9679814583_b1760ceced_z
Type
Polemic
Category
Labour rights
Sexual assault

A sex worker’s consent: solidarity, not sanctimony

Eighteen

The night before exists only in flashes. Me, drinking in my living room with friends, then in a pub, then another pub. There’s a photo of me with a glassy-eyed grin in what I think is the second pub. After this photo was taken, I apparently vomited into the gutter. I was not allowed to re-enter.

In another flash, I’m back at home, showered and sitting at our dining room table, with him. He does the boyfriend thing, getting me water and food, and making sure I ingest both. I had not eaten enough that night, nor that week. Perhaps that is why I couldn’t hold my vodka.

The morning after is less than flashes, but I see some things. I wake up in bed, with him. The early light of spring creeps into my window, as does the warmth it carries. I am flustered, and want more water, but he is asleep and so are my legs. There is one image that I barely register, but will not forget: a used condom on top of my cabinet, beside its metallic wrapping. I suppose it had been inside me.

He is awake. He sees my shock so I pretend it is embarrassment, as though I expected to see the condom – as though I had agreed to it being in my room and in my body. What is disbelief, and what will become a profound sense of betrayal, now appears to him as bashfulness. I thus protect him from even having to perform guilt. At this point, I’m more shocked my own passivity.

I think I see cum in the condom.

 

Twenty-five

I see a client who becomes the reason that I start telling clients at the beginning of a booking that I do not repeat the word ‘no’.

He’s fucking me doggy, again. I am bored, but make noises that suggest otherwise in an attempt to make him cum faster. Then something feels odd, so I reach behind and feel the base of his penis. I do not feel latex: he has removed the condom without my consent.

He pretends it was an accident and I sit on the bed seething. ‘End the booking, end the fucking booking,’ I repeat to myself. He waits, I think he’s asking questions. I actually don’t hear him.

I don’t end the booking. I let him fuck me again. I make my body rigid and cold so that he leaves with blue balls, as though this is an acceptable punishment in lieu of the anger that I cannot turn into words. I let him leave and leave his shame on my skin. I know it’s not mine but it’s hard to wash off.

A few weeks later, I relay this event to a nurse at the Sexual Health Clinic. She tells me, as though I already knew, that if HIV was contracted, it should be identifiable by now. I scramble for words: ‘he didn’t cum in me and he passed the health check.’ She says nothing. I check my phone hourly until I receive a text message containing the word ‘negative’.

 

Erasing consent

‘Radical feminists’, who seek the abolition of sex work, argue that the exchange of money voids consent. That a lack of choices – they imagine it as accepting money for sex or starving – means that there was never a choice to begin with. In other words, that I am coerced by necessity.

There are myriad problems with this notion.

One is the simple fact that, of all the reasons I have reluctantly consented to sex, financial gain seems quite benign. To me, guilt is a far more pernicious motivator. Guilt is deceptive, in that it can appear to me as love, or even sympathy. Guilt be used to extract my sexual labour, but also my emotional labour. When I fuck for money, I can leave this experience at work. Guilt is not so forgiving: that guilt is elicited in the first place means that I am made to feel that I have done something wrong; when I realise guilt has been used to manipulate me, the guilt moves from their body onto mine. Sometimes it sticks. How could I have been so stupid and weak? What kind of feminist protects their sexual assailant from shame and embarrassment?

There is also a fundamental logical problem to the notion that money voids consent, which has unconscionable effects: if there is no consent, there can be no conditional consent, withdrawable consent, or violable consent. Everyone – not just sex workers – desperately needs all of these things. If I cannot say ‘yes’, then I cannot say ‘no’, nor can I say I say ‘yes, unless …’, or ‘yes to this, but not to that’.

My access to ‘no’ is what protects me from sexual assault at work. I am able to say to a client before seeing them what is and is not OK. I can go into a booking knowing that, should these terms be violated, I can walk out of the booking and into the safety of my colleagues.

The ability to negotiate my services is a privilege that is denied to many sex workers. When full service sex workers in many parts of the United States try to have this discussion with clients prior to a booking, they risk outing themselves to an undercover cop. Despite NSW being a world leader in the decriminalisation of sex work, local councils in NSW have paid private investigators to have sex with sex workers under false premises, and sex workers in other parts of Australia are vulnerable to police entrapment and persecution.

What is baffling is that the same feminists who feign concern for the fate of ‘prostituted women’ are those fuelling the moral panic around so-called ‘pimps’ and exaggerated claims of ‘sex trafficking’ that normalise and excuse work-related sexual assault. Moreover, these feminists argue for laws that further reduce the capacity of sex workers to negotiate consent with legitimate clients.

Despite persistent claims to the contrary, laws that ‘criminalise the buyer’ have reduced sex workers’ time to discuss their services prior to bookings with clients who fear arrest, and have left sex workers themselves more fearful of arrest, and thus less likely to report incidences of violence to the police.

In other words, in their crusade to abolish the sex trade, radical feminists dismiss my well-informed, highly conditional consent to giving a blow job for $100, yet they embolden the potential for state-sanctioned harassment and abuse. In what universe is this ‘radical’ or ‘feminist’?

 

When ‘bad girls’ consent

For those who believe that money voids consent, only one of the incidences of sexual assault described in my anecdotes above is intelligible. I suppose this has nothing to do with the fact that the former describes the violation of a ‘good girl’ by a nice-guy-fuckboy, while the latter describes the sexual assault of a whore, for whom sex is, among other things, something to sell. It was only two years ago that the Victorian justice system would have (explicitly) made the same distinction, enabling sexual offenders who target sex workers to be given lesser sentences. It is only for the tireless efforts of Vixen Collective that this law was changed.

I am still learning how to protect my own consent – sometimes the hard way – but I am grateful for the ways in which doing sex work has helped me to clarify and articulate my boundaries, at work and beyond. I wish I could share what I have learned with 16-year-old me. I would tell her that refusing to partake in sexual acts is an inalienable right that requires no explanation. I would tell her that for someone to deny your right to consent – whether it be through physical force, guilt, or discriminatory laws – is indefensible. I would tell her what any feminist worth their salt should argue: that it does not matter that you were wasted, that he ‘loves’ you, that you couldn’t bring yourself to say ‘no’, that you are a sex worker; the violation of your consent is never, ever your fault.

Despite my personal gains in understanding, I need recognition of my consent – as a sex worker – as valid. I need this to reinforce the standard that clients must honour: I am no less entitled to boundaries than any other sexual partner. I need it for every whorephobic media representation of sex workers as subjects of moral and psychic deficiency, which lend to the conclusion that I ‘ask for’ whatever treatment might be thrust upon me. I need it as a referent for every conversation with someone dear to me, who, despite their ‘respect for my autonomy’, slips into discourses that frame me as an object to be used – to be fucked – and to be silent.

My consent is a right that is the product of feminist and worker struggle, which I will always fight to uphold. This means continuing the push for the decriminalisation of sex work and advancing the human rights of sex workers. Other feminists should be allies in these efforts, not adversaries.

 

Image: Umbrellas / flickr

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Sadie Slyfox is a sex worker, a student, someone’s daughter, and a pseudonym. She is based in Melbourne.

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Comments

  1. This is a really wonderful exploration of consent, Sadie. I often think we only learn what consent is by people stepping over it, and I too would love to go back and educate my 16 year old self.

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