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Kink / Sex Work

Why the Media’s Obsession with Sex Workers who are Paying Their Way Through College Has to Go

What sex work means and who a sex worker is has been informed by a mass of historical slander established by so-called experts — typically white men who aren’t sex workers. Historically, sex workers have been medicalized with discourse that references dirt, disease, low IQ, and a lack of good moral standing.

Written by Fawn Ryan.

Art by Honda Rivera.

Let’s talk about Bonding, the recent Netflix series taking the internet by storm. For a show about sex workers, this certainly wasn’t written for us.

Why the criticism from sex workers? Well, to start with, the story relies on tired tropes while portraying a mostly glossy impression of the job. It panders to a general audience for whom sex work is still too much of a radical subject to be presented with much originality. Among its numerous problematic approaches to sex worker depiction, the one that’s managed to fly under the radar of criticism is the show’s use of the school-girl sex worker trope. This trope depicts a person who has entered into sex work in order to pay their way through education. At a surface level, it can be read as a harmless attempt to bring embodiment to a character while distancing them (and real sex workers by proxy) from the negative characteristics that have come to be associated with working in our industry. In truth? It’s far from harmless.

In an ideal world, sex work would simply mean the transaction of money or goods for sexual services. But this is not the case. What sex work means and who a sex worker is has been informed by a mass of historical slander established by so-called experts— typically white men who aren’t sex workers. Historically, sex workers have been medicalized with discourse that references dirt, disease, low IQ, and a lack of good moral standing. Nineteenth-century French physician Alexandre Parent du Châtelet even compared his work of forcibly examining the genitals of prostitutes to his previous studies on the sewer systems of Paris. This kind of rhetoric is partly responsible for the stereotypes sex workers are still attempting to combat, so when the trope of the school-attending sex worker is positioned against these much more abhorrent narratives, it may be difficult to place why exactly this seemingly more progressive narrative isn’t one that sex workers are rejoicing over.

What sex work means and who a sex worker is has been informed by a mass of historical slander established by so-called experts — typically white men who aren’t sex workers. Historically, sex workers have been medicalized with discourse that references dirt, disease, low IQ, and a lack of good moral standing.

In my experience, when ‘coming out’ as a sex worker, I’m asked questions that I cannot imagine any other group of workers being asked. Notably: Am I paying my way through university using sex work? My interrogator’s face usually relaxes once I answer this question correctly, and they’re able to understand me as more than a whore. In this game, we are challenged to win over our interlocutor by wielding the characteristics that make us best understood to them, while those who do not hold the necessary credentials are cast out. To use sex work as a stepping stone to a ‘normal life’ takes privilege. The protagonist in Bonding showcases a way for sex work to be presented that stops the audience from wincing. She is a young white woman. She has access to housing and education. As far as we are aware, she does not have dependents, is able-bodied, cisgender, a native to the US, and is not dependent on drugs. The reliance on the education trope separates sex workers into opposing categories: good girls and bad girls. For an audience to not be overcome with pity and shame for the character they’re watching, they — much like my interrogators — must know that she is not the whore they think she is.

When ‘coming out’ as a sex worker, I’m often asked: Am I paying my way through university using sex work? My interrogator’s face usually relaxes once I answer this question correctly, and they’re able to understand me as more than a whore.

As long as sex workers are controlled by societal stigma, our portrayal will be a political issue. Media’s move from using us as disposable ill-fated representations of all that is immoral to digestible, educated, and privileged is not enough. The notion that lacking privilege while working in the sex industry reduces a person to nothing is not a problem that can be solved with elimination. The 2016 film, I, Daniel Blake, is a rare depiction of the complexities of living as a marginalized person. The supporting character, Katie, goes days without food while her children’s shoes fall apart before entering into sex work. What this film does differently is where it chooses to direct the audience’s emotions. Rather than look down on Katie for surviving through sex work, our attention is turned to simply how she became a sex worker. Sex workers who are underprivileged don’t fall from the sky, but have been placed into their situations by social structures which purposely neglect and ignore the needs of anyone who falls outside a strict bracket of social acceptability. This view affects how we see Katie. She is shown as a multifaceted woman who isn’t relatable through any middle-class characteristics, but through the handling of her circumstances. When Katie earns £300 through sex work, she is able to purchase food, sanitary pads, and shoes for her children. Katie isn’t the glossy sex worker that we can view without discomfort, but a realistic individual who exposes the joy to be found in keeping yourself and your family alive in a system that often seems to strive to make that impossible.

A person paying their way through school by entering into sex work is not a fabrication. In recent years, the number of women getting educated whilst funding their university costs with sex work has increased. What is a fabrication, however, is the overwhelmingly palatable depictions of ‘good girl’ sex workers, for whom the ease and comfort afforded by various privileges are essential to their portrayal. The problems which sex workers face are not self-generated. Authorities who are supposed to protect will likely arrest a sex worker after she reports a rape, and this knowledge isn’t hidden. Violent men understand where systemic care is lacking, and purposefully prey on the most vulnerable of women, knowing these systems of supposed protection will sooner keep them safe over any woman in the sex industry. Rarely has an attempt been made to simultaneously depict sex workers as potential victims of both physical and systemic violence. These stories should find a way to be told whilst showing sex workers in their entirety, and those who work to hurt us as the focus of pity, shame, and the ones in need of redemption. 

Fawn Ryan is a queer, overzealous sex worker, writer, and postgraduate sociology student from London. She is interested in empowering sex workers, making grown men cry, and giggling at psychoanalytic theory.

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