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 times—so who cares? The story went viral. Deal with it.
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.
I recently had a realization about my work after returning from an international trip with one of my sugar daddies. I was only gone for four days, but I felt like I had just spent a month with one of the worst bosses from one of my straight jobs. I was a ball of stress after coming back and needed a week of self-care, copious amounts of cannabis, and many hugs from my lovers in order to recover…oh, and an entire therapy session dedicated to deconstructing the experience. During all this reflection, I realized that my favorite moments from the trip all involved having sex with this man, who is thirty-four years my senior and can only sometimes get an erection. Every other part of the trip, the parts spent providing companionship, left me wanting to roll my eyes hard enough to give me a headache for days. The flight back, where I was forced to sit next to him and entertain him for eight or so hours while also dealing with raging cranky PMS demons, should have earned me an Academy Award. (Or at least a Golden Globe nomination.)
As far as rich and powerful old dudes go, this guy isn’t so bad. He tries to do good, though in my opinion he usually falls short. He is philanthropic, he is liberal, and he considers himself a feminist ally. But like most rich, powerful, liberal-leaning, old, white, philanthropic, self-proclaimed feminist males, he has way too much privilege to actually be a good person. He’s “not like other clients,” but in fact he is pretty much like every other client I have. He’s the type I seem to attract. The sort who is looking for a comparatively young, pretty, outspoken feminist badass to bust his balls…just a little bit. It is very important to him that I am always my most authentic self around him; that I don’t wear makeup unless I want to and that I always share my true opinions about his behavior. Of course, that’s only as long as my “true” opinions are mostly validating, with a smattering of criticism here and there to “keep it real.” He’s never said that in so many words, but I think we all know how it works.
Whenever I travel with him, I always feel a sharp contrast between the upper class lifestyle he leads and the middle class lifestyle I am used to leading. Being his traveling companion is discombobulating because I am a member of the luxury service industry he is exploiting (despite his best intentions), but I am also his partner in that exploitation. I am utilizing his wealth in order to live like him, and thus on the surface I must pretend to enjoy all the luxuries we enjoy together. I must perform capitalism in order to provide the service I’m implicitly selling him. But I empathize more with the numerous maids and waiters and chefs and cashiers and bellboys and masseurs and the other sex/service workers he hires to facilitate his vacation. This performance of consumption without criticism is emotionally exhausting for me, probably the most emotionally exhausting work I have ever done.
This piece is adapted from a December 17th speech the author gave this year.
“You’re so lazy, you’ll never be anything but a whore. And you won’t even be a good whore because nobody wants to fuck a girl with a book in front of her face.”
When I was about twelve, as I lay on my bed reading, my father walked into my bedroom. When he saw me reclining and reading, that was what he told me. Funny thing, though: the student schtick really sells. Clients like to think they’re “funding” something worthwhile, like my education and not my drug habit. (I have both.)
My point is this: entry into and tenure in the sex industry is both constrained and conditioned by personal, historical and socio-economic contexts. In the movement, we talk about constraint whenever we talk about poverty. I think we avoid talking about conditioning, however, lest we reinforce stereotypes about hookers who were abused as children. But I don’t believe I became a sex worker by accident. I think I was conditioned, and I want to talk about it.
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.