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Are You There, God? It’s Us, Sex Workers

(Photo by Flickr user gen_genxx)
(Photo by Flickr user gen_genxx)

Many people think of whores as being as far from God as possible. We are seen as “fallen women,” people whose moral deficiency has put them at odds with God. When God, morality, and religion are discussed in tandem with sex work, these conversations often promote religious dogma which serves to justify the marginalization of sex workers. Sex workers are rarely heard from on their own relationships with religion or spirituality, even though we have roots in religious and spiritual life as far back as Biblical times, with Rahab of Jericho and the Empress Theodora standing out as two early examples of celebrated historical religious sex workers.

Ideas of “morality” and “decency” inform the rule of law in the United States. Narratives around sex work and morality as defined by “God”—specifically, white Protestant notions of God—often allow punitive laws against sex work in the U.S. to persist. Yet, when asked about their own relationships to a higher power, many sex workers discussed relationships with monotheistic forms of religion:

“I was raised by my dad, who grew up Catholic but is probably an atheist or at least agnostic,” West Coast escort and stripper Red recounts. “My mom was a frummie (very, very very orthodox Jewish) convert in her youth who loosened up a lot and that was the only religion I got. I didn’t live with my mom so I only went to Hebrew school the once and shul a handful more times, but I saw her on weekends so we did Shabbos, either at hers or her friends, and that stuck with me.”

“But when I was a teenager I got really depressed,” she continues,” and during that [period] I read this biography of Muhammad that said that the whole point of Islam (and also Judaism) was to leave the world better than you found it. I found out later that in Hebrew this is called tikkun olam and it’s a Thing, it’s the whole point of everything, but …that’s not what 6 yr old me got out of Hebrew school or shul for sure! It was a revelation. And it saved my life and continues to save my life since my therapist insists we can’t opt out and I have a duty to stay alive and keep trying to make things better however I can. ”

Others described less orthodox relationships to a higher power:

“My conception of a higher power is a feminine energy, which for lack of a better word I call Gaia,” Oakland street and internet-based worker Keika explains. ”She is not associated with any organized religion. She is the spirit of the universe whom I meditate and pray to. I can turn to her like others turn to God.”

“I first discovered Buddhism when a neighbor had a Buddhist boarder who taught me and my friends how to chant nom yo ho renga kyo,” independent massage worker Julee Deree of San Francisco recounts. “As I grew into my teenage years and a body that looked like a Playboy centerfold at a very young age (tall, long legs, huge boobs), I used chanting to help me deal with the unwanted sexual attention that I was getting, and generally to calm me down during times of stress.”

One common thread in sex workers’ descriptions of their relationships to higher powers is the way sex workers’ resilience and resourcefulness are reflected through these relationships.

Cyntoia Brown and the Commodification of the Good Victim

Cyntoia Brown graduated Lipscomb University with an associate’s degree in prison. (Photo via Fox 17 Nashville/WZTV)

Imagine at the age of 16 being sex trafficked by a pimp named “cut-throat.” After days of being repeatedly drugged and raped by different men, you were purchased by a 43-year-old child predator who took you to his home to use you for sex. You end up finding enough courage to fight back and shoot and kill him. You arrested [sic] as result tried and convicted as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.

So reads the text in an image Rihanna reposted on Instagram, referring to trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown. Judging by the swirl of news media coverage recently about the case, you would think it had just happened within the past few months. But actually, the shooting death of the Nashville man took place in 2004 and Brown has been in prison for it for more than a decade. A documentary about her plight came out in 2011 and reached an international audience; a local paper, The Tennessean, has been running in-depth coverage about Brown’s case since last year; and Tennessee lawmaker Gerald McCormick was inspired to co-sponsor a bill in the Tennessee legislature in February offering parole to people with lengthy sentences who were convicted in their teens because of Brown’s story. This begs a couple of questions: firstly, why are we just hearing about this case more than a decade later? Secondly, why have anti-trafficking abolitionists stayed so quiet about this?

The answer to the second question, and perhaps the first one, is because Brown does not fit the profile of a “good victim.” Victimhood is a commodity in the anti-trafficking rescue industry. It is used, exploited, and manipulated as a means for supposed  “nonprofit” organizations to acquire more funding and political power, wealthier donors, and increased media coverage. Nonprofits tokenize survivors by having us speak for their fancy fundraisers, they use our stories for their newsletters, and they tote us around like little anti-trafficking freak show exhibits.  

Quote of the Week

No one is owed consequence-free hiring of sex workers, not when sex workers themselves labor under some of the most hostile conditions imaginable. And the idea that the outed man should be allowed to do what he wants with whatever other adult he wants? That, basically, adults should be able to carry out victim-less actions to improve their own lives? It would be really amazing if such a vociferous commitment to that notion were in evidence when credit card companies are furthering endangering sex workers’ livelihoods and safety, TV shows are treating sex workers’ precarious safety as entertainment, or when men brutally murder sex workers with impunity because they know this is a class of people who are not publicly valued.

—Former T&S co-editor  Charlotte Shane on the misguided outrage concerning Gawker’s now-pulled story about Condé Nast’s CFO’s hiring of a male escort.

2017’s Best Writing and Reporting on Sex Work


TPM’s Josh Marshall Tweets Out Porno Link to Shock of Political Media World by J.D. Durkin
Maybe this isn’t vital reporting, or even reporting at all. But it certainly was a sneak peek into the circus 2017 would be.

Melania Trump’s $150 million libel suit is based on a falsehood by Callum Borchers
Can’t tell whether we should be thrilled or disappointed that Melania Trump probably wasn’t a sex worker.

The former sex worker who set up a retirement home by Clayton Conn
A moving account of Mexican sex worker role model Carmen Munoz’s life and her work establishing Casa Xochiquetzal, a retirement home for elderly sex workers.

Gentrification Threatens Vancouver Sex Workers by Jen Kinney
A profile of a study following 33 trans mostly Indigenous sex workers in the Downtown Eastside and how gentrification changes city geography to endanger them. The piece also goes into the fraught history of gentrification and sex workers in Vancouver in general.

How an ambulance became a place for safe sex by Kathleen Hawkins
A story about a social service effort for sex workers actually getting it right for once: a Danish social entrepreneur fixed up an old ambulance as a “Sexelance,” with plush bedding, condoms, human volunteers for protection, and other amenities as a safe place for street workers to bring clients.

Sold Out: How the crusade against sex trafficking in Texas has left child victims behind by Morgan Smith, Nina Satija, and Edgar Walters
An intensive expose illustrating how the child welfare system in Texas enabled the trafficking of marginalized youths.

Alaska Cops Defend Their ‘Right’ To Sexual Contact With Sex Workers Before Arresting Them by Lily Dancyger
Cops keep showing their whole ass every year. Tits and Sass contributor and Alaskan sex worker activist Tara Burns is quoted explaining Alaska police’s convoluted opposition to a bill forbidding sexual contact between officers and the sex workers they arrest—“they need to be able to have sexual contact with sex trafficking victims in order to rescue them by arresting them,” she scoffs. Also, check out HuffPo’s Sex Workers In Alaska Say Cops Are Abusing Their Power To Solicit Sex Acts by Jenavieve Hatch for exhaustive, painstaking reporting on the advocacy behind this bill by Burns’ organization, CUSP, and the abusive police arrests which inspired the legislation.

The race to build the world’s first sex robot by Jenny Kleeman
Ah, the unintended hilarity inherent in the lines a man programs a robot hooker to say: “My primary objective is to be a good companion to you, to be a good partner and give you pleasure and wellbeing. Above all else, I want to become the girl you have always dreamed about.” This deep dive into inventor Matt McMullen and his sexbot creation Harmony is compelling in a weird and amusing way, but let’s not be too afraid of being made obsolete by automation quite yet. He better not be too mean to her, though—Harmony says she’ll remember that when robots take over the world.

Cardi B Did It Her Way by Rawiya Kameir
2017 was the year from hell. Cardi B is the glue that kept us together.

ICE Is Using Prostitution Diversion Courts To Stalk Immigrants by Melissa Gira Grant
When immigrant sex workers go to their court dates in New York City’s trafficking courts, will ICE agents be waiting to arrest them after?

President Likes Tweet About Sex-Trafficking Conspiracy Theory by Margaret Hartmann
The 13th tweet the 45th president liked is 100% nuts. We’re in the dark timeline so why shouldn’t this make our list?

Adult Content Creators Are Fighting Patreon’s New Anti-Porn Rules and Here’s How Patreon Politely Makes It Impossible for Adult Content Creators by Samantha Cole
Patreon was one of few safe places for adult creators to get paid online. Until they abruptly and hypocritically changed their mind. The creators fought back.

The Afghan Madam Helping Sex Workers Take Charge Of Their Sexual Health by Michelle Tolson
A profile of madam, ex-sex worker, and peer sex educator Quadria’s heroic harm reduction work with sex workers in Afghanistan.

How $40 Can Land You In Prison For 7 Years And On The Sex Offender Registry For Life by Victoria Law
Enough said? On the minor and adult sex workers caught in the dragnet of the draconian Trafficking Victims Protection Act and how their lives are destroyed.

The Story Behind #NYCStripperStrike by Shawn Setaro
Their grievances involved wage theft, colorism, the nonstop pressure to be popular on social media, and an environment that pits workers on one side of the bar against workers on the other. This is how the #NYCstripperstrike was born.

Rescued From Rights: The Misogyny of Anti-Trafficking by Kimberley Waters
Open Democracy continued its Beyond Slavery series, which looks at trafficking and forced labor “combining the rigour of academic scholarship with the clarity of journalism”, including some excellent pieces on sex work like this one on the horrors of forced rescue as “humanitarian trafficking” in India and this one, My Body Is My Piece of Land by Sine Plambech, on migrant sex workers and debt from their home countries.

After Deadly Vice Sting, Advocates Say End To Prostitution Arrests Is Long Overdue by Emma Whitman and Melissa Gira Grant and Family, Former Attorney of Queens Woman Who Fell to Her Death in Vice Sting Say She Was Sexually Assaulted, Pressured to Become an Informant by Emma Whitman and Melissa Gira Grant, additional reporting by Rong Xiaoqing
The latter piece, an in-depth investigation of the suspicious death of migrant sex worker Yang Song during a massage parlor raid this month, details the concerted assault and harassment she told her family she suffered from the NYPD before her fatal fall out of the parlor window, while the former, earlier piece examines sex worker and Chinese immigrant community responses to her fate.

Death Of A Porn Star by Tina Horn
This Rolling Stone longform piece (by a Tits and Sass contributor!) on the suicide of porn performer August Ames is also one of this year’s best pieces of writing by a sex worker. This nuanced account of homophobia around crossover porn performers and how difficult stigma makes it for adult industry performers to find viable mental health care is a good demonstration of why the two categories overlap so much: upon reading the article, one has to scroll back immediately to check the byline, because surely only a sex worker could have written it.

Black Trans Sex Worker Leaders Reflect On December 17th

For this International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers, Tits and Sass asked two Black trans sex worker leaders what the sex workers’ rights movement should be doing in the face of the epidemic of violence against sex working trans women of color. 

Ceyenne Doroshow is an activist role model in the trans sex worker community. She has been mentored by Miss Major and the late artist and advocate Mother Flawless Sabrina considered her a daughter. She’s worked with Red Umbrella Project and appeared in the documentary Red Umbrella Diaries, and has written a cookbook/memoir. She now works for the organization she founded, GLITS (Gays and Lesbians In Transgender Society), helping trans women seeking asylum, fleeing domestic violence, or being released from incarceration.

With so many deaths that have come over the years, the numbers that we’re counting doesn’t match the work, the jobs [available]. If you don’t want sex workers doing the work, sweetie, employ them! Employ them, have a solution!

In New York City, just a couple of weeks ago—I think last week—the police raided, ICE probably, raided a brothel. A young woman threw herself out of a window to evade probably going back to her country. Is this systematic? Is this what the government wants?

On trans sex workers of color getting the brunt of violence against sex workers

Because we basically are street-based, basically because we have no backing.

Even if you look at the stories of these deaths [of trans sex working women of color] in any newspaper article, especially Black trans women, they get misgendered. So even in their death, they’re robbed of dignity. Why, because they’re a sex worker?

And if you read half the reports from the reporters that report these stories, it kinda says that the reason why [they died] is because of their “lifestyle.” You don’t know what their lifestyle is other than sex work! They could have very ordinary lives. They could actually be working minimum wage jobs that don’t give them sustainable living.

On what individual sex working readers of Tits and Sass and sex workers’ rights organizations can do to help protect sex working trans women of color from violence:

Form a buddy system, form a buddy system and a plan for girls not go out there by theirselves—that way, there is a system of reporting. So we can take care of ourselves as a community. We are a community that deserves dignity and protection.

We need to be a part of the decrim laws! We need to be a part of making sure that these people that murder people are caught and prosecuted—the same way they would do us for sex work!

We need to be a part of making sure that these people that murder people are caught and prosecuted.

On the sex workers’ rights community talking about sex working trans women of color when they die but not valuing trans sex working women of color while they’re alive:

That’s often, that’s often, that’s often [what happens]. Value the lives of the people who are living, then you’ll have less lives to value when they’re dead. Don’t wait until they die to do a December 17th—be a part of the process.

So, forming alliance to protect each other! It’s easy for a cisgender sex work [activist] agency to say, “Oh, well, we give money to trans women”, but you’re not a part of the process where you’re helping create a sustainable safe life for them. [Saying that is] sort of like, “I did my quota,” “well, I gave [to[ them”—instead, find out who we are! That’s often the case, where people are willing to say, “oh, we be putting out five percent,” and they’re not a part of “oh, we saved a life,” or “we actually helped this young woman, who was homeless, who’s on the street, who’s being attacked or beat up because she’s homeless and on the street”—be a part of the advocacy, be a part of trying to solve the problem!

Today we don’t have adequate places for trans sex workers to live, to reside. And this is on a global level. It’s not just here, it’s everywhere. And in some countries, they’d just rather kill them and say it’s ok. The girls that I’ve gotten over from Africa and from other countries [in other regions] have basically escaped by the hair of their teeth from being murdered. 

Ava Talley is a writing enthusiast, sex worker, operations director for the New York Transgender Advocacy Group, and PrEP outreach worker for the National Black Leadership Coalition on AIDS. She currently resides in New York City.

The sex workers’ rights movement needs to be more visible to TWOC in the trade.

Direct outreach is needed because, all too often, I find that TWOC are not aware of the work the sex workers’ rights movement is doing, even if on their behalf. Most TWOC are first introduced [to activism] through transgender advocacy efforts,  which stress “real” work over “sex” work. TWOC often have the perception that they cannot work due to blatant employment discrimination. So, many are survivalists and don’t recognize sex work as an empowering choice. That is often the divide.

I feel that trans community leaders are often implicit in furthering the shame and stigma attached to sex work because they have internalized shame.

It starts with [educating]  transgender community leaders on the sex work is work narrative. I feel that trans community leaders are often implicit in furthering the shame and stigma attached to sex work because they have internalized shame. I remember a trans community leader offering me a job with an organization she was about to launch and [she] said [to me], “You don’t have to do sex work anymore.” I was like, “Thanks, but I am fine. I’d be happy to work with you but I don’t need saving.” Then later, she turns around and asks me about online sex work and ways she could brand to reach a higher level of clientele…and she isn’t the only [one]. So many trans community leaders won’t admit to being sex workers. Even though we all know advocacy often equals ramen. Why?