So Desiree Alliance is hosting a conference in Las Vegas (you can follow the goings-on at #DALV13, on twitter, fyi) this year. I’m not at it. I’m in Ottawa. But I saw this pop up on my twitter feed:

I shy away from anything that suggests a hierarchy of sex work.” (Surgeon on watering down language surrounding sex work).

Because the sentence is pretty-much completely out of context, I’m going to use it as a jumping off point for my own thoughts rather than speculate (much) about what the surgeon in question actually meant.
When I saw that statement, what I thought was: But there is a “hierarchy of sexwork”. In fact, there are a lot of hierarchies of sexwork, depending on how one views sexwork and who (as a result of that) one is willing to listen to (or at least focus on, in some way).
For me, someone who gets that sexwork is a real career field, who works as a Profession Naked Chick, and who has a lot of respected friends and fellow activists who are “real hookers” (read: people who touch other people’s genitals as part of a normal work day[1]), my internalized hierarchy of sexwork can go a couple of different ways, but they all boil down to this:
The more plausible deniability you have, and the easier your “Exit Strategy” can be, the lower you are in that hierarchy.
For example: I’m a professional naked chick. Depending on who I’m talking to, I can put the emphasis on the parts of that job that involve (a) kinda sleazy photographers who clearly want to take advantage of vulnerable women with iffy boundaries, (b) college-level animation classes, professional portraiture artists, and that book cover I got a few years ago, or (c) anything that lands between those two extremes (photography students who want to practice lighting techniques by taking pictures of a cute chick in lingerie, figure-drawing groups that want highly sexualized poses because they focus on erotic art, photographers who are working on gallery exhibits that play pretty explicitly with fetish imagery, figure-drawing artists who paint fairly tame nude portraits, but who also want your emotional labour for $20/hr… you get the idea). I can (and make a point of doing so) bring “an assistant” (read: body-guard/witness/driver) to any shoot that I agree to do.
My “exit strategy” should I ever decide that I need such a thing, involves, uhm… not reminding people that I’m available for modeling. That’s it. Done. And I’ll still have that book cover that I did “way back when” to impress people with.
I am pretty much not even on my own hierarchy of sexwork; I have it that easy.
Someone who does street work (and, therefore, almost definitely has a criminal record, given that about 95% of sexwork-related charges are laid against street-based sex workers[2]) is going to be on a much different level than me; someone who does “full service” escorting is, for different reasons, also going to be on a much different level than me; someone who strips while paying for school is going to be somewhere in the middle.
If you’re my relatives, however, the hierarchy of sexwork looks a little different. It’s based on – as far as I can tell – how far away from the, erm, “traditional definitions of feminine sexuality” one is positioned in one’s work. So a dominatrix or some other kind of fetish worker (but not, I should note, a pro-submissive) whose genitals are not engaged in the work, is… fine. “That’s not too bad. Have you ever considered trying it?” But if you’re sucking and fucking? Well… clearly you’re being oppressed. Also… “hole” is only two letters away from what word, right? Right.
They’re working with a different hierarchy than me.
The abolitionist/end-demand hierarchy of sexwork looks more like “fictional straw-sexworkers whose images we use to shock and titillate our audiences” followed by (maybe) “actual former sexworkers who had horrible, dehumanizing experiences, and whom we might allow to speak as long as they’re only reliving their traumas in public and never stray from our party line” (can you tell that I’m not impressed with this particular bunch? Caught that, did you?) and, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay down at the bottom of that list, are current sexworkers who chose their profession (for whatever reason) and are getting anything – including reliable income or access to shelter – from it at all.
I can understand why someone would “shy away from anything that suggests a hierarchy of sex work”. There’s potential within those hierarchies, as activists, for us to wind up playing “Oppression Olympics” (which serve no-one), creating straw-sexworkers of our own, and giving amplification/credence to only one set of experiences/voices. (E.G.: If we focus on (a) happy indoor workers OR (b) marginalized, brutalized street workers (or both), because we are advocating for the repeal of the bawdy house and communicating-for-the-purposes anti-prostitution laws, are we also on some level denying/silencing both the complexity and difficulties that come with indoor work AND denying/silencing (some of? all of?) the agency of street workers? Something to think about?)
However. I think it’s also important to recognize when those hierarchies – whatever they may be (mine, my mom’s, yours, Real Women of Canada’s, whatever) – are at play, as they affect how we strategize (and how we *can* strategize), advocate, and speak out as all types of sexworkers and as allies in this particular fight.
And that’s what I have to say about that.
Ms Syren.
[1] Hey, don’t gynecologists do just that?
[2] Challenges Report, Pg. 65 (pg. 71 of the PDF). See: “Vulnerability to Criminalization”.