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Theory & Analysis

Queers, Poverty, and Transactional Sex: Notes from the Sex Workers Festival of Resistance

 A couple weeks ago I attended the Sex Workers Festival Of Resistance in Glasgow, a 5 day conference organised by and for sex workers, with sex worker only sessions where we organised and shared skills, plus public sessions on various issues. The conference was organised by SWARM, until recently known as SWOU. I was on the panel for a public event entitled Sex Work and LGBT, and these were my opening comments:

“For me personally the connection between being LGBTQ and a sex worker is a clear one in my life. I started selling sex because I was unemployed, homeless and needed to get the money together to put a bond down so I could start renting, and being queer was a significant factor in how I’d ended up at that point.

In general I think we need to be aware that there is a clear connection between poverty and sex work. And this is something that I think really gets lost when sex worker is seen as a subversive identity rather than a type of job. Lgbtq people are disproportionately represented in sex work, not just for the reasons that people often assume, (because we’re apparently so sexually open minded) but because we’re more likely to get disowned, become homeless, be unemployed, and so on, in comparison to cisgender heterosexuals, so for a lot of us so-called transactional sex (whether for money, food, or shelter) becomes a way to survive.

The connection between destitution and sex work is an important one to make in our arguments for decriminalisation. If you have nowhere to sleep you can go on the pull and go back to someone’s place, but maybe they’re just going to want to have sex all night, maybe you’re not even going to get any sleep. Or you could have sex for money, then when it’s over and you’ve got the money you can pay for a room in a hostel with it where you can actually get some sleep. Similarly you can work as a prostitute and use the money to pay for your own house and your own bills, or you can get into a sexual relationship you don’t want to be in or stay in one after you want to leave. You could categorise all these as some form of transactional sex. Personally I prefer to spend an hour with a client and then pay for a room where I have some peace, than have a man waking me up whenever he wants some sex. And it’s bad enough spending any time with my clients, the prospect of sharing a home with someone I feel that way about is horrific to me. But it’s the most formalised versions of transactional sex that get criminalised, and often this is the versions where the “worker” has the most control. No one is trying to criminalise going on the pull for somewhere to crash, or getting married for financial security, or staying in a bad relationship when you can’t afford a place on your own. But the criminalisation of what is more easily identified as sex work pushes those of us with limited options towards transactional sex where we have less control, and are less able to state concretely what our prices and limits are. I’m an anticapitalist and though I usually have nothing good to say about wage slavery, it has advantages over slavery.

I’d like to note that in working class lesbian history this connection has often been recognised (though as women have become more accepted in other workplaces it’s been forgotten). Many sex working women were (and still are) in relationships with each other. It used to be more recognised as a way for lesbian women to avoid marriage by selling sex to men piecemeal instead, and it can help the worker draw a line mentally between work sex and non work sex. Also I know a lot of people who were bisexual but now men remind them too much of work, so they pursue relationships exclusively with women.”

 Then we moved on to a question and answer session where, amongst other things, we discussed how LGBT organisations could support sex workers more. The whole conference was excellent and SWARM continues to be a very valuable organisation for myself and other sex workers. Check out the fresh new website, launched on mayday, for more info https://www.swarmcollective.org/

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