToo story, the one I decided to share last year, is simultaneously complicated yet very simple. At my old job, I had disclosed to a few coworkers that I’d worked as a stripper in the months before starting a new job. My trust was misplaced. Soon, it was something that other people knew about, not just the ones to whom I’d disclosed it. A man who worked in another department found out and took that as an automatic green light to sexually harass me, long after I’d made my discomfort, nervousness, and awkwardness in the face of his behavior known. It seems strange to me that I’d had such a hard time saying “no”, point blank, in this situation—especially now, having gone back to stripping and working regularly for another year and a half, when “no” is something I say often and with ease in the club. But back then, I remember being in denial and having to double check with close friends, family members, and my partner if my discomfort was justified. I recall trying to laugh it off, to play along, to rationalize it away. I am proud of myself for finally saying, in writing, “Stop doing this, I’m not interested.” And I am lucky that sending that email was enough to make him leave me alone, so I could finish out my last couple of weeks there in peace.

The #MeToo movement does nothing to make space for experiences like mine. It also does not acknowledge the fact that sex workers can be sexually harassed and assaulted within the context of working within the sex industry. For example, porn stars often have to deal with coercive and violent practices at the hands of male directors, and must then weigh the consequences that speaking out might have on their future in the industry. James Deen, lauded as a “feminist porn star,” found work long after he was accused of rape by Stoya, though other adult film actresses have since also come forward with their own stories of Deen assaulting them as well, in the porn industry’s very own #MeToo movement. The fact that many of these assaults occurred on porn sets speaks to the mainstream understanding that those who work in the sex industry “can’t be raped.” A year after #MeToo, in any other industry, these assaults would be considered harassment or violence. Because they took place on a porn set, however, they’re seen as what the actresses “signed up for.” I feel similarly at work, and I make the choice to physically defend myself if I have to, knowing that at best, that choice will mess up my money, and at worst, I could get fired—or even, as one bouncer warned me, arrested. The fact that I can weigh my options, choose my battles, and make that choice is a privilege. After I turned around and shoved a drunk customer who thought he could slap me—hard—on the ass as he walked by, one of my coworkers, a Black woman, commented, “If I did that, I would get fired on the spot.”

Sex workers, as a stigmatized group, are all too aware of how society views us. We rage against it, repeating over and over again statements that should be obvious: Consent is for sex workers too, the “too” a painful and frustrating reminder of how we’re often perceived to be “always consenting” or “unrapeable.” It is, in fact, possible to violate the boundaries of a sex worker, because we are, in fact, humans. We have limits, preferences, and the right to choose how we use our bodies, both at work and in our personal relationships, and to revoke consent at any time. In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, one of the refrains that sex workers have noted and taken issue with is that violent men should “just go see a sex worker” to “get those urges out.” As if violence is only condemnable when it befalls a “respectable” non-sex working individual; as if that same violence is just part and parcel of a sex worker’s job description.

Newsflash: It isn’t part of the job description. It is, however, a hazard. One study reported that sex workers are 45 to 75 percent more likely to experience workplace violence than non-sex workers. To me, that is directly correlated to the way mainstream feminism is still so willing to get into bed with things like anti-sex work stigma, classism, racism, transphobia, and white supremacy. It is wild to me that I even have to write it, but sex workers don’t deserve to be raped. And while mainstream feminism makes a laborious effort to push back on victim blaming, the silence around sex workers’ accounts of experiencing sexual violence speaks volumes.

I didn’t report when I was sexually harassed at my old job because I’m a stripper, and the man who buzzed around my office like a fly for months came around as soon as he found that out. He used it as leverage against me. “I heard something interesting about you,” he said, by way of opening the conversation. “I heard you used to dance.” And right then, I knew that I was stuck. I would have to handle it myself. I didn’t report because I was leaving soon, and I didn’t want to have to account for how I supported myself when non-sex working positions weren’t cutting it.

It is telling that the #MeToo movement only went viral after a white woman tweeted it, despite the fact that a Black woman has been on the ground doing the work for decades. The people that mainstream feminism leaves out of its movement are the people who continue to get hurt the most, and sex workers—especially BIPOC, queer and trans sex workers, and full-service survival workers (the ones whose lives are not glamorous to voyeurs) who imagine fancy pole tricks, and handsome sugar daddies—are hurt most of all.

I hope for a #MeToo movement in which sex workers can share their stories and be met with nothing but the most heartfelt solidarity. 

I dream of a world in which none of us have any stories to tell.