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The Truth Will Come Out: An Interview With Jill Brenneman and Amanda Brooks

Bruises Brenneman sustained from one of the beatings she suffered at the hands of men hired by Isgitt. (Photo by Amanda Brooks via her blog, courtesy of Amanda Brooks and Jill Brenneman)
Bruises on Brenneman’s back from a beating she suffered at the hands of Isgitt’s hired men. (Photo by Amanda Brooks via her blog, courtesy of Amanda Brooks and Jill Brenneman)

Interview co-authored by Josephine and Caty

Content warning—the following contains descriptions of extreme injuries and rape suffered by two sex workers due to a campaign of violence by an abusive client, as well as an account of child abuse.

Jill Brenneman and Amanda Brooks are veterans and heroines of the sex workers’ rights movement.  As a teen, Brenneman suffered years of of brutal abuse in which she was coerced into working as a professional submissive. In the early aughts, Jill made an amazing conversion from membership in the prohibitionist movement to sex workers’ rights activism. She set up SWOP-EAST from the remains of an anti sex work organization she’d led. SWOP-EAST grew to be one of the most vital sex workers’ rights organizations of the era. Brenneman was also a frequent contributor to early sex workers’ rights blogs like Bound Not Gagged.

Amanda Brooks is the acclaimed author of The Internet Escort’s Handbook series, the first one of which she published in 2006. They served as an important resource for escorts advertising online back when there were few other how-to sources on the topic. She was also one of the earliest escort bloggers starting in 2005, writing entries brimming with eloquence and common sense at After Hours.

The two fell off the map recently.

When they returned, we were shocked to read Brooks’ blog post about what they’d endured: a campaign of terror by one of Brooks’ clients, affluent lawyer Percy LaWayne Isgitt. Isgitt—Brenneman and Brooks call him “Pig”—caused both Brenneman and Brooks severe brain injuries when his arrogance and negligence piloting a plane the three of them were in led to a catastrophic “hard landing.” Despite the fact that Brooks was clearly incapacitated and near death, Brenneman had to browbeat Pig into taking her to the hospital the next day. Once Brooks was checked in, Pig fraudulently signed in as her relative and attempted to control her treatment. Despite her still severely injured state, Brooks continued to see Pig as a client for two sessions after her hospitalization, in desperate need of money to pay for medical bills. When she finally tried to break ties with him, he hired people to make threatening phone calls to both women. In response, Brooks went into hiding, so Pig sent men to stalk, rape, and beat Brenneman on a number of occasions, trying to discover Brooks’ location. Neither the police, nor the many medical facilities that misdiagnosed them along the way, nor the personal injury lawyer they hired were any help to the two women against a deranged, abusive man with wealth and social capital.

The injuries Brenneman suffered from the plane crash combined with the injuries she sustained from the attacks led to the fatal exacerbation of her previous medical conditions. Her doctors have told her she has very little time left to live.

This story illustrates the insidious way institutions empower abusers to commit violence against sex workers. The only people they can often rely on in these situations are other sex workers. You can read the original account here and donate to their Giftrocket account using this email address: abrooks2014@hush.com. Donations will be shared equally between them to cover their respective medical costs.

Amanda, you write in your blog post, in reference to Jill’s past abuse:

To those who doubt, her stories are true. They’re things only men would think up and most of the time, it’s the mundane details that stand out the most to both of us. I’ve read stories from so-called trafficking victims who describe ridiculous “Satanic” rituals or elaborate set-ups. The truth is, the men who were Bruce’s [Jill’s captor’s] clients weren’t very bright, in my opinion, and they had a lot of the same stupid fantasies and beliefs that most vanilla clients do—only much darker and violent.

This factor plays into your story of how Pig hurt you both, too. There’s a voyeuristic undertone to the way people listen to stories of abuse. People expect the “elaborate set-ups,” and yet abuse is usually no different than other misbehavior in kind, if not in degree—abusers do it because they want to feel big, or because they care about themselves a lot more than they care about anyone else. How do you think the fact that often stories of abuse are mundane and banal makes it harder for victims to get help?

Jill Brenneman: People don’t want to believe the mundane stories, they want to believe the exotic stories. Like a wife who gets hit. Unless she’s put in the hospital, no one cares. Or she returns home because she has children. But the trafficking victim imported from Estonia gets all the attention.

Amanda Brooks: Because they’re too believable or not dramatic enough. [Pig] raped me twice, yet it’s not something most people acknowledge as rape. It even took me a while to realize that it was rape, despite how I felt about it. People like to parse situations down to the point where the only way it’s “real” is if it’s outlandish.

Jill, you were held captive by a sadist for three years in your teens, and forced to endure unimaginable abuse. As an adult you returned to sex work voluntarily to make a living, and then you went through this ordeal with Amanda at Pig’s hands. What unusual problems have you faced as a sex working abuse survivor? What can we do as a movement to make things better for the abuse survivors among us?

Jill: The ordeal that Amanda went through made me livid and still does.

Working as an abuse survivor led me to more abuse. I learned from [my captor and abuser] Bruce in the 80’s. Bruce was a cliche master sadist. There was never a sense of love or affection between him and I. I was an object. I did what I was was told. I was taught how to relate to clients. I overapplied this training as an adult. I willingly went back to work as a professional submissive. This was a place that I did not belong. Despite there being a 19 year gap between [my captivity and going back to] sex work, I did not belong in sex work —especially as a professional submissive. I needed the money to pay for very expensive subcutaneous blood thinners because of a clotting disorder. I needed to pay the rent, the car payment, food, care for the dog, etc. I took the work that came. I started off with two old pictures of myself, no website, no reviews, and took some pro-sub clients to make money when it was tight. I did not belong in sex work. I was still far too impacted from previous abuse to be doing it but I had no choice, I needed the money.

The most important thing the movement needs to do is work on decriminalization so that we have options.

Amanda: The movement truly doesn’t have the power to deal with this, unfortunately. Until the laws are changed, we never will.

We’re Not Crazy For Doing This: Sex Workers With Mental Illness

“Patients Waiting To See A Doctor, With Figures Representing Their Fears” by Rosemary Carson (via wikimedia)

Most people have some form of a lurid narrative about drugs, exploitation, childhood abuse, and mental illness come to mind when they imagine the life of a sex worker. However, sex workers’ relationships to their identity are far more complex and difficult to characterize than that trite narrative allows for. When it comes to sex workers who do live with the stereotypical trope of also having a mental illness, it becomes even more essential to uncover what these sex workers themselves have to say about their lived experiences of that mental illness and sex work.

People diagnosed with mental illness frequently have their decisions invalidated and undermined by the dominant culture. Many individuals who do not have much experience with mental illness will attribute any socially unacceptable behaviors to “mental illness.” In much the same way, people who have never been in the sex industry tend to sideline the decisions of sex workers by inferring that trauma or abuse must have predestined them to a life in the sex industry. When people who are neither mentally ill nor in the sex industry say these things, they are robbing us of our ability to exert agency.

Amber, a full-service worker from Washington DC, states, “I very strongly believe that the way that society treats sex workers, mentally ill people and other marginalized communities (that often intersect)…[is] based on kyriarchal/patriarchal, colonialist, and capitalist systems of control. In order to treat marginalized people better, I think we all have a lot of work to do regarding the unlearning of certain stigmas and stereotypes.”

The presence of stigma is one the key aspects of institutional violence keeping communities and individuals subjugated. It proliferates because it benefits those in power in this way. Stigma creates legal and moral justifications for the criminalization of sex work in America. It also creates an environment in which mentally ill people can be stripped of their rights through court-ordered institutionalization, coerced medication, and the assignation of relatives as proxies to control them legally and financially. The disqualification of the decision-making abilities of communities on the margins is a weapon of the oppressor.

Tara Johnson, a stripper from Portland, Oregon, elaborates on the ways in which decision making can be invalidated based on association with the sex industry, especially if one also has a diagnosis of mental illness: “Just because I’m (sometimes) crazy, doesn’t mean I’m wrong. My sex work was not me acting out, or indulging in yet another form of self-harm. It was nothing that entitles people to belittle my full humanity. It’s nothing that automatically means that mentally ill sex workers, especially ones who may have other issues too (drug use, etc.) should automatically be deprived of the rights that privileged, able-bodied civilians are entitled to.”

Sex work is not a dysfunctional behavior stemming from our disease. Rather, it is often the best choice we can make to adapt to our mental illness. In truth, many people with mental illness find sex work helpful in a variety of ways as an occupational choice. It gives us a less rigorous schedule which allows for more emotional instability. Sex work can also affirm us as something we can excel at when mental illness has hindered our success in more traditional pursuits.

Bareback: Re-Opening The Dialogue On Safer Sex In The Age of U=U

Bareback sex feels fucking amazing.

I know, we’re not supposed to talk about that. We’re not supposed to talk about bareback fucking without following it up with that ubiquitous “but use a condom!” statement. However, many communities face significant barriers to condom use and have very legitimate reasons for foregoing them—and these are the communities whose voices have largely been excluded from broader conversations defining “safe sex.”

That’s a big problem. As harm reductionists and sex educators, we can’t talk openly about what people are really doing behind closed doors. We aren’t supposed to legitimize sex without a condom as an option, or rather, we aren’t supposed to acknowledge that it may be the only option for many marginalized people. And that’s exactly the kind of dishonesty that allows HIV stigma to proliferate.

As an HIV counselor and longtime public health activist, as well as an ex-sex worker and IV drug user, I want this attitude to change. We need to re-open the conversation around what safe sex means in America and internationally, because while condoms can be an excellent means of STI protection, they are by no means a realistic option for every person in every situation. And sex workers in particular need to be involved in this conversation, since it is the most marginalized groups among us—drug-using sex workers, sex working trans women, street workers, sex workers of color, and people who fit into many or all of the above categories—who most often find ourselves in situations in which providing bareback services is our only option if we want to make a living.

Sex Workers: YOU CAN AND SHOULD REQUEST PANDEMIC RELIEF

Eleanor Roosevelt at SheSheShe Camp for Unemployed Women in Bear Mountain, New York. (photo via wikicommons)

So we’re about a month into strip clubs being shut down. Before that, most in-person sex workers had already been worried about the potential of getting or spreading COVID-19 (the illness caused by the coronavirus) at work, and probably noticed a significant dip in business. Most times we’d be SOL when it comes to accessing unemployment benefits, since save for dancers at a handful of strip clubs, we’re not employees on payroll. But that changed when Congress passed the CARES Act in March, which expanded unemployment benefits to independent contractors.

There have been a lot of misleading screenshots and headlines implying that sex workers are excluded from pandemic relief. While it’s true that some adult entertainment businesses are theoretically excluded from the Small Business Administration’s disaster loans, sex workers as workers are just as eligible for stimulus payments and the expanded unemployment assistance that’s out there as any worker. Even if you’ve been operating as a business, you’re eligible as a sole proprietor to apply for unemployment now (Unfortunately, that only goes for citizens and permanent residents. If you are an undocumented worker in need of help, there are a lot of sex worker mutual aid funds that are prioritizing workers who can’t access government aid. Here are a few lists of those funds and resources for finding help. This COVID-19 resource post from Kate D’Adamo on Slixa also has information on other types of help available for all workers, as well as some myth busting on those Small Business Administration loans—you can still apply, and though there’s a chance you’ll be denied, you might just get it. “The definition of that term [“prurient sexual performance”] is based on the application of what’s called the Miller obscenity test,” D’adamo writes, “and a lot of things are actually fine – sex shops, sex educators, probably even strip clubs. Where it gets trying is anything involving the internet, because of competing court decisions that the Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in on.” D’adamo also notes that the whole process is a “clusterfuck” because banks don’t have enough information from the Fed to process applications, and “no one’s getting shit from anyone anytime soon, prurient sex-related or not.”)

There are two main types of assistance for individuals available: The one-time $1200 ($2400 for married couples and an additional $500 per child) Economic Impact Payments from the federal government, and the expanded unemployment benefits that cover the self-employed. Unemployment benefits are administered at the state level, so you’ll need to find your state’s unemployment website to start a claim. Maybe you’ve heard that the pandemic levels of unemployment have swamped unemployment claims? It’s not a great process to begin with, and having to revamp the whole deal hasn’t gone quickly or smoothly. But it’s a good idea to go ahead and start on the process. Supposedly workers will be able to get back payments, so try to get records of everything you can dating back to when you had to stop working due to the pandemic.

Here’s how to get started.

Dungeon or Psych Ward?: A Crazy Whore Explains It All

photo by Alex Colby
photo by Alex Colby

Being a crazy whore is kind of like being the meanest dog at the pound: out of all of the rejects, you’re the least wanted, and your very existence makes your peers look bad. I say this from experience. I used to work at a pound, and I’m definitely a bitch (HEY-O). I’m also a crazy whore—a pro-switch with disabling, medication-resistant Major Depression, to be precise.  Society has made clear to me that it would prefer if I were euthanized, and a lot of folks within the disability rights and sex workers rights communities don’t want me around either. I give credence to some of the most persistent, prejudiced assumptions people in each group encounter.  Namely, that women with mental illnesses are sexually promiscuous damaged goods, and sex workers are mentally unhealthy damaged goods. What better way to argue against those stereotypes than to deny the existence of those of us who fulfill them?

And there are a lot of us, more than most folks realize. We frequently stay closeted about one or both of these marginalizations, partly because we may lack the physical energy or emotional stamina to brazenly insert ourselves into the activist communities that dislike us. I rarely mention to other people with disabilities what I do for work, and I am equally reluctant to test the reactions of fellow sex workers by discussing my experiences as a crazy ho. Just the idea of walking into a sex worker empowerment meeting and telling everyone that I’m doing this job because I’m too nuts to work full time and I kind of hate it, makes me feel exhausted.

Exhaustion is also why a lot of disabled sex workers don’t work independently. Houses, agencies, clubs, and brothels take on more of the workload associated with sex work, such as finding clients and providing space and security. But houses, agencies, clubs, and brothels are also (usually) more concerned with profit than with their employees’ well being, so you’re likely to find that more agency girls hate their jobs. People who hate their jobs don’t often organize around that identity, which is another reason disabled sex workers lurk in the shadows.

It can get pretty dark hiding out in here. That’s why I like to liven the mood sometimes with some equally dark humor.