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Shame That Is Not Our Own

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

Blog Post Written By: Jessie Sage


As a fat sex worker, I have often had to confront and wrestle with other people’s shame as it relates to my body and my career, but a recent On the Whorizon interview with legend Carol Leigh, who famously coined the term “sex work” in the 70s, brought this into focus for me.

After my co-host MelRose Michaels and I talked to Leigh about her journey over the last several decades, we asked her what advice she would give to young sex workers who are new to the industry. “A lot of the struggle [for sex workers] comes from [internalizing] all of the whore-negative imagery so that when you suffer as a sex worker, you think you deserve it,” she reflected. “You can take on all the condemnation,” she continued, “but people need to remind themselves that sex work is not inherently some sort of bad thing.”

This advice hit me hard when I stepped back and allowed myself to think about it. I have been actively (and loudly!) fighting to destigmatize and decriminalize sex work for much of the time I have been working in the industry; I have made a habit of publicly proclaiming that sex workers are worthy of all good things—love, safety, security, family, financial security, etc.

I believe this; my life has only been enhanced by the generosity, beauty, and friendships that I have found in other sex workers, folks who I have come to love and identify with. But I would be lying if I said that in quiet moments, those moments where I allowed myself to face my worst fears, that I didn’t wonder if my career, and the fact that I am so “out” about it, wasn’t going to lead to my own ruin—or worse, to that of my family’s.

Even if you believe that sex work is nothing to be ashamed of (as I do), it is hard not to question yourself when you wake up every morning to stories of sex workers being kicked off social media, having their bank accounts shut down, struggling with abusive exes who threaten their custody, being denied basic services like unemployment during a global pandemic, and being assaulted at work.

We live in a whorphobic world that barrages us with a sexual shame that is so strong that it is easy to believe that we deserve whatever happens to us, simply for doing the job that sustains us. We are told we will never be hired in another industry, that we cause our parents intense shame, that our children will be scared for life, and that the violence that is hoisted on us is inevitable. Afterall, we are whores.

It is no wonder, then, that the first thing Leigh wanted to tell young sex workers is to reject this narrative; living under stigma can be crushing on its own, but believing you deserve what comes from that stigma—internalizing these whorphobic messages—can destroy you.

Several days after MelRose and I recorded this interview, I returned to Pittsburgh and went to a body positive spoken-word event that featured fat, bi-racial, feminist poet Rachel Wiley as the headliner. At the event she performed one of her well-known poems, “Glory in Two Parts.”

The purpose of the poem is to articulate a response to the oft-cited mantra that fat folks are “glorifying obesity” simply by existing in their bodies in an unapologetic way. In the first half she outlines what she believes people think they mean when they level this criticism against fat people:

You think you mean: how can she possibly raise her fat face

to the sun in worship

rather than submitting to the gravity of shame?

What you think you mean when you say that I Glorify Obesity is,

How dare she.

As a plus-size sex worker and model, I am often told that I am “brave” for allowing people to see my naked body as it is, and this is by people who believe they are being supportive. The subtext of this “compliment” is that there is something wrong with my body, something that I should hide. This fatphobia is compounded by an intense shame surrounding public depictions of sexuality, particularly by women and femmes. Indeed, how dare she, is the question I am often confronted with simply for living, laboring, profiting from, and existing in the body I have.

In the second part of the poem, Wiley turns this construction on its head, reframing what it actually means to glorify something, in her case, obesity. She says,

What you actually mean when you say that I Glorify Obesity

is that indeed I am Glorious

because who would not exalt something as miracle as a living body?

What you mean to say is that I carry this body

every day like a sacrament

to revere the way I keep rising despite a world

who does not want the truth of me.

The world doesn’t want the truth of sex workers either. The shame that is foisted on us by people who are not comfortable with their own bodies, sexuality, and desires is palpable. We feel judgement and disgust when we read headlines that dehumanizes sex workers, when we sit through comedy routines that makes our existence the butt of jokes, and when we watch true crimes series that write their story lines around dead hookers. Our misogynistic, sex-negative, whorphobic culture views our unapologetic relationship to our bodies and our sexuality as a threat to the social order, and does everything it can to put us in our place.

But as Leigh reminds us, the stories that our culture tells about sex workers are about our cultural anxiety around sexuality and about the sex work stigma that has yet to be dismantled. It is ultimately not about us. Holding on to who we are, and the truths that we know about ourselves and those in our community, despite what the world wants to tell us otherwise, is the way we survive this industry. But more than that, it is also the way to live and love and have all the good things that we deserve, in the bodies and the jobs that we occupy. We can and should work to reject the shame that is not our own, and recognize our own glory.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the blog post above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SexWorkCEO or MelRose Michaels. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.



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