February is Black History Month, a time to reflect on the ways Black people have shaped our world for the better, despite the relentless onslaught of racism they continue to face and have faced for hundreds of years. Black sex workers are no exception, leading intersectional movements for justice, smashing injustice and the patriarchy – and looking good while doing it!
In a previous column, I talked about how sex workers are culture makers, but aren’t given the respect they deserve. I’d like to elaborate on that today, and talk about how this affects Black sex workers specifically.
Do you like twerking and bounce music? You can thank Black sex workers for both. Twerking is a type of dance that involves intense booty shaking, and is historically attributed to Josephine Baker, an African American dance and civil rights activist. Bounce is a type of New Orleans hip hop. The popularity of both was cemented first in New Orleans, followed by Atlanta’s Black strip clubs, which brought twerking and bounce music into the mainstream.
Do you like to listen to City Girls, Cardi B, Meegan the Stallion and other Black female rappers? You can thank the Black (former) sex workers who made it. And yet many strip clubs ban their music, for fear that it will bring in “the wrong type of crowd,” and because of racial quotas on the amount of Black women that can work any given shift.
Black women are also disadvantaged by strip club owners and management, massage parlours and escort agency owners for having the natural beauty that the likes of Kim Kardashian and company co-opted and paid good money for. White women in the sex industry, and society more broadly, are rewarded for being tanned, having big booties, whether through working out or surgery, and having full lips. Meanwhile, many Black women feel pressured to use lighter foundation, hide their curves, and wear more Eurocentric hairstyles in hopes of keeping their jobs and generally being more “marketable” both in and out of the sex industry.
In escort agency marketing copy, Black sex workers are referred to as “caramel,” “ebony,” “chocolate,” and other adjectives used for describing Black skin. Their white co-workers are sometimes called tanned, but otherwise, there is no mention of their skin tone. Can you imagine calling a white escort “milky” or “translucent?” By extension, Black women are generally promoted less by management, given less lucrative shifts at the club, spa or agency, or booked with less frequency than their white counterparts.
Black women have been at the forefront of fighting for social justice. Black sex workers are especially and keenly aware that there cannot be justice if it doesn’t include sex workers’ voices. You cannot have racial justice, reproductive health justice, LGBTQ rights, or gender equality without incorporating sex workers’ rights. We live at the intersections of multiple marginalizations, and need to be included in these movements.
Marsha P. Johnson, who was an activist and self-identified drag queen, fought tirelessly for LGBTQ rights, and is considered by many as one of the founding figures in the modern LGBTQ movement. She was a trans sex worker, and fought hard to include sex worker perspectives, trans perspectives, homeless youth, and those with mental health challenges. She was often at odds with other (white), “more respectable” activists for those very reasons.
More recently, we have Gizelle Marie, who led the NYC stripper strike and organized her fellow strippers to resist their bosses and put a stop to the deeply ingrained racism and general disregard for labour laws. There’s also Terri Jean Bedford, the Black Canadian dominatrix who was one of the three sex workers who challenged the criminalization of Canadian sex workers in the Supreme Court of Canada and won back in 2013.
The sad reality with sex work is the stigma, criminalization, and violence that sex workers face. We all face violence, but racialised sex workers, Black sex workers, and even more so, Black trans sex workers are at an even greater risk of fatal violence. Those who wish us harm see our bodies as disposable, and see racialized, Black and brown bodies as even more disposable.
In instances where Black sex workers defend themselves from violence, they are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system. Take Moka Dawkins, a Black trans sex worker who was found guilty of manslaugher when defending herself from a violent client. She was sentenced to four years of prison, which is bad enough. What’s worse is she was housed for four years in a men’s prison in Toronto. Dawkins experienced four years of being misgendered, facing even more violence from other inmates and guards, being forbidden by guards to wear her wig, and being put in solitary confinement when she dared speak of her mistreatment. How is this inhumane treatment justice?
When asked about her prior life as a sex worker while doing promotion for her book, Gather Together in My Name, the writer Maya Angelou famously quipped, “There is more than one way to prostitute one’s self.” She resisted the dominant narrative that sex work is something to hide and be ashamed of, both in the interview, and by writing Gather Together in My Name, which is focused on a young sex worker trying to find her way in the world.
The book also contains a nugget of wisdom that sex workers love, but can be understood more universally: “Be the best of anything you get into. If you want to be a whore, it’s your life. Be a damn good one. Don’t chippy at anything. Anything worth having is worth working for…With that wisdom in my pouch, I was to go out and buy my future.”
Black History month is a good time to begin doing the work, and recognizing the achievements of Black people, including Black sex workers. It’s a time when the African diaspora honours their ancestors. It’s a time when sex workers honour the sex workers that have come before us. Black sex workers have been and continue to be at the fore of intersecting movements; their knowledge and experiences are crucial to advancing anti-racism and social justice.