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The Erasure of Maya Angelou’s Sex Work History

A young, beautiful Maya Angelou with Langston Hughes, not long after her career as a sex worker—guess she didn't think his joke was that funny? (Photo via mayaangelou.com)
A young, beautiful Maya Angelou with Langston Hughes, not long after her career as a sex worker—guess she didn’t think his joke was that funny? (Photo via mayaangelou.com)

As Black History Month draws to a close, we thought revisiting Peech’s seminal essay on Maya Angelou would be appropriate. 

Dr. Maya Angelou, American Poet Laureate, most famous for authoring I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, passed away at age 86 on May 28th, 2014. Her literary agent Helen Brann confirmed the news to press, and thus began a worldwide outpouring of grief. The top trending tag on Twitter was “RIP Maya Angelou” and, at the time of this writing, it is one of four Maya Angelou-related trending hashtags. She is hailed as a national best selling author, a genius, a spiritual God-, Grand-, and mother. She is lauded as everything Black women should aspire to emulate in life. So why is it very few of us know she was a sex worker in her youth? Why is it, even in her death, as in her life, it’s such a guarded secret? Why was this secret kept by seemingly everyone except Dr. Angelou herself?

We can, once again, boil it down to respectability politics and stigma. I am angry about it. I find myself ruminating, considering, wondering: If her work had been talked about as much as her dancing with James Baldwin or even her considerable, commanding, and lovely height of six feet, what would the sex work community look like today? If we had talked about her wonderful compassion for sex workers, how she never looked down on them, and her refusal to be intimidated by invasive and obnoxious questioning about her sex working past, what would sex workers around the world be saying today in memory of her life?

Instead, we read post after post, obituary after tribute, calling her a “pimp” and saying she had “an unsuccessful stint as a prostitute.” The most detailed accounts currently online are making sure to emphasize that she spent a “brief stint,” a “short time” in the sex industry, so as to, without explicit words, solidify the shame they believe she should have felt, the shame we should feel as well. The media uses inflammatory terms to get clicks and to emphasize the terrible and shameful secret that was, in actuality, never a secret at all.

Dr. Angelou herself says she was never ashamed.

The Stormy Daniels Effect: When Prostitutes Unite, Powerful Men Tremble

(via wikimedia)

It is now public knowledge that President Donald Trump’s attorney allegedly paid porn actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 for something. Although Daniels has, in the past, made mention of an affair with Trump, she now coyly denies it. On Jimmy Kimmel, she once again subtly suggested that the affair did indeed take place, holding a puppet of herself with tape over its mouth—a rather obvious testament to the ways that she has been gagged from speaking about the matter.

Whether the pair engaged in sexual activities or not, there is an undeniable connection between sex workers and rich, powerful men.

After all, seeing a sex worker implies a degree of economic freedom. That politicians in the United States tend to be rich, powerful men is perhaps a different conversation entirely, but it is not hyperbole to say that sex workers in this country have the capacity to ruin these men, but not for the reasons most might think. Indeed, the claim that sex workers can ruin rich, powerful men in this country is a loaded statement, particularly if “ruinous” is defined as simply holding onto kinky secrets.  

The Eros Raid Means None of Us Are Safe

Three days ago, Eros-Guide’s call center in Youngsville, North Carolina, was raided by the Department of Homeland Security. On Tuesday morning at 10:30 AM, a dozen black government vehicles converged on parent company Bolma Star Service’s office and data center, beginning a search and seizure operation that would last into the night. They confiscated computers, documents, and servers. The search warrant is sealed in federal court, with officials offering no comment on the investigation besides the fact that it is an active investigation. All DHS agents will say is that they are often assigned to crossborder cases involving money laundering, cybercrime, and human trafficking. So we have no idea what their probable cause even is. No arrests have been made yet, or charges filed. But collectively, we sex workers shudder with that familiar fear: we’re witnessing yet another instance of an ominous multi-year pattern, from Craigslist to MyRedBook to Rentboy to Backpage, of our advertising platforms being raided or pressured out of existence.

Once again, some of us are left in desperate suspense, waiting to see if our business models are about to be disrupted; if we’re going to be left in economic turmoil. Sure, eros.com and the other Eros subsidiary sites are still up for the moment, but how secure are they to conduct business over now?

Over the past few years, Eros has required progressively more revealing ID checks in order to confirm advertisers are of age. Now those IDs, including those of migrant and undocumented sex workers, are in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security. Sure, if they use this evidence at all, the feds will probably just focus on those of us they can construe as traffickers—sex workers who own incalls for the use of other sex workers, for example. There’s probably no reason for most Eros users to panic about this. Still, having your real name, address, and ID number in the hands of DHS is a nightmare scenario in a profession where our survival depends on our anonymity.

When it comes down to it, though, as many Eros workers pointed out on social media, they’re more worried about being homeless than about the government having that information.

The rest of us look on with empathy, knowing that any day, we could be next. We all try not to think about how tenuous and transitory our ways of doing business are so that we can go through our days without feeling the paralyzing economic terror hitting many of us now. But when something like this happens, it’s difficult to avoid that hard fact.

When Backpage caved to government pressure and shut down its adult ads earlier this year, some middle and upper class escorts felt immune. They felt that the higher prices they were charged for ads on Eros and Slixa meant they were paying for security. They acquiesced to the ID checks those services innovated, trading in their anonymity for the hope that now their advertising platforms couldn’t be accused of trafficking minors the way Backpage has been. (Not that the ID submissions weren’t foisted upon them as one of an array of very few options.) But now that Eros has been hit, our higher end counterparts must recognize that none of us are safe. No matter what security measures we take, no matter how many layers of privilege might mitigate our grey market or black market status, at any point, criminalization can strip us of all of them and leave us economically and legally exposed.

We Deserve Better: Reflections On The War On Backpage

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 the Netherlands, 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.

The Right To Survive: The Case of Alisha Walker

Alisha Walker. (Courtesy of Sherri Chatman)
Alisha Walker (Courtesy of Sherri Chatman)

by Brit Schulte and Cathryn Berarovich of the Support Ho(s)e Collective 

Alisha Walker was just 20 years old when she had to defend herself against a client who was drunk and violent. She was 22 when she was convicted of second degree murder and 15 years in prison for defending both her own life and the life of a friend who was also on the scene. She is now 23 years old and behind bars at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois, seeking new legal representation and awaiting an appeals process.

In January 2014, Alisha Walker and a close friend of hers went to Alan Filan’s house in Orland Park, a Chicago suburb, to do a double session with Filan. Walker had seen Filan at least twice, and she had not screened him through any online resources. Afterwards, Walker told her mother that she immediately knew something was different about Filan this time. He was heavily intoxicated and very aggressive. He insisted that Walker’s friend didn’t look like her photos in the Backpage advertisement. When the two women refused to have unprotected sex with him, he threatened them with a knife. Walker was able to wrestle the knife from Filan and stab him several times, saving her own life and the life of her friend.

Alisha Walker, like many of us, comes from an average working class family, while her clients, like Filan, are mostly well-off and well-connected. Filan’s brother William Filan is a high-paid lobbyist whose clients have included the city of Chicago and JP Morgan Chase. His sister Denise Filan is a judge in the third subcircuit of Cook County.

Even Alan Filan himself was covered in a veneer of respectability, a seemingly-upstanding community member who taught at Brother Rice Catholic High School. It was easy for the media to portray Filan as a good man, rather than the violent aggressor he was, despite his tendency to be a mean, misogynistic drunk. Our efforts to screen his e-mails revealed multiple accounts of sex workers listing him as a bad client, cautioning against booking sessions with him. Even the articles most sympathetic to his memory recount his casual verbal abuse of the young soccer players whom he coached.

Walker was held in Cook County without bond for over two years while the media sensationalized the death of her attacker with wildly differing accounts of how many stab wounds he’d actually suffered, going so far as to include hesitation marks among the mortal wounds. Accounts of the stab wounds numbered from 10 to 14 in news articles, though the coroner’s report lists 14 hesitation marks and only two mortally inflicted wounds. Walker’s account of Filan’s drunkenness was confirmed by toxicology reports showing Filan’s blood alcohol content registered at a 0.208 when he was found days after his death.

Filan was remembered as a flawed but lovable man, brutally murdered. Walker, however, was never spoken about as a human being, the devoted big sister and caring and outgoing young woman her mother describes her as. Media outlets covering the story rarely mentioned that she had seen Filan at least twice without incident before he attacked her. Nor did they remark on the fact that she saved her own life and that of another woman’s in the face of Filan’s assault. There were at least 20 Backpage ads printed out on Filan’s desk, but the media often omitted this detail in their stories on the case. Nor did most articles on Walker address rumors that Filan was a habitual client of sex workers, and often (as Chicago sex worker screening sources record) was not respectful of the workers he saw.