Why Black Sex Work is Essential Work
[Author’s note: All uses of “female/s”, “woman/women”, and “girl/s” in this article are trans-inclusive. All instances of “Black” in reference to people have been capitalized, in keeping with updated AP guidelines.]
If sex work is indeed “the world’s oldest profession”, and the end goal of that work is 100% customer satisfaction, then sex work is also the world’s oldest essential work. It makes little sense that such hostility and shame toward sex work and sex workers still exists, especially towards Black female sex workers.
A large cross section of society still also chastises those seeking the services of sex workers, much like we did in 1994 when Hugh Grant agreed to accept the services of then 19-year-old Divine Brown. After being caught by police in Grant’s parked car on Sunset Boulevard, both were arrested and charged for lewd conduct in public—to which both pleaded no contest—were fined nearly identical amounts, and ordered to complete an AIDS education program.
One item worth unpacking here is that Grant had allegedly never been with a Black woman. He was, at the time, publicly and monogamously tied to Caucasian-passing British model/actress Elizabeth Hurley. And because the “Jezebel” narrative had been placed upon Black women by white men and women for so long, Brown’s part in this play was the “dark & mysterious” cookie jar Grant got his hand caught in.
Following the arrest and conviction, Grant went on a spectacular apology tour, saying to Jay Leno on The Tonight Show: “I think you know in life, pretty much, what's a good thing to do and what's a bad thing. I did a bad thing, and there you have it." This raises the question of what exactly the “bad thing” is… getting caught cheating on his girlfriend, or getting caught cheating on his girlfriend with a Black sex worker.
He continued, saying the public had been "fantastic to the people who matter”. The people who mattered, he clarified, were his "girlfriend and family”.
Grant needed to live out a sexual fantasy, and Divine Brown helped him facilitate it. Sex workers provide a necessary therapy, a freedom from the sexual urge that takes hold. That’s work. For Grant to insinuate Divine Brown did not matter was not only demeaning to her and her work, he stigmatized his own urges in the process.
Included in the above linked article is an excerpt from the 1973 collection of women's nonfiction stories titled "Black Women in White America: A Documentary History," edited by Gerda Lerner. It says:
After slavery ended, the sexual exploitation of [B]lack women continued, in both the North and the South, although in different form and with somewhat greater risk to the white man involved. To sustain it, in the face of nominal freedom of [B]lack men, a complex system of supportive mechanisms and sustaining myths was created. By assuming a different level of sexuality for all [B]lacks than that of whites and mythifying their greater sexual potency, the [B]lack woman could be made to personify sexual freedom and abandon.
A myth was created that all Black women were eager for sexual exploits, voluntarily 'loose' in their morals and, therefore, deserved none of the consideration and respect granted to white women.
Because cis-hetero white men are still largely in control of the “Jezebel” narrative, the proud and sexually empowered Black woman still fights for acceptance of her own nuanced identity within a Puritanical and heteronormative framework. She is still measured against a whitewashed moral code.
Despite sex work’s long-buried roots in the sacred and the divine (see: most of ancient history, sex priestesses, temple sex work), the Californian morality police took a stand in 1872. Penal Code 647 (“Lewd Acts in Public”) was enacted, hastily placing sex work under the same category as loitering, begging, public intoxication, drug use, and many more activities deemed inappropriate to more delicate citizens. This was repealed in 1961 and replaced with PC 647(b), which reduced sex work to a misdemeanor charge.*
People like Gorgeous Aphro, a sex worker since 2017, are part of a growing movement continuously pushing for destigmatization and decriminalization of sex work.
“Decriminalizing consensual sex work will reduce a lot of the harm towards consensual sex workers, and hopefully help more [sex workers] who are not consenting to be able to speak up without fear of becoming a criminal for fighting back or opening up”, she says.
Jada Silk echoes her sentiment, adding, “I believe people need to understand that this is not a harmful career choice for everyone. Some of us find working for someone else, for long hours, to make someone else's pockets fatter, and all for peanuts, to be a harmful career choice. Why doesn't that opinion matter?”
Some people bake, other people make candles and start an Etsy. Why are commerce and financial transactions suddenly tainted when combined with a person’s whole acceptance and understanding of their sexual empowerment for monetary gain? We all have bills, do we not?
Jada Silk has been a sex worker for 17 years, and has never second-guessed her calling. “I have always wanted to be a sexual muse since before I knew what sex even was,” she says. “It was something inside me, something that made me long for the freedom and fulfillment of this kind of work. It is very satisfying to me, and I could have done plenty of other jobs, but I enjoy this one and I am good at it, just like many other things.”
Freedom AND fulfillment? From a job? How dare any Black woman deign to achieve this for herself on her own terms. I hear you, too, Uptight Citizens Brigade: But how do they ensure their own safety? Jada’s experience has taught her the importance of always keeping open communication with those around her. “Someone always knows where I am at all times and with whom. I make sure to have names, addresses, company names etc.” It’s almost as if responsibility and accountability are important qualities one develops as a sex worker.
As far as work that the rest of us need to do, let’s continue to dispel this myth that all sex workers come from unstable socioeconomic backgrounds and “broken homes”. Even if they do, it does not mean they remain unstable." Divine Brown may have started performing sex work to help her mother stay afloat, but she later earned enough income from her various media appearances following the incident with Hugh Grant that she was able to afford private schooling for both of her children."
As well as financial security, sex work helps a person develop a thick skin and healthy, fully matured confidence that sound something like this:
“I like to build relationships with my clients, and we typically end up friends and have a very good time together. I enjoy being capable of having so many meaningful interactions with people!”
If someone in customer service put that on their LinkedIn bio, how many hiring managers would contact that person for an interview in a heartbeat? It’s exactly how Jada Silk approaches and maintains her business, which just happens to be sex work.
It’s embarrassing how often Black female sex workers have been denied the basic right to run their own businesses without interference or judgement. It’s especially infuriating, given the consistency and volume with which Black women—especially Black trans women—are on the frontlines for everyone to have their freedoms, not just themselves.
While the United States slowly comes around to the idea that safe, consensual sex is something to enjoy, it’s important for all of us to join in the work of reframing sex work as work.
Anyone who frequents a nail salon probably has a favorite person they give repeat business to because they have perfected a certain technique specific to their style needs.
Gorgeous Aphro has specific clientele who seek her out as well, pointing out “since I’m thicker, it’s usually ass-related services.”
We are long overdue to completely normalize sex work, to legitimize it at as a standard business, and to let space continue to open up for all Black women. It’s the only way to ensure this and future generations of Black female sex workers have the opportunity to build strong foundations for themselves, their work, and their futures.
*Nevada is currently the only U.S. state that has legalized sex work, but only in brothels, and only in counties that allow it. Today, eight out of Nevada's 16 counties have active brothels, and sex work performed outside these brothels is illegal throughout the state. In 2009, Rhode Island signed a bill into law making street-based sex work a misdemeanor in 2009.
Further recommended reading: The Jezebel Stereotype