Sex Work Memoirs

Melissa Gira Grant (Photo by Noah Kalina)

Melissa Gira Grant (Photo by Noah Kalina)

Part one of this interview is here.

You encapsulate the tired terms of the sex worker debate, in which the token sex worker is asked reductifying questions ad nauseaum: Is sex work exploitative or empowering? Is it violence against women? How can we help women (always women, and always cis women, never sex working men or trans women) “exit” the industry? And so on. (I think back to a radio interview I did recently with a progressive, well-intentioned interviewer, which I thought was going to be about how anti­-traffickers hurt sex workers, but which turned out to be “Blind Date with a Hooker,” take #1001–what’s a nice girl like you doing in a movement like this?) You claim we should refuse to engage in these stale performances. But given that we often have no access to the public except through this media ritual, how do we change the terms of this conversation to our benefit?

It’s not easy to get around the debate, let me just start there. Here’s a few ways I try, with the gigantic caveat that these don’t apply to all opportunities. When I do speak in public about sex work, including to other members of the media, a line I draw right now—upfront—is that I don’t speak about my personal experiences in sex work. I’ll tell stories about what I’ve seen in my work as a journalist, and before that, I would tell stories about my work as an advocate or organizer. Just doing that can be enough to deflect the cliched kind of stuff, like wanting to know why you got into sex work, all the stuff that seems designed not to humanize you but to decide how “representative” you are. Depending on the outlet, you might even be able to turn that around. At the last debate I did agree to do, I turned to the anti-prostitution “side” and asked her, after she had insinuated that all sex workers had been abused as children, that I wondered what had happened in her own life, that had made her come to that conclusion. It was dramatic, but that was the point, and the whole room snapped to attention at the provocation—why was she allowed to ask those questions, and why wasn’t I?

I’ve also turned down opportunities when I thought I was being brought in to play a part or just stand in as a caricature. Sometimes that’s quite obvious when someone approaches you—like when a business news cable network wanted me to come on and argue why prostitution should be taxed and legalized, something I’ve never argued for, not that it prevented them from telling me what my argument would be. Sometimes it’s more subtle—like when you’ve been asked to do a panel and you realize that of everyone there, you are the only one who is a out as a sex worker, and now there’s quite a lot of weight on you to represent everything about sex work. It’s still a hustle, all of it. Sometimes you can turn the conversation around, and sometimes a producer has already decided how they are going to cast you. And if being public is something you want to do, you don’t have to do it alone. Red Umbrella Project has a guide for navigating the media and sex work, how to deal with combative interviews, how to package a soundbite, how to vet the media. And just as sex workers keep lists of bad clients, I encourage people to keep lists of bad media. Screen them, and check in with other sex workers—I’m still doing that, because odds are if some reporter just emailed everyone they could find online looking for a source on a story, you probably know someone else they emailed.

Or—another way around all of it is what you’re doing here—make your own. [READ MORE]

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(Image courtesy of Red Umbrella Project)

(Image courtesy of Red Umbrella Project)

Prose & Lore is a literary journal published by the New York sex workers’ rights organization Red Umbrella Project.  Memoir stories about sex work are collected in two issues per year (Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer.) We at Tits and Sass have been following Prose and Lore since the journal began, and the third issue is even more fantastic than those that preceded it. Featuring selections from movement heavies like our own contributors Mariko Passion, Tara Burns,  Lily Fury, Lori Adorable, and Peach E. Keen, plus Kitty Stryker, Rachel Aimee, and  Audacia Ray, as well as promising new writers like Dion O. Scott and Leigh Alanna, each and every one of this issue’s pieces are affecting and visceral in their prose, from a frightening account of a client gone suddenly violent to the tale of the slow erosion of a relationship with a subtly whorephobic partner.  You can buy a single copy of the new issue or sign up for a print or digital subscription to the journal, including back issues. Those in New York city can attend free readings by the authors on Wednesday, January 29th and Monday, February 10th at Culture Fix and Brooklyn Community Pride Center respectively.

Here, we feature an excerpt of “Crippled Pleaser,” by Dynasty (W) Rex, a story of endurance and take-no-shit survival focusing on Rex’s experiences stripping as a Black woman with lupus and arthritis, with her dancing schedule often punctuated by hospital visits. The excerpt focuses on the piece’s club scenes, but we encourage you to get a copy of Prose and Lore so you can read about the grueling hospital stay which makes up the story’s core.  I think the thing we love the most about “Crippled Pleaser,” though, is how well it captures the phenomenon of sex worker outfit envy.

It was the middle of a sweaty summer night in Sunset Park, New York and I was on my way to Gold Rush, the sleaziest titty bar I could find through the internet. The large, but hardly swanky, dive was almost empty around 4:30 p.m., an odd point between the time that day workers come in after work, and when more adamant partiers come in after drunken nights. Even with barely enough people to fill a single table alongside the stage, it was lit up like a Christmas rave: strobe light blaring, music screaming from mounted speakers. I was relieved to find that there were only three men in the club to witness my arrival in dirty, black, barely-there shorts and a tube top. Not because I looked bad, but because after an all day excursion looking for jobs I had aggravated my limp. After a couple of awkward ass pops around middle pole on the stage that served as my audition, I was hired by Dave, the owner and manager at Gold Rush. I was asked to stay onstage for two more songs to start my shift.

Dave, a stocky man with a financial demeanor, is watching my bare feet and ankles pointedly, as if to sear the skin. I wasn’t quite sure if his look was one of approval or disgust. He pulled me aside by placing a sweaty palm on the underside of my arm as I’m walking offstage towards the stairs that led to the dressing room where some of the other girls were making mean faces at one another, or maybe discussing amongst themselves the very same thing that the owner/manager is so obviously about to say to me.

“I’ve been,” he started, “I’ve been watching you on stage, and your legs look funny. Are they always like that?” he asked, perhaps regretting the choice to hire me on the spot after my audition.

“No, I hit them against the bar when I was coming down the pole,” I retorted quickly, so as to not be found out, hoping that the fact that I had not been dancing long would be allow me to continue the night without embarrassment. There was positively no way I was about to tell this dude that I have a disability that makes my fingers and toes swell and my whole body ache. That would essentially amount to announcing my unfitness for the job that is easiest to attain and most lucrative to stay with.

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afouler3 by Caty and Red

12/9/2013 update: Yesterday, several commenters pointed out that speculating on the author’s trauma history was inappropriate of us. Upon reflection, we agree that this was specious and unnecessary, and apologize deeply for doing so.

Red: I love stripper memoirs; I buy them all indiscriminately and hope for the best. Strippers are like my family, people I love and hate and get driven crazy by but keep returning to. So you know I read Girl, Undressed when I found a copy at Powell’s. And I hated it. When Caty asked if I wanted to co-review it, I got giddy at the idea of sharing my outrage. Is there anything more fun that being righteously furious with a friend?

For those of you who haven’t read it, Girl, Undressed follows Fowler on a dank and seamy voyage, to places only “the ruined” (her term) can sink. She stumbles around early 2000s Manhattan, a weary traveler promising a glimpse at a New York not “vacuum-packed and delivered to your tastefully decorated abodes via HBO… there’ll be a sad lack of shopping expeditions to Bergdorf’s to punctuate each chapter’s end.” In other words, Fowler is not Carrie Bradshaw (but then who is) and I’m also gathering that she’s not writing this for me or her sisters-in-degradation/fellow strippers.

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Anna Saini in performance (Photo by Filipe Besca, courtesy of Red Umbrella Project)

Anna Saini in performance (Photo by Filipe Besca, courtesy of Red Umbrella Project)

Anna Saini is  a community organizer with Voices of Community Activists and Leaders – New York (VOCAL-NY), where she works towards  ending the drug war, mass incarceration and racist policing. Her writing appears in Bitch magazine, make/shift magazine, the forthcoming Dear Sister Anthology, her self published anthology Colored Girls, as well as both Red Umbrella Project writing workshop literary anthologies, Prose and Lore issues One & Two. She is a  Brown and proud captivating performer, a veteran Red Umbrella Diaries storyteller who is featured along with six other sex worker storytellers in the upcoming documentary, “The Red Umbrella Diaries: A documentary about sex worker stories.” Writing can be a great vehicle for social change and Anna’s work is an example of this kind of activism. 

In your writing and performances you talk about your Indian family, growing up in the suburbs, and living in Detroit before moving to Brooklyn. Seems like your background is pretty mixed. How do these different experiences influence your work?

 

It wasn’t until I moved away from Southern Ontario and came to live in the United States that I actually realized how I’m a mish-mash of all these different identities. I’m fiercely working-class and Desi, Asian, queer, a suburban city girl and a survivor, an academic, an activist. It means I connect my struggles with a lot of different people and I hold a lot of intersecting communities dear to me.

 

It also means that I never really feel like I fit in or I’m at home anywhere. If you look at where I was born and raised, a bizarre and wonderful place called Brampton, it’s this brand spanking new suburb that’s morphed into a place largely populated by folks like my family, who identify as “from” somewhere else. I never really felt like I’m from there so much as I came from there. The suburbs are kind of a vacuum in that way.

 

But it’s also fascinating. It’s this unique confluence of socio-political dynamics: the suburbs, Punjabis, Canadiana and the biggest city in the country a mere thirty minutes away… It’s probably the only place in the world where you can get a proper chai from a drive-through window at Tim Hortons. Now that I don’t have to live there anymore I have a lot more respect for the place where I grew up and a lot more interest in how it made me who I am.

 

Sometimes you have to reach back into an uncomfortable past to make meaning out of it. You’re a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Dear Sisterabout healing from sexual assault. What did you share in it about your healing process?

The call-out for submissions for the anthology presented the opportunity to write a letter saying whatever you always wanted to say to another survivor. I know that often when we think of a “survivor” the expectation is that the person is valiant, strong and resilient. I wanted to talk about the flip-side of survival, the part that many consider ugly or uninspiring, the part that breaks down these myths about who we are.

I wanted to say what people don’t say about surviving, so that I could feel less alone in the experience and  reach out to others so that they could also feel less alone. A lot of folks who have survived violence that I’ve known are damaged in some kind of way. Instead of ignoring that damage, I wanted to acknowledge it, maybe even revel in it. I wanted to talk about that damage, explain what it looks like on me.

My piece is called “The Unlikable Survivor” and I guess what I’m trying to accomplish in it is to deconstruct the persona of a survivor. The commonality of our experience is that we lived while others did not. And for many (most? all?) of us the healing is never really complete.

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Monica Jones, Arizona State University social work student, trans activist, and SWOP Phoenix member, is fighting to stay out of jail after the police targeted her for a false "manifestation of prostitution" arrest, reacting to her participation in a SWOP protest against their recent stings. (Photo via indiegogo)

Monica Jones, Arizona State University social work student, trans activist, and SWOP Phoenix member, is fighting to stay out of jail after the police targeted her for a false “manifestation of prostitution” arrest, reacting to her participation in a SWOP protest against their recent stings. (Photo via indiegogo)

Michael Musto’s Lou Reed obituary in the Daily Beast goes on at length about Reed’s penchant for including street sex workers and trans sex workers in his songwriting. Therefore, we can mention Lou Reed’s death in the Week In Links without going off topic.

Fellow Phoenix activists have started an indiegogo fundraiser site for the legal defense of Monica Jones, a trans activist, student sex worker, and SWOP-Phoenix member, who was falsely arrested for “manifestation of prostitution” as part of the Project Rose sting after her participation in a SWOP-Phoenix protest against the project.

Philadelphia voters will have an opportunity to vote against the retention of Judge Teresa Carr Deni, who famously ruled a sex worker’s rape “theft of services” in 2007. Philadelphia feminist activists are rallying to get out the “no” vote.

In a story we missed earlier this month, a Dallas magnet school Spanish teacher, Cristy Nicole Dewesee, was the subject of parents’ complaints to the school because of her Playboy past. We agree with a local paper’s editorial, entitled “Teachers Are Not Defined By Sex Industry Past.” Or maybe her student’s tweet said it best: ““She’s a teacher now, not a Playboy model anymore! Leave her alone[,] guys.”

A petition against the abolition of prostitution, the so-called “Manifesto of 343 bastards” (named in homage to Simone de Beauvoir’s 1971 abortion manifesto, the signers of whom were nicknamed the “343 sluts/bitches”) created an uproar in France in part because it claimed public intellectuals and authors among its signers.

The FBI says killer truckers are abducting street sex workers and other women at truck stops, raping them and leaving their bodies along the nation’s highways. If we never hear the phrase “high risk lifestyles” again, it’ll be too soon.

Spiegel Online interviews Johanna Weber, the founder of Germany’s first professional association for sex workers, the Professional Association of Erotic and Sexual Services.

The porn star hired to play Hannah Horvath in Hustler’s XXX reinterpretation of the HBO hit Girls doesn’t understand why Lena Dunham can’t appreciate her work. After all, performer Alex Chance maintains that “while Dunham ‘never has normal, hot, oh my God that’s porno sex’ in Girls and is ‘always second guessing’ to cater to her partner, the porn star has had some of her best sexual experiences on camera. (Although the This Ain’t Girls XXX sex had to be more awkward  than normal porn to stay in character.)” Plus, “since Girls is ‘pretty much like a softcore porn to start, we didn’t think it was much of a stretch to go on and put the hardcore in it.’ ”

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