What’s the best place to make business? A ranking from worst to best. [READ MORE]

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Aya de Leon’s new novel, The Boss, tackles the real issues of sex work in a criminalized society without ever coming across as preachy.

De Leon uses the experiences of sex workers and her own life to bring the reader into a diverse, vibrant, and intersectional world. As an isolated black femme sex worker living in a state with a less than 3% black population,The Boss felt like home to me, filled with characters I could recognize in my own family.

The Boss centers on two main characters who I found myself identifying with equally. Tyesha is a street smart but jaded former escort turned clinic director. Lily, Tyesha’s friend, is a Trinidadian stripper struggling to find safety while making ends meet. Lily’s teeth-sucking and reverting to patois when angry made her the realest character for me.

From Trinidadian Lily, to the various immigrants and Latinx characters, to the Chicago-raised African American members of Tyesha’s family, including a trans teen, the author has no problem dispelling the image of Blacks (and browns) as a monolithic culture.

De Leon wastes no time getting deep—whorephobia and racism within the sex industry get addressed in the first two chapters.

When the darker strippers at Lily’s club, 1 Eyed King, attempt to sign in one day to avoid their pay being docked, they’re prevented from doing so due to club politics. Illustrating her perseverance and how accustomed she is to being fucked over, Lily responds by making a new sign-in sheet and using another dancer’s phone as the time stamp while she takes a photo of the evidence that they were shut out, sending it directly to her boss.

Lily enters the story like an Amazonian force of sexuality and fear-inducing street smarts, and she proves to be all that and more. After a young, slim, blonde, white co-ed goes from being a protected favorite inspiring jealousy in the other girls to being the subject of a public attack at work, Lily is the one who physically steps in and puts her own body in the way to save the seemingly more fragile white dancer. Being aware of the privilege this other dancer has over her doesn’t turn Lily cold in the face of the attack. As always, black femmes continue to extend sisterhood to other marginalized people, and this isn’t something that’s lost or glossed over in the book.

Indeed, the black femmes of the story are consistently the ones taking action and even putting themselves in direct fire. Gunfire is almost as common as the hair digs at Tyesha in this book, and it adds up to remind you that even as a high-powered executive, Tyesha remains exposed to a world of violence and criminal elements simply as a result of being black and a former sex worker in America. De Leon acknowledges that as a black person, you aren’t out of danger just because you’re out of the hood. Your race binds you to your community for better or worse, and you’re always within arms-reach of where you came from.

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Three years ago, at this very time of year, this post came across my Tumblr dashboard.  It was the first time I had seen anything like it and I was staggered.

Stripper tumblr (strumplr?) was outraged, and though responses began with the intent of being educational, they devolved quickly as the original poster, Kelly, blasted back with the same clueless defensiveness that most people demonstrate when told they’ve been thoughtlessly oppressive and insulting to another group of marginalized people.

My response then is basically the same as my response now, although the years have honed it and solidified my personal feeling that hobbyists (non-in person sex workers) have no business being within feet of a pole.  If you aren’t going to work fifteen-thirty hours a week in 7” lucite heels; having beer breath burped in your face; learning with each rotation how to do pole tricks, in front of a live audience; risking your position in grad school (“ethical conflict”); your ability to get an apartment (“but your income isn’t documented”); your ability to keep custody of your kids (“she’s a fucking whore who takes it off in front of people for money, she’s clearly an unfit mother,” never mind that that wasn’t a problem when she was giving you her money); then you have no business using us as a costume. You have no business pretending that the performance of labor that wrecks our lower discs and ribs, forcing us to suck in our bellies, point our toes, and arch our back to the point of pain, is somehow relevant to your sexuality. I can’t stop you, but that doesn’t make it right.  We’re not your sexy stripper costume. If you can’t hack the labor, you don’t get the edgy whiff of transgression.

This was my first intro to the “#notastripper” phenomenon, or as I like to call and tag it, “#the gr8 pole deb8.”

It was not to be my last encounter with these people, not by a long shot. It wasn’t even my last encounter with Kelly, who refused to go away or even show any embarrassment and instead proceeded to insist that she “loves and respects strippers, but she’s not just some bitch with daddy issues shuffling around the pole.”

I mean, honestly.  You parse that one.  My life is too short.

“#Notastripper” spawned many articles, because what internet editor doesn’t love that combo of sex work and scantily clad women, especially when it means the lead image can be sexy?  (I may have the only editors of an internet news/pop culture site who do not go for these things.  Bless.) My personal favorite is by Alana Massey, Why is there an ongoing feud between strippers and pole dancers?

All the while pole hobbyists were writing articles and blog posts bemoaning the just truly baffling conflation of pole work with strippers, one woman even daring to say that she was getting stigmatized for her sexuality.  Where to even begin!

In the past three years, however, I have never read anything as ignorant, uneducated, condescending, and blatantly offensive as I did this week, in a post leading up to this week’s International Pole Convention in Atlanta, Georgia.  

In an open letter to her “Exotic Pole Dance Sisters” Nia Burks calls for them to take the stage this weekend mindful of those who came up with their fun extracurricular activity.  All well and good, right?  I felt like finally, an asshole pole hobbyist was taking my demand for them to minimize their asshole-ness seriously and acknowledging strippers.  Righteous. But read on.
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Image via Sebastian Wiertz (flickr user wiertz)

Because the barriers preventing sex workers from being heard are already high enough.

Writers have professional training in one arena, sex workers have professional training in another arena. Sex workers aren’t always equipped with the skillset to pitch to traditional editors. TAS functions as the middle ground, bridging that gap.

Traditional publications interested in publishing sex workers have frequently leaned towards the salacious (and only quite recently has that started to shift). TAS is a space for covering the everyday minutiae of our work.

Because sex workers are also often members of other marginalized communities that are also systematically denied agency and disbelieved as common practice.

Victims of rape, victims of police violence, positive workers,  the working poor, intravenous and street drug users, trans identities, street workers, black bodies, and “no human involved”s are all members of the greater sex worker community.

Because, until recently, the smell test hasn’t failed us.

We regularly reject pitches from contributors that sound fishy. The outing of “faux ho” Alexa DiCarlo is an example of what a sex worker that doesn’t pass the test looks like. Lily Fury was able to embed herself because 99% of her life added up. She was indeed a street worker, an escort, and a heroin user, just as she wrote, with a sex worker community pedigree going back to the Suicide Girls. She has bylines in a variety of publications and, until then, she had verifiably positive rapport with many sex working activists and writers.  She worked hard on her digital blackface. By the time we first interacted with her invented personas, they too had many sex workers who vouched for them. We, until recently, had a positive working relationship with her and no reason not to trust her.

Because we don’t want to be the gatekeeper of who is or isn’t allowed into sex worker spaces.

That’s why we don’t ask for “reciepts,” a video chat, or verification from a second party. That kind of monitoring could create a slippery slope in which those with the most social capital oversee who can access our spaces.

Because we don’t want to know your legal or professional identity.

As it states in our General Submission Guidelines, we actively encourage our writers to use a pseudonym. Sex workers mask their identities for a variety of reasons—mainly that the social penalties for being outed are high.

We, of course, will protect the privacy of our writer’s identities as best we can, but the less we know about your legal or professional personas, the less information we will have to submit should we be subpoenaed or audited.

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Lily Fury, a former Tits and Sass contributor, who fabricated several sex working women of color personas for her personal gain. (Still via Youtube)

Editor’s note: All references to “Bambi” and “#FreeBambi” below only refer to Lily Fury’s fictitious and stolen persona. There is a real Bambi out there who deserves our respect and consideration. 

It’s 3:45 PM Eastern Standard Time and, thankfully, I’m off work from my job at a grocery store—this means, just like on any given, average day off, I’d be able to enjoy my day how I would like: writing, playing X Box, binge watching Netflix, whatever floats my boat, really. That was my plan today—until I clicked around online to find out more about #FreeBambi and if we had enough extra money in our checking account to be able to donate today.

Listen: for over 15 years now, I’ve been involved in the sex trades in one way or another. For the last three years, although I’ve been officially retired from sex work, I still write, think, and talk about it often. I donate quietly and as often as I can to whatever crowdfund or offering plate passing I see on social media or hear about from friends. I send and receive plenty of love from friends who are or have been in the business. In short, it’s very much still a part of my life and, if I were to have talked to you yesterday, “it will always be a part of my life,” is absolutely something I would have said—with no trace of irony present.

I loved sex work. I loved how I was able, while living with PTSD and depression, to provide for myself and have a life. I loved how I was able to choose when I could work and not worry about being terminated or written up if I called in sick—hell, there’s no calling in sick in sex work, there’s just… not working today. I loved being able to work as far as my energy would take me while still honoring my body and spirit—and also knowing if I didn’t have it in me, it was ok. I loved it—and still some days miss it. I miss working hard, making my own rules, setting my own boundaries, and using the tool of my desirability (as perceived by others) to craft a life for myself. It feels funny now, to say “I loved sex work.” I never thought I would say that, but here at 37 years old, it rings true and authentic for me—and it’s an important part of what I’m about to say next, because I did truly love the work of it.

What I never loved and have never made bones about is, well, pretty much everything else. I never loved the sex of it, the struggle and poverty, the sexism, the weight (and fat) shame and abuse, the open and safe space for pedophiles and predators, the lies and lying, the homophobia and discrimination, or the racism, gaslighting about racism, and justification of racism of it. I never loved being part of an industry where I knew that, simply because of the arbitrary, human notion of race, I would never be able to live the full life I’d dreamed of in that space. I figured out through talking with other Black and Latina sex working friends—this wasn’t an imaginary ship I was sailing, and I wasn’t alone in it. We were all together in it: full service girls who were turned away from brothels because “We already have a Black girl,” or dancers who, no matter how high they flew in tricks or how hard they twerked on the floor, could rarely (unless they were in a predominantly urban space and a wealthy party showed up—which is once in a very blue moon) make enough money to afford paying nightly/weekly fees to work at the clubs. Full service outside girls who dealt with rapes and sexual assaults by cops—knowing they could never report because they would never be believed (or worse, they’d be targeted later) because Black women are often considered both hypersexual and undesirable and, thus, un-rape-able. I never loved those parts of it, and today, while we talk about racism, the sex industry, and Black women who are sex workers, we need to talk about how #FreeBambi has a role in it. [READ MORE]

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