LGBTQ and sex workers’ History

LGBT History month is ending today. To close this month, I will be attending the event organised by SERTUC LGBT network in Congress House.[1]

At this occasion, I want also to remind the links between the LGBTQ communities and sex workers. When we read about LGBTQ people’s past, it is clear that they shared many similarities with other groups who were stigmatised for being sexual deviants.

In the nineteenth century, lesbians and prostitutes were often confounded. In Lilian Faderman’s book about women’s romantic friendships,[2] she gives the example of two women who worked in a school and avoided being punished because the judge considered that only prostitutes could know that such sexual practices existed.

In Joan Nestle text Lesbians and Prostitutes: A Historical Sisterhood published in Jill Nagle’s Whores and other feminists,[3] she explains how lesbians were often arrested with prostitution charges. Indeed, women living together without being married to a man were seen as prostitutes in a brothel.

In George Chauncey’s famous book Gay New York,[4] he explains how late nineteenth century prostitutes and gay people were sharing the same spaces within New York subculture. Camp men and transvestites were often imitating prostitutes as models of femininity because they were the only women to be officially sexually active with men outside marriage.

Many of the struggles for LGBTQ liberation were shared and/or initiated by queer sex workers. In a previous article,[5] I have already questioned the place of trans’women and queer sex workers during the Compton cafeteria riots in San Francisco[6] and during Stonewall.

Since the success of the LGBTQ liberation however, many gay people tend now to forget that they used to share the same or similar status with sex workers. Maybe, it has become rare for LGBTQ people in the western world to face reformers who want to rehabilitate them, but this is still a reality for sex workers who are still criminalised and who most of them must hide themselves.

Yet, sex workers have brought some success to the queer movement. Let’s not forget for example all the homophobic politicians or religious men who were outed by male sex workers after buying their services.

On the other hand, there have been LGBTQ people who were supportive of sex workers’ struggles. In 1979, Maureen Colquhoun Labour MP and outed as a lesbian by the Daily Mail presented a Bill in Parliament for the decriminalisation of prostitution. The Bill passed a first vote but failed after an early election was called and that Thatcher became Prime Minister, killing any chance of success.

In the English Collective of Prostitutes archives, they mention the support sex workers received from their gay male friends when they occupied the Holy Church in King’s Cross in 1982. They say that they brought food to them in the church and took care of their children while they were protesting.

The Aids crisis reinforced the alliance between both communities affected by the same threat and stigmatised as scapegoats.

Today the links remain between both communities but we tend to forget that we have always been close. We need to know our common History to remain better conscious of the mechanism of sexual, gender and class oppression. Many sex workers are actually LGBTQ and would benefit by feeling welcome for who they are in both communities.

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About Thierry Schaffauser

Queer, sex worker, drugs user, student in Gender History, GMB trade unionist, migrant, wants to change the world, etc
This entry was posted in HIV, Queer, Sex work and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to LGBTQ and sex workers’ History

  1. Dan says:

    This is an interesting account of LGBTQ and sex workers’ history of which I was previously ignorant, so thank you for this post. I am a man who identifies as homosexual and I tend to be very critical of the sex industry, though I reserve that criticism for those who tend to dominate and profit from it rather than those subjected to what I see as the exploitative relations involved. Whilst I no doubt have internalised various prejudices that are endemic within mainstream discourses, I sympathise with the position of sex workers and object (to put it lightly) to the abusive treatment to which they are too often subjected, by their clientele, their employers/oppressors, and society at large.

    I acknowledge that for many it is their choice to earn a living through offering sexual gratification to others, however for many others there is little choice involved, and they are continuously and repeatedly subjected to horrific abuse (including rape and other violent attacks), whilst suffering dehumanising attacks to their self-esteem and sense of autonomy. For many (though perhaps not all) of those that consider it a choice that they have made, it is nevertheless frequently heard that they find themselves subjected to humiliating and traumatic experiences, and some reflect on their choices as having been heavily induced by various vulnerabilities inflicting them at particular points in their life, such as drug addiction, financial instability, various dependencies, or indeed a combination of these things. I do not want to suggest that all sex workers view their work or the reasons for their involvement in such work in a homogenous, undifferentiated way, but I do want to highlight that criticism of the sex industry is by no means necessarily based in some pernicious prejudice, indifferent ignorance, or contempt for sex workers.

    Lacking from your post was any reference to patriarchal power structures, masculinist dominance, or exploitation. LGBTQ (non-sex worker) individuals may well have historically sought solidarity and cohabitation with sex workers, due in part, as you identify, to their shared experience as being characterised as sexual deviants. And, sure enough, this shared experience could be seen to shed light on the social sources of such discriminatory and prejudicial treatment. But I would resist any conclusion that asserts, as a result of this shared history, that criticism of the sex industry is not justified, or that prejudice against LGBTQ identities is somehow intrinsically associated with critical views of the sex industry or the conditions facing sex workers. I also think it is important to acknowledge gendered differences in terms of the experience of sex workers; it would be wholly unsurprising if male sex workers were found, on average, to encounter far fewer and less traumatic problems associated with their work.

    Sorry for the long post. Undoubtedly there is more to say (such as issues of sexual objectification), but I thought that your well-written and interesting post warranted some detailed constructive criticism for its lack of acknowledgement of what I see to be the dangers, abuse and exploitation inherent within work associated with the sex industry.

  2. Dan says:

    And having read the rest of your blog, I see that you have referred to some of those things elsewhere. Your post is about sex workers’ rights and not the sex industry, but I guess I find it difficult to separate the related issues. I strongly support your struggle for rights for sex workers, and I think you rightly view it in the context of broader class and gender struggles. I take a similar view to sex work as I do to drugs – better to be legally regulated to protect individuals than consign individuals to the mercy of the black market (or lack thereof). I apologise if I was at all patronising to assume that you have not considered the issues I highlighted, given they are very commonly invoked as the basis of criticism of the sex industry.

    Whilst I offer my support for your project here, it does nevertheless concern me that the voice of those most marginalised and exploited – those forced into it – remain silenced and unheard. It is understandable that you seek to demystify dominant accounts of the sex industry that denigrate sex workers, and present obstacles to attaining equality for sex workers in labour movements, but in doing so do you have an aversion to problematising the sex industry as a whole? Do you have an interest in avoiding critiques of those who seek sex workers’ services, as having desires situated within broader systems of sexual repression and gender inequality? I am coming at this from a position of relative ignorance, so I would welcome a critical response.

  3. Hi Dan,
    I think men buy sex to women because it is part of a long patriarchal tradition of men being serviced by women for their domestic, emotional and sexual needs. Some feminists talk about “care work” to analyse this phenomenon and include sex work in that concept.
    That said, I wouldn’t generalise to all sex worker/client relationships. This would be an essentialisation of what can be more complex and varied. There are many situations, including some in which the worker may have in fact more power over the client during the transaction.
    Not all clients have class/gender/race privilege and not all workers are victims and without any agency. The client/worker relationship can be oppressive but I think it really depends on the working conditions and general context. I tend to think also that this relationship doesn’t necessarily create a structure of power in itself but rather reveals it, which can allow then the workers to adapt strategies to gain power, by imposing conditions in terms of time, practices, prevention, etc.
    This doesn’t exist in other forms of sexuality (except in S&M), because people tend not to talk before having sex and women are more likely to suffer pressure to accept things they don’t want to do because there is no clear contract. If power exists, I think it does exist also in non paid sex. Patriarchy is not limited to the sex industry. Sex work is a form of expression of human sexuality. Maybe it shouldn’t, and ideally we would all have perfect, loving and equal relationships. But I don’t think we will achieve that with prohibition.

    To talk in more practical terms, I don’t think I avoid to expose bad clients because of my interest to keep them. There are many many men wanting to buy sex so if I lose one I’ll find another one ready to pay. Of course, this is less true in a criminalised context which reduces your number of clients which means less power.

    From my experience, most clients have interest in being nice to us because what they look for is pleasure, attention, tenderness, complicity, understanding, etc. They want us to feel good because they want to feel good and one goes with the other. Of course, it’s not always true and there are indeed people who behave in a complete selfish way, who are not aware, able or interested in the other person’s needs. But to be honest, that’s not what bothers me the most in the job. I am paid so it’s not a big deal if during one hour it’s more about his pleasure than mine. I am the one taking his money for it.

    My concern is more about false clients, men who waste your time, try to scam you and get freebies. I think the problem comes more from men who don’t accept to be clients, (because of the stigma) who think that they are better than “having to pay for it”, and expect sex to be given for free. These men are much more problematic and disrespectful in my views than those who respect the contract and our rules because they accept that they are clients.

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