Beyonce’s “Formation” can be described with two words: unapologetically black.
Images of black babies sporting their natural hair, lyrics such as “I got hot sauce in my bag (swag)”, and Beyonce atop a sinking New Orleans police car in what appears to be the wreckage of Katrina are what make that description a snug fit.
The scene that made tears well up in my eyes, however, was at 3:45 – a little black boy in a hoodie, clearly an homage to Trayvon Martin, dances, carefree and passionately, being,well, unapologetically black. But here’s the catch; he does this in front of a line of police officers, all standing at ease. When he finishes and throws his hands up gymnast-style, their hands fly up in surrender. This scene is immediately followed by footage of graffiti that reads:“Stop shooting us.”
Last night, Beyonce went even further. She made history when she brought this imagery to one of the most widely watched television events of the year: the Super Bowl 50 Half Time Show. Her live performance of “Formation” continued the theme of unapologetic blackness. Her costume was a tribute to one of the greatest performers in history, Michael Jackson, and her dancers mirrored the attire of the Black Panther army.
The line in the song that hits home the hardest for me as a black sex worker is “always stay gracious/ the best revenge is your paper.” It’s reminiscent of Missy Elliot’s “Work It,” where she spat, “get that cash/ whether it’s 9 to 5 or shaking your ass.” It acknowledges us black sex workers in a way we usually don’t experience in our community. Beyoncé has alluded to sex work positively before in lines such as “a diva is a female version of a hustler.” She’s come a long way from the rampant whorephobia in her earlier work (side eyeing “Nasty Girl” here).
In this fictional but all-too-real version of Southside, Chicago, the women of Chi-Raq, lead by Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), opt to withhold sex as a negotiating method to force an end to the gang related violence their men engage in. Lysistrata is inspired by the story of Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian woman who organized a sex strike amongst her peers to end a gruesome civil war. Her efforts were successful and earned her the Nobel Prize. The purpose of the Chi-Raq women’s strike is not so much to save their men from themselves as it is to bring a stop to the stray bullets that kill innocent children caught in the crossfire. These female revolutionists consider their responsibility to put children first an unwritten condition of womanhood. While Lysistrata herself is not a mother, her solidarity with them over her gang leader boyfriend, whom she loves, is powerful.
Is the labor of the Chi-Raq women’s strike itself a sort of sex work? As a sex worker myself, I have a very liberal definition of what falls under that (red) umbrella. I consider any situation where sex is used as a means of negotiation to be a form of sex work. Cash exchange is not a requirement. This definition can include negotiations between married couples or any suggestion of potential future sex to get what you want in the now—what some might call “flirting.” I understand this is a controversial opinion and an incredibly broad demarcation of sex work. But the reason I keep my definition of sex work so broad is because it normalizes the behavior. The more parallels I can draw between prostitution and sexual labor within civilian relationships, the weaker the arguments for intimate labor being an inherent evil become. This also means that when I work, I feel no guilt over avoiding terms such as “escort”—which would get me targeted by law enforcement—in favor of “sugarbaby” or “spoiled girlfriend”—even though nine times out of 10 they mean same goddamned thing, just without leaving me subject to the same legal implications.
The women of Chi-Raq considered themselves activists, and peaceful ones at that, but they still end up facing federal charges for their disruptive behavior. “Activists” sounds much better than “pissed off girlfriends.” There exists near infinite terminology to frame sexual negotiations depending on the conditions in which you negotiate. As the leader of this unconventional protest, Lysistrata is careful in navigating PR—it is her articulation of the dire circumstances in which the neighborhood lives, in addition to her resolve, that makes her a force to be reckoned with as opposed to being considered a joke, or worse, a terrorist. Different titles for the same actions produce vastly different outcomes.
Content warning: this piece contains general discussion of rape.
On his 29th birthday, December 10th, former Oklahoma City Police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who targeted low income, criminalized Black women and girls for sexual assault while on duty, was found guilty of 18 of the 36 charges brought against him. He now faces up to 263 years in prison when he is formally sentenced next month. His crimes were calculated and monstrous. But as uplifting as it is to hear his vindicated victims sing “Happy Birthday,” I can’t help but feel like the knife stuck six inches into my back has only been pulled out three inches.
Holtzclaw’s crimes are far from a rarity. The Associated Press reported that from 2009 to 2014, almost 1000 officers have been decertified or terminated due to sexual misconduct. A 2010 study published by the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project reported that sexual misconduct was the second most common form of police misconduct. The report also found “assault and sexual assault rates significantly higher for police when compared to the general population.”
Holtzclaw’s crimes were hardly covered by major outlets and that tepid coverage robbed me of any lasting feeling of accomplishment in his conviction. And according to prosecutors, Buzzfeed, the Daily Mirror, The New York Times, Jezebel, the Daily Beast, the Washington Post and many other publications, this rapist is behind bars because he “messed up“: he raped the “wrong” woman, Janie Ligons, a woman with no previous criminal record, no record of drug use or sex work—someone who felt free to report her rape. This woman was someone whose assault demanded an answer.
If Ligons is the “wrong” victim, then am I and hundreds of thousands of other Black sex workers the “RIGHT” victim? Historically speaking, in America, the answer is yes, and that terrifies me. It’s hard to puff out your chest and declare the Holtzclaw verdict proof of progress when he wouldn’t have been taken off the streets had Ligons not come forward. Ligons filed a civil suit against Oklahoma City prior to the criminal trial. She seeks damages based on the fact that Holtzclaw was already being investigated for sexual misconduct but was allowed to continue to patrol low income Black neighborhoods. At least one other woman, identified as TM, made a report to police previously that Holtzclaw assaulted her before Ligons was raped.
The author in a selfie with the Red Umbrella Project team. (Photo courtesy of Cherno Biko)
Every year since 1995, thousands of people all over the world have joined forces in an effort to end police brutality, repression, and the criminalization of our lives. In America, yesterday, October 22nd, has become known as the National Day to End Police Brutality. These efforts were launched by the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA and have historically focused on violence perpetrated against men.
As the developer of the hashtag #BlackTransLivesMatter and a national partner of the larger #BlackLivesMatter network, I must point out that the violence against folks like us manifests in many different ways and hits black cis and trans women the hardest.