Sex Work: From inside the fishbowl

Stigma in sex work is pervasive and painful for women in all areas of the sex industry. This needs to stop.

I’m Melissa.
I’m 27 years old and a graduate of MUN.
I have a partner who loves me.
I have a family, a home, and a cat.
I work hard.
I pay taxes.
I vote.

I am a human being with many facets.
My experiences are real,
my opinions are valid,
and my voice is strong.

But because I have done sex work
my experiences are discounted,
my opinions are devalued,
and my voice is often unheard.

The stigma of sex work is so suffocating that it becomes easier to say nothing at all. This stigma is our social scarlet letter. Let’s talk about that.

What is stigma?

In the most basic sense, stigma is the negative association of a group or a subset of individuals with undesirable traits or stereotypes which are viewed pejoratively. Many of us are familiar with stigma as it applies to issues in mental health, race, gender, language, religion, and sexual orientation. If you identify as a part of a marginalized population, then you have probably experienced stigma in some form.

Stigma manifests itself in many ways. It is pervasive and it affects every single one of us. As sex workers, as women, and as people. The effects of experiencing stigma can be long lasting, resulting in social isolation, anxiety, depression, inhibited illness recovery, lowered self-esteem, antisocial behaviour, suicidal behaviours, and so much more.

Where does stigma come from?

Out-group stigma occurs when individuals who do not identify as being a member of the stigmatized group stereotype or discriminate against members of that group. An example of this would be individuals who have not had experience in sex work discriminating against those who have.

In-group stigma happens when members of the same group stereotype or discriminate against other members of that group. For example, individuals who have done sex work stereotyping other individuals for doing sex work.

Between-group stigma takes place when smaller in-groups within the larger stigmatized group stereotype or discriminate against members of another in-group also within the larger stigmatized group. As an example, see Figure 1.

Figure1Groups A, B, and C are all subsets of the larger group of Sex Workers, which is itself a subset of the larger group of Humans. In this case, between-group stigma would be stigma between any member of Group A, B, or C and any member of Group A, B, or C who is not a member of the stigmatizing group. For example, strippers or massage attendants discriminating against women who do outdoor or street level sex work.

Self-stigma is what happens when a member in a stigmatized group internalizes and applies the language, traits, labels, and stereotypes from the stigma experienced by their group. An example could be a women working in the sex industry who believes that she is undeserving of happiness, or feeling devalued as a person, because she identifies as a sex worker.

But where does it start?

The historic and political reasons behind these attitudes are complex and worth examining, but not right now. Generally speaking, the negative stigma toward sex workers comes from the premise that all sex work is inherently harmful: bad for society, bad for women, bad for sex workers.

“Surely no one in their right mind would choose to do sex work!” the hypothetical naysayers proclaim. And that’s all well and good — but what do the sex workers say?

Perception v. reality

According to a study done by Raven Bowen at the PACE Society in Vancouver, “only an estimated 5-15% (of people in the sex industry) actually work for survival.”

Figure2Figure 3In my own experience, greater overall satisfaction in sex work is correlated with more autonomy and more security.

What do we mean by “autonomy” in sex work? We mean freedom from external control or influence; flexibility in when and how we work; independence, respect, and equality; self-governance and the ability to influence change. Greater autonomy allows women in sex work to have more control over their work experience.

What do we mean by “security” in sex work? We mean physical safety without threat of harm; regular and reliable work; financial security; a healthy judgement-free support network. Greater security allows women in sex work to feel comfortable and safe while working.

Together, autonomy and security help to combat the negative influence of stigma on women who are working within the sex industry.

To claim that all sex work is bad—and to say that sex work is harmful to society and harmful to women and harmful to sex workers—is to devalue the real and valid experiences and opinions of real women doing real work.

Power and control

One of the major feminist arguments against sex work is the idea that women who engage in sex work perpetuate the male patriarchy by reinforcing male power and control over women. Some people believe that in acting out the fantasies of men by engaging in stereotypical female behaviours and female language use, women in sex work relinquish their power to their clients.

But is this actually the case?

In “Language and Woman’s Place,” Robin Lakoff describes women’s language as having some of the following features: empty adjectives (cute, sweet, charming, lovely, divine), tag questions (…right?, …isn’t it?, …don’t you think?), hedges (I guess, kind of, sort of), intensifiers (so, very, really, super), and hypercorrect, highly moderated speech in general.

Lakoff argues that “the association of indirect speech with women’s language and direct speech with men’s language is the linguistic reflection of a larger cultural power imbalance between the sexes,” with men’s language being seen as “powerful” and women’s language as “powerless”.

But when it comes to sex work, this could not be more wrong, which brings us to the research of Kira Hall and the “Lip Service” study.

Lip service

Kira Hall is a sociolinguistic researcher based out of Berkeley, who has extensively studied gendered language use and linguistic power in sexuality. In her article “Lip Service on the Fantasy Lines” Hall explores the concept of power in the stereotypically “powerless” feminine language and speech patterns used by telephone sex workers in California.

Women in the sex industry use language features which are stereotypically associated with women and “powerlessness” as a means to gain greater economic power and social mobility. This is done in marketing and advertising of sexual services, as well as in client interaction. It turns out that the “powerless” language of women is in fact a very powerful sexual commodity.

As Kira Hall so eloquently puts it, “To say that all women are powerless in sexual interaction…or to say that all women are powerless when they assume a role traditionally thought of as subordinate in a conversation, denies real women’s experience of their situation.”

The language of women can be very powerful, when we want it to be.

Women are known, in sociolinguistics, to be leaders of language change. Let us also be the leaders of social change, starting with sex worker stigma. Reducing stigma requires a change in behaviours and attitudes toward acceptance, respect, and equitable treatment of sex workers. It starts with us speaking for ourselves — so please hear me now.

It gets real now. Real personal.

In the time that I have been involved in the local sex industry, I have experienced the trauma of stigmatization firsthand.

I have been excluded, ignored, belittled, spoken over, and straight up told that my opinions do not matter. I have been harassed, blackmailed, and physically threatened too many times to count. I have experienced sexual violence and been told that it’s my fault. I have been publicly outed, had my name, pictures, and personal information posted online — by my own peers. I have lost friends, co-workers, family, and loved ones only for the words of those who do not even know me. My experience has been used as a weapon against me, used to justify why I cannot be trusted, befriended, or why my voice does not deserve to be heard.

I should clarify. I have experienced stigma from strangers, yes. Some of them are men, yes. And I can take that. By now, I almost expect it. And I have built up some pretty thick skin. But the stigma that hurts the most comes from people I know: acquaintances who judge me based on one single facet of my life, women (yes, women!) who I once considered friends, and who now cannot stand to be in the same room as me or even carry on a civil conversation, professionals, women in power and in politics who do not have the time nor interest to hear me when I so desperately need to be heard — I used to look up to you.

This is the stigma that hurts me the most.

So let us all be very clear: I am an adult woman, making my own choices. I am not being trafficked, exploited, coerced or controlled. My involvement in this industry always includes consent. I do not exploit or coerce others. I am a person, just like you, who works and pays bills. I am not a hooker, a whore, or a prostitute, nor have I ever been. I do not disrespect your individuality or judge you for your life. Please do not judge me for mine.

When we look away and pretend that sex workers are somehow different and undeserving of basic human rights — that is stigma.

When we shut our ears and discount the stories of sex workers, denying that sex work can be real work for many people — that is stigma.

When we close our mouths and choose not to talk about our experiences in sex work for fear of being judged, stereotyped, and rejected by our loved ones and peers — that is stigma.

Where do we go from here?

See us; acknowledge that we are real and we matter. Hear us; listen to our stories and validate our experiences. Speak up with us; it is not enough to speak on our behalf. Our experiences are our own and they must not be exploited anymore.
See us.
Hear us.
Speak with us, not for us.
Stigma in words and actions cannot continue to be ignored.

Sex work is real work.
Sex workers are real people.
My feminism includes sex workers.

I am a human.
I am a woman.
I am a spouse, a sister, a daughter, and a friend.
I am a feminist.
I am an activist.
I am an entrepreneur, a manager, a tax payer, and a sex worker.
These are my subsets.
These are my labels.
I am not any single one of these, but rather the summation of all of my roles.
I am me and I am happy with who I am.

Thank you all for hearing me today.
It means the world.

Thank you.

(This article was adapted from a presentation delivered on Aug. 27 as part of the FemFest NL conference and festival. The event was titled “Sex Work and Feminism: tumultuous bedfellows” and was hosted by the Safe Harbour Outreach Project.)


Sources (and highly recommended readings): Robin Lakoff, Language and Women’s Place (1975), and Kira Hall’s Lip Service on the Fantasy Lines (1995).

Melissa Karlie is a volunteer with the NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre (NLSACPC) and the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) who has become an active advocate and passionate voice for women in the local community. A graduate of Memorial University of Newfoundland, Melissa became involved with the Community Coalition for Mental Health (CC4MH) where she currently serves on the Board of Directors. Enthusiasm for both web design and social activism lead to the development of, which was created in conjunction with SHOP as a safe(r) advertising platform and community information hub for adult service providers and consumers in Newfoundland. Melissa identifies as an ally with lived experience. She is also a woman, a feminist, and a cat enthusiast.

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