unhelpful “allies”

Hugh Hefner the image. (Photo by Flickr user Sarah Gerke)

Content warning: this post contains brief references to rape and abuse. 

Hugh Hefner died.

Of course he did. Dude was 91. When my castmate announced it after rehearsal, I didn’t feel shock at the news. Hefner may as well have died when he stopped being the editor of Playboy magazine. Or when The Girls Next Door tried selling us on twincest. Or when the magazine stopped publishing nudes. He was a go-to pop culture joke about debauchery and smoking jackets, but he’s hardly been relevant for years.

Still, I had some mixed feelings. I never much cared for Hefner or his image, having been introduced to him as a doddering grandpa on reality TV, but Playboy the brand had been in my life since I was a child. It molded my early ideas of what it meant to be attractive. It introduced me to the idea that sexiness could be playful or serious. When I turned 18, I bought an issue just because I could and delighted at the articles and interviews just as much as the pictorials. This, I thought, was the intersection of brains and beauty. By thumbing through the pages at my grandma’s house I was somehow becoming a well-rounded adult.

To say nothing of the accidental connection between Playboy and queerness. For generations, Dad’s secret stash (or in my case, my mother’s boyfriend Chad’s collection that he just left out in the open in his office) was a gateway not just for teenage boys but also girls. It felt like fate that my first issue featured a spread with Adrienne Curry, the first out bisexual I had ever seen. Since Playboy could also be “for the articles”, I was able to hide my queerness even from myself. Perhaps even more than the cool girls I had met in high school, Playboy gave me the most intense stirrings of looking at a woman and not being sure if I wanted to be her or be with her. As I grew I realized, hell, why not both?

When I went to college I found vintage issues and hung the centerfolds in my kitchen, aspiring to their fresh-faced, breezy beauty. I copied the makeup, teased my hair higher, and then rebelled against the streamlined pin-ups in favor of some Hustler-esque trashiness. Those styles helped me experiment and come into my own again and again as I rolled through my early 20s. Even now, I’ll sometimes look at them and imagine living in a dreamy world of sheer babydolls and fur rugs. It’s a world I realize I now have the means to create for myself at any point. Several photographer friends are just a Facebook message away, and within the week I’ll have a pin-up of myself to tuck away. In them, I’m eternally 19, 21, 24, and these versions of me seem younger and younger every year. They’re my own digital flashbacks that I wish I could share with my younger self. “Look,” I’d say. “You’re pretty too.”

But none of that was Hefner. It was the women I idolized—women who were paid peanuts to be immortalized in soft focus.

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Argentinian sex workers’ union AMMAR-CTA members in a Women’s Strike event on March 8th.

I was a scab on Wednesday during the Women’s Strike. Too broke and disorganized as usual, still messily addicted, I ended up having to see a client. And sure, I wore red, and I limited my shopping to the South Asian woman-owned convenience store down the street, and I tried to allow the organizers’ reassurance to poor women that donning my ratty old Red Sox t-shirt would suffice as participation to soothe me. But I felt the usual radical white guilt I always feel on similar occasions like Buy Nothing Day, shame at the fact that I wasn’t part of this leftist ritual.

And I was irritated with myself for being ashamed. I knew this strike couldn’t realistically rely on all women joining it. Even if we were all ideologically inclined the same way, even if we could all afford to take the day off work, women aren’t all one class of worker, and that complicates things. The many schools forced to close anticipating teachers not coming in demonstrated that the action had real economic impact. But ultimately, its effect was symbolic, meant to show how much everyone relied on women’s paid and unpaid labor. I did wonder skeptically how many women employers had actually given their nannies and domestic workers a paid day off as organizers suggested, when usually, that domestic work is what allowed these women employers the time for political action in the first place. But I had to admit that the organizers had thought of multiple ways for women in many different economic circumstances to show solidarity.

Still, I was distrustful of these strike organizers, some of the same women behind the Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration, the people who erased pro-sex workers’ rights language from their agenda document. Only ex-sex worker and acclaimed writer and editor Janet Mock’s public protest at the omission compelled them to add it back. But the pro-sex worker statement, once reinstated, had to keep company with the anti-trafficking discourse that had been written in in its stead. And how comfortable were young trans sex working women, like the teenaged Janet Mock was, supposed to be faced with a cadre of marchers who thought that wearing hot pink plush vagina hats as a symbol of their womanhood was an excellent idea? The pervasive transmisogyny and anti-sex worker sentiments within liberal feminism can be subtle in their manifestation, but it still feels like they’re always there.

But sex work was included in the strike organizers’ February announcement of the action in the Guardian as one example of the gendered labor women were striking from. (Maybe we have prison abolitionist sex worker ally Angela Davis, one of the many co-authors of the statement, to thank for that.) And this time, with a new coalition called the International Women’s Strike USA joining the March organizers in drafting it, sex workers were also included in the call for labor rights on the U.S. Women’s Strike platform. Trans women were acknowledged in that agenda multiple times as well. Many sex workers’ rights organizations around the world, from the U.S. PROS Collective to Ammar, had announced their intention to join the action. So why did I still feel bitter?

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atrust

(Photo by Lane V. Erickson, via Shutterstock)

One of the more difficult aspects of living as a sex worker is never knowing exactly whom you can trust. Sometimes even allies can say offensive things or break confidentiality. In the wake of such indiscretions, it’s sex workers themselves who are left to navigate that broken trust and the increased vulnerability that comes along with it. I know this pattern leaves me wary, and it is perhaps this wariness that led many sex workers to mistrust the Give Forward fundraising campaign initiated on behalf of Heather, a sex worker in West Virginia who survived an attack at her apartment by a serial killer posing as a client.

The Give Forward campaign was launched shortly after the attack on July 18th by a man and a woman local to the area who knew each other, but who did not know Heather before Falls’ death. In an article on The Daily Dot by Mary Emily O’Hara from July 31st, the woman involved with the campaign, Laura Gandee, is quoted: “I got a text message from a friend telling me that Heather was hungry, upset, and feeling all alone in her apartment, and asking me if I could I take her some food and go comfort her…Of course I said I would, if she was willing to let me.” The article doesn’t reveal who this friend was, and while it implies that Heather was willing to let a stranger into her home after the trauma of Falls’ attack there, it does not indicate her comfort with Gandee’s visit in her own words. Gandee went on to say that, “I have spoken to a number of people who are part of a movement to ensure sex workers’ rights. At first they were very skeptical of our campaign because they couldn’t believe anyone from outside their circle would step up to help someone in their industry after a tragedy like this. I told them West Virginians are different.”

Gandee’s words conjure images of any number of rescuers sex workers have known, armed with ostensibly good intentions, and confident in their own efficacy in situations with which they have little familiarity. While many cultures in the United States and elsewhere, including those of West Virginia and other parts of the South, value loyalty and neighborliness in a crisis, it’s equally true is that sex workers often live in dual spaces of invisibility and hypervisibility. Many of us operate in the underground economy. Often, our friends and family don’t know about our work until we are arrested, outed, or otherwise thrust into the spotlight. Our work, and entire parts of our lives, are unknown to people one day and revealed the next to be judged by anyone with a half-formed opinion on sex work.

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Annie Sprinkle: a woman who needs to get back in touch with her movement rather than speaking over it (Photo by Creatrix Tlara, via her flickr and the Creative Commons)

Annie Sprinkle: a woman who needs to get back in touch with her movement rather than speaking over it (Photo by Creatrix Tlara, via her flickr and the Creative Commons)

As a general rule, I absolutely love being called “adorable.” It reaffirms a lifetime of well-intentioned cheek pinches and makes me feel like I still look youthful as I approach 30. But being an adorable person is a very different thing than being part of an adorable movement. So when Annie Sprinkle took to Facebook to chastise sex workers who decided to “act up” at a conference called “Fantasies that Matter–Images of Sex Work in Media and Art,” and used condescending terms like “adorable” and “well intentioned” to describe sex workers who seek a voice in discourses about them, well, I got just adorably incensed.

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