Over the past year I’ve been giving presentations about sex work and sex workers rights. From explicitly activist or radical spaces, to classrooms, small groups, interviews, and one on one conversations, I’ve gained experience hitting the major talking points and discussing the concepts I tend to take for granted in my daily life. One of the challenges I still struggle with every time I start to speak is finding a balance of how much of my own life and experiences to share.
In my early presentations and conversations I focused heavily on myself as a sex worker and an activist. Partly because I didn’t know what else to do, and partly because it was similar personal stories that had helped me grow in my thinking and activism. I talked about how I got into sex work, my work as an escort, why I stopped escorting, and how I came into sex work activism. I shared my ambivalence and my mistakes as well as my joys and successes. And I think it helped. It was scary at times, and infuriating at others, but every time someone said I opened their minds or shifted their perspective I felt like it was worth it.
But it was exhausting. It felt like every time I talked about sex work (which is frequently) I was ripping myself open and letting strangers dissect parts of my life that I’ve barely let the people closest to me into. And I was deeply uncomfortable, and even disturbed, by some of the questions I was asked. It felt salacious. I felt like a curiosity on display even as I was trying to humanize their perception of sex workers. Even the broadly political or philosophical questions sometimes felt like there was an extra personal slant. I felt extra pressure to have the right answer, even regarding my life or my feelings, which are often messy.
I have since altered my presentation style to be far less about me. Besides being easier on me personally, I like to think that we’re able to focus more on the issues and broader range of sex workers than my earlier efforts. Since this shift in focus I’ve heard far fewer questions that made me cringe, and far fewer questions or comments that felt intrusive or insulting. I’m still out, and I still have personal details here and elsewhere in my writing, but I speak about myself far less. I tend to think of this as a good thing, but I don’t want my presentations to seem like abstract concepts or inapplicable theories either. I don’t want my audience to walk away thinking mine is the face of sex work, but neither do I want them still holding the image of an anonymous pair of legs as the image of sex work either.
My worry is that without so much of that personal element my presentations are losing some of their impact. I can’t help but wonder if for some people those personal stories are what drew them in so intensely. I don’t want to take myself completely out of the equation, but I don’t want to center the conversation on myself either. I don’t want other presenters to feel like they have to be out, or have to share personal details, in order to be effective. I also don’t want my audience to feel like their entitled to ask anyone talking about sex work personal questions about their lives (though I’m sure many do anyway – I don’t want to encourage that behavior). I erred on the side of oversharing in the beginning, and now I can’t help but wonder if I’ve overcompensated. I don’t even know how to examine that.
I don’t imagine that I’m going to find the right balance in every situation. And I know there’s not some magic formula for how much or how little to share for each audience, though it would be nice. I wish I even knew what my goals and boundaries were, but the truth is that they often shift. My main concern has been, and continues to be, how to most effectively present this information and cause so people recognize its importance and how it fits into a larger scheme of oppressions. I want people to care about sex workers lives and human rights, and to shift their behavior accordingly. And I want to know how to make them do that. It seems like I’ve gotten something right in at least some of these talks, but I don’t necessarily know how to replicate it, let alone how to replicate it in a way that is sustainable for me and for other sex workers speaking in public.