Many refuse to acknowledge that sex workers are even capable of exercising consent. Picture: Flickr.com

Washington - The #MeToo movement has pushed issues of consent to the foreground of our cultural zeitgeist. Confoundingly, though, some of the movement's most vocal champions seem to be the worst at respecting the very conventions they are espousing. 

Shortly after now-former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, for example, Schneiderman resigned in the face of four sexual-abuse allegations. In a public statement, he claimed that he had simply been engaged in "role-playing and other consensual sexual activities."

If Schneiderman really believes that to be true, his understanding of what consent actually involves seems to be fundamentally confused. Consent demands thoughtful communication, careful reflection and sometimes takes practice. Few know this better than people who deal with consent every day as part of their jobs: sex workers.

If turning to sex workers for conceptual clarity and moral guidance rings odd to you, it may be because we sex workers have been systematically excluded from these discussions. Many refuse to acknowledge that sex workers are even capable of exercising consent. 

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This is the rhetoric of what anthropologist Laura Agustín calls the "rescue industry" - a term used to describe people and institutions who conceptualize all sex workers as victims in need of saving. Catherine MacKinnon has argued, for example, that "in prostitution, women have sex with men they would never otherwise have sex with.

This thinking casts sex workers as victims, entirely without agency of our own, while ironically speaking authoritatively about us without asking for our input. It's a stance that parallels the hypocrisy behind Schneiderman purporting to champion consent for women while allegedly ignoring it in practice.

This is a mistake. As Lola Davina, former sex worker and author of several books, including Thriving in Sex Work: Heartfelt Advice for Staying Sane in the Sex Industry, put it to me, she views "sex workers as soldiers on the front lines of the consent wars."

With this premise in mind, I recently reached out to community organizer and writer Chanelle Gallant to ask what she thinks sex workers can offer. "Something unique about sex work is that consent is seen as a collective responsibility," she said. "Sex workers organize to build their power and the ability to prevent abuse." In some cases, that might involve exchanging information about bad customers, workplaces or managers. In others, it might be about collaborating to improve workplace conditions.

This collective organizing also translates to the interactions of individual sex workers with their clients. Stripper and journalist Reese Piper told me that she has had to learn how to avoid situations with people who will violate her. "Sex workers know how to walk away from people or situations that are dangerous or not worth our time," she said. "It's part of our job to detect dangerous customers. And it's also our job to invest in customers that will value our labour."

Alex Bishop, a sex worker and activist, talks about gaining these insights and skills as a gift that sex work has given her. She told me, "Before I did sex work, I didn't think as deeply about sexuality and consent. I was still young and naive and slept with men because they bought me dinner or were nice." It was her job that helped her change her way of thinking, so much so that she suggested she would like to see everyone try out sex work "for a few weeks," if only to help open their eyes. To her way of thinking, "sex work instills a lot of confidence in those that do the work. It becomes easy to say no because you find yourself saying it all day long to clients."

Piper agrees, telling me, "Stripping taught me how to value my time, my emotional energy and my body. It taught me how to stand up for myself. I never used to tell men who accosted me on the street to go away. Now it's easy. I don't feel bad about valuing my space and soul."

Mistress Eva, who specializes in domme work, describes her interactions with clients as safer and defined than those outside of sex work. At the airport on the way home from DomCon, she took a few minutes to write to me: "I never have to hesitate about entering an interaction as a sex worker, because our interaction is always preceded by negotiation and an understanding of our combined desires and limits."

The Washington Post