Speculum

#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Stigma

By Melissa Gira Grant

Playing The WhoreEach weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we’ll be exclusively serialising extracts from ‘Playing The Whore’, by journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant.

To coincide with these extracts, we’re offering Feminist Times readers FIVE chances to win a copy of the book, signed by Melissa.

To enter today’s competition, simply enter your name and email address here. One winner will be selected at random at the end of the day. 

Playing The Whore: The Stigma

Sex workers, along with many people who do not do sex work, are exposed to whore stigma for breaking with, or being perceived to have broken with, what Jill Nagle calls “compulsory virtue.” It’s a riff on Adrienne Rich’s “compulsory heterosexuality,” with which lesbians are made invisible. Whore stigma, Nagles writes, is “a mandate not only to be virtuous, but also to appear virtuous.” As with compulsory heterosexuality, compulsory virtue isn’t just about producing a set of behaviors (fucking men, being a good girl about it), but producing a system of social control (punishing queers, jailing whores).

“One does not actually have to be a whore to suffer a whore’s punishment or stigma,” writes Nagle. Naming whore stigma offers us a way through it: to value difference, to develop solidarity between women in and out of the sex trade. Along with the phrase sex work, whore stigma is situated in an explicit sex worker feminism, one that acknowledges that while only some women may be sex workers, all of us negotiate whore stigma.

Whore solidarity actions predate that vocabulary, like the occupation of a London church in 1982 organized by the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). “We’d bought fifty black masks,” writes Selma James, then the spokesperson for ECP. “In that way, prostitute and nonprostitute women would not be distinguishable from each other, and press photos of either would not be dangerous.” Entering the church alongside them were identified members of the organizations Women Against Rape and Black Women for Wages for Housework. “We were uncertain of our safety,” James writes, “and were glad to have two ‘respectable’ women’s groups with us.” Even those who are not whores can rise up with whores, can put their own respectability to work through their willingness to no longer be so closely identified with it.

This has been one of the foundational contributions of sex worker feminists to feminist discourse and activism: challenging whore stigma in the name of all those who live under it. There’s an echo of this in the popularization of whore stigma in a milder form as outrage at “slut shaming.” What is lost, however, in moving from whore stigma to slut shaming is the centrality of the people most harmed by this form of discrimination.

There is also an alarming air, in some feminists’ responses to slut shaming, of assumed distance, that the fault in slut shaming is a sorting error: No, she is certainly not a “slut”! This preserves the slut as contemptible rather than focusing on those who attack women who violate compulsory virtue— for being too loud, too much, too opinionated, too black, too queer. Slut may seem to broaden the tent of those affected, but it makes the whore invisible. Whore stigma makes central the racial and class hierarchy reinforced in the dividing of women into the pure and the impure, the clean and the unclean, the white and virgin and all the others. If woman is other, whore is the other’s other.

I’m thinking here of the first time I saw a SlutWalk protest, in Las Vegas in the summer of 2006, during the century’s first national gathering of sex workers activists. SlutWalk hadn’t been invented yet. It would be another four years before Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti explained to a group of university women, with the kind of contempt not unfamiliar to sex workers, that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” SlutWalk, in its way, was also a reaction to police harassment, though one raised by women who presumed, unlike the prostitutes of San Francisco and London, that the police would listen to them in the first place.

It should not be surprising that the first vocal critics of SlutWalk were women of color and women in the sex trade. Reading the SlutWalk rallying cry, writes Brittney Cooper of Crunk Feminist Collective:

I was struck by the righteous indignation these women had over being called slut. Although plenty of Black women have been called “slut,” I believe Black women’s histories are different, in that Black female sexuality has always been understood from without to be deviant, hyper, and excessive.

For some white women, slut transgresses a boundary they’ve never imagined crossing. Women of color, working-class women, queer women: They were never presumed to have that boundary to begin with.

In Vegas, on the sex workers’ own walk, protesters dressed in the kinds of costumes we now associate with SlutWalk—fishnets, leather and PVC corset tops, shiny hot pants, tall boots, and platform heels—with wild hair and hand-painted signs and slogans on their chests and stomachs (another homage to an older feminist practice: to riot grrrl, or at least to the photographs that had circulated of riot grrrl, few of the protesters having been around to be riot grrrls themselves).

Marching from casino to casino, sex workers took over the carefully sculpted Vegas sidewalks, passing out fliers to tourists and to the few sex workers who were also out that night, although, since they were working, attired far more conservatively.

Dressed and brazenly conducting themselves as they never could if they were actually working the tables and lounges for clients, the protesters were more shocking to the men employed by the casinos and hotels to surveil, who came and went, and at Caesars, despite the intervention of a lawyer from the ACLU who had tagged along with the march, were hustled out. It’s not that they were whores, as clearly whores are permitted in Vegas casinos. It’s how the space they took up put whoring in the public’s face; that’s why they were removed.

At the Wynn, on my way up to a party following the sex work conference a few nights before, with activist and artist Sadie Lune and an outreach worker from St. James Infirmary, a sex worker health clinic, an elevator attendant stopped us, asking if we were there for “a party.” ‘‘We are,’’ we said, ‘‘but…’’ and he began to explain, kindly, that if we had called ahead he could have made arrangements for us to be taken up in the VIP elevator. ‘‘No, no, we’re not here for,’’ one of us started to explain, ‘‘that kind of party…’’ which then would have to be followed up with, ‘‘… not that there’s anything wrong with that’’—and not that he was wrong about us—‘‘but…’’ so instead we just left it there, and went up the elevator meant for everyone but the whores.

“What it was like and what it does to you.”

When the public is groomed to expect a poor, suffering whore, it’s appreciable why some sex workers who do come out take pains to provide a counternarrative: to never look like a prostitute. They are asked only to talk about how empowering it all was or about how much of a survivor they are. They have to convince their audiences how much they always had their shit together, how they do now—how they are not like those other girls, whoever they are. Sometimes, like when calling out “slut shaming” only to then shame sluts, this undermines solidarity. This is just rearranging the pecking order of sex and gender outcasts rather than refusing to order ourselves in the first place. There’s a risk of reinventing the virgin/whore hierarchy within sex work, even when—to everyone else—all of us could still be whores.

Melissa Gira Grant is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014)

Melissa will be speaking about her book in London, Brighton, Bristol, Edinburgh and London. Details can be found here: http://www.versobooks.com/events

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