on whorearchy and hierarchy: being a student sex worker

Whorearchy is the idea that the closer a sex worker is to direct contact with clients and cops, the more of a true whore they really are. Maggie McNeill and the Misandry Mermaid have discussed the negative effects that the divisive nature of the whorearchy has on social justice movements for sex workers. The argument goes like this: Outsiders to the sex industry see stark differences between different sorts of work. Some individuals who work within the sex industry also work to differentiate themselves from other sorts of sex workers, and the result is that sex workers closest to clients and cops are the most marginalized by this process. The normative argument that follows is that anyone in the sex industry should identify as a sex worker as an act of solidarity and to not be oppressive or stigmatizing. I’m on board with this argument, for the most part, but my own recent experience with the whorearchy lead me to believe that this idea needs a bit more nuance. More specifically, my experiences as a cam girl doing research with full-service sex workers for my dissertation have made me think that we need to be more nuanced in the way that we tell cam girls, porn actors, strippers, etc. to interact with this concept of whorearchy and their own sex worker statuses.

For my MA dissertation, I did research with sex workers, and throughout that process I struggled with whether or not being a cam girl was enough for me to claim an “insider” status in my research. As a student and a researcher those classmates of mine who knew about my work had different opinions about my work. Some saw it as totally shocking and were thus totally happy to accept my self-identification as a sex worker. Others were accepting of my work and were happy to argue with me that it wasn’t real sex work and that I “shouldn’t be so hard on myself” by applying that label. My dissertation supervisor took it upon herself to remind me numerous times that I didn’t have to self-identify as a sex worker within my dissertation if I didn’t want to, making it abundantly clear that she was far more uncomfortable with the project than I was. One result of all of this is that I was conflicted about how much claim I had over my sex worker status when I began my research. When operating inside organisations that primarily served street-based and full-service sex workers, I was torn between not wanting to engage with the whorearchy while also not wanting to erase the experiences of women whose work was very different from mine. As I navigated different spaces composed of different sorts of sex workers, I operated almost apologetically, aware of my place at the top of the top of said whorearchy. Some spaces welcomed me and immediately dismissed my concerns, whereas others treated me as a researcher first and foremost. A friend of mine and fellow activist dismissed my concerns with her explanation of the whorearchy, arguing that it was marginalizing of me to do anything other than identify as a sex worker.

The thing is though- I don’t think I was evoking the whorearchy by being reticent of identifying as an insider. I think I was responding to the sex workers I was doing research with- sex workers lower on the whorearchy than myself- evoking it themselves as a means of protection. And this is where I think the idea of whorearchy could use some nuance. At it’s core it’s an argument in favor of solidarity, and of course I can get on board with that. But I don’t know that we’re practicing solidarity when anyone in the industry claims a sex worker status and then speaks on behalf of sex workers in general. I don’t know that anyone at the top of this whorearchy is helping out sex workers more marginalized by ourselves by proclaiming “hey, we’re all the same!” and doing activism from that starting point. Cause we’re not all the same.

Sitting at the top of the whorearchy requires certain privileges that other sectors of the sex industry may not. Being a cam girl requires access to a computer, decent internet connection, and a webcam. The porn industry is rife with lookism and racism, favoring normatively attractive, female actresses. Stripping or camming to get through college is arguably fashionable at the moment, while doing so to support oneself carries a whole different set of connotations. So no- we’re not all the same. And when those of us at the top say “hey, we’re all the same” and then take it upon ourselves to do activism for sex workers, we erase a lot of the lived experiences of those in other sectors. Many among us are inclined to talk about empowerment, or how we had other career paths and chose sex work because we love it. We talk about crippling college debt, and all is forgiven. But these are relatively privileged narratives compared to those of many others, and they perpetuate the stigma attached to doing sex work when you don’t have many available alternatives.

I don’t blame the sex workers I was working with for being wary of me. I didn’t expect them to welcome me with open arms. Because my experience in the sex industry hasn’t been the same as all of theirs, and it certainly doesn’t qualify me to understand their experiences, speak for them, and it doesn’t guarantee that I am capable of representing them in an accurate way.

I’m on board with the argument for sex worker solidarity. But I think that means those of us at the top should use our relative privilege to give platforms to sex workers more marginalized than ourselves, just as much if not more than we access those platforms for our own activism.

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