When you read the title above, you might think this is about a particular (stereotypically cisgender male) client who tricks and cheats sex workers; surely they exists, but this isn’t about them. This article is about the other type of “client” that seek to gain access to our bodies and stories and services, but refuse to pay: activists, artists, journalists, researchers…
Possibly, some will get offended by this comparison, but to me – after all these years – it is the one that makes the most sense. We tend to see activists, artists, journalists, and researchers as a group of people that are there to “help” sex workers, “give” voice to them, provide them with “visibility”; the the truth is that a simple question needs to be asked: whose careers are being built? whose byline will appear by these journalistic pieces? who will earn the fees when photography is eventually sold? who will be listed as “authors”? who will be the experts for have CONSUMED the bodies and lives of sex workers? Unless the activist, artist, journalist, or researcher is a sex worker themselves – or it is a project done by a sex worker led organisation – the answer is plain and simple: it is a client who seeks access to someone else’s body, service, story… for their own fulfillment.
During the years I worked with a sex worker group, and we were approached by many researchers (especially a specific type of feminist academic) and journalists in particular. In essence I have nothing inherently against them showing interest in our communities, but the dialogue that I had with them too often went as follows:
artist/journalist/researcher: I am doing a project on [insert whatever project for which they need sex workers] and wanted to get in touch with sex workers who might be willing to participate
me: Oh that is interesting. Sex worker’s aren’t that hard to reach, if you approach it well. You can approach people working, or online. You just then must make sure you pay them for their time, as they are busy working and need to be compensated.
artist/journalist/researcher: Why must I pay them? I mean this is for their own good? I’m like a client?!
As a disclaimer I’ll say that not all of them reacted that way; especially some younger gender studies students ended up getting together money and following this advice. Those of them that I ended up speaking with afterwards reported they had amazing and honest and engaging conversations that were really helpful.
But too many feel that, unlike a client who asks for a service, and interaction, and for time; they are entitled, for whatever reason, to get it for free. Some researchers would point out the inherent ethical problems with paying “research subjects”; my stance is that there is an inherent ethical problem with not paying so-called “research subjects” for their time and effort. You are asked, and often this is a far more intimate request that a regular client makes, to lay yourself bare, to answer deeply persons about your life and health… yet somehow as a “research subject” this must be done for what? The good of society? Why do we hammer on the need for researchers, artists, academics, etc to be paid for their labour? If you seek to interview a sex worker, at the very least pay the going rate, if not more because of what you are actually asking for. Acknowledge your position of power and privilege, and your own personal investment in why you seek to access someone else’s body, someone else’s story.
In the end, like any other who seeks an hour or so for some sexual service, the researcher/artists/journalist is asking for the same, they are asking for a sexual service; if it wasn’t sexual, they wouldn’t interviewing their aunt, or any random person. They have an invested interest in the sexual labour we do, they seek to CONSUME equally as any other client our sexual labour. Just because you end up keeping your clothes on, doesn’t mean you should be always to get it given to you for free.