I’ve been a sex worker for 14 years. I’ve done various things, from erotic massage to professional domination, from hardcore pornography to full on prostitution.
Though I’ve worn many heels in my years doing in person sex work, I have always remembered one thing when I read the papers on sex worker arrests: there, but for the grace of the law, go I.
I’ve encountered many people in the industry who seem to be under the impression that if they do this and not that they will be protected from legal ramifications. “Sure,” the pro dommes say, “I might do body worship, or strap-on play, but I don’t do penis-in-vagina sex, so I’m fine!” “Sure,” the tantric practitioners say, “I might touch people’s genitals, but it’s spiritual, so it’s ok!” “Ok yeah,” the sex surrogates say, “I might have penetrative sex with my clients, but I bought a certificate that says it’s therapeutic, so it’s not prostitution and I’m protected!”
I hate to burst your bubble, everyone, but no. You’re not actually protected in most circumstances. The law in California states “any lewd act for money” as being prostitution to cast as wide and as vague a net as possible. Many states have similar legal language, meaning that even something like foot worship or being spanked–things not directly involving the genitals–can still be treated as prostitution if the police decide to pursue it as such.
This is why the whore hierarchy is such utter bullshit- at the end of the day, we can all go to jail for this work.
Today, on the International Day for Sex Workers Rights, the leader of the Phoenix Goddess Temple discovered that unfortunate truth. Despite using language that framed the work she and people at the Temple did as spiritual, Tracy Elise was found guilty of multiple counts relating to sex work and brothel keeping and was sent to jail.
"I am a priestess. I am not a prostitute,” she said in her closing statements. The jurors decided otherwise.
Surrogate partners seem to have similar blinders on when it comes to their risks. I spoke at a conference once about the potential therapeutic nature of professional domination. The woman who spoke right before me seemed eager to separate what she did as a surrogate from prostitution, something that the International Professional Surrogates Association is also purposefully vague about. But reading about surrogacy (“oh, only 15% of the time is having sex!” “we talk about boundaries!” “it’s therapy!”) just reminded me how ignorant people are about many people’s experience as prostitutes.
I was a prostitute for about 6 years, and guess what? A lot of that time involved comforting men and giving them relationship advice. Even street based sex workers I’ve spoken to will tell you that often emotional labor is part of the job.
Typically what protects sex workers from prosecution is privilege. Being white, being cisgender, passing for middle class, working indoors, expensive advertising; these are things that act as shields against legal repercussions far above what language you use in those ads. At the end of the day, even those things can’t protect you if law enforcement decides to make an example of you, as Tracy Elise discovered.
It’s incredibly important to remember that the cops rarely care whether we dress in lingerie or latex or priestess robes for our sessions. Police officers have refused to take assault or rape reports from professional dominatrixes I know when it happened on the job, saying that if they filled out such a report, they would also arrest the person making it for prostitution. Officers have also been known to rape sex workers themselves - ask the 30% of strippers who said a cop was their rapist if being a legal sex worker protected them.
I think it’s a shame that Tracy Elise is going to jail. I think it’s a shame that any sex workers are jailed. I hope that this will be a wakeup call to middle class white cis sex workers that we need to have solidarity with *all* of our fellow sex workers, including street based workers, massage parlor workers, BDSM providers, sensual masseuses.
Especially on International Sex Worker Rights Day, we need to stick together; as long as the law can come for some of us, they can come for all of us.