Chicago’s Black Sex Workers Hold Each Other Up

This is Autostraddle’s “How To Survive A Post(?)-COVID World” series. In some areas, COVID restrictions are lifting, but regardless of how “post”-COVID some of our individual worlds might feel, a pandemic and its lasting effects rage on. These writers are sharing their struggles and practical knowledge to help readers survive, heal and thrive in 2021.


“$50 and a tre?” CJ texts me at 8AM on a weekday much like the ones before it — at the last minute with hopes of negotiating. I am exhausted, too exhausted to go back and forth with him, but I manage to stand my ground with a quick and simple “no” in response. “You sure?” he asks. “Sure you don’t need anything?”

The framing of this question from a former client who is well-aware of my rates and boundaries during a global pandemic angers me. Him offering far less than what I regularly charge plus a bag of weed adds insult to injury. But what bothers me most is that he knows exactly what he is doing. CJ sees me as a discounted sexual object — one unworthy of boundaries and, more than likely after this conversation, a very ungrateful one.

When he calls, I forward him to voicemail and block him soon after. Though this brings me some level of comfort, I know that we will have to cross paths in the near future. We stay in the same neighborhood.

There are other sex workers in the area who also keep their distance from CJ and others like him. He has a reputation on the blade as a boundary-pusher who never pays up the full amount once he gets us (Black “survival” sex workers/ lower-income providers) alone. Some of us experienced threats of physical violence. Others have been humiliated in public spaces or at community gatherings. And while hoes on the South and West Sides of Chicago navigate survival during this particular time, these kinds of experiences are getting worse.

On My Block

Chicago’s racialized geographic history shows over a century of Black erotic labor pockets throughout the city, starting with the Levee’s existence from the 1870s through the early 1900s. Then white flight happened along with post-Great Migration gentrification and the strategic development of segregated neighborhoods. This pushed entire Black communities, including laborers of the sex industry, further south and west, creating the strolls and vice districts we are familiar with today. The city’s segregation established a clear difference in the value attached to one’s erotic labor. The further south or west you are as a Black sex worker, the more likely you are to experience attempts at price negotiation, heavy policing and violence.

In addition to anti-Blackness and whorehobia/ heauxphobia, there is also the stigma attached to labor in lower-income communities and predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods. With that comes limited views on fair treatment, legislation, compensation and what it means for clients to get their “bang for your buck.” We are supposed to be grateful for what we get, even if that means being tossed scraps and disrespect. This is the case whether you’re dancing in clubs or working the stroll.

Sociologist Siobhan Brooks discusses this dynamic in her book Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry: “The criminalization of desire industries, along with intersections of racism, classism, and geographic location, adds to isolation of people and the disruption of communities.” She continues, “This last point is critical to understanding how zoning laws, along with systemic disinvestment in low-income communities of color, affects workers in desire industries, and the larger community that surrounds them. It also affects how customers view strip clubs and the value placed on the women who work in them regarding safety and wages.”

Black sex workers are deemed less valuable, creating environments where they are expected to perform more emotional, physical and erotic labor for less compensation than their non-Black peers and colleagues. This places them at the bottom of the heauxarchy/ whorearchy pyramid and aids in developing environments where harm and violence are oftentimes overlooked. Whenever I see civvies cruising red light districts for laughs and entertainment, I think of this. When I am reminded of club raids and street sweeps, I think of this.

In my neighborhood, there are two strolls with a park in-between them that has been used as disposal grounds for prostitutes in the area for well over twenty years. This, too, crosses my mind when considering the stigma attached to race, location, sex work and value systems.

We Were Here and We Were Loud

Around this time last year, we gathered at Washington Park for a march and vigil organized by Chicago Hoes for Sex Work, Stripper Strike Chicago, Aura House, Molasses, Kopano and Lynzo. “I specifically chose Washington Park because I believe Black Trans people and Black sex workers deserve to sit in the parks of their communities and watch the best sunset on the southside of the city,” Lynzo said.

We mourned community members who are no longer here with us. We celebrated their lives. We built an altar. We sang and we danced. The entire summer, the city erupted in protests and uprising. We were tired. We were angry. We were drained.

Just months before that, COVID-19 had entered the picture, drastically affecting our livelihoods and loved ones. We were already feeling the impacts of recent legislation like revamped loitering laws aimed at prostitutes and FOSTA/ SESTA. I thought about what it meant to be part of Black sex working community and our long history of organizing, mutual aid, protests and movements. I thought about what it meant to stand beside one another screaming at the top of our lungs. Who else but us will remind the world that we have been here rooted in rich soil that we cultivated and nourished?

Fight, Flight and the Gray Areas In-Between

We are now over a year into this pandemic reality. Some sex workers have retired or are on hiatus, and others are making it work with current stipulations in place. I have found myself fluctuating between long breaks and “turbo mode” periods where I struggle with what’s best as a full service provider (and sometimes cam model). My best-paying client of more than ten years no longer frequents my boudoir or smut sites. Other clients have made more attempts at nickle-and-diming than I would like to count. “Freestyling” has been difficult. Violence on the clock has increased and staying caught up with rent and other bills has been an obstacle. I am never satisfied, whether it be full-service, camming or creative projects like @HeauxHistory. I always feel this sense of imbalance, never quite focused on one particular thing, which leaves me with an odd feeling of guilt no matter how “productive” I am. Comrades remind me to be kind to myself. I remind myself (and them) that I am trying.

Offerings

In the past few months, we’ve lost quite a few sex workers. Before we even have a moment to process, we begin planning around funeral costs, survival needs for family and friends and what memorializing and celebrating our loved ones looks like. We gather and mobilize. We pass around the same $20 – $100 to help each other through. We take a second to feel and get back to work. We light candles and pour out libations on the block.

When I got the news about my grandmother passing, my heart sank. Although my family had planned around this and I was able to get in some bonding moments before she left, I knew I was losing a certain kind of understanding that only existed with her. Granny survived and provided for her family through multiple gigs, including erotic labor. When I got into the game and was ostracized by other family members, she took me in. I always had a home with her.

Already feeling the loss of two community members (rest up V and Nona), I prepared for another memorial event of a fellow Black sex worker. It wasn’t saying goodbye that was difficult — it was recognizing that this particular part of her history and life would be ignored, erased, glossed over.

When I spoke at her funeral, I shared the last voicemail she left me. I wrote a letter, but I couldn’t bring myself to read it. Instead, I placed my message to her in the coffin along with a crystal I carried for weeks. I went to the water and sprinkled orchids and peonies into the ripples and waves. I thanked her for loving me, for showing me what it means to build community, for teaching me how to stand my ground, for showing me how to apply make up, for gifting me my first set of silky slips and pajamas, for waiting up for me during late nights to make sure I made it home safely (and to gossip).

When I made it home, I could not eat or sleep much. Sex worker friends checked in, offered their support, reminded me that I am loved and that “the work” can wait. For days I sat with how many of us have had to say goodbye to our loved ones. I thought about the ways Black sex workers impact their communities, the way we share our stories, the urgency in our cadence and how important it is that we celebrate ourselves and one another. When I am asked how we are surviving COVID-19 I consider the ways we pour into one another and band together. We survive hand in hand, side by side.


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Rebelle Cunt (they/she) is an indie scholar, researcher, writer, and organizer from Chicago (current fs SWer and cam model/former exotic dancer). Their work centers Black erotic labor and collecting the narratives/stories of community members. Formerly of SWOP-USA * Creator/Founder of @HeauxHistory * Recent narrative essay can be found in We Too: Essays on Sex Work & Survival

Rebelle has written 1 article for us.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this in the midst of your pain. Your grandmother sounds like a force. I hope that more and more folks are able to learn the power of community and mutual aid by the stories you share. It’sdefinitely can eye opening for me.

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