Uptown Thief (2016)

by Caty Simon on October 20, 2016 · 1 comment

in Books, Reviews

uptown-thiefSlam poet and African American studies professor Aya de León’s new novel, Uptown Thief, is every activist sex worker’s fantasy: her protagonist Marisol Rivera is a women’s health clinic director by day and an escort agency manager and expert safe-cracker to fund that clinic for survival workers by night. True, any enterprising hooker who actually tried this would get her pet cause into very hot water. But reading about Marisol’s escapades teaming up with her escort employees to rob their rich clients’ friends, practicing some creative accounting to enter these “donations” on her books, is the next best thing to pulling it off yourself.

Though de León has never been a sex worker, she’s been open about her respect for her ex-stripper mother and her aunt’s sex work. Her book is stolidly pro-sex worker without being blandly sex positive, representing a spectrum of experiences in its characters’ diverse backgrounds of high end escorting, survival sex work, and trafficking and abuse survival. There’s even a Live Nude Girls Unite poster in the clinic’s office. There’s never any hint of judgement in the tone de León takes narrating these women’s lives, although occasionally a tinge of didactic respectability politics bleeds through in the novel’s focus on clinic entrepreneurship classes and grad student escorts. Still, a story in which every whore makes good is a refreshing change from our usual crime fiction fate of death or destitution.

De Leon does make some gaffes in describing the way the agency operates which demonstrate her lack of personal experience with the work. Marisol’s escorts dress up as delivery workers in order to get into fancy hotels (huh?). And the agency’s clients agree on every sexual act they’ll perform with her employees in advance with her over the phone—a good way to get arrested. But once I started reading the book as a wish-fulfillment vehicle instead of holding it up to an impossible standard of realism, I began to really enjoy it. Plus, de León doesn’t make as many bloopers writing about sex work practice as many other writers do, perhaps because she made a point of having sex worker consultants edit her early manuscript.

The author’s general pro-lumpenprole stance is very clear here. For example, Marisol’s ex-NYPD love interest, Raul, left the department after suing them for racial discrimination and confesses that his one major regret is becoming a cop. When he catches on to Marisol’s heists, he’s openly admiring, wishing he could be a barrio Robin Hood as well. de León depicts some of the dangers sex workers commonly face by making his white ex-partner a cop who extorted sex from workers with the threat of arrest. And, of course, one of the most reprehensible characters in the book besides the abusive pimp is a snooty billionaire financier client.

De León also exhibits her populism in the way she’s marketed the novel: she’s explained in interviews that she purposefully branded the book as a women’s urban crime novel, a la Zane and Sister Souljah, to make it accessible to as many kinds of readers as possible. Indeed, one activist I know told me that this genre represents the most requested (and sadly, least donated) books to the books for women prisoners program she works with.


{ 1 comment }

An image chronicling the history of the multi-year war on Backpage. (Photo by PJ Starr, 2012)

An image chronicling the history of the multi-year war on Backpage. (Photo by PJ Starr, 2012)

It’s happening again.

I remember the drop in my stomach as my browser opened on the homepage of MyRedBook in 2014 and I saw the emblems of the FBI, DOJ, and the IRS occupying a page which used to host an escort ad, review, and forum website used by thousands of providers across the West Coast. It was at that moment when I realized what the stakes in the war on sex trafficking truly were. Two years after Prop 35 passed in California, broadening the definition of trafficker to anyone “who is supported in part or in whole from the earnings of a prostitute”, and four years after the multi-year battle against Craigslist resulted in its Adult section being taken down, it was clear: sex workers’ ability to advertise online was going to be taken out from under us.

At the time, I worked at St. James Infirmary providing healthcare services to current and former sex workers. Over the next several months, I witnessed people being flung into economic turmoil. A lot of the community talked to me about going back into the street or going there for the first time. Others tried to pack into strip clubs, where their money was split by management, or focus on porn—also under attack by the state through Prop 60. Some people successfully moved their business onto other more costly or exclusive advertising platforms. And some people left the business altogether, either to new forms of income or to try to exist on the scraps of government support available to the unemployed.

I saw the closure of MyRedBook increase stratification within the industry, widening the gap between those sex workers able to appeal to the more elite clientele of other websites and those who had to move onto the street and deal with the violence of being outside.

Eventually, Backpage, relatively unused in the Bay Area prior to the RedBook seizure, garnered enough web traffic that it became the website for those of us who want to work independently and inside, but don’t have the body, gender, or class presentation desired by the majority of clients looking at websites such as Eros, Slixa, and Seeking Arrangements. It is especially utilized by folks living outside urban metropolises, where other advertising platforms, if they exist, are largely unused. TS Blair, a friend of mine who works in the South, says:

As a transgender woman working in a small city, BackPage is the only resource for sex work outside of the street for so many bodies. You go on Eros, it’s exclusively white cis women on there. If BackPage shuts down, so many of us will have nowhere else to go.

And now, in the wake of Backpage’s CEO Carl Ferrer being arrested Thursday on felony pimping charges, what does the future hold for sex workers dependent on Backpage for survival? While some are already established on other sites and venues or are able to float on their savings for a while, many are left waiting to see if their only source of income will disappear, eliminated by law enforcement hell bent on “rescuing” them.

The specifics of if, when, and how Backpage will be stripped of its erotic services section are unclear. Unlike MyRedBook and, more recently, Rentboy, Backpage has not been seized as a company. The company that owns the website, Atlantische Bedrijven CV, is based in Denmark, where prostitution is legalized. Civil liberties experts agree that in the US, the Communications Decency Act protects online service providers from being held liable for third party posts, and Backpage’s legal counsel told the Guardian that the site intends to fight what it calls “frivolous prosecution.”

Still, there is currently no substantial information available on the future of the website, so all there is to do is wait. The political landscape seems unfavorable, especially considering this week’s news about Rentboy CEO Jeffrey Hurant pleading guilty to charges of promoting prostitution. Many of us question what comes next.



Huniecam Studio (2016)

by Cassandra on October 6, 2016 · 2 comments

in Reviews

screenshot-2016-10-03-at-3-44-16-pmEvery time I play a video game that includes sex workers as characters, all I can think about is how great it would be to be seen as a person. Usually, sex workers in games are just toys for the player’s entertainment or tools to deepen the protagonist’s story. Either way, they’re only there intermittently, just a sordid element to add to the grittiness of the setting. I can count on one hand the number of games that spend significant time with a sex worker character, let alone games that portray a sex worker positively, let alone games that are specifically about sex workers.

HunieCam Studio is one of a kind, at least in the sense that it does center on sex workers. The premise is this: you’re the manager of a camgirl studio, and you have 21 days to gain a lot of fans and make a lot of money. Given that I have seen so few games starring sex workers, I was excited right away about this game, but I also knew going in that it was probably going to provide awful representation. Indeed, the store page for HunieCam Studio on Steam paints our profession as gross, mentioning “disgusting fans,” calling the operation “sleazy,” claiming that the camgirls have made “poor life choices,” and inviting the player to “abandon your morals and disappoint everybody who cares about you!”

Many gameplay elements in Huniecam feed directly into normalizing abusive management or at least looking down on workers. For example, the player can send their camgirls to do escorting sessions in a so-called “sleazy motel,” and if they send camgirl Lillian there, there’s a chance she’ll say the line “Like I have a choice!” There is also a chance that when her session is over, the player will get a message saying that she contracted AIDS if she did not bring a condom (not HIV—apparently, in this game, getting HIV first is not a thing) and her voice line in this situation is “Please kill me.”



(Via Flickr user Bjorn Soderqvist)

(Via Flickr user Bjorn Soderqvist)

I worked as a nanny, and in a daycare. (Twice! I worked in daycare twice!) Once, one of the Pre-K kids’ parents gave their five-year-old a laxative, no, I don’t know what they were thinking either, and I was called to remove the giant column of shit that ensued from the toilet. There was nothing else for it but to put on industrial size gloves and reach in and manually remove it.

So believe me when I tell you that I’ve dealt with a lot of literal shit in my day.

I dealt with it and moved on. And I thought that entering this new phase of my life as a hooker I would be leaving poverty and, with it, all the gross, sad things we deal with resentfully to stave off poverty behind. Like shit!

So you know the one thing I was not expecting to have to deal with as an adult, a very intelligent and charming and attractive paid companion for other adults?


And yet, the amount of times I have ended up dealing with shit—left on sheets, left on fingers, left caked on ass hairs—well, I’m sure you get the idea. 



boundaries2Dear Tits and Sass,

I’ve been a worker for around ten years now and have been full time for around the latter half of that. Navigating having a partner while being a worker is nothing new to me. However, I’ve been with my current partner for around a year and over the last few months I’ve started to worry about possible whorephobia and manipulation around my work.

A few of my regulars have become friends over the years, a few of whom I’d see socially (like going for dinner/drinks tagged onto a booking), communicate with socially (off topic chat and not just admin style arranging bookings kinda contact) and when this has happened, it’s been driven by me and stayed well within my comfort zone. But now, these long-term regs are backing off because I’ve created distance due to my partner’s difficulties around it, and I’ve not provided them with a solid reason why. I don’t know what to say to them other than being busy, but with no explanation a few of my crying manbaby clients have taken it personally and I’ve lost their custom!

I lost another client because activities happened during a session which were outside of what my partner and I had agreed (which was down to miscommunications and misunderstandings, rather than me deliberately ignoring anything that we’d agreed). The culmination of this happened when my partner had overheard something while I was seeing my client at my incall space, and didn’t like the sound of it so looked through the air vent to see what was happening.

I felt sick that she had been doing so without my prior consent, but obviously she was angry that I hadn’t respected our rules and it must’ve been a pretty tough way for her to find out. I heard doors slamming and told my client to wait a moment, and paused the booking to go and talk with her. I tried to calm the situation and said I would finish up with him so we could talk properly after. This wasn’t good enough, and she walked in on him, shouted at him, and then stormed out. I didn’t know what to do so I apologised, gave him his money back and then asked him to leave. Another regular lost.

Most of my clients are older gents but one is younger, and as such I adopt a more casual, familiar tone with him. My partner read through my work e-mails  and at first, said “I know it’s work, you’re flirting on the internet for money,” which felt accusatory but at least partially understanding. But later, she said that she didn’t like the way I spoke with him and she didn’t want me to see him anymore.

And then there’s my most frequent regular, who did become emotionally needy and made attempts at boundary pushing—but the situation was manageable and still worthwhile from my point of view. She genuinely felt he was dangerous and even though I wasn’t sure if I agreed or not, I did take her concerns seriously and I did stop seeing him.

Since I’d been working for so long, I’d almost built up enough regs to not need to screen for new clients—something I’d been working towards and hoping for, for quite some time! But now, it looks like my regs—newer and older—are where the issues lurk. I won’t stop being a worker for the sake of my relationship, but at the same time, I do want to respect her boundaries so that we can both feel safer and happier about it.

She considers me to be financially well off, and as such she thinks I’m secure enough to be able to cherry pick only the best or easiest bookings. I’m not doing survival SW, but I do flex my work practices around how much money I need at any given point. She struggles to comprehend why I see certain clients/permit certain activities when I “don’t have to”, and the only reason she can find is that I’m apparently greedy and money-obsessed. In reality, her comfort zone around SW is different to mine and on top of that, I’m far more of a workaholic. But when she is critical/questioning of certain things that I do with clients, it makes me feel like she’s being judgmental and whorephobic.

Ultimately I’m wondering if the issue is with her lack of trust in me, or if it’s to do with me being unreasonable in the way I work, or if it’s her being controlling and critical in ways that are unfair or even emotionally abusive. I do respect her right to tell me how she feels about my work, and I do want to accommodate her as much as possible, but when she gives me ultimatums then I worry that it’s gone too far.