rape culture

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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Stoya in 2012 at the AVN awards. (Photo by Michael Dorausch via Flickr)

Stoya in 2012 at the AVN awards. (Photo by Michael Dorausch via Flickr)

Content warning: this piece contains general discussion of rape.

I got a call from a reporter from Mother Jones the other day, her voice nervous. She was one of the many journalists who called the sex worker health clinic I work at, St. James Infirmary, looking for comments about the public sexual assault accusations made against James Deen over the past week.

She told me, “I’m learning about this world from this story, let me know if I say something wrong.” We tried in stops and starts to lay a groundwork of understanding about what Stoya’s tweets meant. It seems hard for people outside the industry to digest this story. This time around, most journalists seem to want to be survivor centered, and they want to be clear that they know a sex worker can be raped. But their understanding of the environment of porn is always one with contracts which, once signed, mean that anything can happen to you. Where all men on set are lurid in their gaze, and the sadistic domination they demonstrate is heartfelt and misogynist. It’s a world view in which porn shoots are a battle field where women try to keep as many of their boundaries up as possible.

For the survivors of James Deen whose stories are told and untold; for the sex workers whose perpetrators used the stigmatized environment of the profession to prey on their vulnerabilities; for the sex workers who have been assaulted and then continued to work, sometimes with the same person who assaulted them, because at that moment that was what they had to do to survive; this news cycle has been hell. The only thing more unrelenting than the new stories of James Deen’s violent misogyny cropping up every day is the understanding that these reports are only the tip of the iceberg, that there will be more stories of his attempts to “break women.”

There is a way in which these revelations are also exhilarating. I’ve never seen such public furor around the assaults of sex workers. It’s left everyone I know drained thinking, talking, or reading about it. Waiting to see what direction the narrative will take—will the news coverage continue to slant in favor of the survivors? What will the consequences be for Deen after the scandal of this story is dusted over by another? Will any long term systems be created to ensure worker safety, and will those be driven by performers themselves or placed on top by an outside enforcement agency?

These questions will take a long time to answer, but what is clear is the deep breath many took after Stoya’s two tweets were posted. It spread across my Twitter feed and it felt like witnessing a spell break. Arabelle Raphael said in an interview with Melissa Gira Grant that, “It was a big relief. Finally, someone had put it out there.”

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amalefeministryangosling

This piece was originally posted by the author on Medium. Content warning: the links in this post lead to articles detailing the rape and sexual assault of sex workers.

We need to talk about the ever increasing number of men like James Deen who utilize feminism as a marketable identity to cover up their abusive behavior.

When performer and writer Stoya tweeted that her ex, porn darling James Deen, had ignored her safewords and raped her, I have to admit I wasn’t terribly surprised. As a porn worker, I’d heard rumors that he was not necessarily safe to work with. Another ex-girlfriend, Joanna Angel, tweeted in support of Stoya. As of December 4th, Tori Lux, Ashley Fires, and an anonymous fourth woman have come out with statements on their own experiences of assault from Deen. Kora Peters and Amber Rayne spoke out about how he raped both of them on set on separate occasions. On Wednesday night, Joanna Angel went on the Jason Ellis Show telling the harrowing story of being sexually and physically abused during her long term relationship with Deen. With Nicki Blue coming forward yesterday, at least eight women have now made public statements about Deen sexually assaulting them. Additionally, Lily Labeau told Buzzfeed that Deen physically assaulted her and deliberately used elements from her “no” list while filming, while Bonnie Rotten recalled how he intimidated and ridiculed her on the job. Also notable is this older article in which Deen pushes sexual boundaries with writer Emily Shire during an interview, though this incident did not end with assault. Deen has responded on Instagram and Twitter saying Stoya (and anyone else speaking up) is making “egregious claims” against him, receiving support from his many fans. Kink.com has severed ties with Deen… a bit of a surprise considering their track record. (Nicki Blue noted that Kink.com actively covered up the fact that he raped her during a party at its Kink Castle headquarters.) Evil Angel also stated that it will not to sell any newly created scenes featuring him. And Deen has “voluntarilyresigned from his chairperson position at the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee.

Stoya’s two tweets gave rise to the hashtag #solidaritywithstoya, and a flurry of people expressing disappointment, shock, and a sense of betrayal. Deen was supposed to be “one of the good guys”—after all, Deen has spent some time cultivating a brand as a male feminist in the porn industry. He’s even actively been a part of Project Consent. He’s mad about racism in the industry. He’s been called “the acceptable face of porn,” hailed as being a male porn star women can feel good about watching because he’s just so ethical.

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(Image by CarpesTreasures via Flickr)

(Image by CarpesTreasures via Flickr)

Working as a professional submissive often makes you feel like an outsider.

Pro-subs and pro-switches are a relatively rare breed of service provider, which makes our work feel pretty esoteric from the get go. For every one of us, there are many more vanilla, in-person, indoor workers. In part, this could be because the need for resources like fetish equipment and dungeon access means that subbing isn’t an accessible entry point into sex work. However, there is undoubtedly greater stigma and misinformation surrounding the work which deters many people from working as subs. Because we offer services such as restrictive bondage, sensory deprivation, corporal punishment, and erotic masochism, subbing is frequently thought of as intrinsically unsafe. Far too often, we are perceived as having knowingly “put ourselves in harm’s way”, and into the path of sexual violence as an inevitable consequence. I’ve lost track of the appalled responses from both sex workers and civilians when I tell them I let men tie me up and hit me for a living. They fail to grasp that there is a fundamental difference between consensual, pre-agreed upon pain and abuse.

The consequences of this stigma became apparent very quickly when I first started working as a pro-sub in a professional dungeon. The management created an environment in which clients paid for the privilege of foregoing boundary negotiation with subs, and we in turn were paid to ignore these boundaries. By treating us subs as if we had minimal agency, both our clients and we came to believe this was the natural order of things. In my 6 months at my first dungeon—and in the previous years when friends also worked there—none of us could recall a single client being blacklisted for sexual violence, despite the fact that colleagues experienced numerous incidents of assault.

As pro-subs, our work is affected by stigma from within and outside the community. As sex workers, our labor is more stigmatized than other types of work, and as pro-subs, our job is often dismissed by those working in other parts of the sex industry. But why is pro-subbing so marginalized, and what effect does this have on us and our work?

At my first dungeon, the effect was extremely negative. Ostensibly, the setup appeared professional. For a total newbie with no savings, it seemed ideal. Unfortunately, it was a deeply unpleasant place to work. The management bullied and coerced workers, and kept us all isolated and competitive with one another in order to maximize profit. They also went out of their way to appease clients. A key component of this was issuing explicit statements that we subs would willingly take any punishment they wanted to dispense. It was here that I first encountered the attitude that submission is an inherently high-risk service, in which subs are paid to tolerate the non-consensual violence presented as an unavoidable part of the job.

As a skittish baby hooker, I quickly internalized the view that my job was essentially an exercise in mute endurance. If something scared me or hurt me in a way I was not comfortable with, or even if I changed my mind about a scene halfway through, that was my problem.

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Mary Mitchell. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times, via Mitchell's Twitter feed)

Mary Mitchell. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times, via Mitchell’s Twitter feed)

Content warning: this piece contains discussion of sexual violence.

You may have read the recent editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times, an opinion piece in which Mary Mitchell argues that sex workers who are raped by a client are making a mockery of “real” rape survivors by even considering what happened to them to be sexual assault. Luckily, the majority of commentators discussing the editorial see it for what it is: a blatantly discriminatory piece of rape apologism. While the actual piece itself has been critiqued by multiple different authors and websites, the question of how sex work, sexual assault, and consent are related is a frequent topic in the discourse around sex work and its legality. Rather than stopping at simply declaring Mary Mitchell to be a peculiarly regressive quasi-feminist, it may be more helpful to examine the ways Mitchell’s views are actually in line with how most non-sex workers see our ability to consent.

Mitchell’s piece is filled with questionable reasoning and a variety of anti-sex worker phrases. She makes sure to allude to a victim narrative by mentioning “pimps” and “trafficking” (neither of which were present in this crime), but at the same time wishes to hold sex workers accountable for our own sexual assaults. Even more strangely, her qualifications of what deserves to be called “rape” (you know, “rape-rape”) seem inconsistent. She wants us to know that she doesn’t think women are responsible for their own rape if they “dressed too provocatively or misled some randy guy,” but seems to think that a man threatening a woman with a gun for sex is somehow not really sexual assault. What’s important for her is that we sex workers put ourselves in a situation which will obviously lead to sex: we’ve already consented by agreeing to take money. “It’s tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim,” she writes, because it’s clear the sex worker was going to consent anyhow. What is the difference between financial stability and not being shot to death, anyways?

It would be nice if Mitchell were the only person who thought this way, but unfortunately, the world is full of people with similar opinions. I’ve heard too many men joke, “If you rape a hooker, is it rape or shoplifting?” to read this as an isolated incident. And surely enough, there is at least one recent case where officials have dismissed sexual assault charges when a sex worker is the victim. In fact, the judge in that scenario, Philadelphia’s Teresa Carr Deni, used the same exact arguments that Mitchell did: calling the sexual assault of sex workers rape demeans real rape victims; it is actually more a “theft of services” (a direct quote from both Mitchell and the judge, incidentally).

Rather than an opinion held by particularly vicious bigots, I think this is actually a belief held by most non-sex workers, including many of our clients. Sex workers, in the eyes of many, are just people who are particularly lascivious, who get into sex work because they are that into having sex with lots of people. Almost every sex worker I know has a story of a client who thought that after one or two times of meeting, the sex worker would be willing to stop taking payment for their work; clients habitually try to barter us down on the presumption that we must be getting our own payment (in terrible sex). Even people who purport to be allies might hold this view: a non-sex worker who had worked on campaigns for decriminalization once asked me as I was heading off to meet a john they thought was particularly dangerous, “What is the thrill?”

In this view, our entry into sex work is a sort of broad consent: we’ve consented to whatever a client might do to us simply by being in the life. Any ability to individually consent to one round of sex is swept away, let alone the ability to consent to certain acts and not others. This is especially true for sex workers whose demographics are already highly fetishized as “always up for it,” like trans women or black women, and especially sex workers in both those demographics.

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