Last month in Santa Cruz, 27-year-old sugar baby and fetish model Alix Tichelman pled guilty to manslaughter in the heroin overdose death of her Google executive client Forrest Hayes, and was sentenced to six years in prison.
Throughout the eight months Tichelman was in custody, the media luridly painted her as “The Callgirl Killer,” “The Harbor Hooker,” or simply, baldly, as a “prostitute,” even though she hadn’t worked as an escort since early in 2012 and actually met Hayes on Seeking Arrangement as a sugar daddy. Meanwhile, no article on the case failed to mention that Hayes was an employee of Google X and a father of five. Despite the fact that this was clearly “an accidental overdose between two consenting adults,” as Tichelman’s lawyer Larry Biggam put it, and that the two were known to have been involved in an ongoing commercial sexual relationship involving drug use, most coverage painted the young sex worker as a heartless killer. All of the media I read made sure to quote Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark’s comment to NBC News that “she [Tichelman] was so callous,” and describe the footage on the yacht’s surveillance video in which she stepped over his body to lower the curtains and sip from a glass of wine.
Few news outlets quoted Assistant District Attorney Rafael Velasquez’s words at the case’s conclusion, belying this presentation of Tichelman as a dope-fiend black widow: “This is a manslaughter case. There was no intent to kill and there was no conscious disregard for human life…She demonstrated an attempt to initially try to help him out, crying while holding him, trying to shake him, trying to wake him.”
These two accounts of the surveillance video are so starkly different that one must assume that a lot of the behavior being touted as proof of Tichelman’s inhumanity represents her reaction before she even knew Hayes was dead, when she thought he was merely in a nod—the typical effect of opiates.
What would have happened to Alex Tichelman had she called the police?
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.
This essay is based on research interviews I conducted with current and former sex workers who are undergraduate or graduate students at universities across the globe. Their names and other identifying information have been changed.
I am subject to the capricious whims of my patriarch, a pimp of sorts, the man who decides the parameters of my labor. He is benevolent; soothing my insecurities with promises of better pay and better working conditions, someday. Things will improve, he promises. Someday, I will be able to keep what I earn, I’ll have adequate health care, and I’ll be treated as my patriarch’s equal. But first, I must pledge my allegiance to indentured servitude despite its accompaniment of crushing debt. I must allow for my assimilation into an exploitative system for a mere chance at cultural capital. I must sell my body and mind for the privilege that comes with letters after my name. I love my patriarch, though—he punctually answers e-mails and often praises my free labor. He plies me with booze to show his affection and, as evidenced by his gentle hazing, clearly favors me.
I am, of course, an academic.
There has been much ado about sex workers in academia lately. Noah Berlatsky wrote about the the value of sex worker led research in academia at the Pacific Standard; Livemint covered groundbreaking new research on Asian sex workers, HIV, and violence recently released in collaboration with regional sex workers’ rights organizations; and Lime Jello articulated the problems of studying sex workers here at Tits and Sass. Of course, there has always been immense curiosity, gross fetishization, and erratic speculation surrounding those of us who dabble in both the realms of the body and the mind. And true to my liberal art discipline’s form, I think it all says something larger about society.
I started working in the sex industry a great while ago and while my relationship to the sex industry has morphed after all these years—from an idealized notion of “liberation” in my younger days to a sense of disdain for and annoyance with the work—I still see myself as a sex worker first and an academic second.
It was pure happenstance that I fell into academia at all. By the time I learned what graduate school was, I’d worked as an independent escort and stripper for years. Upon being accepted to a Ph.D. program, it felt only natural for me to write about the situations and spaces which I occupied. The impetus for my academic curiosity was never about “access”—in fact, I find the concept of “accessing hard to reach populations” exploitative and condescending. I’ve always been one for internal exploration over armchair ethnography that privileges “the sociologist’s gaze.” There’s very little one can know about the world while rejecting self-reflection with the impunity of a toddler. All this to say, I study my precise social location: the experiences of sex workers in academia.
This weekend, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Texas pole tax against an appeal that charged the tax was an improperly utilized “occupation tax.” Officially known as the Sexually Oriented Business Fee, the tax requires strip clubs to pay $5 per patron to a fund for victims of sexual assault. While similar taxes have been passed in other states, Texas was the first to pass one in 2007, though it’s been continuously challenged in court.
Just last week, Comptroller Susan Combs said she’d start aggressively pursuing clubs that weren’t paying the tax, although she did not mention whether she would be going after the other businesses it targets. The tax is supposed to be collected from the door of any premise hosting adult entertainment.
(3) A business that holds occasional events described in subsection (a)(3) of this section, but does not habitually engage in the activity described in subsection (a)(3) of this section is liable for the sexually oriented business fee for those occasional events. For example, a nightclub that hosts a wet t-shirt contest is liable for the fee based upon attendance during the event.
The bar manager at the Palm Street Pier on South Padre Island said that while they’ve had wet T-shirt contests in previous years, they didn’t have one in 2014 because “no one showed up.” She said that they have never been asked to pay the SOB fee on previous years’ contests. I’m waiting on a reply from Austin club ND as to whether they were asked to pay it for nights they held “Twerk For A Stack” contests. One club that isn’t a strip club, Tony’s Corner Pocket in Houston, appears on the comptroller’s rolls as having paid each year the tax is in effect. They have occasional amateur strip contests and it appears that this is what they’re paying on, making them the most scrupulous bar in the state, since no other non-strip club appears in the payment records.