Once when I was a wee baby ho, before I knew enough about boundaries to work healthfully, I got into a rather complex relationship with a client, which ended dramatically and painfully with the hope that I wouldn’t have to take out the second intervention order of my career in the sex industry. Towards the end of this torrid affair, I received an email from him that read along the lines of a ‘cease and desist’ order, demanding that I permanently delete all evidence of contact with him from all accounts and devices. I’d look the email up and quote him now, which would perhaps be more journalistically effective, but why dig up what’s been laid to rest?
For some reason, this demand just destroyed me. Sent me into a tearful rage-followed-by-deep-sadness that completely confounded me. Obviously his words weren’t legally binding and couldn’t be enforced. But they caused an intensely visceral reaction, something like grief, but redder. After doing some verbal processing with a friend and co-worker not long after I received his ‘order’, I figured out what it was that made me feel so fucking violated by something that wasn’t technically very threatening at all: he was trying to take my story.
I’ve done enough undergraduate cultural studies writing to know that storytelling is a primary mode of historical creation for that vast majority who don’t get a mention in conventional (‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchal’) his/tory. And I have enough experience working and existing in marginalized communities (mostly in regards to gender and sexuality) to see this in action, in effect. And because I often find a therapeutic quality in the intellectual, I toyed around with that idea, looked back on some old essays I had written on the subject, and made sense of my intense emotionality at the idea that someone could, in some great sweep of impulse and bravado, erase that story. Remove my access to the story that we were writing as we went, one that told itself remarkably enough to help me avoid ever writing myself into one like it again.
But the idea that someone could prevent me from telling it, should ever I need to, was overwhelmingly disempowering – thus the tears and the anger. And I recognized that this was not just an isolated incident of pedestrian hookerdrama – it was, in fact, part of a larger and more systematic erasure that takes place when the oppressor feels the need to ensure that they’re never held accountable by the oppressed; when they perhaps begin to feel the guilt creeping in; when they feel the imperative to have the final word on the matter. I felt instantly connected to a collective history of women, of queer people, of sex workers. And it hurt all the more that people are always tryina take our stories. To silence them. To make us feel like we have to ask politely for a willing ear to hear them. Like we can’t tell them when and where we know they need to be heard.
This happens to so many folks, every day, all the time. Histories are erased, lost, stolen, overwritten. Our storytelling is policed. Our lived realities are regulated, trimmed, censored like the labia in Picture magazine.
Last week I watched a community event revoke an opportunity for a friend and colleague of mine to tell her story in a public space. The backlash was intense, dramatic. The shit was slung. Various accusations of ‘silencing’ were made. And no one’s really any better for it. For the person at the centre of it, there’s a lot at stake in being able to share her story, which is one about fighting back against an experience of violence against sex workers; she took her client / rapist to court, and she won. Writing it was a monumental labour, telling it will be another one, and it’s not a story we often hear in a culture where sex workers’ own stories are so frequently marginalized, glossed over, crassly joked about, and silenced. Where those stories rarely make it to court, let alone are heard and declared to be truth.
The infighting that has resulted has been, for me, a testament to how deeply we cling to our stories, sometimes so much that we can’t even make space for the ones that others have to tell. We fight over how ‘your story isn’t my story’, and I pick which stories deserve to be told; we fail to see that just because my story’s backdrop of intersectional oppression doesn’t quite have the same tonality as yours (I’ve since learned that this is called ‘oppression olympics’), we’re still working within the same shade and we do share history, we do overlap. We collapse the stories with the people telling them, which dictates which ones can be told.
Today, December 17th, is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, and I can’t stress enough how significant it is for people both inside and outside of the sex worker community to take the radical action of listening. Listen to as many stories as you can get close enough to hear. Whether or not they’re comfortable, whether or not they match your perception of sex work and the people who do it, whether or not they resonate with your politics, whether the person telling them identifies as the victim or the victor. The best way we can understand and affect change in the violence done towards sex workers, or any group that loses out when inequality and hatred reign, is to shut the fuck up and let them talk. Let them tell you how it is for them. And how they’d like it to be. Every worker has a different story, and there is simply no one-size-fits-all politic, policy, legal structure, working modality, or stiletto size. So gather up as many stories as you can get your hands on (not just the ones that are immediately available through mainstream channels) and let those collected works inform your understanding of this his/herstory.
Listening is an action. Often it’s the beginning of a chain of actions.
For resources on the growing body of sex worker storytelling: