cultural appropriation

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.


Mariko Passion, from "Colonizer Fantasy" series (Photo by Alex Safron, copyright Mariko Passion 2010)

Mariko Passion, from the “Colonizer Fantasy” series (Photo by Alex Safron, copyright Mariko Passion 2010)

Participants: Ho Lee Fuk 1, Nada 2, Christian Vega3, and Kate Zen; moderated by Mariko Passion

We at Tits and Sass wanted to run a series on racial fetishization in sex work. We were interested in questions like “What is it like for sex workers of color to labor in an industry where customers’ racist attitudes are often allowed to run rampant and may even be encouraged by management or workers themselves as a way to generate more income?” “How does your race shape the way you create and market your work persona?” “Are there advantages as well as disadvantages to being of color and working in the sex industry?” Mariko took this idea, found participants, and ran with it, creating an East Asian sex worker round table. We’d also love to hear from non-Asian sex workers of color on their fetishization in the sex trade and how they cope with it, capitalize on it, and rise above it.

Note from Mariko: This is just one roundtable. No social justice lens was used to select the voices heard here, and to be transparent, all the participants have a four year degree and all except one are part of pretty exclusive circles of global activism and First World/class privileged cisgendered folks. This post is not meant to be THE voice of East Asian sex workers, just an interesting, well voiced snapshot.

What are some racialized marketing techniques you have experimented with in your sex work?

Ho Lee Fuk: My ad did say Asian, and I had a full face pic, but it was both to advertise my race and to warn off clients who weren’t seeking [an] Asian [provider]. Of the great and minor disappointments in life, there’s nothing like getting dim sum when you really want lasagna.

Nada: I just try to be myself, I don’t put ASIAN ASIAN ASIAN everywhere.

Kate Zen: Oh, I market it consciously. Especially here in Quebec, where there are fewer Asians around.

Ho Lee Fuk: There are like four male sex workers in the whole East Bay (location, location, location!), and I was the only Asian. Which meant I didn’t have to compete with these muscle girls with nine inch cocks working in SF. I was kind of the prettiest dish on the knick-knacks table at the church bazaar.

What is one scene involving Asian race play that you refuse to do? What is your criteria for rejection?

Kate Zen: I’m kind of ashamed to say that I don’t have a strong criteria for rejection. If you pay me enough money, most dominant roles are fair game, since it’s all clearly pretend to me anyways. I feel that my client’s personal ignorance is his own problem. I don’t usually make it my job to educate him. However, I don’t often switch or play submissive roles, which is more often the Asian stereotype—so sometimes, just by insisting on a dominant role in every scene, I feel that I am rejecting many Asian stereotypes. In fact, it’s a relief that I can say: “Hey Mom! I’m not exactly a doctor like you wanted, but sometimes, I still get to wear a stethoscope!”

Nada: I refused to be a yoga teacher. I think it is the worst kind of appropriation in the West. But don’t worry—I only apply this criteria to my own actions. I understand everyone will do what they need to in their own lives.

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Comments we received yesterday on our post about SWOP-Phoenix's campaign against Project Rose's diversion initiative (screenshot)

Comments we received yesterday on our post about SWOP-Phoenix’s campaign against Project Rose’s diversion initiative (screenshot)

After the arrest of activist and sex worker Monica Jones, we’ve decided to keep a close eye on Phoenix, Ariz.’s Project R.O.S.E. program. Just a hunch, but it seems a few Project ROSE-ers are keeping an eye on us, too! A big thanks to Project ROSE for reminding us that we should be oh-so-grateful to have the option of forced rehabilitation over arrest.

Red Umbrella Project,  the S.H.I.N.E. Project of the Community Health Network, and Persist Health Project will be hosting a Day of Sex Worker Health and Wellness, including a drop-in workshop on medical services  and free, confidential sexually transmitted infection testing for those in the sex trades on November 19th at 7pm, at 147 Prince Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201. This event will be free and open to the public, but it is especially designed to meet the needs of people in the sex trades.

Our own Tits and Sass co-editor Josephine helped compile a list of the best recent online nonfiction on sex work for Longform.

A new draft of bill AB640, currently stalled in the California Senate, would not only mandate condom use on porn sets for both oral sex and intercourse, but would also instruct employers to provide performers with protective eyewear to avoid ocular contact with semen. (In fact, there are unenforced laws on the books right now that demand these safety measures as well.) We’d like to leave this at that with no additional commentary besides “WTF?”, but since one of us once made a sheepish visit to her local clinic after her boyfriend’s spunk flew into her eye, we have to add that we know firsthand how low the risk of STI transmission is through that route.

Eric Barry tells HuffPo about his difficulties finding a job after outing himself as a former escort on his podcast, Full Disclosure: “I’ve stayed true to myself, and I can say unequivocally I have no regrets about that. But rent looms.” We feel you, dude.

Two new studies on Australian and Thai airports reveal bizarre biases in custom officials regarding whom they stop under suspicion of sex work or being a trafficking victim. Packing lingerie, being Asian, and whether or not the purported victim cries are apparently key factors.

In a story we missed last month, South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma pledged his continued support for the decriminalization of prostitution. Decriminalization will remain on the agenda of the newly appointed SA Law Reform Commission.



RIP Gabriella Liete, veteran Brazilian sex workers' rights activist (photo by Tomas Langel)

RIP Gabriella Liete, veteran Brazilian sex workers’ rights activist (photo by Tomas Langel)

An open letter extravaganza began this week when Sinead O’Connor wrote to Miley Cyrus, warning her that the music industry “will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its[sic] what YOU wanted.. and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, ‘they’ will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body and you will find yourself very alone.” Oh, Sinead, please don’t use the word “prostitute” and all that anti rhetoric—all we want is to keep listening to I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, admiring your bravery for disclosing your Magdalene Laundry trauma. Amanda Palmer joined the fray, writing an open letter on her blog to Sinead, in which she maintains that there should be “room for Miley to rip a page out of stripper culture and run around like a maniac for however long she wants to.” Right, go ahead, Miley, please feel free to keep appropriating Black sex worker culture. Shut up, Amanda Palmer (this should really be said more often.) Autostraddle posited that all this would start a never ending sequence of offensive open letters. O’Connor then wrote a second and a third open letter to Cyrus in which she expostulated further about “acting like a prostitute and calling it feminism,” and how such behavior engenders mental illness (?).

Gabriela Leite, veteran sex workers’ rights activist and founder of Brazilian sex workers’ rights organization Davida, died of cancer yesterday, October tenth, at the age of sixty two.

Tracy Clark-Flory rants in Salon about why she didn’t want her husband to get a lap dance at his bachelor party (but, hey, she’s cool, she’s spent so much time writing about porn!) In the process, she reveals more about her own dysfunctions than any problem with strippers.

Ottawa police officer Sgt. Rohan Beebakhee is under fire in court for meeting with escorts, giving them his card, and saying things like: “I’m just here to let you know, should you have a bad date, or you find yourself in a bad situation, I don’t want you to be hesitant about calling police.”

The World Health organization published a new document informing government agencies and NGOs that sex worker led programs are a fundamental part of the fight against HIV. Sex workers themselves have known for ages how important peer-led projects are, but it’s nice to see it affirmed by mainstream organizations.

In related news, Kenya’s Medical Research Institute states that gay men working in the sex trade need to be included in the country’s HIV prevention strategy. Men who have sex with men are often prevented from accessing HIV testing and medication, and consensual sexual activity between men is illegal under Kenyan law and carries a maximum penalty of fourteen years’ imprisonment.

Cathy Reisenwitz critiques New York’s new prostitution and trafficking courts in Reason. Her op-ed also discusses recent FBI trafficking stings, and there’s a choice quote included from an FBI special agent’s press conference which makes the agency’s agenda of stripping sex workers’ agency abundantly clear: “The FBI is part of the apparatus in place to protect people, sometimes even from their own poor choices.”

In reference to the closing of Edinburgh’s saunas, Vicky Allan writes in a Scotland Herald op-ed that one thing much worse than a world full of super brothels is a world in which sex work is driven underground. At this point, though, we’re pretty tired of feminists prefacing pro-sex workers’ rights sentiments by going on about how uncomfortable they are with sex work. This isn’t about your comfort.

Strip club Rick’s Cabaret banned Giants watching at the club, because their recent string of losses soured customers’ moods.

Socialist PM Maud Olivier, writer of a new proposal for the French government to fine clients of sex workers, acts like she invented the Swedish model. The Local interviewed a spokeswoman for French sex workers’ rights organization STRASS, who explains how the law would further endanger sex workers.



image via @darth

image via @darth

Chanel: When thinking about Miley’s horrible performance at the VMAs, I let out a big sigh. Where do I begin? There was so much wrong with her performance. It wasn’t tasteful or well-choreographed. I wasn’t expecting her to slip back into her role as Hannah Montana and give the VMAs a sweet and boring show, but I sure wasn’t expecting that.

As strippers, we perform on stage for one to three songs per set. Sometimes routines are choreographed well to music and other times it’s short and sweet and then it’s over. When it comes to twerking, it’s about more than just having a big round booty. I’ve seen white women and black women and every color in between shake it well on stage. There’s no huge thought process behind it but it’s hard when you don’t know what you’re doing, just like any other dance move. When (most) strippers shake it, we know it’s for entertainment, so it should be good which can mean extra tips on stage and off stage in terms of lapdance sales. When Miley shakes it, it’s because she’s trying to shock us with her uncoordinated hip wiggles. She’s not like the strippers in her song lyrics. I’ve seen those women, and they are much better than she will ever be.

The show was much like her video, complete with human accessories. I wasn’t shocked that there were big booty black women dancing on stage with her. It wouldn’t be the first time people have accessorized with black women (or women of any race) for entertainment. Countless hip-hop and rap videos use black heavy-bottomed women as accessories. As a black mixed woman, I’m offended by Miley’s choice to do this. I’m not sure what she’s trying to prove or say by hiring black women to act as her friends in the “We Can’t Stop” video and on the VMAs. It’s more than the bad pancake booty twerking. It’s the selected parts of black culture she attempted to portray though her song and dance. There’s more to black and hip-hop/rap culture than what she is picking apart and glorifying. She only glorifies ideas from the way black and hip hop/rap culture is portrayed in the media—grills, twerking, big butts, getting high, being surrounded by hot women and acquiring money. Her performance and song lyrics show that she is completely unaware of what actually defines black and rap/hip hop culture. [READ MORE]