By Carmen Shakti
One of the most painful things that I have to deal with as a sex worker is the ridiculous notion that sex workers don’t have the right to say no or set limits on sexual activity. This idea has been around for a long time (hello patriarchy!) and is by no means limited to sex working women, but sex workers do tend to be the ones that bear the brunt of this terrifying assumption.
When I was contemplating entering the sex industry in my twenties after leaving an abusive first marriage, I was viscerally aware of both the fact that I would be at greater risk of sexual violence, even murder, on account of my profession. Not only that, but I would face greater barriers to justice than a non-sex-working woman reporting a violent crime. Choosing between poverty and increased risk of violence is an impossible choice, but it is one that people make every day. It’s the choice I made when I first started escorting.
Entering the sex industry was, for the most part, a positive decision for me personally. I loved the freedom that came with the money. As someone who had worked in primarily low-wage, low-job-security jobs before becoming an escort, it was a revelation to earn a good living. I still remember how good it felt to walk into that art supply store after my first couple weeks working at an agency and paying cash for an easel, a pack of canvas, and a set of quality brushes. I finally had money to spend to nurture my creativity. I will always feel proud of myself for clawing my way out of poverty and investing in myself. And it felt good to be good at my job. Although I was, at times, a good waitress, I never felt like a great waitress. When I started escorting, I got so much positive feedback from clients that I had no doubt in my mind I was good at my job.
In 2017, a client I had seen before decided to rape me. The experience was agonizingly painful. Afterwards, I struggled in many ways. I am healing, but I continue to struggle as well. The rape was extremely traumatic and left me with PTSD. My life, which had been going really well, became a nightmare roller coaster of panic attacks, flashbacks, numbness, and chronic pain. I was furious. This man felt free to violate my clearly stated boundaries because he has been taught by the greater culture that women who do sex work don’t deserve to set boundaries. Or perhaps he’s just a violent misogynist who would treat any woman that way. Whatever the case may be, he chose to prioritize his desire to get his own way in bed over my right to decide what happens to my own body.
This is an important human rights issue, but it’s one that doesn’t get enough attention. Even within the #MeToo movement, you see people saying that sex workers don’t get to have their me too moment because our work renders us incapable of being sexually violated. Comments like this are extremely disheartening to me. They suggest that I, on account of my profession, am not fully human. That I don’t experience the consequences of sexual assault because I have a lot of sex, or something.
I assure you, sexual violence is every bit as devastating to the mind, body and spirits of sex workers as it is to anyone else. It could even be argued that it impacts us more greatly, as we perform erotic labor, and as freelancers, we can’t always take time off when we need it.
Before the assault, I was able to perform erotic labour with ease and often enjoyment. After, navigating PTSD and not wanting to be touched while trying to keep the business that I’d built afloat, was so difficult.
I chose to make a police report, and this case is currently making its way through the Canadian legal system (I refuse to call it a justice system until I see evidence that it actually serves the interests of the most vulnerable members of our society). I have to be mindful not to write anything specific to the case until after the trial in December. I can, however, discuss how the rape has impacted my life, and call for better treatment for sex workers.
Abuse thrives in the shadows. The laws that put sex workers outside the protections of the law make us easier targets for violent abusers. I can tell you right now that we are not punching bags for misogynists. It is not fair or lawful to expect anyone to endure the torture of rape on the job; however, we are expected to bear that burden in silence. There has been a culture of silence and tacit tolerance towards sexual misconduct, sexual assault and rape, for far too long. I refuse to bear it any longer. No one should have to choose between being sexually violated or going hungry. No one should have their consensual sexual expression used to justify sexual violence against them. These are basic human rights that should be obvious. The fact that they are not obvious to enough people is why the MeToo movement is needed. Just remember: Sex workers deserve to have our human rights respected as much as anyone else. Our lives matter. Our safety matters. Our health and well-being matters. Full stop.