Do you think, in being a prostitute, I am selling my body? That I am transforming, compartmentalizing my identity, becoming Straight, becoming Woman, becoming (at one point of the day) something else in relation to the other bodies I am with? Do you think that I am performing more than you? That I am lying? The anti-sex trafficking propaganda seeps out of the public service announcement, occluding any firsthand accounts of sex work and silencing opposition with a cry to “save the children.” There are multiple complications here, one being that my workplace is in fact my body, which I am rarely separated from, and that my body is never quite my own. My body is my factory. I am both the laborer and the commodity.
When I try to write about being gay, I think about my life so fully that I cannot form sentences. Being gay is a deep part of me, as important as the literal form of my body. It is an intrinsic and fundamental part of myself. Yet my queerness, like the rest of me, is in flux, constituted not only by myself but also by external forces—defined by cultural norms and expectations, by other people’s projections and assumptions, by encounters with institutions of punishment and wellness. So my gayness is unimportant as well, where to me it is lost in the constant doing and undoing I experience as I make contact with the world.
I do not feel differently when I am working. I feel in the same ways: I feel the dick I am fucking; I feel pleasure and pain; I feel empathy and rage. I feel gay. Sometimes, I am so much myself that I slip deeply into vulnerability and expose myself as this lesbian that I always am, no matter who I am fucking or why. A man will ask: how often do you want to have sex with women? What toys do you use? Are you always this way? I pity these men who lay outside the queer unknown, who see women as a biological, static category. Women have sex with their entire bodies. When I am fucking a woman, I feel my body more fully and yearn for her body in a way that collapses the entire world into my cunt. I am full. I am inward, consumed by pleasure which unravels my need for a solid sense of self, my identity shattered as I am reduced to a sensorial continuum of my body, undone.
It’s hard to know what disturbance, what criminal activity I am most invested in: queerness or whoring.
The conservatism of some women when it comes to sex work is understandable. These women are often exchanging sex for things less tangible than money, things like social capital and proximity to male power. Because those sex acts are performed under the guise or reality of mutual desire, they are less open to negotiation. I also have sex with my male friends at times, out of both love and attraction. But having sex with men is always work: straight or gay, paid or unpaid. The more I have exchanged these performances of femininity, heterosexuality, and pleasure for money, the more I immediately connect the experiences to their many values. The exchange of money opens a space of possibility for sexual experiences that your partner might not desire themselves, for sex workers don’t discriminate.
Essayist Pat Califia situates the sex worker in the realm of unapologetic deviant sex. Both queerness and whoring persistently resist the social order: reproduction, hetero-romantic monogamous love, purity, and citizenship. Sex as a profession makes me more queer than I feel when my fist slides into my lover’s orifice. I want you to know this feeling, when you are not simply colliding with another but integrating yourself into their core. My lover impressed upon me, as I impress upon them. Identity falls away when we are so brutally accepting of our bodies being in relation to the other. Though identity builds itself right back up when I walk back onto the street, forced to embody however I may be recognized. My queerness is not solidified by how I identify, how I look, who crushes on me. It cannot be articulated but only truly and constantly felt. It cannot be fucked into me or out of me. It is not an identity, but a disturbance of identity itself. It is the boundless pleasure that whores offer, cunts-without-commitment, while moving through underground criminal networks, that exposes the governing fictions that make up society.
I have always moved through different worlds and have passed through many lives. This feels like a common queer experience, or a common criminal one, born from a desire for both autonomy and community. These worlds and lives feel concurrent, without beginning or end. The wife and mother class cannot recognize the whore class, leaving domestic laborers confused and underpaid, maintaining a verisimilitude of straightness. The mothers and wives who are also whores embody an even more intense web of secrets, providing for their families by superseding an economy built for the profit of men. Despite their industrious accomplishments they are denigrated as whores, criminals who are paid for the same actions they perform at home. Social theorist Michel Foucault wrote “Homosexuality threatens people as a ‘way of life’ rather than as a way of having sex.” The criminalization of a whore’s sexual encounter is another method by which the state destroys alternative forms of life. It is not me fucking the john that is threatening, as this arguably supports the institution of marriage. Rather, it is the exchange of money and the way of life—and the autonomy and mobility that comes with it—that cannot be tolerated. The criminalization of sex work operates in part to keep whores away from wives—two women fucking the same man on very different sets of terms. The possibility that these two classes would collude exposes the very contingency of women not demanding money for sex, for care, for emotional support, for all reproductive labor that capitalism depends on. It’s hard to know what disturbance, what criminal activity I am most invested in: queerness or whoring. I crave a large conspiracy of both, harmonizing, lustful, boundless—where feeling is everything, boredom and work nothing.
I have vowed to never purposely exit my body at work—in other words, to intentionally stop dissociating. Though on the other side, I realize I cannot exit whoring during the rest of my day. I wonder if I am closer to or further from rejecting the universal factory—the omnipresence of our work, of your work. The way that having a job transforms us into objects of mere existence, into commodities. I find myself and others confused by the multitude of signifiers I carry—often gendered by the features my work necessitates, hailed by friends as femme for my smooth skin and pile of high-end hair products. Lovers hesitate to touch me to avoid reminding me of some unknown and supposed trauma. I end up more disoriented by the effect of sex work in the rest of my life than I am disoriented by the absurd performance of femininity and the labor of sex with cis men while working. Work orders the rest of our life: our mornings, our vacations, our purchases, what we read, our care, our sex and pleasure, our home, the night. Even off the clock, my brain is fierce between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m., since this is the best time to sell VIP rooms. A factory is the time and space of our everyday subsistence. The repetitive motions and suppressed emotions of the strip club can at times feel more my own than those required of reproducing myself to move that way all night. Burn down the factory! Re-appropriate the means of production! Is this place not my mouth which also eats, my hand which also flushes the toilet, my thigh that also presses against my lovers? I want all the whores to whisper ideas into my ear: our own advertising platforms, our own clubs, our own homes.
If my body is my site of work, there lays constant opportunity for sabotage. Frequently I don’t even move in my rejection of the eternal factory. I cannot adequately describe the pleasure in idleness on the other side of work, when I slip on my girlfriend’s button-down back in the strip club dressing room, or when I lay naked in a hotel bed, finished with work but in the same exact sheets. My greatest pleasure is when I am with other sex workers and our loved ones, dreaming and preparing to revolutionize everyday life.
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illustrations HAPPY BURBECK