labor Sex Work is Work
A good number of sex workers wouldn’t define themselves as sex workers, but the term is becoming more ubiquitous over time. Sex work was a term politicized in the 1970s by Carol Leigh who wanted to join all sex workers together by the nature of our work. There is a lot of stratification that happens around sex workers, degrading one another based on perceived differences in the work; it’s frequently called “whoreaphobia” within the industry. I work in a strip club, and a lot of my coworkers define themselves by their aspect of the industry, that is, as strippers or dancers. Sometimes the more political ones identify as sex workers. They have stigma around prostitution or what they perceive as “extras.” What is determined as an “extra” varies with each individual, but for most dancers it means more direct sexual acts with clients. We’re legally classified as adult entertainers, but nobody identifies as that. In Maryland, where I work, technically any work for the purposes of sexual arousal is illegal. We fall into a loophole of adult entertainment that operates as if people getting turned on in the club is just accidental. It’s not acknowledged in the legal sense; cops come in as customers all the time.
My management isn’t fond of the term sex work. They can get in trouble for running a brothel even though they turn a blind eye to more direct sexual services being sold. Everybody comes in with expectations that aren’t necessarily real. I’ve done different forms of sex work, but I started stripping a little over a year ago. I worked at one club for two weeks before I got fired for asking for a copy of my contract, then I was hired at another club where I’ve been working at since then.
I remember when I was hired at my current workplace. Management had me compete with ten other amateur strippers. You win according to who gets the most applause. The winner gets $500, and a contract. It is very Hunger Games- esque. In the job application they ask all these very personal sexual questions like: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done sexually? What’s your sexual fantasy? How many people have you slept with? Then they read aloud your answers on stage, which they don’t tell you they are going to do. It is all about the spectacle of it, and seeing us as amateurs on stage, really vulnerable.I worked at one club for two weeks before I got fired for asking for a copy of my contract…
The management at this club skirts around providing us direct copies of our contracts, despite the fact that we’re entitled to them, so we can’t refer to them. There are no benefits, and the model of the industry is built on high turnover. My old management said “a new girl turns 18 every day.” Girls are expected to be in the industry two years. In reality most of my co-workers have been in the industry for five years or longer because for many people it is the only access they have to a job that is this lucrative.
Many of the dynamics at work are covertly based on seniority, your political connections in the club, or essentially your social rapport with the management. How you navigate that really determines the quality of your shift, and how much you pay back to the management and staff in tips, room fees, and the like. Our con- tracts say they’re not supposed to schedule us, control our appearance (like makeup or hair), require us to share our tips, or tell us how to do our work. We ostensibly have a lot of autonomy, but they come up with many seedy ways to control our work.
You put yourself on the schedule in which they have four slots for each shift. There are fif- teen to twenty girls who work on weekdays, and thirty or more on weekends. If you work more than a five-hour shift you can get a lower house fee. There used to be a clearer system; you could pay a cheaper house fee if you worked eight hours, and if you worked less than five hours you would pay a $100 house fee. Now in reality it works by favorites: if they like you and you bring in money, they’ll give you a break on the fee. They are also sometimes blatantly racist. A lot of the black girls pay higher house fees. There are two “white” clubs in Baltimore where the demographics are 90 per- cent white, and 10 percent people of color. The rest of the clubs are almost completely African- American. The women of color at my club have to face the brunt of racism because most of the girls are white. Despite bringing in money, management perceives both black customers and workers as less lucrative.
Management gets $10 from every lap dance, and they charge us that at the end of the night. Aside from the stage work, there are “champagne rooms” that function at different levels. They range from $330 a half hour to $780 to $1,300 a half hour. Management gets 60 percent straight up of those fees that we charge customers. We are expected to tip the hospitality workers 10 percent: the DJ and the management that tallies up our dances and house fees at the end of the night. If certain hospitality workers on the floor bring you customers, then you’re supposed to tip them for doing that from the fee you get from the customer. It is illegal for them to pressure us to tip. They used to have signs in the dressing room saying we’re not obligated to tip, but they took those down. I used to not tip, then I realized the dynamics of how people were making money. Management already makes commission on the rooms, but they also have connections with wealthier customers and will advise girls who tip them to talk to those customers. I still do not like to tip a lot because frequently hospitality workers neglect you in the rooms, and leave you for longer than you are supposed to be there despite the fact that they are expected to tell you when the time is up. If you work eight hours it is a long time to be in seven-inch heels, and be doing that level of emotional labor. I know that’s a normal work day for someone else, but being on stage rotation, in a constantly hyper-extroverted mode, selling dances, and rooms is incredibly draining. I’m so dead after five hours, and need several days to relax afterward.
When I start my shift, I come in and hope it’s a good night. I go into work around 9 p.m. and have to be ready by the time I check-in. I do my makeup, pick an outfit in the dressing room, talk to my coworkers, and debrief a little bit. If I’m on my period I cut my tampon string, and get ready. I’m on the floor for the next five hours cycling through different bachelor par- ties, and guys from every walk of life. One of my favorite parts about the job is being sexually validating for people who aren’t normally vali- dated or don’t feel attractive. A lot of them are men who are awkward or have low self-esteem. I think there’s a stereotype that most strip club customers are scummy or creeps. I don’t feel that way at all. There is certainly a portion of people who come in feeling insecure in their masculinity and like to take it out on strippers.
But the vast majority of my customers I feel very connected to, and I respect them. They are essentially just grateful for touch because a lot of people are deprived of that in their lives, and it feels good to be able to be that for them.
Usually I try to sell dances first, and then I upsell rooms. The dances are $40, and take place in velvet stalls. The club gets $10 of that. Sometimes if you do multiple sets they don’t notice. The customers are technically not allowed to touch anywhere besides their hands on your hips, but depending on the bouncer, they can vary in enforcement and strictness. Management has what they call the “eye in the sky.” It watches us and counts how many dances we were doing, which is very Orwellian. The expectations in rooms vary, and depend on your customer. There are some who expect you to perform sexual acts or have more direct con- tact, but you can always say no or leave if they are aggressive. My personal boundaries are that I don’t do anything that involves direct contact with their genitalia, but often when people are paying $780 a half hour they think they are going to get something more. You can be completely nude in the rooms. But I have no problem with the girls who do what’s considered “extras” because everyone has her own hustle.
I’ve been anti-capitalist for a long time, as well as involved in the labor movement, but I’ve learned in this job that I really enjoy selling rooms. I used to be terrible at upselling, and I would always apologize about how expensive everything is, but I have a ton of confidence in sales now. It’s less about the monetary amount, and more about the emotional process of them feeling excited, forgetting they are getting hustled. I also know my time and attention is very valuable, and people will pay absurd sums for intimacy. I also care a good deal about my kind customers, and do not see them as only wallets, so that helps. People just want to just get treated like they matter, and they do.
The lower price rooms have cameras, and the walls do not go up all the way. I don’t find those worth it because of how intense they can be for the money. In the higher price rooms we have security, but in reality every girl is expected to protect herself. We are technically allowed to leave at any time, but management’s priority is the customer’s satisfaction, and they don’t want to see customers leaving in a huff. There’s always a risk of sexual assault in the room. It is underreported, and hard to provide a statistic for, but every dancer I’ve known has resisted assault or harassment. The management is there to keep the peace. They are very non-confrontational with customers. Their priority is getting paid. You develop your sense of boundaries, and how you de-escalate conflict from your coworkers. Your training is getting with a girl who has been working there for more than a year, seeing how she operates, and debriefing when stuff goes badly with a customer. The management barely even makes eye contact with us, and has no interest in our emotional well-being. It is other strippers who have carried me through because when you begin you’re not really prepared for the dynamics of it; for example, how to soft de-escalate, and hard de-escalate. Customers can get aggressive if you try to enforce your boundaries right away, but you need to know when to draw the line. The trick is to do it in a way they don’t even realize is assertive. You have to act like you are invested and enjoying the interaction in order to get tips, which is really difficult when you have a very pushy customer. Some just want to hurt you. Those people are not worth your attention for any amount of money.
It’s also not uncommon for management to sexually harass us, and it’s worse depending on the club you work at. I don’t feel comfortable going to them when I feel violated. I’d rather go to the dressing room and talk to one of my co- workers. Sometimes you freeze in the rooms and need someone else to protect you. I want to be able to hold my ground, and it doesn’t feel empowering to turn to another man in management, and say: “Hey, can this man protect me from this other man?”
Some friends who knew I was a sex worker referred me to the Sex Worker Outreach Project. We’re focused on street-based workers, and people who do more survival-based sex work. Most of the population is black and trans women. We do street outreach every other week: giving condoms, lube, candy, water, tampons, and seasonal items. We talk about what’s going on out there, and how they feel. There’s been a couple of situations in a neighborhood that’s newly gentrifying with an influx of police presence. We have had some confrontations with police harassing sex workers, and making illegal stops if they perceive that people are tricking. Some businesses have tried to push sex workers out of the area. There was a new law proposed by Baltimore City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett to increase the fine for johns that we fought against success- fully. The bill was dropped after we publicized that it would adversely affect sex workers. Councilman Burnett essentially realized it was not actually helping who he perceived it to be helping, and instead further targeted a marginalized population.
In terms of advocating for sex workers, there is an important difference between legalization and decriminalization. Legalization is the model predominantly tried in Europe, which still treats sex workers in a classist way, with sex workers categorized and licensed. It continues to create many state barriers to entry in the industry. Rather than advocating for full primary care, like everyone deserves, the state can ultimately treat sex workers like vectors for dis- ease, and only focus on STI (sexually transmit- ted infections) testing. The Nordic model operates on an idea of liberal reform, with a belief that, if you end the demand, it will end the work. This is just untrue. People are always going to want intimacy, they’re always going to want sex, and people are going to want touch. It just forces it to be more underground, and more dangerous.
The recent bills FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) eliminate a lot of screening for clients. When people can use online plat- forms to advertise, they can check people’s information, and verify someone. When the online sex platforms are limited, it threatens those options. This makes the work more pre- carious, and harder to choose the kind of clients you want. It has a chilling effect, while conflating fears we have about sex with assault and trafficking. Decriminalization requires being able to understand the barriers, particularly domestically. America has a lot of clumsy solutions to sex work because it so easily gets conflated with sex trafficking. The mainstream voices around laws that affect sex work are all anti-trafficking organizations. It is important to understand the spectrum of the degrees of agency that go into entering sex work. Some people have an easy time entering and leaving the industry, highly correlating to class and race. Other individuals are in survival mode and have very little ability to leave the industry. No sex worker is pro sex-trafficking. Obviously there is no complete agency under capitalism, because we are all working for wages, but not being able to enter and leave the industry at will makes it sex-trafficking. I think that there’s a lot of misunderstanding, and it is important to talk to your coworkers, friends, and family about it.
We had a lobby day against FOSTA/SESTA two months ago in the capital. Now we’re canvassing door-to-door for the decriminalization movement in D.C. In Baltimore we do outreach to street-based sex workers, host workshops, and tabling at a variety of events. Every year we hold the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers in which we build an altar, and memorialize every sex worker who was killed in the last year, which makes me really sad. We have performances of poetry, art, and music. I’ve had a couple of coworkers commit suicide in the past year. One of the most important conversations I had early on was acknowledging, yes, sex workers do have a lot of trauma. We also have incredible resilience and power. You see that duality with a lot of women. It is empowering to be benefiting from men while they are desiring you, sexualizing or objectifying you, and paying your rent with it. It is also disempowering because many men see sex workers in a reductive way, and there’s something that is in the dynamic that’s still commodification. It is not always a wholesome connection. I think that’s the crux of a lot of my attitude. What I want people to understand about sex work is this duality. It is powerful and healing, as well as being scary and destructive. I think there is a disproportion- ate onus on sex work to prove itself as empowering, because it has so much stigma. I feel that within myself. It’s very difficult to talk about my disempowering experiences at work because I don’t want people to apply that to the whole industry, and the type of people that sex workers are. It is like any job: there are times where it’s empowering, and times where I wish I could leave immediately.
It feels really vulnerable to defend sex work to people who are not sex workers. People who I have felt the most at home with since becoming a sex worker are other sex workers. In the labor movement there are not many proactive advocates. It is difficult to convince people constantly that sex work is real work. It’s like anything you have to unlearn about white supremacy and patriarchy: Explore your own relationship with sex, sex work, and why those reactions come up. Then extend that to being a more active advocate of sex work as a legitimate form of work, not just seeing it as another oppressive aspect of patriarchy. I’ve come across that mentality on the left a lot, that sex work would not exist if patriarchy did not. I think commodification creates a particular dynamic in sex work, but I don’t believe sex work is predicated on objectification or oppression—it is more so the allure of the power of sexuality and connection. That is not something that’s going to be abolished with capitalism. It is a form of labor that is incredibly sacred, beautiful, and connecting. It’s one of the best things about being alive.
Riley Renegade is a pen name and has been used to protect the author’s identity.
Riley Renegade is a sex worker based out of Baltimore, Maryland. She is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Sex Worker Outreach Project Baltimore.
Kressent Pottenger holds an MA in Labor Studies from The Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY, and was awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about 925, and women organizing in the workplace