I wanted to be beautiful. I wanted to be taken care of. I wanted to be rescued. I was sexualized long before I sexualized myself. Even as a child, I knew the way men looked at me. I knew what it meant. In Mexico, men called out in the street and hissed when I walked past. Even older men—friend's fathers, male teachers—even as a little girl. Even in grade school, I knew what it meant to be a woman and I was no longer a little girl. At nineteen years old, I was well aware that my body had become a woman's body. Even as a child, I knew what that was worth.
Earlier this month the Village Voice made public the findings of a study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which looked to define the most vulnerable population of sex workers: underage prostitutes. According to the study, "The typical kid who is commercially exploited for sex in New York City is not a tween girl, has not been sold into sexual slavery, and is not held captive by a pimp." The study found that 45% were boys, 45% got into the business through friends, 90% were U.S. born, most serviced white, wealthy men and struck deals on the street (as opposed to the Internet). Importantly, 95% of respondents—70% of whom had sought assistance through a child service agency within the past year—said they exchanged sex for money "because it was the surest way to support themselves." According to these researchers, even the most at-risk segment of the sex worker population—underage sex workers—are going it alone, selling sex on their own volition, and perceive themselves as making a choice given their circumstances. Only 10% were involved with what the researchers labelled a "market facilitator" (aka pimp).
Not so good morning, America. I woke up yesterday to discover that on Monday night the police had cleared Zuccotti Park. As of this morning, Zuccotti Park remains largely unoccupied and quiet, thanks to a judge's ruling that the city needn't allow them back in. At a press conference yesterday, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended his decision to effectually shut down the protest, which had lasted 61 days and counting, saying that the "health and safety conditions became intolerable." In a statement made yesterday morning, Bloomberg said: "I have become increasingly concerned ... that the occupation was coming to pose a health and fire safety hazard to the protestors and to the surrounding community." Hey, disease is no joke, Bloomberg seems to be saying. Politics aside, you've all heard of the black plague, right? Who wants that to happen again!!? Certainly not our mayor! Sounds pretty rational, until you consider how sanitation and the interest of public safety, including fear of the risk of communicable disease, is a rationalization our country has relied on historically to control its population, particularly minorities.
The first time I met Essence Revealed was two years ago at the Sex Workers Cabaret, an annual event in New York City where sex workers take the stage to tell their diverse stories through performance, narrative, puppetry, burlesque, comedy and more. Essence is a dual degreed, former lap dance engineer from the upscale gentlemen's club scene. Her performance that night reminded me of the girls I used to work with at Flashdancers, women who took their business seriously and were so skilled no one would dare consider them anything less than performers. Dancing in a red velvet floor-length gown to Michael Jackson's Princess Diana, Essence elevated striptease to an art. I was as enamored as a customer. Not unlike a customer, I wanted to meet the woman behind Essence.
Every now and again I'm struck immobile by the state of our nation. I had wanted to prepare an article on the risks of sex work, real versus imagined, but I'm thinking what the fuck. Why bother. This country sucks. No one's listening. I turned on the news this morning and they're rioting at Penn State over the firing of a football coach, a man who played a pivotal role in covering up the actions of a child molester. In the next segment, a Republican audience is booing Maria Bartiromo for questioning their candidate about claims of sexual harassment, two of which extend beyond allegations into the realm of fact, as those cases were settled. Whatever he says, they cheer. This is the same candidate who said that the unemployed and working poor should "blame themselves" and insinuated that a woman who is raped and gets pregnant has exercised a choice. This is the same audience who booed a gay soldier, cheered another candidate's unparalleled record of execution and supported another candidate's conclusion that an uninsured man be allowed to die. This is not my country, I sometimes think. I don't belong here.
"Sometimes it was very sexy and sometimes I was attracted to the person and sometimes I had great sex. And sometimes I was just going through the motions and it was neither good nor bad. And sometimes it was really unpleasant and I just got through it."
TRIGGER WARNING: The following story includes a description of a sexual assault.
As important as it is for activists to establish sex work as work, it is equally important we acknowledge that not everybody who sells sex calls themselves a sex worker. As the current feminist debates about the Slutwalk march make all too clear, there is power and privilege in reclaiming a word and—like slut—to call oneself a "hooker" or even a sex worker is not everyone's preference, nor is it a privilege everyone can afford.