Margaret Cho On Sex Worker Rights

NOVEMBER 9, 2015


I know from firsthand experience that coming out as a sex worker is rarely a straightforward affair. You have to deal with the preconceived notions of the person you’re telling: their ideas that sex work is dangerous, or dirty, or wrong. Whether the person is a longtime friend, a family member, a fan, or a potential boss, they might stop seeing you and start seeing, instead, their own biased idea of what a sex worker is.

Last week, renowned comedian and vocal feminist Margaret Cho told her thousands of fans and followers on Twitter that she had, in the past, done sex work. 

Although she has mentioned her sex working history previously, her latest disclosure has caught fire—amplified, perhaps, by#TheStory of Zola, and by the fact that major organizations like Amnesty International have come out, despite fierce opposition,for the full decriminalization of the buying and selling of sex. What brought on her Twitter stand? “I have been talking about being a sex worker for decades, but no one asked me about it,” Cho told me in an email interview. She continued: 

“I was just looking at other people’s tweets and someone said that sex workers do not sell their body, rather they are charging for a service, which is absolutely right. Sex work is a service that should be compensated well. It’s hard work.”

With her recent statements, Cho has taken center stage in a furious debate among feminists as to the rights of sex workers and the nature of our work—and brought that debate into her Twitter feed. As sex workers from across the planet have backed up Cho’s assertion that sex work is work—important, useful, criminalized, stigmatized work—prohibitionists like Feminist Current editor Meghan Murphy have claimed that Cho does not speak for most sex workers. Cho has refuted them in her pithy, hilarious way, but she hasn’t done it alone. Sex workers have backed her up with experiences and evidence, and the result has been a fantastic free education on the nature of sex work for worldwide audiences.

This is in no small part because Cho has spent her time on social media actively listening to sex workers and learning about the politics of sex worker rights. Her humility offers a useful example to anyone who is new to a movement and working to get up to speed:

When I began to write about sex work, I had to learn to avoid relying on my own experience to make a point. It is more important for me, a writer known for my sex work, to emphasize the politics and evidence that so strongly demand decriminalization for the safety and human rights of sex workers. Decriminalization would benefit all of us, in all types of sex work, and in all conditions of work; if I speak about my own experience, however, I can speak only from my unique position of immense privilege. But for a celebrity comedian like Cho, renowned for her brilliant talent and fearless campaigning against gender and racial oppression, talking about her experience is essential—although still somewhat risky. While being out about having done sex work is less likely to result in her arrest or violence, whorephobia could certainly threaten her career. Publicizing her experiences drives home the truth that sex work—and sex workers—are everywhere. And with her reach, she has given the stories of sex workers and the case for decriminalization a platform. The vibrant sex worker rights movement is taking audacious strides even in the criminalized United States—currently, a group of California sex workers and clients are waging a lawsuit challenging the illegality of selling and buying sex on constitutional grounds. In this context, Cho feels her most valuable contribution is through her work, and through speaking out. “All of my activism is tied into my work as an artist,” she said. 

“I have been and will continue to talk about my experience—that is the best way I can think to talk about [sex work]. I have a lot to learn about all of the obstacles sex workers have to face. That is part of the problem—we are incredibly misinformed about what sex workers need, and so I am currently taking a crash course.”

And Cho isn’t talking about sex work in a vacuum. She’s responding to tweets about sex worker rights alongside news about her tour and her current project, the searingly honest#12DaysofRage, a public project gearing up for the release of Cho’s new song and video, “I Want to Kill my Rapist” to be released on November 13. To Cho, there is a strong link between sex work and #12DaysofRage: “They’re connected, truly,” she said.

In the project, Cho has been releasing a new video every day about her experiences with sexual assault, and asks people who have been sexually assaulted to share their own experiences without shame or stigma:

“My goal is to make rapists extinct. I want to push them all out into the open with our truth. There’s no statute of limitations on the truth. I want to say: let us murder the rapist inside ourselves to stop killing ourselves. Sex abuse leads to self-abuse. I want this to end.”

The campaign is particularly important in light of Cho’s stand for sex workers, many of whom have faced exclusion from services, shaming, and disgust when they’ve tried to seek help after a sexual assault. In a culture where stigma is so endemic that many people sincerely believe that a sex worker cannot be raped, Cho has done something important. She has created a space that affirms our humanity, where sex workers can talk about our experiences of sexual assault alongside all the others, where we can learn, teach and build solidarity with each other.

I asked Cho how we as a society should respond to the fact that sex workers are facing death, violence, marginalization, and stigma. She told me:

“It’s an outrage. Sex workers need to be protected. [Sex work] should be legalized and law enforcement should be keeping sex workers safe. Exploitation, rape, murder—we need to make sure that we are protected from all of this, but because of the stigma, we are not, and that is plainly a human rights violation.”

As a presidential campaign gears up where the rights of women and people of color have snapped into focus, I asked Cho how sex workers and our supporters should respond. “Sex work should be respected,” she said.

“Sex workers are human beings—sex work exists whether or not it is legal, and the fact that we are outside of the ‘bounds of legality’ means we are dying. It’s not right. It’s dehumanizing and sex work needs to be recognized as work. The fact that it is criminalized only hurts us further—under the guise of ‘protecting’ us. We must be as vocal as possible in every way—social media is great for this. We need to be louder than ever.”

Her concluding words? “We need to fight for our lives.”