What does a sex worker look like? Not like “Captain Hooker” here. (Well, maybe sometimes, but not always.)
Pop culture’s appropriation of poor and working class tropes in fashion—take the trucker hat and…cringe… “wife beater,” for instance—happens in a special kind of way to sex workers. When I think hooker fashion I think fishnet and too-tight mini-skirts, but on second thought media messaging makes clear that there are really two kinds of prostitutes: Pretty Women (see “The Hipster Hooker” à la Jessica Pilot) and the not-so-pretty kind (read: poor and desperate, what any pro not carrying a Gucci bag is lumped into being). When hooker fashion is appropriated it is typically the latter because, let’s face it, if you dressed up on Halloween as a high class call girl you just might be confused for a “normal” woman.
The reality is that the way sex workers look and dress is as varied as our experiences within the industry, even as the media works feverishly to maintain the status quo. Case in point: Andrea Peyser’s preoccupation with what I wore to a press conference. So desperate was her attempt to pen me into one stereotype or the other, it becomes a fun albeit-perplexing read. I find myself playing along: Which am I? A pathetic, possibly drug-addicted streetwalker or a sluttish, greed-fueled label whore?! Maybe, just maybe, I’m your typical thirty-something woman who, some years prior to becoming an elementary school teacher, just happened to sell sex.
Not all current or former sex workers look like me: young, white, blondish, able-bodied, good-looking enough (if I do say so myself) but by no means overtly sexy. That is my point: Not all sex workers look like anything! And yet considering that I present probably the most palatable image of what a sex worker could look like and I still got slayed by the press, it is no wonder sex workers don’t show their faces more often. It is no wonder sex workers hide their identities behind garrish wigs and fake-sounding fake names, or just don’t speak at all, particularly current and former sex workers with less privilege than myself. Considering sex workers with experiences outside the dominant paradigm are not allowed to speak without being jammed back into the box, and without risking all social capital—without being ridiculed, villified (as I was) or losing all credibility—it is no wonder the stereotypes persist.
If you want to see what sex workers actually look like, there are enough of us happy to oblige without any more sex workes having to be outed. There are campaigns such as Red Umbrella’s “I am a Sex Worker” video and Turn Off the Blue Light, a poster campaign created by a small association of sex workers and allies in Ireland. Both portrays sex workers as normal human beings rather than as “victims, sad, beaten, raped, abused, drug addicted women, or as ‘happy hookers’ with privileged lives making a fortune.” The St. James Infirmary recently launched its own visual campaign, the tagline: “Someone you know is a sex worker.” The ads were initially meant to appear as billboards throughout the city but were rejected because the words “sex work” and “sex worker” were not considered “family friendly” terms. The billboard companies offered to reconsider the ads if the St. James Infirmary changed the wording, although as Jezebel so astutely points out, it’s a fair guess they probably wouldn’t have gone for “prostitute,” “hooker,” or any of the more derogatory names for people who sell sex. Sad proof that our society is happy to talk about sex work, and show images of sex workers, just so long as we say what they tell us to say and present images that fit what they’re already expecting to see.
Looking for a last-minute costume? Go as you are. When people ask, you can say you’re a sex worker.