Margaret Cho talks about her sex work

Margaret Cho.
Margaret Cho.

NEW YORK • It was the tweet heard around the sex-worker world.

On Oct 29, comedian Margaret Cho, 46, disturbed the Twittersphere with an economical 109 characters: "Sex work is simply work. For me it was honest work. I was a sex worker when I was young. It was hard but well paid. There's no shame in it."

What followed was a series of delighted tweets of support from current and former adult-industry workers, which she met with lots of XXXs and OOOs, as well as no shortage of derision from those less impressed with her revelation.

In New York to promote her new song and video (I Want To) Kill My Rapist, which will debut on Nov 13 on, she said she was surprised by the largely supportive response to what she said had never been much of a secret.

"I've never had shame about it," she said. "I've been talking about it all along, but nobody cared."

Maybe people are taking notice because sex work is so visible in pop culture and social media these days, such as the wholesome he-man success of Magic Mike: XXL.

Before her comedy career took off about 20 years ago, Cho worked first as a phone sex operator, then as a dominatrix, a job which, she admitted, she was ill suited for.

"I was lazy," she said. "I lacked empathy and I had a bad arm", referring to the job's requirement for administering floggings and other forms of corporal punishment that a client might request.

Dominatrixes sometimes operate quasi-legally, but the threat of arrest, and the stigma surrounding their actions, is something she would like to see change for sex workers. With her series of tweets about life in the business - "It's hard work that's not protected by law enforcement or unions. It's unfair. We have the right to our bodies +work" - it is clear that she is driving towards advocacy.

Change is possible. Amnesty International's board voted last August to develop a policy to protect the rights of sex workers. That a widely respected global human rights body would support full decriminalisation represents, for sex workers, a triumph of research- supported truth over moral outrage.

"The ugliness and beauty that I saw made me think that sex workers are providing a valuable service to society," Cho said of her dominatrix days. "We shouldn't just be protected and legitimised. We should be worshipped."

But despite the existence of prostitution in all cultures, there is an almost universal aversion to the very idea of it. As Cho said, while "ick" is a common visceral response, it is not particularly useful for developing public policy.

"If you're disgusted by sex work, if your impulse is to shame and to abolish, what are sex workers to do then?" she asked. "How can we continue to operate in shadows and secrecy when the shadows and the secrecy are what's killing us?"

As why her status as a former sex worker is gaining notice now, she is unfazed. This, she said, is as fine a time as any to see her own experience featured in activist discourse. After all, she said, "there is no statute of limitations on the truth".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2015, with the headline 'Margaret Cho talks about her sex work'. Print Edition | Subscribe