The In-between: Disconnected
In early August, the American Psychological Association (APA) held its annual meeting in San Francisco. I had never before been to a psychology conference, but as a sociologist, I had always found the field fascinating. The first day after registering I found a quiet spot in the exhibitor’s hall to pour over the program and plan my attack. I circled panels on sexting, body image among trans folks, trends in gender identity and expression, and diversity among bi women, to name a few.
Of all the panels that were being held that weekend, however, I was most excited to attend the one focused on sex trafficking. As those of you who read my essay “Leaving on a Jet Plane” will recall, when I was a young stripper I found myself in a situation where such an experience could have very easily happened to me. Even though it did not (thankfully), the precariousness of those circumstances has not been lost on me, such that in the years since then, I have grown increasingly invested in supporting anti-trafficking efforts. Although occasionally, when I have mentioned this investment to other sex workers or sex worker rights activists I have noticed a brief moment of awkward silence; I never thought much of it until I walked into the panel room that day.
It all started during the second presentation when the speaker stated very matter-of-factly that there was no such thing as a prostitute (her word, not mine), insinuating instead that all sex workers were in some way forced into the job. Say what?! While obviously, some are (this was a panel on sex trafficking, so…duh!), I was startled by her intimation that it was the only valid experience. During my time as a stripper I met tons of different women and men from all walks of life, each with a slightly different motivation for their work and set of experiences doing it. At times (although never in the club), I did come across an individual who seemed suspiciously distressed, unhappy and/or somehow out of place, which is why I was now seated in that room. However, to insist that this was the only experience seemed counterproductive, not only because it muddies the waters for effective anti-trafficking activism, but also because it further stigmatizes the very people they are trying to help.
A perfect illustration of this predicament is the recent passage of SESTA-FOSTA, which is an anti-trafficking measure in the United States intended to make sex-trafficking more difficult online. In the wake of its passage, numerous digital spaces like Backpage and Craigslist Personals shut down, these sites had afforded sex workers more personal agency and autonomy, as well as improving their safety by allowing virtual services and better vetting processes. In response to these closures, sex workers have been increasingly forced out onto the streets, where they are now more vulnerable to sexual and physical violence, as well as, ironically, the increased risk of exploitation by pimps and other traffickers. Thus, when the second presenter then went on to sing the praises of the measure, I began to understand that awkward silence I experienced when mentioning anti-human trafficking to sex workers and activists as noted earlier.
Except for the third panelist, whose tragic life story conveniently reinforced every negative stereotype and narrow-minded presumption about sex workers and the industry that the other speakers were attempting to make, I felt fairly certain I was the only former sex worker in the room. As the panelists droned on, I seriously considered abandoning the discussion all together, feeling both angry and entirely alone in a room surrounded by people whose professions were supposedly dedicated to addressing this issue. However, the realization that I likely was the only other former sex worker in the room motivated me to stay, if for no other reason than to raise my hand and voice during the Q&A.
I’ll admit, I was nervous about announcing my background in sex work to the room, because even in woke liberal spaces, I am still aware of the heavy stigma that continues to surround it. However, I felt it was my responsibility to challenge the assumptions those panelists were asserting that day, and represent for all those other individuals with similar experiences who were not there and/or could not speak. I thought that my professional attire, my Ph.D. and my reasonable and non-confrontational question would persuade those in the room to reconsider their approach. However, my request for clarification on discerning willing sex workers from those being trafficked was ignored by the panel and kicked to the audience. Condescendingly, I was told by an audience volunteer that no one is in the profession by choice, and that it was really only (out of touch) White academic women who continued to promote such a ridiculous view.
If the volunteer (who herself appeared to be a White academic woman) hadn’t been staring me directly in the face as she spoke, I would have thought for sure that she didn’t hear me properly and/or didn’t see who she was talking to. Clearly, I wasn’t White, nor was I an academic, and what’s more, I had just prefaced my question by stating that I was a former sex worker who had not been trafficked or coerced. And yet, there she was, denying my existence and experiences to my face. She informed me that even those individuals who thought they were in the industry by choice were actually just unaware of the external factors that had forced them into sex work. In her eyes, apparently, for us sex workers, there is no such thing agency.
What troubled me the most about this exchange was that the final presenter had just finished speaking about reframing trafficked people as survivors rather than victims. This sentiment had received numerous nods and smiles from the audience, but now those same individuals sat in silence as this woman tried to force me into a victim’s box. When I protested, she insisted that I didn’t know what I was talking about, rather than acknowledging the possibility that multiple experiences could be true. In a similar fashion, anti-trafficking efforts like SESTA-FOSTA are also built on this same patronizing presumption of victimhood, which, I suspect, was the reason that many sex worker activists silently bristled at the mention of anti-trafficking work.
For me however, I once again find myself carving out a space in the middle. As I wrote on Twitter in response to the panel:
Happily, those in my twittersphere who responded all seemed to agree. This agreement not only emboldened me to continue on this path, but also seemingly hints at a larger desire to bring these two activists worlds together. We are, in my mind, all fighting on the same side. As an in-betweener, I recognize I am perhaps more comfortable than most occupying a middle ground, which is why I now find myself striving to bridge this dangerous and unnecessary gap.