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Sex Work and Freakshows

lenasolano's picture

Though it was only mentioned briefly in Freaks and Queers, I was very interested by the parallel drawn between working as a freak and working as a prostitute (Clare 92). Capitalism, and the bigotry it breeds, has been credited again and again with the creation and definition of disability. Any perceived deviation from the norm leaves an individual or group vulnerable to exile into the fringes of society. Once you’re isolated and assigned an undesirable label, there’s only so much you can do to survive. Unfortunately, this often requires some form of self-exploitation. If a person had a visible and/or otherwise marketable disability, they were eligible for freakdom and were identified as opportunities for profit and entertainment. If a woman* was identified as a sexual deviant, she offered a similar utility.   

As Clare establishes throughout the chapter, the perceived risk-to-benefit ratio of working as a freak varied greatly across the populations that participated in these shows. Based on the little historical knowledge I have about the industry, and what I’ve heard from sex workers via social media, this seems to be the case in sex work as well. While I don’t know the statistics, I’d venture to say the majority of freaks and whores had little to no agency or autonomy in their work. Many of these people were/are produced by human trafficking and forced to work under unimaginably inhumane conditions. In these cases, I don’t believe there is any room for speculation about the extent to which any of these performers benefit(ed) from their work. 

With this distinction in mind, I’m curious about any overlap between performers that were able to enter into the work relatively by choice. I’m reminded of content we’ve read and discussed in class about controlling the conditions under which you’re viewed. Since there is so little recorded testimony from the people in freak shows, we can’t make any assumptions about the nuances of their thought processes and attitudes surrounding their participation. In recent years, however, there has been a rising movement to uplift the voices of sex workers to de-stigmatize the industry. Written based on interviews with five exotic dancers, and published by Duquesne University stated that “A sense of control is significant because it is tied to one's sense of autonomy and agency; a woman's personhood is acknowledged and legitimates her ability to make choices regarding her sexuality. Specifically, the choice to reveal or conceal aspects of self and body is empowering.” (Perucci 323). My intention is not to conflate the experiences of these women with those of all sex workers or performers in freak shows. Especially considering most freak shows did not offer a choice of what the freaks wished to conceal or reveal on their bodies. Rather, I wonder if these sentiments resonate with the disabled people we’ve heard from in a modern context (a la Riva Lehrer, Harriet McBryde Johnson, Alice Sheppard etc.)