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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.

Deep In The Shadows: Working Trans Without Disclosure

Being a sex worker who doesn’t disclose their transgender status is a minefield, and it’s one I have to navigate every day. The trials workers like me face range from navigating transphobic workplaces and colleagues to selling sex to people who would likely not be happy if they knew our truth.

I began doing sex work a few months after I had sex reassignment surgery. I entered sex work for fairly typical reasons: poor mental health, poor physical health following my operation, and the resulting need to make money without working long hours. I had to choose between advertising myself as a cisgender person or a transgender person. Considering the lack of a profitable market for trans women sex workers who have had sex reassignment surgery, I decided to not disclose my trans history in my sex work, and instead to advertise myself as a cisgender woman.

There is a trope that trans people only do sex work in order to “save up for the operation”, but this is not true. Trans people, like everyone else, do sex work for myriad reasons, reasons which are too numerous and diverse to be reduced to one easily digestible motivation. But as a result of this common misconception, people regularly refuse to believe that trans people who have gone through surgical reassignment could still need to enter sex work. Yet our position as a minority group that faces a lot of discrimination in employment and housing doesn’t disappear should we choose to go on the operating table. This reality is a hard one to accept, but it’s our truth—people don’t suddenly start to treat you as human when you have surgery. Our struggles as individuals living under a transphobic society remain regardless of our genitals.

I entered sex work ignorant of the ins-and-outs of the industry. I simply walked into a local place that specialized in the field I felt most comfortable working in and signed up for my first shift. I’ve since been doing sex work without disclosure as a trans woman for a couple of years. I’ve met many sex workers, seen many clients, and managed to succeed at making a living.

There are some close friends who I work with whom I do disclose to and others who I’ve decided will never get to know about my past. Every time I tell someone I have to make absolutely sure they will be okay with it before taking that leap. All it would take is sharing my history with one person who reacts badly, and before I know it my whole client pool could find out, and I could end up in poverty, or worse, dead.

Why The #NYCStripperStrike Is So Relevant And So Long Overdue

(Via @NYCStripperStrike Instagram account)

A slightly different version of this piece was originally posted on Akynos’ blog, blackheaux, on November 8th

A personal history of being a Black stripper

It’s about fucking time! That’s all I can say about this stripper strike organizing.

I am excited to see more and more gentlemen’s club/exotic dancers taking this business seriously enough to take matters into their own hands. I think for far too long those of us in the adult entertainment industry have gotten engulfed in the socially acceptable invalidation of stripping as actual work, so that we’ve allowed ourselves to neglect so many of the labor violations, discrimination, and downright illegal actions by management, patrons, and staff that just couldn’t fly in other legal businesses.

I remember seeing dancers getting sexually and physically assaulted by patrons, while the bouncers employed because our naked bodies afforded them that job would do absolutely NOTHING. I recall one time a patron ejaculated on my ass as I gave him a standing lap dance at the bar. I went to the bouncer on duty at the time. He shrugged his shoulders and dismissed me.

The male staff who were employed by the club as stage managers or bouncers were also known to sexually violate us. Although they were employed by the same space we all occupied at the same damn time, they felt they were entitled to free feels and who knows what else from the dancers. If it was a nice day, they’d just insult you for even working in such a grimy industry.

Then there was the highway robbery in fees the club would charge the dancers who were coming in there to work—i.e., bring the establishment business. When I was in the game in the 90s, house fees were only just being implemented. They went from $5 to $20 in what seemed a matter of weeks.

Public perception often shapes law and policy, and vice versa. Without legal precedent or social acceptance we become prey to shoddy business practices.

I was 17 years old when I entered the clubs. I started with Al’s Mr. Wedge in the Bronx. It was the club I worked at exclusively then for a few reasons: Another club, The Goat, was closed by the time I got in the game. And besides, the legendary talk around this club sounded as if it was just too much for my bougie ass. For some reason, I just didn’t like Golden Lady, because its size and structure intimidated me.

And all my attempts at auditioning at clubs like Sue’s Rendezvous and whatever the name of the juice bar near Dyre Ave proved fruitless. I was too dark.

I recall once I went into Sue’s with a friend of mine, this mixed chic by the name of Jackie. Tall, light skinned, sorta looking like a young Mariah Carey, she was half White and Black. I went into Sue’s with her with the confidence that I would be allowed to dance in another club and increase my chances of making money. Young and naive, it didn’t dawn on me that when they told me Jackie could audition and I couldn’t it was the result of discrimination against my complexion.

Jackie ended up working at the high-end clubs in the city. Me and my Black ass had to keep it gutter and stay where they were not too picky.

I want people to stop being surprised that racism, colorism, and other biases against womxn (and Black people/or anyone with “dark” skin) exist. Determining who is worthy of making a living can be as superficial as how far from Whiteness they appear to be.

This shit is real.

Racism is real.

And colorism is also as fuckin real. The world is not existing in a post-racial/post-colorism mindset. It will never ever be like that. Now with racist humans writing code, even algorithms are becoming racially biased.

Surviving As Working Class After Backpage

Content warning: This post contains discussion and accounts of trafficking, debt bondage, and exploitation, both in the context of sex trafficking and trafficking in another industry. There are also brief references to experiences of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, custody loss, structural violence from criminalization, and violence against sex workers.

In the last four months, I have been in the most unusual employment circumstances of my life. I am kept in a small box with no access to even basic human needs like hot meals and showers. I am forced to stay there until my employers are ready to use me again. I am only permitted to shower when my employers are not using me. Up to a week in between showers has passed.

I am not paid for all of the work that I have performed. I am forced to share my small box with strange men when my employers demand it. These men have become aggressive and verbally abusive toward me. I am not allowed to know if the men have been violent to others before I work with them. I have been harassed sexually by my employer and I’m viewed as a sexual object by an overwhelming number of the men that surround me.

I am paid less than minimum wage for the hours that I work. I am kept apart from my family and do not see my home for months at a time. In fact, since taking this job I have not seen my home once, though I was promised I’d be brought home every three to four weeks.

I do not have access to healthcare despite having been the victim of a violent physical assault by one of the people they had living with me in my box. I’ve asked repeatedly to go home to see a doctor, but my employers keep me in my box. They keep moving my box around the nation so that I am too far away to escape and return home. I suspect they keep my pay minimal so that I cannot afford to escape.

I first saw the signs from Truckers Against Trafficking at truck stops around the nation. They were your basic public awareness flyers with signs about how to recognize human trafficking. Then at the port of entry in Wyoming, I saw a different poster from Polaris asking, “Do you want out of the life?”.  I thought for a moment and realized that I do feel as if I am being trafficked and I do want out of “the life”.

For the first time in my life, I feel like I should call Polaris for help, but I can’t. Because I am no longer a sex worker.

This all began after I left sex work.