This Time, It's Personal

Home This Time, It's Personal

Outcasts Among Outcasts: Drug-Using Sex Workers in the Sex Workers’ Rights Movement, Part 2

The madam of an opium den relaxing into a nod—note that is she is unbothered by clients as she does so. (One of a series of photographs by Hungarian photojournalist Brassaï taken in Paris in the early 1930s.)
The madam of an opium den relaxing into a nod—note that is she is unbothered by clients as she does so. (One of a series of photographs by Hungarian photojournalist Brassaï taken in Paris in the early 1930s.)

(You can find part one of this discussion here)

Caty: I’ve seen former drug-using sex workers like Kate Holden write that trading sex for drugs directly with a dealer was “just tacky,” and in my shallow, callow early years as a heroin-using escort, I often said the same thing. But the real reason I’ve avoided doing this for a decade, with one exception, is that I’m terrified to have the power dynamic between possibly withdrawing user and dope holding dealer client be that starkly clear. I can safely retreat into the farcical mask of my privilege when with my escorting clients, I can advertise as an “ex-Ivy League activist and escort” on my Backpage ad, leveraging those respectability politics for all the profit they’re worth, and within that pretense, I can be as primly outraged as a Victorian maiden with her honor insulted when these clients ask for a BBJ. I can’t maintain that pose shaking and sniffing in some dealer’s living room.

I remember the one time I did trade a blowjob for three bags, early in my dope career. I remember his limp cock in the condom, the way he grimly surveyed my grimy, slovenly SRO room, how he said, concerned, that I should do the bags first, so then I had to do them in front of him even though I wasn’t sick yet and all I wanted was to enjoy the dope after he’d gone and I had my solitude returned. I know it could’ve been much worse, but I’d never felt so exposed, so confirmed as all the stereotypes about junkies whores.

Then there was the part where I had to awkwardly encounter him every once in a while for years after that—and that’s another thing, trading a session directly for dope means that one has to break the common rule escorts make about not seeing people that know their real name, people who are part of their social circles, as clients.

An Open Letter to the Extras Girl

penis
photo credit: Bubbles

Hey Girl,

I used to be so jealous of you. How did you do it? I would watch you stride through the club, so confident, the wad of cash strapped to your leg growing, like stripping is the easiest job in the world. Someone always wanted a dance from you. You made it look so easy. I thought you were brilliance walking.

Sure, the other girls whispered. There were rumors. I thought they were just jealous, I thought they were threatened. But I was in denial.

You are the Extras Girl: hated by your colleagues, but loved by men. You fuck and suck, blow and go.

Private dancing, though? Not really.

I’m sure you’ve heard what the other girls said. She’s a hooker. She has no morals. She’s dirty.

You know what? I think those are weak arguments. I think everyone reading Tits and Sass agrees that there’s nothing wrong with hooking and that there’s not some great moral chasm between simulating sex (what strippers do) and having sex (what hookers do).

Girl, none of us are innocent. Once, I tried to fuck my best stripper friend. On stage. In front of my boyfriend.

We’re all human.

I’ll be honest, though. Sometimes, you, the Extras Girl, make my night at work a little harder. Sometimes, I just wish you would go away. Sometimes, I even poke my voodoo doll of you with needles.

On Surviving Sex Work

This post was removed at the author’s request.

Kavanaugh’s Confirmation Will Kill Disabled Sex Workers Like Me

The San Francisco Federal Building on October 3, 2018. (Photo via Flickr user Peg Hunter)

A few years back, I woke up, looked at my arm, and thought I was in a nightmare. My arms were covered in rashes of tattoo-dark blood blisters so thick my skin looked burgundy-purple from a distance, and bruises, the flesh so swollen it looked like I had been in a car wreck. I had not done anything out of the ordinary, not been beaten up, not survived a new trauma.

It was the most obvious symptom of what would later be diagnosed as an immune disorder. The other symptoms were invisible but devastating—among them, noncancerous growths in both lungs large enough to require a surgical biopsy, and having to relearn how to breathe. My platelets dropped to levels that saw me restricted to cancer treatment wards, experimental medications and bed rest, and a never-ending hell of side effects. The only potential explanation was that this immune disorder could be causing my body to kill my platelets, removing my blood’s ability to clot.

Without platelets, you struggle to get enough oxygen. For a while, I even spent time on oxygen tanks. Without platelets, you’re a “bleeding risk.” You bruise. Sometimes you bleed spontaneously—internal bleeding, swollen limbs, bloody noses that soak towels and can’t be stopped outside a hospital. You can die from a bloody nose if it can’t be cauterized in time. The underlying immune disorder also removes my ability to respond to vaccines, rendering me vulnerable to preventable illnesses.

The good news is, with ongoing access to a medication derived from healthy people’s immunoglobulin, I can see the same long life as others. That’s a whole other discussion about ethics under capitalism in and of itself, because that immunoglobulin sure ain’t coming from rich people, is it?

The bad news is that without insurance this medication costs as much as some types of cancer treatment, and I’ll require it for the rest of my life. In the time between medication doses, my body chews through the donor immunoglobulin, as well as my own blood’s existing components.

In the scope of weeks, months at best, I go from healthy to on the verge of death, platelets dropping, sometimes by 2/3 in the scope of a day. In the course of diagnosis, I spent periods checking into the hospital every two weeks as my blood nosedived to a platelet level so dire that, at times, my doctors thought their machines had malfunctioned and were simply failing to count my blood’s components properly, because how the hell could I be alive otherwise? I was the youngest adult in the cancer wards, the mystery patient doctors came from other floors to see because my case was just THAT strange.

I was uninsurable prior to the Affordable Care Act, even without this diagnosis. My docs claimed I’d grow out of my irregular, heavy, unnervingly painful menstrual cycles, that they were nothing to be concerned about, yet the insurance companies claimed I had “an undiagnosed uterine disorder” and refused to cover me entirely. It turned out they were right about that disorder, ironically enough. After the endometriosis got bad enough to become disabling due to medical neglect, I finally got a diagnosis. I was disabled before my immune disorder ever happened.

Being able to get covered through the ACA was a turning point.

And if I had still been limping along without coverage when my immune system went into free fall, point-blank, I would be dead. Lack of coverage led to my deterioration and my medical inability to work to this day. But it would have led to my death if it had gone on just three years longer. Without full coverage that handled almost everything—blood tests sometimes daily, expensive medications, hospital stays, a dozen specialists, outside consults, extensive imaging, multiple surgeries, an ungodly amount of medications—I would have died during one of those blood drops, when I had 1/150th the minimum platelets of a healthy person.

I tell you this so you can understand how it’s all connected. How one denial, one interruption of coverage, one financial bad break, can cause a failure cascade that results in an individual’s life becoming a mire of sickness, struggle, medical neglect, and decay. For countless Americans, it leads to financial ruin.

For chronically ill and disabled people who do sex work in order to work around their conditions, doing criminalized, grey market, or informal labor without benefits means we often have no access to insurance without the ACA. Employer-based health insurance is now and has always been a leash on workers to keep us beholden to more powerful employers. The ACA was a first step away from that and empowered all workers, regardless of employment status. This is crucial in a “gig economy” of Uber drivers and independent contractors, people with standing not so different than my standing was as a stripper. A nation without the ACA is one in which many of us will die of illness and poverty.

This is the country that we are in danger of returning to if Brett Kavanaugh becomes the newest associate justice on our Supreme Court.

On Survival

(Photo by Flickr user Nasrul Ekram)
(Photo by Flickr user Nasrul Ekram)

Last month, I woke up to the news that a friend of mine had overdosed and died.

I’d never met her, but I’d known her for almost 15 years online. We’d found each other back in the days of Livejournal, back when it was a shock to my system just to be able to read the writing of another heroin-using sex worker like me. I read everything about us I could get my hands on back then, even tabloid trash or Narcotics Anonymous literature.

Reading someone writing about her life, our lives, in the first person—daring to construct her identity as more than a punchline or a cautionary tale—was revelatory. People talk about the value of “representation,” but there’s no way to describe what knowing she was out there like I was meant to me when I was 22.

I could always talk to her about all the things I couldn’t discuss with my straight friends: lazy dealers, asshole cops, and the constant grind of working enough to keep ahead of withdrawal. Later, when we both got on methadone maintenance, we groused to each other about the unique blend of bureaucracy and condescension we found at the clinics. She’d always keep me up to date on the latest drug war fiasco, and we could be candid to each other about our rage in response.

I’m still not sure what happened to her. She could have been a victim of all the fentanyl floating around the country mixed in the heroin supply. I know she hadn’t used dope in a while. Keeping her kid was too important to her. Her tolerance must have been low.

But I can’t shake the suspicion that her death wasn’t entirely accidental. Like many of us, she was incredibly harm-reduction savvy. She could have taught a class on overdose prevention. I don’t think she killed herself. But I’m not sure she was trying her hardest to stay alive.

And who could blame her if she stopped making that monumental effort to survive, for a moment?

I have to tell myself everyday that despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m worth something, even if I am a walking worst-case scenario to most people. Even if by every rubric of mainstream success, I’ve gone way off course. Even if living like I do is not only criminalized, but reviled.

But sometimes, it’s difficult to believe that message when you and your small circle of movement friends are its only source.