“Hey Baby, How Much?”: Stop Blaming Sex Workers For Street Sexual Harassment

I leave work around 5 on a steamy day in my favourite summer dress, hit the corner and as I try to cross, a guy in a silver car slows and makes friendly eye contact with me. With his hands he says “wanna get in?” I pause, confused for a second, then laugh, remembering where I am (I work near a stroll) and shake my head. No thanks! He drives on.

I’m cycling through a rich part of town wearing slutty ripped tights, my low cut dress hiked up to my thighs. Standing alone outside some interior design store, an older man yells “put some pants on!” I slow my pedalling for a second (did he just say what I think he said?) and yell backward “Fuck You!”

Ten years ago, I’d have considered these both street sexual harassment. But ten years ago I wasn’t a sex worker. Now I know that being solicited for paid sex is not sexual harassment, that the two look pretty much nothing alike and that street sex workers and clients have a right to do business in their workplace (the street) without anti-sex work feminists blaming them for sexism. In fact feminists need to *get out of the way* and learn from street sex work feminism.

A note on gender: I’m focusing specifically on women sex workers here  because even though there are plenty of sex workers who are not women, it’s the ladies who get blamed for men’s violence. And when I say “women” or “men”, I always mean cisgender and trans women or men unless I say otherwise.

Anti-prostitution bias in feminism
This is a tiny sampling of the bullshit: “prostitution teaches men they can buy our bodies!” “It’s so gross how some guy asked me how much I charge. MY BODY IS NOT FOR SALE!” “Those empowered queer porn stars/fancy call girls/college-student strippers are different–they’re choosing it!” “With two strip clubs in my neighborhood, I can’t walk a block without some guy sleazing on me”

This is just a small window into anti-prostitution bias in feminism. It has an epic and ugly history and it’s often highly linked with classism and racism. In this post, I’m just addressing one part of it: suggesting that the cause of gender violence, street harassment or any form of patriarchy is due to sex working women or the sex industry itself. I can’t believe I have to write an article to explain that women don’t cause patriarchy but that’s how bad this shit is.

It’s not that sex work isn’t sexist (or oppressive in all the regular ways). It’s just not special. Thinking that sex work is by nature sexist–and that the rest of the world isn’t, or that in the rest of the world, women can resist sexism but not sex workers–is based in contempt for sex workers.

I’m writing this because I want to challenge women (and people who get mis-read as women) to stop getting misogynist street harassment and street sex work mixed up. I want to show you how doing so benefits you and makes you a wiser and more respectful feminist.

Volumes could be written on how anti-sex work feminists treat sex workers like brainless garbage, attack our workplaces (“let’s firebomb the strip club! it’s so feminist to put women out of work!”) mock our skills and intelligence (“so, what, are you just a really good “fucker?” said the lady feminist to me at Take Back The Night), make us their mute metaphors of degradation–all the while trying to shut us up when we organize our own movements for liberation. Some see sex work as nothing more than exploitation (needing their heroic rescue, obvi), some are only comfortable with the “strong empowered” kind of sex worker, some think sex workers are fine as people–but believe the work we do (and our clients) to be worthless. There are even non sex working feminists who get sex workers to apologize to non sex workers for how their work has “harmed all women”. Underneath all this is a sense of superiority and no respect for sex work feminism.

As a sex working feminist, this is devastating and enraging. This article comes out of my deep lifelong commitment to feminism, my need to push back on feminisms that are contemptuous of me and my sisters and to show some respect for all that sex workers have taught me about feminism. I wrote, talked about and edited this piece with feedback from trans and cis street-based and off-street sex workers, all of whom identify as feminist hookers. Special shout out to JustAHo.

The daily violence of harassment
Women and people who are read as women (but aren’t): I feel you. We are entitled to walk/ride/roll the streets everywhere without harassment. I have experienced a lifetime of misogynist violence–some of the worst has been on the streets. That has taught me to be vigilant and to spot the slightest signals that male street harassment and violence is coming my way. At one time in my life that included anyone who signaled that they saw me as a sex worker. I treated those guys the way I did street harassers (ignore, yell back, cross the street) because I mistakenly thought that both were sexist and dangerous.

There are reasons why being approached for sex, including paid sex, can be dangerous. This has a lot to do with the dangers of policing and the entire prison industrial complex. For 2 spirited, gender non conforming (gnc) and trans women (in particular racialized trans women), being seen as a sex worker can be part of an oppressive and dangerous stereotyping by cops. This stereotyping exposes people to police surveillance, harassment, discrimination and violence and is one of the main ways that so many people of colour, Indigenous people and poor people end up entangled in the murderous machine of police-courts-prison-release-repeat.

While I want this advice to be helpful in navigating street harassment I also know that the experience 2 spirited, gnc and trans women face of being approached for paid sex is different than it is for cis women. 2 spirited, gnc and trans women are criminalized and hyper-sexualized (in particular when they are racialized) just for existing. I want to lift up and respect all the ingenious ways that 2 spirited, gnc and trans women resist, survive and thrive.

I also want to respect non-sex working women who are survivors and the wisdom you have about protecting your bodies and minds from danger. What I am hoping to do is to share ways you can protect yourself from actual harassment that are not contemptuous and hurtful toward sex working women.

I’m going to offer some concrete suggestions on how non sex working women can differentiate clients from harassers while at the same time respecting street sex worker’s businesses. Sex workers have really kick ass tips on navigating the streets and are often not respected for these skills by people who don’t see sex work as skilled work.

Sex work and street harassment

Sex work and harassment don’t look alike. If you think solicitation is “hey baby how much?” yelled from a car or any sort of rude, abusive, misogynist or transmisogynist behaviour, and that’s the training men are getting from street sex workers, you’re wrong. This is based in hollywood stereotypes not reality. Here are the most common phrases used by potential clients with street workers:

-hi
-how are you tonight?
-excuse me
-are you working?

The majority of potential clients are silent. Initially both sex worker and client are feeling out the situation with their guards up, each is afraid the other could be an undercover cop. Often a client will slow his car & roll down his window until the sex worker makes the approach. Dialogue is minimal until they’ve both established that the other is not a cop (each sex worker has strategies for this) before they start negotiating services and price.

When a guy slows his car and waves at you to get in, he is just a client and unless there is some other factor at play, a regular old client is of no danger to you. Thinking you might be a street sex worker and using the standard practices of street sex work transactions is not harassment nor an insult nor anti-feminist nor dangerous. You’re just accidentally part of a street economic exchange, because you walked into their workplace. Don’t sweat it. Yes some clients can turn out to be dangerous but you need to unlearn the idea that this is more likely from clients on the street than in your home or from cops.

Don’t think that the client “ought to know” that you are not a worker because you think all sex workers look like Julia Roberts so must be harassing you. Thanks to criminalization, many street sex workers dress and work in ways that hide what they’re doing, making it look like they’re just waiting for a bus, a friend, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, working in daylight etc. Clients then are forced to guess who’s working and who’s not. Don’t blame them, blame policing. Sex workers and clients are making do in a system that wants to control and punish them all.

If someone on the street is rude, disrespectful, or threatening toward you, you are not being solicited. This is not sex work, this is sexual harassment. I’m sure you have all sorts of strategies to deal with it and protect yourself. Just don’t let one of those strategies be to mix this up with sex work and tell your harasser(s)–or your friends or your blog readers later–how disgusted you are that you someone mistook you for a sex worker. You can’t decide you just hate our clients and the work–but not us. And when you distance yourself from sex workers you imply that we are beneath you, degraded human beings compared to you. It’s hurtful, classist and it diminishes your humanity and the humanity of sex workers.

If you are genuinely approached for paid sex, it will be polite and discreet. Remember that everyone here is trying to keep things below the radar so assuming you are not interested, politely and discreetly decline. Say “No, I’m not working”. That’s all. Don’t be rude or disgusted. Don’t make a big deal out of it or draw attention to the client. And again, don’t sell your sisters out by telling him (or anyone else later) how gross that was. There is nothing gross about being a street sex worker. It pains me to have to explain that.

If you are not a street worker and grew up in quiet middle class neighborhoods, telling the difference between solicitation and street harassment might be hard for you. It may take practice and unlearning the lies you’ve internalized about who, what and where is “dangerous”. You might see the police as innocuous but take every single instance in which a dude speaks to you in a public setting, no matter how politely, as “dangerous”, especially since he’s likely to not be a fellow middle class man. As a result, you often can’t tell what might have been a friendly exchange. With time though, your bullshit radar can become less oppressive and therefore, much more accurate at predicting actual danger. This will serve you well in life. Street workers have extremely refined bullshit and danger detectors. If you are lucky enough to know any current or former street workers, pay attention to how they can tell a client from an asshole (or a good client from an asshole client). If you are not a sex worker, don’t think it’s your right to ask. If they want to share, it may come out eventually if you’ve earned their trust.

The street is a workplace. You might not understand it but you can still respect it
If you are in a neighborhood where different kinds of “underground economic activity” are happening (solicitation, dealing) and that’s not something you’ve ever done or seen up close, you might not know the rules. That’s fine but have some humility, be polite and try to make sure you don’t get in the way of people earning a living.

The streets belong to the people who live and work them including sex workers. If you look down on sex workers, scare clients off, call the cops on them, are rude to guys trying to hire someone who wants and needs the money or tell your neighbors that you’ve seen someone taking dates into her apartment, you are harming a sex worker’s livelihood. (again, so feminist! unemployed women!) You are creating havoc if you support those neighborhood watch and community “clean up” campaigns that treat sex workers like garbage to be disposed of. Some people are trying to work and really want clients so, person-with-a-non-criminalized-job-must-be-nice, don’t look down your nose at it or these workers and their clients and have some respect for their workplace. Be thankful for those guys. I’m not saying they are wonderful or terrible. They are, however, paying customers and the reason that sex workers can pay the rent, eat and buy the kid a birthday present when money is tight at the end of the month–so don’t mess that up. Often it is the only or best workplace available to them and they need it more than you need to not see sex work happening.

Solicitation is almost always happening in poor and working class neighborhoods, often majority people of colour neighborhoods. The sex workers you’re blaming for street harassment are much more likely to be poor or working class moms, women of colour, Indigenous, disabled, LGBT youth, gnc and trans women than in other industries. Like every other industry, they will on average face more discrimination, less control over their work and get paid less than cisgendered white women who appear not to have any disabilities. Do you really want to be part of that discrimination? Is that your version of feminism? We all have so much to learn from street sex workers and are lucky if we get to share community with them.

Maybe you think that some sex workers, the ones you’ve decided are “empowered” because of their privilege, are feminist, but not everyone else. Do not get it twisted: they are not more feminist–just more privileged. When you do this thing, you’re reinforcing racist, classist, transmisogynist hierarchies of sex work and those then get turned into racist, classist, transmisogynist laws, regulations and policies. Without fail, in every where I have ever seen, anti-sex work laws, regulation and policies are the most dangerous and punitive to street based sex workers.

Even activisty feminists who grew up middle class get non-profit jobs, move into poor and working class neighborhoods then have the gall to complain about street sex work, seemingly totally unaware how they are participating in gentrification and classist (and frequently racist) entitlement. It’s not feminism if it doesn’t include and respect street sex workers. Some sex workers want/need to fuck in cars and in alleyways! Get over it. Again, whose neighborhood do you think you’re in?

In fact, consider how you benefit from having sex workers in your neighbourhood, like that street based sex workers make your neighborhood safer. My friend Megan has been working on and off the street for over 20 years. Here is how she put it “sex workers are passionate about keeping the area safe and have been known to rally together to fight off someone who is attacking a community member. Wish the reverse were true! Community members are more likely to stand around watching or even promote it if a sex worker is attacked”. You want a neighborhood watch that actually keeps people safe? Encourage street sex work. I’m serious.

Add to this that sex workers know the neighborhoods’ ins and outs, its history, have techniques for determining who is an undercover cop, who is potential danger, their presence means you never face a desolate street at 3 am, they know where to find local resources (like food or a pharmacy at 5 am), they often have long standing relationships with others in the neighborhood and they create bad-ass forms of community based responses to violence (bad date lists, buddy systems where workers watch out for each other) etc. Please show some respect.

Our Sister Saviours
If you see yourself as a supporter of sex workers, why are you insulted, scared or grossed out when you’re confused with one by a client? Do you think you’re better than sex workers? More liberated/feminist?

Street sex workers face sexual harassment like many others do but often more violently (food and drink thrown at them, insults and slurs, spitting), plus policing violence and harassment. To add insult to injury, they also have to deal with harassment or contempt from non-sex working women who look down on them with pity, fear, disgust or anger.

As I mentioned, one of the easiest, most sensible ways to let a potential genuine customer know that you’re not interested is to say “no, I’m not working”. He’s trying to hire you, if you’re not selling, just tell him. But non sex workers don’t know to say this because ignorance about sex work and how it works are institutionalized and embedded in stereotypes. All of this dovetails with the fact that many non sex working women quietly or loudly think they are better than hookers and don’t want to be associated with us. Tell me what differentiates you from sex workers and I’ll tell you 100 stories that sex working women already know about your superiority complexes.

For those of us who get sexual street harassment on the regular, blame the patriarchy, don’t blame it on sex workers or the class and race character of the neighborhood. As targets of the patriarchy, sex workers understand it intimately and have some of the best solutions to resisting it. We have analyses which are critical for building feminist movements.

A few thoughts on sex work feminism
Sex workers do not teach men that being sexually abusive is acceptable nor that they are entitled to women’s bodies. To state the incredibly obvious: Sex. Workers. Charge. Whether they are getting paid $2000 or $20 for sex, $50 or .50 cents for a lap dance or $1.99/minute for phone sex, sex workers teach men that they are NOT entitled to free, unlimited sex or sexual performance, that in fact they will have to get permission for each and every sex act including how long it will last and what kind of safer sex will happen, what kind of clothing will be worn and what words used. Clients will try to get most of what they want (the kind of sex with the kind of service) and sex workers will try to get what we want (eg that he is done within 20 minutes or a big tip etc). Like every kind of paid work, who gets what they want is determined largely by how much power each bring to the situation and workplace. Ironically we are oppressed for this very fact–that men are not entitled to a sex workers sexual labour. Sex workers are trying to control our sexual (and by extension reproductive) labour, and under patriarchy, men think they ought to be able to control and own it themselves. I mean they so often can (or try to) in their personal relationships right? So in fact, doesn’t the patriarchal model of heterosexual marriage explicitly teach men that they can own women’s bodies? (Hint: YES. YES IT DOES.) Sex workers are the necessary “other” in patriarchy. How could you convince women to agree that their sexuality belongs to men unless at the same time, you make a spectacle of disrespecting and punishing women who (for many reasons) choose to or must make sexual labour visible and valued, their own, not freely given. How much freer would women be if they sided with the whores and could name their sexuality as belonging to them alone and no one else? If you believe that you are different and better than sex workers, you are being ruled by whore stigma which keeps you in your place, trying so hard to be a good girl, to earn respect and be worthy–and you are not free. When women are divided from each other (by whore stigma or by another other oppression) men benefit, some alot more than others.

Support the sex workers in your community and neighborhood
Think about the communities you belong to, the ones you love and want to nourish. There are sex workers amongst you–are you seeing them? There always have been sex workers in your communities–do you know our heritage and legacies? How can you learn to listen and believe us better? How can you challenge the attitudes that push us into silence? If you have participated in anti-sex work feminism (and we all have) how can you be accountable for the harm you may have created and prevent it? What have you got to learn from us, from the ways we navigate multiple identities and locations to what sex work has taught us about sex, bodies and gender?

There are many ways to be respectful. It might include supporting sex workers human and labour rights. Doing some research and making yourself someone a sex worker would want to talk to about their work. Getting real about who your feminism is excluding/disrepsecting and excited about how much you have to learn from sex workers about resistance to patriarchy, sisterhood, community based resistance to violence, how the patriarchal state tries to exert control over women’s reproductive & sexual labour, the gorgeous and nourishing fierceness of femininity–and so much more. Wherever you are, start by respecting the sex workers around you and in your neighborhood streets.

With regard to those streets, here is a link to an article about being an ally. Mostly just smiling and saying hello is enough. You’ll notice a strong theme of “don’t judge/don’t offer support I don’t want”. Do not be surprised if street workers are completely not interested in looking at or talking to you. As I mentioned they deal with alot of crap from women with “straight” jobs too. Don’t expect to be trusted. Reading this doesn’t make you an ally.

Finally: after all this, if you still hate it when some guy politely asks you how much you charge, please consider moving (back) to a more middle class neighborhood.

with feminist love and rage,
JN

12 thoughts on ““Hey Baby, How Much?”: Stop Blaming Sex Workers For Street Sexual Harassment

  1. Hi there,
    I found this an extremely interesting and educational article. I know I am extremely ignorant, having grown up in a middle class family in a very small town. I was aware that I knew nothing about sex workers, other than the BS from movies, etc. This gave me at least a little bit of insight into just how ignorant I am.
    I just wanted to say thank you for making me think. As a 2 spirited, multiracial young woman, I do have some ideas about feminism and patriarchal oppression, but your article definitely made me reconsider my thoughts on how it relates to sex work. To be blunt, you pointed out my superiority complex.
    Thank you for your fantastic writing style and unique insight. I will enjoy reading more of your articles, and hopefully learn more from them.
    Have a great day,
    Hana

  2. Yes, love and rage Sister! Thank you for taking the time and emotional resources to write this. You’ve got it bang on! Peace :)

  3. Coming from a country where being a sex worker is as legal as any other freelance job, I have never felt offended or intimidated by sex workers. As a feminist, I have been more concerned in engaging in projects which reinforce sex workers rights and safety and diminuish abuse. I never felt that I was discriminating sex workers. However, after reading this article, I am more aware of my inconscient degradation of sex workers: I like to distinguish myself quiet clearly from them, in a very bourgoise way I guess. Thanks for this eye-opener, hoping for more insights and important contributions to feminism from sex workers.

  4. hi folks, thanks for your comments! It means alot to me to know that I have support. This piece has spread like wildfire attracting me my share of hate mail. From calling me glorified dick rider to a counterfeit feminist, fully 100% of my hate mail is from non-sex working feminists. Some of it is more on the tip of “I’m not a sex worker but I’m going to school you on how I understand it better than you”. While not explicitly hateful, this still reflects contempt for sex workers. I try not to school people on oppressions I don’t experience (and if/when I have, I welcome hearing about it). I won’t hear it from you if you’ve never been called a glorified dick rider. Deal? Meanwhile, supportive feminists: PLEASE DEAL WITH YOUR PEOPLE.

  5. As a sex-positive feminist, I’ve been saying just about the same stuff on my blog for a while now.

    Why is that a person can buy a singer’s throat, an athlete’s legs, a masseuse’s hands, an acrobat’s talents and a model’s looks…but not a prostitute’s body? I

    Imagine a world where sex wasn’t such a hair-pulling, scream-your-head-off controversial issue and just something natural that people do. What’s wrong with that world?

  6. Coming from a country where prostitution is more or less legal (restricted to certain parts of town) I find the people exhibit behaviour that I consider harassment are usually those who try to be as offensive as possible by implying I am a prostitute eg a bunch of immature youths in a car who think they are OHSO hillarious and original for shouting at me asking how much I cost howling with laughter and not potential genuine customers. Always makes me think “yeah you got me REAL good with this one”. It never occured to me to blame sex workers when that happens, I blame the harassers for their lack of decency and for their offensive mindset. Being mistaken for a prostitute is not offensive to me at all, but if I get called one by someone who thinks this is an insult it does make me angry.

    Your article put a finger on a lot of things that make me uncomfortable when that debate comes up / people talk about being harassed.

  7. Pingback: “Hey Baby, How Much?”: Stop Blaming Sex Workers For Street Sexual Harassment – REPOST from BornWhore.com | dirtybirddistro

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