drug using sex workers

(Photo by Flickr user Nasrul Ekram)

(Photo by Flickr user Nasrul Ekram)

Last month, I woke up to the news that a friend of mine had overdosed and died.

I’d never met her, but I’d known her for almost 15 years online. We’d found each other back in the days of Livejournal, back when it was a shock to my system just to be able to read the writing of another heroin-using sex worker like me. I read everything about us I could get my hands on back then, even tabloid trash or Narcotics Anonymous literature.

Reading someone writing about her life, our lives, in the first person—daring to construct her identity as more than a punchline or a cautionary tale—was revelatory. People talk about the value of “representation,” but there’s no way to describe what knowing she was out there like I was meant to me when I was 22.

I could always talk to her about all the things I couldn’t discuss with my straight friends: lazy dealers, asshole cops, and the constant grind of working enough to keep ahead of withdrawal. Later, when we both got on methadone maintenance, we groused to each other about the unique blend of bureaucracy and condescension we found at the clinics. She’d always keep me up to date on the latest drug war fiasco, and we could be candid to each other about our rage in response.

I’m still not sure what happened to her. She could have been a victim of all the fentanyl floating around the country mixed in the heroin supply. I know she hadn’t used dope in a while. Keeping her kid was too important to her. Her tolerance must have been low.

But I can’t shake the suspicion that her death wasn’t entirely accidental. Like many of us, she was incredibly harm-reduction savvy. She could have taught a class on overdose prevention. I don’t think she killed herself. But I’m not sure she was trying her hardest to stay alive.

And who could blame her if she stopped making that monumental effort to survive, for a moment?

I have to tell myself everyday that despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m worth something, even if I am a walking worst-case scenario to most people. Even if by every rubric of mainstream success, I’ve gone way off course. Even if living like I do is not only criminalized, but reviled.

But sometimes, it’s difficult to believe that message when you and your small circle of movement friends are its only source.

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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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Alix Tichelman. (Photo via the freealixt Twitter acount)

Alix Tichelman. (Photo via the freealixt Twitter acount)

Last month in Santa Cruz, 27-year-old sugar baby and fetish model Alix Tichelman pled guilty to manslaughter in the heroin overdose death of her Google executive client Forrest Hayes, and was sentenced to six years in prison.

Throughout the eight months Tichelman was in custody, the media luridly painted her as “The Callgirl Killer,” “The Harbor Hooker,” or simply, baldly, as a “prostitute,” even though she hadn’t worked as an escort since early in 2012 and actually met Hayes on Seeking Arrangement as a sugar daddy. Meanwhile, no article on the case failed to mention that Hayes was an employee of Google X and a father of five. Despite the fact that this was clearly “an accidental overdose between two consenting adults,” as Tichelman’s lawyer Larry Biggam put it, and that the two were known to have been involved in an ongoing commercial sexual relationship involving drug use, most coverage painted the young sex worker as a heartless killer. All of the media I read made sure to quote Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark’s comment to NBC News that “she [Tichelman] was so callous,” and describe the footage on the yacht’s surveillance video in which she stepped over his body to lower the curtains and sip from a glass of wine.

Few news outlets quoted Assistant District Attorney Rafael Velasquez’s words at the case’s conclusion, belying this presentation of Tichelman as a dope-fiend black widow: “This is a manslaughter case. There was no intent to kill and there was no conscious disregard for human life…She demonstrated an attempt to initially try to help him out, crying while holding him, trying to shake him, trying to wake him.”

These two accounts of the surveillance video are so starkly different that one must assume that a lot of the behavior being touted as proof of Tichelman’s inhumanity represents her reaction before she even knew Hayes was dead, when she thought he was merely in a nod—the typical effect of opiates.

What would have happened to Alex Tichelman had she called the police?

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April Brogan (image via @brogan_rebecca)

April Brogan (image via @brogan_rebecca)

Melissa Gira Grant’s story about April Brogan’s death from withdrawal complications while in jail is a heartbreaking look at how little regard the justice system has for sex worker lives. Our Caty is quoted on the double stigma drug-using sex workers face.

A woman running an underground brothel in Germany has been busted; her workers, undocumented Chinese migrants, will be deported.

A new Cambodian study reiterates what the Lancet already proved: further marginalization and criminalization of sex workers, even in the guise of ending trafficking, only puts us more at risk.

Sex workers don’t owe you any answers” is a sharp, smart, and sadly necessary reminder by Alana Massey that we do not, in fact, owe you answers.  Not to friends, not to teachers, and definitely not to sad little clovers on the internet:

“The best thing sex work taught me was that men will take every opportunity to demand things they feel entitled to,” Bruiser told me in a direct message on Twitter. “I literally owe them exactly nothing.”

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Ah, those dreams about crying tears of sperm--a sure sign of sex worker burnout (gif made out of screenshot of House of Pleasures)

Ah, those dreams about crying tears of sperm—a sure sign of burnout (.gif made out of screenshot of House of Pleasures)

House of Pleasures (also called House of Toleration or L’Appolonide: Souvenirs de la Maison Close in its native France), directed by Bertrand Bonello, is a film depicting the last year of a legal French brothel, a maison close, at the turn of the 20th century. While the film does predictably illustrate the old prostitution-is-inherently-miserable motif, sex working viewers will find much to enjoy in the close examination of brothel history and the dynamics of women’s spaces that the movie offers. Then, of course, there are the costumes and the intense outfit envy they engender in any hooker with a pulse. The brothel workers wear diaphanous, clinging gowns that look like proper dresses in shadow but reveal their transparent naughtiness in candle light, and look even more temptingly gorgeous draped along with their wearers on the lush upholstered furniture of the maison. These elements, along with the sharp dialogue that director Bonello gives the workers, kept me watching, even when the crude, supposedly “feminist” analysis and the all-too-voyeuristic violence against sex workers he inserted into the movie made me want to hurl my remote control at the screen.

C’mon!  Take this scene, for example:

Client: [After long, tedious description of the plot of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds—this guy is obviously the Victorian antecedent of people who blurt out spoilers] Have you read it?

Brothel Worker: No. My only two books are Sade’s diaries and the Bible, and I don’t read the Bible.

My kind of girl!

And at first I thought that House of Pleasures might provide the audience a nuanced economic analysis of its protagonists’ work: Early on in the movie, it’s made clear through a close up of the madam’s ledger book and the women’s anxious conversation among themselves that most of the workers are deeply in debt to the house. Throughout the narrative, the women and the brothel itself struggle to survive in the face of the crushing reality of a raised rent. There are even some interesting insights about the unpaid emotional labor involved in the work, as it’s implied that in this upscale environment, what’s being sold as much as the sexual services themselves is a cheerful, carefree attitude of refined femininity. While the women tally their success at the end of the night by the number of men who took them upstairs, they must linger for hours in calculated languidness downstairs, making conversation and cozying up with idle clients, playing board games with them and seeing how many party tricks can be performed with a champagne flute. “Try to be joyful,” the madam chides them at the beginning of the evening.

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