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.
"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.
I did it for the money but it was also true that I enjoyed it. Like no job I'd had before, stripping took skills. Yes, it was physically strenuous, but it was not only physical. Interacting with customers required intelligence and personality. I was free to be myself—or, at least, a part of myself. Indeed, of all the jobs available to me at the time, there was no question: stripping was, by far and in many ways, the best. It had the best uniform. I could make my own hours. I liked to dance. I felt genuinely good at it. And then there was the money.
"Working as a dominatrix was empowering. I dressed exotically, did creative roleplay, and was worshipped—physically and psychologically—on a regular basis. It helped me cope with my other part-time job: receptionist."
"I started dancing seven years ago. On the topic of prostitution, I generally say, you know, I have sex for many different reasons in many different contexts. I guess that's a buffer, a way of easing discomfort. I suppose I like that people are interested in my work, so long as it comes from an empathetic and genuine place. But there are so many other aspects of my identity. And so often people's curiosity does not come from a good place."
This weekend Sex, Power and Speaking the Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later convened to discuss women's ability speak up against gender inequality and abuses of power, with a focus on the intersectionality of race, class and gender in defining a woman's experience, as well as a look at women's continuing "credibility problem." The speakers were a parade of some of the most high power professional women of this lifetime: Catharine MacKinnon, Gloria Steinem, and yes, Anita Hill. As an attendee, I was inspired and energized. I felt a part of something big. I also felt something important was being left out.