Yesterday I found myself in an embarrassing little situation. For a hot minute, I felt I’d said the wrong thing, but had to remind myself I really hadn’t. Okay, so an explanation is in order.
I was visiting a friend, a woman, who’s quite open-minded about most things, maybe even all things. She was born during the Great Depression and had lived through World War II. All her life she was painfully aware that women, by and large, get a raw deal in this world. She can tell tale after tale about how she’d experienced sexism and was denied opportunities due to the simple fact she was born with a vagina. Sexism rankled her from her earliest days and drove her to do all she could to overcome it. And she did, as much as any woman can in this unfair world.
Another, younger woman was present. We were talking about someone all three of us know. The older woman, let’s call her Carla, mentioned that the person we all know has a daughter who is working in a different state as a pole dancer. Carla told us that this woman’s daughter is very lithe and can do the splits easily. Just hearing about that makes my back, the insides of my thighs and, for pity’s sake, even my head sore. The daughter, in fact, is so good at pole dancing and makes so much money at it that she drives a new Cadillac. Her mother is quite proud of her, the other woman, let’s call her Sharon, said.
At which point, I said, “That’s great. I’m glad her mother accepts that she’s a sex worker.”
Dead silence. Both women looked at me through narrowed eyes.
After few uncomfortable moments Carla piped up. “She’s not a sex worker,” Carla said. “All she does is dance. She doesn’t do anything else, if you know what I mean.”
I wasn’t intending to imply that the woman did “anything else.” But, apparently, that’s the message both Carla and Sharon heard. “She’s not a sex worker,” Sharon said.
I asked where the pole dancer worked, figuring I might have missed the news that pole dancers are now working in non-sexual settings. The answer came back that she works in a strip club.
“So, she’s a sex worker,” I said, still feeling a bit red-faced but nevertheless determined to clear up this sex worker murkiness. “She’s taking her clothes off, earning her money by titillating men. She’s a sex worker.”
The problem was apparent. To me, being a sex worker is just another way for a woman — or a man — to make a living. It’s neither good nor bad, just the way ringing up Cokes and bags of chips at a convenience store or taking claims for an insurance company are. Carla and Sharon, though, must consider the term sex worker to mean nothing but prostitution. Call girls. Bar girls. Street walkers. If you call somebody a sex worker, you’re relegating them to the lowest rung of society.
Why else would there be silences and defensiveness each time I said the woman was a sex worker?
And what if she does do something else? What if, for the right price, she slips away with a customer for some value-added treatment out of sight of the rest of the room? For that matter, what if she is a call girl, a bar girl, or a street walker? Then Carla and Sharon might agree with me that the woman is a sex worker. I’d hope they wouldn’t then relegate her to the lowest rung of society.
See, for an excruciating minute I’d felt as though I’d wronged the woman when Carla and Sharon shot narrowed eyes at me. But I hadn’t. I don’t look upon pole dancers, hookers, sex shop clerks, or anyone who makes a living in the sex industry to be beneath me. I’d been close friends with a couple of women who were career prostitutes back in Chicago. One, Karen, was a street walker; the other, Selene, was a hotel bar hanger. Both Karen and Selene were smart, ambitious, hard-working people. They took great pride in their appearance. They read good books. They appreciated good cooking, comfortable shoes, sunny days at the beach, and sitting on the front stoop on cool summer nights. The read the papers and had strong opinions on politics and world affairs. They were just like you and me.
No surprise there.
Like me, they couldn’t imagine themselves pent up in a stuffy office, playing workplace politics, worrying if the boss liked them or not. They found they could live a comfortable lifestyle by being…, well, sex workers. Both Karen nor Selene talked about how, at first, they occasionally felt lousy about their vocation. They grappled with that feeling and, so each said, eventually realized they didn’t hate themselves for what they did but they’d let other people’s attitudes toward them seep into their consciousness.
Who knows? Maybe both Karen and Selene were fooling me — and themselves. Maybe they really did feel they were losers, that they belonged on the bottom rung of society for being sex workers. But through all our conversations, they conveyed a certain pride that they were strong enough, independent enough, and filled with enough initiative to go out there and earn a living selling sex.
Sex workers are even unionizing in various places around the world. Sex workers unions push for safer working conditions and better treatment from their employers. The unions also can provide support for sex workers who aren’t formally employed, like Karen and Selene.
Loyal Pencillistas know I’ve been a strong union guy all my life, having been a member of a municipal laborers union, the Newspaper Guild, and the National Writers Union over the years. No work I ever did was any more valuable or essential than the work Karen or Selene or any other sex worker does.
I’m an optimist (occasionally). Maybe one day Carla and Sharon will see things that way too.