The H-Word: Reflections on Sex, Power, and Speaking the Truth

Melissa Petro
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Flier for the conference reading SEX POWER AND SPEAKING TRUTH: ANITA HILL 20 YEARS LATER

I remember watching the Anita Hill hearings. I was twelve years old. Like much of the white imagination, adolescent or otherwise, I was titillated by the details Anita was compelled to recount—long dong silver? pubic hair in a coke?!—and yet the idea that a man in power might so recklessly abuse his privilege was not at all surprising to me, even as a child. My own mother, then a secretary at a racetrack, described the many offices where she’d worked as “boys clubs.” The subjugation of women in the workplace was, I understood, just “the way things were.”

Anita’s testimony before the senate was met with indifference, disinterest, condescension, and outright hostility. She was painted as a scorned women, a civil rights zealot. But Anita Hill was not zealous—speaking for herself on the television, it was clear to see. She spoke in faith that her individual story was relevant. It brought to light a deeper, systemic issue. The harassment she had endured was not just her problem but our problem. She spoke calmly and confidently, knowing that the solution was to speak out.

Despite and in some ways because of all she went through, I believed Anita Hill. I believed her just as I believe Nafissatou Diallo or any woman who’d “cry rape.” I don’t think you put yourself through that kind of hell unless what you’re saying is true, and you don’t tell a truth so hard for others to hear unless you believe it’s important to do so.

This weekend Sex, Power and Speaking the Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later convened to discuss women’s ability speak up against gender inequality and abuses of power, with a focus on the intersectionality of race, class and gender in defining a woman’s experience, as well as a look at women’s continuing “credibility problem.” The speakers were a parade of some of the most high power professional women of this lifetime: Catharine MacKinnon, Gloria Steinem, and yes, Anita Hill. As an attendee, I was inspired and energized. I felt a part of something big. I also felt something important was being left out.

While the presenters did an excellent job of addressing race- and gender-based inequality, noticeably absent from the conversation was a thoughtful appreciation of the harassment and violence endured by working-class and working poor women, including women who sell sex. Yes, sexual harassment exists in the board room, I found myself thinking, but what about sexual harassment and other abuses of power in other spaces? What about women who want to defend themselves and speak out but who have little resources to do so and who are, given our classist society, not as likely to appear as the “perfect victim” Anita Hill was described as again and again?

Only one woman at the conference dared suggest that gains by the feminist movement in the wake of Anita Hill were not gains for all. Ai-jen Poo, who spoke on behalf of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, noted that the women she represents are frequently excluded from the legal protections white collar working women enjoy. Many can not report abuses to authorities lest their immigration status become known. Regardless of the extent of the abuse, most cannot afford to complain and risk losing their jobs. Her comments were some of the most interesting and important of the day, but on a panel of professional speakers, a performance artist, and at least one cable news show contributor, Ai-jenn barely spoke at all, and what she said seemed hardly heard.

The topic of sex work and the sex worker perspective remains largely excluded from serious, feminist conversations. When the issue of sex work is discussed, the issues affecting consensual sex workers are rendered effectively silent by the disproportionate amount of attention paid to the issue of trafficking and to child exploitation. For anyone who’s done it, sex work is clearly an economic issue—not merely an issue of sex. Sadly, it’s still not seen this way. Because sex work itself is conflated with violence, and perceived as inherently violent, individuals who engage in consensual sex work who then find themselves the victims of violence, assault, and abuses of power have few places to turn. Like domestic workers, sex workers endure or have endured countless violations and indignities because they can’t afford to lose or surrender their jobs. Speaking out, they risk self-incrimination and humiliation. As a recent campaign by Red Umbrella pointed out, prostitutes cooperating with investigators—even on cases of murder—do so risking their own arrest. Without our voices in the debate, protections put in place on our behalf are largely ineffective. They hinder freedom and limit our opportunities, only making life worse. The closest anyone came to mentioning sex work at the conference was a discussion of “Slutwalk” and the panelists expressed discomfort with the reclamation of women acting and dressing like “whores.” 


Anita Hill said in her original testimony that to not press a claim would have been to shirk a duty. It was also said at the conference that you don’t have to be a scholar or an academic to share your truth. Movements are said to be built off the power of people’s stories, but it is a movement’s responsibility to make space for all to do so. Given the backlash we encounter from the rest of the world when we come forward as sex workers, I challenge the women’s movement to stop adding insult to injury. I challenge feminists to react differently when sex workers have the courage to speak out in the face of complexity and to support sex workers who speak their truth for truth’s sake, particularly when we dare to say what is unpopular, uncomfortable or “not nice.” Lean in to what you disagree with rather than dismissing our choices as “unfortunate” and perspectives as “distorted.” Quiet yourself and listen, trusting women—even “working women”—to be the experts of our own experiences. 

Amidst the conversation on how to be brave and find one’s voice, MSNBC contributor Melissa Harris-Perry rightly added: “You don’t always have to be brave.” I would go even further to say that it is not always an issue of courage or bravery. The ability to speak one’s truth is a privilege. It is a privilege we all deserve and yet, sadly, it is a privilege some women—including most sex workers—still can’t afford. 

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

When I was 15 and working at

When I was 15 and working at McDonalds the 30-something manager would swing his hips in an 'intercourse motion' and sing "give it to me baby, let me have it baby" behind any girl who had to bend over and pick something up from the floor;
when I became a single Mom and wanted to return to an architecture firm I had worked for before I was denied the job by the owner because he had just instituted a...n 'anti-harassment' policy (thanks M for having an affair with a coworker in my apartment after I gave you my apartment keys for safety) and he was attracted to me and afraid to violate his own policy;

so I went to Grad School where one of my professors instead of helping me with the mathematics problem I had, told me that as a single mother I had no place earning a math degree and should go back to work - and the Chair of the Department send me dirty email, let himself into my office to leave candy, all because I had asked for help regarding my mathematics progress - and the only Professor who wanted to work with me had no influence because he was known as a lecher so any grades I received from him were perceived as 'unearned';

and so I changed departments only to have my studies again disrupted... by a Landlord who was offended that I asked questions regarding some badly needed repairs and terminated my lease, and so I was diagnosed/mis-diagnosed? with something by two male doctors who had no interest in my questions or medical history and with this greater need for Health Insurance I ran towards full employment;

and with an MS math and MEd math (ABD) I went to teach at a local University where I am being downsized even though I rather successfully teach around 200 students a year while some of my male colleagues earn 3x what I do, barely speak good enough English for their students to understand or claim to have proven the Riemann Hypothesis their 'proof" crucially hinging on: " (Series)x(Series that converges to 0)=C, where C is an arbitrary constant that they shall constrain later..."

so in any walk of life we get the same treatment

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