It is now public knowledge that President Donald Trump’s attorney allegedly paid porn actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 for something. Although Daniels has, in the past, made mention of an affair with Trump, she now coyly denies it. On Jimmy Kimmel, she once again subtly suggested that the affair did indeed take place, holding a puppet of herself with tape over its mouth—a rather obvious testament to the ways that she has been gagged from speaking about the matter.
Whether the pair engaged in sexual activities or not, there is an undeniable connection between sex workers and rich, powerful men.
After all, seeing a sex worker implies a degree of economic freedom. That politicians in the United States tend to be rich, powerful men is perhaps a different conversation entirely, but it is not hyperbole to say that sex workers in this country have the capacity to ruin these men, but not for the reasons most might think. Indeed, the claim that sex workers can ruin rich, powerful men in this country is a loaded statement, particularly if “ruinous” is defined as simply holding onto kinky secrets.
At face value, the proclamation that seeing a sex worker is ruinous is, by default, self-incriminating. It means that being a sex worker is ruinous. That seeing a sex worker has the potential to ruin a rich, powerful man’s career (so much so that he’s willing to pay hush money to keep the public from learning of the infidelity) is indicative of a larger problem of cultural whorephobia. It is shameful to see sex workers, ostensibly, because it is shameful to be a sex worker. As the brilliant Kimberlee Cline points out, it is not helpful to support the notion that “paying sex workers corresponds to being untrustworthy or unfit to lead.” Because clearly, Donald Trump is unfit to lead because he is a white supremacist, patriarchal, violent bigot whose leadership brings us closer to nuclear annihilation every day. That he sees sex workers is his only redeeming quality, really.
It is also worth noting that the allure of the sex industry for high profile men is the tacit contract of discretion—they know that we know that exposing them as johns means exposing ourselves as whores. In a world where the president is always a john and never a hooker (always a thief and never caught), discretion is not simply a polite service that sex workers provide—it’s the only way we can survive, sometimes. Depending on a host of other intersecting identities, outing one’s self as a sex worker can mean anything from losing one’s children and housing to social and literal death. Consider Deborah Jeane Palfrey, or “The D.C. Madam,” who was found guilty on April 15, 2008, of running a prostitution service that catered to rich and powerful men, including then-Senator David Vitter, a Republican of Louisiana, and Randall L. Tobias, then-State Department official (also a Republican). After the D.C. scandal, Palfrey was found hanged in her mother’s home; Vitter and Tobias both remained in office until 2017.
Always a john and never a hooker.
So what does it actually mean to say that sex workers have the capacity to ruin powerful men?
As a young sex worker in the Heartland, comradery among sex workers was impossible within the context of internalized Midwestern stigma, its own brand of nastiness. When one of my stripper colleagues condemned porn performers because “they’re basically prostitutes,” I shamefully hid both my escorting and porn work from friends and peers. It wasn’t until I attended a sex worker event on the East Coast that I found my chosen family—sex workers from different backgrounds who actively worked against lateral whorephobia. It was there where I learned about the revolutionary potential of community, of breaking down hierarchies, of loyalty. I also learned that, collectively, sex workers have more dirt on the rich, powerful men who run our country than anyone else. Initially, that felt powerful.
Now, as an aging, chronically ill mother, my understanding of the ruinous nature of sex work is evolving. As Pasadena Superior Court Judge Gilbert Alston said while presiding over a case in which a sex worker was raped, “a whore is a whore is a whore” (he dismissed the case stating, “the law was set up to protect good people, not a street-walking prostitute”). That is to say, I am a whore am a whore am a whore. While I am not explicitly back in the sex industry, I am not above taking money from men. My neighbor—a union supporter and a Democrat—calls me Mistress, cooks me dinner (and leaves it on my porch), buys me wine, cleans my house, hires me lawyers, and writes me checks. He lives for the day that I will kick him in the balls. He is my friend, to be sure, but our friendship is predicated on my being compensated.
There is something particular to Trump’s America about our relationship—my neighbor hasn’t lost anything. I do not feel emboldened by his secret fetishes for this reason. I could care less at this point in my life. Instead, it is the knowledge of the workings of heteropatriarchy and how they operate on the bodies of non-men that embolden me. Charging men for my labor, now, is not empowering because I am the sole person to whom they tell their nastiest fantasies. Charging men for my labor, now, is empowering precisely because of its inherent shortcoming—I will never be paid what my labor is worth, whether I’m in academia or the sex industry. Coming to terms with that is a special kind of awakening, what Marxists identify as “class consciousness.” Anti-sex work feminists aren’t wrong in their claim that the sex industry is inherently exploitative; they simply fall short of applying this analysis to all forms of labor under a white supremacist, capitalist, heteropatriarchy.
While I won’t bore you with Freudian theories of death and feces, as far as I can tell, the richer and more powerful the man, the more likely it is that human feces will be involved in his fetish repertoire.
That’s not to say I don’t wax poetic about the way of the samurai for sex workers. I would love to expose a certain, high profile politician for his love of shitting on clean, white sheets, as an example. In fact, there are quite a few high profile, unsavory clients who have a fetish for shit. While I won’t bore you with Freudian theories of death and feces, as far as I can tell, the richer and more powerful the man, the more likely it is that human feces will be involved in his fetish repertoire. Although I’d love to expose the filthy fantasies of rich, powerful men if only to bask in the light of their soiled public image, that is not the true ruinous nature of sex workers; our capacity for destruction, like the Goddess Kali, comes from within. Sex workers have the capacity to ruin powerful men not because we have the power to mock their fetishes but because capitalism and heteropatriarchy stand to lose everything against an army of awoken sex workers.
Years ago, I made porn with a lovely and well-intentioned director who began every shoot by saying, “Are you ready to make some revolutionary film?” I am reminded of the late Ursula le Guin, who wrote in The Left Hand of Darkness that “to oppose something is to maintain it.”
Awakening within the sex worker rights movement means seeing ourselves not as opposing forces to the larger social structures under which we live, even when our labor is criminalized, but as cogs in the same wheel as everyone else. That does not mean that resistance is impossible. To be truly ruinous, though, we must first awaken to the fact that we will never be paid what our labor is worth, even when we have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and Amazon boxes piling up at our door. Even when our eroticism is fun. Even when we’re making queer, witchy art porn. Even when our clients are uber progressive. We might be able to fuck our way out of poverty but we surely can’t fuck our way into liberation.
The ruinous nature of sex workers is in the secrets we unveil about society— namely, that all human interaction has a price under capitalism. By acknowledging that sex work is not inherently revolutionary, we help dismantle the racist, sexist, ableist, classist, imperialist systems that commodify every aspect of our lives. We also contribute to the larger, revolutionary project towards a healthy public sphere, punctuated by what Catherine Cusick describes as a “knowledgeable public, a capacity for informed debate, an atmosphere of honesty and respect, and a transparent system for holding powerful people and institutions accountable.”
In France, there’s a saying: Quand les prostituées s’unissent, les hommes puissants tremblent, or, when prostitutes unite, powerful men tremble. This is a cute and catchy quip. But of course, it’s going to take more than comradery to make unsavory rich and powerful men tremble. Finding my chosen family was a step in the right direction, but it means nothing if our movement isn’t actively breaking down structures that benefit cis white men, even when we really, really like some of our clients. Even the President of the United States stands to lose very little by participating in the sex industry as a consumer; Stormy Daniels will likely take the brunt of the public conflict. The system is rigged against laborers, always.
What will make powerful men tremble, though, is the eradication of white male supremacy. But first, we have to see this supremacy for what it is: it is in the best of clients, it is in the most well-intentioned, liberal-minded john. It is in the lonely, working-class dude who only occasionally shells out twenty bucks for a lap dance, and it is definitely in the high-profile men who pay us to keep their secrets. It is in the hearts of the men we love just as it is in those for whom we wish the worst.