Emma Caterine of Red Umbrella Project, Sarah Elspeth Patterson of Persist Health Project, Melissa Gira Grant, and Cyd Nova of St James Infirmary lend their years of experience in sex worker service provision and sex workers’ rights activism to a discussion on respectability politics. I had a blast setting this up.
Why aren’t we also saying that criminalization makes it harder to keep your job private? Let’s say you’re on the street, you pick up a celebrity and you both get busted. Your face is all over the media, as we saw with the lady who picked up Hugh Grant in the 90s. If you got busted for running an escort agency in the 80s, your face was on the cover of the New York Post. Now that the internet splashes these things around more widely, and we get spam offering to tell us which of our friends or neighbors has broken the law, with considerable emphasis on sex laws, I think the argument that we hide our work because it’s against the law is beginning to sound like a 20th century trope.
This idea – that our need for privacy is a symptom of illegality – sprang up before the internet was part of our lives. Facebook didn’t exist when 20th century prostitutes were developing their political rhetoric. So now I think it’s more likely that legal reforms could be seen as a way to take back some privacy, because people everywhere – including sex workers and their customers – are feeling freaked out about their privacy.
I know we say that sex work is work, but sex work is also SEX. I don’t know everything about my parents’ sexuality—and they’re open, liberal people. A sex worker might not want her kids to know all her business because parents need to retain some mystery in order to be respected. A sex worker might not want the local dry cleaner or the man who repairs her air conditioner to know she has sex for money—but that might have more to do with erotic boundaries than the law.
These creepy web pages created by police departments. The rise of the commenter which has its most problematic manifestation on escort review sites. The 24-hour news cycle. These things didn’t exist in 1975, when our big sisters occupied the churches in France and put us on the map. But some of our rhetoric, even coming from newer voices, has a 1975 quality. When I hear activists ranting about how we should come out of the closet, I feel like I’m in the presence of the thought police. In 2013, people are more interested in reinventing privacy than they are in some fanatical version of liberation.
— Tracy Quan, as interviewed by Caty Simon for Tits and Sass
The fatal flaw of the work is that it is absolutely apolitical. The drug recovery memoir is the modern version of the exorcism narrative: A person is taken over by an unknown and unknowable force, a demon of addiction-as-disease, forced to commit unspeakable acts and led into the underworld until, through a series of rites, the foreign invader is expelled and the person is returned to their community. The story of the exorcism contains no explication of the demon. After hundreds of pages spent in Kate’s skin, the reader feels compassion for her, but not necessarily for other sex workers and drug users. Holden differentiates herself from others in her predicament in elitist terms: They’re “jailheads,” “hollow creatures” who have “given up all their dignity,” whereas Holden can play “a swaggering junkie in dark streets,” but at heart she’s still the “nice, polite, middle-class girl” she is when she’s at home with her parents.
Holden does not impel the reader to find a solution in terms of bettering the lives of other drug users and sex workers. Like the exorcism narrative, In My Skin ultimately blames no one but the narrator for her plight.
— Caty Simon, on In My Skin for Tits and Sass