I Did Sex Work To Support Myself Through Law School

Updated May 06, 2016 10:01am PDT
Sex Worker Law

Illustration by Rachel Gorman

In my second week of law school I received an alarming message in my sex work email inbox: 

“That was a doozy of a first assigned reading our contracts professor gave, right? I’ve always thought it would be hot to get a blowjob in a library. Would you be game for the law library sometime? See you next class! ;)”

The email was sent anonymously. I panicked.

I thought, This is it. I’m barely into my first semester and I’m getting extorted for sexual services by my peers.

Although I had taken down my escort ad prior to starting law school, the advertising platform archived old photos within untouchable forums. In the eyes of the Internet, once a ho, always a ho.

As future lawyers, law students are expected to be the picture of morality and ethics, contrary to popular portrayal in shows like How To Get Away With Murder. During orientation, we were required to hold our right hand in the air and swear that we would be model citizens. We were forbidden to engage in any activity that might reflect negatively on the legal profession. The administrators stressed that this was not limited simply to engagement in criminal activity.

Despite the omnipresent warnings, I did what I knew best to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly. I’m fortunate to have qualified for some scholarships from the school and had financial support from distant family for tuition; there was no way in hell I could afford the ever-increasing rent of the Bay Area while in school. 

All school is tough and time consuming, for sure. But law school is a certain kind of hell, where industry-fueled competition requires 30+ hours of study a week on top of a full-load of classes and unpaid internships.

I did sex work to give myself the economic and scheduling flexibility I needed to get things done.

For three years, my days were full. Sometimes my days would go: studying then class then hustling. Other days they would be: internship then hustling and then paper writing. My school bag was generally filled with a mix of textbooks, flashcards, g-strings, and makeup.

I tried to be careful. I was out about sex work, sort of, certainly more than I had been warned to be. When asked why I was in school by peers and professors I was honest: to be a better advocate for my sex worker community. Half the time, inquisitors responded with a look of confusion or a shrug.

Sometimes others pressed with more “Whys?”

“Because I’m a sex worker.” Having worked in the industry for 8 years, that fact is an important part of who I am. The umbrella usage of the term helped in my staying vague though. With some people I would talk about my years of stripping. Or share my limited porn work. A few others I felt comfortable enough to reveal my years of escorting—always emphasizing the past tense.

The unwanted propositions from fellow students were thankfully limited to the one incident, however openness about my work attracts creeper attorneys like overripe fruit. Believing they sense promiscuity paired with naivety, I’ve had more than a few well-seasoned and well-respected attorneys make passes at me under the guise of giving “mentorship” or “moral support.” 

Just FYI creeper attorneys, genuine offers of mentorship shouldn’t start with drinks in your private office after hours or solicitation of promises not to tell your wife...

Law school is a terrible place. Even without the threat of expulsion and ban from admittance into the bar, law school is oppressive. Inseparable from the rich history of colonialism, racism, sexism, and classism of the United States, law is an institution of state repression.

While clinging to the notions that law is “neutral” and “objective,” classrooms of 70+ students leave little room for debating the realities of their effects. For example: the overview of stand your ground laws, laws that remove the duty to retreat prior to using force in self defense, did not include any mention of the overtly discriminatory ways in which they are applied. Trayvon Martin’s killer invoked this law and received a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Marissa Alexander, a black woman who fired a warning shot at a wall to scare her abusive husband into leaving her alone, was not allowed to invoke this law.

Those like myself, who enter law school in the hopes of getting our hands on some of the tools of our oppressors in order to flip them on themselves, try to get in and get out without calling too much attention to ourselves.

I went to law school for one thing—to launch a legal services organization to reduce violence against sex workers.

I can’t stand the violence, the trauma, exacted on the ones I love, sex workers, my chosen family. The pain is visceral, I feel it physically. But certainly not in any way that is anywhere close to sex workers who are most vulnerable to abusers and law enforcement—state sanctioned abusers. Those most marginalized are being murdered. Right now, everyday.

Last month, Keyonna Blakeney, a 22 years young black transgender woman, was found dead in a hotel room. Still others, like Alisha Walker, are locked in cages for defending themselves against such violence.

It’s important for me to note that sex workers experience violence in a myriad of ways, beyond the physical . Judge’s prejudice against sex workers, including those engaged in legal work, tear children from the custody of their working parents. Local and national policies allow state agencies to seize the sex worker’s property; many sex workers have had their homes, bank accounts, and personal items taken from them without impunity. Worker’s benefits are nearly intangible, due to poor policy and exploitative employers.

Each of these systems of violence are explicitly linked.

Despite increased media coverage and policy discussions about sex work-related issues, harm to many in the sex industry is increased. Rather than providing greater access to food, shelter, and health services, those combating mainstream definitions of “trafficking” are calling for increased criminalization of those in the sex industry. While innumerable counties now label some sex workers as “victims,” police departments are given wide berth to execute “rescue” operations where they extort nude photos and handjobs from people before placing them in handcuffs.

I want us to have greater power in fighting all of this.

Free and low-cost legal services are difficult to obtain, even for people outside of the sex industry. Access to sex work-competent services is even more rare, as even the most sympathizing legal professionals are not privy to the complexity of privacy issues and the longevity of stigma. 

Still: other attorneys are just downright predatory, knowing full well the socially precarious position of their sex worker-client, playing on the undisputed power dynamic between “respectable” attorney and client to induce sexual services and exorbitant fees.

For sex workers already in the midst of what probably is the most traumatic time of their life, whether that be an arrest, child custody dispute, homelessness, or sexual assault by an employer, legal services should be available, competent, and provided without exasperating harm.

Early in my third year of law school, I launched Red Light Legal, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization that provides legal services and community education to sex workers. Having birthed my project-baby prior to earning my degree, I had a hard time keeping my eye on the prize of the respectability and legitimacy most funders require and the privilege the bar card would give me.

It was a year of tears as I struggled to get through the drudgery of school while my fellowship applications to get paid for the work I was already doing were denied left and right. For as much as some of these foundations boast their ability to offer viable economic alternatives to sex work, they sure like to stay mum when they actually have us knocking on their door.

The opportunities to learn how to develop the infrastructure of a constituency-led, harm reductionist and anti-oppressive service provision organization from local community saved me from dropping out time and time again.

(xoxoxo to my TGI Justice Project, St. James Infirmary, and Justice Now family!)

Now out of law school and anxiously awaiting my bar results, Red Light Legal and I are steadfastly taking the plunge. While the lack of financial stability is nerve-wracking and terribly limiting, we are expanding.

Even now as I write many members of my sex work communities are spreading the word of our plans for expansion and asking their friends, family, and fans for donations.

While I haven’t yet figured out the nonprofit industrial complex funding hustle, we are making it happen for ourselves.

To sex workers in or considering law school:lLaw school is isolating and being a sex worker can make it much more so—know that you are not alone. 

Since launching Red Light Legal, I’ve had sex worker law students from all over the US reach out to share their fears, experiences, and dreams for future projects. The vast majority of them are not out, though we are infiltrating not only law schools, but also legal practices and bar associations everywhere. 

Surviving law school requires finding people and organizations, both in and out of law school, that can nurture and stimulate you emotionally and politically. If you are feeling alone, contact me and I will make every effort to pair you with an accomplice in your locality.

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Tina is the executive director of Red Light Legal. A lawyer and long-time sex worker born and raised in the SF Bay Area, she spends most of her days working from home with her bff Pippa (cat.)