Over the weekend, the internet news show The Young Turks drew my attention to this story: a 37-year-old Houston escort who works under the name of Shelby is offering a discount for clients who donate a toy to Toys for Tots. For any guy who booked an hour and brought an unwrapped toy, Shelby offered a second hour for free.
Cenk Ugyur condescendingly calls her “an escort with a golden heart” before launching into his incredibly twisted analysis of the “consequences” of Shelby’s offer: “There’ll be a lot of guys who take their kids’ toys to go get a second hour free with a prostitute. … It seems like she’s doing a good deed, but think of how those guys get their toys.” His sidekick, Ana Kasparian (who rarely offers anything new to Cenk’s analyses), agrees immediately that it’s “disgusting” and makes her “sick to her stomach.”
So what’s the issue here, exactly? Do Cenk and Ana assume that all businesses who offer a discount in exchange for a Toys for Tots donation are encouraging their customers to steal from their families? New England MINI dealerships for example, or the Duke University Women’s Basketball team, or the USS Midway Museum in San Diego—their patrons must all be equally suspect. Why, even The Jacksonville Zoo is encouraging parents to rob their own children this holiday season!
Cenk also questions just how gold this hooker’s heart really is: “By the way, it’s also a good deal for her. It’s not like she’s doing it for free.”
So it’s a “good deal for her” because she’s not offering to see guys for free? I don’t know; a 50 percent discount sounds rather generous to me. By contrast, those greedy bastards at the Jacksonville Zoo are only giving $5 off their normal admission cost of $20. Sounds like a pretty good deal for the zookeepers, huh, Cenk?
People seem to have a big problem with sex workers getting involved in charity. No one can just say “Thanks,” or “Isn’t that nice?” It seems like it often becomes the launching point for a critique of our and our customers’ character. Like, how could people who are normally so shameless and immoral actually care about children? And even if we do, it will certainly backfire, because we only associate with toy-swiping human filth.
First of all, a sex worker who contributes to charity really isn’t some crazy anomaly. The story might seem quirky to people, because of the dichotomy of having a publicly reviled profession while contributing to a charity run by the U.S. Marine Corps and celebrating a Christian holiday. But Shelby’s not the first escort to offer a discount to clients in support of a charity, and plenty of strip clubs have holiday toy drives.
When I was working at the Hustler Club a few years ago, this article came out in response to a holiday toy drive we were hosting in conjunction with the local firefighters union. The author, David Downs, used the timely event of a holiday toy drive as the premise for a piece whose only real function was to reiterate stereotypes and humiliate dancers. He describes the only dancer he talks with as “slutty.” You have to wonder what that means in the context of a strip club—were her clothes skimpy, and did he not understand that’s how strippers typically dress? Or did she bang him in the champagne room and, in that case, is he a slut as well? According to Downs, “The girls all look like they just got into stripping. They’re young, fresh, and a little pudgy from the lack of a drug habit.” Despite the headline (“Hustler Club Hosts the SF Fire Fighters Union Toy Drive Kickoff”), the article didn’t actually focus on the toy drive as much as the general offensiveness of my workplace.
This year, San Francisco strip clubs participated again, with a donation of $20,000 in addition to toys. A consortium of dancers had planned to present the check to the firefighters at a station in downtown San Francisco this past Wednesday. But Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White decided that would be inappropriate (“just because of the nature of it,” a spokesperson vaguely explained). And according to this video, “having entertainers inside the station didn’t live up to the wholesome work environment [Hayes-White] is trying to maintain.” Because if you let a group of (fully clothed) exotic dancers into a fire station to make a charity donation, who knows what sort of mayhem might ensue? So having a strip club host your charity event is fine, and accepting money from them is fine—just don’t let those dirty donators set foot in your workplace!
Saturday Night Live got in on it too this week, as their “Weekend Update Joke-Off” targeted a Chicago strip club where dancers offered free lap dances to people who donated toys. The winning joke was an unremarkable “toys for tatas” pun, which, you’ll notice, Cenk had basically come up with as well (“toys for tits”). Though most of the jokes were relatively innocuous and juvenile sexual puns, Jimmy Fallon contributed: “Unlike the strippers, the toys must not be damaged.”
Every move a sex worker makes publicly puts us in a vulnerable position for criticism, no matter how mundane the story. You would hope these relatively high-profile donations would serve to eventually improve our image in the mainstream media, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. When we do something positive or thoughtful, it’s considered atypical and newsworthy behavior for us, and therefore a good opportunity to launch a critique of our lecherous customers, our “sluttiness,” or how generally “damaged” we are as people. What’s wrong with a simple “thank you?”