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Abolitionists and the happy hooker myth

07 Jul

One of the main criticisms that abolitionists make of the sex worker rights movement, and indeed any opposition to the Nordic/Swedish model, is that sex workers and their allies wrongly believe that all sex workers are “happy hookers”. This of course would mean that to be an ally or against criminalisation, you would have to believe in the happy hooker myth. It’s quite a clever device, actually, because to suggest that your opponent believes in a myth that’s fed to us by Hollywood can instantly discredit them.

When I studied sex work (which our course referred to as “prostitution” throughout), my general impression was that abolitionists focussed on street sex work and the stereotypically poor, substance-dependent sex workers; the group best known to academics and lawmakers, while sex worker rights campaigners held the ‘happy hooker’ myth to be more true than the dim view of the industry. But none of that is true. I’ve seen sex worker rights campaigners who would probably be seen by antis as the epitome of the ‘happy hooker’ acknowledge their privelege and say that the Nordic Model is most harmful to vulnerable workers and trafficking victims. Just because someone is a happy hooker doesn’t mean they believe all sex industry workers are. It doesn’t mean – as antis often claim – that they want laws to suit them, the 10%, while throwing all the 90% non-happy hookers under the bus. And I rather suspect that sex workers who absolutely love their jobs are outnumbered by sex workers who just see it as a job, just another means of making a living in their long and varied work history. Just a job, with its good bits and bad bits. Sex workers are just ordinary people doing ordinary jobs; it’s just that priveleged ones who love their work and exploited or vulnerable ones who hate their work are the ones who come to public attention. It’s a bit like Michael Kors and exploited child labourers who work in sweatshops. We hear about them, but how often do we hear about sales assistants or fashion bloggers or the people who go out and source the merchandise? Without glitz and glam or pain and poverty, stories aren’t media-worthy.

Abolitionists also tend to categorise any sex worker who doesn’t hate themselves and their job as a ‘happy hooker’ – even though the person might be just as against the ‘happy hooker’ image as abolitionists. This means that abolitionists see every sex worker who’s brought before them as not representative, as a happy hooker. So you can’t win. Bring 10 sex workers’ testimonies to an anti, and they’ll say “They aren’t representative. 90%  of people in the industry are trafficked and being beaten and raped by gangster pimps.” Bring 100 and you’ll get the same response. But show them just one testimony from a sex worker who hates their job, and they’ll hold it up as if this one person speaks for absolutely everyone in the industry, from the glamorous Australian brothels (legalisation) to the streets of the USA (criminalised in most states) and those working for agencies in the UK (decriminalisation).

It does irritate me that the happy hooker and sex slave dichotomy is so prevalent, leaving little room for presentations of the majority experience. But then I’ve done nothing to challenge the status quo; this blog probably falls into the ‘happy hooker’ category, as Roland was respectful, rich, and well educated, and I was earning a grand a night. I’m also a student (happy hooker cliche alert!) and young, while many sex workers are middle-aged non-students. And maybe the existence of the dichotomy isn’t so surprising. After all, our understanding of most industries is dichotomised; I mentioned the fashion industry earlier, but what about the publishing industry? Jameses and Rowlings are the vast minority, while writers who don’t get paid are also a minority. Most writers don’t earn much and so fall somewhere in the middle, though closer (in my view) to the ‘starving artist’ perception of writing. Another example is business – the struggling self-employed guy running the local corner shop while being targeted by neds, versus the powerful big shot ruthlessly controlling an international corporate empire. And actors aren’t just either Zac Efron or the hopeful student who gets bit-parts in community plays.

In conclusion, the happy hooker/sex slave dichotomy is not harmful in and of itself – especially since both extremes are true, albeit only of a minority of sex workers. But it becomes harmful when the sex slave angle is worked to create emotive responses to promote criminalisation, which only endangers sex workers and creates more sex slaves. The sex slave angle should always be a reminder of how much harm the Nordic model, full criminalisation, and (to an extent) legalisation cause. If all sex workers were happy hookers, criminalisation would be less problematic.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on July 7, 2013 in Sex work

 

One response to “Abolitionists and the happy hooker myth

  1. Gemini Gemma

    July 12, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    Criminalization halts the ability to help the victims of sex traffic and the like. Great article!

     

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