Marginalia on Skeptical and Radical Thinking: Interview with Sophie Hirschfeld

Sophie Hirschfeld is a writer for various websites, manager of shethought, activist, performer and professional dominatrix. She run the Eastern Washington Sex Workers Outreach Project and often focus on educating the public about the adult industry.  Sophie is the second in my interview series on the North American “skeptic’s movement” but we primarily focus on the politics of sex work and not on epistemology or science activism, so this is placed in both marginalia series.

Skepoet: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions of the sex industry both in terms of workers and in terms of consumers?  In an interview you did on Culture Wars Radio, you said that one of your responses some feminist critiques of sex work as exploitation and objectification, you point out that most work is exploitative. Why do you think there is so much focus on the exploitation in sex work as opposed to be most wage-labor in general?

Sophie Hirschfeld:  I’m not going to pretend I can sum up the misconceptions about sex workers in one response, because there are many. Also, most of what I’m going to talk about doesn’t have data. It bothers me that there is nothing for me to offer beyond mostly experience and a little educated observation. The reality is, many of these issues aren’t examined through testing or studies because few academic institutions are willing to deal with something so controversial.

I’ll highlight what I think is most important, but be aware that this is a very inadequate response and a more accurate response would require a very lengthy book.

Sex workers are seen as a kind of underbelly of society. They’re often clumped together as a stereotype keeping company the likes of murderers, con artists and thieves. In movies, they’re seen as people trapped in a violent world that is inescapable and generally unpleasant or they’re considered the unpleasant, manipulative force. Because the sex workers who otherwise lead normal, healthy lives are not seen by most of society, that stigma is reinforced. The sex workers who tend to be noticed by the public are dysfunctional because the dysfunction is what makes them memorable. It is a tough stigma to get rid of.

In the community of sex workers out there, sex workers have about the same range of function or dysfunction as the rest of the population. There are workers of all types and personalities. Some people suck, some people are awesome.

Another problematic belief is that all or most sex workers are victims. I don’t want to say that there aren’t victims in the sex industry, because there certainly are. However, victimization is not the norm and painting non-victims as victims clouds the water and makes it tougher to help real victims. Painting the adult industry as the problem in matters such as the human slave trade forces ignorance regarding the real problems. It becomes a very dangerous red herring. As long as we’re directing people’s attention to the sex industry as a whole in order to protect victims of the slave trade, the slave trade is better able to function with our attention diverted. The accusation that the sex industry is somehow tied tightly to the human slave trade is probably one of the most damaging myths out there. Yet, it is largely ignored.

Furthermore, continuing along the problem of seeing sex workers as victims, this belief implies that the workers, themselves, are incapable of making their own decisions about their bodies and their lives. It implies that we can’t make decisions about our sexuality, in at least some context, without somehow being forced. It implies that sexuality somehow becomes non-consensual within whatever set of circumstances might involve money. Interestingly, the money as a coercive factor is rarely applied to anything else. In fact, the very suggestion that people in other industries are all coerced by their income is considered absurd by most people.

Sex workers are also stereotyped as stupid and without skills. Sex workers who are successful tend to be business-oriented. It isn’t that there aren’t those without skills, but some skill sets are needed when working in the adult industry. A good business sense is extremely important. There is this attitude that sex workers do what they do because they can’t do anything else. The reality is, other options are not as appealing. Why would a person work stocking shelves in a grocery store when they can have a far more pleasurable job and make more money? For me, the adult industry is more beneficial than the health industry, where my degree is. For others, it is better than bagging groceries, waitress or driving a garbage truck. Sex workers don’t lack skills, they lack the desire to do jobs that are less pleasant or that will make less money. They often want to apply their skills and attributes in a way that is better for them. It isn’t a lack of ability that lands them there.

There is also an economic stereotype that needs to be picked apart. The idea that people in the adult industry are all after the money is problematic. The sex industry isn’t easy money. In fact, while there is no objective information on it, people in the adult industry make a range of incomes. Some people in the adult industry make as much doing, for example, erotic texting, as they would bagging groceries. Sex work isn’t easy money for everybody. Some people do well and prosper and some people make very little. Like with any attempt at running a business, a sex worker is subject to economic fluctuation, market preference and product visibility. Sex work isn’t “a good way to make money,” as many like to say. It is, instead, a way to make money that some people are good at. It is important to note that difference.

As for clients, there’s also far more misconceptions than I could possibly address in one reasonably-sized response. The ones that I think are the most damaging are that people using adult services are socially dysfunctional, disloyal, women-hating and lonely.

In popular culture, with a few exceptions, people who use the adult industry are seen as socially inadequate or, oftentimes, downright evil. They’re seen as violent and uncaring of those who’s services they use. Abuse is often involved and stereotypes about the adult industry and patrons are used to set up victims and villains. Clients are stereotyped as either lonely or the bad guys. The public seems to believe that, too. This is a tricky stereotype to deal with because one of the goals of SWOP is to reduce the instances of violence against sex workers. The reality is, the social environment that sex workers lives in enables violence, but that enabling isn’t there because our patrons are all evil and violent. That problem is there because there’s really nothing out there to protect us. With lack of legal protection, we’re easier targets. To further complicate the problem, we’re social outsiders and, per the norm for human behavior, it is acceptable to harm an outsider. The underbelly of society is expendable, in the public’s mind. Thus, we come to more harm and the stereotype about clients being violent is naturally reinforced. Most clients, though, are like the average person as well. They are empathetic. While there are some that may not care, most of them seem to be understanding and normal, caring people. Just as with sex workers, the patrons of the adult industry are from a range of types of people and stereotyping them as violent and uncaring simply harms everyone.

Another dysfunction that patrons are stereotyped as is socially inept. They are often seen as people who “can’t otherwise get laid” or who can’t keep a girlfriend or properly communicate with those they would be interested in. They’re painted as lonely and unable to resolve the problem of loneliness without using the adult industry. This stereotype poses two problems. Not only does it paint the wrong picture about most of the people who use the adult industry, but it also implies that those who might use the adult industry because they might be dysfunctional are somehow bad. Much like the habit people have had of accusing others of being gay as a part of an insult, creating a stereotype that only the socially inept would use the adult industry, as a form of degradation to those who are socially awkward, is insulting. When people have problems and they find practical solutions for them, we, as a society, should reward that. Instead, we use it as a way to measure ourselves against others and we discriminate accordingly. That’s not healthy for us and it is not healthy for those we’re bringing down in the process. Most people who use adult industry services, though, are pretty average.

The stereotype about lack of loyalty in those who use the adult industry is its own tricky topic and, really, deserves its own article, sometime. The truth is, some disloyalty is often involved with clients. However, I don’t think the patrons of adult services are any more or less disloyal than anyone else. It is simply the case that in the act of using adult services, the lack of loyalty to one’s partner is far more obvious than it is when someone has an affair. There is no objective data on it, but if I had to guess, I would say the relationship status of most of those who use sex industry services are probably pretty close to that of the general population. There are countless problems with the disloyal stereotype, too, that are difficult to address, here. How people decide if someone is disloyal varies tremendously. Some think that if a person watches porn, they’re somehow unfaithful to their partner. Others feel that cheating is a matter of who someone is having intercourse with and others see cheating as a purely mental or emotional thing. With no clear lines drawn, socially, the stigma about clients and loyalty to their significant others is often over-exaggerated.

I’ve already touched on this, some, but the common believe that those who use adult industry services are somehow misogynistic and woman-hating is pretty far off base. Again, the range of individuals adult workers see is pretty much representative of the general population, so there are going to be some woman-hating guys who are generally unpleasant. For the most part, though, patrons of adult services are normal guys, some of whom even see women in the adult industry as liberated and independent. Many of them hold women in high-regard and, quite honestly, if they didn’t see interaction with women as some sort of need, they wouldn’t be using the adult industry in the first place.

It is tough to trace the origins of the idea that sex work is exploitative, but it appears to originate from the various waves of feminism. The goals, originally, were to separate women from the idea that they were only something for sexual use. That goal wasn’t necessarily bad, but it had a bad, probably unintentional, side-effect. Coupling that with the fact that sex work has frequently been seen, in history, in the context of really shitty situations and you have a social recipe for justifying the soup of discrimination that is seen against the sex industry. When we see things in a bad context, it is tough for us to separate what is causing those bad things and what is simply there. We look at ghettos and discriminate against the context, but we have a tough time seeing that the majority of those in the ghetto are innocent and only there by chance, not by personal flaw. So, when people have looked at the adult industry in the past, and even in the present, they’ve seen it scattered amongst things like poverty, racial disparity and a criminal culture. And the biggest association the sex industry had with something bad, for years, was sex. Sex was bad, ergo, selling sex must be bad. In that sense, it has been easy for people to judge the adult industry as much as whatever they think surrounds it.

Because of this, the sex industry, which is already seemingly evil, is easier to target. As people often discuss from sociological standpoints, the us vs. them mentality encourages people to find more ways to discriminate against the “other.” We’re more willing to destroy the “other” if they are seen as bad or if their situation is bad. If exploitation is a main feature of sex industry work, it is easier to keep it firmly rooted as the “other.” It is easier to hate. As sexual liberation becomes more accepted and an ongoing theme in our culture, and sex, itself, is seen as less evil, the most glaring reason to hate the adult industry is slowly vanishing. Exploitation is one of the strongest evils others can point to to keep society opposed to sex work.

As for why people target the concept of exploitation in sex work and not the rest of the work force, that has everything to do with how people compartmentalize ideas. It is a flaw in the way humans think. The condition of work being sexual makes exploitation somehow not-OK, whereas the condition of a normal job is just not something people think about because most people have the normal job. It isn’t highlighted as a problem and ideas surrounding exploitation in regular jobs is not something that saturates our culture.

S.:   I remember, somewhat strangely, seeing feminists that I was studying in graduate school such as Andrea Dworkin cited by conservative Christian students in Georgia, who would have been horrified by her politics, when they are arguing against pornography.  Then I looked into several of the studies that in anti-pornography arguments by feminists and saw that they were done by Christian-influenced and heavily conservative researchers.  This immediately confused me.    Do you think this is a case of confusing “current exploitation” (or even past exploitation) as a baseline for any possible “adult industry/sex work”?  This seems to me to, like you said, to actually protect more serious abuse and also to put sex work in a special category of exploitation (when I think most wage labor is exploitative).How do see this victimization narrative as a means of avoiding how to deal with the real social issues within sex work and the adult industry?

S.H.:   By making Sex Workers out to all be victims, it is a kind of red herring. It is a distraction from other real issues. It would be like trying to solve a puzzle by shaking the pieces in the box. That isn’t to say that there aren’t sex workers who are victims — of course, there are some sex workers who are victims, but by claiming all sex workers are victims, we’re not resolving the problems the individuals who are victims are facing. Instead, we’re blanket attacking something and doing very little that is productive. Oftentimes, claiming all sex workers are victims makes people think that sex work, itself, is the problem and needs to be eliminated. Since sex work isn’t going to just randomly go away, focusing on getting rid of it enables people to think they’re working on something productive and, yet, they’re not finding actual kidnapping victims and freeing them from sexual slavery. We have real examples of this. Last year, I wrote about Annie Lobert’s claims that she makes in her program, Hookers for Jesus. She makes claims about who she is saving and sex work in general that are deceptive.

There is very little evidence that she deals with the issues that she claims. Of course, it isn’t the deception, itself, that is the biggest problem. It is that her deception actually causes harm and that is a problem.

I think that painting sex workers as victims prevents us from looking at the very real problems that they face. When sex worker seeks help, for example, from a trauma they’ve experienced and the counselor can’t get past their idea of a sex worker being a victim, the trauma never gets addressed. Similarly, on a societal level, if sex workers are all victims that are in need of being saved, issues such as laws which prevent sex workers from seeking help when a crime is committed against them are likely to remain in place under the assumption that they are protecting those who they actually harm. Furthermore, painting sex workers as all victims removes responsibility from them. How can a sex worker be a liberated person if it is assumed that their choices are not theirs? How can we properly have freedom if this assumption keeps laws in place that ultimately pose a threat to us? That’s what arguments against the adult industry tend to do. In fact, attempts to ban pornography are constantly using the excuse that porn harms women. Frequently, they misquote studies (or make them up) or cite instances where real people were really harmed and instead of blaming the people who did the harm, they blame the adult industry.

S.:  If how much do you think a failure to contextualize sex and sexuality leads to this sort of thinking?

S.H.:  I think that many people are trained to see sex and sexuality as separate from regular life. Sex is only for certain purposes, sex is not to be talked about, we treat sex as if it is a completely different culture, sometimes. We even refer to people who are openly sexual as members of “the kink community,” even if their “kink” is simply having multiple partners (which is extremely common).

Of course, not addressing sex as a normal behavior is only part of the problem with dealing with issues facing the adult industry. It does play a major role, but even as it has become less common to demonize sexual behavior that used to be considered a punishable offense, sex workers have only seen their noose loosened just a little. The progress is slower, which seems to indicate there are other problems.

I think one problem is that in the attempt to find sexual liberation, sex work was wrongfully accused of being a culprit in the oppression of our sexual personas, especially that of women. This accusation didn’t come from one side of the debate or the other it came from both. The more conservative people on one side saw the accusation as a validation of their claims against normal human sexual behavior and those seeking liberation saw the accusation as a part of a vehicle to finding their own freedom and possibly saving others along the way. Even now, there is a strong movement against the adult industry from feminist groups and from religious organizations and from most political parties and a part of that justification is the claim that sex workers and/or most sexual imagery, is harmful to women and causes problems ranging from abuse towards women to unreasonable beauty expectations to anorexia to community break downs. It appears to be the case that society wanted sexual liberation, but they wanted sexual liberation to remain invisible and in order to keep it invisible, the most sexual of all beasts, the sex worker, seems to have become the prey of society.

S.:  Do you see this as a part of a larger general social problems in regards sexuality?

S.H.:  The problem with society’s view on sexuality is another issue that plays into this. An aversion to open sexual discussion makes it difficult to deal with issues sex workers face. The aversion to sexual discussion highlights people’s fear of open sexuality, which is why many people claim that sex work is exploitative. I frequently hear people tell me, when they hear about my participation in erotic productions, that it is a job they wouldn’t want to do. They seem to think something extreme would have to happen to them for them to do it and they may be correct, but the problem is that they assume that based on their understanding of their world, not with an understanding that I have of my own world. As a result, their assumption that something dramatic must happen to others must be what causes them to go into the adult industry is bad reasoning. It is kind of like saying I wouldn’t be a cook at a fast food place unless something dramatic happened in my life. Of course that is true, but I wouldn’t assume that every person who works at a fast food place has had bad experiences that led them there.

Alongside that, an aversion to open sexual discussion means that discussing real issues in the adult industry, such as abuse and violence, STDs and legal issues are off the table in most contexts. Again, even in the context of such a conversation, sex work gets blamed for things it shouldn’t. Instead of providing safety outlets for victims of violence, the advice is to leave the adult industry. To put that in context, we never tell people in most other lines of work that because they are a victim, they should leave that industry. Even police officers who are shot are not necessarily encouraged to leave their line of work. Instead of reinforcing education about sexual safety, encouraging the use of condoms, dental dams and birth control, it is again the case that people blame the adult industry for disease. Yet, if someone is dealing with a serious STD, it is only the extreme abstinence promoters who wrongly assign the blame and fail to connect the problem with safety.

S.:  What do you make of the arguments I have seen floating around the web about how legalization of prostitution has not stopped human trafficking even in Scandinavia?

S.H.:   The problem is that they are using the assumption that the two are tightly linked. Human trafficking isn’t the same as prostitution. Though, legalizing prostitution has enabled countries to work with prostitutes in order to help find those who are trafficked within the industry. Trafficking within the industry is only a small part of human trafficking. The human slave trade is a very serious matter and blaming the adult industry has caused most people to ignore various truths about it. The sex industry is neither the cause nor the function of most of the slave trade.

S.:  What do you think the skeptic’s movement role should be in issues of sexuality given the political (but also scientific) nature of skeptical activism?

S.H.:  I think that the skeptic community should be examining the issue more thoroughly. I’ve been trying to get opportunities to teach the skeptic community more facts about the sex industry, but finding people who will listen can be difficult. There is so much opposition to my point of view and the subject is so sensitive, many people will ignore it. They have to get past what they think they know about the industry to even allow it.

S. :  What do you think would be needed to get over pre-existing biases within the skeptic’s community?

S.H.:  That is tough to predict. Social change is not an easy task and it usually requires a population to begin to understand the damage their beliefs do. When it comes to sex work or sex-related issues, not only do they have to see the damage being done, we have to dispel myths about the industry, some of which have existed for thousands of years (just look how the Judeo-Christian belief system approaches sex and the adult industry).

S.:  Do you think the Watson/Dawkin’s controversy a few years back has made the issue more front and center than it was in say 2008 when I first got involved?

S.H.:  I think the Watson/Dawkins controversy highlighted some individual biases and misunderstandings in how gender should be approached. I don’t think it focused very much on things like open sexuality or sex work. It would have been nice if it could have led us down a path where we could discuss things like consent, sex and culture and so on, but it became a petty battle, instead. I think everyone lost that battle.

S.:  Anything you would like to say in closing?

S.H.:  Most of the way society views the adult industry is distorted. It is so distorted that it causes harm and we can’t fix it until we work on fixing it. I would hope, if anything comes from the work I do, that it is some measure of progress in getting people to rethink how we view sexuality and the people who openly express themselves and use their sexuality in a healthy way. That includes the ability to see sex work as a normal, acceptable act that should be done safely and respectfully.

Historically, minorities have stepped forward, on occasion, and given the World a simple message, which the World eventually acknowledged. Many people in the adult industry have the same message: We are human, please treat us accordingly.


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