I Get Email: Men Who Want To “Help”
I have been photographing and telling the stories of street walkers, addicts, homeless, for last three years. I have formed very close bonds and I get asked for help often. I also get offers of help, but sadly they are often unrealistic. Attend a workshop is beyond the resources, often its about just getting enough money to get the next fix.
I see the same thing when it comes to advocacy for other issues I cover, like “stop and frisk.” The ACLU wants me to hand out iPhone apps. That is missing the point, “burn phones” are not app friendly.
I know its well intentioned, but the ones who suffer the most from the negative stereotypes, from the patronizing smugness of people liks Kristof, from the police, are the ones least served.
The offers of support come in two types, both wrong. 1) Women are all victims of sex traffic, lets put them in van, move them to convent or something. 2) Lets put them in a workshop and have them write about their experiences.
What is needed is writers helping them tell their stories, lawyers helping them learn their rights, and politicians realizing they are humans not statistics. Boots on the ground.
Sorry for rant, I know what you and others are doing is fantastic work. I just find that resources seem to drift towards the liberal arts student who does escort to pay her way through college, rather than the down and out addict who is just sucking dick to get crack.
Cheers and keep up the great writing”
I hear that you want to help. So with that in mind, I’ve got two pieces of feedback to help —
In the way you are talking about the kinds of help sex workers need, I think you’re creating dichotomies here that aren’t especially useful. I’ve worked in direct services for sex workers, and am a former sex worker myself. People make all kinds of assumptions about what sex workers need — and you are correct in identifying that. But sex workers who have been working for the health, safety, and human rights of all sex workers identify a spectrum of needs. You’re totally right that legal aid is critical — and almost no funding is available for that. Likewise, there’s little funding for basic needs like housing, child care. And what there is usually is only offered to people after arrest.
And I’d caution you to not use language like this, even as a joke —“Sucking dick to pay for crack” — that’s a really hard thing to hear. I’m not denying that it’s a reality, but it’s not your reality — it’s a reality you observe, photograph, and to an extent, derive value from in creating photos from it.
As valuable as your work might be, it is not as valuable as stories sex workers themselves share about their own lives.
“Prostitution itself is a technology, a communication system, as much and at times more than it is a system for organizing sexuality. It signals. Walk for a moment through a red-light district in your head and you won’t see sex—just its red-hot flares.”
– A new excerpt from Playing the Whore up at Guernica for publication day. (Or, get the whole thing.)
“Sex workers should not be expected to defend the existence of sex work in order to have the right to do it free from harm.”
Melissa Gira Grant
As quoted in a Washington Post blog about her book “Playing the Whore”
The sentence in Grant’s book that most changed my mind about the topic was this simple observation: “Sex workers should not be expected to defend the existence of sex work in order to have the right to do it free from harm.”
Like many people, I have a mix of conflicting ideas, thoughts and reactions when it comes to the issue of sex work. But that sentence was clarifying. We shouldn’t have to solve a Big Question to ensure that people are not subject to risks and threats from both the people who hire them and the state itself through its policing powers. Those simple labor-market issues aren’t new. And, historically, they’ve been best addressed through democratic accountability and action.
Most sex workers will have conflicting opinions about their work. But that’s true of all workers. And sex work exists within a larger labor market at all times. As Susan Dewey found in her ethnography of women working at strip clubs in the Rust Belt, it was the low-wage work outside strip clubs that the women found “exploitative, exclusionary and without hope for social mobility or financial stability.”
The debate over sex work isn’t going to go away anytime soon. But hopefully, with more books like this out there, it will move forward to a place where the workers under discussion are seen as people we are trying to empower to make decisions, rather than merely criminals to punish or victims to save.”
“Based on my experience, I argue that the political opinion and stance on sex work is often seen as a criterion to include or exclude a (former) sex worker in a democratic debate. I also believe that the current perceived “success” of the ‘Swedish Model,’ is mainly the result of a global silencing and exclusion of sex workers’ own voices and political claims. In my eyes, this exclusion is not compatible with the democratic principles of European countries. I cannot back this up with research because this question was never asked… As a feminist, I call for more rights for sex workers – unconditionally. I respect their choice, certainly often a hard and difficult choice, to work in the sex sector. But who gives me the right to morally judge sex workers and to make them (as parties in the paid sexual encounter) responsible for gender inequality or to shame them as “pimps,” in order to exclude them? It is not when sex workers will be prevented from offering sex for money through criminal law that gender equality will be attained. Gender equality will be attained once women stop seeing sex workers as a threat to their career and their gender and begin to respect sex workers as human beings.”