I am sharing a glass of wine with my child’s best friend’s mother while our children play princesses.
“So how did you get interested in writing about, uh, sex work?” The mother asks me.
I navigate these conversations so often, I know that she’s really asking me to confirm or deny the rumors, those hushed, judgmental whispers that seem to be as prevalent—and flow as easily— as an aged cabernet.
“Well, because I am one…” I respond, setting my glass of wine on the table and noting my car keys. My kid and I might have to book it.
I anticipate the next question. It’s always the next question.
“Well,” she fumbles. “Like, uh, what kind of sex worker?”
She wishes to arrange me by grape. By region. By flavor profile.
What is your level of threat to my heteronormative marriage and values? Would be a much more honest question.
“All kinds” is my go-to answer for these obnoxiously voyeuristic questions. I have labored in the sex industry for nearly two decades and my work—like anyone else’s—has always followed the shape of necessity.
“I’ve been a hooker, a stripper, a phone sex operator, a dominatrix … you name it, and I’ve done it.” I say.
She has yet to return my phone calls.
In 2018, The Feminist Press published my children’s book, How Mamas Love Their Babies. It is the only children’s book– to my knowledge– to include a sex-working mother: “Some mamas dance all night long in special shoes. It’s hard work!”
Elise Peterson’s magnetic portraits of sex-working mothers protesting labor conditions and relieving their feet of platform Pleasers accompanies the somewhat innocuous text.
That’s, uh, it. Some moms dance. Some protest stuff. Some have sore feet. The. Fucking. End.
You would never suspect that such a modest inclusion of sex workers in a picture book about how parents provide for their children by any means necessary would provoke the bowels of the internet so profoundly. Claims that I—along with Hilary Clinton, mind you—am sex-trafficking my own child grace my timeline even three years after publication. My inbox still tells me that I am a literal witch and devil worshipper—whatever the fuck that means. Or, my favorite, that I am “communist whore filth.”
It’s easy to dismiss Q-anon and #PizzaGate believers as a handful of rabid, marginal cultists. But these conspiracy theories exist on the same continuum with wine-sipping white ladies who think sex workers are a threat to their children. That’s a long-winded way of saying, “Hating whores is a bipartisan hobby.”
Andrew Dworkin famously wrote in Men Possessing Women that men on both the right and the left of the political spectrum tend to “treat women like whores.” But I am left wondering why most cis women still perpetuate the notion that “women” and “whores” are mutually exclusive categories.
A better window into our culture’s rampant whorephobia might be Patrick Califia’s observations that: “The wife-and-mother class is not supposed to acknowledge the existence of the whore class because that would destroy the “good” woman’s illusion [that she has a] faithful, loving husband.”
Indeed, I would argue that whorephobia operates in much the same way as conspiracy theories themselves do, further illuminating the aforementioned continuum that spans both leftist and alt-right ideologies.
In an interview with Michael Shermer and Neil deGrasse Tyson , they argue that conspiracy theories blossom during times of upheaval. When society seems to be experiencing intense change, people cling on to an equally intense cause, no matter the truth. COVID can’t just be the result of human-made environmental decay, as one example.
Likewise, sex workers can’t just be normal fucking people trying to provide for our children like any other asshole off the street. Our level of offense to heteropatriarchy is so high that people think we must be part of a global conspiracy that is encouraging women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and embrace lesbianism.
Our culture would rather a woman like me protect the heteronormative, colonialist institution of marriage than provide for my child. Stepping outside of those radical expectations is as intense a blow to the sensibilities of civilians as the knowledge that climate change and subsequent pandemics are our own damn fault.
“I have to tell you something,” a mom friend says over the broccoli quiche I’ve made for us, out of ingredients from my garden and from the chickens that my child and I raise.
“This dad in my parenting group heard that you have a stripper pole in the basement. He said he doesn’t feel comfortable letting his kids come over anymore.”
I sigh heavily, positive that my unapologetic explanation of being an “all kinds” sex worker has made the rounds in our Midwest parenting circles.
No one wants to grapple with—and dismantle— the social expectation of “female sexual purity.” Instead other parents—even and especially the “liberal” ones— would rather ascribe a conspiratorial enormity to my labor. The pole in my basement is no longer just a pole. It is a symbol of every social institution that I threaten by virtue of privileging the comforts of my child over the demands of patriarchs. Other parents believe me a threat to children because they’re uncomfortable with the way I provide for my child.
I am not just a stigmatized and criminalized laborer. I am a subversive element with a “peculiar mental twist,” a “threat to the American way of life,” as McCarthy once said of queers and communists during the Lavender and Red Scares.
It doesn’t necessarily bother me that other parents are uncomfortable with my labor or that basement-dwelling trolls are simultaneously titillated and enraged by my existence. I don’t even mind that they’re probably masturbating to porn even as they decry it, like Ignatius in A Confederacy of Dunces masturbates to the thought of his dog.
What bothers me is the complete lack of self-interrogation, even amongst well-to-do, wine-sipping leftist. What bothers me is the uncritical assumption that socially constructed knee-jerk reactions to whores is the same thing as “protecting the children.” What bothers me is the internalized sexism of holding whores accountable for other women’s husbands’ transgressions, even as they un-ironically claim that The Handmaid’s Tale is both frightful and a fave.
So, what kind of sex worker am I?
I’m the kind that still has to figure out home-schooling for my child during COVID. I’m the kind that struggles to figure out a good bedtime and to get enough veggies into my baby’s belly. I’m the kind that tries to teach my child kindness and forgiveness and empathy. I’m the kind that tries to encourage my precocious child’s interests by reading her the latest news on black holes and the kind that calls out sexist story lines in the Disney movies we watch together.
This is not to draw on anyone’s respectability heart strings. I don’t need to be “just like other mothers” to be deserving of rights.
But it is to say that I’m the kind of sex worker who is, first and foremost, a mother. I am the kind of sex worker who refuses to kowtow to the patriarchal imperative that I choose between being a “woman” and being a “whore.” I am the kind of sex worker who is critical of conspiracies, no matter what side of the political spectrum they come from.
I am the kind of sex worker that absolutely is a threat to your heteronormative expectations. And I make no apologies for that.