Television

Phillip and Elizabeth showing off sex worker skillz with their wig stylings (Screenshot from The Americans)

Phillip and Elizabeth showing off sex worker skillz with their wig stylings. (Screenshot from The Americans)

Whether we’re dancers or dommes, escorts, cyberworkers, or some combination or variation thereon, we don’t see ourselves on television very often, and when we do, it’s often a balancing act between how disappointingly horrible the portrayal of people who do what we do is, and our excitement that we’re there on screen at all (I’m looking at you, entirety of  Satisfaction season three). Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a show that’s all about sex workers, but puts the lives of sex workers ahead of the work of sex workers? Wouldn’t it be cool to see sex workers managing romantic lives, children, and the ups and downs of a weird job that not a lot of people understand, without the underlying hysteria of  “everyone you see is in the process of ruining all that’s good in their lives”? A show that covers jealousy between sex working partners, and violations of trust, and even clients who act out, sometimes violently, without the implicit sentiment behind it all being “well, what did you expect?”

I have good news and bad news for you. You need look no furtherThe Americans is just what you’ve been waiting for: a wonderful, heavy-hitter cast; gorgeous, tight scripts; a miraculously not-grating commitment to early 80s period production design; overall, a show that has as much effort and love poured into it as a Deadwood or a Twin Peaks. All of this, lavished on an ensemble cast of sex workers from a variety of different backgrounds. And while dead bodies certainly abound, not a single one fits patly into any of the dead hooker tropes that make up the bulk of our representation on television, given that nearly all of the bodies are rendered corpses by our intrepid band of sexually laboring heroes. This is a show about men and women performing professional sexual labor that’s garnering millions of viewers, critical acclaim and has a third season around the corner.

What’s the catch? If the lead couple, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (née Nadezhda and Mischa) filed their taxes honestly, they’d list themselves as “spies,” not sex workersthe show opens in 1981, just after Reagan’s election, as the two of them struggle to raise two children who have no idea that their parents are deep-cover Soviet spies. But a huge portion of their work is emotional and intimate labor, as they manufacture both long and short term sexual and romantic connections in service to their calling. In this sense, Phillip and Elizabeth represent the epitome of the “empowered, happy hooker,” working not just for personal fulfillment, but to further a world-changing, patriotic cause. Lest you tune out in understandable boredom at this point, never fearthe viewer doesn’t get even as far as the end of the pilot before this rosy view of sleeping with the enemy is challenged and complicated, as Phillip tries to convince Elizabeth to defect after a mission goes awry and unexpectedly kills a colleague. While the existence of further episodes spoilers the fact that they ultimately stay on task and loyal to their homeland, the debate accurately oracles the murkiness of transactional sex for a cause that characters continue to struggle with as the seasons progress. Like anyone with a difficult job, both Elizabeth and Phillip sometimes fall prey to doubts about the rightness and value of what they’re doing, but even as they grapple privately with their life choices, they publicly keep chugging through their work without faltering, not unlike the way we all manage to finish that call despite dealing with burnout, frustration, or not liking our job in the first place.

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Well, >i>Game of Throne viewers aren't ever allowed to forget (gif created from screenshots of Game of Thrones)

Well, Game of Thrones viewers aren’t ever allowed to forget (.gif created from screenshots of Game of Thrones)

Warning: Major spoilers below.

Game of Thrones, HBO’s biggest show, is bringing the fantasy genre to the masses in a major way. Featuring a sprawling cast and storyline that’s been pared down from George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s full of fantastic performances, high production values, international sets and scenery, and some of the most exciting and tense moments on television.

It is also filled with violence against women, particularly, the sex workers who inhabit the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

Westeros combines traditional medieval fantasy lore (think knights and dragons) with the history of feudal Europe. Brothels are everywhere. There are half-naked women running about ready to please whichever male character needs pleasing. But, since it’s a vaguely historical setting, these women must be sad and put upon because as every fan of Moulin Rouge has told me, there were no happy sex workers in the past.

Critics and fans agree that Game of Thrones subverts many classic fantasy tropes. Ned Stark, the noble hero, dies at the end of the first season instead of prevailing. His daughter Sansa Stark is set up to be a damsel in distress, but learns to manipulate her abusers to her advantage. Yet the show still falls prey to many predictable sexist tropes. And of course, many of those tropes extend to mistreating sex workers.

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littledickI

Let’s admit it; the job does follow us home. Instead of protesting otherwise, we should claim the potential insight and knowledge of using what we learn and practice while working in our personal lives . While we rightfully contest the ways in which abolitionists frame us as the walking dead—victims who must disassociate to perform the labor (because no one else does that at work ever), brainwashed automatons with no agency—we should also challenge the proscriptive models for intimacy that these parties are covertly espousing through their wish for our extinction. Sex workers unsettle dominant cultural narratives about intimacy and romantic love. We may ignite a set of scorching critiques about these culturally under-examined realms; critiques that expose why abolitionist feminism is so attractive to many people who have no actual interest in the well-being of those in the sex trades.

Amongst ourselves, we talk about how to navigate relations with clients, third-party management, law enforcement, social service providers, and other sex workers. We theorize and debate how to conduct these relationships dependent on various aims. We call for people to become allies and try to provide a model for what that looks like. But how often do we talk about the messy experience of what it can mean and feel like to be a whore in the ‘private’ realm? What happens after we decide to disclose our status as sex workers to SOFFAs (significant others, family, friends, and allies)? How are our intimate relationships shaped by our experiences as sex workers? Inevitably, we experience and negotiate whorephobia in these relationships, so why don’t we discuss how working in the sex industry shapes our experience of intimacy? Perhaps because we fear walking into a trap set by those who are only too happy to look at our departure from social norms and pathologize us. If so, I challenge us: let’s talk about intimacy.

You fell in love with him partly because he was such a good ally. You never had to define terms for him or defend the work to him. He went out of his way to educate himself and others, he asked you about your work day, and he electrified your workplace by periodically bringing his swaggering butch self in to visit. Until one night, a long-brewing fight about the relationship explodes in a rage, and he pulls a Don Draper on you.

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Appropriately bleak looking promo for Slave Hunter (via msnbc.com)

Appropriately bleak looking promo for Slave Hunter (via msnbc.com)

In 2011, I had the privilege of speaking on a local television program, Face to Face with John Ralston in Las Vegas. At the time, I worked on a national research initiative called the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC), a federally funded project. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) created CSEC in an effort to curb the alleged epidemic of sex trafficking of minors. I say “alleged epidemic” because, as most sex workers’ rights advocates know, research on sex trafficking often employs shoddy methods. Indeed, many “studies” on sex trafficking have proven to be deeply flawed or outright fabricated. The most famous example is Richard Estes and Neil Alan Weiner’s study, The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico (same name, unrelated to the DOJ study.) When we hear that 300,000 children are sex trafficked into the US every year, for example, we should assume that statistic comes from Estes and Weiner’s study. Their research has been largely debunked by scholars of sex work (not to mention sex workers themselves) and not just because they operationalize the number of children “at risk” of commercial sexual exploitation as “users of psychotropic drugs,” among other things, in their study. They also claim that undocumented children are at higher risk for sexual exploitation, yet they fail to thoughtfully analyze the economic and social reasons why an underage, undocumented person might exchange sex for something in return.

Along with CSEC’s primary investigator, Dr. Spivak, I was asked on Face to Face to debate claims made by then-Las Vegas vice detective Chris Baughman. Indeed, CSEC proved over and over that underage people in the sex industry are in much more complicated situations than anti-trafficking movements would have us think. Baughman’s appearance was also a promotional opportunity—at the time, his new book Off The Street, a “true life story of [a man] fighting to protect a class of women who are too easily forgotten and readily dismissed,” had just hit the shelves. Despite grabbing onto the nonsensical trope that sex work is never a victimless crime, Baughman was a rather soft-spoken and open-minded man behind the scenes. I can say with the utmost sincerity that I’ve never had such a fruitful interaction with a cop. He listened intently as I recounted, off air, abuses I’d faced as a sex worker in Las Vegas—not at the hands of brutal pimps, but from the sadistic wiles of Las Vegas’ finest. I explained that my sisters and brothers were routinely giving blowjobs to cops in exchange for police protection. I told him I was in the process of filing a civil suit against Las Vegas Metro and that I’d experienced significant backlash from the head of vice because of it. He took out a business card, wrote down his personal contact information, and instructed me to call anytime. “We’re both trying to end abuses associated with the sex industry,” he said. “Let’s work together.” I agreed.

That was two years ago. Not much has changed in Las Vegas save for more punitive policies intent on eradicating the sex industry (funded by right-wing Christian non-profits that somehow manage over a million dollars in profit every year). And, oh yeah! Chris Baughman now has his own television program with Aaron Cohen called Slave Hunter. The new MSNBC series reveals, “in captivating detail,” what happens in the sex trafficking underworld. Posing as potential clients, Baughman and Cohen arrange to meet sex workers for the purposes of “[putting] in motion a plan to allow them to escape their bonds and build a new life outside of sex trafficking.”

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Gimmie some sugar, baby. Josie, as Evil Dead's Ash, hanging with R2D2.

Gimmie some sugar, baby. Josie, as Evil Dead’s Ash, hanging with R2D2.

I like to scan the men bathed in flashing red light at their tables, strategizing. Star Wars and comic book character t-shirts are the easiest. Anyone who gives off the vibe of working in tech. Sometimes I can recognize a tattoo, or, sometimes it’s just a good hunch. Really, most of the men in these places under 30 will light up when I talk about how I spent a few hours playing Skyrim in my underwear, even if it would be better if I lied and said it was Call of Duty.

I’m hunting for nerds in the strip club. [READ MORE]

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