LOUDER: Empowerment by Jessie Sage
Jessie Sage on Sex Work and Empowerment
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In sitting down to write a piece about empowerment and sex work, I was forced to reflect on the fact that my own relationship to the idea of empowerment through sex work changed with experience and based on the context of my life. So, to talk about empowerment, I feel like I need to talk about my own life story.
Before I was a sex worker, I was an academic in the field of philosophy—a field dominated by (mostly white, mostly privileged) men. During this period, I once found myself to be the only woman presenting a paper at a small philosophy conference of about 20 presenters. At the close of the conference, we all sat at a large conference table with the keynote speaker at the head, and listened to him give his address. About halfway through his talk he paused and said, “I can’t remember where, but St. Augustine talks about God’s relationship to time.”
Because this was a rather informal event—and given that I had written a Master’s Thesis on the topic—I interjected, “It is in Book X of his Confessions.” He ignored me and repeated his statement, so I said it again—and then a third time. Finally, the man sitting next to me parroted me, and the keynote speaker stopped and said, “Ah, yes! Book X of his Confessions.”
Things like this—and much worse—happened almost every day. As a woman with working class roots, these instances of sexual harassment, micro aggressive sexism, and overt discrimination as well as economic constraints (even the best adjunct teaching positions pay poverty wages) eventually drove me away from the ivory tower, seeking better for myself and my kids.
This was the context in which I turned to sex work. I vividly remember the moment I first started making sex work money—when men (ones just like those who ignored or undermined me in the classroom and at conferences) suddenly started to value my time and attention enough to pay for it. Sure, many of these interactions were highly sexualized (though probably less so than what most civilians assume), but so were a great many of my interactions in the academy and other jobs. Just being a woman in the world meant being sexualized. At least with sex work, the inevitable sexualization was transparent and compensated—and, I retained a degree of control over the conditions in which it occurred.
In these moments, especially at the beginning, I felt like I was winning at the patriarchy’s game by cashing in on the very things that oppressed me. Dare I say: there was something about it that felt empowering.
But the truth of sex work is not that simple—at least, it wasn’t for me, particularly as it grew to become my primary source of income. There were other moments that hardly felt empowering: I was called a whore and threatened by angry customers. I was outed to family members. My relationships with many friends frayed because of they disapproved of my work. I’ve been subjected to intense fatphobia, with strangers publicly dissecting and insulting my body. I also fear that my involvement in sex work may have dire consequences for my future career options or my custody arrangement.
Despite all this, my experience has taught me that working in the sex industry can offer things that that most other industries cannot—flexibility, a low barrier to entry, higher per hour wages than other labor, and autonomy—especially for women and folks who are marginalized in other ways. For these reasons, sex workers, particularly highly privileged sex workers, may feel inclined to describe their experience as empowering. This is especially true in a world where sex work is criminalized and highly stigmatized, where we feel pushed into defending our choices and our industry against sex work abolitionists and SWERFs (sex work exclusionary radical feminists), who work hard to shut down our means of survival.
Recently, one such author, Julie Bindel responded to the COVID-19 fueled trend of sex workers and civilians alike turning to OnlyFans to try and sustain themselves through the pandemic, and wrote that OnlyFans is not empowering; and more than that, that it puts women in danger. As someone with an OnlyFans account, my kneejerk reaction was to argue that I do in fact feel empowered by my ability to pay for my needs with the money I make on the platform. But this is also too simple. What would it even mean to feel empowered by selling pussy shots for $3 a pop? And, who is even claiming that they use OnlyFans to feel empowered in the first place?
Does work need to be empowering? Academia certainly didn’t feel that way to me. Nor did the more menial jobs I’ve held through the years. But does not feeling empowered by a job mean that we shouldn’t be able to safely pursue it—or, more to the point, to safely pursue the income that job provides us? Why hold sex work to this exceptional standard?
As I work through this question of empowerment myself, I was curious about what others had to say. This is what they told me.
When Xenon Universe, ManyVid’s 2020 Trans King of the Year, first started his sex work career as a webcam model, he was still deeply closeted which caused him to feel disconnected from himself and his sexuality. He tells me over the phone, “I always had a difficult time being myself. I knew I was a sexual being, but I couldn’t see myself that way.”
But performing sexuality for others in the context of sex work made him feel more connected, despite the fact that, “it felt like dressing in drag.” He recounts, “When I was able to learn how to use [a performative femininity] for my own benefit and to make other people happy, I got a lot of empowerment from it.” He goes on, “There was something to this femininity that made me strong, it gave me independence.”
This was particularly true in that it allowed him to come to terms with his naturally large breasts (though he says he dreams of having top surgery). “I never wanted to grow breasts, that was a real let down in my physical development,” he says. “But there was some empowerment in moving from, this is the bane of my existence to, this is something people enjoy and give me money for.”
But as time passed, and he became more and more entrenched in sex work, this became less and less desirable. “When I found sex work I thought, maybe this is the missing piece, maybe I need to become Aphrodite,” he says. “But then I became Aphrodite for a second, and I realized that it wasn’t actually what I wanted.”
This realization, in part, pushed him to come out as trans and to have his gender identity recognized, not just in his personal life, but also in his sex work persona. And while sex work was a tool that allowed him to become more connected to himself, his sexuality, and his gender identity at the beginning, it started to do the opposite the further along in his transition he got. He says, “[Fans and customers] remember who I was and they want me to stick to that. That part is becoming a bigger and bigger disconnect. I feel like a fraud.”
As he is thinking about transitioning out of sex work, he reflects on sex work and empowerment. “Sex work can be empowering,” he says. “But it doesn’t have to be. I think you can find empowerment in it, for both expected and unexpected reasons.” But he goes on, “It doesn’t have to be empowering to be valid. Sometimes a job is just a job.” But at this juncture, a job he no longer wants to do.
Sex worker rights organizer and podcaster Pheonix Calida often speaks publicly about the intersection of sex work, labor, and poverty. Recently, they related all of these issues back to their own life when they tweeted about the conditions under which they started sex work years ago, “I had a sick baby who needed his (asthma) nebulizer treatments on a daily basis. If I couldn’t bring enough money to the pharmacist on a daily basis, they would take the renter nebulizer back, and my baby would die.”
Sex work, for them, was not a matter of personal exploration, but rather a matter of life and death, a means to life-saving medical care. For this reason, Calida doesn’t see empowerment as the crux of the issue: sex work is labor, and not all labor is empowering. When I reached out on the phone to ask them about this, they simply say, “Labor is about survival.”
That sex work is singled out in these empowerment debates while other forms of labor are not seem like a problem to Calida. “I have worked a lot of jobs,” they say. “I have worked in a factory. I have been a waitress. I have worked in offices. And, none of those have been empowering, but sex work is the only job that I get this pushback for.”
When I asked them why they think that sex work is held to a standard that other forms of labor are not, they say it is because sex work, as feminized labor, is not recognized as work. “Women’s labor is already not seen as valid labor,” they comment. “A lot of sex work is not just the actual sex, but cultivating relationships with clients, that is something women are expected to do for free.”
There are also other intersecting issues of race and class. The hypersexualization of Black women shapes the perception of sexualized labor when performed by Black women, and according to these perceptions, “Black people in particular are not honing a skill, they are just being slutty,” Calida says.
Poor people are subjected to similar scrutiny. They “have to bootstrap in a particular way [for it to be seen as legitimate], and sex work is nowhere on the table,” says Calida.
So, for poor Black women, the stigma around sex work can result in a lot of social constraints. “You combine all these things. Plus, it is illegal,” they say.
Circling back to the notion of empowerment, Calida reflects, “It’s okay if people are empowered by sex work; it’s also okay if people aren’t empowered by sex work.” Regardless, “We all still need equal rights and protections.”
Reminding us that sex work is labor, and labor is ultimately about survival, Calida concludes, “The most empowering thing is when there is enough money to pay the bills for a while. Because you know what isn’t empowering: Being homeless, being hungry.”
Independent adult performer and webcam model GoAskAlex has been chronically sick her entire life, a fact that has majorly impacted her ability to hold down a job. “Before sex work, I didn’t have any assets, I didn’t have any savings,” she tells me over the phone.
“I lived in a really dark basement suite with roommates. I was constantly losing jobs, I was constantly getting fired because I had all of these health problems that were holding me back.”
She turned to sex work for survival, and eventually discovered cam modeling.
Sex work offered flexibility to work around her disability. She was able to fit it around the up and down rhythms of her illness in a way conventional employment didn’t allow for. She says, “There is an overwhelming amount of sex workers who have disabilities, chronic illnesses, and mental health conditions. It was no mystery to me why.”
She goes on, “In sex work you can take an infinite amount of days off, you can just stay in bed and when you get back up it will still be there.”
That sex work is accommodating in ways that other labor is not has given GoAskAlex independence and stability, and this she describes as empowering. She comments, “I was able to save for my future, I was able to buy a car.”
But it has also been more than that; it has given her space to process the physical trauma of her illness.
“I think it is empowering to choose to share your body,” she says reflectively. “Being naked, as a disabled person, and to be affirmed? That can be really healing.”
This was particularly true last year when she went through a major surgery to have her colon removed and was given an ostomy bag that she will continue to have the rest of her life. “If I had gone through surgery when I was not a sex worker, I absolutely know I would not be as confident and comfortable with my body as I am now,” she says. “Creating porn after having my colon removed has contributed by far more than anything else to my confidence now.”
Her increase in confidence is not because customers showed her wholesale love and support. On the contrary, she did get some blowback from people who said that they can’t imagine paying to see a body with an ostomy. She describes these experiences, however, as a source of motivation. “It made me so sure that I had to keep getting naked and doing what I do, because I couldn’t let that beat me down. It made me want to create a world where that opinion didn’t exist.”
GoAskAlex recognizes that her feeling of empowerment within sex work is not universal, and that not all sex workers experience it this way (in fact she herself started trading sex under unsafe conditions as a very young person when she was using – an experience she does not describe as empowering). But she also believes that this should be expected given that sex work, ultimately, is a job. “Not every job is empowering,” she comments. “Most people don’t go to work every day and think, ‘Wow, this job is so good for my mental health.’ That is not how we think about jobs.”
femi babylon, a writer, sex worker, and mother, started stripping and prostitution out of economic necessity after her first year in college, when her mom told her she didn’t want her to live at home anymore. She recounts in an email, “When I reached my last few hundred dollars, I decided to take my wedge heels and go audition at the only strip club in town.”
And it was nice to be able to make her own money. She says, “It was great to
be able to buy myself a futon and stop sleeping on the old mattress my mom had given me that
was killing my back. It was nice to not have to ask her for anything.” And she adds, “It was less degrading than being sexually harassed at food service jobs on campus.”
But it being “less degrading,” isn’t the same as it not being degrading at all. She remembers, “I was called a nigger twice. It was often assumed I was a prostitute, even if I wasn’t offering, because I’m black.” And more than the work itself, she has found being a sex worker to be lonely. She says, “Being a hoe has kind of isolated me from a lot of people, particularly after I had a child, because people are looking for ways to harm me via the state. I can never get comfortable with anyone after what I’ve experienced both off and online.”
When I asked her if she would describe sex work as empowering, she responds with a non-committal, “Yes, no, maybe?” But the problem, it seems, is using the framing of empowerment for something as complex as sex work. “I don’t like the word ‘empowerment’ to be honest,” she says. “I think it reifies the choice/coercion binary, wherein a person’s only option is to choose between being above it all and “empowered,” or downtrodden victims who were forced into erotic labor—in this case prostitution/cyber whoring.”
She also points out how racialized this framing is, reminding us that, “Historically, it is mainly white sex workers who have made this claim.” But it makes sense that they would. “White and middle-class women simply have more room to lay claim to this,” she argues. “This is not to say that they are wrong about their own personal experiences, but that this view has often eclipsed views like mine due to differences in societal standing, racially.”
Rather than debating whether or not sex work is empowering, babylon argues that we should be working to dismantle the oppressive structures that shape our work lives. As such, she says, “Breaking down the empowerment/exploitation binary requests an analysis of multiple forms of structural oppression that are interlocked or intersection.”
And part of this process would require actively working to reimagine labor, and also working to destigmatize those choices. She reflects, “Stigma is a result of a combination of oppressive structures and perpetuates them, however it is a fruit, not a root.”
ana mri, a sex worker, graduate student, and community organizer, got into sex work to escape a domestic violence situation that they had been in their entire lives. In a phone conversation, they tell me, “Sex work was the only thing that finally got me on my own. And quickly!” And this changed their lives dramatically. They say, “I was like, wait, I can do this on my own. I don’t have to sleep in a violent house anymore.”
But at the beginning, they didn’t necessarily think of it as empowering, despite the fact that they were freed from an abusive situation. In fact, they were just surviving and didn’t really have a way to make sense of this experience. They recall, “If I am very honest with myself, when I think back to when I was first doing sex work, I didn’t understand the policy issues, I didn’t really understand that there has been a movement. I didn’t even know the term sex work.” In other words, they didn’t have a conception of sex work, or an interest in framing it in these terms.
Yet, discovering other sex workers on Twitter and moving into sex work organizing gave them this vocabulary. But along with that came a pressure to identify with empowerment language. “Carceral feminists weaponize victimization so that you don’t have a choice but to say you have a choice,” they say. “I feel like I had to say sex work is empowering even when it didn’t feel empowering.”
And of course, sex work for mri hasn’t always felt empowering. At the beginning, in particular, they were happy with the freedom that sex work afforded them, but dissociated from the work itself. They recall, “I wasn’t being honest with myself or anyone about how I was feeling [about the work itself].” But for them, this changed when they found sex work community. They say that now, “I’m actually incredible empowered by sex work, but not in the ways I thought.”
It was through sex work community that mri began to feel empowered. They say very passionately, “Sex workers empower sex workers.” For them, they were able to work under safer conditions, screening clients, developing safe calls, and setting boundaries after they developed relationships with other sex workers. They comment, “The power we have over our working conditions, all of that is intertwined with how much community we have.” And on a personal note, they say, “I wasn’t able to rework my sex work until I had a community supporting me.”