Working beyond the stigma of the 'tainted and discounted' identity that often accompanies sex work | Peepshow | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Working beyond the stigma of the 'tainted and discounted' identity that often accompanies sex work

click to enlarge CP columnist Jessie Sage - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
CP columnist Jessie Sage

The [Ancient] Greeks […] originated the term stigma to refer to bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier. The signs were cut or burnt into the body and advertised that the bearer was a slave, a criminal, or a traitor — a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places. – Erving Goffman

This week marks my one-year anniversary as the Pittsburgh City Paper’s sex columnist. It has been an incredible year, one in which I have been able to address so many important topics, including kinks, fetishes, gender identity, relationship structures, sexual communication, sex acts, sexual health, reproductive rights, and the politics of sex work.

While I have worked to incorporate the voices of a variety of folks into my column, I have also made it clear that my own perspectives have been shaped by my experience as an adult performer and as a writer/podcaster covering the sex industry. In other words, week after week, I have outed myself as a sex worker in a widely circulated publication in my own city. 

In some ways, this has been freeing: You have very little to hide once you've decided to publish stories about your personal sex life, as well as your very stigmatized profession. In other ways, it has meant perpetually facing decisions on how to manage my safety and identity, as well as considering the way that my work impacts my relationships with those outside of my sex work community. That is to say, this year has been an exercise in managing stigma.  

It is fitting, then, that last week I was hired to give a presentation at Penn State University on the impacts of stigma with my colleague Dena Stanley, founder of Trans YOUniting. After the trip, I began to reflect on all of the subtle ways that stigma impacts the lives of sex workers in addition to more obvious ones that we covered in our presentation, such as violence, criminalization, housing, workplace, and banking discrimination, among others.

In his 1963 book Stigma, Erving Goffman theorizes what it means to live with stigma. He points out that while stigma is no longer associated with cuts or burns made in the skin of criminals, traitors, and slaves (as happened in Ancient Greece), stigma still works in much the same way, branding a person as having “a spoiled identity.” Stigma, in Goffman’s words, changes someone “from a whole and usual person to a tainted and discounted one.” 

While walking through Oakland with my dad yesterday, I pointed to a City Paper stand, telling him that this is the publication for which I write. His response was, “You write for a paper?” He then quickly changed the subject, making it clear that my career was not something we were going to discuss.

Conversely, acquaintances sometimes introduce me as a sex worker in contexts where it is irrelevant, leaving me with a sinking suspicion that these interactions are less about me as a person and more about cashing in on some progressive cultural cachet that comes with hanging around sex workers. In both cases, I am being seen through the lens of sex work, either by being pushed to detach from it or by being reduced to it.

In her brilliant essay "Once You Have Made Pornography," porn performer Lorelei Lee says, “If you continue to do this job, it will become harder and harder to have a life outside of it. More and more, it will be the people you work with who will understand that your work ... doesn’t tell them who you are, and it will be civilians for whom the knowledge that you’ve been naked for money will be a kind of flattening — a thing they cannot see around.”     

I am grateful for this column, that I have a platform I can use to present sex workers and other marginalized folks as whole people. But I am also aware that we have a long way to go before this translates into better conditions since we are all still seen through a lens of intense stigma. In the meantime, I am going to keep on writing.   

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