disability

(Photo by Flickr user Patrick Harris)

This is a hard piece for me to write, because everything I’m about to describe is still very fresh.

Two years ago, the all-over body pain and extreme exhaustion I’d been dealing with began to become more common. But I was still only using my cane sporadically, allowing me to work the stroll and occasionally go on outcalls from Backpage.

The doctors had confirmed fibromyalgia, as well as chronic fatigue syndrome. At the time, these diagnoses felt validating. The body pain, the spasming tendons and odd stabbing pains that I could name—this one felt like a rusty railroad spike going up through my foot, another like a piece of rebar traversing my torso diagonally, another like needles being shoved under my fingernails—were not my imagination, nor was the exhaustion that kept me sleeping for 19-plus hours a day, often for weeks at a time.

I was still occasionally able to make it out without my cane at this point. It had become a comfort and it provided a sense of security, a way to signal a request for patience when I was unable to move as quickly as others, and it allowed relief from the pains that shot like lightning up the bones of both my legs. But I knew that as a fat, tattooed, (although cis passing) trans woman, the cane would work against me on the stroll. Though I was 47 at the time, I easily passed as closer to 30 (the “Trans Fountain of Youth”?). But sex work is mean. Anything that detracted from cis-hetero-able-bodied standards of beauty meant lost income, so I leaned a lot. I’d stop by the church gates and rest, half-hoping I’d go unnoticed so I could regain a bit of my strength, half-hoping I’d be noticeable enough to catch a car date without having to move to more lucrative stretches of the stroll.

[READ MORE]

{ 11 comments }

“Patients Waiting To See A Doctor, With Figures Representing Their Fears” by Rosemary Carson (via wikimedia)

Most people have some form of a lurid narrative about drugs, exploitation, childhood abuse, and mental illness come to mind when they imagine the life of a sex worker. However, sex workers’ relationships to their identity are far more complex and difficult to characterize than that trite narrative allows for. When it comes to sex workers who do live with the stereotypical trope of also having a mental illness, it becomes even more essential to uncover what these sex workers themselves have to say about their lived experiences of that mental illness and sex work.

People diagnosed with mental illness frequently have their decisions invalidated and undermined by the dominant culture. Many individuals who do not have much experience with mental illness will attribute any socially unacceptable behaviors to “mental illness.” In much the same way, people who have never been in the sex industry tend to sideline the decisions of sex workers by inferring that trauma or abuse must have predestined them to a life in the sex industry. When people who are neither mentally ill nor in the sex industry say these things, they are robbing us of our ability to exert agency.

Amber, a full-service worker from Washington DC, states, “I very strongly believe that the way that society treats sex workers, mentally ill people and other marginalized communities (that often intersect)…[is] based on kyriarchal/patriarchal, colonialist, and capitalist systems of control. In order to treat marginalized people better, I think we all have a lot of work to do regarding the unlearning of certain stigmas and stereotypes.”

The presence of stigma is one the key aspects of institutional violence keeping communities and individuals subjugated. It proliferates because it benefits those in power in this way. Stigma creates legal and moral justifications for the criminalization of sex work in America. It also creates an environment in which mentally ill people can be stripped of their rights through court-ordered institutionalization, coerced medication, and the assignation of relatives as proxies to control them legally and financially. The disqualification of the decision-making abilities of communities on the margins is a weapon of the oppressor.

Tara Johnson, a stripper from Portland, Oregon, elaborates on the ways in which decision making can be invalidated based on association with the sex industry, especially if one also has a diagnosis of mental illness: “Just because I’m (sometimes) crazy, doesn’t mean I’m wrong. My sex work was not me acting out, or indulging in yet another form of self-harm. It was nothing that entitles people to belittle my full humanity. It’s nothing that automatically means that mentally ill sex workers, especially ones who may have other issues too (drug use, etc.) should automatically be deprived of the rights that privileged, able-bodied civilians are entitled to.”

Sex work is not a dysfunctional behavior stemming from our disease. Rather, it is often the best choice we can make to adapt to our mental illness. In truth, many people with mental illness find sex work helpful in a variety of ways as an occupational choice. It gives us a less rigorous schedule which allows for more emotional instability. Sex work can also affirm us as something we can excel at when mental illness has hindered our success in more traditional pursuits.

[READ MORE]

{ 6 comments }

(Photo by Du R Maciel via Flickr)

(Photo by Du R Maciel via Flickr)

Disability is the reason that I’m no longer a dancer.  Occasionally, I’d fool myself and go back to work for a while, and then remember why I can’t do it anymore.  The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.  Dancing is hard on the body – and for my body, it’s particularly difficult.  I’m having a hell of a time with chronic pain, and as it stands right now, it’s painful when I walk or drive. Thinking I can dance an eight-hour shift these days is an exercise in self-delusion.

I’m Mel, formerly known as Valkyrie.  I started dancing when I was 20, and I retired this year.  I’m bipolar, and I’m also physically disabled.  I have a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS).  My joints are very easily dislocated, and I have issues with back and neck misalignment, dislocations, subluxations, moderate to severe chronic pain, and chronic fatigue.  Think major arthritis and a hand tremor, and that’s the reality of the body I’m living in.  I should mention that I am about to turn 31, and none of these conditions are readily apparent unless I talk about them, or unless I’m visibly wearing braces.  

Disability is pretty common in the sex work industryoverwhelmingly, invisible disability.  Many sex workers choose sex work because they can pick their own hours.  The ability to earn high amounts of money in a short period of time really helps conserve spoons/limited energy, which is particularly helpful when dealing with a painful condition.  Many dancers, models, cam girls, and full-service workers suffer from chronic pain or physical limitations.  Mental illness is also very common; I’ve personally run into people with PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, and at least one sociopath (who, lest you get the wrong idea, is a friend of mine and a wonderful person, all stereotypes to the contrary).  Mental illness can be disabling to a greater or lesser degree, depending upon circumstances.

I have some tips for those of us who are dealing with disability. Then I’ll be discussing disabled customers and how we can interact with them in a way that’s good for both them and us.

[READ MORE]

{ 4 comments }

Alissa Afonina. (Photo by Twitter user carnalcinema, courtesy of Alissa Afonina.)

Alissa Afonina. (Photo by Twitter user carnalcinema, courtesy of Alissa Afonina.)

In 2008, high school student Alissa Afonina, her mother Alla Afonina, and her brother were in a disastrous car accident on the Trans-Canada highway, the result of her mother’s boyfriend Peter Jansson’s reckless driving running the car off the road and overturning it. Both Alissa and her mother suffered brain injuries. Alla, a Russian immigrant with a degree in chemical engineering, began to have trouble with basic arithmetic and was unable to keep her job as a bookkeeper. Alissa, a bright student with film making aspirations prior to the accident, began the 12th grade displaying problems with impulse control, following directions, memory, energy level, and social appropriateness in class. She dropped out of school to finish grade 12 at home, and was able to only briefly attend college. Psychiatric evaluation revealed that she didn’t have the ability to maintain most employment.

Around 2013, Alissa Afonina became a pro domme in order to support herself, working under the name Sasha Mizaree. In January 2015, the British Colombian Supreme Court finally awarded Afonina and her mother 1.5 million in damages for loss of employment opportunities. Most reporting on this story has taken the court case and salaciously interpreted it as “BRAIN DAMAGE TURNED HER INTO A SEX MANIAC DOMINATRIX!” The following is a condensed and edited version of the e-mail conversation Afonina and I had to clear up the whorephobic hype.

Can you talk about the importance of sex work as an option for disabled people?

Sex work should be decriminalized. The fact is, many disabled or otherwise marginalized people need this as an option, and it makes no sense to take [it] away or make it more dangerous for sex workers to screen clients (which is what happens when you have the Swedish model for example) without offering alternatives.

I am thankful that in my area I was able to work without any legal issues. That is a freedom that everyone should have, disabled or not. However, people with limited options especially need that freedom.

When it comes to brain injuries, what one aspect of your condition do you wish the public were more educated about? How would you instruct our readers to be sensitive to people suffering from the sort of injuries you have?

A huge thing is that people think you need to “look” disabled for it to be “real.” For example, if I had a scar on my face but had no physical or mental difficulties, people would probably feel much more automatically accepting of the reality of my injury. It’s rather backwards since the brain is such an important organ and even small changes in it can have devastating effects, but still, time and time again it comes down to me not looking the way people imagine a disabled person should look.

Another huge thing is how against medication people are when it comes to emotional problems. I have been told countless times by people with zero medical training that I should look for more “natural” alternatives and get off antidepressants ASAP. Can you imagine someone telling a person to get off insulin or their heart meds? But when it comes to things like antidepressants, everyone thinks they’re an expert. Truth is, I had a hard enough time accepting that I need a pill in order to function, and don’t need anyone else doubting me.

Lastly, I wish everyone who got a concussion of any kind would pressure their doctor to do an actual MRI, not just a CT scan. I had a CT scan done when the accident happened and it didn’t show soft tissue damage. Only an MRI did a year later. The only reason that was even done was because my mom took charge of the situation, and a lot of people I talk to seem to think that concussions aren’t a big deal.

As you wrote to me in our initial e-mails, the way the media framed the quotes from the judge and your lawyers in your case was “done specifically to support the sensationalism.” In most coverage on your case, the judgement is interpreted to imply that only someone who was incapable of making “correct decisions” would ever choose to do sex work, rather than sex work being the most rational economic option for someone who’d suffered a brain injury which made it impossible for them to earn a degree or work at a nine-to-five job. How would you retell the story the media tried to tell for you?

The judge’s comment [“the plaintiff argues that it [her pro-domme work] shows a lack of correct thinking on the part of Alissa”], at least how I understood it, had to do with lack of safety measures implemented for my work. That part is very true as I failed to have even the most basic safety measures such as texting a friend. The judge also made comments about how he understood my financial needs and he actually declined the request to open the trial when the defense brought in “new” evidence showing that I am still working. This leads me to believe his comments were not meant to be sex worker negative.

My brain injury is supported by far more than just the sexual symptoms, which is all the media decided to focus on. The truth is I have brain scans, countless assessments and [a] history of behavior that is totally congruent with my type of brain injury. I very much wish that my story was just as readable to people if it was not full of flashy sexual context to spark their enthusiasm. I would love for people to be [just as] interested in being educated about mental illnesses and brain injuries.

[READ MORE]

{ 3 comments }

Angela Bassett as Desiree Dupree, American Horror Story: Freak Show's intersex sex worker (Screenshot from American Horror Story )

Angela Bassett as Desiree Dupree, American Horror Story: Freak Show’s intersex sex worker (Screenshot from American Horror Story)

Adapted from a g-chat between Caty Simon and Maggie Mcmuffin:

American Horror Story: Freak Show draws on the traditional connection between perfomativity and sex work. Acting has always been connected with prostitution, since before the Jacobean era to very recently. And by connecting performance in a freak show with sex work, the show is pathologizing both.

The show’s creators might argue that they’re humanizing these “freak” characters, but why else would they see the freak show as a perfect setting for a horror story if they weren’t pathologizing it? In a lot of these characters’ stories, sex work is naturally connected to freak show performance—it’s just one rung down a ladder of degradation. Yet, despite that innate problem with American Horror Story’s sex worker representation, many of its central characters this season have been revealed as sex workers, so Maggie Mcmuffin and I couldn’t resist taking a closer look at the first five episodes.

Maggie McMuffin: A lot of the time, historically, freak shows were a way for people with disabilities to make their living on their terms. For the most part, they were very non-exploitative.

Caty Simon: I think that AHS does capture some of that feeling of family, the connection of a marginalized group taking shelter with each other against the world. But they also play on these supposed deformities for chills and laughs. And AHS’ Freak Show does constantly threaten its participants with exploitation. Both the Strong Man and Elsa are shown to be dictatorial and oppressive bosses.

Four depictions of sex work in the first five episodes—at least that’s a good amount of representation if nothing else.

So, how about Jimmy Darling, the first time we see him, in those head-to-toe leathers that scream “midcentury hustler”?

Maggie: Oh god, they do, he’s clearly going for that Marlon Brando swagger and it works.

Caty: I really liked the fact that he serves female customers via a Tupperware party. That’s so cutely 50s.

Maggie: I love that it’s the women at that party who we see talking the most and expressing their sexual needs.

Caty: It’s true to life in that the clients fetishize his disability—his flipper becomes all about its fingerbanging fun potential.

Maggie: The men from Elsa’s flashback don’t talk much. We don’t hear much from the boys Desiree is seeing. But those housewives are all about getting off.

Caty: I did think it was a bit of a cop-out in that it’s a portrayal of a male sex worker serving women clients when we know, realistically, how tiny that market is. But I did love his saucy grin as he worked.

Maggie: True. I’m torn between that and enjoying seeing the female gaze get played to.

Caty: And we do see Andy the bar hustler serving a male clientele later, so that balances it out somewhat.

I think this first instance of sex work contrasts quite a bit with how it’s shown later. There’s no degradation, no dark shadow world and dim lighting to match, he’s just happily making bank while he can. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a romanticized portrayal, either.

Maggie: Nope. It’s very straight forward. It’s funny—the tupperware party—but let’s be real: most house party situations are hilarious. Bachelor parties are hilarious to me, every one of them I’ve worked.

[READ MORE]

{ 3 comments }