by Jaimie A. Prince
I am a trans man but for my job as a stripper, I present as a cis woman.
I am expected to display societally ordained “womanly traits.” And while I represent the height of cisgendered, performative heteronormativity, I typically joke that I end up feeling like a man in drag. Shapeshifting into a “monster”, as I mischievously call it is a complete body transformation. At work, I wear a full face of makeup, perfectly groomed and styled hair, a shaved body from the eyebrows below, skimpy string floss fits, and towering clear plastic heels (or sometimes, a pair of the coveted Converse All Stars also suffice). These form the roughest outlines of a general uniform of the trade.
During my last shift working as a dancer in Portland, Oregon, I was seated with a close friend and coworker, who I hadn’t seen in weeks. We reminisced about the past for a bit and then finally, approached the topic that was on everyone’s mind –– the virus. I felt tense, confiding in her all my fears about catching it and about possibly infecting my loved ones who are also at risk (to elaborate on my health, I am asthmatic and have a history of recurring tonsillitis).
To be honest, I was already tired before the pandemic.
I was almost 24 and my body was worn down from working so many double shifts. I’d even looked for a healthier work environment but auditioning at different clubs was traumatizing; my boundaries were so casually disregarded and there was a constant lack of care for my safety. While I knew what was expected at my old club, I also knew that despite its moderately positive reputation, management didn’t care when (not if) any of us were mistreated or harmed by customers and staff alike. I had contemplated if I was even going to come in for this last shift, but quickly decided that if this was to be my last time dancing, I would need the money.
People rarely consider the danger sex work poses–– or worse, believe sex workers deserve that danger. By society’s standards, we are morally reprehensible “women.” Researchers believe that we make easy scapegoats that society can blame for the dissolution of the nuclear family, for STI transmission, and for the corruption of today’s youth. But we are also made up of marginalized individuals who already face identity-related stigmas, such as queer people, disabled people, and trans people. Consequently, there is a high burden of violence against sex workers globally. Many wish sexual violence on us, while believing that “good” and “decent” people who wouldn’t consider sex work deserve protection. Sex workers can expect death before we can expect dignity, fair treatment, or safe working conditions.
"In our job’s outdoor patio, waxing and waning about how this virus might force sex workers to remain completely within a restrictive virtual landscape, I wondered, “What happens if we all get sick?”
Before my last shift, I had arrived back in town from a work trip in NYC. There, I had danced at a private party for the holidays which provided me with a new perspective on dancing in Portland: don’t. The market was oversaturated to begin with; Portland, Oregon is the city with the most strip clubs per capita. But on top of that, the average dancer couldn’t expect to be scheduled for a night shift without being well known virtually. With clout, strippers were able to negotiate for shifts that were known to be highly lucrative. Anyone who worked a shift that was deemed “undesirable” would often be treated as a second class performer.
French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault wrote, “Broadly speaking, at the juncture of the "body" and the "population," sex became a crucial target of a power organized around the management of life rather than the menace of death.” Sex workers are stymied from exercising autonomy in their professions and are targeted so harshly because they directly challenge the state’s desire to control the body. Those who are in positions of power in our industry are almost always white cis gender men, who create hostile working places that allow sexual assault, harassment, and emotional/physical abuse to proliferate. And they are enabled to do so by the state’s criminalization of and control over sex work. Governmental administrative power allows them greater access to support for their businesses, and individual sex workers are left to deal with the fallout of working in an industry that provides no protection and no way to work legally outside of the club.
Many strip club owners, like my last club and the club before that, understand their unique privilege over their staff, and treat the dancers as disposable (again, unless they can leverage their following to generate revenue). Strip clubs will often demand dancers pay fees to perform (commonly called a stage fee) and illegal tip outs to staff. Those top earners are, typically, those who have a certain degree of privilege in society and many clubs outright state or poorly hide their restrictions on who performs on their stages (read: white, cis, het, thin performers). In Oregon, I saw strip club owners continuously enable abusive dancers who fit this stereotypical beauty standard. When (not if) these performers terrorize the other “girls” they are left unchecked in their behavior and are given the most lucrative shifts. In return, they come to the defense of club owners and staff, working in tandem to maintain a toxic workplace.
While many strippers can build platforms for themselves virtually, to bolster their ability to get on schedules at higher earning clubs and work more lucrative shifts, demands for vulnerability and loss of privacy aren’t very accessible to many sex workers. In fact, sex workers are being pushed further and further out of the public sphere of society. Despite continuously being the first to champion social media platforms, and bringing them forward in the public consciousness, we are always the first to be deplatformed and censored for posting.
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With this in mind, during that final shift in Portland, I brought up the fact that my account had been shadow banned for several months to my coworker. She admitted that it was difficult to promote her own work. My coworker would often post without her face visible as she worked a civilian job while dancing. Many sex workers must keep that side of themselves separate out of fear of retaliation from others. In our job’s outdoor patio, waxing and waning about how this virus might force sex workers to remain completely within a restrictive virtual landscape, I wondered, “What happens if we all get sick?”
With the passage of time, the virus has continued to multiply and mutate.
Currently, there has been a reported 2.2 million deaths worldwide. While a complete shutdown of the US for a two week period would have stifled the spread of COVID-19, the government’s refusal to value human life over the economy has left transmission rates skyrocketing and the rest of us scrambling to work in increasingly dangerous conditions in order to pay rent. Nearly a year later, a lot has changed. I moved to NYC to find better opportunities and throughout the economic hardship of this pandemic, the sex work community has kept me alive and housed through mutual aid.
The majority of my work currently takes place online. Simultaneously, the pandemic has sent every civilian I know into a sex-work-curious frenzy. Now, online sex work is mainstream. And this influx of new performers means that the market is oversaturated. There is no guarantee your audience will ever see your work, even with the help of a large following.
I started dancing at a virtual strip club, Skxn Entertainment (created by Sunni Musique, a fellow sex worker). Many other strippers have turned to virtual clubs as well. Sadly, Instagram caught on, demanding retribution for promotion of these virtual spaces. The original account for Skxn Entertainment was removed at around 3000 followers, and no matter what changes were made, it hasn’t regained that audience. The IG algorithm has continuously shadowbanned Skxn and attempted to deplatform our home. On December 20th, 2020 the new Terms Of Service went into effect and pages that had been targeted before, like virtual strip clubs and performers engaging in sexual imagery and/or language, experienced even harsher treatment.
Censorship has had an omnipotent presence in our community from the very beginning. However, it has been a uniquely difficult situation trying to survive during a pandemic.
In 2018, former President Donald Trump signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA/SESTA). This legislation purports to cut down on illegal sex trafficking. Instead, FOSTA/SESTA holds platforms responsible for the content users host with them, leading to much stricter regulations around sexual content. Then, in 2020, the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies (EARN IT) Act was also passed. This bill forces platforms to proactively scan users’ information if they don’t want to be held responsible for user-generated content. This led to a flurry of policy changes across numerous online platforms. The most recent update to the Instagram Terms of Service included restrictions on virtual clubs and sexually stimulating content. Thus, in order to keep my account, I had to scrub it of anything remotely sexual.
Now, it feels like I’m starting from the very beginning. I have a small following of nearly 2000 followers but my posts barely reach my audience. And with no way to promote the virtual club, I had to branch out to new platforms. The question, of course, is how long will sex workers even last on other platforms? The recently introduced Stop Internet Exploitation Act (SIEA) would require platforms to institute strict content moderation policies and systems for user verification that would ultimately cause them to eliminate NSFW content. This could mean the end of sites like Only Fans and Pornhub but even if they survive, SIEA would stop undocumented sex workers from working and denies other sex workers the safety of a pseudonym. In the event of a data breach, ‘verified’ sex workers would then be at risk.
But this also makes it legal to publish non-consensual sexual content, otherwise known as revenge porn, as long as it features verified performers. While COVID-19 threatens all of us the moment we step outside, it pairs with these new online threats to sex workers, making survival almost impossible. Lately, I’ve been broadening my content, focusing on writing and making physical art so that I’m palatable for social media consumption. However, anti-sex work algorithms target other marginalized individuals–– predominantly queer and trans people, Black and Indigenous peoples, and other people of color on social media. By the time these algorithms expand to affect the most privileged among us, perhaps it will be too late to do anything about it.
Jaimie A. Prince is a poet currently living in Brooklyn, NY. As a young man, Prince was socialized and raised as a woman and those experiences, coupled with his work as a sex worker, have informed his writing. Despite working in an environment where their gender is largely assumed as female (still), Prince writes about his time spent as a “cis for pay” trans man.