It’s easier if we stay silent and pretend it’s not happening. Because if we speak out about violence against sex workers, we will be blamed for living a “risky” lifestyle. We will be fingered the Whore.
In the mid ‘90s, when I was a baby stripper, I rode the 22 Fillmore to Market Street Cinema in San Francisco, a filthy nude strip club where I danced three or four times per week. One time, a man sat next to me. My heavy gig bag was on the floor, between my feet. It overflowed with zebra print spandex booty shorts, red gingham bikinis, glitter, purple hairspray that smelled like bubblegum and Hello Kitty everything.
The man’s legs pressed against me, so I inched closer to the window to scoot away from him. He looked down my shirt, put his arm around my shoulders. He sniffed my neck. I looked ahead, frozen. We sat like that for what felt like ten minutes, but was probably sixty seconds. The bus lurched ahead, up and down the steep hills from Hayes Valley towards Market Street. At the next stop, I got up, moved to another seat where I sat alone and watched the wet fog darken the city.
A couple stops later, the man walked towards the front of the bus. When he reached where I was sitting, he punched my head. His fist knocked me hard, near my eye with enough force to slam my face against the window with a loud crack. Then the man stepped off the bus. I rubbed my forehead to check for blood. But there was just a knot.
Around me, passengers were engrossed in their quiet passenger activities: women with lots of shopping bags flipped through paperback novels, young men nodded off to whatever beats blew through their headphones. A man used a rolled-up newspaper as a pillow and dozed. Girls wrapped their fuzzy scarves tighter around their necks. No one responded to the man who punched my head.
“That guy hit me,” I said to the driver. I figured he didn’t hear me. “That man. The guy who just got off the bus?” I said. As if my further explanation would elicit a different response. The driver said to the air in front of him, “Did you want to get off here?” I said, “No”. Or maybe I said nothing. Maybe I went back to my seat for the rest of the ride to Market Street. Maybe I just stood there, stunned and ashamed, like I had spoken out of turn. Like I was making a fuss over nothing. I remember heat. My face and neck burning red.
I never told anyone about the man who punched me on the 22 until now. This is the quiet violence sex workers face every day because of gender discrimination, stigma and whorephobia. It’s easier if we stay silent and pretend it’s not happening. But it’s also easier for us. Because if we speak out about violence against sex workers, we will be blamed for living a “risky” lifestyle. We will be fingered the Whore.
When a sex worker is attacked or raped, she is told she chose a job that puts her “at risk.” She is thought to have low self-worth, daddy issues or vague emotional damage. It’s assumed she has been abused, forced, or trafficked, even though she has one of the only jobs in America where women make more than men and always have. Sex workers earn as much as the average attorney with no formal training, credentials, or education.
How dare a woman hold a vocation where she has agency over her own body? How dare she have the audacity to perform high femme sexuality for decent, motherfucking money? When a sex worker is punched in the head, pretend it never happened so she can blame herself accordingly for existing in the first place.
It’s a crime to be a sex worker in America, to be a woman of color, to flaunt our curves, to show our nipples, to utilize our bodies and sexuality in a way that supports our lives while simultaneously being denied financial access to resources. It’s illegal to thrive in a primarily high femme workforce.
Take a look:
When every manager in every strip club commands me to take off my clothes in his office so he can see my body. When he pats my ass, laughs, tells me, “You’re a good lookin’ woman.” When that same manager tells a gorgeous black stripper he already has “enough black girls,” even though she used to work there a year ago, even though she traveled hundreds of miles to work there now. When a strip club manager watches me dance naked on a cold stage alone, turns to another man and asks loudly enough for all of us to hear in a bored, tired voice, “Should I hire her?”
When a table of six men and women watch intently while we dance topless on stage. When they point, whisper and don’t tip—not even one dollar. When that stripper walks off stage after her set and tells them we survive on tips and that it’s rude to not tip when they are sitting that close to the stage.
When the middle-aged white man in their group complains to my manager and I can hear him say he has never been told to tip and would not be back because how dare I. When I am already locked in an embrace with another joyful, tipsy customer who is saying he loves me, and that I am gorgeous, and he tips me, and this helps for about ten minutes because fuck that other customer.I never told anyone about the man who punched me on the 22 until now. This is the quiet violence sex workers face every day because of gender discrimination, stigma and whorephobia. Click To Tweet
When every twofer Tuesday, a customer slides his fingers underneath my second layer G-string. When I say no. When I grab his hand. When I flash him my best tight smile that contains an additional warning. When I move his hand to my hips. When he grins and says, “Don’t worry.” When I say, “We’re on camera.” When I move his hand. Again.
When a man stands in the doorway of a private room and doesn’t let me leave. When his arms are up, blocking me, his palms on the edges of the door frame. When a black stripper hears me scream and appears behind him, grabs him by his t-shirt, pulls him off of me and he runs. When she says nothing, just locks eyes with me, pivots, and slowly walks away. When I realize she’s walking slowly because she is very pregnant.
When a man slips GHB in our drinks and three women go to the ER, but one is an immigrant and too scared to go to the authorities and all three women have kids under twelve years old. When security gives no fucks. When a customer asks me if I am fifty years old. When a man asks me to leave with him for two hundred dollars and gets angry and confused when I decline his offer. When he pontificates about God and Jesus and his wife. When he tells me about his fancy room at the Ritz Carlton and shows me pictures of his boats. When I finally say, “You’re just used to getting what you want” and I walk away.
When a close friend tells me in a low, distraught voice about another trans woman sex worker who was stalked by an ex-boyfriend and his accomplice, dragged out of her apartment by her hair and shoved into a van to be murdered. When she tells me that the girl’s neighbor heard screams and wrote down the license plate of the van and the cops pulled the ex-boyfriend over and he went to jail. When she tells me about court and having to testify and how she lives in constant terror. When a pretty famous male writer says to a room full of students, “Everyone loves a whorehouse” and no one flinches except for me.
When I bite my lip until it bleeds. When I clench my teeth until I have lock jaw. When the migraines kick in and I am at the strip club working and I keep dancing because: rent.
When woke-as-fuck friends make flippant, derogatory remarks about sex workers when we have been lamenting violence against women of color and LGTBQ communities for decades. When people I trust and love exclude sex workers from their feminist agenda at an event that is supposed to support marginalized communities. When I send a photo from the marquis across the street on Sunset Boulevard outside of said event that flashes in yellow block letters, “Girls Girls Girls” and watch it ten times because I need a reminder that I exist.
On June 2, when I marched for sex worker rights after SESTA/FOFSTA legislation further criminalized sex workers and feminists, queers, and liberals mostly didn’t show. When bystanders looked at us with obvious disgust on their faces. When more legislation passed that digitally erases sex workers us from the internet—a place where we screen clients and always have. This is violence against sex workers. When my friend’s Instagram accounts are seized by the FBI. When we are shadow-banned, deleted, erased, incarcerated. Gone.
When a man tells me, he could never love me because I am a hooker, just like his mother.
When this happens, I get back up. When this kind of violence happens, I listen to sex workers talk about cleaning houses, being homeless, being hungry, being attacked, being out of their meds, being broke, being raped. When this happens, I lend them my car or money. When this happens, we go to IHOP for sausage and pancakes. When this happens, I send emails and cry because I’m calling out powerful people who are in a position to help and friends who are silently standing by, pretending sex workers are not being murdered and erased and I tell them they have made a grave error. When this happens, I get scared. But after this happens, I get back up.
On April 11, 2018, Trump signed the SESTA/FOFSTA bill designed to appeal to evangelical anti-sex worker conservatives with a thin promise to end child trafficking but really, it was intended to attack sex workers from thriving in a digital marketplace. Backpage and other adult-content hosting sites were shut down by an overwhelming majority, ruling in favor of “third party liability” which holds websites and social media responsible for child trafficking and other illegal activities.When a pretty famous male writer says to a room full of students, “Everyone loves a whorehouse” and no one flinches except for me. Click To Tweet
The effect this has on sex workers is monumental and devastating. Sex workers have always been sagacious about using the internet as a survival tool to encrypt our identities and screen clients. But criminalization, stigma, and whorephobia continues to cockblock. Monday, December 17, 2018 — the International day to end violence against sex workers — Tumblr decided to ban all adult content, erasing our identities from the mediascape, rendering us invisible. But we will not be erased.
When whorephobia happens, sex workers become homeless because they lack resources, family, and opportunities to find work. They are notoriously vulnerable to violence, rape, discrimination and murder, particularly women of color, disabled and trans sex workers. This year 70% of sex worker deaths were POC and trans. Banishment from the internet makes our livelihood more dangerous. Extreme criminalization and femme erasure on a massive scale makes our lives much more difficult and scary. Evangelical stigma surrounding sex and sex workers must be crushed with the highest stiletto. When SESTA passed, we met secretly.
On Monday, we gather at the women’s center and hear the names of the sex workers who died in 2018—three times more than last year, prior to the passing of SESTA. Votives glow as the names are called along with the places where they lived. Our hands are linked. We are building momentum. I’m not the baby stripper I used to be—I’ve been sharpening my red rhinestone claws and I’ve been raising my voice. I’ve got pink Hello Kitty pepper spray for the next person who tries to punch me in the head. And when decriminalization happens—and it will happen—our glittering femme workforce will not merely survive, we will rise.