I didn’t really know what to expect when I started stripping. It takes some digging to find truthful information about what the adult industry is like and, for someone who grew up in the conservative countryside of a religious country, that information was never really accessible. The only thing I thought I knew was that the job comes with certain problems – the problems being those I saw in the movies and read about in the newspapers. Creepy customers, scary gangsters, sketchy nightlife characters. I was a little scared on my way to my audition, and I considered walking back home and finding another way to disappoint my parents. At the same time, I remembered the other movies, the ones where the strippers are glamorous Amazons in shiny outfits, almost rock stars, and I felt confused. Thankfully, I did find the courage and walked into the club.

Six years later, I am still in the industry, and the main issues I encountered in my working environment, at least the ones I care about, are not the mythical sketchy nightlife characters who objectify women, but rather the lack of rights as a worker and the unfair working conditions. To name a few: establishments taking scandalously high commissions off your earnings; blatant racism and transphobia; managers now allowing you to go home before stupid-o’-clock in the morning, despite your status as an independent contractor, or not allowing you to take cash tips, or firing you because you looked at them in a way they didn’t like; arbitrary fines introduced for the most random reasons, such as dancing to slow music on stage, arriving ten minutes late, cancelling a shift because of sudden sickness. In this regard, a recent scandal that drew public attention thanks to the group 19-Fired-Up-Stilettos concerned a strip club in Wellington (NZ), where the managers fired nineteen dancers through a Facebook post.

I am very vocal about these issues when people ask me what my job is like, because I want them to have a more realistic idea of what kind of problems afflict the industry. I wish civilians and the media worried more about fair and safe working conditions, rather than focusing on idle debates that have little to do with what affects sex workers the most. The discussion that provokes a great amount of irritation in me is the one around sex work as objectification many sex work exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs) insist on. These so-called “feminists” accuse sex work of being responsible for the objectification of women and female-presenting people in society; some of them go as far as condemning sex work as paid rape. Spending my time arguing against issues like objectification, when our industry has much bigger problems, is frustrating. But it seems like it’s still necessary.

Taking the definition of objectification suggested by the notorious SWERF Andrea Dworkin, objectification is a process occurring when “a human being […] is made less than human, turned into a thing or a commodity, bought or sold. When objectification occurs, a person is depersonalised” (Dworkin, “Against the Male Flood: Censorship, Pornography, and Equality”, 2000, pp.30-31). Basically, these people keep shouting at us: YOU ARE SELLING YOUR BODY. Yet, the relationship between sex work and objectification is controversial and it can reveal more complex angles; not to consider that talking about sex workers selling their bodies is actually insulting to real victims of modern slavery and trafficking.

To begin with, my body was still here the last time I checked – in fact, I am typing this article with my very fingers. What sex workers sell is their time and services delivered through their bodies… Aren’t all workers doing that? In a capitalist society, everybody is selling a performance or a service or their time, and their body is the means through which they deliver that performance. A clerk who spends most of their life working in an office and a waiter who works ten hours on Christmas Eve are selling their body as much as a sex worker. The only difference is that selling sexual services is stigmatised because of moralistic reasons related to the romanticised idea of how sex should be sacred. Instead of interpreting the sex industry as objectifying, feminists should focus their critique on the capitalist system as a whole, where most forms of labour within white supremacist, heteronormative and patriarchal structures are exploitative, and where all kinds of human interactions can be bought or sold.

I am ok with using my body in a sexual way to make money, and I am not asking anybody else to do the same. What I do with my sexuality is my choice. Do we have a real choice in a capitalist society where everyone has to pay for their bills? No. Is my choice dictated by social and cultural factors? Yes, it is. But so is everybody’s. And none of these factors make my bodily autonomy less valid. The focus of this debate should be, as a matter of fact, around consent. Women and female-presenting people are sexualized every day, without their consent, regardless of the way they dress and behave. When I am walking in the street and I get catcalled or when I get groped in public transport, I am not asking for it. When I am at the strip club, on the contrary, I decide what boundaries to impose, and for what price. If I decide to dance naked on stage, I consent to my body being observed with a certain gaze. I find it disturbing that sex workers who decide to take advantage and make a profit off people sexualising them are subjected to judgment and hate – is it maybe because society doesn’t like women profiting off it?

If women are objectified in our society, it has nothing to do with the nature of sex work, but it’s related to the toxic masculinity ruling the world. First of all, I do not believe that paying for a sexual service necessarily implies objectifying someone. In the cases where customers do objectify us though, their attitude towards us mirrors the behavior they most likely have with the non-sex working girls they meet in bars, clubs, and the street. If you think it is sex workers’ fault if we get objectified, then you might also think that it is the girl’s fault if she goes around wearing a tight skirt and she gets grabbed. Eradicating sex work won’t influence the degree of objectification women experience in society – educating men will. Those who should be blamed are the men who perpetuate that attitude, not the sex workers. However, it seems to be easier to use sex workers as scapegoats, which is a more simplistic solution than addressing a deeper societal problem.

I would like to reverse the question: who is objectifying us? It is precisely these SWERFs who end up doing that, becoming guilty of the same pattern they denounce. These people infantilize sex workers, constructing us as passive victims, who are not able to choose what is best for themselves and therefore need to be told by others what they should and should not do with their sexuality. They consider us as mere objects of male desire, walking breasts and public vaginas. They speak about us, without taking into account that we also have something to say, that we have a personality, political views, feelings, and private lives. Considerations regarding objectification are always taken from a customer’s point of view, and don’t consider the sex worker’s stance as a subject who decides which services to offer, what rates to consent to, and so on and so forth.

There is a wave of protests promoted by these so-called “feminists” to eradicate sex work. In the UK, for example, this wave is especially harsh and active. In Sheffield, they went so far as to hire detectives who pretended to be customers to film strippers in the private dance booths of their club without their consent; the footage ended up in the press and the names and identities of the dancers were made public. This doesn’t sound very feminist to me.

The real issues affecting the industry are far from the debate around sex work as objectification. The biggest, global problems all sex workers face are, first and foremost, bad laws and stigma. Besides that, every different type of sex work has its own specific issues, and so it is for different geographical regions. In order to learn what our real problems are, go local and listen to what sex workers from a certain establishment and a certain region have to say. Care about that, instead of about what you think it’s important. Let us speak, instead of speaking for us. And, finally, if you are a feminist, a real one, do not tell other people what to do with their bodies.

Edie Montana

Edie Montana (she/her) is a Berlin based sex worker, performance artist, and writer. Her work combines politics and activism with arts and performance to destigmatise sex work.