“Chips & Gravy”: Fatphobia and Sex Work
Last month sex workers around the world all clenched their teeth as alleged drug smuggler Cassie Sainsbury became the object of an international muckraking spectacle led by Australian current events program 60 Minutes. If the forced outing of Ms Sainsbury as a sex worker on national television wasn’t bad enough, her (alleged) former madam, Pamela Feranchi, deemed it appropriate to make the following statement to the Daily Telegraph: “Sometimes she would cry in the corner eating pizza, chips and gravy. She wasn’t the most popular girl, God love her, she was a bit tubby, even though she was a personal trainer”. [Source]
The voyeuristic obsession that the media has with sex workers and their lives is sickening at best, and while oodles of articles written about Ms Sainsbury are accompanied by her selfies, photos of women in lingerie, and rooms in brothels, there is another issue Ms Feranchi’s comments bring to the fore: fatphobia in sex work.
There have been numerous studies and articles that show a definitive link between body size and workplace discrimination [1, 2, 3], and sex work is no different. Fat sex workers often face barriers within various facets of their careers, and brothel madams making comments about chips and gravy are only the tip of the workplace discrimination iceberg.
Many brothel or agency managers decline to hire or roster fat sex workers, leaving many to go it alone independently. While this isn’t an issue for many sex workers, who flourish as private workers, many dream of shift work in a structure more similar to being an employee. Emma, a size 24 escort from Melbourne, says she applied with a few brothels before deciding to work independently, and was told she didn’t fit the demographic of the workplaces. “I’m doing well privately, but it was upsetting for me to be told I didn’t suit a brothel because I’m too big,” she admitted.
Clarissa, a brothel worker in Queensland, told me that her workplace actively sought out diverse workers including those that were plus size. There were other challenges for her though, and she admitted her coworkers were not always supportive of her presence in the brothel. “There’s snarky comments (from other workers) saying I wouldn’t get booked because I’m ‘gross’.” Discussing her fear as a fat sex worker in a brothel environment she continues, “The constant worrying that you won’t get booked because it’s a brothel and the type of clientele that go to brothels don’t really want someone like you… and there’s brothels that won’t even hire you because you’re too fat.” Clarissa adds that while it is hard working in a brothel as a fat sex worker, there was an unexpected up side, “Because the girls didn’t view me as competition, I managed to avoid a lot of drama. I liked that part!”
Emma says she often found it difficult to find colleagues to work with. “Even my sex worker friends decline to do doubles bookings with me. I don’t fit in with their demographic, and so they prefer not to work with me at all. They’re vocally supportive of me and my work, of course, and while they obviously aren’t obligated to do bookings with me, I can’t help but feel a bit hurt,” she admitted.
Brothels aren’t the only workplaces that can be difficult for fat sex workers. Fat representation in pornography is a problem even in indie “feminist” porn circles, with only a few taking on fat performers for their studio productions. Amateur porn production is one way that many “niche” sex workers are able to market and sell their work, but there are barriers for fat performers even in this relatively accessible career path.
Catherine Gray said she often felt frustrated by attitudes to fat pornographers. “Even though BBW is #3 on their top searches list, fat performers and producers are lagging behind in promotion, with the site staff preferring to showcase thinner, more conventionally attractive performers,” she said of a popular online video marketplace for amateur pornographers. “It’s disheartening to know they’re happy to take their cut of my sales, but don’t think my work, or the work of other larger fat performers, is worth showcasing. It’s like fat performers are a dirty secret that they would rather not talk about.”
New Zealand-based erotic massage specialist Heavenly Hands noted that in the past 5 years of her career she very rarely received public reviews of her services, while other service providers received regular reviews. “I do a specialised tantric hand relief service … (and) despite being well known & having a good reputation I hardly ever get reviewed,” she commented to me on Twitter, adding she felt people were disinclined to review her services because of her larger size.
Catherine Gray agreed, saying she seldom received reviews for her full service sex work bookings, or for her online video sales, something she says is vital to her exposure especially in the amateur porn arena. “When customers take the time to write a review, it boosts my visibility in the marketplace, which helps my sales. When so many customers — happy ones who return regularly to purchase more videos! — aren’t reviewing my work, it definitely makes me wonder, you know, is this something you’re ashamed of, that you don’t want people knowing you’re purchasing?”
Above and beyond barriers to employment, it is also difficult to find work appropriate attire for fat workers in the adult industry. Escort staples like Honey Birdette and Agent Provocateur have a notoriously small size range, and even more common clothing found at adult stores often stop in the smaller plus sizes. While larger options exist at speciality online stores these are often prohibitively priced with no increase in quality of workmanship, and still stop at a relatively small size bracket.
Natalie Blackwood, an escort working in the USA, says she feels cheaply made but overpriced lingerie is a reality for plus size sex workers. “My wish… beautiful things for all shapes of plus size bodies,” she says, adding she dreams about “stockings that fit bigger thighs” and “fetish wear… made for larger bodies”. Catherine nods as we discuss Natalie’s thoughts about stockings for bigger thighs. “There is one company in the world that makes stockings to fit my thigh measurement”, she tells me. “I had to turn down a commission for a porn video because the customer wanted specific stockings that just didn’t come in my size. Its awful having to turn down a pay cheque because of something as ridiculous as not being able to find stockings to fit.”
There is an undercurrent of frustration with many of the fat sex workers I spoke to for this piece. Whether the topic was a lack of employment opportunities in brothels, the availability of clothes, or anything in between, fat sex workers are frustrated by not being given a fair go by employers, clothing manufacturers, or their fellow workers. “Fatphobia is systemic in society and in the sex industry,” Catherine remarks. “I’ve heard so many seemingly benign fatphobic statements made by other sex workers, and it feels alienating to be the fat one in the group. We are here, and we want respect both as sex workers and as fat people.”
During the preparation of this piece I became the target of anti-fat trolls on Twitter. What many of these trolls said was irrelevant, but the recurring theme was that no one would pay to have sex with someone who is fat, and I’d like you to know that this is false. People regularly pay fat sex workers for their services, buy pornography featuring fat performers, and seek out many other kinds of services provided by fat sex workers. The idea that fat people are not desirable is a lie, and I assure you that sex workers on the whole are an incredibly diverse group of people.
Edit: After publishing this piece, charity organisation Whaea Power commented to me that they often have plus size sex workers (particularly trans women) in need of clothing or shoes, but that often these sizes weren’t donated to their organisation. If you have any clothing or shoes (lingerie, dresses, skirts, tops, etc) that you think might benefit a fat sex worker in need, contact your local peer sex worker organisation to see if they have a clothing library and accept donations!