Sex work has given me so much. I first turned myself out because I needed money, in a john’s house in a suburb that I can’t remember the name of. Every day since then, I have been grateful to have money, my basic needs met, and a body that exceeds my expectations of resilience. I am overcome by all the other things I’ve learned—about the world, the place I live in, its geography. Overcome by the slow accumulation of friends who exchange sex for money, who lay awake with me when I can’t sleep, who can keep up with the endless torrents of disasters, bliss, bastards, harm, and elation that sex work entails, unperturbed by the mystifying awe of our situations. In cars or walking down the street, we speak of the untapped well of all we have witnessed—the wonder, the body knowledge, the wisdom we might not have wanted but would never give back.
I wish I could speak without fear about the ways sex work has helped me feel whole in my body—its fleshly goodness, pliable, strong, a force I’ve sculpted; and about the ways I feel disgusted and confused about my body, how I fantasize about pulling my tits off my chest, about the failures of my body and the way I have deformed it.
I wish we could talk of all the things we can endure for an hour, about building trust in a given period of time. About food and how it moves through us, psychosomatic phenomena, hallucinations from exhaustion. I wish I could give you an analysis of political tendencies within a strip club, about international solidarity and communiqués, about anonymous literature that cuts so deep we mourn the loss of all the journals we burned in shame.
I have learned about the manipulation of bodies. About seizing what is yours, giving away excess, about how she escaped, about vigilance, self responsibility, and motivation. About counting, escalating goals, wrapping money, rotting rubber bands, decoys. About freedom and what it means, what it could lead to. About owning property, destroying property, communizing it, giving it back, about settling up right with ghosts. About cultures, customs, and comfort, about nostalgia and memory and intoxication. And about survival, every whore’s driving concern.
I liberated myself from the idea of limits, but I am not naïve enough to forget that I risk my life for that liberation. I want to have these discussions with others, with all my friends and lovers, with my comrades. I want what we have learned, what we know, and what we do to be communicated to all, to enrich our lives through both the positive and negative realities of sex work.
With all this knowledge, we could have a better understanding of surveillance, racism, the police and what they do with their guns, of labor unions and their failures, of the moralism and emptiness of political parties, of reform, of the idea of respectable employment. We could be more effective crossing borders, evading law enforcement, resisting paying taxes; at horizontalism, hiding, and self defense, at helping our friends leave abusive relationships, at planning assassinations, at resisting careerism and other bourgeois aspirations. We could move past the romanticism of the working class, of the noble proletariat.
But these discussions remain only between sex workers because of stigma. Stigma, the mark of shame, creates and permits public and private disgrace, discrimination, and disapproval. Stigma produces your identity for others to interpret, informs the way all others will relate to you, regardless of any reality of your situation, your options, your choices, your own will. It can control your relationships, your housing, your connection to your family and your children. It justifies your murder, your torture, your erasure because the stigma predates your corporal body. It creates the conditions for the codified maltreatment of sex workers, drug users, people with varied abilities, gender nonconforming people, people of color, migrants, the endless list of deviant populations, contrived to maintain dominance and order under capitalism.
Perhaps the most obvious force of stigma is the law. Laws make it extremely difficult to sell sex and be protected as you might while selling almost any other commodity. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA/SESTA) recently brought this legal dimension to public attention when it criminalized measures (such as online screening and bad date lists) that sex workers used to be safer and to secure higher pay. Stigma relegates us to the margins to keep our dirtiness away from clean families and neighborhoods, even when they were our families and neighborhoods to begin with. Laws make us vulnerable. Laws put prostitutes in outdoor cages where they die of exposure, like Marsha Powell during her 27 month sentence after offering a cop a $30 blow job in Arizona. Laws turn humans into wasted bodies. There is a police code for crimes involving marginalized people—gang members, prisoners, prostitutes—NHI, or No Human Involved. That code appeared on the police report for Marsha Powell.
In New Orleans and everywhere else, stigma creates the opportunity for rich people to get together with the cops and religious organizations against whores, performing their moral panic around sex and vacating buildings to make room for Airbnbs all in one fell swoop. In a New Orleans City Council meeting in March of last year, then-Council Chair Stacy Head dismissed the concerns of a room of sex workers: “I believe in child labor laws and the EPA and that puts people out of business sometimes.” There is no “Green New Deal” for prostitutes within the swirling force of stigmatization—of white supremacy, cis-heteropatriarchy, poverty, prison, drugs, debt, mental illness—all the realities that land us washing dishes, cleaning toilets, sucking dick. Our dead bodies serve as justification to fund vice units and special task forces, full of cops like the one who killed Donna Dalton and assaulted at least 200 other sex workers in Columbus, Ohio.
Once, I turned around and saw a crowd of people running in fear of being shot in the strip club. I saw strippers being shoved to the ground, tumbling over with the tables, rolling ankles in their clear heels next to broken clear glass. I saw all the men who ask what is a beautiful girl like you doing here, men who will defend a woman’s honor—the same men that go to war—pushing past strippers as if we were lifeless sandbags to take the bullets. I hid in a closet. Another stripper was crying, no no I have children, I cannot die. I told her we wouldn’t, but I was looking at her naked body, thinking about my naked body on the table at the morgue, my g-string being slipped into a plastic bag.
I also know a more intimate world of stigma among the good intentioned, where sex work is no big deal, something neutered, happening somewhere around here but still separate. Existing in this world relies on the maintenance of the “happy hooker” vibe, or of total secrecy. Maybe there is a fascination, a cultural obsession, a playfulness in the perceived glamour. An obsession with money, what sex acts are worth, what you are worth, and what’s it worth to you? Was the money good?
In the moments that I would like to spend outside of the structural othering I experience, I find myself stifled, unable to adequately express my joys or sorrows. Friends may acknowledge that stigma exists, and even champion “sex-worker representation,” while still only accepting the love and care of a whore on the condition that the whoring remains elsewhere. Friends can only accept whoring as a clean and concise economic experience that fits into their questions of worth, as if there is an acceptable logic to our bodies doing work for money. A whore must be skilled enough to extract money from a multitude of situations, and then turn around and explain on command what was earned and how, and what was sacrificed in the earning, all to friends who want to make sure you know that they could never. My existence is only legible through horror or glamour, not the same complex brutality as your particular hustle. These interpersonal disappointments are not mistakes, they are actions informed by tired ethics and the inherited unease of sex—by stigma.
Sex work helps me try to use my life in a way I find meaningful. I find my work extremely challenging, difficult, and at times consuming. I also have more control in my pursuits than ever before. I am in the position to support myself and others. I can show up, contribute to communist experimentation, do research and writing, spend time considering my health. I often do these things and still question it all on the other side, due to the disappointment and anxiety from the creeping stigma all around me. The complex realness of sex work is undeniable. I want a world in which all sex workers can translate that realness, to crush stigma and all the ways it is weaponized against us.