The war on sex work
My senior year of high school I worked in a coffee shop. I took the bus there after school and stole bagels to eat before my shifts, 3 PM to 11 PM most nights. I met a man there—let’s call him Mike. I was 16 when we met; he was 25. I was 18 when he took me to his place after work one night, poured us rum and Cokes until the stars spun above the roof where we sat, and then picked me up and carried me down to his bedroom. A few months later, I moved into his apartment. It was next to the airport, and the planes flew so low it seemed like we could touch them from the rooftop at night.
That same year I entered a contest and won a $2,000 writing scholarship. It was 1999, and my plan was to take the money and go to New York. I’d been accepted to an undergraduate writing program at NYU, but I soon realized the money I’d won was not nearly enough for that.
Mike was always broke. I loved him or I thought I did. He knew more than me or I thought he did. I didn’t know then how little men’s attention was worth. I still believed there was a scarcity of it. He needed fifty bucks and I gave it to him. He needed a hundred. Then a little more. Soon I had given him all my money. It happened so easily. One day I realized it was all gone. I sat on the floor and cried. I was afraid that he would leave me, and I was afraid that I would never leave.
Not long after that, we were in bed together in the afternoon. I was naked, on top of him.
“You’re so beautiful,” he said, “people would pay to look at you.”
He had a friend who had a website. The friend and another man would pick me up, bring me somewhere, and we would take some pictures. I would get $200; Mike would get $50. “But I’ll give all the money to you,” he said.
He wouldn’t, but I believed him. I needed to. Recognizing one lie would mean recognizing all his lies. If that happened I would have nothing left.
Another way to tell the story is this: I was 19 and I was in love with Rosa. Rosa had been a dancer. She’d worked in a club in LA. She’d taken the job because she’d run out of toilet paper and pawned a gold bracelet her grandmother had given her and she needed to get her bracelet back. But it seemed like she loved the job. She told me that when she got up onstage she could be anybody.
“However I felt,” she said, “I would just dance it.”
She told me this in her bedroom, holding a sweating mason jar of vodka soda, wearing a white tank top with lacy straps. Her eyes shone. I wanted to kiss her almost as badly as I wanted to leave town.
I did kiss her, and I did leave town.
I paid my way to San Francisco with the money I made from the shoot Mike set me up with. It was a move that, eventually, saved my life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that fall my body was the site of international debate about sex, work, poverty, and consent. In 2000, two pieces of legislation were passed that marked a new era in the criminalization of sex work: the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.
Feminists stood on both sides of the debate. Radical feminists and the religious right insisted that “voluntary prostitution” was an oxymoron and fought for both the UN Protocol and the TVPA to legally define all sex trading as nonconsensual sex trafficking. Liberal feminists and human rights organizations pushed to maintain a legal divide between voluntary and involuntary sex work. In the end, the liberal feminists won at the UN, but the TVPA offered a sweeping definition of sex trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” The definition included both voluntary and involuntary commercial sex, but, as a compromise, only criminalized “severe forms of trafficking in persons.” Severe forms were defined as circumstances in which “force, fraud, or coercion” were used.
The codified definitions offered by the TVPA and the UN Protocol did little to quell public disagreement about whether trading sex could be done voluntarily, or what the legal status of commercial sex should be. To the contrary, the passage of the TVPA set off nearly two decades in which more than fifty new state and federal laws were passed, each providing its own definitions of sex trafficking and prostitution. Since 2003, all fifty states have passed at least one law criminalizing sex trafficking. Many create civil as well as criminal liability, and many create third-party liability for businesses that “facilitate” trafficking or prostitution. In Pennsylvania, a 2014 trafficking law that creates a civil right of action for “victim[s] of the sex trade” defines victim as anyone who has traded sex or has “been the object of a solicitation for prostitution.” In Louisiana, a 2017 trafficking law defines anyone who engages in a commercial sex act while under the age of 21 as a trafficking victim, regardless of consent. Many state trafficking laws make clear that a person having consented to trade sex is not a defense against a sex trafficking charge.
I usually worked with a camera in the room. That didn’t mean that the content of my work was performance rather than service.Tweet
Had I done my first naked job as a 19-year-old in 2019 Louisiana, rather than where I was in 2000, I would have been considered a victim of trafficking. As it was, my experience easily fell within the TVPA’s definitions of “coercion” or “fraud,” which the Office on Trafficking in Persons says include “psychological manipulation” and “false promises regarding . . . love.”
Like all laws, the new trafficking statutes were formed by compromise and competing intentions. Laws do not develop their full meaning until they are used, and even after a law passes, advocates and state actors have the power to shape it. Following a century of racist anti-prostitution laws, the post-2000 anti-trafficking laws have been used by both lawmakers and social institutions to define all sex work as trafficking. The passage, use, and subsequent meaning of these laws have been pushed and shaped by far-right lawmakers, lobbyists, charity workers, and members of the now lucrative rescue industry, with the tacit—and sometimes not so tacit—goal of delegitimizing and criminalizing everyone who trades sex. FOSTA, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, signed into law in April 2018, is only the most visible recent iteration. Increased criminalization has resulted in declining labor conditions for people who trade sex. It has inhibited our ability to speak openly about these conditions. And it has made it harder for us to process our experiences—of coercion and exploitation, solidarity, love, and strength—in our own words, or even at all.
The room I found that I could afford in San Francisco was an hour train ride from the city’s only queer women’s bar, in a house owned by a woman to whom I had lied, during the interview, and said that I was straight.
“Nothing against lesbians,” she said. “I just don’t want to live with one.”
In San Francisco I worked double shifts: opening shift at a day care and closing at a coffee shop. At the coffee shop, my manager developed what other people called a crush on me and started calling me from his home number. At first, he left relatively benign messages, asking me to go to a show with him. When I didn’t respond, he kept calling. His voice on the recorder grew tense, the messages increasingly threatening. “You should be more careful about how you talk to people,” he said. “You shouldn’t just smile at people like that.” I never responded to any of the calls.
At work he began to berate me in front of customers and coworkers for small things—I had not refilled the coffee carafes quickly enough, the milk containers were empty. He manipulated my schedule so that I always worked alone. He stood beside me while I worked, not saying anything, not even looking at me, just keeping his large body close to mine. When I spoke to another manager about it, he said I should let it go. It wasn’t a big deal; the guy was just working out his hurt feelings. He said I shouldn’t have smiled at him like that.
That first, incredibly lonely year, I made one friend, a straight woman named Kate who worked with me in the coffee shop. She had grown up in the city and had a group of friends with whom we got drunk on Saturday nights in the woods of Golden Gate Park, in someone’s apartment, or in someone’s parents’ garage. She told me about her eating disorder and I told her about how I’d made the money to move.
Bradley was one of her friends. He belonged to a group of boys who I only ever saw together. One of them had a credit card. At some point after we met, they used it to pay to see me naked on the internet. On that day or soon after, Bradley told his friends that he was going to have sex with me. “He wants to fuck you,” one of them said. This was the way things were. If a boy said he wanted to fuck you, you were supposed to feel flattered.
I felt mostly alone. I was tired all the time. I could not see how my life was going to progress beyond making rent and passing my few free hours drinking with people I didn’t know very well.
One night, at someone’s apartment, I got drunk. If this were a movie, I was following the plot exactly. I wore red lipstick and tight pants and when Bradley handed me a red plastic Solo cup of unidentifiable liquor, I drank it. Then I drank another one. I danced with another girl. We rubbed our bodies together and the boys looked at us and we let them. I drank more and I danced more, and I got very drunk and I went into a bedroom and lay down on someone’s bed and fell asleep.
I’ve heard other people tell the stories of their rapes: time stopped, or there was a clock in the room and they watched it, or it seemed to go on forever. That was not my experience. I woke up and it was happening. He was on top of me and there was some pain, and it was very dark and everything was heavy and I could not move and I could smell him and I still smell him, and then it was over. I believed immediately that it was my fault. I was drunk and passing in and out of consciousness. Eventually, some weak, gray light came in through the window. His body was there on the bed. I stood up, carefully put my pants on, and carefully left. I rode the city bus back to the house I had lied to live in. I carefully showered, made a cup of coffee, and began the work of pretending it had not happened.
A year passed before I quit my job at the coffee shop and went back to doing sex work. By that time I was broke and exhausted and had a permanent shoulder injury from working the big steaming machines. One morning, another manager wrote me up for clocking in three minutes late. I took two of the free weekly papers into the back room and began to answer the back-page ads.
They said things like: Wanted: women age 18–22, make $$$ fast, no experience necessary, must be height-weight proportional. All the ads said that—height-weight proportional—as though it had some objective meaning.
I called the numbers at the bottom of the ads and tried to tell whether the men on the other end would hurt me. I was listening for something—too much urgency, too much desire or too little. Most of the time I went to meet them. I waited at a bus stop or a train station, where a car pulled up and a voice called out the name that I had made up for myself. I looked through the window to see whether the men inside were mean. I had this suspicion that I could tell by looking at them, which is how you can tell if men are mean in the movies. But in real life men can behave very well for a while and then suddenly hurt you and then behave well again. I knew this but was ignoring it. I had rent to pay. I got in the car and eyed the locks, checked the door handles, considered my escape.
Most of the time the men were fine. Most of the time they were profoundly boring. I went to their warehouses or their apartments and put on whatever pleated skirt they’d bought for the occasion. I put things inside of me: cocks, knife handles, fruit, toys. Afterward I cleaned myself up in the bathroom and rinsed my mouth, got my money, and got a ride back to the station and took the bus home.
In California and in New Hampshire, the law distinguishes between pornography and prostitution, the idea being that there’s a difference between paying someone for a sexual performance and paying someone for a sexual service. Catharine MacKinnon famously argued that to draw this distinction “is to deny the obvious: when you make pornography of a woman you make a prostitute out of her.” In a memo supporting their anti-pornography ordinance of 1983, MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin wrote that pornography’s meaning is “the graphic depiction of whores.” Their intention was to make people feel the same aversion to pornography they presumably felt to prostitution, an aversion largely based on the legal status of each industry. Hateful as their language is, in practice, the content of their statement was accurate: the legal distinction between pornography and prostitution is fallacious. I usually worked with a camera in the room. That didn’t mean that the content of my work was performance rather than service. Those lines were not clear then, and they were not clear later, when I worked for men in rooms without cameras. I always performed. I usually provided a service.
Instead of distinguishing between pornography and prostitution, MacKinnon drew a different line. “Most of the time,” she wrote of women in pornography, “the sex they are shown having is with someone they have no sexual interest in, doing things that do nothing for them sexually . . . . They certainly never meaningfully consent to be intimately accessible to the thousands or millions of men they are then sold to.” For MacKinnon, money gives clarity to the exchange: “Throwing money at victims of sexual abuse does not make it a job, taking pictures of it does not make it freely chosen or desired. It makes it pictures of paid rape—rape in the real, if regrettably seldom in the legal, sense.”
Even in those early years I knew the work was not how anti-sex-work feminists described it. I knew it was as good and as terrible as other, lower-wage work I’d done. I knew, too, how quickly people stopped listening when they began to feel pity. So I pretended. I pretended all of it was a kind of adventure. That what I gained from it was more than rent. I dismissed how much that rent meant to me. I pretended that I was not so poor, that I had not grown up poor. That I had not cried out of fear of not knowing where the money would come from next. That I did not steal food from every restaurant I ever worked in. That I never ate the food people left on their plates. That I did not watch movies about “college kids” with a gripping, painful yearning in every part of my body. That I did not come home from every sex-work job giddy at the possibility of ordering more takeout Chinese food than I could eat, giddy at having enough money to commit the thrill of waste.
But I also knew that the idea that I was “empowered” by trading sex was a lie. In the early 2000s, as some sex workers were organizing and holding public events in San Francisco, calling on queers and whores to unlearn our shame—intimating that it was our responsibility to the movements to unlearn our shame—I struggled with mine. There were days when men paid me less than they’d promised and I took it and said nothing. There were days when men wheedled me into something extra that I’d have charged more for if I’d been better at negotiating. There were days when men intentionally crossed every boundary I’d tried to set, and I felt ashamed that I had not stopped them. I felt shame when I didn’t want to go to a job I’d booked, when, instead of going to work, I sat down on the floor of my apartment and watched the phone ring. I admired the women I saw speaking in public, admired what looked to me like their power. I tried to mimic them, and there were moments when I thought I could. But more often, the ideal of the unashamed, empowered whore—the sex worker of the liberal imagination—was discouragingly unreachable to me.
At one point a woman I was dating told me she’d called one of my regulars and gone to his house to masturbate for him. She told me the story as though we now had a shared experience. I could tell from her voice that breaking the social prohibition against being naked with strangers and being paid for it had given her a sense of freedom. This is, I think, what many sex workers and “sex-positive” feminists mean when they talk about empowerment. But when she told me the story, I felt ashamed again. I didn’t yet know that what I was feeling was class shame. I did sex work for the same reason I had always done wage labor: because I needed the money. There was no glorifying that.
And yet I knew that needing the money did not feel the same as not choosing. I knew that taking off my clothes in middle-aged men’s basements and condos did not feel the same as being raped felt.
In 2003, the BDSM porn company I was working for took me to a weeklong convention in Las Vegas, where I roomed with a woman from San Francisco, Jessica. She loaned me her expensive shoes and together we walked through the casinos, elevated in our six-inch heels. She kept her body long, back straight, and eyes forward as she walked, and I watched as people’s stares slid right off her. Together in her shoes, we ate in the kinds of restaurants I had only ever bused tables in, where neon strip lights shimmered against plate glass and the knives on the white tablecloths shone under the low light of what, in my memory, were chandeliers—though in retrospect the restaurants were merely faux-fancy chains. She taught me how to wear makeup and I emulated her walk, her way of acting like she didn’t need men. She was good at setting boundaries, and I learned from watching her. Sometimes she was all business, just straight up “no.” Sometimes she said, “What if instead we do this other thing?” Sometimes she just laughed if someone asked her to do something she didn’t want to do, as though she thought they were joking—and it worked. Men would pretend they’d been kidding.
After the convention I began to travel to work for some of the men I’d met there. In 2005, a man I’d never met asked me to fly to another country to shoot for him. As soon as I saw him, I knew he was mean. He took me to the hotel where I would be staying and sat in the room with me, quietly smoking. I was with another performer I knew, but not well. We eyed each other. That week we shot BDSM scenes that were far more difficult than we’d negotiated. He wanted me to cry. He told me, smiling, that if I’d just cry the scene would end. They caned me and put needles in my skin, but I physically could not cry. He stayed with us nearly every minute of each day, exhaling in our faces a cloud of burnt tobacco. I remember thinking: I am here to work illegally. Who would I tell? At the end of the week he wouldn’t pay us. He said he’d mail the check. When he finally did, the amount was half of what we’d agreed on.
This was border crossing, force, fraud, and coercion—trafficking in the most agreed-upon sense—but I didn’t think of it that way for years. Back home, I felt I couldn’t talk about what had happened. I knew it would be used to overshadow my understanding of other experiences at work, and I felt humiliated at having been tricked. A good whore, I thought, would at least have gotten her money. Years later, I texted with a friend about this. “No,” she said. “A good whore always tries to get her money.”
By 2006, Jessica had started working for a man named Ron Kazlin. She called me from his car and put me on speaker. “Who’s this?” he said. “That little Lorelei? Yeah, I’ve heard about you.” Later I learned he called all his girls this: little Jessica, little Lili, little Paige. The next time Jessica came up to San Francisco for a shoot, she opened her daybook, pointed her glossy acrylics at each of the dates, and read aloud the amounts she’d written into them. “March 13: $1,000. March 16: $1,400. March 20: $1,000.” It was so much money.
That summer I called Kaz. He said, “I’ll get you work. But you gotta do what you say you’ll do. You say you’ll do anal, you say you’ll do DP, you do it. You don’t show up to set and tell them you don’t feel like it.” I sent him my pictures, got a test, flew to LA, and worked. Within two weeks of that phone call I had moved into his apartment. After that, I lived with Kaz for two to three weeks every month. For the next few years I only worked through him.
Between three and six women crashed with Kaz at any given time. Others came by and stayed all day. We were his girls. We called his place the porn dorm or porno boot camp. I slept on the couch and followed Kaz’s rules: rules about how late we could be out of the apartment, rules about who we could date. We were not allowed to do drugs. We were not allowed to be late to set. Kazlin girls showed up on time and did the job we were hired to do. We had a good attitude, even when we were exhausted and even when we were booked with someone we did not like. We had a good attitude even at the eleventh hour of a twelve-hour shoot, when we were dehydrated and sore and drenched in sweat and Jake Malone wanted us to start a whole new scene, wanted latex opera gloves and squirt off the second-floor landing. We had a good attitude even at 2 AM when Kaz finally picked us up from the Jay Sin shoot, when we were just beginning to comb the crusts of cum from our hair in the car, and Kaz told us we were booked for an anal scene at Combat Zone in four hours. When I did not have a good attitude, when I cried from exhaustion, Kaz said, “You’ll cry when you have no money. Go to work.” And I went.
I went even when I didn’t want to, and even when I had plenty of cash in the bank, simply because I didn’t want Kaz to get mad at me. If you have never had sex for money, it might be easy to see this as a story about coercion and consent instead of a story about work. It would have been much better if I’d been rich and could have worked only when I wanted to. It would have been much worse if I’d had no work at all.
The truth is, I was safe with Kaz. There were days when the work was uncomfortable or boring or more physically demanding than I wanted. Days when I hated my scene partner, when I held my breath and turned my face from their face. There were also days when I felt like I had made art or won a race or both. When my body moved with a kind of fluidity that felt like singing. Days when I had seven ideas in a row, mid-shoot, and my scene partner followed me or I followed them in a perfect give-and-take like we were dancing, like we were experts of movement, which we were. There were days when my scene partners were people I cared deeply about, people with whom I had shared meals and birthdays and long talks and intimacies of all kinds, whom I knew so well that a few hours into a scene, the director, the cameraman, and the production assistant just stood there, awed by the brilliant communications of our bodies. With Kaz I never had to lower my rates or acquiesce when the director tried to ask for something extra. If someone tried something on set, Kaz took care of it.
Many of the other porn performers who lived with Kaz were also trading sex on the side—“doing privates,” we called it. They taught me every way to do an enema and how to avoid the director when he’s trying to get you to blow him between takes and your jaw needs a rest. They told me who to put on my “no” list, who would try to cut my rate, and who would just keep me waiting all day while they got high with their friends. Many of these women were from other countries. When a man knocked on the apartment door and said “UPS,” they heard “INS,” and ran and hid in the closet. Many of them had exit plans: they were saving enough for a house or a boob job, or they were shooting to make their name so they could feature dance or increase their private rate. A few were trying to transition into mainstream film or music. Many of them were career performers whom I’d continue to work with for the next ten-plus years.
During that time I had less and less contact with anyone who was not a sex worker. I kept my room in San Francisco but forgot how to talk to civilians. It had already been difficult, years before, when people at parties and bars tried to act cool around me by suddenly talking about sex or pornography in a way that pretended to be casual. They relied on me to respond in a way that approved of them, that made them feel edgy or in. They wanted the veneer of association without any of the consequences. Sometimes young leftist men would look at me with sad faces; they wanted to talk for an hour about whether I and the other women were all right. They wanted to know which kind of strip club it was “OK” to go to and which was the bad kind. People constantly asked for free memberships or DVDs.
Sometimes when people asked me what I did and I told them, the conversation simply ended. Their faces changed and they couldn’t meet my eyes anymore.
With strangers at the airport or the bank, I called myself a model or an independent contractor, which I’d learned to say from other sex workers. Sometimes on housing applications I pretended I had rich parents. I’d print out my bank statement, highlight the deposits, and tell the landlord my parents gave me the money. Once, when I opened a bank account and put “model” as my occupation, the teller would not let it go. Would he see me on any billboards? Had I traveled to exotic places to shoot? Did I know anyone famous? Finally, I told him, “I make pornography.” He took a beat and then said, “Well, whatever pays the bills, right?”
I heard that all the time. “We’ve all got bills to pay,” or, “You’ve got to make rent somehow,” or, my favorite, “Well, we’re all whores in one way or another.” That one made me angriest. People assumed my job was terrible and then patted themselves on the back for telling me my job was less terrible than they assumed. It reminded me that my job would always, in one way or another, mark me as different.
By the time I was working with Kaz, I was making so much pornography that I was beginning to be recognized, which made it harder for me to imagine doing anything else. I thought a lot about what it would be like to not be a whore. I wondered whether, if I stopped, I would be allowed into what seemed to me like the glass room civilians lived in. I could see it everywhere around me, but I didn’t know how to get in.
By 2007, I increasingly felt the weight of public, social, and familial condemnation. I was tired from working long days and had little control over when and how I worked. I had been told so many times, in so many ways, that being a person who trades sex meant my life had no value. I was afraid it might be true. I felt both cut off from the larger world and that it’d be dangerous, physically and psychically, to try to interact with civilians. Around that time, I received an email from Shelley Lubben.
Lubben had traded sex for a number of years in the late ’80s and early ’90s before being, in her own words, “rescued” by an evangelical man she later married (“a friend to a prostitute, just like Jesus,” she said). After leaving the industry, she devoted herself to “rescuing” other women, eventually founding the Pink Cross Foundation. Many of her claims were extreme or offensive: that God had cured her of herpes and cancer, that all women in the sex industry had been molested as children, that watching pornography would lead to bestiality. Her email, however, suggested little of that. Lubben wrote to me as though she knew me. In my memory, she said she thought I was smart, that I had potential, and that I was meant for greater things. (I’ve since learned that she wrote this to everyone.) Lubben invited me to go on an MTV reality show where she’d pay me to be publicly saved. I knew other girls who’d been “saved” by her, and they’d made testimonial videos where they cried and talked about how they’d been transformed.
For days, I contemplated Lubben’s email. I knew how difficult it would be to go back to school or apply for non-adult jobs when I had little other work experience and little hope of hiding my years of adult film work. I was not looking for a religious conversion, but I wanted desperately to walk through the world as the kind of person civilians could see. I wanted a way to escape the weight of stigma. Lubben pretended to offer that.
I let the days pass and didn’t respond. Later I heard stories about how Lubben let down the women she promised to support. She held fundraisers but didn’t give the funds to the women she’d claimed to be helping. Some went back to their parents, some took minimum-wage jobs. Most of them, as far as I could tell, came back to sex work eventually. A friend of mine who got saved and then came back just rolled her eyes when we talked about it. She called it her “crazy for Jesus” moment.
Lubben’s approach was representative of the rescue industry. Nicholas Kristof live-tweets brothel raids and gets paid by the New York Times to write about it. The former police officer and pastor Kevin Brown leveraged his “rescue missions” into a reality TV show on A&E called 8 Minutes, for how long he believed it would take him to “liberate” sex workers from “a life of servitude.” On the show, Brown pretended to be a client and then ambushed women with TV cameras when they arrived for work. The ambushes were staged, but the exploitation of vulnerable workers was not. In 2015, sex workers and writers Alana Massey and Bubbles described how Brown and A&E failed to provide the support they promised the women they’d convinced to go on the show. One of these women, Kamylla, described waiting weeks after filming until her rent was past due. She was facing final eviction notices, and she could no longer wait. She posted an ad using the same number she’d used when she was contacted by the producers of 8 Minutes. She was subsequently arrested in a police sting.
Rescuing women from the sex trades is an old business. In San Francisco in 1910, a woman named Donaldina Cameron made it her job to join police on brothel raids to “rescue” Chinese immigrant sex workers and take them into her mission home, called Nine-twenty. At Nine-twenty, the women were made to cook and clean and sew in preparation for being good Christian wives. Staff read all incoming and outgoing mail. Many of the rescued women escaped their rescuers.
Seven years later, the Methodist reverend Paul Smith delivered a series of sermons calling for a shutdown of the red-light district in the uptown Tenderloin neighborhood. In response, three hundred brothel workers marched to the Central Methodist church to confront him. Reverend Smith told the women they could make $10 a week working as domestics. The women told him $10 would buy a single pair of shoes. He asked how many would be willing to do housework. They said, “What woman wants to work in a kitchen?”
Not all anti-trafficking activists and organizations are part of the rescue industry. Trafficking-survivor activists like Meg Muñoz, Kate Zen, and Laura LeMoon and anti-trafficking advocates like Kate D’Adamo work to connect people to resources without coercion. They condemn the rescue industry and advocate for policies that help victims of violence without harming other people in the sex trades. The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women is an international coalition of organizations working to address exploitation by strengthening labor rights, supporting safer migration, providing social services, opposing discrimination against people in the sex trades, and explicating the failures of criminal justice approaches.
The best anti-exploitation work is being done by those of us with experience trading sex. Too often, that work looks like showing up for one another when legal and social systems utterly fail us. Kamylla described how after she was arrested, the people who finally offered her concrete support were the other women she was locked up with, who had also been arrested on prostitution charges. “They were helping me reach my family outside,” she said, “using their credits to call people who could reach my husband.”
In the decade or so since online advertising and social media have become widely available, people in the sex trades have developed online networks for sharing information about client screening and safer work methods, lists of potentially dangerous clients, and information about what kind of legislation or police stings are happening in what cities, where community meetings and rallies and protests are being held, and who has extra cash this month and who needs it. All this information has been lifesaving. Also lifesaving has been our ability to simply connect with each other, to find others with shared experiences, to talk across distances about familial and social rejection, to dream together about what love and labor and solidarity could look like in a world where trading sex makes most people view you as disposable.
The things that sex workers do to stay safe are almost always the things civilians want to pass laws to stop.Tweet
But whatever community coalitions we build, whatever work we do to speak about our own lives even when it is dangerous to do so, our voices will continue to be ignored if what we’re trying to say doesn’t fit into preexisting narratives. Not only have the legal and cultural frameworks of the past two decades shaped the public meaning of our work, caricaturing us as permanent victims or as “empowered” businesswomen (and in these narratives, we are always “women”); they have shaped our ability to even point out their faulty premises.
In the radical narrative, all sex trading is understood as trafficking and our ability to consent does not exist. In the competing liberal-libertarian narrative, those of us who have been publicly described as having “consented” to our work are categorically characterized as “empowered,” as “choice feminists.” Under these constructs, we have only two options: to be victims, which means we need to be rescued from our work—even if that rescue happens in handcuffs—or to be empowered sex workers, which means saying we’ve never experienced violence or constrained choice, that we love our jobs all day every day, and to be free we only need access to the free market. (As the activist Kaya Lin has said, “If you are a sex worker, you can’t have bad days.”) In terms of policy, these positions translate quite literally into the threat of being jailed versus the possibility of surviving using the methods we already use. The threat of further criminalization has pushed many people to publicly embrace the latter—to say, “I love doing sex work. I only want the state to leave me alone.” Often that seems like the most we could hope for.
Even as we reach for the less terrible of two terrible ideas, we’re constantly reminded of how little say we have at all. Neither liberal feminists nor libertarians, radical feminists nor the religious right, can hear us speak in our own words. They do not want to hear us; they want to collect the scraped-bare “facts” of our lives and call them data. They want to interrogate us. Who did you work for? How young were you? Do you have papers? Do you have children? Do you have parents? Have you been to school? Do you speak English? What are your traumas? Who hurt you? Do you love it? Do you really love it? How much do you love it? During a recent visit I made to a law school class, a student asked me, “Is there a level of poverty at which a woman can’t consent?”
Again and again in my own life, people have demanded to know what has been done to me, how I was exploited, what kind of trauma or poverty pushed me into believing I had no other options than to trade sex. Or they have asked to hear about how trading sex has been my pathway to empowerment, to sexual adventure. They have asked me to slot my experiences neatly into one story line or another, or demanded I hand over the facts of my life so they could do it for me.
In 2014, when the California State assemblyman Isadore Hall authored a bill to mandate the use of condoms as well as state-recorded testing of performers in adult films, my coworkers and I took buses and trains up to the state capitol to testify against the bill. The elaborate, community-driven testing regimen we relied on had prevented even a single on-set transmission of HIV since 2004, and it would be seriously undermined by the proposed legislation. Perhaps worse, Hall’s bill would have created a state registry of performers’ legal names and health information. We gathered the signatures of more than six hundred performers, a thick ream of paper that I carried clutched to my chest, shielding my body from the Senate Appropriations Committee with this physical evidence of our collective will. I remember Hall testifying to the committee that he had written this bill because someone needed to be “a voice for the voiceless,” and that person would be him. I sat beside him at a podium microphone. My coworkers stood in a long line at a microphone behind him, waiting for him to stop so we could speak.
In 2015, Amnesty International circulated an internal draft policy on sex work for consideration at their International Council Meeting in Dublin that August. The draft policy called for the decriminalization of all sex work. When word of it reached the public, many Hollywood actresses signed a letter to Amnesty International opposing the policy. The letter, written by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, framed legal sex work as “license to purchase women.” It said that “regardless of how a woman ends up in the sex trade” she suffers “lifelong physical and psychological harm.” It claimed that decriminalization would “support a system of gender apartheid, in which one category of women may gain protection from sexual violence and sexual harassment . . . while another category of women . . . are instead set apart for consumption by men and for the profit of their pimps, traffickers and brothel owners.”
What the signers didn’t say was that criminalization does the same thing. When trading sex is made illegitimate, the people who do it are also made illegitimate. Criminalization increases barriers to safety in every form—housing, health care, child care and parental rights, and familial and social support. We live, here and now, in a country in which trading sex is more criminalized than in nearly any other country on earth, and where sex workers have little legal recourse when we’re assaulted. When we’re assaulted, under criminalization, we have to weigh the possibility that going to the police will mean being arrested. If we go to the police, they can refuse to investigate our rapes. Often the police themselves are our rapists.
When the women of Hollywood began to talk about Harvey Weinstein in 2017, I felt sick for a long time. I avoided social media. I stopped listening to the news. I went back to social media, but muted the words rape, raped, and rapist on Twitter. Still I saw the hashtag again and again. On the red carpet, I saw Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd talk about “an equitable and safe world for women.” They said, “We women, our voices have been squelched.” I couldn’t listen to them without a deep and swelling rage.
I remember Ashley Judd writing on Twitter, “It is essential, and is not anti sex, to expose pornography’s complicit role in child abuse & trafficking.” I remember Mira Sorvino, UNODC Goodwill Ambassador to Combat Human Trafficking, saying that “prostitution breeds sex trafficking.” Later in Time magazine, Sorvino wrote, “I am here to encourage a mass speaking-out.” She wrote that her fear of speaking about her own experiences left her “crying and shaking,” that she woke at 2 AM and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I was extremely familiar with that fear.
For many years I didn’t tell anyone I had been raped. Besides the usual reasons, I didn’t tell anyone because I knew how sex workers’ experiences of sexual violence are rewritten by anti-sex-work feminists as reasons we work in the sex trades, whether we describe them that way or not. For years I never talked publicly about my experiences of violence and coercion while doing sex work because I knew how these stories would be weaponized. After #MeToo was co-opted from Tarana Burke, when wealthy white women like Sorvino and Judd made themselves its public face, I thought: These women encouraging a mass speaking-out are the same people making it impossible for me to speak.
When feminists call for the criminalization and delegitimization of sex work, they do not ally themselves with sex-working women. They actively create and cultivate a world in which sex-working women are culturally, legally, and visibly separated from women who do not trade sex. They make sure that they will not be mistaken for one of us, and they do so by telling a story about our lives that is about predators and not about work. A story in which the power dynamics are utterly uncomplicated and so are the solutions.
In 2018, on a phone call with the ACLU, I was asked about labor protections for adult-film performers. I said: You have to recognize how complicated this is. The things that sex workers do to stay safe are almost always the things civilians want to pass laws to stop. Everything looks different depending on the distance from which you’re looking.
In the lead-up to FOSTA’s passing into law, major websites and apps like Craigslist and Instagram began to ban sex workers from their platforms, shutting down spaces where we advertised and organized. Those of us who had done visible organizing and advocacy received numerous phone calls and requests for help. People in the sex trades had suddenly lost necessary income and were facing eviction, medical crises, and food insecurity. Workers who had been pushed offline moved to doing street-based work or went back to in-person client-seeking in bars, casinos, and clubs, where negotiation is necessarily rushed and workers face higher risks of violence from both clients and police. Many workers heard from managers who had previously harmed them, saying, You need me now. There was, and continues to be, widespread fear.
In hearings for FOSTA, congresspeople repeatedly claimed that the bill’s passage was necessary to stop a scourge of what they called “modern-day slavery.” A report from the House Judiciary Committee in February 2018 said, “Prostitution and sex trafficking are inextricably linked, and where prostitution is legalized or tolerated, there is a greater demand for human trafficking victims and nearly always an increase in the number of women and children trafficked into commercial sex slavery.” The following month, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) made his impassioned case before the Senate:
Women and children are being forced into sex slavery in modern-day America. It could very well happen to someone you know . . . . We have heard, over and over, the untold stories of the inhumanity of stacking people body-to-body in the holds of these slave ships. It finally took a civil war to settle the issue. That was slavery. That was slavery we opposed and now all of our laws try to protect against, but here in modern-day America, the same thing is happening.
“The slavery of black women is abolished in America; but the slavery of white women continues in Europe,” Victor Hugo wrote in a letter to the white British feminist Josephine Butler in 1870. The letter is frequently cited as the first time trading sex was referred to as “slavery.” Butler took the language and ran with it, writing that regulations governing legalized prostitution in 19th-century Europe were “similar to the ‘Fugitive Slave Law’ which existed in America.” She claimed that those who advocated for legalized and regulated prostitution in Europe had a “fixed determination to reduce women to a slavery more complete than any which the earth has ever seen.” Her rhetoric was taken up in the United States, where reformers who had been part of the antebellum abolitionist movement joined forces with anti-immigration activists, white feminists, religious reformers, sensationalist journalists, and congresspeople to rail against a “new,” and newly un-American, “slavery.”
Even as the Black Codes and subsequent Jim Crow laws reinstituted a racialized system of forced labor that continues to this day, white Americans told themselves that the country had entered a new age of freedom that was now under threat from Chinese immigration. Chinese women who worked in gold rush–era brothels in California were, claimed one reformer, “infusing a poison into the Anglo-Saxon Blood.”
The first law limiting immigration into the United States, the Page Act of 1875, was a direct response to this rhetoric, prohibiting the “importation into the United States of women for the purposes of prostitution.” The Page Act also prohibited the entering into a contract by immigrants from China, Japan, or “any Oriental country” for “lewd and immoral purposes.” The law resulted in the exclusion of almost all Chinese women from the US, a move that the historian Jean Pfaelzer has described as ethnic cleansing.
By the turn of the century, the focus of “new slavery” rhetoric had moved to the supposed enslavement of white women for the purposes of forced prostitution. The end of the 1800s had been marked by increased industrialization and movement of rural workers to urban centers, and the archetypal “white slave” of the early 1900s was a young farm girl who had been lured into prostitution after leaving her family and living alone in a boardinghouse in the city. The same time period saw the construction of race as genetic and hereditary, and fears of white women’s “enslavement” in brothels were fears of interracial sex and miscegenation. In 1909, the US attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Edwin W. Sims, claimed that “white slavery” was “a system operated by a syndicate which has its ramifications from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific ocean, with ‘clearing houses’ or ‘distributing centers’ in nearly all of the larger cities.” In 1910, Congress responded by passing the White-Slave Traffic Act, also called the Mann Act, which prohibited the transportation of women and girls “in interstate or foreign commerce . . . for the purpose of prostitution of debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” The Mann Act, which was largely responsible for the development of the FBI as a federal agency, is still very much a part of the US Code. The most substantial part of FOSTA is simply an amendment to the Mann Act.
This rewriting of slavery as a harm to white men and women ignored the role that rape and sexual violence played in the systemic enslavement of African Americans. The rape of enslaved African American women was not, legally, a crime, and scholars like Andrea Ritchie and Angela Davis have described how rape and sexual assault were an “essential dimension,” in Davis’s words, “of the social relations between slavemaster and slave.” Also ignored in the national moral panic around “modern slavery” were the experiences of Black women working in the Progressive Era sex trades. As Cynthia Blair describes, middle-class African Americans during this time were vocally critical of the national campaign that neglected Black brothel workers. In 1920, the civil rights activist Irene McCoy Gaines remarked on the irony of a rescue campaign focused exclusively on white women, who had greater access to other forms of employment, when Black girls and women received “less protection from public opinion than from the law.” While Black women in the sex trades went unmentioned in national debates among whites, they then (as today) bore the brunt of anti-prostitution activist pressure on police, who responded by conducting raids on brothels where Black women worked, demanding bribes and protection money. By 1915, despite the recent passage of a federal law to “protect women,” Black women arrested for trading sex were given increasingly harsh penalties by municipal judges. By 1924, Blair writes, Black women “consistently composed more than half of all women arrested for working in a house of prostitution.”
It’s not a coincidence that in 2019, both sex work and reparations are issues on the presidential campaign trail. The roots of these issues are deeply intertwined, and calling trading sex “modern slavery” only ensures that we will never reckon with the lasting impact of the institutionalized, lawful enslavement of African and African American people in the United States. Meanwhile, the racism encoded in anti-trafficking legislation and rhetoric is still alive. In November 2018, in an address on border and immigration control, President Trump said, “They steal women. The human traffickers, the lowest scum on Earth.”
I have worked for “art photographers” and I have worked for “pornographers.” I have worked for “college students doing a business project.” I’ve talked to men through email and I’ve talked to men on the phone. I’ve sat in a foam-stone warehouse “dungeon” to talk through a scene both before and after it happened. I’ve had conversation after conversation about what, exactly, I was willing to do with my body. In my experience, the people who call their work pornography, in addition to paying better than the “art photographers,” are more direct and clear in these conversations (something MacKinnon and Dworkin didn’t seem to consider when they carved out an exception in their ordinance for “erotica,” which they defined as “sexually explicit sex premised on equality”). In my early years of working, when I showed up at a studio, a warehouse, or an apartment and a director asked, “What do you want to do today?” I had to learn how to come up with an answer. No one in my private life had ever asked me a question like that. What we were doing, of course, was negotiating consent.
I’ve been told that my story is unrepresentative — that anyone who does not want to be “rescued” from sex work is too much of an outlier to base policy decisions on. I’ve also been told that I’m “very articulate for someone with your experience” — that I’m too articulate and thus too privileged to be allowed to articulate myself. I’ve also been told that I’m too traumatized, or too brainwashed, to understand my own experiences. One member of the California State Assembly listened to everything I had to say and then replied, “You seem smart, but they aren’t all like you.” Let me be clear: Every sex worker I have ever met is as smart as I am; many are smarter. I have learned more, collectively, from my coworkers than from any of the formal education I’ve bought with my hard-earned sex-work dollars.
Over the years, and especially since #MeToo, I’ve had many conversations with my coworkers about what it means to trade sex under circumstances that are coercive but not forced — circumstances under which we did things intentionally but did not choose in the sense academic feminists usually mean. How do we describe our lives without neglecting the fact that we have experienced both violence and joy at work? How do we talk about those extremes without ignoring the pragmatic day-to-day of it all, the profound boredom of washing and folding sheets between sessions, of listening to wealthy middle-aged men boast, of surreptitiously checking our watches while fucking, of all the tasks that we are paid for that have nothing to do with sex and have so much in common with other forms of service work? How do we talk about our experiences without letting their meaning be stolen?
As the sex worker, artist, and theorist suprihmbé said to me while we tried to find terms that fit our experiences, “We are somewhere in between.” In her essay “Defined/Definers,” she writes about “indirectly determin[ing]” to do sex work. The intention of sex-worker activists who have embraced the choice/coercion dichotomy, she writes,
is to draw firm lines between sex work and sex trafficking . . . to circumvent or undermine sex trafficking legislation that targets independent prostitutes and cyber prostitutes (erotic webcam models), and to stop people from stereotyping sex workers as victims who need their kind of saving. However, while doing it this way might protect sex workers who are actually sex workers by choice, it does not protect the rest of us who fall into that murky gray area in between.
Similarly, instead of talking about consent, sex workers Juno Mac and Molly Smith use the term “deliberate” sex work: choosing is not the same as doing something deliberately. The migrant sex worker collective Red Canary Song, formed in the wake of Yang Song’s death during a 2017 police raid on a Queens massage parlor, describes its work as led by and for “people who are trading sexual services for income or survival needs.” The sex-work coalition Decrim NY, who this year introduced in New York state the most comprehensive decriminalization bill in the country, describes their coalition as being made up of people who have traded sex out of “choice, coercion, or circumstance.”
While FOSTA may not actually do what congresspeople claim, it has made the essential conversations encouraged by people like suprihmbé, Juno Mac, Molly Smith, Red Canary Song, and Decrim NY extremely difficult to have in public. Even though FOSTA has not yet been used by attorneys or by law enforcement, the law has had tremendous influence on the actions of private companies.1 Much like the numerous “anti-trafficking” laws that create third-party liability, FOSTA incentivizes private companies to exclude people who trade sex from public spaces and accommodations. Earlier this year, Marriott admitted that their employees, having been through “anti-trafficking training,” were profiling single women and asking them to leave their hotel bars. FOSTA does the same thing online. Congress calls us voiceless and then takes away the spaces where we were speaking.
When I say that moving to San Francisco saved my life, I mean that it was there that I met other people who shared my experiences of sex, desire, gender, and identity. It was there that I learned a language through which I could talk about the most difficult parts of my life. Most of the sex workers I met in San Francisco were working-class queers and trans men and women. They helped me understand that what I was doing at work was putting on a show about gender. They taught me that the implements of traditional “femininity” — rather than being, as I had heard my whole life, symbols of weakness or ways to fail at gender — were tools we could wield without having to own them. “Femininity” was a combination of things we sometimes felt innately, sometimes constructs we created to make money, and sometimes constructs we created to create ourselves. Untangling my gender from my “femininity” made my queerness a part of me that I could love. Loving my queer, poor, brilliant sex-worker friends helped me know that I was whole and unbroken — allowed me to believe that I, too, was deserving of love. Listening to them speak gave me my voice.
On June 2, 2018, sex workers gathered in Chicago, Las Vegas, Oakland, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix, and Washington DC for International Whores’ Day, commemorating the eight-day occupation of Saint-Nizier Church in Lyon by more than one hundred sex workers protesting criminalization and police harassment in 1975. The rally I attended in New York City was meant to take place in Christopher Park to honor the queer and trans sex workers of color who are our whore-mothers, who refused to submit to police violence at Stonewall nearly fifty years earlier, but the crowd swelled and continued to swell until we spilled into traffic. The organizers decided we should march to Washington Square. We took the streets and walked down West 4th Street chanting, brandishing our banners and signs. Four hundred of us crowded under the arch. We made speeches about our rage at years of being sacrificed by policymakers who see us as collateral damage, about our friends who had recently been evicted, attacked, jailed, and killed. We envisioned a better future, and we held each other’s grief and hope. Through call-and-response, we four hundred voiceless repeated and amplified each other’s words. We had no microphones, but we did not need them.
The DOJ has said that FOSTA actually makes it harder to prosecute websites for trafficking, and the only federal judge to rule on the law so far has said that the “promotes or facilitates” language only creates liability identical to existing liability under the federal Travel Act . The Travel Act, notably, is the law that was used to shut down Backpage.com four days before FOSTA actually passed. A few attorneys bringing civil trafficking suits have claimed that they are bringing the suits based on changes to the law made by FOSTA, but these claims, while attracting media attention, aren’t true. All suits thus far have been brought under preexisting state-level tort laws, to which FOSTA made no change in liability. ↩
This essay could not have been written without community-developed knowledge. Any mistakes are my own, and anything I got right is the result of living, working, and thinking in coalition with hundreds of brilliant people in the sex trades. In addition to those cited above, I am particularly grateful for conversations with Mia Little, Kate Zen, TS Candii, Viola Parker, Ceyenne Doroshow, Sophie Bee, Madeline Marlowe, Lotus Lain, Blunt, Milcah Halili, Ana, Red, Foxxy, Natassia Dreams, Josephine Laveau, Tina Horn, Rebelle Cunt, and others whom I cannot name here because it would be unsafe to do so.