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The Gentrification of Sex Work

A conversation on how the decriminalization of sex work is vital in the fight for racial justice

Illustration by Sandra Markarian

Content warning: Police violence, gentrification, sexual assault from police. The nature of our work isn’t violent, but the criminalization of sex work can lead to dangerous and violent situations for workers. The end game is decriminalization. Please practice self-care while reading each worker’s story. Bless. 

Nessa: How long have you worked as a sex worker?

Naomi: I’ve worked maybe eight years now. I mean I’m kind of not sure how to count this year, I do whatever I can, you know. It’s been eight years, I started in 2012.

Nessa: How does 2012 work compare to currently?

Naomi: One of the things was the social media thing for strippers. I don’t know how it was for other people who started back then. At the club that I worked at, it was not allowed to have our phones on the floor, or the customers. We had to keep it secret. There’s a lot more of calling out of managers and management now than there was back then. My experience with back then with extras… if that was the way you wanted to make your money… There was no surveillance. I wasn’t a part of a community of sex workers, aside from my coworkers… As far as personalities, our managers were racist — there were very few Black women who worked at our club. A lot of Latina and white women were working there, [and] they would hire mostly Asian dancers. They were like “Oh you’re so skinny!” and would hire mostly Russian girls, cause that was their preference — which is all toxic.

I distinctly remember one of my friends wasn’t allowed to play hip-hop. Then it became trendy for white girls to dance to hip-hop to start looking Black with the lip injection thing. I remember a white girl wearing her hair in braids, getting her nails long, and getting the biggest lip injections. And Black dancers — I remember this being a thing, definitely appropriation. All the other white girls all copying Black girls. Which was weird cause the two Black dancers weren’t allowed to dance to rap or hip-hop. 

Nessa: Oh, wow. The hypocrisy! 

Naomi: They were only allowed to dance to EBM remixes. It was so specifically racist! The managers were like whatever we’re just trying to make money here! 

Nessa: Oh my goodness. I’ve only danced in “Black clubs.” I was dancing when I was at 220 [pounds]. I made my money, trust. I’ve never worked in a white club, they wouldn’t hire me. I’ve had one decent general manager ever — that’s because he was gay. The staff was mostly trans, and the owner of the club was a trans woman. That was in New Orleans, definitely not here in LA. 

Naomi: That makes a lot of sense. I’ve always wanted to work in New Orleans but never did. 

Nessa: Yeah dude, it sucked a lot. We were raided by Homeland Security before Mardi Gras, too. My club was shut down. Haha!

Naomi: That’s scary! 

Nessa: That whole raiding effort was to eradicate one of the world’s oldest red-light districts. Ha, gentrification. And there’s this supposed effort to find human trafficking, and they found like nothing. Anyways… you were telling me the other day about this scary-ass exploitive customer who called you something vile, do you care to expand upon that?

Naomi: My friend and I when we first started working at a well-known nude club in Santa Monica, one night this customer… acted like he forgot his card, acted like a total dick fucked up on a bunch of shit.

Nessa: People don’t realize that part of job is de-escalating violent situations. 

Naomi: I’m really lucky — I grew up in a family with generational sex workers. I learned how to operate outside the law. I’m just lucky to know how to be hyper-vigilant and paranoid. That has saved me from dangerous situations. Other people who are with me got abused and just fucking tormented. 

Nessa: This is cool to know you come from this through your family. That provides a lot of insight into your experiences. You’re fortunate, that’s amazing. 

Naomi: Definitely not regular circumstance or situation. They were like “This is what our Grandma was doing.” My family was never mad.

Nessa: How has FOSTA-SESTA affected your work now tying in with the SISEA? Wanna talk about decriminalization? 

Naomi: Yes! One of the things I witnessed was the impact of FOSTA-SESTA affected [others] a lot harder than me. I hang out with a lot of people who are trans. That spring when it went into effect, just seeing all of my friends stressed about ads… ad placement on class-passing sites is getting more and more expensive. And with that, I began doing work with Soldiers of The Pole.

FOSTA-SESTA passed in the spring of 2018. Other workers found me and my friend Domino. We began doing work on International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. My role in that was doing research, and it was so super hectic at the time. I’m an in-person worker, and I was just lucky enough when my ads were taken down that I had my regulars who would come see me in person. That’s my position with my privilege. I’ve worked with friends who did not have the tools or apps to provide screening. We teamed up. I’m like, let’s work together so we can feel safer. When working together, I would see how dangerous it felt to go meet johns in motels without screening. Experiencing rude tricks who were so horrible to us, because they thought we were just going to scam them — a lot of people I knew got hurt, immediately [after the passing of] FOSTA-SESTA. 

As far as SIESA I thought I would always transfer more into online work, but I love stripping, it’s been such a blessing. Like the thing is I have privilege to not have ads up right now, especially since it’s a pandemic. I don’t even know what I would have to do if I had to put one up. Because more and more every day this is getting shut down and that site is getting shut down. Now online work is more and more saturated with OnlyFans. It’s super fucked up. What I can do is educate myself and see how I can be of service. I’m in a space where I can use my privilege to help my people. 

Nessa: Now about decriminalization, what would that look like for you, your comrades, your friends, and the community at large? 

Naomi: I think it would look like getting to work inside for a lot of people and my friends. When they’ve had to previously work outside. When they’ve had no protection of screening or using tools. We’re already marginalized, and especially trans women. With decriminalization we could have all of the types of establishments, like co-ops that everyone can work in. The intersection of decriminalization means Trans Rights! [Decriminalization also means helping] people who are undocumented and ultimately providing support to people who have been trafficked. Those are the two groups I feel are more affected. 

Nessa: YOOO! Snaps fingers 

Naomi: Especially in Oregon, where there is a program creating a decriminalization effort. 

Nessa: What?! There’s a decriminalization effort happening in Oregon?

Naomi: Yes there is a decriminalization effort happening. Look it up on Stroll PDX Instagram. And spaces like Jolene’s, where it is an illegal strip club, but no laws are imposing… this allows people to be free. Decriminalization looks like a world where it’s safer for everyone. I do hope that civilians can see that.

Learn more about Soldiers of the Pole and unionized sex work here.