What is Sex Work?

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Motor City Strippers!

When I see a black woman in a filmy something or other, or clutching feathers, or posed elegantly, I have to click whatever it is to see where she came from. That’s what happened when I stumbled onto this story about burlesque dancers in the Motor City on the Metro Timessite. It begins with a line I cannot turn away from: “They called her The Body. She was built like a double order of pancakes — sweet and stacked.” And gets better and better from there. I found myself completely enthralled the entire way through!

I absolutely think burlesque dancers who get paid for their work are sex workers, so to hear these women’s stories is incredibly inspiring. Lottie Graves mentioned that when she traveled, because of her fame, there’d be champagne and flowers in the room…this is something I can deal with. She also mentions that she wasn’t looked down on because “exotic dancing” was “classy.” I imagine the beaded gowns and rhinestone bikinis had something to do with it. Remind me to buy a rhinestone bikini sometime.

What is Bike Smut?: An Interview With Poppy Cox

I was first introduced to Poppy Cox when fellow T&S writer Kat and I attended an amateur porn film festival. Poppy’s cleverly crafted skit made an impression on us because it was one of the more explicit, yet still charming mini-films. In it, Poppy wakes up beside her male lover and tries to tempt him into a morning romp but he rolls over to continue snoozing. She dresses for the day, mounts her bicycle and rides to a serene grass field, where she masturbates happily in the grass, her two wheeled companion beside her.

So I was a bit familiar with bike smut when I drove to sit down with the vivacious woman at a small coffee shop in SE Portland. Upon entering, we recognized each other immediately.

Can you explain Bike Smut?

Bike Smut is an international touring film festival celebrating human powered transportation and sex positive culture. Each year, we present a new program of short films about bikes and sex made by cyclists, queers and perverts from all over the world. I would consider myself a “bike-sexual.” I’m mostly straight, however one of the things I consider before I’ll date anybody is: do you ride a bike?

Pedalpalooza is 3 weeks of (nearly all) free bike events that happen every year in June in Portland. They are not organized by any one or group of people, but instead are totally open source. Anyone can organize an event and it will be put on the official calendar. The world naked bike ride is the biggest event that happens as part of it each year. My bicycle is a huge part of my life. When I go out or go to work, I ride my bicycle. I know how long it will take me, and I know how I’m going to get there. And if I had to guess, I bet 90% of bike commuters would agree with how I feel.

And how does that relate to your work?

In this car-centric, patriarchal society, it can be considered one of the biggest oppositions to that, to ride a bike. I consider it an act of freedom, to refuse to drive a car. All different types of people are bicyclists, so there’s a great deal of diversity but we have that major thing in common.

From Shaking Tail to Spinning Tales

In March 2005 I started a blog. My first post was about my new hideously expensive purse, but my blog, pretty dumb things, quickly became a blog with—not necessarily of—sex. I wrote a lot, posting five or six times a week, often but not always, narrating something sexual. At the height of its popularity, my blog brought in somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 visitors a day. Which is a dizzying number for a one-woman show of neuroses, orgasms, butt sex, blowjobs, pop culture, occasional snark and/or whimsy, and tales of when I was a stripper. My writing got noticed, and I got paid to write for various magazines and anthologies, got interviewed by Susie Bright, and got semi-pseudo-famous, in short, for my sexytime writing.

MTV’s True Life Confirms that Sugarbabydom is a Hassle

The popularity of the sugar baby/sugar daddy relationship in the media is a bit of a recession phenomenon. It’s a grey-area of sex work lite that women with no experience in the sex industry can dip their toes into before they realize that if something sounds too good to be true, it is. The odds of finding an asexual millionaire benefactor are not good, but that won’t stop those with student loans or retail addictions from signing up on sites like Seeking Arrangement, Sugar Daddy For Me, Whats Your Price, and the like. MTV’s True Life follows twenty-one year-olds GG and Olivia, and twenty-two year-old Steve on their quests for financial dependence. Despite silly narration like, “They’re willing to ignore their hearts for the Benjamins,” I thought this was an accurate portrayal of what happens when young laypeople make an attempt at dancing the tango of conflicting interests.

Chi-Raq (2015)

(Screenshot from the film)
(Screenshot from the film)

Imagine Lysistrata—the classical play you probably read in Greek Lit class —but in the hood.

In this fictional but all-too-real version of Southside, Chicago, the women of Chi-Raq, lead by Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), opt to withhold sex as a negotiating method to force an end to the gang related violence their men engage in. Lysistrata is inspired by the story of Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian woman who organized a sex strike amongst her peers to end a gruesome civil war. Her efforts were successful and earned her the Nobel Prize. The purpose of the Chi-Raq women’s strike is not so much to save their men from themselves as it is to bring a stop to the stray bullets that kill innocent children caught in the crossfire. These female revolutionists consider their responsibility to put children first an unwritten condition of womanhood. While Lysistrata herself is not a mother, her solidarity with them over her gang leader boyfriend, whom she loves, is powerful.

Is the labor of the Chi-Raq women’s strike itself a sort of sex work? As a sex worker myself, I have a very liberal definition of what falls under that (red) umbrella. I consider any situation where sex is used as a means of negotiation to be a form of sex work. Cash exchange is not a requirement. This definition can include negotiations between married couples or any suggestion of potential future sex to get what you want in the now—what some might call “flirting.” I understand this is a controversial opinion and an incredibly broad demarcation of sex work. But the reason I keep my definition of sex work so broad is because it normalizes the behavior. The more parallels I can draw between prostitution and sexual labor within civilian relationships, the weaker the arguments for intimate labor being an inherent evil become. This also means that when I work, I feel no guilt over avoiding terms such as “escort”—which would get me targeted by law enforcement—in favor of “sugarbaby” or “spoiled girlfriend”—even though nine times out of 10 they mean same goddamned thing, just without leaving me subject to the same legal implications.

The women of Chi-Raq considered themselves activists, and peaceful ones at that, but they still end up facing federal charges for their disruptive behavior. “Activists” sounds much better than “pissed off girlfriends.” There exists near infinite terminology to frame sexual negotiations depending on the conditions in which you negotiate. As the leader of this unconventional protest, Lysistrata is careful in navigating PR—it is her articulation of the dire circumstances in which the neighborhood lives, in addition to her resolve, that makes her a force to be reckoned with as opposed to being considered a joke, or worse, a terrorist. Different titles for the same actions produce vastly different outcomes.