Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sex Workers

I'm really glad we got to take on this topic because so often sex workers in fictional settings are reduced to stereotypes. We were super lucky to have Liz Argall join the discussion alongside Kat Tanaka Okopnik.

I told everyone that the first time I ever remember seeing a sex worker was when my family drove into Amsterdam when I was twelve. I woke up just as we hit the red light district and the first thing I saw out my window was a woman in a store window wearing a teddy. It was a big surprise! But it was clear to me from that moment that sex workers were not viewed in the same ways, nor did they operate in the same ways, all over the world.

Back when we first spoke to Laura Anne Gilman, she mentioned trying to avoid brothels in her book Silver on the Road because she didn't want to fall into the same Western stereotype.
One of the stereotypes, of course, is the "prostitute with a heart of gold." One of the discussants mentioned that Firefly hung a light on that when they named an episode "Heart of Gold." Kat expressed concern that there was whitewashing of people of color when it came to sex work. She wondered whether avoiding featuring brothels was erasure or respect.

Che remarked that in the territories of the West before they became states, there were lots of brothels because there were no laws against them. There was a hierarchy of racial bias, though, with the white brothels at the top making the most money, and black women or Chinese women making less. Kat said she'd be surprised if there were many Chinese women because at that time the Chinese exclusion act meant that it was very difficult for Asian women to immigrate to the US unless they were "safely monogamous." This indirectly led to mail order brides.

Liz is from Australia, where sex work is legal and sex workers have their own advocacy group called the Scarlet Alliance. She told us that because sex workers had accumulated financial power, they (the Seattle underground) actually played an important role in the rebuilding of the Seattle downtown. The sex workers said they would help so long as prostitution was legal and taxed. Some sex workers get so much money that they are given a pass in society. She told us a "Bob" was a woman dressed as a man in order to access male privilege.

Where sex work is legal, sex workers have power and control over their own sexuality. Where sex work is illegal, the "police become pimps" because they get to decide what to turn a blind eye to. In general, corruption goes down in places where sex work is legal.

Empowerment, economics, and gender roles intersect in complex ways.

Another stereotype to avoid is the magical sex worker stereotype. Similarly, a sex worker does not have to have a traumatic origin story.

Liz told us that once she got a chance to visit a friend when she was going to work. She was intrigued to go because she was an author! So she got dressed up and they stood her in a corner. She got a tour of the brothel, and was shown where the condoms were stored and audited (you have to check that they are being used and that they are up to date). She learned how inspections work. One lady she knew sold her car so she could move to be with a guy, and then the guy abandoned her. She liked having sex and wanted to earn money. She said the key was to pretend to have as fantastic a time as possible.

Kat said that in San Francisco there is a community of lap dancers. Many of them are single mothers, because the job is lucrative and takes place after hours. These women are not out on the street, or junkies; they figure "I like having sex and might as well get paid."

Try to avoid having the only female character in your book be a prostitute. Yes, this has happened.

Liz remarked that in general as a woman if you dress up fancy, you are seen as a person and potentially seen as bold and attractive. If you don't dress up or are considered too old, etc. you are basically invisible.

Kat said I should hang up a giant blinking sign that says "GO TALK TO SOMEONE WHO CAN HELP YOU WRITE THIS WELL."

Not all prostitutes are women, of course. Some of the issues surrounding sex work get even more complex and dangerous if you are talking about male prostitutes or trans prostitutes. It is easy for people to be victimized if they have no legal protections. Liz remarked that there are always legal and illegal forms of sex work. She told us about the Fyshwick warehouse district of Canberra, Australia, where you knew you could go to find sex workers, porn, and fireworks, or maybe a used car. Kat says in the United States you tend to find exotic dancers, fireworks, ammunition, and peaches (fruit) lumped together.

Under regulation, in what Liz called a "regulated parlor," there are strict rules about the conditions under which the sex work takes place and what surrounding activities people can do. A contract sex worker shouldn't be doing laundry. The client has to lie on his back, and must shower first. The sex worker has to be on top so she can disengage at any time.

The Miscellaneous Workers' Union has been fighting to be taxed so that its members can get financial advantages afforded to other unions, such as getting mortgages.

Street work puts a sex worker in a much more dangerous situation.

If you are a person who comes from a wealthy background, it's easier to step away from lucrative sex work. It is a vulnerable profession with no health insurance and no retirement. If it is your lifeline because you are poor, it's much harder to say no to a job you don't want.

Of course, the topic of sex robots came up. This was tricky because both Kat and Liz pointed out from the experience of the people they knew, a lot of sex work is about human intimacy, not just sex. It can be about finding a sympathetic place, someone to listen, or just touch. There is emotional labor involved. In some ways they felt there should be training for sex workers in counseling, and opportunities for them to debrief from their experiences.

So where do sex robots come in? Why are they so common (even in Guardians of the Galaxy)? Why do they seem so often to be female?

Kat pointed out that the planet Raisa in Star Trek is gender-balanced.

Liz said that less humanoid sex bots might be interesting. There is a problematic conflation of Asian women with sex robots because of our view of Japanese robotics. A Scandinavian approach would be very different. You could have a pod which would be the opposite of a sensory deprivation pod. There is one in the movie Sleeper.

Australia has laws on the books about sex crimes that apply to Australians no matter where the crime was committed. They are based on anti-slavery laws and are applied to sex crimes by Australians committed in Asia. For example, if your passport is taken and you therefore can't say no, that's considered slavery and the person who takes the passport will be punished.

People anthropomorphize sex dolls. There is a certain weird similarity with the story of Pygmalion. One of our discussants mentioned that she had read a creepy short story where Pygmalion's statue comes to life and he doesn't appreciate it, but starts seeing a piece of marble on the side.

One thing that came out of this discussion of sex robots is that it's really problematic to conflate sex work with robots that do sexual things, because it validates the dehumanization of sex workers.

Remember, sex workers can say no.

As a group we agreed that we would like to get rid of the trope that says once you are paid you can't withhold consent.

In an area as sensitive as this, it's also really important to use your terminology carefully and accurately. A courtesan or an escort is not necessarily a sex worker. People often assume that sex will follow, but often it is not part of the deal. Geisha are not about sex either. If a geisha's clients want to have sex with her, that has to be separately negotiated from her other entertainment skills (music, dance, socialization, etc).

There is a tendency in Western society to assume victimhood and take agency from people doing this sort of work.

Being outside the bounds of polite society is not equivalent to wretchedness. There is lots of potential for coercion. It's important to think through where taboo boundaries lie, and to think about whether a violation of taboo is happening consensually or non-consensually, because the two are very different.

Always remember that there is no such thing as "I have learned the rules." There is no uniformity, especially when you are looking cross-culturally. The subject of sex work is sensitive and should be depicted with great care and research.

Thank you to everyone who attended. Special thanks go to Kat and Liz, for being willing to share the stories of their friends. This was a fascinating discussion and I learned a great deal.