As a Vegas resident and sex worker for nearly a decade, the massacre there hits close to home. Too close, actually, as knowledge of the shooter’s proclivities for erotic services surface. In fact, my first response to images of the shooter was, “He looks familiar.” I chalked it up to the fact that every white cis dude looks like Stephen Paddock. But now, I’m not so sure I didn’t see him around. And while I cannot claim that I ever saw Paddock as a client myself, I am familiar with the terrain of the Vegas sex industry and wouldn’t be surprised if the two of us crossed paths.
The fact that the Las Vegas shooter was a client of sex workers is meaningful, but not for the reasons that most civilians think.
Already, Paddock’s history of domestic abuse is being conflated with his consumption of erotic labor, as if the two are undeniably related. “I’m paying for your drink, just like I’m paying for you,” Paddock said to his girlfriend inside a Starbucks, according to reporter Max de Haldevang. The implication, of course, is that a man who reduces a woman to a latte is a man who can also unapologetically and ruthlessly take the lives of nearly 60 innocent people. And when civilians perpetuate the notion that the sex industry reduces women to objects, they also perpetuate the notion that clients of sex workers are necessarily violent.
Conservatives and feminists alike claim that the relationship between domestic abuse and seeing sex workers simultaneously represents a particular kind of entitlement to bodies. For conservatives, this entitlement is allegedly engendered from a debauched sexuality that deviates from heteronormativity. For feminists, this entitlement, they argue, comes from toxic masculinity in which men demand access to the erotic, emotional, and general physical labor of women. Domestic abuse and commercial sex are easily conflated in this equation, as both are predicated on the belief that feminine bodies are the property of men. These simplistic analyses of masculinity are easy to digest—that’s why our culture propagates them. It allows us to distance ourselves from men like Stephen Paddock, much like the “mentally ill” trope does. It allows us to look at this familiar face and say, “Not me!”
But Paddock was not mentally ill and he is not an anomaly. He was the perfect incarnation of white masculinity under a white supremacist heteropatriarchy. What’s more significant than the fact that he was a client of sex workers is that he was a bad fucking client. Officials say Las Vegas prostitutes have provided perhaps the most telling profile of Paddock, “known by them as a regular customer, who was a cheap man who didn’t display emotion.”
When civilians and mainstream media talk about violent men and their affinity for commercial sex, they always conveniently leave out the fact that these violent men are not violent because they pay for sex. They seek out the services of sex workers because they know that if they rain violence down on our bodies, we legally and socially have no recourse. As Valerie Scott says in her brilliant TEDx Talk, men like Paddock are “abusers pretending to be clients.” Homogenous descriptions of clients are harmful for this reason—the argument that Paddock represents the typical sex work client will only be used as evidence to further restrict the human and legal rights of sex workers. And the fewer rights afforded to sex workers, the more access that abusers pretending to be clients have to our services and our bodies.
Let’s be real—the client who low-balls sex workers, who wastes sex workers’ time, who blackmails us for lower prices, who feels entitled to free sex with us more closely resembles non-client men than “typical” clients of sex workers. And of course, the ability to reject bad clients is undeniably about social class and I do not wish to dismiss the horrible experiences that many sex workers have had. What I mean is that this toxic, masculine entitlement to bodies, especially the sense of entitlement to free sex, is more pervasive, more damaging, and more violent than the belief in fair compensation for emotional, erotic, and physical labor. Paddock was a bad, cheap client because he was a white, entitled man like most white, entitled men living under a white supremacist heteropatriarchy. He has more in common with most non-client men than with most clients of sex workers.
In my time as a sex worker, I began formulating archetypes of clients. My two least favorite, and the two “kinds” of clients I avoided like the plague, were The Cowboy and The Frat Boy. I could tell the former by his apathy and inattention to the needs of literally everyone else around him. Similarly, The Frat Boy—in his white hat turned backward, enormous white truck, and glowing white baby skin—had an ego as fragile as his temperament. Both The Cowboy and The Frat Boy could be prevailed on to brawl, pull out their guns and dicks within a moment’s notice, drunkenly espouse contempt for “illegals,” and grab women’s tits at will—a show of profound disdain for femininity and an inexplicable fear of one’s own self. They were volatile, violent, and entitled assholes. They drunkenly pissed themselves and still demanded lap dances. They demanded everything but refused to pay for it. They came into sex work spaces as visitors. They existed in these spaces to perform their own masculinity, to prove something to themselves and to the men around them, always at the expense of sex workers. And they are more like the men I see at Target, at the coffee shop, and at the gas station than the men I saw regularly as a stripper and occasional escort.
Stephen Paddock was a little bit Cowboy and a little bit Frat Boy. Most of all, his violence should be understood as the extension of masculine entitlement to bodies, an entitlement that the sex industry assuages, in some ways, by charging men for what they typically demand for free.
And, we should all be extremely distraught by the fact that our entire country would have much more information about the Las Vegas shooter if sex workers could come forward without fear of immediate arrest. The social and legal control of sex workers’ bodies, the fact that even post-national tragedy the people with the most information cannot come forward for fear of arrest, demonstrates the pervasiveness of violence against sex workers and the toxic, masculine control of our bodies. And once we stop blaming the sex industry for that violence and start blaming the entitlement that leads white men down a path of violence, perhaps the United States will cease to be the world’s leader in mass shootings.