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Dennis Hof (1946-2018)

The late Dennis Hof with Heidi Fleiss and Ron Jeremy. (photo via the creative commons)

Dennis Hof passed away last week at his Love Ranch brothel after a night of celebrating his 72nd birthday and political campaign. The days following have been filled with an outpouring of discourse about his death, much of which is contentious as people reflect on the so-called legacy Hof left behind. Between his business empire and celebrity fame, Hof exposed the nation to regulated prostitution and Nevada’s brothels in a novel and undeniably impactful way. His celebrity existed within a paradox of tolerance—rural communities in Nevada were often against the brothels, which perhaps itself contributed to his ability to stay in the spotlight. “I’m always looking for a new angle and something funny to keep my name and the name of the Bunny Ranch in the national media,” Hof told the Reno Gazette Journal in 2005.

This quest for the limelight was achieved for some time through exposing legal full-service sex work. However, it recently took a political turn with Hof winning the Republican spring primary for a seat as an assemblyman. His name is to remain on the upcoming November ballot for the Nevada Assembly, and many are saying he is set to win, despite being dead. With him running on a Republican ticket, conservatives are still likely to vote for him so as to ensure a Republican gets appointed to the seat afterwards.

Much of the coverage of his death is fixated around one question that everyone seems to be asking: are his brothels continuing operation, and if so, under whom? Madam Suzette (Suzette Cole) is reported to be receiving Hof’s brothels but, even with the inheritance, the Nevada system has several requirements in place that will need to be met before she can run them legally. In fact, the Love Ranch brothel was shuttered shortly after his death. Hof’s executive assistant, Zack Hames, appears confident in moving forward with the operation of Hof’s brothels, commenting that “it’s business as usual.” Other coverage has focused more on the polarized reactions to his passing, illustrating how while some are celebrating it, others are deeply grieving his loss. This split is highly visible in the sex work community.

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. 

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.

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.