This Time, It’s Personal

(Courtesy of Instagram user local_._honey)

(Courtesy of Instagram user local_._honey)

Sit down. I have news for you. If you’re trying to date or hook up with someone you know from their work in escorting or porn, without paying them, your chances of success are close to zero. This is true even if we favorite your adoring comments on Twitter.

It may come as a shock to hear this. You may feel like sexual attraction is only part of the connection you have with this worker, and that paying would deny the authenticity of that. Or maybe you think that you are a really good (looking) person and only creepy or unattractive people pay. Maybe both you and the sex worker are queer and/or have similar politics. You know sex workers and are down with decriminalization. There are many reasons you may feel you are exceptional.

You are operating under a basic misunderstanding of who we are and what we are doing. Which is this:

1. Portraying an inviting version of ourselves, one with genuine elements but oriented to be pleasing to as many people as possible.
2. …because we are trying to make a fucking living.

I am not writing this to make you feel foolish. I am writing this because in the last week I’ve had multiple experiences of people approaching me in person, calling me on the phone, and hitting me up on social media trying to have unpaid sex with me. It’s been hard to turn people down, because as both an escort and a porn performer, I am not trying to get a reputation as a “mean person”. When I do turn people down directly, they don’t listen or they’re patronizing as fuck. An anonymous internet post telling you how it makes me feel is really the best I (and tons of other sex workers) can do in the hope you get the message.

I feel devalued and strung along. When people contact me by way of my ad or social media I assume they are interested in seeing me as an escort. I’m excited and open in response. I like my job, I like meeting people, and most importantly, I like making the money I need to survive. When I realize that you’ve called me to jerk off or that you want to take me out to dinner and try to woo me into unpaid sex, I go through an emotional arc from excitement to confusion to pure rage. That is not the start of a good relationship.

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Happy Mothers' Day. (image via Flickr user owly9)

Happy Mothers’ Day. (image via Flickr user owly9)

The illusion of “common sense” and its alleged empirical certainties is one of the the most steadfast means by which we collectively propagate whore stigma. As a recent example, critics lampoon Imtiaz Ali’s short film, Indian Tomorrow, for portraying an economically savvy sex worker. “Prostitutes who rattle off sensex [India’s stock market] figures during sex,” proclaims one critic, “exist only in the world of fantasy art.”

Tacitly deferring to “common sense” as a barometer of a sex workers’ intellect is not only deeply paternalistic, but it also acts as a censor for the kinds of stories we tell as a society. Surprising no sex worker rights advocate, it seems like the only acceptable cultural depictions of sex workers are those that fall in-line with the “common sense” stereotype of harlots as intellectually inferior. Art allows us to envision a better world. If artists are deterred from producing nuanced depictions of sex workers as agents of their own lives, even if these depictions are utopic fantasies, our culture will likewise be deterred from envisioning better circumstances for sex workers.

But this cultural imperative to tell one dimensional stories is limited to the stories of marginalized people like sex workers. Stories that transcend the simplistic theme of victimization are critiqued as dangerous and sexist. This is in spite of Standpoint Feminists themselves claiming that the moral obligation of any society is to tell more stories, not fewer. 

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asarahtransmisogynycomingAs a trans woman who’s spent about three years in the industry doing full-service sex work, I’ve found that my work provides sharp and unrelenting insight into how men sexualize and fetishize trans women. This phenomenon isn’t unique to trans women in sex work, of course. But these attitudes define my experience of the industry in profoundly different ways to those of non-trans women in the industry.

There is not much about trading sex for money that inherently bothers me, and the usual challenges of the industry, such as the income instability, are things that I can deal with. So I find that this often makes me particularly sour about just how much the added impact of transmisogyny changes my whole experience of the industry. Clients who treat me remotely like they would a cis woman are easy as pie. The sad reality is that, sticking this out in the long term, those clients tend to be few and far between, and with my average clients, the day-to-day weirdness and unpleasantness of those bookings drains on me something fierce. I’m lucky in that I’m surrounded by lovely friends in the industry, but almost all of them are cis, and this side of my experience can be quite difficult for them to understand.

Trans women are sexualized in bizarre and frequently contradictory ways. We are so often seen as disgusting, even monstrous, but simultaneously considered desirable in the most shameful and mysterious of ways. As a civilian trans woman, this was just a depressing reality of life that I could avoid where possible. But as a sex worker, it fundamentally defines my experience on a daily basis.

My clients rarely see me for the sorts of reasons they might seek out an escort who wasn’t a trans woman. They want some kind of once-in-a-lifetime bucket list sexual experience, have no idea what that is, and expect that you’ll be able to provide it—because that’s what they think trans women are there for. I know this is also a common complaint among cis fetish workers: clients who show up with a vague fantasy that they’re too scared to communicate, expecting you to magically work out what it is. I know they, at least, know how maddening those bookings are. However, when the fetish property concerned is your mere existence, I cannot under-emphasize how dehumanizing that can get.

A cis friend of mine made this tongue-in-cheek observation: “I think all I need to do is turn up and actually touch a dick and I’ve done an amazing job”. When I think of the psychological workout nearly every single booking I do takes, I find myself wishing “Oh, if only.”

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The headline at Jezebel.

By now, you’ve probably heard the story of Zola and her fabled strip trip to Florida with her new friend, Jess. If you haven’t, the story was told in a series of dramatic tweets by Zola, AKA twitter user _zolarmoon. In it, she spins a story that’s so intense and absurd that it’s hard to believe. In sum: she reluctantly agrees to take a work trip with her new pal, Jess, to Florida. Things immediately go wrong in a variety of terrifying ways. Zola’s narration of the journey is flippant and casual. She saw a lot of humor in the events that allegedly occurred.

The series of tweets were so flagrantly wild that they exploded on Twitter—at one point her story was (and still may be) trending worldwide. The story was picked up and regurgitated by your typical new media blogs: Fader, Buzzfeed, Complex, and, Jezebel (the list is still growing). It’s not surprising that Zola’s narrative was embraced so thoughtlessly. It contained the trappings of a good story that the new media elite thrive on, a perverted version of the who-what-where-when-why-how I learned about in journalism school: sexy pictures, nefarious and criminal doings, content that could be quickly mined and embedded, and, uh, Florida.

Sex worker Twitter did not appreciate the Jezebel piece. It triggered a familiar dialogue about the intersection of social media and journalism. What, ethically, is public record? Is Zola’s Twitter account public record? Jia Tolentino, the author of the story, argued that YES, it is. And further, the original tweets themselves had been shared hundreds of timesso who cares? The story went viral. Deal with it. [READ MORE]

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(Image via plasticdollheads.com, courtesy of Gemma Ahearne)

(Image via plasticdollheads.com, courtesy of Gemma Ahearne)

This essay is based on research interviews I conducted with current and former sex workers who are undergraduate or graduate students at universities across the globe. Their names and other identifying information have been changed.

I am subject to the capricious whims of my patriarch, a pimp of sorts, the man who decides the parameters of my labor. He is benevolent; soothing my insecurities with promises of better pay and better working conditions, someday. Things will improve, he promises. Someday, I will be able to keep what I earn, I’ll have adequate health care, and I’ll be treated as my patriarch’s equal. But first, I must pledge my allegiance to indentured servitude despite its accompaniment of crushing debt. I must allow for my assimilation into an exploitative system for a mere chance at cultural capital. I must sell my body and mind for the privilege that comes with letters after my name. I love my patriarch, though—he punctually answers e-mails and often praises my free labor. He plies me with booze to show his affection and, as evidenced by his gentle hazing, clearly favors me.

I am, of course, an academic.

There has been much ado about sex workers in academia lately. Noah Berlatsky wrote about the the value of sex worker led research in academia at the Pacific Standard; Livemint covered groundbreaking new research on Asian sex workers, HIV, and violence recently released in collaboration with regional sex workers’ rights organizations; and Lime Jello articulated the problems of studying sex workers here at Tits and Sass. Of course, there has always been immense curiosity, gross fetishization, and erratic speculation surrounding those of us who dabble in both the realms of the body and the mind. And true to my liberal art discipline’s form, I think it all says something larger about society.

I started working in the sex industry a great while ago and while my relationship to the sex industry has morphed after all these years—from an idealized notion of “liberation” in my younger days to a sense of disdain for and annoyance with the work—I still see myself as a sex worker first and an academic second.

It was pure happenstance that I fell into academia at all. By the time I learned what graduate school was, I’d worked as an independent escort and stripper for years. Upon being accepted to a Ph.D. program, it felt only natural for me to write about the situations and spaces which I occupied. The impetus for my academic curiosity was never about “access”—in fact, I find the concept of “accessing hard to reach populations” exploitative and condescending. I’ve always been one for internal exploration over armchair ethnography that privileges “the sociologist’s gaze.” There’s very little one can know about the world while rejecting self-reflection with the impunity of a toddler. All this to say, I study my precise social location: the experiences of sex workers in academia.

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