heauxthots: Deﬁned/Deﬁners: My thoughts on common terminology around erotic labor & trafficking
*originally published on Patreon. This is a revised version that I published in the heauxthots zine.
There’s an ongoing debate about terms within and without the so-called community of erotic laborers that I ﬁnd both frustrating and interesting as a person who has straddled the lines of advocate and prostitute off and on for almost a decade. I have worked in many areas of what allies, “abolitionists,” researchers, and sex worker rights activists call sex work. I only recently began using the term sex worker to describe myself because I found it helped the right people ﬁnd me, and vice versa. I am highly aware that most sex workers in my tax bracket do not use this term to describe themselves, so I am often wary of employing this term in everyday conversation, and I struggle to ﬁnd terms that suit the needs of the women around me. I say women because my work mainly focuses on cis and trans women of color, and comes from my perspective as a queer Black cisgender woman who is a self-deﬁned sex worker. I have engaged in several areas of “the trade,” from stripping and street prostitution to camming and phone sex, and what some might call “companionship,” aka indoor prostitution. Here is a short, but not exhaustive, list of some of the various professions and terms we use to describe ourselves:
Escort, Street-worker, Hustler, Companion, Prostitute, Hooker, Hoe/Heaux (racialized: Black vernacular), Slut (racialized: white, but not exclusive because reverse racism doesn’t exist), (Exotic) Dancer, Stripper, Sugar Baby, Erotic Laborer, (Web)camgirl/camboy, (Web)cammodel, Whore, Performer, Sex Worker
Usually when I speak to other women in similar lines of work they do not use the term “sex worker” to describe themselves, though I will use it throughout this article to describe this amalgamation of diverse individuals. Many struggle to deﬁne what they do as work because in American culture work is deﬁned as “labor performed legally in exchange for money” (Susan Dewey & Tonya Germain 2016). So despite the fact that our work is labor-intensive and time-consuming, very few of us see it as legitimate labor. Why would we when many of us are engaging in sex work purely to survive, in a country that denigrates feminized labor as a rule?
I have often likened sex work to what Dewey and Germain termed “service sector work,” especially the most feminized areas such as housekeeping/cleaning, food prep/cooking, caregiving, and other forms of domestic work. These are all areas that I have worked in, and they all feature jobs that provide little to no beneﬁts, have low pay and rare pay increases (and even those are low), and offer little room to adjust your work schedule. I worked at a hotel in Milwaukee from April 2009 to April 2010. The reason I had gotten into stripping and dipped into street work and occasional hotel/motel prostitution was because I couldn’t ﬁnd a “regular” job to pay my bills. I applied for several jobs and went on interviews, but it was a small, racist college town and nobody was checking for me. With my back against the wall I applied at the only strip club in town and got to working. I danced 50+ hours per week just to get by. When the money dried up, as so often it does, I “prostituted” myself fully, for the ﬁrst time (and a large sum of money — in my mind), and got the hell out of Bloomington.
Strangely, I did consider what I was doing to be work because I deﬁned work as “something that gets me money to pay the bills on a regular basis.” However, I was hyperaware that other people looked down on my kind of work. If you had asked me then what I was doing to get by I would have answered the same as any other young Black woman: hustling. “Dancing.” I never told anybody I had been fucking for money until I joined groups on Facebook. The work I was and am doing is widely considered immoral both culturally and religiously. At eighteen I was ashamed. At nineteen I began to wonder why I was ashamed. I had been reading bell hooks and Black feminist work that was anti-porn, and as a young skeptic I often found myself questioning or in disagreement. My complaints were, and are, often met with anger, deﬂection, or ridicule. How dare I disagree with my (better educated or reasonably established and revolutionary) Black feminist foremothers?
At that young age I didn’t know enough to disagree with purpose and persuasion. So I read, and I disagreed inwardly, until I found the words I needed to articulate what I meant, so that I could out-inform everyone who came at me sideways.
On Carol Leigh’s “sex worker” and the invisibility of Black sex workers
Over time my language has shifted. Even in the past year I have questioned my and others use of certains words and terminology to describe what “we” do. I have had to adjust to accommodate varied perspectives of women like and unlike me who struggle and straddle the lines (or lie on the spectrum) between what so-called abolitionists and sex worker feminists have termed “sex work” and “sex trafficking.” I have had to ask what it means to legitimize my and others labor, what to call myself, how to describe these issues in a multicolored way. How to globalize my perspective to include my indigenous diasporic sisters. How to respectfully dissect and deconstruct the racialization of the term “indigenous” and ask why it isn’t often applied to my African siblings. How to express my needs and take in concerns about the needs of others. What is consensual? What is coercion? How to self-deﬁne in a world where I am not seen as a deﬁner by deﬁnition. Most of these words or terms have been used in a derogatory way or to insult non-sex working cis and trans women, particularly Black women.
So what does this mean in the grand scheme of things when we are struggling to form coalitions and communities around these politics? There are researchers, academics, and white women classed above me who are giving lessons on terminology and using the words “consensual,” “empowered,” and “choice” to comment on what constitutes “sex work” and what is “sex trafficking.” This is really the crux of the issue. The two main reasons that this conversation is not being had more widely is 1) because the sex worker movement is dominated by white women who are usually better off than me or academics and researchers who feel they set the standard for the rhetoric/theory surrounding our issues and, 2) because we lack a clear intersectional politics that ﬁrmly decenters whiteness and wealth. The latter is what I am trying to help remedy with my politics of proheaux womanism that is geared speciﬁcally toward Black and Brown erotic laborers and can be utilized by allies and nonblack sex workers to gain insight and understanding.
There are many who have argued that we should strike the words “prostitution” and “prostitute” from our wider vernacular and that we should use the terms “sex worker” and “sex work” as a rule. I am not always sure how I feel about this. The word itself is useful, same as queer, but it doesn’t work as an umbrella term for obvious reasons. However the suggestion to use a “better” term, smells of respectability politics to me, and that’s grody. I don’t think the wording matters so much as the context, since it was outsiders who made the term prostitute derogatory in the ﬁrst place, by denigrating the profession and its subjects. Feminized work is derided by the general populace. Note how service work is not considered career work unless one is in a position of power. “Sex work” caught on in research and academia and the trickle down effect has been for them to turn around and tell others: “This is what you call them now.” Yet when Dewey and Germain went out into the street, they said the women were offended by the term and many preferred to call their labor “hustling.”
Sometimes I refer to the “law” of self-deﬁnition. But what does all this mean when we are trying to convene under one umbrella? I call myself a proheaux womanist which is my own invention and has more to do with politics and turning theory into praxis for a wider group of (Black and Brown) people. Most people involved or interested in our politics use the term “sex worker” which was coined by Carol Leigh aka Scarlot Harlot, a white woman and prostitute activist. White women of all social standings have already begun their appropriation and co-optation of Black vernacular terms such as “hoe/heaux” and “thot.” I sometimes fear that in our quest to protect and connect we are removing vital descriptive language. The point of language is efficiency and understanding. Will we ever come a to consensus on what terms to use to further our cause?
In her book Funk the Erotic, L.H. Stallings suggests engaging sex work as a form of antiwork, which I and many other erotic laborers have directly and indirectly determined to do via our critiques of capitalism and labor. She calls this “transing” sex work theory. She writes that “trading sex and sexual culture in black communities had already been conceptualized as postwork imagination.” This part of her work is interesting to me. It is also interesting to see how other Black people, Black women in particular, not in my social position but above, see me and my (anti)work. Later in the same chapter and section Stallings writes: “Instead of beginning from the position of the state and entity that implicitly gets to authorize and deﬁne what constitutes sex work, even as the term was created by prostitute activists reacting to state policing, we should all reconsider and rethink the term and meaning with questions such as: Why is it that the only individuals classiﬁed as sex workers are those whose labor is connected to sexual pleasure?” (Stallings 2015)
I love the phrase “prostitute activists” but part of me feels like this question answers itself, and that (perhaps) there is an implicit bias that drives Stallings to want to push the term “sex worker” to its limits to include researchers/academics and others as sex workers in order to supposedly broaden the community and support. Or perhaps I am the one who is biased — I am very protective of my space and I feel like the more we stretch the term “sex worker,” the more prostitutes and erotic (porn) performers become decentered, even obscured. I feel like the constant attempt to push the term sex worker to its limits to accommodate those who feel “left out” does not accomplish anything materially — nor do I think we should water-down the term sex worker to rope in academics who write about sex — academic writing about pornography differs greatly from erotica which is designed to titillate. Though I am skeptical of certain aspects of identity-based politics (i.e. weaponization of identity in order to avoid accountability or using identity to defame someone as part of a personal grudge), I believe that any reconsideration of the term should be led by sex workers, and the rest should follow.
However, the push from many other erotic laborers to switch from “prostitute” to “sex worker” and other more palatable terms begs the question: Who gets to deﬁne what? Who or what is a sex worker? Will “sex worker” become thee respectable term as folks deem the words we call ourselves derogatory and correct others without reference? Does “sex worker” even apply when many (Black and Brown and poor) erotic laborers reject the term entirely? (I do not use the term outside of organizing and political work.) This is the hard work of building and maintaining community which is a multitude of multiply marginalized communities, and of developing a language and discourse that encompasses a variety of experiences and not just a select few or the (white) majority.
It is also not lost on me that there seem to be very few Black erotic laborers outside of academia whose words or work is actually cited, or even known. There’s seems to be a dearth of recognized critical and practical theory being created by Black former and current erotic laborers. I wonder if this is because white sex workers have done a better job at documenting their work, or if their work is simply more widely known and accepted in academia, or if its because many of the names we do know are women who have degrees — Carol Leigh, for example, has a degree in criminal justice. Siobhan Brooks, a former Black stripper of the famed Lusty Lady who is the author of Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry, has a bachelor’s in women’s studies and a PhD in sociology. But really, there are not many women like me whose experiences are recorded. Where are the books that engage Black erotic laborers direct lived experiences, as well-rounded characters in our own narratives? Where is the creative work that centers philosophies and culture that I know we have created? It is my goal to find and record these hoe histories, as I have termed them.
what “consensual” means
Consensual. That’s the word I keep seeing on my timeline as I ﬂit from tweet to tweet examining the politics of my peers. Sex work is consensual. That’s what makes it different, supposedly, from sex trafficking. I used to say so too, though when I would read and talk and probe I would ask myself what I meant. Much of the time my experiences with erotic labor straddled the make-believe line between consensual and coercive, in both an economic and physical sense. I remember quoting someone in a tweet (now deleted) that said something like “nonconsensual sex work is an oxymoron.” That’s ridiculous, right? When I was pushed to dig deeper into my language I knew exactly where that line of thinking ﬁt, and it’s an area I try to stay far away from — “higher-calling discourse” (Heather Berg 2014). In trying to stop the person from conﬂating sex work and sex trafficking I ended up erasing, not only other sex workers who have experienced trauma or came to the profession via trafficking or other coercive methods, but myself. These are the key binaries:
I have experienced lots of “nonconsensual” moments while engaging in various modes of erotic labor, where I have consented to one thing and have been pushed into doing another, either by a person or by individual circumstance (“I needed the money”). Once you are in the room or in the car your options are limited — you are the one who will be arrested and possibly assaulted or raped by law enforcement should you get caught up. There are people who have been trafficked and forced into sex work. There are sex workers who have been assaulted/raped while on the job. There are people who emigrate to America and are forced into domestic work or other exploitative situations. There are people in this country who are forced into the sex trade by family members or other trusted adults, partners, or caregivers, and who later choose sex work as a means of income and/or survival. What we need to do is acknowledge that, even though there are some people who have been forced into sex work or other types of exploitative work, they still deserve consideration. People who trafficked into sex work are no different from people who were trafficked and forced into sweatshops, or those who are migrant workers/sharecroppers. Capitalism has driven many people into work they would never have considered before and strutural oppression and, particularly in the case of erotic labor, laws created that constrict ad impose upon independent movement and encourage exploitation by third-parties, force people into exploitative situations.
I chose to become a stripper out of necessity. I needed money. As a stripper I had to pay all sorts of unregulated fees to work at the clubs I worked at. Clubs are allowed to make up their own rules within the bounds of state and federal laws, which are not necessarily favorable to the dancers. The laws vary from state to state. Each club also has its own set house fee and tipping requirements. The strippers pay everyone else out of the money they earn. There are very few stripper unions. Whose favor is this in? Obviously the strip clubs. Yet women continue to choose to strip. Some of the women are just looking for thrills. But many of the women who choose this and other kinds of work are poor and thus easily exploited. This is true of housekeeping, stripping, and most forms of feminized labor. If we complain about work conditions it goes back to “you signed a contract,” which implies that our work is consensual. This is a huge problem with the language of consent. Calling all sex work consensual or voluntary as a rule means that any negative interaction while sex working that is non-consensual will either be lumped into sex trafficking (which will probably involve state intervention and/or removal of or disregard for agency of the subject) or it be will written off as “stolen goods” or the perils of the job. This is a way that the language of “choice” is used against us. It becomes more dangerous when you factor in rape culture and the politics of consent, and disingenuous when you factor in class. Consent is an ongoing process, and once you start saying things like “actual sex work is consensual” you are wading into dangerous waters and running the risk of erasing a large demographic within the community. When I was being harassed people asked me why I chose such a dangerous profession. When I ask(ed) for money even certain Black feminists suggested low-wage service jobs, as if I have never been or wouldn’t be sexually harassed or assaulted in those professions. They suggested putting my son in public school, as if I don’t have valid reasons for homeschooling. If I decide these suggestions are not suitable for me, they become exasperated and say “You’re basically choosing to be _____.”
On the uselessness and redundancy of the term “survival sex worker”
Another language problem we have is centered around the term “survival sex worker,” which has become a catch-all term for poor and working-class erotic laborers who may or may not be homeless or home-insecure. The term survival sex worker is a wholly unecessary term used to group together “low end” sex workers who are not making a living wage. It is a term fraught with stigma that borders on the pejorative, especially when used by people who are not members of this class of sex workers. Indeed, “survival” evokes an image of a poor, possibly drug addicted, prostitute who most likely works on the street or out of strip clubs or Backpage mimics, and is working to make ends meet. Although we already have adequate terms to describe these groups of sex workers (poor/working class, drug addicted, homeless), survival sex worker has become the term du jour to group together these varied demographics and set them apart from “high end” prostitutes and other erotic laborers who more often call themselves “providers,” “companions,” and “escorts,” when they are not appropriating racialized/classed vernacular for cool points on social media (i.e. hoe, heaux, thot, slut, etc.). Provider, companion, and escort are euphemisms, marketing tools, used to set oneself up as “high end” — luxury. As I stated in a previous piece, “[a]n escort is an indoor prostitute.” In contrast, survival sex worker tends be utilized as a euphemism for street workers, or for poverty-stricken, struggling prostitutes/erotic laborers. Though there are many escorts, companions and other so-called high-end prostitutes who are struggling financially or with drugs (esp. due to racial capitalism and body politics), only poor, homeless, and working class erotic laborers are given this title meant to denote that they are struggling in a unique way. This sets up a hierarchy wherein other erotic laborers, as well as non-sex workers, are able to exercise their savior complex and set themselves apart from “survival sex workers” in the same way that middle-class people generally set themselves apart from impoverished people. Not only that, survival sex worker as a term separates poor erotic laborers from other poor people and partially obscures the fact that coercion via capitalism is something we all experience to varying degrees. There is no equivalent term for upper income erotic laborers.
I have witnessed people juxtaposing survival/professional erotic labor as if these are two distinct groups. For many the point seems to be to capture that grey area between sex work and sex trafficking, but the term survival sex worker fails at this, instead promoting a dichotomous image of disempowered low-end erotic laborers who are simply ‘surviving’, and ‘empowered’ high-end erotic laborers who are looked at as astute, capable businessfolk. This mirrors our culture’s feelings about poor people, as well as reinforcing the choice/coercion binary. It is implied that those who are just “surviving” are making poor decisions, are drug addicted, or were coerced into the work, economically or otherwise, in a way that most ‘empowered’ sex workers are not. I fit the demographic the term survival sex worker is meant to describe. I am a struggling, impoverished erotic laborer and mother of one. Up until the end of 2017 I was living with family or else struggling to keep an apartment of my own. I have never made a living wage. I engage in several different forms of hustling to make ends meet. I am a writer, artist, editor, publisher, orator, phone sex operator, sometimey cam model, former and current (if it suits me) prostitute, and organizer. I pay taxes. I manage my own businesses. Am I not professional? “Professional” itself is an ambiguous category — the standards are arbitrary and vary from company to company, person to person. Yet, the term used to describe someone like me who is poor and an erotic laborer is “survival sex worker.” The word “professional” has synonyms such as skillfull, adept, expert, seasoned, and bussinesslike, in contrast with antonyms amateur, layman, incompetent, unskillful, and inept. Poor: destitute, impoverished, low, poverty-stricken, needy, inadequate.
One might describe a “professional sex worker” as one who works full time, is an “expert,” and performs skilled emotional and physical labor, and pays their taxes. One might say that a “survival sex worker” is one who is defined by their inability to make a liveable wage, who is unskilled, or is mainly working to get the job done, implying a lack of effort or perhaps a lack of agency or business acumen. The term survival sex worker reinforces the notion that poor sex workers are not as skilled as upper income erotic laborers, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Why do we continue to utilize this term? I believe it is because of who dominates the current discourse.
Survival sex worker also obscures the fact that there are erotic laborers of all income levels who got into the profession because they needed the flexible work in order to accommodate chronic illness, disability, or lack of affordable childcare. Not all of these people are labled “survival sex workers” but they are certainly working for survival, right? Why then do we continue to employ this classist, nebulous term to denote who is and isn’t working for survival? Survival implies a dire state, it is a word fraught with drama and implications of trauma. Why don’t we just say exactly what we mean? These are specific words and groups that are already part of the dominate vernacular. We already have words that describe our distinct needs. The point of (my) proheaux womanist scholarship is to break with these binaries, and that includes vague, derogatory terms like this.
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Berg, Heather. “Working for Love, Loving for Work: Discourses of Labor in Feminist Sex-work Activism.” Feminist Studies40, no. 3 (2014): 693–720. Accessed December 13, 2018.
Dewey, Susan, and Tonia St. Germain. “Women of the Street.” 2016. doi:10.18574/nyu/9781479854493.001.0001.
Horton-Stallings, LaMonda. Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures. Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015.