My best friend is a SWERF (sex work exclusionary radical feminist) and I don’t know how to go about talking to her about how the way she perceives sex work hurts me. Have you experienced this before?
One of the hardest things about being a sex worker is navigating coming out. It’s a process that doesn’t have a clear beginning or end, and once you’re a sex worker, you can’t un-be a sex worker. In the words of
Jacq the Stripper: “No one will ever let you forget you were a stripper – but why would you ever want to?”
We come out in a lot of different contexts. When I started stripping, I told my queer friends first. I had made a couple of friends through a queer cruising group, and that ended up being my first link to the sex industry – some of the folks I’d met in the group were sex workers themselves, and one of them encouraged me to audition at the club they were dancing at. I’d just gone part time at my civvie job (“civilian” job, the sex work community’s term for non-sex working professions), which had been making me miserable for years. I was working as a youth counselor for homeless queer and trans teens, many of whom were sex workers themselves. The counseling job was fulfilling, but paid very poorly, and I was in need of another income stream in order to make ends meet. One thing led to another, and voila, I started stripping.
I told my queer friends first, because of all the communities I found myself in, the queer community was the most understanding of sex work. Probably this is because there has long been an overlap between queerness and sex work. For example, while cis women provide the image of what it means to be a mainstream sex worker, there is a vast overrepresentation of sex workers among trans folks. Anecdotally, many if not most of the queer folks (and in particular, queer femmes of color) I know have some sort of sex work experience, whether it be stripping, camming, sugar babying, pro-domming, or escorting, or a combination of all of the above. Coming out within the queer community felt safer than coming out in any other context: all the queer folks I came out to, whether they were sex workers or not, knew at least one other sex worker who they counted as a friend.
Coming out to civilians is a whole other story.
I’m sorry you’re going through this, letter writer. I’m going to assume from the fact that you’re asking the question that you, yourself, are a sex worker, though it’s not clear whether or not you’re out to your best friend. My advice to you is going to be slightly different based on the answer to that question. If you’re not a sex worker, or if coming out to your friend is completely out of the question for your own safety, much of the following advice still applies – staying educated about sex workers rights and our history (see the links to books and activists below), being able to anticipate and field questions and objections, staying in contact with community and informed about organizing efforts like decriminalization and the latest about the impacts of SESTA/FOSTA, and speaking up when you hear casual examples of sex work stigma, like non-sex workers throwing words like “h**ker,” “wh*re,” and “pr*stitute” around (the last of which is an outdated legal term and a slur reclaimed by full service workers), or making jokes where the punchline is violence against sex workers, are all ways to be an ally in word and deed. And if you’re not a sex worker, or if you’re a very privileged sex worker, giving money to sex workers is your best bet in supporting the community, regardless of whether or not you’re able to change your best friends mind. A good place to start is the grassroots wealth redistribution collective, the Lysistrata Mutual Care Collective.
If you’re not out to your best friend, chances are it’s because she’s outed herself to you as a SWERF. There is a saying among the sex worker community with regard to civilians as friends and family: “If you think you don’t know a sex worker, you’re probably not a safe person for a sex worker to be out to.” There are so many more of us than people tend to think.
For lay people, a SWERF is a Sex Work Exclusionary Radical Feminist, a term closely connected with (and often experiencing overlap with) TERFs, or Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists. The thing about SWERFs and TERFs is that they’re not actually feminists at all; your feminism is for shit, after all, if it is not fully intersectional. And while SWERFs and TERFs may react to the terms as though they’re slurs (seriously, I’ve seen this unfold on both Twitter and Instagram, where they even take the pains to censor the acronyms; seriously, get over yourselves), in reality, they’re just handy and accurate descriptors for politics that leave a lot to be desired.
If you’re not out to your best friend as a sex worker, I certainly don’t blame you – SWERFs (and TERFs) often reserve their most violent vitriol for sex workers, accusing us of “betraying” the cause of feminism because of how we choose to make our living (or are forced to make our living due to the circumstances of our lives).
If this is the case – you’re not out to your best friend, she doesn’t know you’re a sex worker, and she’s vocally whorephobic and anti-sex work at worst, or patronizing and infantilizing of sex workers at best (viewing us as “fallen women” or “helpless victims” or people in need of saving), you have a couple of choices. You could continue trying to educate her, advising her to follow the accounts of sex worker activists like @strollpdx, or @workingitzing, or @actualsexworkers, or @activismactually, or @thotscholar. You could recommend her books to read, like Playing the Whore by Melissa Gira Grant, or Revolting Prostitutes by Juno Mac and Molly Easo Smith, or Sex Workers Unite! by Melinda Chateuvert, Thriving in Sex Work by Lola Davina, to give her a sense of the strength, resilience, and ingenuity of the community, and hope this changes her mind. If she’s dug her heels in, though, the words of folks she doesn’t know may not change her mind, which leaves you with another option: You could out yourself, and educate her based on your own lived experience.
Coming out in a hostile environment is always a choice that you have to weigh carefully, and I would never tell anyone to do this without seriously considering the repercussions, first. A big question, if you’re not out to her already, is: How much do you trust your best friend? If you’re not out yet, there’s still a part of you that doesn’t trust her – and chances are, this part of you is wise and astute. You may want to take a moment to sit with that side of yourself. It may be that a recalibration of this friendship is in order. I’m not saying throw the friendship away – but you may have to adjust your expectations for how deeply you and your needs can be met in this relationship.
There is something radical and brave, however, about coming out in a hostile environment, and for sex workers, the whole world is a hostile environment, especially now. This doesn’t mean this choice is for everyone, and there is absolutely no shame in not coming out if you feel like that is the best and safest choice you can make for yourself. When I was in grad school, each year was a coming out process for me. Part of the reason, I suspect, that I was a shoe-in at social work school is because in my admission essay I wrote about stripping, and said quite blatantly that I wanted to pursue social work in an effort to serve the sex work community; once I got to class, however, the idea of coming out to a room full of my peers was overwhelming, and it took me the entire first year of my graduate degree before I finally said, fuck it, and gave a presentation in all out stripper gear – heels, lashes, the whole shebang. I thought I would go into my second year riding on the wave of that fuck it feeling, but it turned out that after a summer away, I didn’t. Sure, some folks remembered me as the angry stripper in our cohort, but most folks didn’t and it was like coming out all over again – which, again, it took a whole year to comfortably do. I don’t regret it; I think I was as successful as I was in grad school, graduating with honors in spite of the fact that I was working and studying and interning at the same time, because of my experience as a sex worker. (After you strip for a room of two men, each of whom you have to haggle for a single dollar set after set, everything else is a breeze by comparison and I maintain that stripping on slow nights has been the best crash course in mindfulness I have ever taken.) But I would be lying if I said it was an easy choice to make.
Coming out in our personal relationships is, if anything, harder. I’m still not out to my dad, for example, because “Hey, Dad, I’m a stripper, and I have been one for the past three years” is, I realize, probably the very last thing most fathers ever want to hear and I’m just not up for the conversation. Our personal relationships are where we turn to for intimacy and safety, and rejection in our personal lives can be harder to bear than anywhere else. When I first started stripping, I do think it changed how some people related to me. I think some of my friends thought that I was obsessed with it, or used this new part of my identity as a way to try to get attention. I don’t think they were entirely wrong – I did talk about my experiences a lot, and still do, mostly as a means of processing some of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had, and continue to have. Sex work is an experience that most folks can’t relate to unless they’re other sex workers, so it’s important for you to make sure you have sex working community around you as well, and ideally (though this is difficult to find) a sex worker friendly therapist as well.
I think other friends thought I was pedantic and again, to some extent, I was, because it was frustrating to be privy to all the weird things I was seeing and doing and not knowing if the people who had known me before could relate to me anymore, or if they even wanted to. It was also hard to handle some of the more traumatizing, or infuriating, aspects of my job, and feel as though my friends took for granted that they didn’t experience these same things. In some ways, in hindsight, I think some folks regarded my identity as a stripper a bit similarly to the ways in which folks misunderstand and misrepresent bisexual folks – it’s a phase, it’s something I was doing for attention. When I first started, it wasn’t something that I confronted my friends about, and I think that was largely due to my own internalized shame about sex work, something that still surprises me to this day when I realize it something I’m still working through.
The more challenging things I’ve had to navigate with friends and partners lately, though, has less to do with sex work exclusionary radical feminism, and more to do with fetishization of sex work. Somewhat recently, I sent an uncomfortable text to a friend, awkwardly trying to communicate to them how I felt that sometimes they fetishized sex work or sex worker aesthetic and attitudes in the way that they talked about men and dating. Even more recently, I had a conversation with someone I’m dating about how they can’t only like the sexy parts of my job (the clothes, the shoes, the fact that I’m a professional sexpot two nights a week), and hold other parts of it against me (the fact that the other aspect of my job is creating a fantasy for men to form an emotional attachment with, so that I can pay my bills). If you’re going to date – or be best friends – with a stripper, or any sex worker for that matter, you have to see us as full human beings who perform a job like any other, even if some aspects of that job are unique, or less common, than, say, working as an admin assistant in a hospital. (Though how different, really, are any client-facing jobs for any feminine-presenting person? Using our sex appeal, flirting, simpering, acting coy, making ourselves seem harmless or appealing, whether or not we feel like we are either of those things – these are all ways many of us, to a greater or lesser degree, use our bodies, personalities, and positionality in order to get by at work, whether or not it is explicitly in our job description. In the service industry, this isn’t even limited to feminine-presenting workers, and race and class both intersect in complicated ways with the performance of emotional labor in professional spaces under capitalism.)
I recently recorded a podcast session with Esther Perel along with one of my coworkers, where I described the process of navigating being out or not in social work school, and how it was important to me to be in control of the narrative – to come across as serious and intelligent, not crazy and angry and hurt, because I wanted to do a good job of representing the sex work community at school. I didn’t want to play into stereotypes of what my classmates might think a stripper is like – a loose cannon, a wild child, someone who can’t be trusted with the serious responsibility of doing therapy in high schools or at well-known and respected clinics. It was exhausting, and – as Perel pointed out to me – I was selling myself short, trying to exert control over a narrative that for the most part would be out of my hands. I can’t control how people perceive me, and I can’t control what their beliefs are – I can only be true to who I am, be aware of my values, and show up authentically, even in anger and grief, and let the chips fall where they may. Usually, I’m happy to say, this type of energy moves and invigorates people, even as it stresses me out, and most of my classmates ended up thanking me for my insight in to a world they had never even thought to consider. More importantly, other schoolmates who were sex workers themselves said they felt a little safer knowing I was out and about doing my thing, even if they couldn’t be out themselves.
If you are out to your friend, or are thinking of coming out to her, and she still holds fast to her SWERF-y beliefs even after you explain how it hurts you, then you have one final choice to make: Stay, or go. I’m not advocating either one, by the way; it can be hard to end relationships, even when we’re not getting what we need from them; believe me, I know. If you choose to stay friends with her, then just know that you may never get what you need from her, and you’ll have to meet her where she’s at with regard to sex work and feminism. Maybe that looks like not talking about sex work with her. Maybe that looks like the friendship becomes more shallow than it once was, or that you interact less frequently. Maybe your shift in behavior clues her into the magnitude of how she’s impacting you – but that’s not something I’d bet on, and it’s never a good idea to hang your own emotional health and well-being on whether or not someone will change for you, in any type of relationship, romantic or platonic. Spend some time reflecting for yourself on what it would mean to you if she were to stay exactly where she is in her beliefs. What could you tolerate? What would be too much for you to bear? And how would you know the difference? What would it take for you to draw a line? Who would you have waiting for you on the other side of that line? What do you need when it comes to friendships – not just from her, but from anyone? What does it mean to you if she doesn’t measure up to that? Can you love her anyway? Do you value her friendship for the other things it provides? And if it came down to it, and you really needed to, could you love yourself enough to walk away?
None of these are easy questions to answer, but the answers will teach you about so much more than this one friendship; they’ll teach you about your most important relationship, which is the one you have with yourself. Good luck.