I believe in objectification. Meaning, I believe it’s a part of the human experience. Most of us are sexual creatures. Most of us are visually oriented to various degrees. We look. I look. My working-class desert town is a feast of cute women rocking inexpensive clothes with the kind of authentically cultivated style most fashion week models could only dream of, and lean men in Wranglers and weathered shirts who carry their bodies with a grace learned from never ending shifts on oil rigs. I see them. A lot of times, I want them. It’s a part of the human system, this desire towards what we find beautiful or compelling, and in those moments of looking it is an objectification. We know nothing of the desired in a personal way. They are a canvas, a thing, a literal object.
When I stare at a roughneck, he has no girlfriend, no wife, no children, no friends. He is only mine. There is nothing wrong with this fantasy, nothing wrong with what the desirous human brain and body want. Where it gets tricky is the place where an object becomes a human. What gauges our humanity is if we allow this movement to happen. If I see the roughneck at a bar later and learn his name is Tyler, listen to him talk about his divorce and the two kids caught in the middle, do I allow this information to make him more of a person in my eyes, or do I resist its entry? As he talks he is more himself and less mine. He is more fully distinct and differentiated.
The 20th century French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said that culture and thought in Western civilization are marked by an “allergy to the other.” He is noting the tendency in human history on societal and individual levels to brace against the self-expression of any person or persons that are divergent from ourselves. Those we cannot understand, or refuse to understand, we either prevent from self-expression, or we destroy.
Maybe I don’t like Tyler’s story, but want to keep him physically around so I can live in my fantasy of him. Maybe I change the subject when he brings up his kids after we smoke a cigarette together in the warm desert night. I arrange who he is in my mind and jettison what doesn’t fit. It is a circus-like mind performance of destruction and desire. When we fuck at the end of the night he’s still the object I created, I still get to use him for what I wanted.
I can relate to Tyler. I’m a sex worker. I spend my money-making life in the fantasy world of objectification. There are a lot of us. From porn performers to pro-Dommes, to escorts, the sex industry in the United States is huge. Huge and reviled. A lot of our work is illegal, or it sits in legal grey zones. The people who are paid to write and speak publicly about us and our work often do so with derision and moral condescension (see Neil Steinberg in The Chicago Sun-Times and Katha Pollitt in The Nation for recent troubling examples). Many of us are arrested, jailed, and prevented from attending school. When we move into other industries, our livelihoods are often still jeopardized by the threat that our former work might be made public.
What is often as destructive is the level of social isolation that can creep into many of our lives. I have people in my life divided into two categories: those who know, and those who don’t. It is a tiring double consciousness that can eat at my sense of integrity. These lies, omissions, and self-censoring are like tiny wrecking balls. Every time I do it I become less me and more the person most people want me to be. My otherness is erased, I become subsumed into the fantasy of who many people think I am and what makes them comfortable.
So, it’s hard out there for a whore. Thankfully, the sex worker’s rights movement is growing. Serious challenges to criminalization are being waged. But, counter movements are active as well. Recently, I became aware of the banking crackdown on sex workers. In particular, the payment processing site PayPal has begun to shut down sex worker’s accounts, even the accounts of sex workers whose work is legal, or who are receiving funding for non-sex work enterprises. In addition, Chase Bank and City National Bank have been closing the accounts of sex workers, including sex workers being paid for legal work.
Think about that for a moment. Think about waking up to an email letting you know that a primary avenue through which you receive income is being shut down. Think about the way you pay your bills, your debts, your rent or mortgage payment, your car payment, how you pay for the electric, gas, and water. Think about how you buy food. Now make some coffee and breathe deeply.
I have been lucky. I don’t use PayPal much and do not do my banking with either City National or Chase. But, it is a troubling development. In addition to social stigma, sex workers are facing a new round of economic control, threatening our ability to tend to the financial realities of life, and more importantly, to live our lives in ways that are practical, meaningful, and consistent with our sense of self. Impeding access to the machinery of the marketplace is a form of destruction. It is saying to sex workers: “We do not understand or approve and we will use our considerable power to stop you.”
It is obvious to contemplate the hypocrisy. How many porn clips have these (mostly men) watched? How many cam models have they paid? How many escorts have they visited? If you populated a city with nothing but the sex workers that have serviced the employees of PayPal, City National, and Chase, how big would the city be? The size of Dallas, of Seattle, of New York? And God bless. We are here for you my loves, even when you try to hurt us.
My suspicion is that Levinas was right when he invoked the metaphor of “allergy.” The other is not allowed to be, separate and self-contained, rather it is subjected to a system whose response is to push it away, wall it off, and eventually destroy it. Sex workers can exist as fantasy in society, we can leave our lights on for the rich and powerful and become what they need. We can be written about and photographed and pitied. We can be one dimensional tropes in movies and TV. It is more challenging, however, if we are seen as fully actualized humans with, at only the very least, the unequivocal right to the money we earn.