Recently, I was soundly rebuffed by a group of angry Fraternity brothers during my lecture at a respected university in California. Their gripe? They were upset that I revealed that I had a few clerics for clients – ministers and rabbis in fact. I did not expect the reaction I got. I mistakenly thought they would be concerned to know that men who aggressively condemn sex outside of marriage were also frequenting prostitutes while they were married. This blatant hypocrisy was of no concern. However, the idea that I would talk about the hypocrisy WAS cause for concern and outrage.
This illustrates the double standard which is applied to clients in EVERY respect. It is as if they are considered to be the people who are “worthy” of protection and coddling – while the vilified sex worker is “asking for it.” Archaic beliefs come oozing out of the cracks at times like these and one old fashioned but still popular thought is that “poor men” can’t help themselves but those “evil sluts and whores” need to be punished for “tempting” the men. As long as the dominant culture promotes and protects the sexual double standard, our efforts to claim our rights will be impeded.
It amazes me that in this decade, we are still faced with the same sexual double standard which haunted our fore-mothers. But even more infuriating is the fact that many people – both men and women seem to believe that silence is a badge of honor. I know most of us learn to lie about the truth while we are being reared in dysfunctional families. Don’t ask, don’t tell applies to every facet of family life. This is why it is so easy to molest one’s own children and beat one’s spouse.
Our culture condemns “snitching” more than it condemns crime. In fact, a rapper recently interviewed on television proudly announced that he would NOT report a serial killer if he was living next door to him – because it violates his code of ethics: “never snitch.” Since when did reporting murder qualify as “snitching?” I thought the concept of “snitching” was akin to “honor among thieves.” But don’t you have to be a co-perpetrator to qualify as a “snitch.” Whatever, I find the whole business of bullying victims into silence revolting.
Of course an argument could be made that sex workers and their clients are co-conspirators in the crime of prostitution. And that might be one reason so many people are perturbed at the thought of a prostitute revealing who her clients are. But I think the issue runs deeper than that. One of the facts of life which makes prostitution available to clients while criminalizing the prostitute, is the knowledge that the prostitute will feel too fearful, shameful or otherwise disenfranchised to defend her/himself if a client turns state’s evidence.
But sex workers should not simply adhere to a given “code” because it has been an historical tradition. We should question everything. Why keep the clients’ secrets? Well, first and foremost it is good for business. If we can be trusted, we will obtain more clients and more money. That makes sense. Secondly, for those of us who care about our client’s welfare, it feels good and brings a great deal of “job satisfaction” to know you are adding to the well-being of others (your clients) and just maybe the world (sex is a great way to contribute to health and peace!). Certainly the ethic of confidentiality fits nicely into this idea of making the world a better place and practicing our profession with pride and integrity.But the “code of silence” can be a form of collusion with the power structure and as political activists, we are driven by a higher calling than the blind loyalty extracted from the masses for membership in churches, corporations, clubs, gangs and even law enforcement. We must examine each situation for its individual merits and keep our priorities for human rights for sex workers foremost in mind.Jean Palfrey, known as the DC Madam, has been the focus of many discussions about the ethics of confidentiality. Since the DC Madam did NOT reveal names until now, she has shown amazing restraint. I asked a journalist how long he would sit in jail to protect his sources – 30 days? 60 days? 90 days? One year? He choked of course, because few reporters are willing to spend one hour in jail to protect a source. Palfrey spent One and a half Years in prison and said nothing. It is only now that she risks being homeless and penniless that she is sending a powerful message to our nation’s capitol – back off or go down with me. I think that is not only fair but carries with it a political significance which is encouraging. If the “good ole boy network” realizes that we will NOT keep their secrets if they attempt to completely destroy us – perhaps they will think twice about attempting to annihilate us. And although that falls far short of our ultimate goal of decriminalization, it DOES open a door for dialog. No longer can the current power structure pretend that we don’t have enough pride in ourselves and our work to stand up for our right to be free, to make a living and to own property. These are simple human rights but nevertheless rights we still don’t have.
Once you have lost your ability to make money from your clients as Palfrey did over two years ago, the incentive to keep their secrets is severely diminished. Still most of us, her included, don’t rush to tell all. We have carefully built habits of secrecy which are hard to break and for good reason. One incentive I have to safeguard the secrets of my clients is that I value my life. Some of my clients are powerful and connected and might not take kindly to my indiscretions. But if I were so unfortunate as to find myself in Palfrey’s shoes, I would fight back with everything I have because there would be nothing else to lose.
When did self-preservation become a crime? Well, it isn’t if you are already powerful. But disenfranchised peoples have been consistently trained away from that most primal impulse. There should be no shame in fighting to survive. And if we are smart, we will use this moment in history to move forward with power and purpose for ALL the rights we sex workers are owed – not just mere survival.