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Trixie isn't taking any of your shit. (Still from Deadwood)

Trixie isn’t taking any of your shit. (Still from Deadwood)

Editor’s note: Extreme spoiler alert. Seriously, do yourself a favor and watch Deadwood before reading this, if for some inexplicable reason you haven’t yet.

I started watching Deadwood when the cabbie I was sleeping with at the time told me it was a Wild West show about a town run by whores. “You’ll love it!” he assured me. Turns out he was almost entirely wrong about the plot, but he was right about me loving it. The sex workers are a small part of the overall action, yet the majority of female characters are sex workers. And for me, the sex workers are the heart of the show, its moral and empathic compass. But empathy and ethics can have a price, especially for the marginalized.

Creator David Milch explains that the creation of Deadwood was based on his desire to explore the formation of civilization out of chaos. Chaos is what the territory of Deadwood is when the series opens. It’s the go-to headline for any sporting event or Republican or Democratic convention that sex workers flock to where the money is. In terms of boom towns like Deadwood it’s largely true, not just because of the presence of fast and loose cash, but because of the freedom of movement, both social and physical, offered by the very lack of civilization Milch is exploring.

That life in the still-lawless camp of Deadwood allows a certain amount of freedom as well as deprivation is obvious, and that lives lived on the margins of a camp like Deadwood offer liberty and danger, even to women, even to sex workers, is made apparent immediately in the first episode. Thirteen minutes in a gun goes off in Al Swearingen’s saloon-brothel.

“Aw, hell,” says right-hand man Dan Dority despairingly. “That fuckin whore.”

And so we meet Trixie (Paula Malcomson), who enters with a literal bang, as she’s just shot and killed a client in self-defense.

“He was beating on me! I told him not to beat on me!” she explains hopelessly, knowing already her bruises won’t be an adequate excuse to her boss. Swearingen beats her himself, adding a reminder to everyone that she’s not allowed to own a gun. Unfazed, Trixie immediately sneaks her servant friend, Jewel, money to bring her another gun.

The freedom allowed her here may not be immediately apparent to a civilian, but the fact that she was allowed to defend herself against a beating, to shoot someone without being fired or killed, and allowed to continue working with everyone’s unspoken knowledge that she’s just going to acquire another gun, is massive. This freedom will be lost by the untimely end of the show, when civilization comes in the barbaric entrepreneur figure of George Hearst.

In the meantime, the sex workers of the first season have a singular amount of screen time, especially with the arrival of Joanie (Kim Dickinson) and the other girls of Bella Union, the new brothel, waving brightly from owner Cy Tolliver’s festively festooned wagon. This entrance highlights something that hasn’t been visible till now: Swearingen’s joint, the Gem, is a rough-and-tumble working class saloon and brothel. While the Gem girls wear loose shifts and little or nothing else, the Bella Union workers are adorned with the Wild West fashion you’ve been dreaming of: beribboned corsets, garters, thigh highs, hair in tumbled curls and cascading updos. I’d watch the show just for their clothes. Unfortunately, it’s the men running this here town and you know there’s going to be a clash with a fancy new brothel steppin’ on Swearingen’s turf.

In the background of Swearingen and Tolliver’s turf war, being used as pawns, are the vibrant women who work for them. I’m focused on Joanie and Trixie here, and the handful of other sex workers who are allowed plotlines. While they’re considered tools in the political struggles between Tolliver and Swearingen, and then between Swearingen and Hearst, the camera shows this to be a misjudgment and a mistake on the part of the men (one that only Swearingen learns from, belatedly). While not exactly happy, Joanie and Trixie are lively presences, not the passive background decor sex workers function as on shows like The Sopranos. Even when they’re silent, we can feel their judgment, and so can Tolliver and Swearingen.

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aneonwastelandpicSusan Dewey conducted fieldwork for her academic study at a strip club she calls “Vixens” in a town she calls “Sparksburgh” in the post-industrial economy in upstate New York. She describes interacting with approximately 50 dancers but focuses on a few: Angel, Chantelle, Cinnamon, Diamond, and Star. Some names were changed, but these pseudonyms will sound familiar to anyone who has spent time in a club. The run-down club offers entertainment for working class people in an area with high unemployment. The club is not glamorous but is perceived as the best opportunity in a place of few options, including a few other bars with exotic dancers.

The first chapter opens with a quote from a dancer addressing Dewey: “You grew up like all of us and so you understand.” This context is important because money and socio-economic class are the main topics of the book. The book describes the women’s lives: poor starts in foster care, having children early, low levels of education, little financial or moral family support, economic contraction in the region, unreliable boyfriends and substance use. Dewey’s primary focuses are family and economics, contributing to a small but important body of work (I think of Jo Weldon’s piece in Sex Work Matters) examining the income provided by sex work. In other words, she studies the work rather than the sex. [READ MORE]

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One of Melissa Gira Grant's Carceral Feminist Cat memes at carceralfeministcat.tumblr.com

One of Melissa Gira Grant’s Carceral Feminist Cat memes at carceralfeministcat.tumblr.com

You can read part one of this dialogue here.

Emma Caterine: Red Umbrella Project has definitely encountered issues around pressure to conform to respectability politics from larger groups who fund or sponsor us in different ways. It is telling that I can’t mention many of the specifics for fear of re-opening old wounds. Particularly the issue of trafficked people, especially children, is presented as something we “have” to deal with, account for, and fight against despite the fact that it does not fall under our purview. I know not at all groups that work with sex workers restrict themselves from working with survivors of trafficking (i.e. Sex Worker’s Project) and I admire their work. However, I think the pressure to always bring up trafficking any time sex work is mentioned is definitely a part of respectability politics, even replicated by advocates who are or have worked in the sex trades. Thoughts and experiences?

Sarah Patterson: This is definitely an ongoing discussion within Persist. Since some of our founding organizers have had experiences in the sex trades that might be regarded as trafficking by some definitions of the term, a need to hold space for trafficking survivors has been of particular import to us. Also, health access for all people in the sex trades is part of our mission, so trafficking survivors are absolutely included as folks who can and should access our services. But how to do that, without playing into the binary-driven debate of trafficking survivors versus sex workers, rather than trafficking survivors and/or sex workers? Even using the phrase “trafficking survivors and sex workers” suggests that they are independent groups, which we know is not necessarily the case, based on individuals’ experiences or whose definition of the terms you are using.

Sometimes it seems as though any deviation from the heavy emotionality and highly negative filter given to most anti-trafficking language/semantics is read as “happy hooker” code. I aim for as much neutrality as possible when I speak about the sex trades, in an effort to be as inclusive of as many experiences as possible, but it seems as though even neutrality gets skewed to the “pro-sex work” side in such a highly ideological debate. I suppose therein lies the trap of it…

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(via Meme Generator)

(via Meme Generator)

“Respectability politics” has been a recurring phrase coming up lately in conversations within the sex workers’ rights movement. In discussions on and off the site we’ve had about drug using sex workers, sex workers with disabilities, survival sex workers, etc., we’ve been bumping up against this idea constantly. The Tits and Sass editorial staff decided to bring together a group of veteran sex workers’ rights activists and service providers and ask them how respectability politics ideology affected their work and how we in the movement can best counter these tropes.

How do you define respectability politics? How have respectability politics affected your service work in the sex workers’ rights movement?

Emma Caterine1: That’s a pretty broad question and Red Umbrella Project (at this time, we have been considering expanding to this role) is not a service provider, but let’s see if I can answer:

Respectability politics is something incredibly tangible in our legislative advocacy efforts. We are effectively told time and time again, although we are on the executive committee of the No Condoms as Evidence Coalition, that we shouldn’t “make it” an issue about folks in the sex trades. Which is a bit perplexing since there are two major populations whom the practice of using condoms as evidence affects in direct regular ways: those profiled as being in the sex trades and those who are in the sex trades. The former is comprised of identities associated with the sex trades both culturally and institutionally: trans women of color, gender variant people of color, low income women, undocumented women, etc. While it is certainly a travesty that these folks are being arrested, harassed, and even physically attacked by the police over carrying condoms, it has been extremely important for us at Red Umbrella to not imply that they are the ones who “do not deserve it,” since that insinuates that those in the sex trades deserve to be subjected to this oppression. Not to mention that the two groups are hardly mutually exclusive.

And it is certainly the attitude and language the decision makers (politicians and other public figures) have adopted when they do come out to support the No Condoms as Evidence bill: it will be prefaced with a “I in no way condone prostitution”, it will be followed by pulling one of the largest stings on clients of sex workers, or any number of methods or statements to absolve themselves of being in any way in support of something that is associated with the sex trades. You do have to buy into it to a certain extent though: I mean I was a well-dressed smiling trans woman who was ever so interested in what a staffer from DA of Nassau County Rice’s office had to say to us. His advice was important to our strategy for getting the legislation passed. But as a member of a peer-based group dedicated to empowering those in the sex trades, there needs to be a balance. Kathleen Rice and I won’t be getting coffee in the near future or posing for a photo op. I didn’t even give this staffer my card when he gave me his because outside of that meeting there is no utility in us interacting and I am not going to pretend there will be for the sake of respect. Because I don’t respect those who throw people in jail that are not only the people I am fighting for but also friends and loved ones. And in my experience confident adherence to your principles garners respect just as often if not more than playing to some idea of respectability.

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StripClubPrice-GlynnIn the midst of Girls Gone Wild culture, in which stripping is made to seem effortless and women’s naked bodies are cast as easily replaceable, Kim Price-Glynn enters the Lion’s Den. The Den, a seedy strip club in a small, white, working-class town in the Northeast, is a far cry from the glamorous media images of low lights, glamorous makeup, and dazzling stage sets. Quite the contrary, the Den’s physical layout—run-down and in serious need of repair—mirrors the niche its strippers occupy as the exploited and expendable employees of a club centered around male desire and profit.

Strip Club: Gender, Power, and Sex Work is an ethnography by Price-Glynn in which she explores what she calls the “gendered processes” underlying the organizational structure at a strip club. While working as a cocktail waitress, Price-Glynn turned her attention to the formal and informal processes by which strip club employees, dancers, and customers exercised authority and had their needs and desires fulfilled. Who “wins” when it comes to stripping? Her answer, while attentive to the ambiguities, suggests that males—customers and employees—“win.” Strippers get the short end of the stick.

Price-Glynn doesn’t believe that strip clubs need to be shut down, nor that strippers are caught in cycles of abuse. Instead, she places the “blame” for the exploitative conditions experienced by Lion’s Den dancers on a larger culture of misogyny. Rape culture, the permissibility of violence, and the unique intersection in the club of racism, ageism, and sizeism are overarching social realities that converge to enable the Den’s brand of sexist exploitation. [READ MORE]

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