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How to Support Sex Workers

Unstigmatize Yourself

June 2, 2020

Vanessa Carlisle

he history of International Whores’ Day is a hopeful one: on June 2, 1975, over 100 sex workers occupied the Saint-Nizier church in Lyon, France. The French government had been ramping up policing and the levels of violence sex workers experienced had increased dramatically. The whores took a church, and they stayed there for eight days before they were removed. International Whores’ Day has been celebrated on June 2nd every year in France and now globally, since 1976.

December 17th, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, is a more recent addition to the sex worker calendar. It is a day of remembrance usually marked by vigils and the grief that accompanies a list of names of deceased sex workers. In contrast, International Whores’ Day marks a celebratory act of resistance. Supported by a global community including feminists and labor rights activists, the occupants of 1975 opened up possibilities for solidarity.

Many call that act of courage the inauguration of the modern sex workers’ rights movement. Now more than ever, we seek to build strong communities of resistance against stigmatization and violence.

And yet. A small voice inside me asks, “Do we have to use the word whore?” In many Spanish-speaking countries, June 2nd is marked as Día Internacional de la Trabajadora Sexual (International Sex Workers’ Day). Given that in the U.S., sex worker is considered the more respectful way to refer to those of us with experience in the trades, you will definitely see articles and events publicized as International Sex Workers’ Day. For sure, using sex worker instead of whore makes the day more accessible to non-sex working people, and there’s a strong argument for doing so — more allies means more solidarity can emerge.

If I was in charge, I’d make a rule that no one gets to use the word whore unless they were or are one. People with no experience being a whore make me want to punch something when they use phrases like “man whore,” “attention whore,” and “shut your whore mouth.” We call it whorephobia for a reason: even sex workers themselves fear being seen as that whore.

When I listened to my own concerns about using whore, I realized that my internalized whorephobia was preventing me from embracing International Whores’ Day for what it is. It’s not a day for just anyone. It’s a day for prostitutes. It’s a day for prostitutes to love ourselves for our ferocity and our resilience. I’ve recently come to love saying International Whores’ Day, because it is ours. It is for us, not for them. But it has taken me years to get here.

Whore pride? I didn’t feel it. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. Not for years. I am one of those older sex workers who had whore used against me in malice so many times it has been personally difficult to reclaim the word.

For me, whore pride emerged slowly, over time, and through a lot of contact with other sex workers, many who were activists in the movement for sex workers’ rights, many who were just utterly badass people creatively surviving this fucked up moment we call capitalism, American life, the 21st century.

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In Oakland, 2015, celebrating the release of Spread, the awesome anthology of writing from Spread Magazine’s archive, I heard a person speak who had borne the full brunt of stigma through violence, incarceration, losing her vanilla job, and fighting a vindictive ex for custody of her child. Kym Cutter had gotten a “WHORE” tattoo, and talked about how much sex work had taught her about resilience and self respect.

I wanted to love my own whoredom as much as she did, but I knew I didn’t, not yet. I was already out of the closet publicly. I was already an activist. But internalized stigma reaches its tentacles into every part of us, and it’s not only one simple, conscious decision that allows us to feel neutral about what we do, much less pride.

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to sex working activists, and many people with lived experiences in the sex trades who would never call themselves either sex workers or activists, who have fought not just for prostitutes’ rights to be recognized as human, but asserted our right to be respected for what we know about the world. We deserve to turn our tricks in peace, but more than that, we deserve to be recognized as a critical source of analysis, imagination, and power.

I learned to feel pride in being a sex worker through contact with amazing sex workers, but I had to unwork my aversion to the word whore on my own. This International Whores’ Day, I’m all about it.

I’ve spent many hours with movement elder Norma Jean Almodovar (co-founder of COYOTE, author of From Cop to Call Girl) in her formidable personal archive of sex work literature. One day, I asked her about her experiences with the constant choice to keep coming out of the closet, and she told me, “The closet was killing me. Period. I will never go back in there. You should promise that to yourself, too, when you’re ready.”

If 1975 was ready for a hundred self-respecting prostitutes to camp out in a church, then 2020 should be ready for a global movement of self-celebrating whores.

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At the last Desiree Alliance conference in New Orleans in 2016, sex workers and allies marched through Bourbon Street. We chanted all the usuals: sex work is work, sex worker rights are human rights, and so on. What I will never forget is hearing the inimitable trans and sex work activist Ceyenne Doroshow yell over and over again into a megaphone: “WE’RE WHORES! WE’RE WHORES! WE’RE WHOOORES!” and then laugh, and laugh, deliciously. It was another taste of real whore pride, and the word sounded like love that day.

Happy June 2nd, to whores everywhere, and especially to those who are still unworking stigma in their own hearts. I adore you, and I hope that on this day, you get a taste of the pride you so deeply deserve.

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