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Eric Jost

By Eric Jost
Eric Jost received his BA in anthropology from American University in Washington, DC and is currently an MPH candidate at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He is a contributing writer for the Sydney queer newsmagazine, SX, and writes on a variety of issues including queer imagery in the media; GLBTQ rights; sex worker rights; feminism; sexual health; and sex positive culture. When he is not working or studying, Eric spends time writing for his blog, "Confessions of a Gay Male Feminist."
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Soon, with some guidance from friends and professors, I discovered the works of Lily Burana, Carol Queen, Annie Sprinkle, and Carol Leigh (aka Scarlot Harlot). Here were women who defied social norms and didn’t view sex or sex work as degrading but, rather, empowering. They argued that not only is sex work worthwhile, but more importantly also legitimate, fun, and sacred. I learned from them that sex work is not a continuation of patriarchal exploitation, but instead, a potentially subversive act that, in fact, undermines patriarchy and pervasive sex negative attitudes. These might have been strong women speaking on behalf of other women, but they were suddenly my new heroes.

Encouraged and motivated by my fellow travelers, I entered the world of queer activism. I was determined to not only fight for the rights of GLBTQ individuals, but bring sex worker rights to the forefront and destigmatize sexual norms on the whole. But, to my surprise, many so-called progressive communities seemed far more aligned with conservatives on these subjects. Feminist and queer organizations alike felt that fighting for sex worker rights would hurt their movements’ credibility. Even the organizations that I worked with that focused specifically on sexual health or GLBTQ rights never considered sex worker rights a top priority.

In 2006, however, after years of advocating and fighting losing battles with employers, I finally saw a glimmer of hope. I attended the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Creating Change Conference in my hometown of Kansas City. I was excited to attend the conference particularly because of the “Sexual Freedom Track” the Task Force had carved out within the conference’s program. Here were a series of workshops specifically designed to promote the rights of queer people who haven’t received the same recognition within the movement. 

At one workshop early on in the conference, the issue of sex worker rights came up and I saw my fellow sex workers vocalizing their indignation at the treatment they received by the mainstream GLBTQ rights movement. In a moment of exhilaration, I stood up and added my voice to the outcries, describing my own history with the sex industry and my displeasure with having been silenced by the GLBTQ community when I spoke out in defense of my right to strip and in defense of sex worker rights on the whole. It was the first time that I had “come out” as an ex-dancer and I remember trembling as I described my experience, fearing the inevitable persecution soon to come as a result of my disclosure.

The amount of support my fellow sex workers and I received was overwhelming, and everyone in that room seemed genuinely concerned over the current state of sex worker rights. I felt that I was witnessing a change within the GLBTQ rights movement – as if the issue at hand finally had a face and a voice. I imagined a great shift to be taking place, as if the 2,000 people attending the conference were now unified behind the sex worker rights movement and we would see it listed as a priority by the movement’s frontrunners.

As I left the conference room for the evening, however, I walked by two participants I had seen periodically throughout the day.  As I passed them, I overheard one of them say, “I understand where they’re coming from, but I wish the prostitutes wouldn’t force their ideals upon us.” Immediately my dreams of grandeur were shattered.

My experience at that conference and the lack of action taken in its aftermath has left me wondering why – after living through the ongoing feminist and gay rights movements and the alleged sexual revolution – sex and sex work continue to be among the most taboo subjects in the 21st century? Worldwide, GLBTQ communities have embraced each other’s differences and celebrated our supposed sexual freedom that evades many of our heterosexual brothers and sisters. But the apprehensions I have witnessed when bringing sex to the forefront might bring us to ask ourselves: Is the queer community really as sexually accepting as we like to think it is?

Over the last decade, we have witnessed the rise of the Marriage Equality movement. And while success is being made – however slowly – on that front, our focus on partner rights seems to have frightened us back into our sexual closets. It is almost as if HIV/AIDS made us so fearful to fight for sexual freedom that we have looked for other, more “appropriate” battles to win. AIDS not only affected our health, but single-handedly erased the entire sexual revolution from our collective consciousness. And although many have worked tirelessly to convince the general public that we are no longer concerned with the “sexual” aspect of our “sexual identity,” the truth is that, by forsaking it, we are lying to ourselves and actually risk losing the right to express our sexuality openly and feely. And I, for one, am not willing to reenter any one of my many sexual closets.

Four years ago, I began a journey that has led me down a path I could have never imagined. A few months dancing nude on a stage has resulted in more judgment and vilification than I ever could have imagined. And while I continue to support the movement that has seen so many advances in recent decades, I find myself more and more disheartened with the battles GLBTQ activists choose to fight; while finding it slightly ironic that a movement supposedly based on sexual freedom has chosen to shy away from sexuality only four decades after the movement’s beginning. Our political activist organizations would be better served to remember the fact that when the riots at Stonewall occurred, GLBTQ individuals were being locked up for the same reasons that sex workers are today.

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Patrick Julius said:

Listening to your essay on podcast, I found myself identifying with a lot of your experience; I'm not actually a stripper myself, but I work in webcam porn, which is basically its cyberspace equivalent.

In fact, what I can most identify with is the fact that I'm a little bit scared and ashamed to acknowledge that I've worked in this for reasons I can only partially explain and cannot at all justify.

I keep thinking, "What if my parents knew?" "What if he knew? What if she knew?" I keep worrying about what people would think of me. I'm much more closeted about working (even so mildly) in the sex industry than I am about being bi.

On some level, I want to take the direction you did, run with it, maybe even get into actual stripping (it pays much better; that "paltry" $20 for a half hour is more typically three hours at what I do, because 95% of the time is unpaid); it seems like it'd be fun, exciting, lucrative, and indeed liberating and a step towards justice.

But on the other hand, I worry: in the world in which we live at present, these sorts of things can very easily bite oneself in the ass. If I gather a reputation as a sex worker, will people not want to hire me for jobs? Will universities turn me down for research positions? I wish I could confidently say it is not so, but I can't.

Posted at: August 5, 2008 2:29 PM

Rob Walker said:

Hey Eric!

I just wanted to make a comment, which you might consider odd from a Christian queer guy. I'm an anti-assimilationist. I don't think queer sexualities need to fit the straight boxes that mainstream GLBT orgs seem to push at the moment.

On the other hand, I feel a little nervous about an interpretation of "sexual freedom" (not necessarily your own) that contributes to dehumanization because we excuse it under the rubric of "mutual consent." I would hope that queer people could develop communal "ethics" that allow queer spaces to be really queer AND that recognizes people as whole entities rather than primarily as dis-associated body parts.

Is there are way to reconcile these concerns, in your opinion?

Posted at: September 13, 2008 7:05 PM

Trevor Hoppe said:

Rob, my dear, you always know how to ask the most poignant questions! I think you're pointing to a tension that exists between "radical sex" philosophies (exemplified by the work of Pat Califia) and feminist philosophies (with many strains arguing different, but somewhat contrary points).

This is a tension I have trouble navigating. On the one hand, I do not want to criticize gay male communities because of the kind of sex they have, because I do not wish to contribute to a deeply anti-sex, normative literature that demands gay men to zip it up and get hitched (see Larry Kramer's most recent diatribe, "The Tragedy of Today's Gays"). On the other hand, I'm tempted to make some distinction between something I'd like to call "healthy sex," and something that I'd like to say, well, isn't quite so healthy.

For instance, while I believe that hooking up can be quite healthy and productive for people in many circumstances, I think it can become quite monotonous and dehumanizing at some point. When pleasure stops being a person's goal or concern, I start to think that something suspicious is going on. I think this is just what's happening in some online / urban gay male sex cultures. That troubles me.

Phew. Too many words from me. I hope Eric chimes in.

Posted at: September 13, 2008 7:17 PM

Eric Jost said:

A million years later I respond. :)

I want to focus on Rob's comments (and Trevor's by extension) about the ideas of good sex vs. bad sex and dehumanization.

I always find it interesting that sex, when it is consensual but involves a transaction between a sex worker and a client, is often viewed as demoralizing or degrading. Although I never exchanged actual sex for money, only getting money for showing my body, I did find it empowering. It was only outside perceptions of the industry/industries (ie my boyfriend, friends, etc) that resulted in my feeling bad about my then-career. The perception that working in the sex industry can never be valid or empowering, as Trevor hints about, is really the socialization that there is such a thing about good sex vs bad sex. However, before I get into muddy waters, I will say that consent(ie rape) is they keyword. As long as both or all parties are ready, willing, and able, then who is to argue or judge?

As far as dehumanizing, one of my favorite stories to compare my time as a stripper to is my many years working as a waiter. Working as a server, I was told not to make eye contact with certain customers, to never contradict customers, and my very livelihood was dependent on doing so. So is working in a restaurant for tips and being treated as lower class in comparison to the guests more noble simply because I'm not fucking the customers after their meal? I don't believe so. In fact, I felt I had more power as an employee of a strip club than I ever had working as a waiter.

Now, sex work isn't for everybody. I've wrestled for years with the idea of actually pursuing a career in prostitution and, admittedly, have reached the conclusion that it might not be the right fit for me. Just like I would never make a good nuclear engineer or painter. But because sex is involved in prostitution, for me, isn't the dealbreaker.

That was lot, so I will stop now, but hopefully that answered some questions. Thanks to everyone's comments!

Posted at: January 22, 2009 12:12 PM

Brandon said:

I don't see why mutual consent isn't good enough to say "period", "case closed". If it can be shown that both people agree to an act, what more is there to say? I don't mean to sound dogmatic; indeed, I just expressed my curiosity to know what light others can shed on the question.

Posted at: February 26, 2010 4:23 AM

Brandon said:

And I think I'm trying to probe even deeper into that question than Eric may have answered above. But, for me, it seems pretty clear.

Posted at: February 26, 2010 4:30 AM

Jaylene said:

First of all great post and comments here i really appreciate it as a young and naive girl as I am first looking for more understanding of sex and gender. This is the first site I have found informative and intellgent and realistic and not beating around any brush.
I'd love to hear more of where the friends, family, and society are coming from/what they say when shunning sex work so unrelentlessly.
I enjoy my sexuality and if it werent for the strong disapproval of my loved ones around the topic of sex work I too may have ventured to this sort of empowerment. I have rather blindly accepted that they may know better when demanding I should never mix sex and money. I know so little of the trade I am up late wondering..but it seems that if one even tries or experiments for fit the judgement and perseccution is inescapable. I'll ask why in more depth next time i hear it but I cant even count how many guys I've heard say they could never be with a girl who was a prostitute and a lot say the same for stripping.

As I chew this brain food I wonder if it is the objectification of a person that occurs when buying their body that seems so unacceptable. That maybe we(as a society) put too much emphasis and value on our physical being? With the condition that we need to make money or work in some sense to live how is selling our services and knowledge as a waitress or scientist or any job less objectified? are wages putting a value (practically worthless value considering the status of our legal tender) on humans? Gold is valuable because it is rare and pretty not because it is useful. We are within our bodies throughout our lifetime on earth but they inevitably wither away and decompose. how can our bodies be more sacred than our minds or spirits? are not each of us unique and more than our physical attributes. Im not so sure I get how people are so fervently invested in their dying bodies that they would degrade sex this way.

I dont imagine this was very clear or concise maybe not even comprehensible But can anyone here explain why selling sex is so embraced in media but when brought to the tactile market it is taboo? or even why it is taboo.. and AIDS may be a valid reason but not a sufficient or complete answer.

Posted at: April 11, 2010 5:25 AM

PR said:

It might just be, Jaylene, that you answered your own question in a certain respect.
You said: "I cant even count how many guys I've heard say they could never be with a girl who was a prostitute and a lot say the same for stripping."
If you think about that kind of response in the context of the sense of empowerment that many sex workers express, and which Eric mentioned, you might have your answer right there. We all collectively possess fantasies of allowing our sexuality to manifest without restraint. But society has a tendency to channel a lot of these desires into fictive exercises through the passive consumption of media(books,tv,film, etc.) including porn and strip clubs. The consumers of these prescriptive performances--what's presumed to be manifestations of their own desires--abstract the performer into a fictitious sexual idol(which is the point of constructing sex appeal). Consequently, it is the disjunct of having such a figure of their objectification, suddenly express a subjective identity that causes them to respond so negatively and defensively. It's a duality that many people cannot seem to rectify in their minds. In a lot of respects, this is also the same thing that happens when people mistake actors and actresses for the characters they play. When the objectified sex worker suddenly stands up and actively expresses subjectivity, those consumers lose their illusion of control over their fantasy production. They realize they never were in control to begin with. It was never their fantasy they were witnessing just the sexual desires they were told to value. It's like seeing behind the magician's curtain.

On the other hand, it is that very element of who controls the fantasy and what the variability and limits of that expression are that makes the some queer activist critics question what degree of agency sex workers truly have within that process, and whether or not the institution is one of irreparable exploitation of sex from worker through consumer. They believe that the structure of such sexual production is nonredeemable. Eric does not. That is where the division lies. Personally, I see no reason why a positive sex industry, in which the production of fantasy is decidedly and autonomously informed and consensual, should not exist and flourish culturally, without shame and indignation disrupting it at every turn. I say keep fighting!

Posted at: May 9, 2010 1:23 AM