LOUDER: Meow by Morrigan Eris
Legal Nevada brothel worker Morrigan Eris on FOSTA.
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We were never louder than after they silenced us and we never loved each other better than when they condemned us.
This spring, our Cheese-puff in Chief signed 132 Stat 1253, popularly called “FOSTA” or “SESTA” into effect, binding the United States government into a monolithic enemy of free speech and generating a level of public visibility that cemented 2018 as a battle-year for sex workers' rights. Federal prison sentences and six-figure fines suddenly threaten sites who permitted speech “promoting or facilitating” prostitution. Constitutional? Probably not, but it's what we get to deal with today.
Outside the brothel, the bodies are piling up. The mechanisms that sex workers had carved out to keep themselves safe have gone suddenly offline. There's no way to gauge how many deaths, injuries, insults, and income bruises FOSTA is inflicting; the insidious thing about censorship is how it wrecks without record. Legislators' grins are a grotesque reminder of the sort of self-congratulatory hypocrisy of the great American tradition of victimizing people in the name of “rescue.”
Inside the brothel, the knowledge that independent girls that we know and love would have the protections the Internet had afforded them stripped away swept past interpersonal frictions. Unease about the law's implications cobwebbed together unlikely alliances and kindled allegiance borne of love and rage. Women who might have rejected each other before had a sudden shared solidarity – quirks and quarrels aside, we all suck dick to pay the bills and we all have skin in the game where SESTA is concerned.
And, of course, anything that puts the independent girls at risk threatens us too. The brothel girls – those of us working legally in Nevada, the only jurisdiction to permit it – buy plane tickets and pay for business licenses and let men in uniforms fingerprint us. We surrender half or more of our income to secure state sanction, but all that's standing between us and the same rock-and-hard-place conform-or-be-prosecuted dilemma our peers face is a system that could be swept away at state legislators' whim.
It's easy to pass laws to disenfranchise the disenfranchised – people who are already condemned and exiled to the fringes of society tend not to put up much of a fight. Fighting back draws attention, and when prostitution is illegal, drawing attention is a quick way to end up in deeper shit. For all that, though, sex workers have learned defiance at the back of society's hand. We are catalytic disarticulation. We are not the devil that you know.
Sex workers are lawyering up and getting involved – strippers, cam girls, porn performers, prostitutes, and all of us. We're marching. We're trying to participate in the system, to force it to recognize our legitimacy. I'd rather eschew the need for all that and keep our happy little counterculture divested of the mainstream but that's not a viable option anymore. Visibility counters the pop-culture pimped-and-brainless tropes. Gentrification keeps the bland and Bible-thumping from clutching their pearl necklaces about ours.
Fine. We're here. Let's see how loud we can get.
I'm in the kitchen on my tablet – we can have a tablet with a keyboard here but we can't have laptops, for reasons that are clear, I'm sure, to someone who isn't me – frowning my way through closed-captioning the non-pornographic part of a video that I've put up on YouTube.
I can't quite make out what it is that I'm saying about the “contemporary community standards” that determine whether or not pornographic content is considered obscene, but I might have better luck if I wasn't pretending not to know a former friend was a yard or less away.
Former-friend is talking to Terra sitting across the table. I want to tell my estranged ho-friend that there's been a misunderstanding and I'm sorry if I've bruised her with my whiplash temper, that I miss the smoke in her hair and the fire at her fingertips. I didn't do what you seem convinced that I did and I'm sorry for telling you to go away. Please let me see that you know that and then we can resume ignoring each other.
Instead, I press my earbuds more firmly into my ears and switch tabs to Chess.com.
If she walks behind me, all she'll see is a chess game and not my half-naked body next to a man that I love and she despises. Look, I'm doing smart people shit and I'm wholly engrossed in it, I want my browser to convey, not struggling to understand myself or you. I don't even notice that you're here. I've found a mirthful quiet in the waters of Lethe.
I wonder whether her cheerful oblivion to me is as staged as mine to her is. I bet it's not. I bet I've finally managed to blend in with the lavender paint that replaced the eggshell paint that used to be here. I've been practicing disappearing for months but I've never been much good at blending in. Maybe it's different now.
I can't wait for her to leave and I hate it when she goes.
It's Monday, Memorial Day, which is, as it turns out, a holiday that delays my week. Usually, I'd have gotten a room Sunday afternoon after getting a ride from the airport, but there's a new girl who's staying in 9 until tomorrow morning. The doctor won't be here until tomorrow because of the holiday, so while I'd usually be panicking about unpacking a room today to work in tomorrow, I'm just marking time until Wednesday anyway.
I'm still a homeless ho until 9 is vacated, so I could crash in the bunk room – it's haunted, the girls who hold with that sort of thing will tell you, but mostly, it just feels very public and exposed – but still-friend, Terra, is here and letting me stay with her in her space until I've got my own.
Terra is tiny and looks totally natural in the pretty princess dresses and tea parties she likes to get up to. She's also a total adrenaline junkie from Alaska with stories of snow adventures and chainsaws. In my earliest Terra-memories, she plays a ukelele and eats going-away party cake with hot sauce. She's got stone-sober hold-my-beer moments where she'll pass me her shaker-bottle full of pre-workout and vitamins so that she can somersault down the hall in skirt and heels.
Terra started the trend of girls meowing to find and identify each other. If you hear someone meowing in the brothel, it's one of Terra's friends communicating location. If you're here and behind the scenes and not a client, you will hear someone meowing at some point. Likely several someones. Likely several points.
Terra's taken me in for the night so I go back to her room. I showered a while ago so now she takes her turn. She shrieks and and I'm up and into the bathroom before I think to ask what's happened. I get to murder a shower spider and feel very satisfied with having protected friend from spider. I feel a little guilty about the spider, who was probably just stalking something else that we'd rather not find in the shower, but I reassure myself that self-defense laws apply. The spider looked menacing and I was just standing my ground. I had no duty to retreat in Terra's bathroom. I wonder whether I'd have tried to put the spider outside instead of squishing it if I wasn't otherwise agitated. I'm sorry, spider. I fall asleep holding Terra while she plays another episode of the Night Vale podcast.
Now it's Tuesday and I'm on one of the black pleather couches in the back of the brothel, sweating more heavily than I'd like and thumbing through Twitter, half-assedly reading and half-assedly listening to the banter and gossip around me. I'm always cold. Today, I'm decidedly un-cold.
It's my turn to go back and I walk into the doctor's office and push the door shut behind me. Orange-y beige-y brown carpet patterns and wood paneling don't belong to this decade.
I sign my legal name and birthdate on the sign-in sheet – it's been folded so that the info of the girls preceding me is out of sight. A hundred, two tens, and two fives earns me a handwritten receipt that I'll save for later, when I forget to actually send my receipts to Shoeboxed.com until shortly before tax-time.
The nurse has been here since I started almost two years ago and I should know her name by now. Maybe I do. It seems likely that I did at one point, but names and faces too-often don't stick. She's kind and has waist-length red hair and always seems cheerful and isn't pregnant anymore and she's only had to stab me twice once.
“How are you?” she asks.
I smile. “How are you?”
“I'm good.” She hands me a weathered, yellow stress ball with a fading smiley face to squeeze while she slides a butterfly needle into an arm that will bruise like nobody's business. The collection tube slowly fills with a blackened burgundy and I wonder whether veins can scar and whether all these blood draws will eventually leave me with rubbery veins that resist piercing and require multiple stabs to find still-soft tissue until I eventually become stone-skinned and unpierceable. The nurse pulls the needle out and tapes a cotton ball onto my arm.
I pull down my jeans, not bothering to take off my shoes, and lie back on the exam table so that she can push past my labia with one of those long, wooden, q-tip things. I'm inclined to apologize because I haven't had time to get into my room and shave my vulva yet but that just seems like it'd draw more attention to it – besides, it's not like she could say anything much more than “it's okay, don't worry about it.” Please check me for germs so that I can flee and shower again.
The nurse puts the swab in a test tube and I pull up my pants and wander down the hall to start unpacking. Room 9 is ready and I won't be cleared to work until tomorrow so I've gotta see how loudly I can type today.