To mark the International Day of the Woman on March 8 and Women’s History Month, Yahoo Lifestyle is exploring notions of feminism and the women’s movement through a diverse series of profiles — from transgender activist Ashlee Marie Preston to conservative campus leader Karin Agness Lips — that aim to reach across many aisles.
“It is literally every day I hear someone else use ‘porn star’ as a pejorative, or say how disgraceful it is that the president had an affair with a porn star, that this reflects badly on our country,” Lee, a longtime writer and sex-worker activist, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I saw someone write that this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to the United States, which is amazing to me — like, look around you!”
What’s more, says Lee, “Stormy Daniels is suing the president — a person who has created so many oppressive, horrifying policies. People should be celebrating that. People should be backing her up. She is suing him for the right to speak freely. She is offering to give him back money he paid her. I do not understand why people are not holding her up as a hero of the opposition.”
Instead, the way the unfolding story has been handled in the media, Lee laments, “means that sex workers are hearing jokes about how we aren’t full people, about how we are a punch line. So my experience of this whole thing is just a constant reminder that we’re dehumanized every day.”
It’s what has fueled the fire within Lee, 37, who has worked in various facets of the sex industry since she was 19 but who has filled much of her time lately with activist work.
In January, she and fellow sex workers showed up en masse at the Women’s March Power to the Polls event in Las Vegas to make sure their voices were not left out of the feminist space; Lee held up a sign that read, “Stop making sex workers scapegoats for the patriarchy,” and stood at an information table to chat with curious and oft-confused passersby about the issue of sex workers’ rights.
“I felt as welcome as in any mainstream space,” she recounts. “But there were a lot of people there who really didn’t understand who we were or what we were representing. I had someone come up to me at the table and look at our ‘Sex Work Is Work’ T-shirts and say, ‘Oh, that’s so sad,’ and I said, ‘What’s sad?’ and she said, ‘Sex slavery.’” Lee went on to explain that she was with a group of consensual sex workers who oppose any form of nonconsent and exploitation.
“It took her a few minutes, and she was definitely very defensive and said, ‘Oh, we’ve had a misunderstanding,’” Lee says with a laugh. “That is the understatement of the century. But for me, being in those spaces and having the opportunity to directly confront that misunderstanding is, I think, the most productive work that you can do sometimes.”
Since then, she’s been largely consumed with fighting misunderstanding on another front — by vociferously opposing a pair of proposed bills in the House and Senate, FOSTA and SESTA (Fight/Stop Online Sex Trafficking Act), respectively. Each seeks to weaken legal protections that currently protect website owners and operators from criminal and civil liability for hosting content posted by third-party users, and they “conflate consensual sex work and trafficking,” she says.
If the bills reach their goal of being combined and codified, Lee says, they will not only fail to stop trafficking but will threaten vital safety measures for sex workers: the ability to screen clients online rather than in person, the ability to share information on violent or disrespectful clients on what are known as “bad date” lists, and the ability to share information about exploitive club owners or clients.
“Sex workers don’t get protection from police, and we frequently don’t have familial resources or other forms of social support that other people might turn to in times of crisis,” Lee says. “What we have is each other, so our ability to share information online includes allowing us to post to these platforms,” and the law changes will mean “censoring this information sharing that is vital to sex workers’ safety.”
Many of the groups involved do not understand the impact or the possible violence that would likely come from the passage of the bills, she says — including celebrities who have lent their voices to the pro-SESTA/FOSTA cause, such as Seth Meyers and Amy Schumer. Others simply want to end the sex trade entirely, she believes.
The whole situation, she understands, is confusing for people — why an intelligent, self-possessed woman like Lee, and like so many others, would do sex work. And what much of the confusion comes down to — around her personal choices, the pending legislation, the Women’s March interaction, and so much more — is people not understanding that sex trafficking/slavery and consensual adult sex work are different, Lee says.
“The difference is so simple, and the difference is one word: consent,” she says. “But I think one of the reasons people have such a hard time understanding it is because people have a really hard time understanding consent in our culture, which is something that as a nation we’ve been grappling with.”
Lee breaks it down, acknowledging the camp that believes there’s no such thing as consensual sex work, because of the “economic coercion” factor.
“They say the choice to do sex work is inherently compromised because of financial incentive — and I’m willing to say that all labor is exploitative under capitalism, I have no disagreement with that,” she says. “But I also think it’s extremely important to recognize that poor people still have agency. Having spent most of my life as a poor, working person, it is deeply offensive to me for someone to tell me that my ability to choose what I do with my body is compromised by not having money.”
That argument — about whether sex work can ever be inherently consensual — is what has caused conflict for many in the feminist movement about whether or not to embrace sex workers over the years, including in the planning of recent Women’s March events.
Other issues that get to Lee lately include the #MeToo movement bypassing sex workers (“but that’s a longer conversation,” she says), and, on a positive note, the fact that #TimesUp organizers did reach out to her recently to see how those in her field could be included, which is a “big step,” she says.
But Lee bristles at the question she says she’s most often asked (including by this writer): “How is sex work feminist?” She calls it a “misconstruing of the question.”
As she explains it: “I am a feminist. I am also a sex worker. Sex work in itself isn’t anything — it isn’t a political ideology; it’s work, and it happens in all different contexts … I think it’s really important to break that down, because as a sex worker, you get asked over and over again, ‘Is sex work feminist or anti-feminist’ or ‘Are you in coalition with the patriarchy?’ And that can be really damaging, because it’s neither. You can be a feminist and you can believe in gender equality and also be a sex worker who works under exploitative conditions. You’ve got to pay your bills.”
Workers should not be held responsible for the politics of their employers, Lee adds, although there are ways to harness things within one’s power. “So working in exploitative conditions,” she says. “A lot of sex workers have come together and worked concertedly among themselves to try and improve those conditions — and that’s a feminist action.”
Lee’s thoughts have been hard won by many years in the sex trade — a career that has taken various shapes, from stripping and being a professional dominatrix to directing and acting in pornography (including, many times, in what she calls “beautiful films that showed a version of sexuality that you don’t see in mainstream film or, really, anywhere…”).
“It’s complicated to answer the question about why I started doing sex work, because there are multiple ways to tell the story,” she says. “I was poor, I grew up on public assistance, and that is a huge part of why I started.” Other factors: She had a boyfriend who sent her on her first shoot; she was a “young queer person” with her first crush on a woman who was an erotic dancer, who told Lee she felt “transformed and powerful onstage.” Plus, she needed money, particularly when it came time to put herself through college at New York University (a payment plan that briefly made Lee tabloid fodder).
“People always ask if it’s empowering or disempowering, and you can’t separate that from the fact that having money is empowering in a capitalist culture,” she says, noting that she has zero college debt. “Being able to pay your bills is empowering.”
“I’ve experienced feelings of isolation and powerlessness and vulnerability and faced so much stigma … and then this thing that started to make my life better was finding other sex workers who were amazing people, finding solidarity,” she says. “I think if I can do anything to give back to that community, I will have made my life worthwhile.”
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