Content warning: this piece contains accounts of child sexual abuse and violence against a sex working minor as well as discussion of structural violence.
I spent my teen years selling sex on the internet. I grew up on the Craigslist Erotic Services section, finding men who would pay me for something I didn’t take seriously because I’d been robbed of the chance to do so. I’d been raped at 12 by my next door neighbor after months of molestation, and subsequently passed around the neighborhood to two other perverts. One was an Albanian fella who definitely sold women, and he could have ended up trafficking me as well. In hindsight, my luck has been insane.
Cyntoia Brown’s story feels too close to home. Brown killed one of her abusers at the age of 16. When I was 16, I met a man on Yahoo Personals who seemed nice. After a four hour session, he didn’t want to pay. He kicked me out of the house and I had to find my way home. He could have killed me, and I thought he would, because he grabbed me so hard to throw me out. That session could have been my last, and no one would have been the wiser. If I’d been abducted, my mom would have been looking for a ghost; she had no idea what I was doing.
I am excited to see more and more gentlemen’s club/exotic dancers taking this business seriously enough to take matters into their own hands. I think for far too long those of us in the adult entertainment industry have gotten engulfed in the socially acceptable invalidation of stripping as actual work, so that we’ve allowed ourselves to neglect so many of the labor violations, discrimination, and downright illegal actions by management, patrons, and staff that just couldn’t fly in other legal businesses.
I remember seeing dancers getting sexually and physically assaulted by patrons, while the bouncers employed because our naked bodies afforded them that job would do absolutely NOTHING. I recall one time a patron ejaculated on my ass as I gave him a standing lap dance at the bar. I went to the bouncer on duty at the time. He shrugged his shoulders and dismissed me.
The male staff who were employed by the club as stage managers or bouncers were also known to sexually violate us. Although they were employed by the same space we all occupied at the same damn time, they felt they were entitled to free feels and who knows what else from the dancers. If it was a nice day, they’d just insult you for even working in such a grimy industry.
Then there was the highway robbery in fees the club would charge the dancers who were coming in there to work—i.e., bring the establishment business. When I was in the game in the 90s, house fees were only just being implemented. They went from $5 to $20 in what seemed a matter of weeks.
Public perception often shapes law and policy, and vice versa. Without legal precedent or social acceptance we become prey to shoddy business practices.
I was 17 years old when I entered the clubs. I started with Al’s Mr. Wedge in the Bronx. It was the club I worked at exclusively then for a few reasons: Another club, The Goat, was closed by the time I got in the game. And besides, the legendary talk around this club sounded as if it was just too much for my bougie ass. For some reason, I just didn’t like Golden Lady, because its size and structure intimidated me.
And all my attempts at auditioning at clubs like Sue’s Rendezvous and whatever the name of the juice bar near Dyre Ave proved fruitless. I was too dark.
I recall once I went into Sue’s with a friend of mine, this mixed chic by the name of Jackie. Tall, light skinned, sorta looking like a young Mariah Carey, she was half White and Black. I went into Sue’s with her with the confidence that I would be allowed to dance in another club and increase my chances of making money. Young and naive, it didn’t dawn on me that when they told me Jackie could audition and I couldn’t it was the result of discrimination against my complexion.
Jackie ended up working at the high-end clubs in the city. Me and my Black ass had to keep it gutter and stay where they were not too picky.
I want people to stop being surprised that racism, colorism, and other biases against womxn (and Black people/or anyone with “dark” skin) exist. Determining who is worthy of making a living can be as superficial as how far from Whiteness they appear to be.
Recently, Blac Chyna has been relegated to being nothing more than a sex worker by opponents and supporters alike, people who reference her “finesse” and gloss over the abuse she’s suffered, reinforcing a dangerous narrative. Her humanity and her role as a mother are edited out of the persona people are now creating for her, as if being a sex worker makes those things less authentically part of her.
Blac Chyna is a mother who left her abusive partner Rob Kardashian several times in the last few months, and had his abuse of her play out in the court of public opinion. She happens to have been a stripper, a model, a sought-out video vixen, and a business owner of multiple companies not related to sex work, so to reduce her to a one-dimensional caricature of a sex worker strips her of every bit of her life off the pole.
Men are resources regardless of your occupation. Cis men come with access to respect, personal safety, often a degree of financial stability, and societal power that women are so often denied. To comment on what Blac Chyna was or wasn’t given during her relationship with Kardashian and cite it as the only reason she stayed exhibits a myopic and biased view of a person who engages in sex work. All people can benefit from proximity to men, proximity to whiteness, and the combined resources of both identities. That’s not exclusive to sex workers. Furthermore, financial abuse is often a tactic used by abusers, especially ones of Rob Kardashian’s means, and we can’t ignore that he got even more generous with his gifting once she started leaving him. We can’t blame her for being pulled into a cycle of abuse, and we shouldn’t keep running score of what women and femmes receive in a relationship as a ledger of emotional and physical debt they owe to the provider, regardless of their occupation.
I first became aware of Blac Chyna when friends would tag me in posts of a trailer video for Kardshian and Chyna’s then-upcoming reality show, Rob and Chyna, in which Chyna screamed into her phone at Kardashian: “Are you still texting bitches, yes or no?!” It was supposed to illustrate how possessive and mentally unstable she was. All I saw was someone responding to a deep lack of trust in their relationship and obviously being emotionally tormented by their partner’s actions. I felt her pain and empathized with her reactive search for reassurance from the one causing it. Sis knew he was talking to other women as sexual interests and she had just lost her first child’s father, Tyga, to his pedophilic interest in her current partner’s teenage sister, Kendall Jenner. I didn’t see anything funny to laugh at in that trailer video.
Editor’s note: All references to “Bambi” and “#FreeBambi” below only refer to Lily Fury’s fictitious and stolen persona. There is a real Bambi out there who deserves our respect and consideration.
It’s 3:45 PM Eastern Standard Time and, thankfully, I’m off work from my job at a grocery store—this means, just like on any given, average day off, I’d be able to enjoy my day how I would like: writing, playing X Box, binge watching Netflix, whatever floats my boat, really. That was my plan today—until I clicked around online to find out more about #FreeBambi and if we had enough extra money in our checking account to be able to donate today.
Listen: for over 15 years now, I’ve been involved in the sex trades in one way or another. For the last three years, although I’ve been officially retired from sex work, I still write, think, and talk about it often. I donate quietly and as often as I can to whatever crowdfund or offering plate passing I see on social media or hear about from friends. I send and receive plenty of love from friends who are or have been in the business. In short, it’s very much still a part of my life and, if I were to have talked to you yesterday, “it will always be a part of my life,” is absolutely something I would have said—with no trace of irony present.
I loved sex work. I loved how I was able, while living with PTSD and depression, to provide for myself and have a life. I loved how I was able to choose when I could work and not worry about being terminated or written up if I called in sick—hell, there’s no calling in sick in sex work, there’s just… not working today. I loved being able to work as far as my energy would take me while still honoring my body and spirit—and also knowing if I didn’t have it in me, it was ok. I loved it—and still some days miss it. I miss working hard, making my own rules, setting my own boundaries, and using the tool of my desirability (as perceived by others) to craft a life for myself. It feels funny now, to say “I loved sex work.” I never thought I would say that, but here at 37 years old, it rings true and authentic for me—and it’s an important part of what I’m about to say next, because I did truly love the work of it.
What I never loved and have never made bones about is, well, pretty much everything else. I never loved the sex of it, the struggle and poverty, the sexism, the weight (and fat) shame and abuse, the open and safe space for pedophiles and predators, the lies and lying, the homophobia and discrimination, or the racism, gaslighting about racism, and justification of racism of it. I never loved being part of an industry where I knew that, simply because of the arbitrary, human notion of race, I would never be able to live the full life I’d dreamed of in that space. I figured out through talking with other Black and Latina sex working friends—this wasn’t an imaginary ship I was sailing, and I wasn’t alone in it. We were all together in it: full service girls who were turned away from brothels because “We already have a Black girl,” or dancers who, no matter how high they flew in tricks or how hard they twerked on the floor, could rarely (unless they were in a predominantly urban space and a wealthy party showed up—which is once in a very blue moon) make enough money to afford paying nightly/weekly fees to work at the clubs. Full service outside girls who dealt with rapes and sexual assaults by cops—knowing they could never report because they would never be believed (or worse, they’d be targeted later) because Black women are often considered both hypersexual and undesirable and, thus, un-rape-able. I never loved those parts of it, and today, while we talk about racism, the sex industry, and Black women who are sex workers, we need to talk about how #FreeBambi has a role in it.
[Content warning: this piece includes general discussion of rape and domestic violence.]
Maybe every rich little white girl should auction off her virginity in support of Amnesty International, the way Abigail Carlson (Kathryn Newton), teenage daughter of HBO’s Big Little Lies protagonist Madeline Mackenzie, proposes to do.
Abigail’s plot line gained little more than an eye-roll in popular analysis lauding the mini-series as a vision of female solidaritytelling a vital story about abuse. Initially, I would tend to agree that Abigail’s pursuit of justice for child sex slaves is nothing more than a pulpy side-line trotted out for shock value. After all, Big Little Lies is famed prime time soap opera producer David E. Kelley’s project. And, as the perennially popular Law & Order: SVU franchise demonstrates, narratives exploiting child sex trafficking victims are reliable fodder for ratings.
But Big Little Lies deserves a more subtle read. Everything about it is meticulously intentional, from the melancholy pop soundtrack to the pristine landscape of the surf, suggesting sinister undercurrents to all that is pretty on the surface of the idyllic Monterrey community setting. The show was adapted from a book of the same name by Liane Moriarty published in 2014. Kelley was necessarily selective about which elements from the 460-page novel made it to television. Notably, Bonnie Carlson’s backstory1was not included in the series, nor was there a broader exploration of her character development as there was in the book. Her identity was also changed from a white woman in the novel to a Black woman in the series—the only significant Black character in the series—and the setting was relocated from Australia in the book to the upper-class U.S. coastal community of Monterey on-screen. Rather than treating these as auteurial afterthoughts, these changes are better understood as instrumental choices in adapting the central point of the work for television.