The “H” Word


This post is by Sarah Elspeth Patterson, and is part of Tsk Tsk: Stigma, Shame, and Sexuality, a series hosted by Gender Across Borders and cross-posted with RH Reality Check in partnership with Ipas.

It would seem that no one enjoys being called a “hooker,” whether you are a sex worker or not.

When looking at the ways in which the media in the United States continues to use the term, it’s not difficult to ascertain why sex workers still have an impossible time being visible and out in this country.

It’s also easy to see how shaming sex workers, or even shaming someone for purportedly being a sex worker, is easy to do in a society in which calling someone a “hooker” is defamatory enough to bespeak the second class status of sex workers in general.

Writer Jessica Pilot, the author of the now infamous Radar Magazine piece “Secrets of a Hipster Hooker,” recently published a follow-up article entitled “I Was the ‘Hipster Hooker‘ (And It Sort of Ruined MyLife),” in which she speaks about the effects that her investigation into “hipster hooking” had in both her private and professional life.

For her research, Pilot spent some time interviewing highly paid escorts in New York City. She also went on her own outcall in order to investigate the work firsthand, though she was unable to go through with the arranged appointment, stating that the experience pushed her “point of complete shame and discomfort.” Following the release of the article, Pilot recounts how her family members responded to her piece with noted shame, while more publicly and professionally, others responded with the usual candid insensitivity expected from the Comments portion of an online newspaper. As Pilot states in the piece:

I wanted to be an open book, and I thought that posing as a prostitute, and going undercover in     the seedy sex industry for a year was brave and even admirable…Yet, the allure of sharing myself with strangers was mostly better in theory. I often ask myself, could I have done this story without feeling badly in the end? I don’t think so.

Joking, at least in part, about needing “post-publication therapy sessions,” Pilot goes on to say that “if you are going to put yourself out there, you have to be prepared to face your critics.” Yet what seems noticeably missing from this piece is the fact that many actual sex workers can rarely put themselves out there (real name and all) for fear of the private and public shaming that inevitably ensues. If journalists such as Pilot were genuinely concerned about how any person might feel, being labelled a “hooker,” they might do well not to write pieces that call people hookers and then stand in awe at the consequences of such a choice, for whomever that term ends up touching, even themselves. What could have been an excellent piece on the shaming nature of being called a hooker and its social consequences ultimately ends up sounding like a protesting cry of “but…I’m not.”

For Pilot, there was a lesson in the backlash of being called a “hooker,” but in some cases, the lessons come far harder. One of the most visible cases of someone who did put themselves out there, only to face a harrowing response, was Bronx elementary school teacher Melissa Petro. She wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Huffington Post about the adult services section of CraigsList and in the article, outed herself as a former sex worker. What followed was a very public shaming, including the New York Post’s labeling of her as the “Hooker Teacher” and a personal statement from New York Major Bloomberg requesting her permanent removal from the school system. In a Salon.com article, Petro eloquently speaks about how her experience went well beyond anything she could have imagined and how the results are lasting:

Like the teenager I had once been, this past winter I would’ve done almost anything for cash. No one willing to hire the hooker teacher meant that I skipped meals. I walked instead of taking the train and didn’t launder my clothes as often as necessary…If this situation has taught me anything, it is that sometimes we must put ideals aside and think practically — much like I did at 19 years old, when I became a stripper. So, in the end, I resigned from my job, rather than pursuing a trial…As much as I believed in the merits of my case, it was a risk I couldn’t take.

The New York Post is notorious for calling people hookers. Melissa Petro is only one of many people they’ve chosen to tag with their nasty language. Nafissatou Diallo, the rape complainant in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, has filed a libel lawsuit against them for claiming as much. In one of their most recent and most cruel headlines, they referred to Camila Guzman, a trans woman who was recently found stabbed to death in her apartment building, by using male pronouns and calling her a “hooker.” Even as a murder victim, it would seem that no one is immune, especially if they are the perfect storm of being a person of color, a transgender woman and purportedly a sex worker – the easiest of targets for a paper like the Post. It’s not as though the Post isn’t in more reputable company, though, in its horrendous headline decision-making. Even the New York Times has resorted to using the term “hooker” in four of their headlines (all of which, though, aren’t quite as recent as the Post’s). “Hooker,” it would seem, is still a ubiquitous way to knock someone down.

Many argue that civil rights are tied directly to a marginalized groups’ visibility: how that population is portrayed in popular media is in many ways directly linked to how their rights are demanded, and ultimately gained. Considering the fact that sex workers tend only to be visible when they are at the center of a VIP’s sex scandal, or when they are being criminalized or have been murdered by a serial killer, the visibility of sex workers is definitely not enhanced by the hate speech of calling someone a “hooker” – and it is hate speech, because it is thrown at people, sex worker or otherwise, to promote the idea that engaging in sex work entitles you to be publicly scorned and precluded from any protection under the law – even if you put the word “hipster” in front of it to soften the blow.

The point is that there are repercussions no matter which side of the line you fall on: hooker or not.  The goal should not be to land on the “right” side of it, the goal should be to eradicate the line altogether. Don’t call people “hookers” (whether they are a sex worker or not) and don’t tolerate other people doing it. If you are unsure as to what to call someone who works in the sex industry, ask them. They will tell you what they want to be called.

“Hooker” is a term that’s loaded with sexist, racist, transphobic and homophobic ramifications. And whether or not you are a sex worker, former or current, that should matter to you if you stand for the rights of others to exist in the world free of shame. So maybe saying “hooker” is a small part of the larger problem of how sex workers are treated. Yet that’s why it’s exactly where things should start. Calling someone a defamatory term, no matter how you feel about them or what they do for a living, shouldn’t be a part of our common language, both in the media and in society in general.

Sarah Elspeth Patterson is a freelance writer and community organizer with the Sex Workers Outreach Project of New York City. She currently works as a sexuality educator/trainer, teaching teens in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan. She is a regular contributor to MySexProfessor.com, run by Dr. Debby Herbenick of the Kinsey Institute. She previously worked as the Online Blog Editor for Babeland, the feminist, sex-positive adult toy company. Sarah was also a media columnist and staff writer for the Utne Reader award-winning $pread Magazine, the sex worker advocacy publication. She holds a Masters in Human Sexuality Education from Widener University and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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