Forget the voices of sex workers who genuinely enjoy their jobs and are tired of being cut out of the discourse on the sex industry. Forget arguments about how the Craigslist shutdown will end up harming sex workers who are genuinely trafficked or abused. No, let’s focus on Phoebe Kay, who’s mad because Craigslist made it easy for her to sell sex, and she didn’t like doing it. Therefore, she argues in a recent Salon piece, it is entirely right and proper that Craigslist has been pressured into removing its “erotic services” ads.
Ms. Kay’s experience does sound unpleasant — just as any job a person doesn’t want to do will be unpleasant. And I do sympathize. She writes that before she even started working, she “felt like vomiting” and adds, “There was no question this gig didn’t come naturally to me.” Hey, I’ve felt like that about jobs before. Usually those feelings are a strong hint that I shouldn’t take the job! Ms. Kay, on the other hand, went right ahead — but it’s not her own fault, it’s Craigslist’s fault.
She notes that she’d sent out “hundreds” of cover letters to other jobs before trying her hand at escorting, but one wonders if she tried McDonald’s. Or was that too degrading to contemplate? What about selling the car she mentions in the article, or asking the parents she mentions for support? I’m not trying to mock the “desperation” Ms. Kay says she felt, but it’s hard to believe that a woman with such an obvious safety net truly felt that she had no choice at all. Not to mention, there are plenty of escorts who got into the business because they were strapped for cash, but who don’t disown the choice they made, even if they had a bad experience in the end.
Perhaps part of the problem is that Ms. Kay didn’t do her research. (Would she have done more research if she’d taken a less romanticized, less stereotyped, so-called “real” job?) Her knowledge of the sex industry appears to have been limited to watching an interview with Ashley Dupré (you know, that girl who become famous for the ruin of Eliot Spitzer). Ms. Kay complains that she thought high-end escorts had a better life than the one she was exposed to. Well, many of them do — but many of them also try multiple work avenues, enjoy their jobs, and work hard at building a career: “I was eating ramen noodles and buying my work clothes from Ross Dress For Less,” writes FurryGirl of her first few years. As for liking the job, enjoyment is a pretty important ingredient of success at any career, but especially high-end sex work. As Mistress Matisse notes, “Clients often prefer someone who is warm and friendly to a chilly bitch who can get that extra inch down her throat.”
In particular, you’d think that someone who decides to go into sex work would have tolerance for other people’s sexuality. But too many don’t, as Ms. Kay demonstrates when she talks about an S&M-oriented client: she calls him “the guy who insisted I dominate him and creeped me out so much I had to ask him to leave.” No wonder she didn’t earn much of a living: “I never made more in a week than I’d made in any other job I’d had — often a lot less.” She calls the advertisements offering escorts lots of money “false promises”, but in reality they’re more like similar ads from insurance jobs or other commission-based careers: some people are good at getting those promised high commissions, and some aren’t.
I’m being serious when I say that I’m sorry for what Ms. Kay went through. She made a mistake, she chose a job that didn’t suit her, and again, it sounds like she had a really bad time. But nothing non-consensual happened to her, no one abused her, except for one single client who stiffed her for a fee. And despite my sympathy, I’m furious that Ms. Kay is using her story to militate against visibility and acceptance for sex work. She even acknowledges that there was absolutely nothing non-consensual about her experience: “I was carded by my employers. I was never forced to do something I didn’t want.” Yet at the same time, she condemns Craigslist merely for making it possible, using overwrought language better suited to a 1930s pulp novel: “ads on Craigslist made it easy — yes, too easy — for a naive woman like me to slide into a dark and illegal lifestyle.” She ends her article by saying that she hopes the Craigslist shutdown will “prevent someone like me from going down this path.”
I am reminded of a moment from 2004, when I attended the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. As we cheered and sang and marched for abortion rights, we passed a (much smaller) group of pro-life protesters. One street was lined with pro-life women who had chosen to have an abortion; they regretted it and had decided that, because of their bad experience, other women shouldn’t be allowed the same choice.
My column of pro-choicers briefly fell silent when we passed those pro-life demonstrators. We were touched by their obvious pain. But as the truth slowly seeped in — that these women were hypocritically seeking to restrict our choices, based on their mistakes — a cry went up: “Your body, your choice,” we shouted.
Your body, your choice, Phoebe Kay. Pick up the pieces, learn from your mistake, and move on. If you’re so concerned about other women, then don’t use your story to distract from the real issues: issues of free will, bodily integrity, social security, and oppressive gender dynamics. I’m just sick and tired of sob stories that ignore what’s important about sex work — like the all-important fact that decriminalizing sex work, decreasing stigma, and raising the profession’s visibility will make conditions better both for those who enter the sex industry voluntarily, and for those who want to leave it.