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Jealousy Is Not An Excuse: Monogamous Norms and Partner Violence Against Sex Workers

(Image by antonia!, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)
(Image by antonia!, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

I am non-monogamous by choice, not just by de facto circumstance because of the fact that I am an escort. I live with one of my serious partners, and have a few other partners and sexy friends. I’ve never been suited to monogamy, and sex work has always played a role in that for me. When I was a baby sex worker and dancing at a sleazy club, my emotionally abusive boyfriend at the time asked me to quit, after initially telling me he was fine with it. His reasoning was that he just couldn’t stand the thought of me even flirting with other men. I quit quickly after that conversation, telling myself it was because I hated the work and not because of his jealousy. It was mostly because I didn’t want to lose him, though. He continued to abuse me after that, eventually forcing me to isolate myself emotionally from anyone other than him. His jealousy forced me to work jobs that were even less emotionally healthy for me than dancing at that club or PSOing and camming were. He used heteromonogamous norms to assert complete control over every aspect of my life. Eventually, I woke up and quit him for good. He retaliated by smashing out the windows on my car. I consider myself pretty lucky to have never been physically assaulted by him.

After that, I refused to have anything to do with anyone who felt they had any dominion over my sexual choices. I was in a couple of relationships that were monogamish in between then and now, but always with the understanding that I was free to have sex with whomever I pleased if the circumstances were right. Now I will only be in relationships with people who fully understand that I am my own person who makes my own choices, both sexually and emotionally. While I am not the sort of person to tell people what do with their lives or how to structure their relationships, I find the expectation that every relationship should be monogamous to be highly problematic.

Last week I awoke to the news of what happened to Christy Mack, the adult film star who was sexually assaulted, severely beaten and nearly killed by her ex-boyfriend, mixed martial arts fighter Jonathan “War Machine” Koppenhaver. According to a statement she released last Monday, she and a friend were attacked by Koppenhaver when he showed up at her house unannounced and found them there together. One part of her statement stuck out to me, and I’ve been thinking about it all week. In Mack’s words:

When he arrived, he found myself and one other fully clothed and unarmed in the house.

What really got me was the choice to state that her friend and she were fully clothed. This woman was assaulted by her ex to the point of being hospitalized in serious condition, and she still felt pressure to highlight the fact that Koppenhaver had not caught her in an act of sexual indiscretion. It shouldn’t matter; not only because he is her ex, it just shouldn’t ever matter. Catching someone having sex with someone else should never be an excuse to attack them.

The Second Shittiest Thing About Being Abused: Survivor Solidarity And Getting Out

Part of a piece in the Waiting Room/Domestic Violence Tableau at the Topeka Library (Photo by the Topeka Library, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)
Part of a piece in the Waiting Room/Domestic Violence Tableau at the Topeka Library (Photo by the Topeka Library, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

I actually didn’t know who Christy Mack was until I started seeing articles about her attack flying around the internet last week. But her story is one that is familiar to me. Intimately familiar.

I stripped for eight years, in a dozen clubs across New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, and Georgia. I met strippers who were also full service sex workers inside or outside the club, sugar babies, cam girls, and adult film stars. I’ve seen co-workers “graduate” into Playboy and Hustler. I’ve seen every combination of education, economic background, race, size, upbringing, parental status, and religion, so when I overhear non-sex-workers talking like we’re all a certain type, I can only laugh.

But one thing we all seem to have in common is an abuse story, either one of our own or of someone very close to us.

One thing I noticed early on in my career is that stripper locker room talk is brazen and honest. There is some high speed bonding that goes on over trays of eye shadow and half-finished drinks. As a more-or-less good girl going to state college on my parents’ dime, I was no stranger to boozy heartbreak stories, but stripper stories almost always went somewhere darker, faster. Without even knowing a co-worker’s name, I might hear the details of how her ex-husband broke into her house, or how she was borrowing a phone from another girl after receiving threatening texts from a stalker. I’ve had girls show me pictures of men on their phones with the warning, “If he shows up, tell the bouncer and come warn me. I don’t care if I’m in a VIP, just come tell me.”

There’s this recurring theme in our love lives a man will admire us for our independence and freedom, and of course, our money. We’ll thrive on the attention for a while and we’ll enjoy spoiling him with gifts or trips. Maybe he moves in because his roommates are irresponsible, or maybe we move in with him because we’re sleeping over all the time anyway. And then the fights start.

“Where the fuck were you until five in the morning?”

Don’t Hit Women Or Whores: Whorephobic Domestic Violence and Its Discontents

War Machine's rationalizations (Screenshot of War Machine's tweet)
War Machine’s tweeted rationalizations—note the number of retweets and favorites (Screenshot of War Machine’s Twitter feed)

“Don’t hit women or whores” reads an oh-so-helpful comment under one of the many reports of the brutal assault and attempted rape of porn actress and dancer Christy Mack by her ex partner, War Machine (formerly known as John Koppenhaver), this past week. And that’s one of the nice ones. Most of the not-nice ones start with “what did you expect?” and get worse from there. Koppenhaver himself seems to see his role in the attack as a tragic victim of fate, a “cursed” man who had hoped to be engaged to the woman he broke up with in May, whose house he broke into in August.

While, in the face of the graphic and horrific story that Mack released, Koppenhaver’s view seems woefully out of touch with reality, the truth is, he’s right to predict sympathy for himself. Assaulting a sex worker, especially one that you once deigned to be in a relationship with, is viewed as pretty understandable. Just by watching TV or using the internet (ever), how many hundreds of jokes and not-jokes did Koppenhaver encounter excusing and encouraging him to do just that? It might be tempting, for the sake of our views on the state of humanity, to label his on-the-run tweets as a disingenuous ploy for public understanding, but I believe it is the less likely explanation of the two. What reason have we to believe that Koppenhaver was special, that he was somehow immune to the prevailing cultural narrative about the worth of those who do sex work? Why wouldn’t he think of himself as a lamentable casualty of an unfair system?

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.

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.