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39

Cash/Consent

The war on sex work

by Lorelei Lee

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absolutely brilliant

Lee, L. (2019). Cash/Consent. n+1, 35, pp. 39-64

39

MY SENIOR YEAR of high school I worked in a coffee shop. I took the bus there after school and stole bagels to eat before my shifts, 3 PM to 11 PM most nights. I met a man there—let’s call him Mike. I was 16 when we met; he was 25. I was 18 when he took me to his place after work one night, poured us rum and Cokes until the stars spun above the roof where we sat, and then picked me up and carried me down to his bedroom. A few months later, I moved into his apartment. It was next to the airport, and the planes flew so low it seemed like we could touch them from the rooftop at night.

That same year I entered a contest and won a $2,000 writing scholarship. It was 1999, and my plan was to take the money and go to New York. I’d been accepted to an undergraduate writing program at NYU, but I soon realized the money I’d won was not nearly enough for that.

Mike was always broke. I loved him or I thought I did. He knew more than me or I thought he did. I didn’t know then how little men’s attention was worth. I still believed there was a scarcity of it. He needed fifty bucks and I gave it to him. He needed a hundred. Then a little more. Soon I had given him all my money. It happened so easily. One day I realized it was all gone. I sat on the floor and cried. I was afraid that he would leave me, and I was afraid that I would never leave.

Not long after that, we were in bed together in the afternoon. I was naked, on top of him.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said, “people would pay to look at you.”

He had a friend who had a website. The friend and another man would pick me up, bring me somewhere, and we would take some pictures. I would get $200; Mike would get $50. “But I’ll give all the money to you,” he said.

He wouldn’t, but I believed him. I needed to. Recognizing one lie would mean recognizing all his lies. If that happened I would have nothing left.

masterful opening passage

—p.39 by Lorelei Lee 5 months, 2 weeks ago

MY SENIOR YEAR of high school I worked in a coffee shop. I took the bus there after school and stole bagels to eat before my shifts, 3 PM to 11 PM most nights. I met a man there—let’s call him Mike. I was 16 when we met; he was 25. I was 18 when he took me to his place after work one night, poured us rum and Cokes until the stars spun above the roof where we sat, and then picked me up and carried me down to his bedroom. A few months later, I moved into his apartment. It was next to the airport, and the planes flew so low it seemed like we could touch them from the rooftop at night.

That same year I entered a contest and won a $2,000 writing scholarship. It was 1999, and my plan was to take the money and go to New York. I’d been accepted to an undergraduate writing program at NYU, but I soon realized the money I’d won was not nearly enough for that.

Mike was always broke. I loved him or I thought I did. He knew more than me or I thought he did. I didn’t know then how little men’s attention was worth. I still believed there was a scarcity of it. He needed fifty bucks and I gave it to him. He needed a hundred. Then a little more. Soon I had given him all my money. It happened so easily. One day I realized it was all gone. I sat on the floor and cried. I was afraid that he would leave me, and I was afraid that I would never leave.

Not long after that, we were in bed together in the afternoon. I was naked, on top of him.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said, “people would pay to look at you.”

He had a friend who had a website. The friend and another man would pick me up, bring me somewhere, and we would take some pictures. I would get $200; Mike would get $50. “But I’ll give all the money to you,” he said.

He wouldn’t, but I believed him. I needed to. Recognizing one lie would mean recognizing all his lies. If that happened I would have nothing left.

masterful opening passage

—p.39 by Lorelei Lee 5 months, 2 weeks ago
45

Even in those early years I knew the work was not how anti-sex-work feminists described it. I knew it was as good and as terrible as other, lower-wage work I’d done. I knew, too, how quickly people stopped listening when they began to feel pity. So I pretended. I pretended all of it was a kind of adventure. That what I gained from it was more than rent. I dismissed how much that rent meant to me. I pretended that I was not so poor, that I had not grown up poor. That I had not cried out of fear of not knowing where the money would come from next. That I did not steal food from every restaurant I ever worked in. That I never ate the food people left on their plates. That I did not watch movies about “college kids” with a gripping, painful yearning in every part of my body. That I did not come home from every sex-work job giddy at the possibility of ordering more takeout Chinese food than I could eat, giddy at having enough money to commit the thrill of waste.

But I also knew that the idea that I was “empowered” by trading sex was a lie. In the early 2000s, as some sex workers were organizing and holding public events in San Francisco, calling on queers and whores to unlearn our shame—intimating that it was our responsibility to the movements to unlearn our shame—I struggled with mine. There were days when men paid me less than they’d promised and I took it and said nothing. There were days when men wheedled me into something extra that I’d have charged more for if I’d been better at negotiating. There were days when men intentionally crossed every boundary I’d tried to set, and I felt ashamed that I had not stopped them. I felt shame when I didn’t want to go to a job I’d booked, when, instead of going to work, I sat down on the floor of my apartment and watched the phone ring. I admired the women I saw speaking in public, admired what looked to me like their power. I tried to mimic them, and there were moments when I thought I could. But more often, the ideal of the unashamed, empowered whore—the sex worker of the liberal imagination—was discouragingly unreachable to me.

—p.45 by Lorelei Lee 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Even in those early years I knew the work was not how anti-sex-work feminists described it. I knew it was as good and as terrible as other, lower-wage work I’d done. I knew, too, how quickly people stopped listening when they began to feel pity. So I pretended. I pretended all of it was a kind of adventure. That what I gained from it was more than rent. I dismissed how much that rent meant to me. I pretended that I was not so poor, that I had not grown up poor. That I had not cried out of fear of not knowing where the money would come from next. That I did not steal food from every restaurant I ever worked in. That I never ate the food people left on their plates. That I did not watch movies about “college kids” with a gripping, painful yearning in every part of my body. That I did not come home from every sex-work job giddy at the possibility of ordering more takeout Chinese food than I could eat, giddy at having enough money to commit the thrill of waste.

But I also knew that the idea that I was “empowered” by trading sex was a lie. In the early 2000s, as some sex workers were organizing and holding public events in San Francisco, calling on queers and whores to unlearn our shame—intimating that it was our responsibility to the movements to unlearn our shame—I struggled with mine. There were days when men paid me less than they’d promised and I took it and said nothing. There were days when men wheedled me into something extra that I’d have charged more for if I’d been better at negotiating. There were days when men intentionally crossed every boundary I’d tried to set, and I felt ashamed that I had not stopped them. I felt shame when I didn’t want to go to a job I’d booked, when, instead of going to work, I sat down on the floor of my apartment and watched the phone ring. I admired the women I saw speaking in public, admired what looked to me like their power. I tried to mimic them, and there were moments when I thought I could. But more often, the ideal of the unashamed, empowered whore—the sex worker of the liberal imagination—was discouragingly unreachable to me.

—p.45 by Lorelei Lee 5 months, 2 weeks ago
51

Rescuing women from the sex trades is an old business. In San Francisco in 1910, a woman named Donaldina Cameron made it her job to join police on brothel raids to “rescue” Chinese immigrant sex workers and take them into her mission home, called Nine-twenty. At Nine-twenty, the women were made to cook and clean and sew in preparation for being good Christian wives. Staff read all incoming and outgoing mail. Many of the rescued women escaped their rescuers.

Seven years later, the Methodist reverend Paul Smith delivered a series of sermons calling for a shutdown of the red-light district in the uptown Tenderloin neighborhood. In response, three hundred brothel workers marched to the Central Methodist church to confront him. Reverend Smith told the women they could make $10 a week working as domestics. The women told him $10 would buy a single pair of shoes. He asked how many would be willing to do housework. They said, “What woman wants to work in a kitchen?”

lmao

—p.51 by Lorelei Lee 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Rescuing women from the sex trades is an old business. In San Francisco in 1910, a woman named Donaldina Cameron made it her job to join police on brothel raids to “rescue” Chinese immigrant sex workers and take them into her mission home, called Nine-twenty. At Nine-twenty, the women were made to cook and clean and sew in preparation for being good Christian wives. Staff read all incoming and outgoing mail. Many of the rescued women escaped their rescuers.

Seven years later, the Methodist reverend Paul Smith delivered a series of sermons calling for a shutdown of the red-light district in the uptown Tenderloin neighborhood. In response, three hundred brothel workers marched to the Central Methodist church to confront him. Reverend Smith told the women they could make $10 a week working as domestics. The women told him $10 would buy a single pair of shoes. He asked how many would be willing to do housework. They said, “What woman wants to work in a kitchen?”

lmao

—p.51 by Lorelei Lee 5 months, 2 weeks ago
53

In 2014, when the California State assemblyman Isadore Hall authored a bill to mandate the use of condoms as well as state-recorded testing of performers in adult films, my coworkers and I took buses and trains up to the state capitol to testify against the bill. The elaborate, community-driven testing regimen we relied on had prevented even a single on-set transmission of HIV since 2004, and it would be seriously undermined by the proposed legislation. Perhaps worse, Hall’s bill would have created a state registry of performers’ legal names and health information. We gathered the signatures of more than six hundred performers, a thick ream of paper that I carried clutched to my chest, shielding my body from the Senate Appropriations Committee with this physical evidence of our collective will. I remember Hall testifying to the committee that he had written this bill because someone needed to be “a voice for the voiceless,” and that person would be him. I sat beside him at a podium microphone. My coworkers stood in a long line at a microphone behind him, waiting for him to stop so we could speak.

amazing

—p.53 by Lorelei Lee 5 months, 2 weeks ago

In 2014, when the California State assemblyman Isadore Hall authored a bill to mandate the use of condoms as well as state-recorded testing of performers in adult films, my coworkers and I took buses and trains up to the state capitol to testify against the bill. The elaborate, community-driven testing regimen we relied on had prevented even a single on-set transmission of HIV since 2004, and it would be seriously undermined by the proposed legislation. Perhaps worse, Hall’s bill would have created a state registry of performers’ legal names and health information. We gathered the signatures of more than six hundred performers, a thick ream of paper that I carried clutched to my chest, shielding my body from the Senate Appropriations Committee with this physical evidence of our collective will. I remember Hall testifying to the committee that he had written this bill because someone needed to be “a voice for the voiceless,” and that person would be him. I sat beside him at a podium microphone. My coworkers stood in a long line at a microphone behind him, waiting for him to stop so we could speak.

amazing

—p.53 by Lorelei Lee 5 months, 2 weeks ago
59

I’ve been told that my story is unrepresentative — that anyone who does not want to be “rescued” from sex work is too much of an outlier to base policy decisions on. I’ve also been told that I’m “very articulate for someone with your experience” — that I’m too articulate and thus too privileged to be allowed to articulate myself. I’ve also been told that I’m too traumatized, or too brainwashed, to understand my own experiences. One member of the California State Assembly listened to everything I had to say and then replied, “You seem smart, but they aren’t all like you.” Let me be clear: Every sex worker I have ever met is as smart as I am; many are smarter. I have learned more, collectively, from my coworkers than from any of the formal education I’ve bought with my hard-earned sex-work dollars.

—p.59 by Lorelei Lee 5 months, 2 weeks ago

I’ve been told that my story is unrepresentative — that anyone who does not want to be “rescued” from sex work is too much of an outlier to base policy decisions on. I’ve also been told that I’m “very articulate for someone with your experience” — that I’m too articulate and thus too privileged to be allowed to articulate myself. I’ve also been told that I’m too traumatized, or too brainwashed, to understand my own experiences. One member of the California State Assembly listened to everything I had to say and then replied, “You seem smart, but they aren’t all like you.” Let me be clear: Every sex worker I have ever met is as smart as I am; many are smarter. I have learned more, collectively, from my coworkers than from any of the formal education I’ve bought with my hard-earned sex-work dollars.

—p.59 by Lorelei Lee 5 months, 2 weeks ago