I’m a Sex Worker and a Sex-Trafficking Survivor. Shame on Bill Maher for Mocking Us.
Laura LeMoon is a sex worker, sex-trafficking survivor, and activist. She writes about why Bill Maher—and anti-sex work orgs like Exodus Cry and NCOSE—have it so very wrong.
Last Friday night, Bill Maher, while covering a story about OnlyFans reversing their decision to ban “sexually explicit conduct” beginning in October, ended his monologue by saying, “Boy, if there’s anything millennials love more than cancelling the patriarchy, it’s women having sex for money.”
As a rich and famous celebrity with his own television show, Maher is not only not a sex worker but has his very own platform beamed into the homes and minds of millions of Americans. Much more of a platform than most actual sex workers and sex-trafficking survivors are afforded.
Since I am both a sex worker and a sex-trafficking survivor, permit me to share a few thoughts.
I have experienced exploitation and violence within the scope of prostitution and adult entertainment work.
At the same time, I have experienced incalculable feelings of empowerment, autonomy, freedom, and happiness. My life experience is my evidence: Sex work is not incongruent with feminism or woman’s empowerment.
I can quite safely say that Bill Maher is simply wrong. And I have both more of a right, and more expertise, to speak to that fact than a rich, famous white guy who has neither been a sex worker nor even had to fathom the possibility of doing so as a way to carve out a survival or a career. It would almost be hilarious if it wasn’t so ridiculous and worse, wrong. And stupid. And dangerous.
As if that weren’t enough irony, exhibit B includes Maher’s own well-documented history of consuming sex workers’ labor himself (as evidenced here).
The real hypocrisy at hand is not millennials advocating for the destruction of the patriarchy while consuming the labor of sex workers, or doing sex work themselves. The real hypocrisy is the same one that has existed for as long as the oldest profession in the world: A rich, famous and powerful man consuming our labor in private, while spitting on us in public; using his privilege to access us in private, while negating his privilege in public.
Karine Steffans, a “video vixen” who was formerly linked to Maher, has also been quoted as saying that Maher basically (I’m paraphrasing) likes women who he feels are “inferior” to him in a myriad of ways including racially, economically, intellectually, and in terms of gender. Maybe Maher should just keep his mouth shut about issues he can only see from his ivory tower.
The other day, my friend sent me a link to singer Megan Thee Stallion’s new video for a song called “Thot Shit.” This video hits, spot on, at this issue of consumption, along with many other amazing sex-work and race-related themes addressing men’s—especially white men’s—consumption of women as objects. In the case of MTS’s video, it seems she is particularly speaking to the experience of BIPOC women sex workers.
The conflation of sex work and sex trafficking that is behind OnlyFans’ initial decision to ban porn on its site is hardly new. It is part of a deeper problem that pervades the movement in the U.S. to end sex trafficking. Sex work, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, was created in the late 1970s by sex worker and activist Scarlot Harlot during a time when many other social justice movements were burgeoning. It is the antithesis of the word prostitute and is meant to reflect the agency and empowerment with which one can perform labor in the sex trade.
Sex trafficking, on the other hand, is defined by the United Nations as commercial sexual exploitation by means of force, fraud, and coercion (in a nutshell). In other words, the exact opposite of sex work. Sex work can never be sex trafficking and sex trafficking can never be sex work. If we keep these two concepts separate there’s no issue, but the problem occurs when mega-behemoth nonprofit organizations geared at ending sex trafficking and abolishing sex work (like Exodus Cry, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation or Polaris Project), start putting pressure on government and private companies (like OnlyFans) to conflate sex work (choice) with sex trafficking (force, fraud, coercion). It is these powerful organizations, very much influential to national policy, that are behind this conflation between sex work and sex trafficking that many seem to buy into.
This policy shift in recent years, which influences public opinion on sex work and sex trafficking, is evidenced by the 2018 law President Trump signed (after passing both chambers of Congress) called Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). SESTA shut down or strangled every single avenue for adult consensual sex work on the internet in the name of stopping sex trafficking. And yes, it was in large part thanks to these powerful, monied nonprofits forcing the hands of lawmakers and private internet companies by threatening that if they don’t stamp out prostitution altogether, they must ergo be supporting sex trafficking.
Once again proving that this issue extends far beyond our latest privileged male pronouncement.
Exodus Cry, the evangelical nonprofit mentioned earlier, has an annual income of well over a million dollars, according to their 2017 annual report, and is run by CEO/Founder, non-sex worker and non-survivor Benjamin Nolot. Nolot, who once blocked me on Twitter for asking him why he feels he has the right to speak out against sex-industry work as a man who has never even been involved in the sex trade, has very negative views about sex work and believes that all work in the sex trade is exploitative. (By the way, I’m still anxiously awaiting his response.)
Worse, these powerful organizations, often rooted in evangelical Christian ideology, have an unhealthy relationship with politicians and are huge influencers on national policy related to prostitution, adult-industry work, and sex trafficking, especially as it relates to private companies like Mastercard or Facebook, each of which are deeply involved in making sex work more challenging and dangerous. OnlyFans was almost there too, until they changed course and decided the content could stay. A small but profound victory—but one that will be under constant and continued assault.
We all need to be careful of “nonprofit” organizations where non-survivors and non-sex workers are making huge careers—speaking engagements, advisory positions, lobbying, etc.—talking about an issue they have no first-person experience with.
Worse yet, these people are raking in the dough on the backs of myself and my survivor siblings and our collective pain and suffering. Bill Maher, without even knowing it, just added himself to the long line of highly privileged people, like Benjamin Nolot, making negative judgments without experience or authority and using their large platforms to champion opinions that actually do more harm to my community of survivors and sex workers and, I’d argue, to feminism—all the while, patting our heads, throwing us scraps, and telling us what our experience is in the sex trade.
The sex trade, like every other form of labor, is not a monolith. It can be amazing, freeing, empowering, and fun. It also has the potential to be traumatizing and exploitative. Just like that ol’ 9-5 job. Sex work is as feminist as working to end sex trafficking, and both concepts can coexist—just as they do in my life and my dual identities as a sex worker and trafficking survivor.