Sex Work and Workers: A Reading List to Get You Beyond Law & Order SVU and Pretty Woman

A group of sex workers and supporters are seen holding a banner during a demonstration in the Netherlands (Photo by Ana Fernandez / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories

The world’s oldest profession remains the most stigmatized, and it recently occurred to me that I still don’t actually know much about it. I have some friends who are very public about their sex work, but perhaps because I still have a certain post-Catholic prudishess, I’ve never watched any of their films or webcam stuff — I figure I’d either get squeamish seeing my friends in a sexual situation, or I’d ask a million very basic questions after, like, “So is there somebody to touch up your hair and makeup on set?” and “Do you get craft services and is it good?” and “How do you keep your nails that long and still do that?”

In addition to my out-and-proud pals who work in the adult film industry, I probably have some friends who do sex work and have never told anybody other than their clients. And I understand — they might face harsh criticism and even shunning by family and friends, the loss of their other jobs, eviction from their homes, and more.

You probably have some friends like that, too. The umbrella term “sex work” encompasses a wide variety of occupations. Dancing in strip clubs. Sugar daddy relationships. Street prostitution. Traditional, fully produced porn films. Personalized private images and videos in exchange for Amazon wish list fulfillment. Webcam sessions, old-school peep shows, erotic ASMR videos, and more. None of these things is exactly like the other.

The portraits of sex workers in popular film and television are typically idealized and sanitized or irrevocably grim and sex-negative. In researching this column, I wanted to focus on first-person accounts by sex workers from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. And I was fortunate to find a relatively rare example of good reporting on sex workers.

1. “We Are Kinda Unbreakable” (Raye Weigel, Baltimore City Paper, September 2017)

Street prostitution, while loosely categorized under the same “sex work” umbrella as mainstream porn, is clearly more dangerous, more stigmatized, and potentially more punishing than most other professions. It is not glamorous. It is not highly lucrative. It is certainly not Pretty Woman.

Weigel introduces us to Rhue Cook, at her own desk in the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore (GLCCB), ready to start her evening as leader of the Transgender Action Group community outreach night. According to Weigel, “The Human Rights Campaign compiled statistics about 53 known transgender homicide victims from 2013 to 2015. The number may be higher, however, due to a lack of accurate data collection on the subject or misgendering in reports. Forty-six of the victims were people of color, and at least 34 percent were likely engaged in survival sex work at the time of their deaths.”

Weigel, Cook, and a sex worker walk the streets, handing out condoms, support, and advice. The writer does a journalist’s most important job in a story like this: turning these community figures into living, breathing humans, and making them real to strangers who may read this article five minutes or 5,000 miles away from GLCCB HQ. 

2. “The Massage Parlor Means Survival Here: Red Canary Song On Robert Kraft(Red Canary Song, Tits and Sass, April 2019)

The sex work blog Tits and Sass was far and away the outlet most cited when I asked friends and Twitter followers for their favorite sex work essays. This author, Red Canary Song, is not an individual person but “a New York City based collective that supports Asian migrant massage and sex worker organizing in Flushing, Queens.”

The opinion piece addresses, in part, the high-profile arrest of Robert Kraft in early 2019. Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, was charged with solicitation at a Florida massage parlor in a case law enforcement called a landmark human trafficking sting meant to rescue women victimized by an international criminal ring.

Like Charlotte Shane in Sports Illustrated, Red Canary Song calls bullshit, writing, “If this case was such a dire example of human trafficking, why [did the sting operation take] eight months? Why entrap and arrest ‘victims?’ This demonstrates either a lack of regard for the suffering of Chinese massage workers, or disingenuous targeting of high profile men through false claims of immigrant exploitation.” As usual, the sex workers face greater consequences than the clientele.

Red Canary Song advocates for “the funding of affordable housing, affirming healthcare, and food and cash assistance,” rather than throwing money at agents of what it sees as a sexist, white supremacist state and expecting said agents to treat migrant sex workers with decency. 

3. “What Mother’s Day is Like When You’re a Sex Worker & a Mom” (Maxine Holloway, Broke-Ass Stuart, May 2019)

Holloway, a new mom, is pretty happy to be a mother. But she faces particular stressors as a sex worker. She writes, “As I schedule appointments with pediatricians, talk with child care providers, and meet other parents at postpartum groups, I realize how grateful I am to be surrounded by people who love and support sex workers — and how difficult it is to open up.” She convenes a panel of sorts, interviewing three other moms who are also sex workers about everything from how to tell their kids about their profession to how to deal with parents who might judge their careers.

It’s really illuminating and I want you to read all the great quotes for yourself! But here’s one from adult performer Lotus Lain, whose daughter is in middle school:

“My friend Ana, who is also in the industry, is like a real sister, aunt, family member, and has seen my kid grow up since she was five. She has a cute nickname for my kid, helps with child care, and takes us to the beach when we are sad. I just didn’t expect that kind of depth and friendship out of this industry when I first started. “

Ckiara Rose, an environmental activist, sex worker, and mother to a 25-year-old son, speaks openly about a history that includes being stalked, enduring assault, suffering from drug addiction, and more trauma. But the temporary loss of her son to foster care looms larger than any of these struggles — which makes her current healthy relationship with him shine even brighter.

Gia DiMarco actually found her way to porn and other sex work because she was a mother who needed to provide for two small kids. She tells Holloway, “For me, being a sex worker has made me a better mom because it’s given me the ability to almost be a stay-at-home mom and still earn a good income.” Like Rose, DiMarco has experienced a custody battle in which her work in porn was used against her. She speaks about the extra need for privacy online, her self-conscious effort to never appear “too sexy” when picking her kids up at school, and the division of her personal life and her professional life.

4. “Sex Workers Are Not A Life Hack for ‘Helping’ Sexual Predators” (Alana Massey, Self, November 2017)

In an essay tagged to the then-recent New York Times article on Louis C.K.’s history of masturbating in front of women without their consent, Massey issues a powerful reminder that sex workers don’t exist to manage the hurtful impulses of men who want to violate boundaries. As a comedy writer, I found this line most poignant: “Sex workers are some of comedy’s most disposable people, which is made even worse by the fact that it’s a reflection of reality.” Massey’s own history of sex work puts her opinion into the grounded reality of her lived experience.

5. “Stoya: I Thought Female Sexuality Was An Okay Thing?” (James Reith, The Guardian, June 2018)

While I wasn’t on the phone when Reith interviewed the actress, author, producer, director, dancer, essayist, and activist known as Stoya, I know how difficult it is to distill the insights of a talkative, brilliant person into a finite number of words! And having worked with Stoya as well as having read some of her writing, I do believe she is both those things. This is a very good introduction to her philosophy and approach when tackling fraught subjects like sexism and sex work. She’s self-deprecating, thoughtful, funny, and accessible. She’s an intellectual, but she’s not a snob.

6. “What I Want to Know Is Why You Hate Porn Stars” (Conner Habib, The Stranger, March 2014)

Conner Habib is my friend, so there’s your full disclosure. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of them. In fact, he’s currently pursuing a Ph.D. program in sunny Ireland. A life in academia does not necessarily denote intelligence, emotional or otherwise, but Conner is deeply intelligent in many ways. He’s also been an award-winning gay adult performer.

In this essay for The Stranger, he writes movingly of lost love and of the seemingly fruitless effort to convince a boyfriend that porn is not inherently evil: “To him, me being in porn seemed out of place in the rest of my life. I’m a spiritual person and I went to grad school. I taught college English courses and studied science. The porn, for him, didn’t match up with all of that. I started to grow quiet. I didn’t like that I was growing quiet; after all, it was my big chance to talk about my job and my choices. But framed this way, in the form of contradictions, it didn’t seem right. ‘Contradictions’ was a word that meant I’d already lost the battle.

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Years ago, I was invited to co-host an adult film awards ceremony with Stoya. She was an absolute delight, which always makes a job more pleasant. But I had never done comedy in front of a crowd of 400 sex workers (or any out sex workers, so far as I knew) so I asked her if she had any thoughts on what might suit this particular audience.

She gave me a great piece of advice, which I can summarize as follows: Never assume anything about sex workers — not their politics, not their family structure, not their religion or lack thereof, not their history with or without trauma, not their income, nothing.

From a hosting perspective, the show went brilliantly. The room was warm, friendly, smart, and silly. The sponsor, the blog and news website Fleshbot, made everything fun and good-hearted (thanks in no small part to then-site owner Lux Alptraum, a gifted writer and editor.) But I didn’t go on to learn much more about sex work afterward, not really. Not until now.

This particular column was an excellent reminder to me that if I say I respect someone or I say that I’m their friend, I ought to learn more about what they do, why they do it, and how it makes them feel. But that’s not just true for folks I’ve met and personally like — it is true for anyone from a community that I purport to regard with dignity and decency.

The work of unpacking one’s prejudices and fears never really ends, unless you end it. It can be tiring, annoying, and inconvenient. That’s good. Growth is often uncomfortable, physically and otherwise. But if it makes one a better friend or happier human, I’d say it’s more than worth it.

For more on sex work, more than I could possibly provide here, please become a reader of Tits and Sass.

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Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group,” which she also wrote. She also hosts the podcast “Where Ya From?”

Editor: Michelle Weber