classism

aholtzclawbirthday

Content warning: this piece contains general discussion of rape.

On his 29th birthday, December 10th, former Oklahoma City Police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who targeted low income, criminalized Black women and girls for sexual assault while on duty, was found guilty of 18 of the 36 charges brought against him. He now faces up to 263 years in prison when he is formally sentenced next month. His crimes were calculated and monstrous. But as uplifting as it is to hear his vindicated victims sing “Happy Birthday,” I can’t help but feel like the knife stuck six inches into my back has only been pulled out three inches.

Holtzclaw’s crimes are far from a rarity. The Associated Press reported that from 2009 to 2014, almost 1000 officers have been decertified or terminated due to sexual misconduct. A 2010 study published by the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project reported that sexual misconduct was the second most common form of police misconduct. The report also found “assault and sexual assault rates significantly higher for police when compared to the general population.”

Holtzclaw’s crimes were hardly covered by major outlets and that tepid coverage robbed me of any lasting feeling of accomplishment in his conviction. And according to prosecutors, Buzzfeed, the Daily Mirror, The New York Times, Jezebel, the Daily Beast, the Washington Post and many other publications, this rapist is behind bars because he “messed up“: he raped the “wrong” woman, Janie Ligons, a woman with no previous criminal record, no record of drug use or sex work—someone who felt free to report her rape. This woman was someone whose assault demanded an answer.

If Ligons is the “wrong” victim, then am I and hundreds of thousands of other Black sex workers the “RIGHT” victim? Historically speaking, in America, the answer is yes, and that terrifies me. It’s hard to puff out your chest and declare the Holtzclaw verdict proof of progress when he wouldn’t have been taken off the streets had Ligons not come forward. Ligons filed a civil suit against Oklahoma City prior to the criminal trial. She seeks damages based on the fact that Holtzclaw was already being investigated for sexual misconduct but was allowed to continue to patrol low income Black neighborhoods. At least one other woman, identified as TM, made a report to police previously that Holtzclaw assaulted her before Ligons was raped.

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(Image via plasticdollheads.com, courtesy of Gemma Ahearne)

(Image via plasticdollheads.com, courtesy of Gemma Ahearne)

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.

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Amber Rose, via her Instagram page.

Amber Rose. (Via her Instagram page.)

Recently, Amber Rose has been in the spotlight for giving her opinion on The Breakfast Club 105.1 regarding Kim Kardashian’s 17-year-old half sister Kylie Jenner’s relationship with 25-year-old rapper Tyga. Rose was asked if Jenner is too young to date the “Rack City” rapper, and she responded with: “She’s a baby. She needs to go to bed at 7:00 o’clock and relax.” She also said Tyga should be ashamed of himself for leaving his family for a minor.

Let’s untangle this celebrity web. Rose has a close friendship with celebrity exotic dancer Blac Chyna. Chyna dated Tyga for a little over two years and had a child with him. Tyga split with Chyna last August and allegedly began a relationship with Jenner. In case you didn’t know, Jenner’s older half sister, Kim Kardashian, is married to Kanye West, whom Rose had a relationship with from 2008 to 2010, during which her modeling career launched when she posed for a Louis Vuitton print advertisement that featured West’s sneaker line. Later, Rose dated rapper Wiz Khalifa, with whom she had a son.

So that’s why The Breakfast Club asked Rose about Jenner. The interview spread like wildfire throughout social media. When Khloe Kardashian caught wind of Rose’s comments, she took to Twitter to attack Rose. In one tweet, she brought up the fact that Rose had stripped as a minor, saying, “Please don’t worry about my sister who has a career [modeling] and her shit.”

Rose’s romantic history is regularly the topic of gossip, but her background is more interesting. Raised in South Philadelphia, Rose became a stripper to support her family at the age of 15. In 2012, she did an interview for NecoleBitchie.com where she stated that when she and her mother became homeless, being an exotic dancer at a young age was simply a means of survival. She compared her situation to men who also live in poverty selling drugs to feed their families.

So in response to Kardashian, Rose clapped back in a series of tweets that highlighted Kardashian’s hypocrisy. She even tweeted “I’ll be that lil whore to support my family like ur sister is a whore 2 supports hers.”

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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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Trust that all sex workers know just how fascinating white men in positions of power find them. I’m not going to be impressed that one of them condescended to consider that sex workers are worthy of being written about. I’ll be impressed when sex workers are considered authorities of their own lives and get recognition for the art, science, and analysis they have to offer about themselves and any other topic under the sun…Note to Joss [Whedon]: you need a sex worker consultant, mmmkay? Hire one to help you write the whores you seem to admire.

-Miss Maggie Mayhem explains why Firefly’s Inara is more of  “a white nerd’s wet dream” than a positive portrayal of a sex worker.

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