On Friday, October 6th, I settled in for a night of Netflix. But this night of Netflix would be epic, because Netflix had just released the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, directed by David France. The film follows the investigation into pioneering sex working black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson’s 1992 death by members of the New York Anti-Violence project. It also chronicles the trial of the murderer of 21-year-old Islan Nettles, a young black trans-woman who was killed on August 17, 2013. After watching the documentary, I grabbed my phone and went on Facebook, and immediately saw a screenshot of a disturbing post on France’s documentary by Reina Gossett on her Instagram.

Reina Gossett is a black trans woman activist and writer as well as the producer of Happy Birthday Marsha. On her Instagram that day, Gossett spilled the tea and accused David France, a white cis-gay man, of using and being inspired by a grant she and Sasha Worzel wrote to Kalamazoo/Arcus Foundation Social Justice Center for a movie about Johnson—France volunteered at the foundation at the time. Gossett also accused him of plagiarizing their language and stealing their years of research on Johnson and Sylvia Rivera’s community organization STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and having her video of Rivera’s revolutionary and mainstream-gay-movement-critical 1973 “ y’all better quiet down” speech at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally removed from Vimeo. Gossett began her Instagram post by writing, “this week while I’m borrowing money to pay my rent, david france is releasing his multimillion dollar netflix deal on marsha p johnson.”

Author and activist Janet Mock hit to Twitter and tweeted out the screenshots of Gossett’s Instagram post. Mock stated that “[f]ilmmaker David France released a Netflix doc Friday about Marsha P. Johnson. It is based on Reina Gossett’s work”. Mock’s tweet garnered 1000s of retweets and likes, as well as a comment by France, which he had to write on an Apple note and screenshot to Twitter. (Sometimes 140 characters isn’t enough to explain your white privilege and entitlement.) France also released a further statement responding to Gossett’s Instagram post on The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson website. He states that he was friends with Marsha for a minute and he wanted to do a documentary about her around the time of her death but he had to focus on the AIDS epidemic at the time. He also claims that his work was not stolen from or inspired by Gossett’s research and film making. He goes on to acknowledge his privilege as a white cis gay male.

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The Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where Stephen Paddock murdered 58 people on October 1. Photo courtesy of James Marvin Phelps.

As a Vegas resident and sex worker for nearly a decade, the massacre there hits close to home. Too close, actually, as knowledge of the shooter’s proclivities for erotic services surface. In fact, my first response to images of the shooter was, “He looks familiar.” I chalked it up to the fact that every white cis dude looks like Stephen Paddock. But now, I’m not so sure I didn’t see him around. And while I cannot claim that I ever saw Paddock as a client myself, I am familiar with the terrain of the Vegas sex industry and wouldn’t be surprised if the two of us crossed paths.

The fact that the Las Vegas shooter was a client of sex workers is meaningful, but not for the reasons that most civilians think.  [READ MORE]

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(“Flurry” by Marilyn Minter, 1994)

This year’s London Frieze art festival included an exhibit called Sex Worka retrospective on the first wave of feminist art. “Your Art (Probably) Sux!” cried sex workers, upon realizing that the only one of us formally involved was an anonymous porn actress’ cropped pussy lips in a photo.

But to be fair, we hadn’t even seen much of the show. So how have we gotten to this cynical place, where giving an artist the benefit of the doubt seems like a losing bet? Because when it comes to conversations about sociosexual mores, the deck is stacked against us and the house always wins. Sex workers have long been used as muses, metaphors, and props, sensually strewn throughout the art world’s most famous boudoirs but rarely recognized as cultural producers in their own right. When it comes to the era of radical feminism at the heart of  Sex Work, a period of artistic fascination with (fetishization of?) prostitution, a time integral in the creation of a violent anti-prostitution feminist politic, the stakes seem life or death. Fool me once, you know?

For the record, I don’t think the art in Sex Work sux. Considering the recent death of Hugh Hefner, a misogynist whose myopic hetero vision of men, women, and sex shaped a generation, it is still somehow precious to see bodies represented through the eyes of anyone but straight cis men. Betty Tompkins’ black and white “Fuck Paintings” feel spectral, like catching a glimpse of her hazy vulvas through a steamy window. They were all too real, though, in 1973 when she had to order pornography from “the far east” to a secret mailbox in Canada, and then smuggle it across the American border.  Marilyn Minter’s color-saturated orifices aren’t nearly as shocking as the idea that only a few years before I was born she was told by a gallery that women artists don’t sell and to come back in ten years—or never.

The historical context of these works can’t be overlooked. They herald from a time that is eerily recent, when an exhibit featuring only women artists like this one would be so transgressive a curator might lose a career over it, and where the best an artist could hope for in terms of positive reviews was a patronizing remark about a work’s alterity—its “feminine qualities. “I like this art and yet I still struggle to release the distrust lingering from a many-decades-long betrayal committed by the epoch in question. Because after all, there is a historical context for sex worker outrage, too.

[NSFW image after the cut]

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Hugh Hefner the image. (Photo by Flickr user Sarah Gerke)

Content warning: this post contains brief references to rape and abuse. 

Hugh Hefner died.

Of course he did. Dude was 91. When my castmate announced it after rehearsal, I didn’t feel shock at the news. Hefner may as well have died when he stopped being the editor of Playboy magazine. Or when The Girls Next Door tried selling us on twincest. Or when the magazine stopped publishing nudes. He was a go-to pop culture joke about debauchery and smoking jackets, but he’s hardly been relevant for years.

Still, I had some mixed feelings. I never much cared for Hefner or his image, having been introduced to him as a doddering grandpa on reality TV, but Playboy the brand had been in my life since I was a child. It molded my early ideas of what it meant to be attractive. It introduced me to the idea that sexiness could be playful or serious. When I turned 18, I bought an issue just because I could and delighted at the articles and interviews just as much as the pictorials. This, I thought, was the intersection of brains and beauty. By thumbing through the pages at my grandma’s house I was somehow becoming a well-rounded adult.

To say nothing of the accidental connection between Playboy and queerness. For generations, Dad’s secret stash (or in my case, my mother’s boyfriend Chad’s collection that he just left out in the open in his office) was a gateway not just for teenage boys but also girls. It felt like fate that my first issue featured a spread with Adrienne Curry, the first out bisexual I had ever seen. Since Playboy could also be “for the articles”, I was able to hide my queerness even from myself. Perhaps even more than the cool girls I had met in high school, Playboy gave me the most intense stirrings of looking at a woman and not being sure if I wanted to be her or be with her. As I grew I realized, hell, why not both?

When I went to college I found vintage issues and hung the centerfolds in my kitchen, aspiring to their fresh-faced, breezy beauty. I copied the makeup, teased my hair higher, and then rebelled against the streamlined pin-ups in favor of some Hustler-esque trashiness. Those styles helped me experiment and come into my own again and again as I rolled through my early 20s. Even now, I’ll sometimes look at them and imagine living in a dreamy world of sheer babydolls and fur rugs. It’s a world I realize I now have the means to create for myself at any point. Several photographer friends are just a Facebook message away, and within the week I’ll have a pin-up of myself to tuck away. In them, I’m eternally 19, 21, 24, and these versions of me seem younger and younger every year. They’re my own digital flashbacks that I wish I could share with my younger self. “Look,” I’d say. “You’re pretty too.”

But none of that was Hefner. It was the women I idolized—women who were paid peanuts to be immortalized in soft focus.

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Bellesa CEO Michelle Shnaidman.

How can you talk about ethics when your company is posting stolen content from producers and sex workers?

A tube site aimed at women did just that this month. Recently launched, Bellesa claimed it created a safe atmosphere for its users, which, unlike other tube sites, was supposedly free of “degrading” porn. However, like all tube sites, their collection of videos was largely acquired through piracy. While boasting “safe space” and “ethical porn for women,” Bellesa perpetuated the same exploitative practices the sleaziest tube sites do.

Their hypocrisy caused a stir in the porn industry. The site claimed to be empowering while simultaneously exploiting people’s sexual labor. At least some other tube sites let performers upload their content and get paid for it—it’s a way to make your money back on already pirated content. Bellesa also perpetuated sex positive feminism’s voyeuristic and conditional obsession with sex work, that is, the idea that it is only valid as long as it’s empowering—a standard other jobs are not held to. What this attitude ultimately demonstrates is a complete disregard for those who work in the sex industry.

To add insult to injury, Bellesa’s marketing campaign used Twitter to blast videos full of this kind of rhetoric, feeding a  liberal sex positive audience hungry for it. Feminist sex writer Suzannah Wess profiled their CEO Michelle Shnaidman at Bustle, opening her piece with, “It’s hard enough to find porn that isn’t totally degrading to women. And then, when you finally come across porn for women, it’s usually behind a paywall. There’s a good reason for this: It’s hard to produce porn ethically without charging customers. But Michelle Shnaidman, founder of Bellesa, has found a way to bring women porn they’ll actually enjoy without draining their bank accounts.”

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