The fact that porn workers have always been popular scapegoats for the broadest strokes of politics and media is hardly news for those who work in the sex industry. There are myths claiming pornography leads to violence and there is the historical fact that porn workers have protected our civil rights. Protecting our First Amendment rights is just scratching the surface of sex workers’ contributions to labor and women’s rights movements, among others, since antiquity. Although more is at stake for sex workers than free speech, the passage of FOSTA and SESTA will not only affect us but civilians too, especially in light of the repeal of net neutrality. In a titillating cross-section of lawmaking and scandal, we have on one side Stormy Daniels suing 45 for unlawful payoffs and calling him to account publicly for his associates’ threats against her, and on the other side, legislation that has already silenced common sex workers, with the overlaying intersections of race and class; good whores and bad whores; victims and perpetrators; and misinformation all around.
You might see liberal celebrities championing Daniels, but you won’t see them championing sex workers’ rights.
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.
I was dressed modestly in a knee-length black dress, white Converse, and a denim jacket, and felt as comfortable as any stripper can when behaving as a civilian at a strip club event. Although Portland is home to about 45 strip clubs, its downtown entertainment district only has five, but on this Thursday evening, Club Rouge was already thumping with activity. I proudly displayed my black and pink VIP pass to the door attendant, feeling like vaginal royalty. About three dozen women of various ethnicities and body types strutted and mingled.
The judging panel was comprised of local Portland celebrities and industry folks: Tres Shannon, the delightfully eccentric owner of Voodoo Donuts, heavily bearded Jedediah Aaker, promoter of Tonic Lounge, who sports a leather thong in IFC’s Portlandia, traveling drag performer Miss Sasha Scarlette, an owner of a marijuana dispensary who wished to remain anonymous, and the unnamedowner of the upscale Stars clubs, who looked like a slightly more heterosexual John Waters. I was the only judge with an actual vagina. “I feel a lot of pressure was on your shoulders to maintain order and balance,” host and creator of the Annual Vagina Pageant, DJ Dick Hennessy, later told me.
20 contestants, 19 of whom were strippers, were vying for the title of Miss Pretty Vagina 2013. Scoring was based on three categories: Stage Talent (20%), Attractiveness (20%) and Vagina Beauty (60%). One young lady, appropriately dressed as a cute (yet clichéd) school girl, was introduced as having never stripped a shift in her life. While I admire the bravery of any woman willing to bare all in an industry competition, I was already dreading watching an amateur “dance.”
Club Rouge and Hennessy had attracted a diverse crowd. Twentysomething bros laughed and drank among well-dressed older men, a pack of women whispered into their hands and pointed at the strippers, and the Old Guy Who Sells Roses was weaving his way through the audience, muttering “Rose for the lady?” Dancer Ari from the Boom Boom Room giggled to me, “I just saw my dentist. He asked me, “How’s everything going? I asked him, “Like, in my mouth?” A fish-faced middle-aged man stood behind the judges, his mouth agape, not moving except to lick his lips every few minutes.
The bartender laughed at me when I asked “Do you serve hot tea?” and instead I settled for ice water with a lemon, dunking in my own smuggled tea bags. Once the contest began, the next four hours were a blur of vaginas and stilettos.
Recently, Amber Rose has been in the spotlight for giving her opinion on The Breakfast Club 105.1 regarding Kim Kardashian’s 17-year-old half sister Kylie Jenner’s relationship with 25-year-old rapper Tyga. Rose was asked if Jenner is too young to date the “Rack City” rapper, and she responded with: “She’s a baby. She needs to go to bed at 7:00 o’clock and relax.” She also said Tyga should be ashamed of himself for leaving his family for a minor.
Let’s untangle this celebrity web. Rose has a close friendship with celebrity exotic dancer Blac Chyna. Chyna dated Tyga for a little over two years and had a child with him. Tyga split with Chyna last August and allegedly began a relationship with Jenner. In case you didn’t know, Jenner’s older half sister, Kim Kardashian, is married to Kanye West, whom Rose had a relationship with from 2008 to 2010, during which her modeling career launched when she posed for a Louis Vuitton print advertisement that featured West’s sneaker line. Later, Rose dated rapper Wiz Khalifa, with whom she had a son.
So that’s why The Breakfast Club asked Rose about Jenner. The interview spread like wildfire throughout social media. When Khloe Kardashian caught wind of Rose’s comments, she took to Twitter to attack Rose. In one tweet, she brought up the fact that Rose had stripped as a minor, saying, “Please don’t worry about my sister who has a career [modeling] and her shit.”
Rose’s romantic history is regularly the topic of gossip, but her background is more interesting. Raised in South Philadelphia, Rose became a stripper to support her family at the age of 15. In 2012, she did an interview for NecoleBitchie.com where she stated that when she and her mother became homeless, being an exotic dancer at a young age was simply a means of survival. She compared her situation to men who also live in poverty selling drugs to feed their families.
So in response to Kardashian, Rose clapped back in a series of tweets that highlighted Kardashian’s hypocrisy. She even tweeted “I’ll be that lil whore to support my family like ur sister is a whore 2 supports hers.”