What The Atlanta Murders Teach About Sex Work
What The Atlanta Murders Teach About Sex Work

What The Atlanta Murders Teach About Sex Work

Sex work is work and it’s past time we treat it as such.

I have a friend who manages a nightclub. Specifically, she manages a strip club. It’s not one of the big, fancy, super-expensive clubs with dozens of “private” rooms you hope no one sees you entering. This one is smaller, more intimate, and more supportive of the women who work there. She doesn’t require them to weigh in, track their BMI, or any of the other sexist bullshit some clubs demand in the name of “maintaining quality.” 

We have another friend who has been taking pole dancing lessons for a while. This week she messaged Kat that she wanted to be a stripper and asked for any recommendations. There are several things to consider when deciding to enter the space commonly referred to as “sex work,” but the biggest was the fact that this friend had never been in a strip club in her life. Her only concept was what she’d seen on television and in movies. 

Kat went into full-on Momma Bear mode. If her friend wanted to be a stripper, Kat was going to make sure it was someplace safe, both physically and emotionally. She contacted our friend who manages the strip club. They made arrangements for them all to meet at the club one evening so that the would-be stripper would have a chance to see what it’s actually like on an off night, ask questions to both the managers and the other girls working there. They gave her the low-down, holding nothing back, explaining the shortcomings as well as the benefits. By the end of the night, our friend had agreed to give it a try. 

Now, I want us to stop right here so you can ask yourself a question. How do you feel about a young woman taking a job stripping versus, say, working in a daycare? How do you feel about us supporting her in this particular ambition? Most importantly, how would you have responded if you were the one she came to for this advice?

On one level, none of those questions matter. You don’t know my friends, they didn’t ask you anything, and outside my telling you this story, it’s none of your business. At the same time, though, how you answered those questions reveals a lot about you, your attitude toward sex work and the people it employs, the way in which you judge people based on their profession rather than their humanity, and the misogyny that your brain automatically applied to that situation. 

The attitudes that many people feel when topics like this come up are not new, but neither are they justified and it’s time we stopped sweeping them under the rug in hopes that they’ll just go away. Why? Because when we don’t pay attention, bad things happen, people get hurt, and too often, people die. 

The murder of eight people at Atlanta-area massage parlors this week, and the ridiculous excuse that was given for them, raises a truck-load of issues. There’s anti-Asian sentiment that has seen a dramatic rise in the past year. There’s the gun control issue where a 21-year-old man was able to purchase a gun and use it to commit murder on the same day. There’s the matter of law-enforcement appearing to be sympathetic to the shooter, saying he, “just had a bad day.” All of those are worthwhile conversations that we cannot begin to tackle in the next 20 minutes. So, we’re going to focus on sex work, our antiquated views, the damage done by those views, and why we need to change things.

Do You Like Sex, Mr. Lebowski?

It would, in my opinion, take a rather warped mind to consider The Big Lebowski anything remotely close to an erotic film, but the conversation not only comes up but porn becomes a significant plot point. When we first meet the character, Maude, she is wearing a leather harness and asks the Dude, “Does the female form make you uncomfortable, Mr. Lebowski?” The entire conversation dances around Maude’s involvement in art that, “has been commended as being strongly vaginal. Which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina.”

Now, all the Dude wants is his rug back, but interestingly enough, Maude uses sex to dominate the conversation. 

MAUDE: Do you like sex, Mr. Lebowski?
DUDE: Excuse me?
MAUDE: Sex. The physical act of love. Coitus. Do you like it?
DUDE: I was talking about my rug.
MAUDE: You’re not interested in sex?
DUDE: You mean coitus? 

MAUDE: I like it too. It’s a male myth about feminists that we hate sex. It can be a natural, zesty enterprise. But unfortunately, there are some people–it is called satyriasis in men, nymphomania in women–who engage in it compulsively and without joy.
DUDE: Oh, no.
MAUDE: Yes Mr. Lebowski, these unfortunate souls cannot love in the true sense of the word. Our mutual acquaintance Bunny is one of these.
DUDE: Listen, Maude, I’m sorry if your stepmother is a nympho, but I don’t see what it has to do with–do you have any Kahlua? 

What we learn soon enough is that the elder Lebowski is using his wife’s alleged kidnapping as a method through which he is embezzling a million dollars from a foundation he runs with Maude in order to cover his debts.  What transpires beyond that point is both frightening and darkly hilarious.

What the 1998 Coen Brothers film gets right is the assumption that amateur productions were about to take over the entire porn industry, putting more power in the hands of the women involved, at least at the production level. We’ve seen that come true more than ever this past year with self-production platforms like Only Fans taking in more money for the women involved than ever. 

This also means that more women are embracing the opportunity to use sex as a means of income. If the movie were being made today, the Big Lewbowski would have to find another way of embezzling the money. Bunny, whose real name was Fawn Gunderson from Minnesota, could have made more money sitting in her bedroom with a high-speed internet connection, not needing to involve anyone else at all. 

Many of our attitudes toward sex and sexuality have changed since 1998, and that’s a good thing. We’re more understanding and open to the variances of the gender spectrum and the various forms of sexuality one might present, not that the situation is perfect by a long shot, but fewer people are having to hide in closets than they were 23 years ago. We see more implied nudity on television now, and with streaming services being a self-monitored medium, we’re discovering that few adults have any issue with their children seeing casual nudity, or even sex, in the movies they watch. 

What’s not changed, however, is the antiquated views we have toward people, and businesses, involved in any form of sex work. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the self-initiated business of Only Fans or a strip club or a massage parlor, they all present problems for the people involved. Banks, for example, consider people who are professional sex workers to be “high risk” and won’t open accounts for them unless they list some other form of income. Many credit card companies won’t do business with them for the same reason. Want a mortgage to buy your own home? Forget it if you list any form of “adult” entertainment as your occupation. Even legal businesses, such as strip clubs and massage parlors, have to work through an unreasonable maze of complications to be able to accept credit cards, lease or purchase space, and avoid unfair zoning restrictions. 

Our attitudes toward sex may have changed, but how we treat sex workers and their business is still stuck in the 1950s and needs to change.

Look At That Fucking Phony, Dude

Of the many disturbing aspects of this past week’s murders in Atlanta is the excuse the shooter gave. On Wednesday, the 17th, a Cherokee County Sherrif’s Captain said, “He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations [massage parlors] as something that allows him to go to these places and — it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.” He later added, “He was kind of fed up and at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.”

Do you see what the Captain did there? Not only did he attempt to mitigate the fact that the shooting was unquestionably a hate crime against Asians, but he tried to dismiss it as nothing more than a “really bad day” resulting from self-diagnosed sex addiction. By making such claims, the sheriff’s office is corroborating with the shooter in attempting to reduce the charges ultimately filed against him. Adding a hate crime on top of a murder charge significantly increases the potential punishment, possibly invoking a death sentence. The sheriff’s office is trying to help the shooter get a lighter sentence.

That such a discrepancy is possible, that shooting sex workers is somehow less horrific, is demeaning and dehumanizing. Blaming it on a sex addiction is ludicrous. Here’s why:

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, or DSM, published by the American Psychological Association, the guidebook by which all forms of addiction disorders are diagnosed, does not recognize sex addiction as a valid disorder. Among the reasons they don’t accept sex addiction as valid is that a majority of researchers find no valid evidence of such. There is a severe lack of empirical evidence and what little exists is tainted by those using it as an excuse or inflating it for personal profit. In other words, sex addiction is something that unethical therapists use to bilk millions of dollars out of insurance companies and marriage partners use to excuse their own infidelity. That’s not to say that the shooter doesn’t have some form of obsessive/compulsive disorder, but that’s a very different diagnosis that extends beyond anything to do with sex and in no way justifies shooting eight innocent people. 

Such victim-blaming on the part of both the shooter and the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department is a symptom of this antiquated pseudo-morality we have placed on sex work. If you get caught dropping your rent money at a strip club, it’s somehow their fault. The dancers “teased” it out of you. If you send the money set aside for your power bill to someone on Only Fans, they coerced you into giving them more money. None of that is true, of course, but those are the excuses we use and, just like the Big Lebowski’s ruse of a kidnapping, it’s all bullshit and anyone making such claims is as phony as anyone can be.

Did You Think This Was About Fun and Games?

Both the legal and social attitudes toward sex work are responsible for what happened in Atlanta this week. It pains me, knowing Southern Baptists in that part of Georgia, that even as you’re reading or listening to this, some preacher down there is praising the shooter’s actions, claiming that he was doing God a favor and that he will be ultimately rewarded in heaven. No grief for those whose lives were lost. No accountability for the crimes that were committed. Not even an acknowledgment of immorality. This is the attitude that led the shooter to do the heinous things he did and is the same attitude, perpetuated in churches all across the United States, that prevents sex workers from being treated fairly or allowing them to be safe. 

The good news is that not everyone is so easily fooled. Not everyone believes the gross misinterpretation of 2,000-year-old mythologies. There are a number of people and organizations that recognize the fallacies and lack of humanity in how sex work is treated and are doing something about it.

On Wednesday this week, shortly after the Cherokee County Sheriff’s statement was released, the Barnard Center for Research On Women, a part of Barnard College at Columbia University, issued a statement that includes this paragraph:

We defend the dignity, safety, and freedom of Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander communities, women, queer, trans, and nonbinary folks, sex workers, service workers, street vendors, people unhoused, people in prisons, immigrants, the undocumented, refugees, and all who are targeted by this racist violence. With heartbreak, rage, and committed solidarity, we share these resources for all of us to take action, support mutual aid projects, train in self-defense and bystander intervention, and build our political education.

I’ve read that statement probably two dozen times now and it echoes in my soul each time I do. The women killed were mothers, grandmothers, and wives. They had families. Some had immigrated, but others were born here. The youngest victim, only 33, was there with her husband for a couples massage. She had recently given birth to her second child and it was a rare treat for the two of them to spend time together. There is absolutely ZERO evidence that any of the businesses or women employed by them ever engaged in any form of sexual activity. Instead, they were targeted because of both racial and sexual stigmatization. 

In 2018, the organization Human Rights Watch filed suit against a US law known as FOSTA that specifically targets sex workers. Their reason was fundamentally clear:

FOSTA restricts sex workers’ freedom of expression and endangers them. It should be scrapped for several good reasons. But one is that it might stop you from doing something you might believe you have the constitutional right to do: help protect the rights of some of the most marginalized people on our planet.

In their continued fight to decriminalize sex work in the United States, Human Rights Watch makes the issue of sex work one of human rights. Why?

Criminalizing adult, voluntary, and consensual sex – including the commercial exchange of sexual services – is incompatible with the human right to personal autonomy and privacy. In short – a government should not be telling consenting adults who they can have sexual relations with and on what terms.

Criminalization exposes sex workers to abuse and exploitation by law enforcement officials, such as police officers. Human Rights Watch has documented that, in criminalized environments, police officers harass sex workers, extort bribes, and physically and verbally abuse sex workers, or even rape or coerce sex from them.

What’s more, if you’re LGBTQ-identifying, the dangers are more than tripled. Evidence of crimes against transgendered sex workers has been especially high over the past five years. As horrifying as the events in Atlanta were, such violence is a reality that sex workers have to face every day, and too often there is no one they can rely on for support.

It’s A Complicated Case

The fight to decriminalize sex work has been the official board policy of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) since 1975. They continually fight against laws at state and local levels that would not only endanger sex workers but for anyone who might be mistaken for a sex worker. They lay out a strong set of reasons why sex work should be decriminalized. I’ll give you the short version here.

Decriminalization would reduce police violence against sex workers
If sex work were decriminalized, sex workers would no longer fear arrest if they seek justice, and police would lose their power to use that fear in order to abuse people.

Decriminalization would make sex workers less vulnerable to violence from clients
Sex workers became even more vulnerable to abuse from clients after the passage of SESTA/FOSTA in 2018. [The law] banned many online platforms for sex workers, including client screening services, which allowed sex workers to share information about abusive and dangerous customers and build communities to protect themselves. 

Decriminalization would allow sex workers to protect their own health
Criminal law enforcement of sex work comes with unjust police practices, like the use of condoms as evidence of intent to do sex work. As a result, some sex workers and people who are profiled as sex workers may opt not to carry condoms due to the risk of arrest. This puts them at risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Decriminalization would advance equality for the LGBTQ community
If sex work is decriminalized, police would have one less tool to harass and marginalize trans women of color. Sex workers, and especially trans women, would be more able to govern their own bodies and livelihoods. Decriminalizing sex work would promote the message that Black trans lives matter.

Decriminalization would reduce mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system
Decriminalizing sex work would be a major step toward decarceration and reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. It would keep sex workers from being harmed by the collateral consequences of a criminal record. It would help prevent the marginalization of sex workers and destigmatize sex work.

As a photographer, I have known hundreds of professional sex workers over the years. They often make good art models because they can be relaxed and casual displaying their bodies in front of the camera. Not once did I meet one who wasn’t truly compassionate, focused, and determined in their goals. But I’ve also not met many who weren’t cautious, careful, and suspicious of anything that might lead to an encounter with law enforcement. On one occasion, I walked into a young woman’s apartment to find that the IRS had confiscated all her furniture, claiming she had under-reported her income. In another instance, a former Playboy model related how she had no copies of her work with the magazine after they were all stolen by pretend-boyfriends. And there are many more stories, stories that shouldn’t happen simply because being a sex worker leaves people with little recourse when crimes are committed against them.

The Atlanta murders should be a wake-up call for the entire country that we need to re-think our ridiculously outdated and inhuman laws concerning sex work. If we don’t, crimes like this will continue to happen. Crimes against women and men, gay and trans people, Asian and Black people, mothers, fathers, and grandparents who are doing nothing more than trying to make a living and carve out a place in a cruel society.

I worry about my friend who manages the bar. I worry about all the young women who work there and other bars in the city. I worry because I know if something goes wrong, anything at all, the legal system won’t support them. Their accusations will be dismissed. They’ll be blamed for whatever happened. They’ll be marginalized and demoralized and their rights will be ignored. 

Let’s bring this to an end. Let’s decriminalize sex work at the federal level so that no one in any state is excluded.

Let me leave you with these words:
Thank you,
For supporting people who choose to work outside the system;
Thank you,
For remembering that not everyone has to share your beliefs;
Thank you,
For teaching your children that a person is a person, not their job;
Thank you,
For being the compassionate person in a world of ugliness and cruelty;
Thank you,
For speaking up for those who don’t feel safe speaking for themselves.

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