practical proheauxism: why i don’t have sex for money, but i have, & i would.

“Far more insidious than its infamous cousin, the virgin/whore complex, the choice/coercion dichotomy has complicated the relationship between sex worker activists and feminists for decades.”
— from $pread: The Best of the Magazine…

I don’t remember where i first heard the phrase pro heaux, nor do i know who coined it. What i do know is, just like when i discovered the term arthoe, i felt deeply connected to this expression. I was sure that it matched me. It was more than sex positive, with a frenchie faux-bourgeois flair reminiscent of Moya Bailey’s misogynoir (mih-sahj-ĭ-nwah)[1]. I envision proheauxism to be a combination of womanism and sex worker positivism, collective and individual, political and personal. I don’t want to touch too deeply on theory right now, because i am saving that for later. What i want to discuss is the practical applications of my working vision of what proheauxism should be.

I was eighteen when i started stripping. After a series of failed job interviews, I was on my last few hundred dollars in podunk Bloomington, IN. My mother had cosigned on an apartment with me, then promptly bailed on me, after I refused to listen to her berate me at top volume over the phone. I hung up on her, a violation. I can’t remember what the exact conversation was, all I recall is her calling me stupid, and the sudden realization that I was eighteen, legally an adult, with my own apartment. It hit me like blackout stars — I didn’t have to cower anymore. I didn’t have to feel powerless. I also realized that I had to grow up immediately. I was extremely naive, and had developed acute social anxiety around age thirteen, that continued into my late teens. I had this romanticized notion of exotic dancing from Diamond’s famous scene in The Players Club, and a bunch of random Google searches which yielded perspectives from white women and one East Asian woman. I had danced at a tiny black club up in Indianapolis over spring vacay, an experience I barely remember beyond the fact that I did it.

There was only one hole-in-the-wall club in the entire town. After an audition, hundreds of lap dances, and a you’re pretty for a black girl and just the right kind of brown (not too), a sudden drought hit the club. I was working double shifts (from 11am to 12am was a typical shift for me during that period, and I worked Tuesday through Sunday), and a wealthy, tanned, older white man was interested in me and my ass. Had been for awhile, actually, but I had been softly rejecting him. Whore hierarchy dictates that being a stripper is bad enough (if you have to), but fucking for money? Pfffft. But moving to Indianapolis seemed like my ticket to true financial stability. This would be the first move I would undertake alone. I mentioned it to him, casually, hoping for empathy tips or lap dances (so naive). Again he propositioned me, and I wondered why I was turning down this seemingly easy money, while nursing a sick, twisty feeling in my gut at the thought of accepting.

Was I better than this?

Colloquially, and in academia, the term “sex work” refers specifically to prostitution, but politically it is used as an umbrella term, spanning an entire range of erotic-emotional trade: burlesque, stripping/exotic dancing, prostitution/escorting, phone sex operating, professional d/s, fetish work, webcam “modeling,” pornography, and sugaring. I use the term both ways.

There is a modicum of respectability politics in the words that we choose to describe these professions; for instance, once when I mentioned prostitutes in a Facebook post a woman, not knowing that I am a sex worker, attempted to “correct” me. She felt that the word escort was more politically correct. I had to let her know that an escort is simply an indoor prostitute, separated only by class and level of danger — streetwalking is much more dangerous.[2] I am aware that some people use the word “prostitute” as an insult, and fuck them. I am not concerned with the “tastefulness” of the words I use, nor do I get off on being contrary. (However, that does not mean that i completely disregard the effect of certain harmful words.)

It is my understanding that certain types of sex-pos feminists and/or sex workers place great emphasis on being transgressive. Then there are the (usually cis) women who are simply more sexually conservative. If you add in a small dose of classism and/or projection, we come up with two different types of whore hierarchical behaviors/beliefs:

  1. if you’re not fucking or participating in “hardcore” practices, your authenticity is questioned, or
  2. you’re “nasty” or damaged if you choose to trade sex for money or other benefits.

Actually this is more like two opposite ends of a spectrum, but y’all understand what I’m getting at, right? Door #3 is the “I could never do that” camp, to whom I say “good for you.” I prefer non-absolutes because there are a bunch of things I claimed I’d never do as a teen and yet here I is, nursing a wound from an episode of struggle-love, single-momming it up and staying with my grandmother. I simply live my existence, if that makes any sense.

Applying proheauxism to my own life, for example, means this: Right now, after a breakup and a sexual experience that I wholeheartedly regret for emotional reasons, I have decided to embark upon a year of celibacy. I am not religious by any means, but I feel like this is a healthy option for me at this point in my life. I am very sensitive and have experienced the end of two relationships within the past few years. Before I had my first serious relationship I slept around a lot, not just for the experience or because it was fun — sometimes it was — but mostly for the closeness. But I found that using sex to connect emotionally without a real connection left me feeling barren afterwards. Having sex with a loving companion is preferable to me[3]. When my last ex and I broke up and I went to see him (more on that later), we had sex, and while it seemed to be just a throwaway experience for him, for me it was more, because I loved him deeply and therefore could not fathom unattached sex with him. Levels. However, I can’t say if an opportunity came up to make some money, that I wouldn’t have sex. Because that’s business. (And I’m broke.) Nor would I enforce my personal preferences, or project my experiences onto another person and judge them for what they decide to do with their body (and I expect them to extend that same courtesy to me)This is a micro-level view of what I think practical proheauxism should look like.Obviously on a macro, or collective, level we would have to consider a whole host of other issues — but that would bring me into a more theoretical area, and this is already too damn long.

What does it even mean, in the grand scheme of things, to be “better?” I suppose it depends on one’s definition of better. The politics of choice and empowerment is a complicated one, especially when factoring in race, gender, and economics. Toni Morrison said, in her foreword to the 2002 edition of Sula, that “[f]emale freedom always means sexual freedom, even when — especially when — it is seen through the prism of economic freedom.” She, golden-tongued literary genius that she is, also gifted us with these words: “Freeing yourself is one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” The way we color the word choice means something and it is these ideas, and more, which can aid in black women’s reclamation of self.

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  1. I pronounce it this way, don’t judge me! See: Explanation Of Misogynoir (by Trudy of gradient lair)
  2. See: Meaningful Work: Transgender Experiences in the Sex Trade (Dec 2015 PDF)
  3. Don’t worry, I’m not one of those people who believe in the myth that women cannot have unattached sex. In fact this myth is completely flattened by the mere existence of sex work, glamourest thots, and heaux queens.