“I was never accused of having done anything wrong, but rather I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”—Paul Davis
“What’s the difference between a hooker and a politician? There’s some things a hooker just won’t do.”—an old joke I first heard from a lobbyist
Regardless of your opinion on reproductive justice, single-payer health care, or self-employment taxes, there’s someone running for office who will reflect that position. No viable candidate, however, supports sex worker rights. When it comes to the sex industy, a candidate need only be sex worker-adjacent to be subject to a vicious attack, no matter his party. Sex workers truly have no friends in major party politics in the United States (sure, Libertarians, in theory, but once they decide to run as Republicans they tend to neatly pull back on select issues of personal choice). This election year’s sex work-adjacent scandals are pathetically unimportant and an indication of campaigns that are desperate for distractions. One deals with a 15-year-old raid on a strip club; the other with a state-run jobs website that “accidentally” listed some adult-industry jobs. One’s a Republican attacking a Democrat; the other’s a Democrat attacking a Republican.
“What’s your real name?” is the question most commonly asked of strippers. The second? “How much money do you make?” There have been quite a few articles written on the subject of stripper income, and the most recent ones all seem to cite one University of Leeds study, a stripper named Menagerii’s Reddit pic of her best haul ever, and several months of income tracking that I posted on my blog which generated a bit of conversation.* Pretty scant resources. There’s also the occasional boomtown news article that suggests there’s a pot of gold up for grabs by women willing to undress in whatever city is most recently the site of oil drilling or a large sporting event.
Recently, ABC News ran a segment on college students who dance to pay tuition. In that segment, this well-spoken and good looking gal named Maggie claimed to make $180,000 a year dancing on the weekends. Because I once shared my monthly income with the internet, Huffington Post writer Arin Greenwood e-mailed me while she was working on this story to ask if Maggie’s figure seemed reasonable. I told her anything was possible, although that number was high. But more importantly, I wanted to know why everyone was so interested in how much strippers make.
Of course, if you are reading the New Inquiry, chances are you’re not being sex trafficked; if you’re a sex worker, chances are you’re a grad student or a writer or maybe an activist—a highly educated woman who has other options and prefers this one. And that is where things get tricky. Because in what other area of labor would leftists look to the elite craftsman to speak for the rank and file? You might as well ask a pastry chef what it’s like to ladle out mashed potatoes in a school cafeteria. In the discourse of sex work, it seems, the subaltern does not get to speak.
The problem is not that the subaltern was not getting to speak, but that Pollitt was unable to listen because of her own ideas about how trafficking victims should present. We asked Tara, the author of the quiz, to respond.
On April 2nd I was at the Freedom Network’s Human Trafficking Conference in San Francisco speaking to a group of law enforcement and service providers about how to do outreach to people who are trafficked in to the commercial sex trade. I was there as part of a federal program designed to offer the experience and expertise of sex trafficking victims like myself with the goal of improving services to other sex trafficking victims. The other survivor presenting and I both had extensive experience as youth involved in the sex trade, as adult sex workers, and as social service providers. We spoke of our experiences with law enforcement and service providers and made recommendations to those present about how they could best provide outreach to sex trafficking victims.
At the end, the facilitator flipped through our feedback forms and laughingly told us that one person thought that our presentation hadn’t been about sex trafficking at all. Apparently there are rules for being a good victim: 1. Victims should cry 2. They should talk about horrible things done to them by criminals, but not by the police 3. They should not have opinions, and 4. If they do have opinions, they should present themselves as traumatized enough so that those opinions are easily discountable. If victims don’t behave this way, their status as victims can be called into question.
Last week in Cleveland, Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, and Amanda Berry escaped from Ariel Castro’s “house of horrors” where he imprisoned the women in a nightmare of rape and torture for almost a decade. Castro has been arraigned on four charges of kidnapping and three charges of rape. The courageous women escaped with the help of Charles Ramsey, a neighbor who broke into the home after hearing Berry’s screams. A charismatic man, Ramsey became an instant celebrity after declaring he knew “something was wrong” when he saw that a “pretty little white girl ran into the arms of a black man.”
Everything about the Cleveland kidnapping case—from Ramsey’s critique of race to the captive women’s histories of abuse—has stirred important conversations about domestic abuse, sexual abuse, police incompetence, and race. Unsurprisingly, for those of us who follow trafficking hysteria, it’s also inspired a lot of talk about sex trafficking.
The Onion posted a story last Wednesday headlined “Stripper Thinks Customer Flirting With Her.” You can get the gist of it from the headline; it is funny for the first, most obvious reason, but also because it’s a little true and sometimes strippers do think customers see them as human. While increasingly vicious as its satire becomes reality at a depressing pace, The Onion is more often than not gentle towards strippers. While we normally have more unfunny shit anti-stripper humor to rant about than not, we also enjoy pointing out examples of stripper and strip club-based humor that don’t rely completely on dehumanizing or mocking us. I’m sorry to kill all the funny by talking about it, but to crib from a Flann O’Brien quote I just read in a discussion of satire, we’ll chance it. For once, it’s nice to read humor about strippers that doesn’t joke about us as dead bodies, talk about our deadbeat boyfriends, or play on our assumed lack of parental supervision.
The main trick The Onion utilizes is taking an accepted stripper artifice and running with it to an absurd literal conclusion. This contrasts with their mode of treating a non-event as a news story; for instance, Stripper In Dressing Room Ignores Girl Crying On Cell Phone or Stripper Who Said “No, I Don’t Have Any Body Spray” Was Lying would fit the format of their office stories, but they’re too strip club-specific to work for a broader audience as workplace jokes. The writers instead must deal with stereotypes in the same way they deal with those of athletes (“Pro Athlete Lauded For Being Decent Human Being”). As I looked through their stripper story archives, I was pleasantly surprised to realize their stripper jokes relied more on absurd literalism than mockery.* Here are the ten best of the bunch.