This Time, It’s Personal

A December 17th collage of Black sex working trans women victims of violence (Image by A Passion, courtesy of A Passion)

A December 17th collage of Black sex working trans women victims of violence (Image by A. Passion, courtesy of A. Passion)

On December 17th, we reflect on the overwhelming reports of violence against sex workers and put together plans of action to rise above it. We experience violence at the hands of law enforcement, clients, pimps and abusive partners, and each other. Though I have never found value in comparing suffering woe for woe, it is my goal to speak only from personal experience. Call it luck or divine intervention, but my life as a sex worker has been relatively charmed. I have flirted with danger, but for the most part I managed to get by unscathed. Physically, that is. It is important to remember that not all scars are visible and that those that are not can sometimes be the deepest and most difficult to heal.

I live the life of a career sex worker who is black, a woman, and transgender. Blacks, women and transgender people are three marginalized groups and often the thought of encompassing all three is overbearing. I’ve looked for purpose in the eyes of strangers—whether they sat behind a desk, confused as they dissected my qualifications and wondered about my gender identity, or loomed over me, swollen with the often lethal combination of lust and disgust.

Job discrimination is a form of violence. Denying anyone the right to support themselves legally and then criminalizing the means to which they turn to sustain themselves is inhumane and deplorable. For many of us, sex work is a job of last resort. The fact is that we are rarely given an alternative. Many employers simply will not hire trans workers for fear of losing customers. Another act of violence often overlooked is theft of service, typically defined as, “knowingly securing the performance of a service by deception or threat.” This is also an act of violence. When theft of services happens to us, it is rape and the damage goes beyond the monetary value of what we’ve lost. I have been the victim of both. Like many of us, I considered rape one of many occupational hazards and did nothing about it when it happened to me. How do you report something like this, and to whom?

During my time as a street-based sex worker, I personally witnessed multiple acts of violence. Some girls survived and some didn’t. It was our own Mufasa-esque circle of life, and many of us dealt with it the only we knew how: Not dealing with it at all. To live in fear is to lose money, to lose money is to starve and ultimately become homeless. The key to survival is adaptation. Learn from the violence you experience, but do not succumb to it.

I developed a strict code of conduct for myself,necessary for my survival in the business. No drugs, no excess drinking, never steal, and always use protection. I thought this was enough to shield me from the bulk of the misfortunes that befell so many before me. For a while it did, but as the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end.” I still have issues with thinking of myself as a victim, because I know what happened to me could have been worse. Despite all of what I taught myself, as safe and as smart I thought I was, no matter how much I wanted to believe it would never happen to me, it did.

Four years ago I climbed into a stranger’s car, like I had so many times before. I began to direct him toward a crowded movie theater parking lot which provided the privacy and safety necessary to conduct my business. When I noticed that he was deliberately missing turns, I attempted to open the car door while at a red light. It wouldn’t open from the inside. I turned to look at him and was met with a swift blow to the mouth. I looked up to see the barrel of a pistol. I should’ve been afraid, but I wasn’t. This was not the first time a gun had been in my face. In fact, it was the fourth. I’d never been hit and they usually wanted money, sex, or both. However, I was always able to talk myself out of the situation or escape somehow. What I lacked in strength I certainly made up for in cunning. This time was different.

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(Photo by Flickr user elasticsoul)

(Photo by Flickr user elasticsoul)

When I was just a teeny tiny bottle of airplane-ready champagne, I was called a whore by a boy in my middle school science class for having the audacity to own breasts and opinions at the same time,while only being willing to share the latter. Once I got to college, men started to call me a whore in the streets when I refused their advances and they called me one even more loudly when I taught myself not to allow their presence to register on my face. I was called a whore by clients more often when I would refuse certain services, but not when I would provide them willingly. But since you could put a pair of eyeglasses on a calcified ostrich turd and its opinion would have as much gravity as those of boys, strange men, and clients, these words never especially bothered me.

I’ve always been peripherally aware of the importance of reappropriating the language of sex work but never felt I really had skin in the game until I felt how badly “whore” burns from certain tongues and with certain intentions. Since “whore” was thrown around my whole life as shorthand for “woman who does things I don’t like,” I never felt especially connected to it as it related to sex work, even when doing sex work that reflected the most literal understanding of the word. I’ve even been known to say things like, “Um, sex workers are dying out there. Does it really matter what we call ourselves?” I’m aware now that starting a sentence with “um” reflects fluency in Sanctimonious Cunt more than it reflects nuanced understanding of the issues sex workers face. Forgive me, I was an unsophisticated bottle of André at the time, a mere shadow of the Dom Perignon White Gold Jeroboam I am today. But back to being a whore.

In late July, a man who claimed to love me and who had never taken issue with my profession before called me a “whore” to my face. He told others I was a “whore” when he needed to discredit me as quickly and mercilessly as possible. Prior to our falling out, my work in the adult industry had been something that concerned him only when I reported pushed boundaries or feelings of regret and insecurity. He was supportive and sometimes downright titillated, insisting on christening my new work outfits by getting lap dances in them before anyone else did. I happily obliged because I loved him and got to choose my own soundtrack. When things quickly deteriorated and I feared for his new girlfriend, I warned her about malicious and dishonest behaviors of his which I thought she should be aware of.

His first line of defense to her was my work and it was his first line of offense against me. Obviously, he had been driven to threaten me with violence because I was a deranged stripper that thought he loved me; he just had to set me straight. The very idea was ludicrous, loving a sex worker. When he used whore stigma against me, it was to explain why he never wanted monogamy with me and how I had always been just a source of fucked up sex and that all his stated affections had been part of a game designed to entertain himself.

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("Lost Balloon" by Ann Marshall, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

via Flickr user Ann Marshall Art

Content warning—the following contains descriptions of underage sex work and an adult fantasizing about sexual activity with a pre-teenage child.

I don’t know how I started seeing Jeff. I can’t remember meeting him, or what the first session was like, or what he looked like in clothes. I just remember when it turned.

Jeff was a big money client for me at the time. It was my first year as a pro-domme and I worked in the sketchiest dungeon in town. Jeff would book me out for the entire night, freeing me from having to charm individual clients during meet and greets and guaranteeing me enough cash to cover my rent. He was easy too: the session was almost entirely verbal and consisted of my languishing on a velvet padded throne and rattling staccato words at him while hoovering lines of cocaine off the mirror in my Chanel compact. He would sit at my feet, cross-legged and hunched over, slavishly masturbating and smoking poorly rolled joints. He requested that I wear street clothes during one of our early sessions. I returned to the room, minus the latex, in what I had arrived at work in: platform boots, skintight ripped up jeans, and a tube top. I could tell he was hoping for something different, and he came to our next appointment with a small plastic shopping bag.

After I took Jeff’s money and dutifully handed it over to the biker who ran the place, I went into the dressing room to inspect the contents of the bag: a very small pair of shorts and a very small camisole, both in the lightest shade of pink, made of waffle knit cotton. There was a second where I wanted to sit down and cry. I was never molested as a child, but for some reason introducing the specter of childhood into an S&M session disturbed me more than anything else I did at work. From my first day on the job, I had a preternatural ability to perform acts of severe subjugation without being affected by them. I could fist a guy’s ass, piss in his mouth, beat him until he bled, and it didn’t touch me. It didn’t disgust me or traumatize me or make me feel much of anything aside from the intoxication of desire and the masturbatory pleasure of receiving the cash. But the kid stuff fucked with me. Calling it “age play,” the euphemism of choice in BDSM circles creeped me out even more. I didn’t ever want to be called Mommy and I didn’t ever want to play a little girl. Even though I was just seventeen, technically under the age of legality for sex work in New York, I felt like an adult at work, and I wanted to keep it like that.

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(Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, via Flickr and the Creative Commons.)

(Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, via Flickr and the Creative Commons.)

I work as a writer and a pro-domme. For me, the first stems from the second; the financial independence I earned from my pro-domming gave me the confidence and clarity to think and write. In my writing, I am out as a sex worker. My byline is a name, Margaret Corvid, that I consciously link to the name I use for sex work. As a dominatrix, I am Mistress Magpie; the real magpie, a whimsical, intelligent, and slightly evil bird, is in the corvid genus, along with jays, crows and ravens. This little play on words honors my sex work and my kink, the foundations for my work as a writer. I also link the two because my politics dictate my being out. As a white, able-bodied cis woman from a middle class background, my privilege affords me a modicum of protection, so I write as a sex worker even when I am writing on an issue entirely unrelated to sex work. Hopefully, this choice helps in its own small way to move us forward towards a time when sex workers can participate fully in the public sphere.

The privilege of my origin shows through in my writing, which is the product of my education. I inherited my skill at writing through the educational opportunities my middle class background afforded me; I learned it, but I did not earn it. Because of that skill I have been able to write for top-level publications in the UK, writing some explicitly pro-sex work and pro-kink pieces for them. Unfortunately, I have made some mistakes in my writing. The first piece I wrote for the Guardian referred to some sex workers as “miserable slaves”, because in my advocacy for the understanding that sex work is work, I was trying to inoculate my argument against people’s likely criticisms. In doing so, I bought right into the trafficking myth. Months later, I came across some criticism of the piece. I engaged with it, apologizing and putting myself through a crash course on the rescue industry; this study resulted in the first piece I wrote about sex work which I feel is truly worthy. Through my embarrassment, I realized that I needed to completely reeducate myself. The reputation of the “social justice warriors” on the internet is fearsome, but I have tried to approach feedback with a sense of humility, and a few of the most vocal activists have graciously offered me their support.

With my unearned platform, I have an opportunity to carry the message of sex worker rights to policymakers. I am duty-bound to do my best to get up to speed with the voices of the most marginalized among us, while not using my privilege to insist that others educate me. As I prepare to write a big article about the sex worker rights movement, aimed at those who have heard little of it, I’m frightened of making a mistake, of making things worse for us. When I’m speaking to an audience of non-sex workers, my choice of message and the way I deliver it must avoid reinforcing the assumptions and stereotypes that marginalize us, and my politics must not pander to the social forces that criminalize us. If I can’t do that reliably, I might as well say nothing.

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Reach out to someone. (Photo by Mark Fischer [Flickr user fischerfotos])

Reach out to someone.
(Photo by Mark Fischer [Flickr user fischerfotos])

The numbers are staggering. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one out of every four women has or will experience domestic violence. If those numbers are correct, it is guaranteed that you know someone that has been or is a victim.

Domestic violence isn’t always physical; it can be verbal, emotional, or even psychological. Escaping an abuser is never as easy as “just leaving.” Being abused is isolating and stigmatizing; the notion of even asking for help for a civilian woman can be terrifying. Considering the systematic whorephobia that sex workers face,  getting away from an abuser seems downright impossible for some of us.

But help is out there. Here are some sex worker friendly resources should you or your loved ones need help. All of these resources are trans inclusive as well, to the best of our knowledge.

In or near San Francisco:
A Woman’s Place, an emergency shelter and transitional housing.
San Francisco Women Against Rape is a trans and sex worker friendly center that provides crisis counseling.

In or near Chicago:
The Heartland Alliance provides a variety of resources to those that have been impacted by domestic violence or other types of trauma.
Apna Ghar provides holistic help to the immigrant population affected by domestic violence.
Mujeres Latinas en Acción provides domestic violence counseling to the Latina population.
The Domestic Violence Legal Clinic offers free legal assistance.

In or near New York City:
The New York State LGBTQ Domestic Violence Network can direct to an agency that will provide the services you require.
The Sex Workers Project provides legal and social services to sex workers.
Safe Horizon can provide emergency housing and safe haven for individuals and families.
The Anti-Violence Project provides direct services such as immediate crisis intervention; safety planning; short or long-term counseling;  police, court and social services advocacy and accompaniment; and information and referrals to anyone who calls their hotline or comes to their offices or intake sites.

In or near Salt Lake City:
The YWCA provides shelter and legal services for domestic violence victims. Their 24-hour crisis line is: 855-992-2752.

In Boston:
The Casa Myrna agency

In Portland:
The Portland Women’s Crisis Line

If you know of any sex worker friendly resources that we missed,  leave them in the comments.

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