Managing Identity as a Sex Working Parent
I wasn’t surprised to see the screenshots. A gossip forum had been stalking my Twitter account for years. What was surprising was an announcement about my pregnancy on a Black Twitter Net Famous thread on a popular white-owned forum (with a Black woman figurehead).* In another screenshot, anonymous people quipped about my “poor pussy management” and speculated about my partner’s income, while others joked about my perceived inability to feed my children, saying they were waiting for me to tweet my cash links—complete with an identity-label caption—begging for money. Digital panhandling (e-begging) is widely frowned upon and sex workers and poor people are often accused of scamming, though there is little data to confirm this. Similarly, there are few studies of adults experiencing cyberbullying. When I complained to a former friend that I felt I was being unfairly targeted because I’m a Black sex worker, she responded with, “Don’t be a martyr.”
Prior to getting on medication for ADHD and anxiety/PPD, I followed the forum conversations about myself obsessively, and would panic at mentions of people looking up my partner’s Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) or suggesting that the police should get involved to “protect” my children. Mentions of me have been punctuated with corny references to a since-deleted tweet requesting financial assistance and containing a caption about me and my son surviving on oatmeal and ramen when I was a struggling single parent. Speculations about the worth of my pussy and why it’s not “selling” followed. Since then, there have been random jokes involving the possibility of me feeding my child gruel and watery hot-cereal, or comments about my hygiene, which they assumed was lacking because I’m a sex worker. My involvement in sex work invites constant questions about my parental fitness; thus I am hypervigilant regarding my children’s exposure to inappropriate materials, employing parental blocks and locks on applications, as well as parental controlled age limits on my older child’s tablet.
Hypervisibility on Twitter has led to my being doxxed and harassed in the past. After an incident in 2018, I took steps to protect myself by mass blocking people, muting others, and closing my inbox to anyone who is not a “mutual” (meaning we follow each other). These practices, along with choosing not to engage with gossip about me after 2019, have settled things down considerably. In the past I received threats ranging from mass-reporting my account because I “refuse to get a job and stop e-begging,” or calling child services on me for obviously being an inept parent who can’t provide adequately for her children. I went to the courthouse in 2018 to ask what I could do legally to protect myself, but they had no answer for me. This is a problem for many sex workers, as there aren’t many resources tailored to our needs on how to protect ourselves.
Academic sources tend to focus on an analog version of the sex industry, resulting in a disproportionate number of studies on street-based sex work and a lack of adequate reporting on the overlap between digital and face-to-face (F2F) sex work. Policymakers consider sex workers “a victim group” instead of recognizing our variable needs and experiences. A lot of this is due to the fact that sex workers are often left out of discourse and research that concerns us. In a recent Twitter thread, I wrote: “People generally seem to have a hard time reconciling the fact that a majority of modern-day processes are conducted online. Mired in the analog age of whoredom, the response has been to engage additive analyses of oppression, erasing marginalized people who utilize the internet.” Studies have shown that “common understandings of sex work exclude the majority of the industry,” most of which has entered the digital sphere or utilizes adult websites.
Cyber sex work is often approached as a separate phenomenon instead of a modern-day extension of the sex industry as a whole. Many articles consider violence to be sexual or physical (harm or death). Cyber violence such as “sextortion,” cyberstalking, and other forms of cyber harassment (such as policies that limit access to payment processors, blackmail, and stigma) that cause psychological and emotional distress are considered to be less harmful, unless occurring F2F. Research on cyber violence is still in its infancy, though it is speculated that “[a]nonymity may contribute to online aggression and violence” and that “an associated lack of accountability… may contribute to the aggressive nature of users’ comments.” Cyber sex work, such as camming or OnlyFans, is considered “low risk,” even though “[c]yber violence can lead to similar levels of fear and distress as real-world violence.” Articles about camming and internet porn tend to lean into empowerment rhetoric, with writers proclaiming the advantages and flexibility of working from home, the ability to set one’s own schedule, and the power of owning your own business.
What these articles neglect to mention is that many sex workers enter the trade to provide for their loved ones, are disabled, or have been previously incarcerated. Many studies discuss the trend of formerly incarcerated and poor and working-class women engaging in gendered formal low-wage labor and informal labor (commercial sex work) in order to make enough money to survive. But it is difficult to find studies that approach sex work mothering and sex work; the ones that do focus on street-based sex workers and drug users, utilizing what I term the “savior approach,” which requires one to be a victim in the anti-trafficking advocacy paradigm in order to qualify for assistance.
Sex work stigma has likely prevented a comprehensive study of sex worker mothers/parents—even though some studies indicate that a good portion of sex workers are parents. According to a dissertation published by Kathleen S. Kenny about Canadian sex workers in Vancouver, sex working parents “experience disproportionately high levels of intervention by the child protection system, largely influenced by the ways that poverty, racism, colonialism, the sex work legal environment, and stigma intersect in their lives.” In a small study of 19 sex worker parents, two of whom were fathers, it was found that former sex worker parents were significantly more likely to be able to retain a relationship with their child than parents who were engaged in sex work at the time of trial. The study argued: “…courts appeared to treat involvement in sex work as an adverse factor when considering what is in the best interests of the child without considering the particular evidence regarding the sex worker parent and any impact of same on the child.”
There is value in visiting the concept of radical-transformative agency, “a unified process of people collaboratively transforming circumstances of their life and, simultaneously, in this very process, of people being themselves transformed and brought into realization by their own transformative practices.” The emphasis of radical-transformative agency is to examine “the social ways through which people collectively act on the world to produce their communal lives constitute a fundamental, determining foundation for all forms of their knowing, being, and doing.” By privileging our knowledge and discussing the realities of the sex trade from our perspective as parents, non-parents, and caregivers, we can influence sex work narratives, claim ownership of our experiences, and command recognition of our expert knowledge. But in the present reality where “child welfare laws and regulations… conflate parental sex work with poor parenting,” I constantly must take precaution to protect myself and my family.
Chief among these precautions is refusing questions about my present-day erotic labor—even if that means internet strangers will question my authenticity as a sex worker and sex work writer. I never discuss in-person sex work on social media in the present tense. Currently, I have over 20k followers on Twitter. I have no degrees and I am wading in an arena that is dominated by people with graduate degrees and much more cultural capital. In 2019, a Twitter user implied that my chosen silence and my choice to approach sex work as informal labor (or antiwork) was a sign that my (hyper)visibility on Twitter is unearned and unfair to other “real” sex workers: “There are a lot of issues w/ her being one of the most followed SWers on here as she’s not a full-time FSSW (like many of the women critiquing her), but an occasional dabbler.” Comments like this, and many others, put pressure on sex working mothers/parents to disclose their criminalized labor history to provide legitimacy; actions that place both themselves, and their children, at risk.
Sex work stigma has affected my relationship with some of my maternal family; one family member weaponized what she knew about me and threatened to call child protective services under the guise of concern for my children, particularly my daughter. As a queer, non-binary Black parent, gendered female by the cis-heteronormative gaze, it is in my best interest to remain ambiguous about the details and nature of my work.† Unfortunately, this often leads to the dismissal of my lived experiences and bids to prove my authenticity via revealing personal information on the internet. It’s a constant, delicate balancing act that I have to take seriously to protect myself and my loved ones. As a community, we need to push back against a culture of subversive authenticity that pressures sex worker parents to disclose. Forcing sex workers to endanger themselves to prove a point is pornephobic and anti-feminist.‡ With mounting digital surveillance of marginalized communities in the 21st century, asking marginalized people, especially Black people, to divulge their criminalized labor history is tantamount to violence.
* I won’t identify the forum directly, but it masks its antiblackness and misogynoir by letting people believe that the site is Black-owned. It’s a popular forum with Black women, and it traffics celebrity gossip, but has extended its topical reach to Black influencers and internet famous subjects, keeping tabs on their various social media accounts and reporting back to the threads. Users are usually anonymous.
† I phrase this “gendered-female” because I’m trying to convey that though I’m nonbinary and queer (bisexual), I’m still subject to the cisgender heteronormative gaze which genders me as “female/woman,” which in turn affects and influences my experiences.
‡ I first defined “pornephobia” in the Spring 2021 issue of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review: “Pornephobia” could be used to describe a specific distaste for those who have filmed transactional sex or otherwise publicly display erotic behavior, or for pornography specifically. “Greek porne ‘prostitute’ is related to pernemi ‘sell,’ with an original notion probably of a female slave sold for prostitution.” I also defined it in a previous Peepshow article.
moses moon, better known on Twitter as thotscholar (formerly femi babylon) is a sex intellectual, guerilla eroticist, hoodoo-American conjurer, and low-end theorist. She is a co-founder of the Disabled Sex Workers Coalition and a board member at SWOP-USA. Her writing has been featured in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review (Spring 2021), We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival (Feminist Press), VICE, Autostraddle, Afropunk, Wear Your Voice, and Yale University’s Law and Political Economy (LPE) Blog. She is currently at work on her second book, Low-End Theory.