Lindsay Blewett and Tuulia Law

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ABSTRACT: Reflecting on the historical tensions that inform contemporary discord between sex worker and queer communities, and other failures of allyship, this commentary unpacks the sometimes palpable discomfort with sex work(ers). Problematizing the stigma and stratification amongst and between sex working and queer folks, we situate this discomfort at the intersection of femme-, bi-, and whorephobia. We emphasize the struggles, both discursive and historical, that both communities share in order to turn our fragile histories into a source of renewed allyship.

Sara Ahmed (2017) asserts that on the one hand, “feminism is a sensible reaction to the injustices of the world, which we might first register through our own experiences” (21); on the other, the proximity of feminist (and, we would add, queer) politics to experiences of hurt can be “potentially shattering [and] leave us fragile” (22). Our political and community engagement is informed by our experiences as sex workers, as queers, as femmes, as people who have experienced stigma in the course of our everyday lives. The pain of stigma emanates from its pervasiveness, its relentlessness (Hannem and Bruckert 2012, 4)—a persistent lingering possibility, even from those with whom we associate most closely: our partners; families; communities, including feminist and queer. For example, one of Lindsay’s first relationships with a woman ended because that woman was uncomfortable with her continued interest in men. In addition to biphobia, Lindsay has also experienced numerous whorephobic comments while navigating the dating world (including a recent request for her STI test results in an introductory message on a dating site), and sometimes in academia as well (for example, a professor told Lindsay to start her research paper on the discursive silencing of sex workers from the premise that prostitution is violence against women, in effect discursively over-riding her experience). Having learned to embrace femininity after her colleagues at the strip club taught her to harness its power, Tuulia came to feel uncomfortable in queer spaces for being “too feminine” but stigmatized as a sex worker—through being fetishized as an object of desire, scrutiny or pity, and through verbal and emotional abuse—in feminist and straight contexts.

Recognizing that queer and LGBT-identifying activists and scholars have been important allies to the sex worker rights movement, this paper is not a list of grievances against queer communities. Instead, in this paper we extend Ahmed’s warning of fragility with Michel Foucault’s (1978) insistence that resistance (which is, in principle, key to the formation of queer and feminist communities) more often fractures unities instead of producing great ruptures in power relations (96). These fractures can be understood as effects of the simultaneity and interplay of power and resistance (96), in which “hierarch[ies] of credibility” (Becker 1963, 241) and “respectability” (Fellows and Razack 1998, 350) converge to create normative, and in turn exclusionary, ideas of radicality.

Through this lens we explore the points of fracture in the relationships between queer, feminist, and sex worker communities in order to articulate strategies to turn that fragility into a source of strength and renewed allyship. In doing so, we highlight how femme-, bi- and whorephobia intersect to shape perceptions of sex work and sex workers. In particular we examine the fractures amongst sex workers, cis, white gay men, lesbian feminists, trans and queer communities. Rather than claiming discomfort with femme sex workers is all-pervasive, the notion of fractures allows us to highlight weak points in allyship while acknowledging that, like any community, these groups are fractured unities (Kobayashi 2001, 62), in which tensions arise from the various identities, oppressions, and privileges their members occupy (Namaste 2005; Fellows and Razack 1998; Crenshaw 1989). Moreover, queer, LGBT, feminist, and sex worker communities often overlap (Chateauvert 2013; Pendleton 1997; Nestle 1998). Indeed, both of us have at various times been involved with, and considered ourselves part of, queer communities. After relating historical to contemporary tensions and exclusions amidst these groupings, we close with some suggestions for improved allyship between our communities, which we hope will contribute towards dismantling the intersecting stigmas—including whorephobia, which Gail Pheterson (1998) argues is not only about gender and sexual practices and identities but also deviantizes along intersecting axes (see Crenshaw 1989)1 of race and class—to which we are all variously subject.

As both object to exclusionary sexual and gender norms, LGBTQ and sex worker rights movements have long had overlapping claims and members; however this relationship has not been without tension and discord. Perhaps the foremost example of allyship and discord can be found in the Stonewall Riots, in which sex workers’ involvement has been downplayed or erased. Racialized trans sex workers played pivotal and prominent roles fighting back against police repression and violence in both the Stonewall Riot of 1969 and the earlier Compton Cafeteria Riot of 1966 (Chateauvert 2013, 9). However, the mainstream LGBT rights movement prefers to remember versions of those events that highlight the defiance of gays and lesbians without reference to the fact that these people were also sex workers (Chateauvert 2013). As Chateauvert explains, gay liberation groups were reluctant to support or accept sex workers and transgender people in the gay rights movement, noting that the movement’s emphasis on “sexual respectability” is a form of whorephobia (2013, 10). For example, during the 1973 gay pride rally in Washington Square Park, Jean O’Leary of the Gay Activists Alliance publicly denounced drag queen Sylvia Rivera for “parodying” womanhood (Gan 2007, 133). Martin Duberman, who interviewed Rivera, noted of the Gay Activists Alliance that “[i]f someone was not shunning her darker skin or sniggering at her passionate, fractured English, they were deploring her rude anarchism as inimical to order or denouncing her sashaying ways as offensive to womanhood” (Duberman quoted in Gan 2007, 133).

This reluctance to centre trans women of colour can be seen in a recent film about the events of Stonewall, directed by Roland Emmerich. Emmerich was accused of whitewashing and erasing the voices of trans sex workers of colour, such as Miss Major and Sylvia Rivera, when he put a young, white, cis gay man at the centre of the riot while real-life historical figure, Marsha P. Johnson, appeared only on the periphery (Ginelle 2015, np). Namaste (2005) identifies yet other fractures, arguing transsexuals in particular are invisibilized by middle-class transgender activism, highlighting the Transgender Day of Remembrance as an instance in which victims’ involvement in sex work, and in turn how whorephobia intersects with transphobia, gender and sexual norms, is not addressed.

This harmful and misguided focus on respectability is highlighted in Becki Ross’ (2010, 208) analysis of how white, middle-class gay men in Vancouver’s West End perpetuated the stigmatization of street-based sex workers, openly demeaning them as “vulgar, lower-class, and deviant”, alongside other West End residents eager to expel sex workers in defense of their property values. Ross (2010, 208) connects this disavowal to the popularity of butch masculinity amongst gay men, which engendered a misogynist discomfort with the hyper-femininity embodied by female and trans sex workers. As a result, sex workers were forced to relocate to the notorious Downtown East Side (DTES) where they began to go “missing” in even greater numbers—from 1975 to 2001 more than 65 women disappeared, while another 20 went missing between 2002 and 2008 (Ferris 2015, 2). Statistics Canada (2016) reports that from 1991 to 2014, there have been 294 murders of sex workers across Canada and one in three murders remain unsolved. The exclusion of sex workers, racialized queers and trans people, and indeed radical politics altogether by middle-class, white gay men was highlighted by Black Lives Matter activists when they halted Toronto’s pride parade in 2016, arguing the contributions of these groups have been obscured by the contemporary centring of partying and the increasing space given to capitalist sponsors (Khan 2016).

While (some) gay men were physically and discursively excluding street-level sex workers, the rise of lesbian feminism began disavowing femmes and sex workers in a similar manner. Nestle (1998) laments the disruption of the historical “sisterhood” between lesbians and sex workers by lesbian feminism:

In the bars of the late fifties and early sixties where I learned my lesbian ways, whores were part of our world. We sat on barstools next to each other, we partied together, and we made love together […] This shared territory broke apart, at least for me, when I entered the world of lesbian feminism. Whores, and women who looked like whores, became the enemy or, at best, misguided oppressed women who need our help. (248)

Lesbian and radical feminists argued that prostitution is “uniquely degrading” and a form of violence against women (Lopez-Jones 1987, 271). In equating prostitution to rape, some radical feminists (Raymond 1995; Farley 2005) disregard sex workers’ agency and diversity of experiences. For example, Raymond (1995) refers to prostitution as “rape that’s paid for” (np), while Farley (2009) famously compared indoor sex work to plantation slavery and referred to indoor workers as “house ni****s” (np). These views of prostitution precipitated significant conflict at Women’s Worlds, a feminist conference we both attended in Ottawa in 2011, when feminists silenced sex workers and academics presenting at a session of the conference, and later loudly berated sex workers and allies silently protesting an exhibit equating the sex industry to violence, reducing one former sex worker to tears.

That some of our allies at Women’s Worlds were queer, however, speaks to the displacement of lesbian separatism with more nuanced and inclusive queer activism, and the accompanying proliferation of queer and trans theories of the body (for example, see Halberstam 2005; Stryker 1994; Stryker and Whittle 2006). However, there remains a modicum of discomfort with women who look like whores (i.e., who dress in a provocative, feminine manner). We see troubling similarities between (some) radical feminists’ assumptions that we are privileged, exceptional, and unable to grasp the depth of our own oppression—without asking us what we make of our own experiences—and distrust of femmes and bisexuals in queer communities. Julia Serano (2013) describes how the dominant framing of femininity as frivolous, artificial, and (politically, physically, or emotionally) weak circulates in mainstream and “radical” queer communities, shaping perceptions of femme-presenting women (both trans and cis). She highlights how, amongst both gay men and queer women, masculinity is praised while femininity is looked at with suspicion (54). Kirsten McLean (2008, 67) notes a similar suspicion of bisexuals in the gay and lesbian community, in which the validity of bisexuality as an orientation and the trustworthiness of individuals who embrace it are often questioned.

These issues are compounded for femme queer women, who struggle with their presentation-of-self being read as heterosexual. Sinclair Sexsmith (2009) argues that femme in/visibility is a form of gender discrimination, writing “[w]hen someone refuses to recognize a femme as queer, that person is saying, straight women are feminine, dykes are not, therefore your gender presentation trumps anything that might come out of your mouth about how you identify or who you are” (para. 6). In our experience, sex workers are read by (some) members of queer communities as too gender-conforming and too straight, and perhaps not even as femmes but merely as conventionally feminine; our queerness as bisexuals, femmes, and, we contend, as sex workers is erased. Such assumptions force us to out ourselves over and over to justify our queerness.

To counter these exclusionary ascriptions, there needs to be a greater recognition that sex workers’ queerness might look different than the more “radical” or non-binary gender presentations and sexual practices that appear to be celebrated in the contemporary queer activist community. In fact, it could be argued that some sex workers (notably porn performers, escorts and cam girls) perform what José Esteban Muñoz (1999) terms dis-identification, a process by which marginalized people navigate mainstream culture, not by aligning themselves with or against exclusionary works, but by fashioning their own culture through the transformation of such works, such as the increasing visibility of what might be termed feminist porn (4). Asserting “there is nothing straight about sex work,” Eve Pendleton characterizes the exchange of sexual services for money as a queer act (1997, 76). Pendleton further argues that through their repeated performances of heterosexuality, sex workers develop critiques of, and distaste for, the institution of compulsory heterosexuality; they refuse to subserviently and politely tolerate male sexual advances outside of a work context. Unlike a sexual or gender orientation however, sex work is a job; as an instrumental, for-profit performance it does not reflect one’s “true” identity—it is temporary and unfixed. To this end, sex workers can be queer or (albeit not quite normatively) heterosexual: the work itself may or may not relate to our identities outside of work. The recognition of the performance aspect of our labour also contributes to a “queering” of sex work spaces because “it disrupts the taken-for-granted assumptions that heteronormative gender/sexual relations are naturally occurring, rather than something that is ‘put on,’ created, purchased, and consumed in the marketplace” (Read 2013, 476). Finally, one can recognize the ubiquitous normativity of heterosexuality and also still acknowledge, as Noah Zatz (1997) does, “the organization of communities of resistance within which the meanings of certain acts may be radically different from their significance in dominant discourse and that may act to subvert those dominant meanings” (297). In other words, what may seem heteronormative on the surface may, in fact, have very different meanings for sex workers.

The instrumentality of professionally performing gender and sexuality, especially when it mimics heteronormative relations (even as it simultaneously inverts them [Frank 2003]), brings us to another point of discomfort we have felt in queer activist spaces, in suggestions of complicity with capitalism. Here we would urge queer and feminist activists to revisit Marx, namely to recall that we are workers (whether as independents who directly solicit customers, or pseudo-employees of third party-owned establishments [see Bruckert & Law 2013]), and not capitalists—we do not profit from exploiting other labourers, but instead extract money from customers through our own bodily labour. Sex workers do this by utilizing the particular conglomerations of gendered, classed, and racial presentations available to us in order to make our way in a capitalist society (Wolkowitz 2006; Bruckert 2002; Ross 2000). By explicitly requiring payment for emotional labour other women are expected to do for free, and which has traditionally been used to justify women’s cheap labour, sex workers challenge “some of the structural conditions that narrow women’s options in the first place” (Zatz 1997, 287). Thus Leslie Ann Jeffrey and Gayle MacDonald (2006) read sex work as a “resistant mode of female labour” (20).

It is understandable that queer people whose employability has been limited by their non-conforming gender presentation (and the importance of its consistency to their sense of self) may feel discomfited by our capitalizing on (relatively, and not always) apparently conformist gendered and sexual performances. However, this discomfort with our supposed capitalist accumulation ignores the fact that for many people living under capitalism, the only capital they have to bank on is that of body capital. Disabled people, street-involved people, racialized people etc., are often excluded from “mainstream” paid labour because of a lack of workplace accommodations, inaccessible work environments, racism, and discrimination (Withers 2012). Faced with these and other intersecting disadvantages including insecure housing, marginalized and/or LGBT people may turn to sex work (see Withers 2012).

Whether sex work informs or emanates from a deeper part of a person’s desires or identity, or is just a temporary solution to the inescapable demands of capitalism (see Westcott, Baird, and Cooper 2006), sex workers understand stigma. We have felt it in the dangers and paranoia of criminalization and in disappointment, lack of understanding, or rejection from family; it has hurt us deeply. The moments of discomfort that arise when our femininity (in a personal or professional context) is read as un-political, or hegemonic, or as selling out, undermines solidarity amongst sexual and gender outcasts such as ourselves and other queers. To reduce this discomfort and the fractures and hierarchies it sustains, we offer some suggestions to improve allyship between queer and sex working communities:

1. Do not assume that our gender presentation(s) reflects our politics or our orientation(s), or is not We may wear lingerie and eyeshadow at work, or embrace a femme/inine aesthetic in other social contexts, but this does not mean we have not or do not experiment(ed) or embrace(d) other gendered presentations of self, or are familiar with or close to others who do. In return, sex workers should endeavour not to assume that queer activists are not sex workers (or that they are), or make assumptions about their politics.

2. Accept that we often discuss our experiences with cis men. They are overwhelmingly our clients; they may be our romantic or sexual partners; and as femme-presenting folks, we are often harassed by them. This, however, does not mean we are heterosexual or “un-radical.” That said, talking about work can be exclusionary; to this end asking us to refrain from “shop talk” when in mixed company is more than reasonable. We could certainly better monitor our own behaviour in this regard.

3. Remember that, as workers, we are not capitalists reproducing the system—we are trying to make our way in it by taking control of our labour power through the overt use of our bodies. If you have a problem with sex work because of something to do with capitalism, consider that your problem may be with the commercialization of sexual labour. Refrain from constructing/reproducing moral hierarchies of labour based on feelings—for example, sex work is oppressive because (some) sex workers hate their job, or empowering because (some) sex workers love it. Instead, think about sex workers like all other workers—struggling to balance the compulsion to work with their own agency and dignity.

4. Welcome bi and femme folks in(to) your own community. Invite them out with your friends, introduce them to other queers you know. Ask us our pronouns. A smiling face is often enough to quell any fears we may have and to make us feel welcome. Accept when you make a mistake and apologize. Sex workers could also do better with accepting queer and otherwise non-normative orientations, identities, and relationships—even amongst (and in) ourselves.

In acknowledging our common and complementary experiences, concerns, and shortcomings, these strategies may heal the fractures we have enumerated in this paper. After all, the stigmas we face are two sides of the same coin: the slurs “whore” and “queer” both police gender and sexual norms (Namaste 1996; Pheterson 1998) that in turn foster misguided perceptions we have chosen deviant and immoral lifestyles. We highlight these tensions not to shame queer folks, but rather to encourage better coalitional politics, and as a reminder that heteronormative mimicry need not preclude allyship. Reflecting on these tensions benefits both of our communities by forcing us to recognize our assumptions; as Alison Kafer (2013) argues, “without such disagreement, and the way it compels us to reexamine our positions, we can too easily skim over our own exclusions and their effects” (150). Through this lens, we see our own exclusionary tendencies, whether it is being overly descriptive about our latest professional or personal encounters with men (Lindsay) or brushing off recreational erotic performers (e.g., burlesque dancers) as amateurs (Tuulia). Recognizing our discomforts opens us up to an allyship, which sees differences not through hierarchies of respectability or radicality that sustain the relations of power that enable our oppression, but as points of resistance that traverse social positions to make revolution possible (cf. Foucault 1978).


1. Kimberle Crenshaw (1989) coined the term “intersectionality” to remedy what she described as “dominant conceptions of discrimination [that] condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis” (140) and accommodate the experiences of Black women, which are “greater than the sum of racism and sexism” (140).

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Lindsay Blewett is a sex worker and PhD student in Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies at York University. Her research interests include sex work, disability, embodiment, and desire.

Tuulia Law is a sessional assistant professor at York University, and former stripper. Her research interests include sex work, third parties (management) in the sex industry, gender performance and simulacra, and gendered violence.

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