ask a sex worker: part 2
alex and morselle cupcake
Last issue we started a two-part article where we, Alex and Morselle Cupcake, answer your sex worker questions! We established some important boundaries around asking questions of sex workers, and answered some questions not usually considered constructive by sex workers as well as questions on activism. We are keeping that going here, with a mix of questions we are commonly asked.
How did you start?
Alex: If you read the last issue, you may be getting tired of this, but I will explain why some sex workers don’t like this question. I know workers who started as a way to survive on the streets as teens, and I know workers who started as adults because they thought the job would be sexy (and to many, it is!). If the person you are asking happened to start in a traumatizing way, the question feels voyeuristic and triggering. Plus, people may be at different places in their journeys with their sex work, and if we are trying to get out or if aren’t in good places with it, it doesn’t feel good to be reminded of the beginnings.
The question doesn’t bother me though, so here’s mynot-very-exciting entrance story: in my late 20’s I was a member of a Facebook group supporting marginalized populations, and one of these communities was sex workers. The whores there helped me start thinking about my options, but moreimportantly they enabled me to start out radicalized and leftist with mostly the right opinions about sex work. I was lucky; I was at a time in my life when I needed money but still had the ability to plan and to be thoughtful about how I started. I told my partners I wanted to be a full service sex worker, and they immediately supported it. We all felt very proud to be queer and polyamorous and kinky; we were happy to live life outside mainstream culture (I recall that, after I left them, they insulted me by saying I was “LGBT” instead of “queer.” It was quite the cutting remark.). Me being a sex worker felt like an extension of our rejection of white middle-class values. In truth, I didn’t have much of a choice. At the time, my mental illness was misdiagnosed, but I had never “made it” at a “real job” … at least not long term. One partner looked up ways for me to start and helped me sign up for a sugar dating site. With my eyes wide open, I had no illusion that I would find real love nor did I harbor any belief that it wasn’t just about money.
Sex work has led me on quite a wild ride and, though I am now a jaded whore, I am still glad I started and I still don’t have any other realistic options.
Morselle Cupcake: I agree that this is kind of shitty to ask. Although I am a very privileged cyber-whore and I’m not particularly triggered by this question myself, I find it irritating because many people who do sex work are in survival mode after very traumatic life experiences. It’s not kind to ask someone to retell their story of trauma, so please don’t just come up and ask this question: trust me, if we want to tell you, we will!
For me, trauma is not what personally led me to sex work, but I do have sexual trauma and it does affect my ability to work at times. That being said, my sexuality is a very strong and important part of my identity and I truly enjoy the work that I do! I take a lot of joy in my Sexy Work and I genuinely look forward to spending time with clients.
I started when my kid became a teenager. I was in my late 30s and I had badly injured my knee and was unable to walk for a couple months. My family has always been resourceful, making ends meet in a variety of ways. I have often worked very physical jobs including landscaping and bodywork. I have also been a sauerkraut wench, a kids’ yoga teacher, and an elementary school teacher, and I’ve always been an activist. With me injured and out of work, my primary partner struggled to make ends meet. My medical bills were out of control and I had to find some way to earn money.
I had always entertained the idea of doing phone sex. As a teenager, I used to call chat lines when I was horny just to masturbate. I’ve never met anyone that I’ve ever talked to; it was just a safe way for me to explore my sexuality (to be honest, I started out calling with a friend and we would basically prank people on there. We would really mess with people–seriously though, don’t do this! I was just a teenager!). Now, as a laid-up adult, I got to thinking maybe I could find an in to the phone sex or camming business. My partner and I are queer and open, and I was lucky to have his support, but I had no idea where to begin. I am not a very trusting person, but starting for me involved research by word-of-mouth. I have always found people with lived experience to be the real experts, so I started by talking to a harm reduction colleague who I knew had done camming. She was very kind and took me under her wing, telling me which sites were reputable and how the process generally goes. She suggested trying several sites to see what I liked, so I started exploring cam work in multiple places while making my own clips and posting them for sale on porn sites. I went all-in and started a phone sex business at the same time. I also got ahold of some very helpful books written by sex workers and loaded with advice on everything from how to do your taxes (if you’re into that kind of thing–haha, just kidding), to how to advertise, to how to attract and retain customers, to working with technology, and everything in between.
Have you, a sex worker, ever hired a sex worker?
Morselle Cupcake: I have. And I intend to keep exploring!! I hired a queer woman sex worker for a cuddle session and it was a deeply impactful experience. I was depressed and going through enormous amounts of personal trauma while also coping with a violent trauma I had experienced in my civi job. For me, the cuddle session was much better than a talk therapy session; I unpacked so much more in the hour I spent cuddling with this woman than I had in a very long time in therapy. We drank Prosecco together and she wore a Care Bear onesie! She zipped down the front so I could cuddle her big beautiful titties. We lay together and talked about life as she very lovingly stroked my back. We spoke about doing more of a full-service session in the future and I am into it! I am saving up and while I definitely can’t afford sessions as often as I would like as a low-income sex worker myself, I feel it’s an important part of self-care for me in the long run. Seeing her made me think about expanding my services to do cuddle work as well at some point. I can see how this type of service, like all sex work, can be an enormous benefit to people.
Alex: Morselle, that makes me so happy for you! I likewise was seeking sexual healing. Unfortunately, it turns out I am a very tedious client.
I don’t know how to not care if my sexual partners are genuinely enjoying themselves; my short-lived experiments with hiring sex workers certainly gave me empathy for the clients who repeatedly ask if I am really ok (a very obnoxious habit, I might add. I work very hard to put on a good show, and breaking the fourth wall repeatedly is a great way to both frustrate me and waste your own money). I have very little physical sensation in my nether regions, so to me good sex is all about my intellectual and emotional connection with someone. I love pleasing another person, and I love the interaction between genuinely passionate partners. I just can’t feel it if I don’t know for sure you aren’t just doing this so your kids don’t starve.
Help me find the balance between this idea that sex workers love their jobs all the time and are super empowered and the idea 99% of them are being trafficked? What’s the actual deal with trafficking?
Alex: The short answer is that when working in harm reduction with any vulnerable population, you have to treat everyone you see as individuals, never assuming you know where they are in their journeys. You don’t assume someone wants to be sober just as you don’t assume someone isn’t interested in quitting. It’s the same for sex work. Don’t start out the conversation with either overly enthusiastic support for the job or with harsh condemnation of our managers. Simply listen, and meet us right where we are. Of course, you are always welcome to assume that, whether we love our jobs or are escaping violence, we probably don’t want to be arrested or put in harm’s way.
About trafficking: forced labor does occur in hospitality, domestic, agricultural, and sex work, and probably some of this forced labor is from people who were explicitly trafficked across borders for the purpose of sex work. Yet it is hard to know how extensive this problem really is. The US Government Accountability Office stated, in their report to the US House of Representatives, that the accuracy of all estimates of human trafficking is in doubt. They documented the lack of research supporting the US’ claims that anti- prostitution legislation is necessary and that nearly all sex work is actually done non-consensually. They also cited a paucity of research into the effectiveness of anti-trafficking organizations.
It’s very easy to garner outrage against people being forced into slavery, but harder to mobilize people to fight against consensual but exploitative work conditions. The problems with sex work are really problems with capitalism, and liberal organizations serve to prop it up, not tear it down; it is no accident that the wording used to discuss sex work obfuscates facts.
Unfortunately, the unclear and unstable definitions of words such as “trafficking” and “prostitute” lead to confusion in comparing studies and understanding trends. Just as a group of people who commercially sexually exploit migrant kidnapped minors would be called a trafficking ring, so is a group of adult consensual women who work together for safety. When a man forces his girlfriend to have sex for money, that is called pimping; people who eat groceries purchased by their sex worker partners can also be considered pimps.
Furthermore—even when taking obfuscation, unfounded assumptions, and poor research into account—trafficking statistics are often lower than expected. For all of the fear induced in the US State Department’s 2007 report on human trafficking, there were only 98 convictions for any kind of human trafficking (not just sex work) in the US that met their definition of coerced labor in 2006, despite continued efforts of the US to crack down on trafficking. Remember: that’s their definition. Keep in mind that sex workers are sometimes convicted of trafficking ourselves! We are talking about a mere handful of actual victims; meanwhile, a large number of innocent consensual sex workers are swept up and arrested for prostitution in massive anti-trafficking sweeps.
There are a lot of fingers in the very deep pockets of the anti-trafficking non-profit complex, and they have no motivation to change misinformation. In fact, most of the funding goes to “awareness” and to advocating for laws and policies that wind up devastating sex worker communities. One example was SESTA/FOSTA, which–under the guise of stopping online trafficking–forced sex workers outdoors and into the streets. Arrests of outdoor workers quadrupled in some cities after websites pushed them out. The End Banking Access for Human Traffickers, a proposed piece of legislation, could effectively prevent sex workers from having bank accounts; another proposed piece of legislation, the PROTECT Act, would make supplying a sex worker with any legal or illegal drug synonymous with trafficking (there is no exclusion for, say, naloxone distribution).
One of the unfortunate consequences of all this funding being diverted towards devastating our communities is that there are very few resources for those actually trying to escape exploitative or violent situations. If your agency has funding, having a separate fund to actually help sex workers who find themselves in crisis and wish to leave the profession would be incredible.
Whenever activists happen upon an actually trafficked person, others in the community reach into our pockets and give what we can.
We don’t have many resources, and we are all doing our best to survive. If you are looking for ways your agency can help, start up a fund for getting money to actual survivors.
Even better, give money to mutual-aid organizations that already exist, like Lysistrata nationally or Bay Area Workers Support based out of San Francisco or- -according to Morselle–the Green Light Project in Seattle.
Be prepared, however, for most of our survival stories to fall closer to “exploitation” than to “human slavery” on the spectrum of shitty sex worker conditions. Exploitative work conditions under capitalism are bad enough. They are in fact deadly.
Okay, what about sex workers facing domestic violence from managers (pimps)?
Alex: This is such an important and extremely complicated topic. Domestic violence situations with workers being abused by their managers or pimps are far more common than classic “human slavery” trafficking situations, and survivors in these situations are often scorned or turned away from help. There aren’t really beds available in women’s shelters, and even if there were it’s unlikely someone with a serious habit would be allowed to stay.
The first thing to know when faced with domestic violence is that you aren’t going to magically solve the situation. The average survivor takes 7-9 times to leave a violent relationship, and the more precarious our situations are, the harder it is for us to find safety. People have complex and important reasons for staying, ranging from finances or their children to their lifetimes of trauma. People don’t want to leave people they love.
Since you can’t fix people, you are just going to have to be there for your participants and listen to what they need. Support them by meeting them where they are. If they want to stay, help them stay safer while making sure they know that you are there for them. If they want to leave, help them make their own plans to safely leave. Know that they may go back and that it’s okay if they do. Basically, be a harm reductionist!
Remember, you are there just to serve a community, not to be a hero. If you start noticing yourself getting angry at people for staying or catching yourself victim blaming, it’s a sign you are in need of a break and self-care. Don’t become more invested in other people’s relationships than they are!
When I talk to survivors, I am all about compassion. Compassion for ourselves and for the choices we’ve made, but also compassion for others in our community. Community connection is the lifeboat to people drowning from trauma, violence, and shame. Hidden anger at your participants for refusing to leave shows through eventually, doesn’t teach them to hold compassion for themselves, and severs their connections to the resources you are providing. Abusers love to break community ties because they know how powerful we are together. Just having a safe space for people where you show them love goes a long way toward helping survivors begin their healing journeys.
Become educated in domestic violence, and if you have an agency make sure your whole agency gets training. Unfortunately there aren’t any agencies (or individuals besides myself) that I know of that provide this training in a whore-friendly and drug- user friendly way, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hire a local domestic violence center to give you the low-down. You can then apply that knowledge to your harm reduction knowledge for a holistic understanding. And hell, if you pay me, I will come and lead a workshop myself.
How does the drug war impact your sex work?
Alex: The drug war and the war on whores are one and the same. There’s a new piece of proposed legislation that really makes this clear. It’s called the PROTECT Act. This bill says that furnishing someone with “a drug or an illegal substance” is “causing” them to engage in a commercial sex act with trafficking, even if no force, fraud, or coercion are involved. USU realized right away that this was the perfect project for our sex worker organizing group, so I am helping coordinate things with lots of help from other members of the sex worker organizing group.
They are trying to target drug users by going after trafficking now that support for the drug war is dying out. The wording makes it so that you can’t even give legal drugs to someone before they do sex work– and Narcan is a legal drug. So are cigarettes. But we decided not to focus on that because if we did, they might just change that wording. Even if it was only about dope, it would be a devastating law to sex workers who use drugs.
In many states we are protected by Good Samaritan laws that allow us immunity when we help reverse an overdose. The PROTECT Act will weaken those protections. In the middle of an overdose crisis, this is incredibly dangerous!
It’s pretty clear this law isn’t designed to protect us at all. It’s just a law to help prosecutors. Trafficking survivors and sex workers need services and resources, not more criminalization.
This is just another law designed to target our communities–and we all know that we are the only real resources in our lives. The police do not help us. We have to help each other. And any laws that hurt our networks hurt us.
And this will hurt the people who are most vulnerable first. Transgender women, black and indigenous people, and street-based sex workers will be the most harmed by these laws. And that’s really scary because vulnerable people are the most at risk of overdose and of violence. So, to answer your question, the war on me as a sex worker IS just more of the war on drugs.
Morselle Cupcake: The drug war makes me fear that I could be criminalized for my work and the choices I make about what I put in my body. I do outreach in my community, engaging with many people that have been affected by SESTA/FOSTA who are also affected in some way by the drug war, and I think it all comes back to the harm of capitalism. The prison- industrial complex causes unbelievable damage to people who use drugs and sell sex, and this disproportionately affects people of color and trans folx. When people are othered by society, they are pushed into the shadows where they cannot be seen and therefore do not have access to the same rights that mainstream, privileged people take for granted. The most marginalized people are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine; they may be impacted first, but when life is so dangerous for so many of us, it will come to impact us all.