Home Blog

Kavanaugh’s Confirmation Will Kill Disabled Sex Workers Like Me

The San Francisco Federal Building on October 3, 2018. (Photo via Flickr user Peg Hunter)

A few years back, I woke up, looked at my arm, and thought I was in a nightmare. My arms were covered in rashes of tattoo-dark blood blisters so thick my skin looked burgundy-purple from a distance, and bruises, the flesh so swollen it looked like I had been in a car wreck. I had not done anything out of the ordinary, not been beaten up, not survived a new trauma.

It was the most obvious symptom of what would later be diagnosed as an immune disorder. The other symptoms were invisible but devastating—among them, noncancerous growths in both lungs large enough to require a surgical biopsy, and having to relearn how to breathe. My platelets dropped to levels that saw me restricted to cancer treatment wards, experimental medications and bed rest, and a never-ending hell of side effects. The only potential explanation was that this immune disorder could be causing my body to kill my platelets, removing my blood’s ability to clot.

Without platelets, you struggle to get enough oxygen. For a while, I even spent time on oxygen tanks. Without platelets, you’re a “bleeding risk.” You bruise. Sometimes you bleed spontaneously—internal bleeding, swollen limbs, bloody noses that soak towels and can’t be stopped outside a hospital. You can die from a bloody nose if it can’t be cauterized in time. The underlying immune disorder also removes my ability to respond to vaccines, rendering me vulnerable to preventable illnesses.

The good news is, with ongoing access to a medication derived from healthy people’s immunoglobulin, I can see the same long life as others. That’s a whole other discussion about ethics under capitalism in and of itself, because that immunoglobulin sure ain’t coming from rich people, is it?

The bad news is that without insurance this medication costs as much as some types of cancer treatment, and I’ll require it for the rest of my life. In the time between medication doses, my body chews through the donor immunoglobulin, as well as my own blood’s existing components.

In the scope of weeks, months at best, I go from healthy to on the verge of death, platelets dropping, sometimes by 2/3 in the scope of a day. In the course of diagnosis, I spent periods checking into the hospital every two weeks as my blood nosedived to a platelet level so dire that, at times, my doctors thought their machines had malfunctioned and were simply failing to count my blood’s components properly, because how the hell could I be alive otherwise? I was the youngest adult in the cancer wards, the mystery patient doctors came from other floors to see because my case was just THAT strange.

I was uninsurable prior to the Affordable Care Act, even without this diagnosis. My docs claimed I’d grow out of my irregular, heavy, unnervingly painful menstrual cycles, that they were nothing to be concerned about, yet the insurance companies claimed I had “an undiagnosed uterine disorder” and refused to cover me entirely. It turned out they were right about that disorder, ironically enough. After the endometriosis got bad enough to become disabling due to medical neglect, I finally got a diagnosis. I was disabled before my immune disorder ever happened.

Being able to get covered through the ACA was a turning point.

And if I had still been limping along without coverage when my immune system went into free fall, point-blank, I would be dead. Lack of coverage led to my deterioration and my medical inability to work to this day. But it would have led to my death if it had gone on just three years longer. Without full coverage that handled almost everything—blood tests sometimes daily, expensive medications, hospital stays, a dozen specialists, outside consults, extensive imaging, multiple surgeries, an ungodly amount of medications—I would have died during one of those blood drops, when I had 1/150th the minimum platelets of a healthy person.

I tell you this so you can understand how it’s all connected. How one denial, one interruption of coverage, one financial bad break, can cause a failure cascade that results in an individual’s life becoming a mire of sickness, struggle, medical neglect, and decay. For countless Americans, it leads to financial ruin.

For chronically ill and disabled people who do sex work in order to work around their conditions, doing criminalized, grey market, or informal labor without benefits means we often have no access to insurance without the ACA. Employer-based health insurance is now and has always been a leash on workers to keep us beholden to more powerful employers. The ACA was a first step away from that and empowered all workers, regardless of employment status. This is crucial in a “gig economy” of Uber drivers and independent contractors, people with standing not so different than my standing was as a stripper. A nation without the ACA is one in which many of us will die of illness and poverty.

This is the country that we are in danger of returning to if Brett Kavanaugh becomes the newest associate justice on our Supreme Court.

The Maine Millennial: The Charming Columnist that Casually Understands that Sex Work is Labor

Victoria-Hugo Vidal, the Maine Millennial

Stormy Daniels’ Make America Horny Again is the tour that won’t stop—as she chugs from city to city, local coverage follows. Dozens of cities later, the coverage of her tour is getting a bit formulaic.

Here’s the formula local writers tend to use when covering a Stormy appearance:

cursory explanation of Stormy’s newsworthiness + ironic description of the strip club’s interior + sarcastic line about how this performance’s audience is more sophisticated than the average strip club patrons + the writer self-congratulates for supporting a porn worker + isn’t 2018 crazy?!?!

Which brings me to Victoria Hugo-Vidal, AKA The Maine Millennial, whose Sunday column in the Portland Press Herald on Stormy’s appearance at PT’s Showclub stuck to the formula while surprising me with its earnest description of sex work as labor and unabashed enthusiasm for strippers, but none of the snark. I was so tickled that I had to e-mail her.

Who is the Maine Millenial? What’s the gist of your column?

The Portland Press Herald is the largest daily newspaper in Maine. My column, which runs every Sunday, provides a youth’s-eye view of things in the state of Maine (which currently has the oldest median age in America…please help) and, occasionally, the nation. I was originally hired to be a funny breath of fresh air, but the editors made the mistake of giving me creative control, so I also talk about my recovery from alcoholism and the ongoing grief over the death of my father.

Had you done any research before going to see Stormy Daniels? Did you read coverage by other writers?

I have been following her on Twitter and Instagram and have read all the articles on her that I could find—so I knew to expect the red, white, and blue sequins as part of her act. I also tried to do research on what going to a strip club would entail, but there isn’t really a FAQ article for “how to go to a strip club for the first time for a political-ish performance when you are a twentysomething sober woman and also one of the dancers may have gone to high school with your little brother but you aren’t exactly sure.” I did remember to bring a lot of cash and to dispense it generously to all the dancers. So I think I at least did that part right.

You wrote, “I guess I thought maybe the strip club would feel skeevy and exploitative, and maybe sometimes it does, but on this night, I felt surprisingly comfortable.” Is there a reason you thought strip clubs would feel “skeevy and uncomfortable”? You covered it a bit in your story, but can you expound a bit on why you found PT’s Showclub surprisingly comfortable?

My editor wanted me to specifically address the dichotomy about being a young woman in a place that makes money off of young women’s bodies and attention; he figured that most of our readers have never gone to a strip club before and would be worried about that. Also, I’m a very strong feminist, which my readers probably have realized after almost a year’s worth of my columns (I think the one about taxing Viagra to pay for free tampons was the big clue for them), and he thought readers would want me to point out, even in a roundabout way, that strip clubs (and sex work in general) is seen as exploitative. Also, PT’s, in particular, has a sketchy local reputation—someone got stabbed in the parking lot last year.

The club itself was surprisingly comfortable mostly because the crowd was very mixed—I assume largely due to the Stormy Factor —and also because I had a friend with me (teamwork makes the dream work, guys, it really does). There was also a large lesbian contingent that night and I just tend to feel more comfortable knowing I’m not the only queer woman in the room. (Not to mention the club’s prominent security guys.)

Who are some of your favorite women “hustlers,” besides Stormy Daniels?

CARDI B. Cardi is my absolute hero. Also my grandmother, who went from being a single mother of three living in her mom’s house in rural New York in the early 1970s and who, through teaching herself personal finance and investment strategy, as well as some extreme couponing, went on to put all three of her kids through college and retire happily ever after to a comfortable middle-class life. RIP the OG.

What are your thoughts on Michael Avenatti floating a presidential bid?

I’m not sure how successful he will be, but I agree with most of the policy positions he has stated, and as a lawyer, he’s got more qualification than the current occupant of the Oval Office. Plus, his jawline just screams “presidential.”

From a reader: Are you bisexual?

I am so bisexual that today I am literally wearing socks with rainbow unicorns on them. This is not fake news; I can provide photographic evidence.

From another reader, referencing the column: I want to know what the difference between working and performing is. The girls on shift were working, not performing? Is the performance not work? Or did Stormy just manage to hide the effort put into her work better?

Reader makes a good point. All the girls on shift were both working and performing (boy were they ever); the performance was certainly work and the club was their workspace. Stormy was probably able to hide the effort put into the work better, especially since she was a guest performer and was only on her feet dancing for a few minutes (as opposed to a whole shift) but she had another level of showmanship to her. This is a woman who was clearly born for the spotlight—in person, your eyes are just drawn to her. She was just incredibly charismatic; there was something about her vibe that was more lighthearted than the other dancers. It was a little hard to describe (as auras often are). Maybe she was just happy because she knows something that we don’t….

Donna Dalton, Jill Filipovic, And The Eternal Lightness of Anti-Sex Worker Feminist Being

Jill Filipovic in 2009. (Photo by Jim Miles via Flickr and Wikimedia)

On August 24, a police officer on duty with the Columbus, Ohio police department named Andrew Mitchell shot and killed sex worker Donna Dalton, leaving her two children motherless. Like others who habitually inflict state sanctioned violence onto the bodies of marginalized people, Mitchell says he “feared” for his life, despite friends describing Dalton as “100 pounds wet.” Images from the crime scene show an undeniably dubious scene: Mitchell was not in uniform and, after picking up Dalton, he wedged his unmarked police car against a building, preventing Dalton’s escape. The cop and his apologists claim that Dalton stabbed him, thus, he argues that his gratuitous violence—eight gunshots—was justified.

If a cop has ever cornered you in the sex industry, you know that the experience is its own kind of terrifying, even if you are engaged in legal sex work. The potential for bodily harm at the hands of a cop increases as an individual person’s social capital decreases. This is why so many sex workers and trafficking survivors experience police brutality—not only are we subhuman at a cultural level, we are subhuman at a legal level. Mitchell had an open internal affairs investigation against him at the time of the shooting and many complaints on his record, and he’d already made 80 prostitution-related arrests in 2018. Yet his questionable credibility doesn’t matter when it comes to all these arrests or his shooting of Dalton, because he only requires his status as a cop to justify the criminalization or the killing of a woman suspected of sex work.

In the same new cycle that announced Dalton’s death, sex worker Twitter lamented the use of our ideas in an op-ed by the New York Times. The op-ed, penned by former attorney turned mediocre feminist writer Jill Filipovich, regurgitated some watered down ideas that the sex worker hive mind discussed eons ago. Specifically, the “profoundly misogynist virgin/whore dichotomy imposed on women” and the ways this dichotomy is particularly brutal for sex workers. 

Michael Kimmel, #MeTooSociology, and Feminist Betrayal of Sex Workers In Academia

I’ve made an entire alter ego out of the things people hate most about women: bodily autonomy and self-determination in the form of sex work and body modifications, among other things. The recent allegations against prominent sociologist Michael Kimmel, a man known for his scholarship on masculinity and masculine entitlement, unveil the things people love most about women—complicity in the form of apologetics and silence, among other things.

As a former sex worker and sociologist, the allegations against Kimmel sent me spiraling in ways I did not anticipate, and not just because I have repeatedly experienced sexual harassment in my academic career. I am particularly revolted by the allegations against Kimmel because I disavowed my hard-earned sex worker gut feeling in order to elevate his career.

The lauding of Kimmel as a feminist hero and the white, cis women who still defend him, are particular kinds of institutional, personal, and professional betrayals. Black feminist sociologists like Patricia Hill Collins have, for years, pointed to the “insider within” position of marginalized people, explaining how social, racial, and sexual marginalization contributes to a clearer vision of society (a fish doesn’t know it’s in water, after all).

Despite my sex worker red flags going off every time I used to show Kimmel’s TEDTalk in the college classes I teach, titled Why Gender Equality is Good for Men, I’ve used his work for years. I’ve assigned his books. I’ve suggested him for paid lecturing gigs. More than anything, that’s how the “game” of academia works—in order to succeed, one must deny the knowledge gained as an “insider within.” Having played the game of sex work and the game of academia for quite some time, I always suspected that Kimmel was the kind of man who’d believe that fucking him was its own form of liberation. But I pushed that feeling to the side because YAY FEMINISM!

The allegations against Kimmel produced the hashtag #MeTooSociology, which is teeming with horror stories of sexual assault in higher education. Relatedly, after experiencing sexual harassment as an undergraduate and graduate student, I decided to do my Ph.D. dissertation on the sexual harassment that sex working femmes in academia experience.

In my dissertation, I interviewed 20 sex workers who were either students or faculty at an accredited university in the U.S. or U.K. Every single one experienced unwanted sexual attention in intellectual spaces—classrooms, offices, conferences, etc.—because of the lingering perception that sex workers are perpetually available. I also included my own experiences in academia as a once current, now former sex worker. I have been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and propositioned by no less than nine cis men in academic positions of power.

Saving Face

He was the perfect client. Well dressed and freshly showered, he brought me a small gift in which my precious dollar bills were discreetly enclosed, and our session finished before I was even fully undressed.

“How did you find me?” I asked him over cacio e peppe. I needed to recreate whatever marketing techniques scooped this guy for the rest of my career.

“I’ve been following your Twitter for years,” he replied.

My whore brain, which is really just a saloon girl holding an abacus after seven years of doing this job, quickly ran a rough estimation of every dollar I had lost by somehow failing to convince Mr. Right to get in touch sooner. He sensed the twinge of disappointment in my surprise. “Your photos are great!” he corrected, “I just…never understood the whole ‘hiding the face’ thing.”

My heart sank. There’s simply nothing that competes with the magnetism of the human gaze in a sea of faceless profiles, and it’s something I’ve heard from clients before. In sad contrast to a warm smile, my feeble Photoshop techniques for obscuring my identity can give my images the uncanny valley effect of an alien shapeshifter caught briefly between corporeal forms. While my areolas are available to the world in high resolution, my face is just something I can’t—or won’t—expose.

Industry professionals who do online advertising are noticing that an increasing number of their colleagues have forgone the usual online security measure of hiding identifying features like faces and tattoos, opting to share all of the above plus apartments, city views, and even cameos from their dogs. In a city of millions, I’ve unintentionally run into workers who I can identify only from their online profiles. This trend that unquestionably puts workers at greater risk is troubling for many. It’s a phenomenon that coincides with ever-more-restrictive criminal laws on prostitution, a lack of reliable advertising options, and an unrelenting global media culture that frames privacy as a puritanical, outdated value. Historically unprecedented invasions into our private lives are now commonplace and increasing, and the pressure to truly ‘bare it all’ in order to compete is palpable. The repercussions for sex workers, though, reach far beyond what regular civilians face.