Sex Work+Academia=Whorephobia

Juniper Fitzgerald (@juniperfitz) is a graduate student and sex worker, as well as a writer.  In this guest post, Juniper reflects on the presumed contradiction between academia and sex work, detailing some of the challenges and bias she has faced in the academy because she is a sex worker.

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Sex Work + Academia = Whorephobia

juniperAlthough surprisingly adult-like for someone who believed in Santa Clause until the ripe old age of thirteen, I nonetheless remain embodied in my nerdy, greasy-haired self of girlhood. A painfully awkward child, that space of insecurity was further squared off by a single-parent, barely middle-class household in the heart of the Bible Belt. Unattractive, unshaven, and terrified of Homo sapiens – if ever there were an unlikely candidate for sex work, I surely fit the bill. But even the trope of the “unlikely [insert any of the numerously broad, oversexed caricatures of women in our culture]” is uncomfortable at best. Indeed, it necessitates a “likely [insert any of the numerously broad, oversexed caricatures of women in our culture].” Who, exactly, is the likely stripper? The unsurprising porn star? The totally foreseeable whore? In the decade I spent peddling eroticism and intimacy, I never once had the pleasure of meeting such a predictable person.

And yet, discourses surrounding so-called sexual deviants have vested interests in these kinds of distinctions. While exploited sex workers and victims of trafficking necessarily have our cultural empathy, those for whom “victim” is not a salient identity garner less warmth. As someone whose choice to enter the sex industry was only modestly constrained by poverty, I exist in the ambiguity of agential sex work – ambiguous insofar as agency is tricky under a capitalistic, white supremacist patriarchy. Now that I am in academia, that ambiguity is difficult for colleagues, namely because the conversation surrounding sex work has, historically, been one of exploitation. There is a distinct lack of language through which to express my experiences.

And I am not alone. As the bloated face of capitalism pokes its stars and stripes into all that is holy and sacred, as the authentic pursuit of knowledge becomes privatized and as graduate assistantships and adjunct labor become little more than indentured servitudes, more and more people supplement their university pay checks with sex work. And it is certainly a tricky balance. Not only do sex workers navigate two extreme identities, we must also work harder at convincing academic colleagues of our intellectual rigor and of the seriousness of our research (especially if we happen to also focus our research on gender and sexuality). Our struggles are not unlike those of mid-late century feminists and queers. In fact, of her struggle as a feminist in the academia, Caroline Ramazanoglu (1987) wrote:

It is my contention that I am not a crank. I am not a freak. I am not unprofessional. I am not a totalitarian fascist determined to impose my will on others. I am not sexually deprived, I do not seek revenge on men, but I am labeled as these (and worse) to my face and behind my back, because of my lack of deference and my persistent failure to accept my “proper place” as a subordinate female in a patriarchal, competitive, and hierarchical system (69).

Our experiences are similar, though I might replace “I do not seek revenge on men” with “I do not indiscriminately seduce men.” It was almost a decade ago that I was wittingly “outed” by local media—an unexpectedly titillating account of my life of vice. Subsequently, colleagues, professors, and students started propositioning me behind closed doors, a testament to my perceived hypersexuality. As a graduate student, I dull out infinite justification for my research; I wade through tomes of student reviews claiming my “seriousness” is at odds with my research interests, which happen to be gender and sexuality as they relate to the sex industry. Colleagues claim that I am “fringe” and unscrupulously mock my work. I am perceived to be biased or, on rare but notable occasions, suffering from false consciousness. In one particularly haunting example, a national research project was stalled because of my participation in it while working as a sex worker. I am often accused of “inappropriateness” – my dress or my demeanor or my interactions with male colleagues are perceived to be laden with sexual overtures. A battlefield of eggshells, I am constantly tip-toeing over the sensibilities of my peers. My nerdy and bookish sense of self is continuously competing with cohorts’ insistence that I exist only as a perfidious harlot. It is, of course, a form of whorephobia.

Whorephobia in academia speaks to larger issues of sexism and classism in universities. Because of that nagging belief in the “likely sex worker,” academics box their sex-working colleagues into unforgiving stereotypes: vindictive, untrustworthy, unstable and, of course, unworthy, just to name a few. And it is important to recognize that said stereotypes are engendered from a fundamental distrust of women and the systemic denial of bodily agency, particularly as it plays out for poor and blue-collar women.

Supporting sex workers, whether they be colleagues or otherwise, is indeed a progressive position. Acknowledging sex workers’ complicated and infinitely unfolding humanity is one way we, as academics, may begin to close the gap between the ivory tower’s insiders and outsiders.

References

Ramazanoglu, Caroline. (1987). “Sex and Academic Life, or You Can Keep a Good Woman Down.” Pp. 61-74. In Women, Violence and Social Control, eds. Jalna Hanmer and Mary Maynard. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.