Many people find it challenging to see sex workers as subjects, rather than as objects—as individuals capable of making choices and as actors in their own lives. Tragically, many of these same people purport to be our advocates.
Rachel Lloyd is petitioning for E! to stop "Starlet or Streetwalker," a recurring segment on Joan Rivers' show Fashion Police. In this segment, Rivers and her entourage vote on whether a woman shown in a picture is a famous actress or a street walker. If it's an actress, her face is shown. If not, it remains blacked out. I can't say I'm a huge fan of the show to begin with, so when I first read about Lloyd's campaign, I expected to agree that a line had been crossed. Using words like "hooker," whore," or "streetwalker" as pejoratives is never okay, and slinging such terms at others can have dangerous consequences, even when used as a joke. From the sound of it, there was a lot going on here that was possibly offensive. According to Lloyd, Rivers was using sex workers' images without their consent. In addition to that, I worried she was lumping women who are possibly not sex workers at all into the category of sex worker, or re-enforcing the stereotype that all sex workers look or dress alike.
The first time I saw the segment, it took me a minute to realize that the women whose faces were covered up were actually real women in the sex industry. I then watched with growing discomfort as I realized that these women, poor women, desperate women, drug-addicted women, women under the control of a pimp, women who are victims of violence and exploitation, were being used to highlight wealthy celebrities' poor fashion choices.
And that's where she lost me.
Rachel Lloyd is a former prostitute turned author and abolitionist, a soldier in the politically fashionable crusade to end prostitution. She is the founder of GEMS (Girls Education and Mentoring Services), a nonprofit in the South Bronx dedicated to creating and exposing underaged girls to alternatives to commercial sex. While this organization does fantastic work, I question Lloyd's work as an advocate for all women selling sex.
As an abolitionist, Lloyd does not acknowledge alternative experiences to the dominant narrative that all women who engage in sex work are coerced into doing so and inherently victimized by their profession. This view further marginalizes individuals whose realities do not match this mythology—women like myself, and countless others who engage or have engaged in sex work by choice or by circumstances other than force.
If the purpose of Lloyd's campaign is to challenge people's perceptions of women working in the sex industry, she does herself a disservice portraying all sex workers as desperate, drug addicted, and under the control of a pimp. Since we're talking stereotypes, let's dispel a couple off the bat. For one, the women in the pictures are women, not children. Second, Rivers is not mocking individuals which are forced into prostitution—in those cases, we are talking about sexual slavery, not commercial sex. The "Starlet or Streetwalker" segment is commenting on "streetwalkers," not slaves. The fact is, we don't know these women's circumstances. We can only assume. The concern is when assumptions render real life individuals into objects—pawns, potentially, to be used by others to sell an idea. In this case, these women's images are being exploited—first by Joan Rivers but, more troublingly, by Rachel Lloyd.
While it's true that streetwalkers are oftentimes the poorest, most vulnerable, marginalized and victimized group of sex workers, Lloyd is no position to speak for the women in these pictures, and what she says reveals more about her bias than about the women she professes to want to protect. Lloyd's campaign, from its abolitionist perspective, lacks the nuance needed in today's sex work debate. It caricaturizes individuals' realities and makes it that much harder for those outside the dominant narrative to represent themselves.
When asked to consider an alternative perspective, Lloyd said this:
For me it comes down to whether involvement in the sex industry is about choice or lack of choices. For millions of women and girls globally, its about lack of choices. Just because you make a 'choice' to work in a brothel rather than let your kids starve, or dance in a club rather than stay in an abusive home, doesn't make it an empowered choice.
Power, as I understand it, is not static or monolithic. It is contested and enacted, situational and relational. As a sex worker, I was neither "empowered" nor "repressed.". The debate as to whether or not becoming a sex worker is an "empowered choice" hinges on the greatest fallacy affecting the sex industry. Contrary to what this debate implies, sex workers don't make a choice—we make choices, plural—all the time, every minute of every day, just like everybody else. We make a choice to talk to this customer or to that one, to stay or to go, to work tomorrow or to take the day off, to leave the industry or to remain. Like all individuals, we make lots of decisions: what to wear, how to spend our money, what to do on our days off. Some of these decisions empower us, others don't. Like all individuals, we do not wish to be defined by any one of our choices. Contrary to how we are so often perceived, sex workers don't define ourselves entirely by our occupation. We don't sell ourselves, we sell sex.
Abolitionists believe prostitution is a crime against poor people whereas individuals who advocate for the decriminalization of sex work often believe that poverty is the social ill, and that efforts by anyone to take away an individual's source of income are what's criminal—not that Lloyd or anyone could ever really stop a person from selling sex. Thinking of women as entirely unable to make decisions and ignoring the reality that such decisions may be necessary for survival denies poor women and other sex workers the dignity of their experience. This, in my opinion, is just as insulting as mocking them for what they wear.
Watch a segment of The Fashion Police and tell me what you think. After all that, I found the show somewhat transgressive and not nearly as anti-sex worker as I do Rachel Lloyd: