I’m a black woman who is over 35, and for a little over a decade, I was a sex worker. It doesn’t matter what kind of sex work; what matters is that I have an adult lifetime of experience, not only in sex work, but also with the painful stigma attached to it.
The thing is, the judgment is so much worse when it comes from your own people, and I’ve heard this same thing from every black woman or black man I have ever interacted with who also works (or worked) in the sex industry. This is part of the tapestry when one exists in the black community and the sex-work community at the same time.
These attacks look like callous tweets referring to Cyntoia Brown, a child victim of rape and sexual exploitation, as “that Cyntoia prostitute.” A black woman actually went on social media and proclaimed that calling for her release from prison was an embarrassment.
The marginalization looks like this article about Gemmel Moore and how, in response to the disagreements and open letters from his family and their representatives, the author issued only a tepid response, including a pithy footnote about misspelling his mother’s name.
This is life knowing that, if ever harm came to you as a sex worker, no one would care. This is, even after her success and accolades, still bringing up Cardi B’s past as a dancer in order to distract from her present success as a musician and now fiancee to Offset of Migos.
Cyntoia Brown was a sexually exploited child, but in the minds of some black people, she’s a prostitute undeserving of empathy and care. Cardi B feels pressured to regularly tweet her refusal to be ashamed of having previously been employed as a dancer. Gemmel Moore’s family and friends report that he was not a sex worker. This distinction is important to them, maybe for reasons they can’t or won’t verbalize, but I will. Stigma and shaming are real. They erase people from our minds and consciousness by reminding us, “This person was a prostitute. I don’t need to care about them.”
I’ve written about Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, who confessed to killing more than 48 women, all sex workers (and at least one-third being of color), because he “knew they would not be reported missing right away. ... I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”
I’ve written about the almost cultural refusal of black folks to use less-stigmatizing and incendiary terms, such as “sex worker,” “escort” and “dancer,” rather than the immediately shocking (and outdated) term “prostitute,” or the outright slur “whore” or “ho” to refer to people who work in the sex trades.
I speak often about survival sex workers and how, especially in cases regarding black women and other women of color, the line between “victim of sexual exploitation” and “survival sex worker” is often so thin as to be invisible.
We’ve read and talked about how more than 50 percent of black girls have experienced sexual abuse. Statistics show a correlation between surviving sexual assault and use of or addiction to drugs and alcohol. This is not to say that all sex workers use drugs or have been raped, but to acknowledge that people in the adult industry, just like everyone else, struggle with healing from sexual assault and rape when it happens to them.
Still, too many of us continually use words like “prostitute,” “whore” and “stripper” while talking about drug addiction and poverty to paint sex workers as untouchable, meaningless and other, when the reality is much different—and much closer to home. In an America where it’s reported that by the year 2050, the median net worth for black Americans will be a whopping $0, and where two-parent black American families have less wealth than single-parent white American families, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you—yes, you— are, or know someone who is, an adult performer, or have dabbled in trading sex for items of survival at least once.
So, why, when taking the above paragraphs into account, are stigma and shaming so rampant in our communities, when it’s likely that each of us has a family member or friend who dances as primary income? When it’s very likely that so many of us are (or know) someone who has traded sex for a month or two of paid rent or utilities? Why is there so much palpable hatred inside our communities for people in the trades?
When generations of institutional racism and lack of opportunities, along with sexual violence toward black women, have made sex work an inextricable thread in the fabric of blackness in America, why is there so much disdain for it?
It’s beyond past time that this discussion be loud, long and far-reaching. Our lives depend on it.
Tansy Breshears is a freelance writer, full-time student and Type 1-diabetes Dia-Bad-Ass warrior living in Midwestern America and serving as vice president of the Shirley Ann Sullivan Educational Foundation. You can find her on the internet on Twitter or Medium.