Most people have some form of a lurid narrative about drugs, exploitation, childhood abuse, and mental illness come to mind when they imagine the life of a sex worker. However, sex workers’ relationships to their identity are far more complex and difficult to characterize than that trite narrative allows for. When it comes to sex workers who do live with the stereotypical trope of also having a mental illness, it becomes even more essential to uncover what these sex workers themselves have to say about their lived experiences of that mental illness and sex work.
People diagnosed with mental illness frequently have their decisions invalidated and undermined by the dominant culture. Many individuals who do not have much experience with mental illness will attribute any socially unacceptable behaviors to “mental illness.” In much the same way, people who have never been in the sex industry tend to sideline the decisions of sex workers by inferring that trauma or abuse must have predestined them to a life in the sex industry. When people who are neither mentally ill nor in the sex industry say these things, they are robbing us of our ability to exert agency.
Amber, a full-service worker from Washington DC, states, “I very strongly believe that the way that society treats sex workers, mentally ill people and other marginalized communities (that often intersect)…[is] based on kyriarchal/patriarchal, colonialist, and capitalist systems of control. In order to treat marginalized people better, I think we all have a lot of work to do regarding the unlearning of certain stigmas and stereotypes.”
The presence of stigma is one the key aspects of institutional violence keeping communities and individuals subjugated. It proliferates because it benefits those in power in this way. Stigma creates legal and moral justifications for the criminalization of sex work in America. It also creates an environment in which mentally ill people can be stripped of their rights through court-ordered institutionalization, coerced medication, and the assignation of relatives as proxies to control them legally and financially. The disqualification of the decision-making abilities of communities on the margins is a weapon of the oppressor.
Tara Johnson, a stripper from Portland, Oregon, elaborates on the ways in which decision making can be invalidated based on association with the sex industry, especially if one also has a diagnosis of mental illness: “Just because I’m (sometimes) crazy, doesn’t mean I’m wrong. My sex work was not me acting out, or indulging in yet another form of self-harm. It was nothing that entitles people to belittle my full humanity. It’s nothing that automatically means that mentally ill sex workers, especially ones who may have other issues too (drug use, etc.) should automatically be deprived of the rights that privileged, able-bodied civilians are entitled to.”
Sex work is not a dysfunctional behavior stemming from our disease. Rather, it is often the best choice we can make to adapt to our mental illness. In truth, many people with mental illness find sex work helpful in a variety of ways as an occupational choice. It gives us a less rigorous schedule which allows for more emotional instability. Sex work can also affirm us as something we can excel at when mental illness has hindered our success in more traditional pursuits.
I was in the midst of a pretty good day when I received a phone call from one of my non-client lovers. The poor boy had come down with a case of throat gonorrhea, which I didn’t even know was a thing. He was just calling to let me know I had been exposed the last time we had sex, since we had made out with great vigor and he had also gone downtown, like the sweetheart he is. I thanked him for letting me know, told him to feel better, hung up and began to evaluate the situation in the calm and rational fashion that any sex-positive, non-monogamous person might try to evaluate a situation such as this.
Gonorrhea. No big deal, right? I have always expected to contract an STI at some point in my life, and as far as STIs go that’s not such a bad one. I was feeling a little funny in the junk, which I figured was probably due to a yeast infection. It seemed likely to me that I might, in fact, have gonorrhea, and I should probably get tested ASAP either way.
Then I remembered what I do for a living. I remembered that there weren’t just lovers whom I may have exposed, albeit unwittingly, but possibly about three clients as well. Even worse, I remembered that I desperately needed to make the money I was planning on making over the coming weekend— or else I wasn’t going to be able to pay my rent.
In my work as a full-service escort, STIs had always been a sort of intellectual, if abstract, concern. It is something I knew could be a really detrimental thing to have happen to my business, but it hadn’t happened yet, so I wasn’t too worried about it. Now here I was, in the exact situation I had only considered in the abstract. The one where I need to make money but can’t really figure out an ethical way to do so without exposing myself as every client’s worst nightmare: the poxy whore.
Dear Ms. Harm Reduction,
I am transitioning into full service work, and need help getting clients to use condoms. One sugar daddy in particular has had a vasectomy, and a recent clean test, so he prefers no condoms for any activity. But I still feel uncomfortable with this. How can I negotiate to protect myself? On a related note, do you know where low income/uninsured women can get the HPV vaccine for free? I am over 26 years old, in California, if that matters. I really want to be as safe as possible while still earning money in this industry.
Amanda Brooks is the acclaimed author ofThe Internet Escort’s Handbookseries, the first one of which she published in 2006. They served as an important resource for escorts advertising online back when there were few other how-to sources on the topic. She was also one of the earliest escort bloggers starting in 2005, writing entries brimming with eloquence and common sense atAfter Hours.
The two fell off the map recently.
When they returned, we were shocked to read Brooks’ blog post about what they’d endured: a campaign of terror by one of Brooks’ clients, affluent lawyer Percy LaWayne Isgitt. Isgitt—Brenneman and Brooks call him “Pig”—caused both Brenneman and Brooks severe brain injuries when his arrogance and negligence piloting a plane the three of them were in led to a catastrophic “hard landing.” Despite the fact that Brooks was clearly incapacitated and near death, Brenneman had to browbeat Pig into taking her to the hospital the next day. Once Brooks was checked in, Pig fraudulently signed in as her relative and attempted to control her treatment. Despite her still severely injured state, Brooks continued to see Pig as a client for two sessions after her hospitalization, in desperate need of money to pay for medical bills. When she finally tried to break ties with him, he hired people to make threatening phone calls to both women. In response, Brooks went into hiding, so Pig sent men to stalk, rape, and beat Brenneman on a number of occasions, trying to discover Brooks’ location. Neither the police, nor the many medical facilities that misdiagnosed them along the way, nor the personal injury lawyer they hired were any help to the two women against a deranged, abusive man with wealth and social capital.
The injuries Brenneman suffered from the plane crash combined with the injuries she sustained from the attacks led to the fatal exacerbation of her previous medical conditions. Her doctors have told her she has very little time left to live.
This story illustrates the insidious way institutions empower abusers to commit violence against sex workers. The only people they can often rely on in these situations are other sex workers. You can read the original account here and donate to their Giftrocket account using this email address: email@example.com. Donations will be shared equally between them to cover their respective medical costs.
Amanda, you write in your blog post, in reference to Jill’s past abuse:
To those who doubt, her stories are true. They’re things only men would think up and most of the time, it’s the mundane details that stand out the most to both of us. I’ve read stories from so-called trafficking victims who describe ridiculous “Satanic” rituals or elaborate set-ups. The truth is, the men who were Bruce’s [Jill’s captor’s] clients weren’t very bright, in my opinion, and they had a lot of the same stupid fantasies and beliefs that most vanilla clients do—only much darker and violent.
This factor plays into your story of how Pig hurt you both, too. There’s a voyeuristic undertone to the way people listen to stories of abuse. People expect the “elaborate set-ups,” and yet abuse is usually no different than other misbehavior in kind, if not in degree—abusers do it because they want to feel big, or because they care about themselves a lot more than they care about anyone else. How do you think the fact that often stories of abuse are mundane and banal makes it harder for victims to get help?
Jill Brenneman: People don’t want to believe the mundane stories, they want to believe the exotic stories. Like a wife who gets hit. Unless she’s put in the hospital, no one cares. Or she returns home because she has children. But the trafficking victim imported from Estonia gets all the attention.
Amanda Brooks: Because they’re too believable or not dramatic enough. [Pig] raped me twice, yet it’s not something most people acknowledge as rape. It even took me a while to realize that it was rape, despite how I felt about it. People like to parse situations down to the point where the only way it’s “real” is if it’s outlandish.
Jill, you were held captive by a sadist for three years in your teens, and forced to endure unimaginable abuse. As an adult you returned to sex work voluntarily to make a living, and then you went through this ordeal with Amanda at Pig’s hands. What unusual problems have you faced as a sex working abuse survivor? What can we do as a movement to make things better for the abuse survivors among us?
Jill: The ordeal that Amanda went through made me livid and still does.
Working as an abuse survivor led me to more abuse. I learned from [my captor and abuser] Bruce in the 80’s. Bruce was a cliche master sadist. There was never a sense of love or affection between him and I. I was an object. I did what I was was told. I was taught how to relate to clients. I overapplied this training as an adult. I willingly went back to work as a professional submissive. This was a place that I did not belong. Despite there being a 19 year gap between [my captivity and going back to] sex work, I did not belong in sex work —especially as a professional submissive. I needed the money to pay for very expensive subcutaneous blood thinners because of a clotting disorder. I needed to pay the rent, the car payment, food, care for the dog, etc. I took the work that came. I started off with two old pictures of myself, no website, no reviews, and took some pro-sub clients to make money when it was tight. I did not belong in sex work. I was still far too impacted from previous abuse to be doing it but I had no choice, I needed the money.
The most important thing the movement needs to do is work on decriminalization so that we have options.
Amanda: The movement truly doesn’t have the power to deal with this, unfortunately. Until the laws are changed, we never will.
Editor’s note: This post was originally erroneously attributed to Victoria Joy. The piece is actually by Ruby Rue.
Victims of violence are more likely to have experienced violence at the hands of someone they know. The same goes for sex workers. There seems to be a lot more concern about stranger-danger in the industry than there is for what I’ve seen as the bigger threat—the people already in your life. I’m not suggesting you don’t screen clients, of course that is important. I’m also not suggesting isolating yourself from friends and family. But, article after article I’ve read about sex workers’ partners reflects some of my own experience. Now, luckily, the situations I’ve been in have never escalated to physical violence. But—verbal abuse? Manipulation? Sexual harassment? Sexual assault? Check, check, check, and check. Let’s break down this potential mine field and see how sex work stigma and abusive partner behavior collide in the worst ways possible.
I think about how many times I’ve had a friend who was a good decent friend, a decent, “good guy.” I figure, he’s pretty great, I should date him. And almost immediately, the whole situation sours. I wonder, “Did I do something wrong?” Maybe if I had a clearer head I’d see that the deterioration of the relationship is related to his resistance to my standing up for myself. Still, in the context of abuse, it’s going to be branded as my fault. There is no way of knowing that a guy will treat you the same way when he’s dating you as he did when you were just friends. For whatever reason, dating can open the can of crazy douchebag worms in a seemingly otherwise wonderful man in your life. The beautiful wonderful man you are dating can make this very same quick switch the second he discovers you were or are a sex worker, though I will bet you anything that if he reacts poorly to that information that there were already other problems in the relationship.
The first instance is misogyny and the second instance is whorephobia. Both misogyny and whorephobia are leveraged in relationships in order for the abuser to gain:
1. More outside support—a rallying cry against you
2. More sympathy—they’re broken hearted, you’re just a slut
I’m going to break down some intersections between whorephobia and abusive partner behavior, based on my personal experiences. You can use this to help identify whether your partner is an abuser or not. Much of this will be familiar, because the world is still pretty shitty about these issues.