A couple of months ago I was at auditions for a musical at my community theater, and during the interminable waiting period I found myself chatting with a group of middle-aged women (why not the shy 20-year-old hottie in flannel? Sigh). Easy conversation bumped along, from “what are you singing?” to “I’m such a horrible dancer” to “yes, I am the kind of mom who plunks her kid in front of the TV so I can pee in peace.” Eventually, we were bound to land on work/money, which is a subject I stay pretty quiet about as long as I can, what with being a dirty whore and all.
The women were discussing a man, a local theater staple, who had to move out of town due to financial hardship. They agreed that times are indeed tough, especially in our city, “unless you want to do something somewhat soul-crushing,” one of them said. My ears always perk up at the term “soul-crushing,” yet without missing a beat, the rest of the group groaned aloud in agreement, as if they’d had this exact conversation the day before. “I did that for a while,” the woman continued carefully. The murky reference awarded no response from the others, so I chimed in, “what, like waitressing?”
Long ago before I had ever begun to use the term “sex work” or could even have guessed at what aå Sex and Justice conference would entail, I began processing my experiences in sex/work by telling my story. For a long time I kept that story in the place where I had left it: journals, then later in an edited and now-forgotten anonymous blog. I open up about parts of it here and there and I wonder, and worry, about the consequence of being completely open and honest and telling the whole story in a place that is not private or anonymous.
I went to the Sex and Justice conference in Ann Arbor to try to figure out what it is about sex that invites regulation and criminalization. More and more, however, I began to focus on the act of telling stories about sex (particularly when criminal law is a part of it): the consequences, obligations, and complications of telling something that is personal and yours alone. Speaker after speaker, in the context of “sex and justice,” had something to say about sex workers telling the truth of their experience.
At the first plenary (Sex and the State: Registries, Rights and Punishment) Deon Haywood, executive director of Louisiana’s Women With a Vision had 10 minutes to talk about her group’s successful “NO Justice” campaign. The campaign had successfully overturned a 19th century “Crimes Against Nature” law, which required people who offered oral or anal sex for money to register as sex offenders—disproportionately affecting poor women, people of color and trans individuals.
I’ve been selling sex in one form or another for nine years, which is a long time. Most people in the sex trade pop in and out as their financial situation warrants, and few think of it as their career. For me, however, among the straight work I’ve pursued concurrently, prostitution is my profession and I’m comfortable with that. I’ve engineered that. My various privileges mean I operate in a way that is about as low-risk and comfy as one can get: I screen extensively, I am my own boss, I request a very high hourly rate, and I don’t see people who are violent or rude. If you asked me if I like it, I would say, “yes, I like it.” I like the people I meet, I like the freedom of schedule, and I like the money I make.
A big part of thinking about escorting as my career means evaluating my work and trying to improve the quality of service I’m offering in the interest of maintaing current clients and attracting new ones. Because it’s my profession, I think about it professionally and seriously, as a business person. It’s during these performance reviews that I might chastise myself for making my unhappiness with the physical interaction transparent, if/when I struggle to hide it. “He can tell I don’t like it,” I’ve thought to myself before, about clients with whom the physical aspect is more challenging, “but he lets me get away with it.” The “it” here means my inability to pretend I enjoy the sex. That’s what he “lets me get away with,” by not demanding his money back, I guess, and by continuing to see me and pay me for my time.
In other words, this man allows me to not to disguise my fundamental lack of desire to have sex with him. I think this feeling of being granted some type of permission to not fake enjoyment isn’t unique to me and isn’t unique to sex workers. I think a lot of women’s heterosexual sex is or has been characterized by negotiating their own lack of “enthusiastic consent,” a relatively new concept aiming to educate in a more nuanced way than “no means no” and “yes means yes.” It’s rare that I give authentic “enthusiastic consent” while I’m working. And that’s how I prefer it.
Famous for being helmsman Hikaru Sulu of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek series, actor and author George Takei is America’s clever gay grandfather. Takei currently plays to an audience of thousands via social media and is known for quotable and insightful Facebook and Twitter posts on everything from politics to gender issues to cute animal macros. On April 2nd, George alienated a decent amount of his followers when he posted this meme.
As a mother, wife, and child, I was annoyed and almost a little hurt.
My 54-year-old mother sat nearby, her eyes deep in her Catherine Crier book. We had stayed up late despite her return flight being early in the morning. I was rubbing my wrists in anxiousness, set back from the laptop when she glanced over. I turned the screen toward her.
“Who posted that?”
“Yeah. He posts a lot of stuff, but nothing like this usually.”
“Mom, how does that make you feel? That society says you’re a failure? That I’m a failure?”
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.” 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.