My mother lost custody of me. How becoming a sex worker helped me understand why.

The author, center, on her mother’s lap, in a rare snapshot of them together. (Photo: Courtesy of Juniper Fitzgerald)

For Mother’s Day 2018, Yahoo Lifestyle asked women to share stories about something they understood about their moms only after becoming mothers themselves. This is the first in series. 

When I was 3 years old, my mother lost custody to me in a battle quite literally fought on the terrain of bodies.

Even though my father had kidnapped me, my mother’s adultery was more convincing evidence of parental unfitness, and so the courts awarded my father full custody. Adding insult to injury, my father eventually gave up his parental rights, proving that the entire enterprise — that of both my father and the court — was merely about punishing an adulteress. In a society where even rapists have parental rights, the fact that women lose custody for stepping outside social norms of sexual behavior is hugely problematic. And it’s a lesson I did not fully learn until I became a parent.

When I was barely 20, I started working in the sex industry. It wasn’t my first attempt — at 18 I’d applied and auditioned at two strip clubs but never returned the managers’ calls. I was too scared. Two years later, though, I was confident enough to capitalize on my sexual currency, which I did for more than a decade, finding myself, not long after giving birth to a child, on the set of an adult film.

And soon enough, as it does for many sex workers, my erotic labor became the focus of my own custody battle with my child’s father. Although he and I are now cordial, friends even, the court capitalized on our respective fears. Both of our lawyers advised that my former work would be a major factor in the court’s decision about who would ultimately be awarded custody of our child.

While my mother’s alleged adultery and my former choice of work may not seem related, the court’s decision to treat both as evidence of parental unfitness exposes something I never knew prior to becoming a parent myself: that a woman’s perceived sexual currency equates to her total value in society, particularly as a mother. And that value, or lack thereof, follows a woman throughout her life.

When my mother learned of my sex work, she was heartbroken. In fact, she and I spoke nary a word for close to seven years. Prior to becoming a parent, I interpreted my mother’s behavior as callous, even cruel. Now, as a mother to a daughter, I understand a powerful realty about my mother: She was triggered by my former work, rightfully fearing that laboring in the sex industry would follow me throughout my life. My mother was heartbroken that I willingly chose a profession that, to onlookers, would determine my value forever. And she was right.

That my former labor in the sex industry will follow me my entire life, compelling others to judge my value based solely on the fact that I charged men for what they typically demand of women for free, shows the pervasiveness of the mother-whore dichotomy. The mother and the whore are two endlessly impossible boxes into which we culturally fit women. And when we culturally dichotomize something, it means people cannot be both simultaneously.

The mother-whore dichotomy is why women like Amber Rose and Stormy Daniels receive so much flak while their male counterparts — that is, men who either labor as sex workers themselves or men who procure the labor of women like Rose and Daniels — receive none. There is no shortage of public outcry, for example, about Rose’s titillating selfies, with some critics exclaiming, “But you’re a mother!” There is hardly the same critique of parental fitness when it comes President Trump’s alleged affairs.

The mother-whore dichotomy is perfectly summed up in the contemporary quip: “I want a lady in the streets and a freak in the sheets.” Culturally, we want feminine sexuality and sexual behavior to be relegated to the private arenas of society. To that end, it is not a coincidence that almost every single creation story tells of an extraordinary man born of a virgin mother — in order for men to be extraordinary, they must be unbridled from the complexity of feminine sexuality and sexual behavior. This is quite literally the foundation of our society. The aforementioned quip is also a means by which we control women. When a woman’s dynamic personhood can be kept out of the public realm — the realm of ideas, politics, and society — she can be controlled both interpersonally and by the state.

Alternatively, it has long been expected that men will seek private affairs outside of their marriages, and indeed, I know of no custody case where a man’s adultery has been used as evidence of parental unfitness. We expect men to be sexual. Not only that but we expect that men will be the procurers of erotic services, whether they have strippers at their bachelor parties or “relax” at the strip club with their colleagues or download porn. Being a client in the sex industry is much more normalized than actually being a sex worker, and that is likely the root of my mother’s broken heart. Because whether a woman is having an affair (for free) or charging men for pleasure, she is deemed a “whore” in a society that hates women.

As a parent, there are moments when I become unhinged, angry, and disappointed. In these moments I, much like my own mother, become silent until I can compose myself. It took my mother seven years to compose herself because, as I now know, her anger was so profound that she couldn’t speak. But her anger was not with me. It was with the social systems that never allow women to be both an unrepentant sexual being and a loving, devoted mother.

My mother’s silence was a hard lesson in maternal love that remains stronger than any stigma I face as a former sex worker. And while my parenting style differs from my mother’s in that I will never impose a lengthy silence between my child and me, I now know the incredible heartache that comes with living in a society where my daughter will be persecuted for daring to step outside of cultural gender norms.

The only solution, then, is to eradicate the dichotomies we impose on women. The solution is, quite simply, to stop judging a woman’s entire personhood on the basis of her perceived sexual currency.

Of course, I have only my mother to thank for seeing that solution so clearly.

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