Note: Interview edited for length and clarity.
As a phone sex operator, I encounter a wide range of fantasies. Clients are often self-conscious about their desires, thinking that they are the only ones who experience them; but, sex workers easily recognize that our client’s fantasies don’t come out of nowhere.
Once you’ve done this particular form of work for any length of time, it is easy to see that fantasies take shape around familiar cultural tropes and anxieties. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that race and gender (and more to the point, racism and sexism) often feature prominently in these fantasies.
As a white sex worker, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about how to respond to racism when I see it in my clients (which is more often than I would like to admit), and interrogating the ways that I have reinforced white supremacist notions by failing to adequately dismantle them in my work with clients and in my life more broadly.
In recent weeks, as folks are protesting police brutality and racism across the nation, a lot of Black sex workers have also spoken out about how they have been treated within the community and how the ignorance of white sex workers continues to perpetuate and harm Black sex workers. If white sex workers want to make racial justice a reality in our industry, then we need to listen closely when our Black comrades call us in.
For this reason, I was inspired to reach out to Shy Spells, a Black content creator who has been vocalizing ways in which white models are negatively impacting Black sex workers.
Tell me a little about yourself and your career.
I’m Shy Spells, and I consider myself an online content creator. I provide a lot of online services like pictures, videos, custom videos, webcam performances, live shows, one-on-one shows, etc.
Currently, I have been mostly focused on OnlyFans because Onlyfans has been really good to me.
I started this career in July of 2017, so I am a month shy of 3 years in the industry.
This is an intense time. So first off, how are you doing?
Honestly, in my household we are overall we are very good. I am very blessed. I don’t know if I did something good in the past life, but my ancestors must be looking out for me. My income hasn’t been affected, and my husband has a salary and that hasn’t been impacted by COVID.
In terms of COVID, I live in a very small town and there wasn’t much to do anyway, so it honestly doesn’t feel any different. The only thing I really noticed was that picking up groceries was a little harder. Everything else was about the same.
There were Black Lives Matters riots in my town, but even still, I didn’t even realize they were happening until I saw it on Twitter (and I was right downtown when it was going on). We just don’t have the numbers to show up in the way that you do in bigger towns.
How are both of these issues impacting your life and your work?
I have been experiencing overt racism. Yesterday I went into a pawnshop with my husband, who is white. I saw an NRA sticker and immediately didn’t feel welcome. I was looking for an air conditioner and I thought to myself, “If the owner doesn’t talk to me about it, maybe he will talk to my husband.” And even though I was very polite, he just ignored me, so we walked out.
Where I live, we have a high Black population, so I typically don’t go to places where there aren’t Black people. But when I went into this place, it was a reminder that this still happens. For a moment I wondered if I was making it up in my head, but I asked my husband and he confirmed that I was flat ignored.
The biggest thing has been seeing people who I thought were my friends say really ignorant things, especially on Facebook. I am so tired of hearing “All Lives Matter.” No matter how many times I explain why this is a problem, it doesn’t get anywhere. It gets so redundant explaining and explaining.
You have been vocal recently on Twitter about the ways that the sex industry is very different for Black performers than it is for white performers. Can you tell us a little more about this? What do you think some of the challenges are that are unique to Black performers?
I wanted to be a sex worker since before I was 18 but I always thought, “I can’t be a sex worker because I’m fat.” I got over that and started about 3 years ago, and when I did I came to find out that the hate I got was not from being fat—it was from being Black. Being fat isn’t the issue; the issue is that I’m Black.
When I worked on Chaturbate, a lot of trolls would say: “You are a “N word,” or “You look pretty good for a Black Girl,” or “You should show me your tits for free, I won’t pay for ‘N word’ tits.”
At first, I would think, “those are just trolls.” But when I got on Twitter and tried to branch out more, I realized there was also a lot of racism within the industry itself.
The racism from other performers, though, is more implicit, it is little nuances I notice. Take engagement threads, for example. I look at the thread and it is all white women or white passing women. The people retweeting and commenting are other white sex workers. It’s circle jerking; they engage with and retweet their white friends.
Back when I was on FB, I was in a private sex work group. In that group, I had models tell me, “You’re charging too low.” I commented and said, “Not everyone has the privilege to charge that much. The industry is skewed. People of color don’t always have the luxury to keep their followings when charging a lot.” They didn’t understand what I meant and they pretty much told me that the issue is not who the model is, it is the quality of their content.
Over the years I have invested in a better camera, a ring light, I got a two-bedroom so I could have a room dedicated to my work. I am now producing better quality content, but still seeing the same results.
As a phone sex operator, I often have white clients who want to play out racialized fantasies; it is fairly common on sites like Niteflirt. You were recently tweeting about the impact this has on Black sex workers and performers. Can you say more about this?
White models may think that the racism of their clients doesn’t impact them. They can shrug it off. Their clients will say or do racist things, or want to engage in racialized fantasies, and they will be “meh” about it. But these same clients will come to Black sex workers demanding lower rates. They say things like, “I only came to you because you are Black, and I thought I could get a cheaper rate.”
When white sex workers say things like, “I just took their money,” they don’t realize they are doing a disservice to Black sex workers who have to deal with racism that they are doing nothing to stop.
What do you think white sex workers should know about how Black sex workers are treated within the industry?
First, I am tired of hearing, “All you have to do is promote yourself.” Stop saying that. As a white model, you already have a leg up. White models and sex workers should at least acknowledge that a huge part of the engagement they get is because they are white. Stop acting like it is easy for everyone, and that everyone experiences the same thing. I thought I was crazy when I first started noticing how Black and white models are treated differently.
In terms of race play itself, I am a little conflicted. On the one hand, I realize that people are turned on by some things, I have weird fantasies myself. But in an industry where Black people already aren’t treated the same, where we already make less, it just continues to reduce us. A lot of things that are in porn trickle into everyday life.
I see a lot of white sex workers who do hardcore race play with slur after slur, talking specifically about Black clients. While they often claim that they are helping people work through their trauma, they don’t seem to recognize that they are profiting off of oppression. They act like they are doing a service; it just isn’t acceptable. They get to leave their sessions and go on to living their lives, but their Black clients are still Black, they are always Black. Black people are still dying.
White sex workers can’t just shrug this off as a kink; they are profiting off our oppression and doing nothing to dismantle it.
In sex work, a lot of people say that since we work in the realm of fantasy—that we can do whatever we want—not understanding that these fantasies bleed out into the world.
Jessie Sage is a sex worker and writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s also the co-founder of Peepshow Magazine and the co-host of the Peepshow Podcast. Her words can be found in the Washington Post, VICE’s Motherboard, Hustler Magazine, Men’s Health, BuzzFeed, and more. She’s currently writing a book on sex work, motherhood, and illness called An Unexpected Place (forthcoming on West Virginia University Press).