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Sex Working While Jewish In America

(Photo via Flickr user Howard Lifshitz)

We are witnessing the blossoming of a white nationalist nation. Being the person that I am is not easy in the United States right now. It’s not easy for my friends, my family, or millions of Black people, Jews, and LGBTQI people.

I’m an Iranian, Tunisian, French and Jewish sex worker. I immigrated from France to the U.S. as a child. I still hold a fair amount of privilege; my skin is light, unlike that of many of my family members, and I am a high-income sex worker. With that, I’m still confronted with Islamophobia—many people assume I’m Muslim because I’m Middle Eastern—and anti-Semitism both in my personal and professional lives.

I was raised with Judaism but I’m a secular Jew. I’m a Hebrew school dropout. My feelings about religion are very complicated and honestly, it often makes me quite uncomfortable. Every time I walk around New York and see white Hasidic Jews, I feel both otherness—we are culturally different and I’m not a nice Jewish girl—and a connection to them.

The thing that makes me feel most Jewish is knowing how much people hate us. People hate them as people hate me. I’ve been to Nazi death camps and I remember looking at a flyer in one camp’s museum. There were excerpts from a pamphlet the Nazis passed out during the war. It was titled How to Spot a Jew, containing several highly racist caricatures presented as what to look out for. Those racist caricatures all looked like me. I don’t need to have religious garb on to be recognized as Jewish, and I still see those caricatures being used in reactionary media today.

I’ve been conflicted about saying anything about anti-Semitism under my work persona. I struggle with being politically vocal while still trying to make money and remain appealing to wealthy clients.

But when I’m faced with these prejudices at work, it hurts to be silent. I feel like I’ve lost. My racial identities come up too often at work to ignore. I once posted a photo online of myself post-menstrual sex, and someone’s response was: “Now I know why Hitler gassed the Jews.” People frequently point out my big nose. I’ve been called a “terrorist,” “camel pussy”, and “kike” on client-facing social media quite a bit.

When I was younger and new to sex work, I was afraid to set boundaries and money was scarce, so I took jobs that I wouldn’t take now that I’m in a better financial situation. I think all performers of color are faced with this experience. I’ve been in a movie called Women Of the Middle East, and have been cast as a belly dancer many times. I was always being given the information that I would be participating in a racial fetish scene only after I had traveled, paid for testing, been booked, etc. I’ve had a director make jokes about needing machine guns as props for Middle Eastern vibes, and I’ve had to fuck a white man in a turban with black eyeliner. Clients still ask me to wear hijabs.

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.

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. 

On Backpage

At this point in the SESTApocalypse, as I finally emerge from the paralyzing fog of wtf-wtf-wtf around the death of our business model, we’re all sick of thinking and talking about it. We’re sick of wondering how the hell we’re going to manage, sick of watching high-end workers become paranoiac internet security experts, sick of low-end workers being driven back to the streets. We’re sick unto death of the media requests, media requests in our inboxes but no money, media requests just as blithely uncaring about outing us as always, media requests which cheerfully expect a response that night before the news cycle stops giving a shit about hookers. (Oh, but could you connect us to someone even more abjectly fucked than you? Could they talk to us in between dodging assault as they re-acclimate themselves to the shittiest and most dangerous sort of desperate street-based work? How do you feel about your imminent impoverishment, the obsolescence of your only survival mechanism, and your bleak and possibly nonexistent future?) And when we do accept these media requests and bravely strive to make ourselves understood—when they don’t just quote our snarky emails refusing the most ignorant ones without our permission—we’re sick of the coverage that results, always appearing underneath that sickeningly familiar synecdoche for us, those disembodied legs in thigh high boots leaning over a car under a streetlight.

We’re understandably sick of it all as we attempt to keep body and soul together in this new landscape, but I feel I have to write a eulogy for Backpage.

Alas, poor fucking Backpage. I’m not crying any crocodile tears on your grave—your owners can sit and stew in the hundred charges in their indictments and take that instead of true justice for cynically profiting off a criminalized population—but I will lament what you meant for us.

We’ve lived with you under threat for so long, your demise hardly feels real. From innumerable lawsuits to credit card companies cutting ties with you to Senate hearings to your flagrant strikes for free speech, it seems like something has always been promising to put an end to you. But you persisted.

Personally, I was with Backpage from its murky beginnings to the end of the line. I advertised in a print ad in the back of an alternative weekly back in the aughts when Backpage founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin’s company, Village Voice Media, owned a large swathe of those weeklies. I paid $200 every two weeks for that ad, $160 for a week if I couldn’t manage to put together that $200. $200 for 100 characters, briefer than a tweet—no pictures. I had to walk into that newspaper office personally to deliver the cash, forget any concerns about outing (oh, yes, kids, and I walked uphill in the snow, both ways).

It was this crude newspaper model, these back pages only a few escorts could advertise on, which would eventually become the much more accessible Backpage. (Larkin in an internal company document, as quoted in the unsealed Backpage indictments: “We have with the Village Voice probably the longest run of adult content advertising in the United States and it is, like it or not, in our DNA.”) In fact, Lacey and Larkin initially used Backpage’s revenue stream to keep those alternative weeklies alive in a newspaper industry that was failing even then, in the late aughts and early tens. Though, as anti-trafficking discourse intensified nationally, Village Voice Media came under new ownership which denied any connection, financial or otherwise, between their high-minded journalism and Backpage’s taint.

(Though now both independent print journalism and online escort advertisement are dying models, so we have something in common again.)

The Stormy Daniels Effect, Part II: Post SESTA/FOSTA Edition

A younger Stormy Daniels demonstrates powerful side-eye. (Photo by James Chang via wikimedia)

When I first identified “The Stormy Daniels Effect” here at Tits and Sass, my theory about the power of sex worker class-consciousness, the Stormy Daniels media cyclone was just beginning to brew. This week, after her 60 Minutes interview on Sunday night, it briefly became a full on news cycle shit storm. Commentary on Daniels ranged from sex worker-penned think pieces praising her as a “hero of the opposition” to the never-ending parade of trolls calling her a “whore,” “slut,” and “ho” on Twitter. There was also a slew of pedestrian commentary on mainstream media sites, including tired retorts to Daniels’s press coverage that claimed her sex work is evidence of moral and intellectual shortcomings. My favorite came from an anonymous troll who goes by the name mason B: “awwwwwww the HO’S [sic] have a national voice now isn’t that nice?”

While trolls are not the barometer for our country’s political and social health, the dichotomous identities slung onto Daniels most certainly are. Even Nate Lerner, grassroots director for Build The Wave and creator of the “Boycott Trump” app, recently tweeted, “It’s disconcerting when a porn star is more articulate than our president.”

That Daniels is considered a dumb whore on the one hand and a savior on the other is pretty telling—in our culture, we want our sex workers to occupy uncomplicated little boxes. Leftists and right-wingers alike want sex workers to fit into one of two wildly different narratives. More to the point, it is not lost on most sex workers that while some Democrats and progressives praise Daniels, it was, nevertheless, Democrats and progressives who just fucking passed FOSTA.