Welcome to the H-Word, a series dedicated to evaluating, challenging, and re-presenting sex worker portrayals in the media from a feminist, pro-sex worker (though not necessarily pro-sex work) stance. If that seems contradictory or impossible, keep tuning in. Besides my perspective, this column will present first-person stories from individuals across the country and from all areas of the industry sharing a part of their story and describing their experiences. Sex workers speaking for themselves, about themselves?! It is not so radical an idea—why, straight white guys have been doing it since the beginning of time!
And yes, the “H-Word” is hooker. The title of this series is inspired by an article written by Sarah Elspeth Patterson about the media’s pejorative use of the term. As Patterson so astutely points out, people rarely enjoy being called a hooker, whether a sex worker or not. “When looking at the ways in which the media in the United States continues to use the term,” she says, “it’s not difficult to ascertain why sex workers still have an impossible time being visible and out in this country.”
In September of 2010 I was dubbed the “hooker teacher,” originating from a headline on the cover of the NY Post: “Bronx Teacher Admits: I’m an ex-hooker.” The NY Post article was spurred by an article I had written for The Huffington Post in criticism of the censoring of the adult services section of Craigslist and in defense of the rights and dignity of sex workers, a subject with which I have some history. The day the Post’s article ran, I was removed from my job teaching art and creative writing at a public elementary school in the South Bronx. For speaking publicly without the veil of a pseudonym, I was called a moron and a blabbermouth. I was deemed a disgrace, unfit to work with kids. Though my competence in the classroom was never called into question, for having the history I did—and for speaking about it, freely and without apology—I lost my career.
Associated with deviance, drug use, mental illness, and disease, sex work defines the people who do it like no other occupation. No matter the realities of our experiences, we are thought of as victims and as inherently damaged, either before or as a result of our profession. Sex workers are considered a danger to society, unfit for serious public service. Worst of all: once a sex worker, always a whore. It is pervasive, condemning stereotypes like these and others that cost me my job. There is a stereotype that current or former sex workers are so highly sexualized that all we think about is sex, but I’ve found that it is people with no experience in the sex industry whatsoever who can’t get our business off their minds. Whereas the media is constantly using our industry to sell papers and raise ratings, sex workers are little involved in the manufacturing of these stories. We are spoken about ad nauseam but not allowed to speak. When we do, we are punished: the “hooker teacher” scandal makes all too salient this point.
Why should feminists care? The fact that sex workers are not often involved in the creation of these stories means that much of what we read or hear about commercial sex is a heap of baloney. If it is truly feminism’s aim to help sex workers, it would serve feminists to know the population we are dealing with—to identify sex workers’ true concerns so that we can intervene in ways that truly matter. Even better, let us sex workers help ourselves, and believe those of us who say we don’t need help at all. Invite sex workers into the conversation about their own lives. Sex workers’ lives are women’s lives, queer or transgendered lives, the lives of poor people and people of color, and individuals’ experiences in the labor market. Let us learn from one another.
For the next eight or so weeks, the H-Word will serve as a watchdog, calling out damaging mainstream media depictions of sex workers and our industry, celebrating when they’ve gotten it right, and highlighting mainstream media alternatives. Equally important, The H-Word will create a space for sex workers to represent themselves. I will share more about my experience being branded “The Hooker Teacher” and also about my process of reclaiming my identity through language. I have a complicated relationship to the word hooker, as do many sex workers (and women in general). The title of this column captures that discomfort and confusion. Without adequate language to describe ourselves, we are rendered invisible. The purpose of the H-Word is to fill in the blanks, and to give names and meanings to the diverse body of individuals who sell sex.