SESTA–One Whore’s Ground Truth


Four weeks of lobbying, tweeting, taking photos of myself and plastering SESTA all over the internet; filming myself in a corset calling Senator Markey and then having to edit out the 5 minutes it took his staffer to find a pen and paper and his wits after being told he had a sex worker on the phone; an unprecedented coalition of sex worker advocates and allies; the tech lobby; the trans rights lobby; the ACLU; and thousands of angry and terrified hookers. Then: 97-2.

When I heard, I was at home with my boyfriend having a nice, romantic day. And then: 97-2.

“It passed.” He looked up from stirring dinner. He had borne witness to the roller coaster of the past month, and he knew exactly what I meant.

My first reaction was what was about to happen couldn’t be confined to the indoors, and I didn’t necessarily want my partner watching. Slamming doors I ran outside in my day-off, tried-and-true, see-though stretchy clothes, the garage door flew open, I found my shovel. Running to the edge of the garden bed, I began pulling out the vestiges of last year’s garden, throwing kale stems and tomato branches behind me, dirt flying (I think I pulled a muscle because I was completely unaware of what I was doing—a mysterious pain appeared in my rib cage later once the adrenaline subsided). My chest heaved with sobs. I was incanting “97 to TWO.” “They want us to die. They want me to be dead”… After the decimation of the last of the sunflower stems, I grabbed the shovel and started turning over new dirt. It made no sense. But I needed to do something.

After a time, our downstairs neighbor drove up, and I realized I had to stop. I didn’t want our typically mild-mannered New-Englander neighbor to think that I had lost it. “It’s never too early,” I said by way of explanation, and fled behind the garage when he wasn’t looking. Completely out of breath, I slinked upstairs, took off my muddy shoes, and walked right past my partner and onto the porch where our seedlings were taking root. I sat under the table. “Ninety-seven to two.”

And then I began to cry for real. He followed me and sat on the floor by my side—but there was, quite simply, nothing he could do. There is nothing anyone can say to mitigate the reality that ninety-seven senators think that my life is disposable.

The weeks since the vote have not been any easier. Immediately, we began to see the effects. People taking down their social media profiles. Lots of sex worker comrades who perhaps didn’t understand the legislation, but knew that it was bad. And big. And wanted to protect themselves. “You’re playing into their hands,” I tweeted. “This is exactly what they want: a chilling effect on the industry so that they don’t have to pony up for law suits they can’t afford.” (Most of the advertising and blacklist platforms we use are hosted offshore; it is unclear what capacity Jeff Sessions has to sue a company based in Cyprus without awakening the ire of the international community—most of which has come to the conclusion that decriminalization of sex work is just good public policy—or so I tell myself at night when I’m trying to sleep). The Erotic Review, the site where I found my first client, took down their ad boards. “Your cowardice is appalling,” I tweeted at them. “The president hasn’t even signed the bill into law, and it won’t be implemented for months. There are women who need to feed their children. We all have rent to pay. COWARDICE.” (Of course, corporations never listen to people like me.) Craigslist took down their “personals” board. There’s a rumor that Squarespace is taking down websites without even informing their customer that they are doing so (I’ve been checking my Squarespace site every day to make sure it’s still up.) On the other side of the coin, in the days after SESTA, my tweets were read, liked, and re-tweeted more times than any naked selfie I have ever posted. Their tone reflected a sense of rational calm that I did not feel. But as someone who had studied the language of the bill, I had an obligation to inform my sisters/brothers/others what NOT to panic about. To try to stem the chaos—to put one small finger in the dam of terror and emotional breakdowns that almost all of us have had. Someone had to.

I find that I am tired all the time. But I’m lucky. Unlike many in our community, business is ok—for now. I worry about the future, but at the moment, I am making as much money as I have ever made. Many clients are blissfully ignorant of the potentially catastrophic realities we are facing. Others have called or e-mailed me just to make sure I’m ok.

When I work, I feel confused. The other day, after a particularly good orgasm, I thought to myself, “I just don’t get it. Sex is so normal. So human. Sex workers are so necessary.” For me, it never feels like a crime in the moment—it feels like two humans in a room being human, one of us periodically drawing on some acting skills. After a session with a regular with PLS mostly spent dancing to Prince (apparently I’m more effective than his psychotherapist and physical therapist combined), I thought, “We hold up the world. We really do. Without sex workers, society would crumble.” We are the invisible emotional safety net that people come to in their times of need, frustration, unfulfillment. People seek sex workers when they don’t know what they need, just that they are deeply unhappy in an intangible way. When they need a companion in a very lonely world. And the awful part is that we are so silenced that no one knows this simple, historically immutable fact. There never has been and never will be a society without prostitutes.

The activists among us with their fingers on the pulse of government knew that this was always going to pass. Being “anti-trafficking” is an easy sell. Swimming against the current because a lot of articulate hookers called your office and explained REASON in an empirical way…ah, midterms.

What has been underestimated, however is our anger. Specifically, our anger and intolerance of the fact that most of the people who voted for this bill know nothing about sex work, our lives, and have never asked a sex worker or trafficking victim what they need from their politicians. We know that this passed—many staffers even admitted to the fact—because of either ignorance, willful ignorance, or misinformation, a misconstrual of reality. “What bill?” the staffers would say when we called. “How do you spell that?” They asked, clearly trying to be friendly (as their job description dictates) while being entirely clueless that such a thing as a “sex worker lobby” exists.

They can be forgiven for that. It hasn’t. Well—it didn’t.

The power that has been unleashed by the passage of SESTA is something no one, not even the savviest of our activists, ever anticipated. It is a groundswell. It is all the grass and all our roots, extending deeply into many communities, some with a lot of political power. It has become conceivable that a day may come when the sex worker lobby equals in importance the pro-choice movement or the burgeoning trans-rights movement, which shares a vision with us in many ways. I also think, thanks to Law and Order SVU and every single detective TV show, where prostitutes are always murdered—always—the average American underestimates how much we read. How much we pay attention. Right now I’m elbow-deep in The Suffragette, a meticulously factual retelling of the militant feminist movement culminating in universal suffrage for women in the UK, as witnessed by Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst (c.f., my pseudonym). We are also studying the effects of the Contagious Diseases Act in Victorian England, as well as the long history of political activism on the part of sex workers in France, including the notorious demonstration that galvanized feminists to support prostitutes and merited a visit by feminist luminary Simone de Beauvoir, which inspired International Whores’ Day (June 2nd).

To this day, when people think of women, they don’t imagine us putting bombs in post office boxes because four successive prime ministers have not enacted universal suffrage despite the fifty gals in beautiful Victorian hats sitting in the gallery at parliament, chanting until they were sentenced to prison or a fine—and even the wealthiest of women never paid a fine over the political statement made by ladies of status surviving months in Newgate, where heating in the winter was a distant but annoying idea and gruel was an actual thing.

In short, we are taking notes. We are studying up. We are compiling data (lost of us are scientists—how do you think people afford college in this era of “Rich family? No? You’re on your own, kid”). We are remembering the tactics that ACT-UP used to shut down the FDA when people with AIDS were dying by the thousands with no treatment in sight; how gay citizens won the right to marry; how women have periodically emerged from under the thumb of every society we have ever inhabited, gradually, in dogged pursuit of equality. We are witnessing how sex workers have been the “canary in the coal mine” for every women’s equality movement known to history, scoping out the battlefield before the rearguard of “respectable” women arrive.

You men have it easy. With a few notable exceptions—feudalism, the killing-fields of cotton and tobacco, the draft, the modern prison-industrial complex and its appetite for black men—you have never had to wonder to whom your body belongs. Under current law, my body does not belong to myself. The way I use it is outlawed, and, if caught, will belong to the carceral system. I don’t think any of us of the vulvular persuasion can ever explain to you what it feels like to possess a spirit inhabiting an illegal vessel.

 Politicians seem to think they can create a world without hookers. They are wrong. They always have been wrong, for hundreds of years. Most of them know why we’re important—they’re just afraid to tell their friends or speak about it on the Senate floor. It’s ok. We’ll tell them for you.

And for those inhabitants of the Capitol: We will educate you about our lives if it means prison. We will educate you about our clients, from the ones who rape us at gunpoint to the ones who have remembered our birthdays every year since they met us. We are coming for your ignorance. With grace, with beauty, with courage, with stories of tragedy and death, with stories of timelessness, with razor-sharp perception, and, foremost, with data—the ground truth—we will take your ignorance prisoner, as you have taken so many of us prisoner, and transform the seat of power of this country into a body that understands that you have voted to cause us to die, and that those of us who survive to tell the stories of the silenced, the incarcerated, and dead will hold you accountable for the trauma, suicides, and murders that will result from depriving us of our connectivity online and our human rights—and you will hear us, or the country will know of the willfulness of your cowardice. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have a connection to sex work or a sex worker—including many of you—and we will no longer suffer indifference to our fates. We are coming to expand your awareness. If you will not—we are coming for your seats.

 You who threatened us with hell,

we have come to eat at your table.


Emma Pankhurst