A little over 12 years ago, I found myself in a conference room talking with a group of school nurses about effective HIV-prevention programs. During the course of conversation, my co-presenter and I both mentioned programs that provided services for sex workers.
Finally, one of the nurses raised her hand with a question: ''What do you mean by 'sex worker'?''
In the intervening decade, it seems little has changed. Despite a more permissive popular culture broad enough to produce toddler tees emblazoned with ''Future Porn Star,'' our conception of actual sex workers — people who have sex in exchange for money — remains mired in the language of hookers and whores.
It doesn't help that our attention often turns to sex workers in the context of scandal, the most recent being the news that anti-gay activist, reparative-therapy promoter and Family Research Council co-founder George Rekers hired an escort from Rentboy.com to accompany him on a trip to Europe. This news caused a great eruption of glee and schadenfreude as we received yet another confirmation of the rank hypocrisy — not to mention the soul-deadening closet — at the heart of the anti-gay movement.
But my concern here isn't with Rekers. Yes, he is a vile buffoon who has damaged countless gay youth with his discredited ''science'' and helped tear apart loving gay families in Florida. Yet he's a buffoon who's finding that what goes around most definitely does come around.
My concern is for the escort at the center of the story, Jo-Vanni Roman. Our culture, straight and gay alike, does not have the greatest track record in treating sex workers and escorts with dignity or respect. Case in point: Louisiana Sen. David Vitter was caught in a scandal for patronizing a female sex worker in D.C., where he was, so to speak, pampered. Rather than resigning or being hounded from the Hill for rank hypocrisy, the family-values Republican remains in his perch working against such things as equality for LGBT people. Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the so-called D.C. Madam who ran the escort service that Vitter patronized, found herself prosecuted and convicted — hounded until she hanged herself in her mother's garden shed in Florida.
We often assume that our own gay community handles these situations with more compassion and a greater sense of justice, and I believe that is, in some ways, true. A number of prominent bloggers and professionals have offered their own services to Roman as he navigates what has to be seen as a minefield of a scandal for him. Sure, the media attention may provide some unexpected avenues of opportunity — similar to Mike Jones after his spotlight turn in the Ted Haggard escort scandal — but the possibility of legal actions and prosecutions always hangs over a sex worker's head.
We're not an island separate from mainstream culture — we're not immune from making the same judgments and condemnations about the sex workers in our community, whether they base their work on the Internet or on the streets. As someone who has long believed that the criminalization of prostitution inevitably leads to the mistreatment of sex workers — the people who need protection the most are able to find it the least — I've often been surprised by the disdain and disinterest with which too many LGBT people view sex workers.
We may be responding with community-wide compassion and support for Jo-Vanni Roman, but the real question is whether we can provide the same for those among us who aren't in a scandalous spotlight.