It's one of the commonest insults in the English language- and it's usually directed at women. The truth, of course, is that there is nothing wrong with earning money for providing sexual services...
Last week I received a vitriolic message from someone who is most certainly not a fan of Sexed Up. My correspondent called me, amongst other insults, a “fucking ugly bitch” and a “prostitute in print.”
Ugly, I’ll overlook. Beauty — or lack thereof — is in the eye of the beholder. Nobody is obliged to find anyone else attractive, but honestly, it’s a better world if you keep your negative opinions to yourself. Bitch, however, I take exception to. I have a veritable pantheon of faults — verbosity included — but I am definitely not a bitch. Grumpy, irritable and annoying, on occasion, sure — but not bitchy.
"Prostitute in print" though, I rather liked. Mostly because I love alliteration (which, funnily enough, is also an alliteration). And while it is true that I sometimes refer to my own sex life in these columns, I don’t think that anyone is being titillated. If they are, they really need to get out more.
It seemed obvious to me that the message was written by someone with untreated mental illness. For one thing she also wrote that I’d probably never had sex and that I ought to swallow a snake. I have friends and family members who have had breakdowns so, more than anything, I hope that my correspondent gets the help she needs.
However, this did get me thinking about how sex work, or even the suspicion of it, is used to stigmatise, de-legitimise and harass certain people — for the most part, women.
LABELED A SEX WORKER
Whorephobia is the fear and hatred of sex workers. Sex workers are frequently treated with disgust and suspicion; they are believed to be vectors of disease, undermining public morality and marriages.
Although there are exceptions, if you are outed as a prostitute, a porn star or as someone who works in the sex industry even in a minor capacity, you can expect to be the recipient of condescension, condemnation and, in many cases, verbal and physical aggression. There is also the risk of losing housing, custody of children, job opportunities and more.
One famous case is that of Duke student, Belle Knox. After Knox was outed as an adult performer by a fellow student, she was repeatedly harrassed, including threats of rape and death. She was also stalked. According to Knox, her complaints were “belittled or ignored by the police.”
Whorephobia can be very dangerous. Female sex workers, both cisgender and trans, experience more physical and sexual violence than male sex workers. However, all sex workers experience more assaults than people working in any other occupation.
The statistics vary between countries where sex work is (a) illegal, (b) decriminalised or (c) illegal – but overall there is up to a 75% chance that a sex worker will experience sexual violence at some point. In any given year, it is as high as 55%.
For the most part these assaults go unreported, as there is a serious likelihood of the sex worker being raped by police. In Kyrgyzstan, a shocking 90% of sex workers have been raped by police. The problem is not confined to the developing world or poorer countries. In Chicago, 30% of erotic dancers, and 24% of street-based sex workers, report being sexually assaulted by police.
Women who are not in the business of commodified sex are drip-fed the idea that sex workers are not “like us.” They are dismissed as “skanks” or “trash”. Often they are treated condescendingly as victims without agency; occasionally they may be seen as empowered entrepreneurs selling a sought-after product; rarely are we encouraged to respect them. Sex workers are seen as the ultimate “other.” They are a blank canvas for our fantasies and our fears. Their voices are silenced and their histories erased or rewritten.
Whorephobia affects all women, and to some extent men — just not equally. If your behaviour, or your clothes, are seen as transgressive, you can easily be labelled as a “whore”. Being labeled as a sex worker can have real world implications, ranging from marginalisation, to arrest – and even death.
ARRESTED FOR WEARING SHORT SKIRTS
In her book, Playing the Whore, the writer, and former sex worker, Melissa Gira Grant argues that whorephobia is not just a form of disgust aimed at sex workers, but also at women who, because of their race and class, or gender presentation, are perceived as “too sexual.”
In Zambia, women can be arrested for wearing short skirts, skinny jeans, leggings, tight shirts, crop tops and so forth. There are similar laws in the Kingdom of Swaziland, Namibia, Uganda and Morocco.
Here in Ireland, the Abortion Rights Campaign and the Sex Workers’ Alliance Ireland have joined forces, as part of a larger campaign for bodily autonomy. They argue that both sex workers and women who seek abortions experience social stigma, and that in neither case does the State trust women to make decisions about their own bodies.
The Irish State assumes we need limits on bodily autonomy to restrict women’s sexual behaviour and reproductive choices. If women cannot be trusted to make their own decisions, the underlying belief must be that we are naturally transgressive — that we are all “whores” who will shrug off motherhood and monogamy, given the chance. Not that I think there is anything wrong with that, if that’s your choice.
I am not qualified to talk about the experience of sex work; chances are, neither are you. Despite that, we probably both have deeply held beliefs and entrenched opinions on the subject. What I can say for certain is this — whorephobia is part of a larger, intersecting system of social and institutional oppression. At its core, this is the assumption that some people’s lives are worth more than others.
And that is a very dangerous thing to believe…
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