By Mistress Liv
SESTA and FOSTA are both bills signed in recently by Trump as well as the Senate and the House that allow the federal government to prosecute anyone who helps sex workers advertise. These bills equate creating a platform in which to find and screen prospective Johns with pimping. This is hugely problematic for sex workers for many, many reasons. First, if we cannot advertise, we starve. Second, if we cannot find clients online, we may need to turn to the streets. Third, when we turn to the streets, we die.
For the past year and a half, I have worked as a professional dominatrix. During this time, I have met some of the smartest, most emotionally aware and hard-working people I have in my entire life. Many people think that being a dominatrix is easy: we just get to kick rich dudes in the balls all day, right? It is not. It is, in fact, incredibly difficult work. The work of all those that sell sex, be it “sex,” or be it an erotic experience, is primarily empathic. There is also a lot of skill involved. Many that see pro-dommes do so because they want to experience something different with someone that knows what they are doing. Would you really want some random person to stick needles in you, or whip you, or insert a large metal rod in your urethra? Or would you want someone you met at the bar to call you racial slurs, pretend to be your mother, or turn you into the perfect pet? Of course not.
We make ourselves adept at understanding these taboo desires, at knowing how to practice them safely. We intuit the needs of others, smile a sexy smile even when we have a cold, take care of one another and spend hours working our own hustle, unpaid. We answer emails, vet if someone is a “wanker” or not, answer questions, and tell people that it is okay to have such desires a thousand times all in effort of getting some cash. We front our own costs, take on our own risks and make difficult decisions every day. We get death threats from deluded clients. We come into contact with bio-hazardous fluids. We hear every racist, sexist entitled thing you might imagine. And we smile.
I don’t even have to let the Johns touch me, but for the majority of my fellow sex workers— they do. I have tried full service before and shied away when an aging leftist I met over Seeking Arrangements bragged to me that he was “more radical” than I was because he personally knew members of the original Black Panther Party and did some shit back in the day. Evidently his analysis fell short, or was put on pause by his boner, when given the possibility that he might get to fuck a much younger anarchist for a few hundred in cash and insult her politics in the process. Despite my brief foray into full-service, I am part of a privileged subset of sex workers. I am white, cis-, educated and have enough means to front my own costs (photos, shoes, lingerie, make-up, etc.), making it possible for me to be a dominatrix. The bills that I am about to talk about will likely affect me less than many other sex workers. The majority of these other sex workers in the United States are women of color, trans, and/or of a less privileged background.
After backpage.com was shut down by the federal government, St. James’ Infirmary reported an increase of around 400% in street walkers. After craigslist’s erotic services was banned, Baltimore reported a significant increase in femicide. Closing down methods of advertisement does nothing to decrease prostitution — it simply makes it more dangerous, potentially deadly.
So why are so many people signing off on these bills, or nodding their heads in agreement? The language of these bills always revolves around “human trafficking,” or “sex trafficking.” These are ominous sounding, to be sure. But if the problem is coercive labor relations and human traffic, why shut down an entire industry? When thirty-some illegal immigrants died due to unsafe work conditions in a fishery, did we talk about shutting down the seafood industry? Why shut down the entire sex industry, making it harder and more dangerous for the most vulnerable workers in it?
There are currently four distinct political levels of legalization of sex work, with distinct implications and results:
— First, full criminalization (the John, the purveyor and the worker) leads to a situation in which the worker has absolutely nowhere to turn to if met with violence, they cannot advertise and the John is ultra-wary of entering into any kind of deal.
— Partial criminalization can mean that while we can advertise our services, we are met with many of the same problems. Maybe we aren’t on the streets, but there is no real way to protect ourselves. Why call the cops when they will probably rape you?
— Full legalization allows for a few privileged people to be able to jump through the legal loopholes, medical checks and tax forms needed to make it on the up-and-up, like in Amsterdam or Nevada. This does absolutely nothing to help those who need help most— the poor, marginalized sex worker. This is why legalization is often referred to as “backdoor criminalization,” since most sex workers will still practice in a way that is considered illegal, and be met with all the same problems as full criminalization.
— The only country that has completely decriminalized prostitution is New Zealand. It is not illegal or legal there, much in the way that it is not legal or illegal to eat a sandwich in the United States. There has been no significant increase in prostitution since decriminalization. There has been much less violence. When you talk to sex workers, this is what most of us will tell you we want.
Perhaps a new level—currently waiting to go up for Senate vote here in California, SB 2014—we could call “ultra criminalization.” If this bill passes, it will make things like handing out condoms to sex workers or housing them if they are homeless, prosecutable as pimping and pandering. Most sex workers are poor, precarious and need access to services like health care and safe sex supplies. Maybe this bill sounds like an effort to prosecute pimping more harshly rather than the sex workers, but that is not actually what it would be in effect. It will be a crisis.
Decriminalization is perhaps a long way off for sex workers in the rest of the world, but further criminalizing it in the US will only make things worse, for many that you might not expect. Many of my fellow sex workers are very closetted about their “side gig.” We are nannies, preschool teachers, artists, baristas, bakers, students and hairdressers. Many of us are in the service industry. We are adept at serving the needs of others, intuiting them, making fantasies come true. It is why we are here. Our work is not valued. It is not even considered work by many.
It is my conclusion that this is no coincidence. Women (as well queers and the occasional man), have been doing this type of work for a very long time. We did it as slaves and serfs. Now, rather than allow us to find some form of empowerment from it by actually getting paid a living wage, we are being further marginalized and oppressed. Some 30% of men in the US report seeing a sex worker at some point in their lives. And I am certain that they would love to get it for free, or cheaper. These bills were signed by a President involved in a legal dispute with a sex worker, Stormy Daniels, after all— a man known for his sense of entitlement to women’s bodies.
To be fair, Bernie voted for FOSTA too, which might go to show you how broad sweeping and multi-faceted the oppression of sex work is in this country. Many people see sex work as demeaning. I will not lie— it can be. But it is absolutely no less demeaning than any other kind of work. At times, it actually feels like a blissful, empowered escape from the exchange of money for labor. I have worked many other types of service industry jobs and I can honestly say that for the first time in my life, I feel truly happy to work. When it is bad, it is terrible. When it is good… I know that I have given someone a memory that they will take to the grave. The money feels like an afterthought and I love that.
For me, my work is primarily about the emotional and psychological exchange. But I do need to eat and pay rent. It is ironic that something so transactional can feel so much more empowering than getting paid minimum wage at a chain coffee shop. I am not ready to have this way of life taken from me yet. I do not want to see so many of my friends thrust into peril. I do not want to read about another one of us dying. The vast majority of us are not being trafficked, we are not being pimped… We are just trying to have safe, dignified work. Until sex work is fully decriminalized, I fear that these problems will persist and we will continue to be raped, killed and tossed aside.