Skip to main content

A Woman’s Right to Regret

From popular culture to policy debates, sex workers are only allowed one narrative: regret.
(Photo: boze3000/Flickr)

(Photo: boze3000/Flickr)

Two different men once gave me the same advice about writing about sex work: It would have to be a redemption story. One was an editor, explaining why I would never be able to sell a non-fiction book about sex work that wasn’t a revelatory memoir, locating my experience as a chapter of my life now abandoned, a wild story to tell from a safe distance. The other man was a successful journalist with a checkered past, something he wrote about in-depth once his career was established.

“Things always look better when they’re in the rear view,” he said.

They were wrong — two years ago, my non-fiction, non-memoir book was published — but they weren’t saying anything people don’t still say about women (and it’s almost only levied at women) who have ever done sex work, no matter how long they did it, how they feel about it, or what they want to say about their own lives. Their stories have been written by others before they begin. Their regret is mandatory.

Far from the constrained world of publishing and media, regret rules political storytelling about sex work as well. In any given city, before just about any legislature, when policy regarding sex work is introduced, testimony from sex workers themselves is solicited on the basis of establishing why sex work should be eradicated. Should they say anything contrary, sex workers may be treated like they said nothing at all.

Their stories have been written by others before they begin. Their regret is mandatory.

When Scotland was debating a sex work bill in 2012, one sex worker visited her Member of Parliament, Rhoda Grant. “I offered my perspective, which is that her Bill will make me more vulnerable to rape and other forms of assault, and that in countries that have criminalised the purchase of sex, the incidence of HIV has increased among sex workers,” she recounted. “[Grant] listened to what I had to say, and then said, “yes, but you’re not representative…” and with this, the MP simply moved on.

Even when sex workers are invited to testify publicly, they are treated with suspicion. Naomi Sayers, an indigenous woman, former sex worker, and member of South Western Ontario Sex Workers, was one of the few current and former sex workers to give testimony during parliamentary hearings on an anti-sex work bill in Canada in 2014. “[O]ne Conservative MP asked me if I thought sex work was a free choice if Indigenous women rely on money from the sex industry to survive,” she wrote, “as if he didn’t rely on the money he receives as an MP to survive. I asked him ‘Would you do your work without being paid?’” What’s often unspoken in such a line of questioning: Do you have the free choice to be testifying here?

Sex workers don’t just accept this dismissive and cruel treatment on the part of their elected officials. Laura Lee, a sex worker and a campaigner with Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, filed a complaint against Paul Givan, the chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly justice committee’s inquiry into sex work in 2014. After Lee gave testimony about how laws criminalizing sex work endanger her as well as other sex workers, Givan replied, “You have obviously painted the picture that you have never been subjected to any violence and that you enjoy your work.” He also asked her questions about her personal sex life and about her relationship with her father. This is how he attempted to discard her testimony on violence.

In such public hearings, it’s not policy, but sex workers themselves who are put under scrutiny. They are pitted against each other in opposing blocs: Those who conform to this expected narrative of regret, and the others. Even if only one sex worker is present, she will be judged according to these divisions. In some cases, women who have done sex work and who regret it will do the dividing themselves, and will speak to other sex workers as if they are frauds with no right to a voice.

“Survivors are those who have escaped prostitution and have had time and distance from it,” one anti-prostitution advocate who identifies as such a survivor wrote earlier this year in the Seattle Times. “They are the ones looking back at their pasts and wondering how to move forward into the future. Sex workers believe they are empowered within prostitution, as if laying on our backs is the highest level any woman could hope to achieve.”

This flattening of experience and ventriloquism and shaming, were it concerning other issues of reproductive and sexual justice, would be recognized by advocates as a form of silencing. Some might even point out that the personal feelings of those offering testimony are beside the point when it comes to creating policy that respects rights. “It’s better to regret a decision,” Jessica Valenti wrote recently in the Guardian, “than never having the option to make it in the first place.”

Of course, she wasn’t talking about sex work, but abortion. And on abortion, too, advocates fight to be heard by policymakers. Even policymakers have had to demand a hearing — like Texas Senator Wendy Davis, who, three years ago this week, brought the Texas legislature to a halt over an anti-abortion bill that, despite protests, passed into law. It’s this law, HB2, that the Supreme Court struck down this week.

In our current political and social world, it is almost impossible to imagine attacks on the rights of sex workers to live and work safely stirring up such wide support or attention. This isn’t to say that legal access to abortion is by any means secured; only that, by comparison, sex workers in the United States haven’t even had their Roe moment. Abortion-rights advocates might get shouted down, but they are reliably heard in the debates concerning their own lives. For sex workers, their ability to even have a voice is the debate.

Regret is powerful, and moves people, but regret should be no more relevant to political debates shaping the conditions of sex workers’ lives than to the debates surrounding abortion.

Things are slowly changing: Sex workers’ rights might be moving a bit to the mainstream, and far fewer people make pornography or sex work more broadly the cornerstone of their politics — distinct from the heyday of second-wave anti-porn feminism, or even third-wave sex-positive feminism. These issues are losing some of their divisive charge.

But that doesn’t mean the political status quo has yielded much or has grown to value what sex workers have to say on their own behalf. And when sex workers are given space to speak, they are still most often called on to relay personal experiences about how they feel about sex work — only now they can offer positive feelings too! Very rarely are sex workers asked for their expert opinions on what policies might harm or help them.

This is one reason I am a journalist, not an advocate — to avoid being made “representative” and, through my reporting, to ensure that a diverse range of sex workers’ experiences are heard in public. Personal testimony has its limits, and I found mine: I would not be made into a counter-example simply because my work is unrelated to sharing regrets. I refused to be seen as someone who, now that she doesn’t do sex work, finally knows the truth.

There are many people who have regrets about their experiences in sex work, as they have regrets about many things, as we all do: the lives we led in the families we were born into, the things we do to make our ways in the world. Regret is powerful, and moves people, but regret should be no more relevant to political debates shaping the conditions of sex workers’ lives than to the debates surrounding abortion.

Regret — around sex work, around anything having to do with our bodies and our movement in the world in them — isn’t being received by policymaking audiences to extend compassion. Regret and its expression is being used as an excuse to produce harm and even violence, to take actions we know make lives more dangerous.