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Stoya, James Deen And The Way Sex Work Stigma Hurts Survivors

A sex work activist on why it's so important to believe Stoya.

By Chanelle Gallant

Nothing about sex work implies ongoing consent or willingness to risk violence, but you’d never know that from listening to the news this week about sex workers who’ve disclosed that they were sexually assaulted.

On Saturday (Nov. 28), adult performer Stoya sent out two tweets heard ‘round the internet, stating that her former scene partner and ex-boyfriend James Deen had raped her.

A swell of support for Stoya rose up under hashtags like #SolidarityWithStoya. Supporters (many of whom are sex workers themselves) have pointed out that sexual assault disclosures are overwhelmingly truthful, and often lead to harrowing personal attacks on survivors. A number of adult companies that worked with Deen have dropped him, and The Frisky will no longer publish Deen’s sex advice column.

But much of the reaction to Stoya’s disclosure has been typical of rape culture: People say “she’s lying” or “we need to hear his side of the story,” along with a dollop of “what did she expect?” #TeamDeen has directed its empathy and concern toward a man who has now been described by multiple women as abusive. Predictably, Deen issued a denial and accused Stoya of defamation.

In many ways, there is nothing new here. Sexual assault survivors are rarely taken seriously, and charges are less likely to be laid by police in cases of sexual offenses than any other type of violent offense. That goes triple when the survivor is marginalized in other ways, including being poor, a woman of color or, like Stoya, in the sex industry. A recent Chicago Sun Times editorial went so far as to deem the sexual assault charges brought forward by a sex worker a “theft of services” — a gross mischaracterization. But even women who identify as feminists sometimes fail to support sex workers who come forward with disclosures of sexual assault.

I’ve been a sex work activist for 12 years. After one panel I spoke on about sex work law reform, a young woman approached me and said, “I want to get into sex work but l looked at the ads for escort agencies and they don’t seem very feminist.”

I’d thought I’d heard just about everything everyone thinks about the industry, but this was new. Here’s how the rest of our conversation went:

“Well, Tammy, what was your last job?”

“I was a server in a restaurant”

“Was it feminist?”

“Uh, no, not really. I mean… not at all."

“Neither is the sex industry. Escort agencies are mostly run by guys named Tony who don’t really care about you. You can get a lot out of being a sex worker, but not if you expect it to be a women’s studies class. It’s still just a job in the real world.”

I don’t know if she ever contacted one of the agencies, but this young woman’s comment reflected some of what makes it so damn hard for women sex workers to talk about the sexism (and/or racism) — and sometimes sexual violence — they experience from men in the sex industry.

Sex workers are shoved into silence about abusers like Deen because they (reasonably) fear that they won’t be believed, and even if they are, that their story will be used against them as “proof” that all of sex work is inherently anti-woman. Within hours of Stoya’s disclosure, the anti-sex work feminist vultures were leaping to use it as evidence that porn is itself rape.

The stigma around being a sex worker is part of a continuum that dehumanizes all women — even though people of all genders are in the sex trade. Many of us have internalized the belief that a woman is the rightful sexual property of one man — her father then her husband — and if not, then she is the sexual property of all men. By this definition a woman perceived to be a slut or sex worker can’t be raped.

Even some self-proclaimed feminists throw sex workers under the bus by defining all sex work (which includes sexual performance like porn) as itself a form of rape. Their theory goes that no woman (because these theorists tend to ignore sex workers of other genders) can consent to sex work, despite the loud and repeated claims to the contrary by sex workers themselves. In the same way that misogynists claim that no sex worker can be raped because she’s public property, anti-sex work feminists claim no (woman) sex worker can be raped because she’s always already raped by her profession. Both are misogyny in action; both leave sex workers who get raped without support, respect and care.

Anti-sex work ideology is supposedly about protecting women, but in reality this mindset -- that sex workers are victims and deviants -- just contributes to sex workers being disbelieved. For example, during this same news cycle, I was following coverage of the trials for police officer Daniel Holtzclaw and Jonathan Koppenhaver (also known as UFC fighter “War Machine”).

Holtzclaw is charged with being a serial rapist while on duty with the Oklahoma police department, attacking 13 black women with drug and sex work records — women who likely wouldn’t be believed if they dared to report. Koppenhaver is charged with sexually assaulting and nearly beating to death his 23-year-old ex-partner, adult performer Christine Mackinday. His defense? That her work reflected “the desire, the preference, the acceptability towards a particular form of sex activities that were outside of the norm.”

Stoya and all sex workers deserve the right to say what is rape. They deserve writers and editors who use respectful language to describe survivor’s experiences (this guide is a great start). Having known hundreds of sex workers, I wasn’t surprised that her assault happened in the context of an intimate relationship. Our culture wants to paint sex work as a den of violence and vice and the home/heterosexuality as a site of love, care and safety, but neither depiction is always true.

Sex workers want safety and dignity, they want to be respected and have their stories believed. They don’t need Captain Save-A-Ho’s trying to rescue them and they don’t need pity, blame or contempt either.

Ending the stigma around sex work means that all women get free from the idea that we are sexual property. It means that all women have our right to say no, and our right to say yes respected at work and at home. We get closer to ending rape culture when sex workers like Stoya get to say “rape” and are believed.

Chanelle Gallant is a writer, activist, tramp and hellraiser working at the intersections of sexuality and politics. You can find her at www.chanellegallant.com or @femmeifest.