An intoxicating blend of privilege, magical thinking, and mistrust in government confused with mistrust in science has birthed yet another Pandemmy Special. In recent years, the political right, with its racist, homophobic, femme-hating, white Jesus ideology, has found an incongruent ally in a (mostly white) cross-section of the Jesus-sandaled, kombucha drinking, yoga, “wellness”, and “spirituality” crowd. This convergence of political streams is quickly escalating into a cultural tsunami, while sex workers are forced to stand at the shoreline.
In early May of 2021, I opened Instagram, and the first photo to greet me was my friend Sofia, smiling with her dog in an outdoor cityscape. I hadn’t heard from her in a couple months, so her cute face was a nice surprise. We met when she was 19, and I have since watched her blossom into a brilliant, passionately independent adult, pursuing her dream to become a tattoo artist. In the years I’ve known her, she’s shown herself to be a kind, empathetic person, deeply concerned with issues of social justice. When her photo popped up on my feed, I began to read the caption, but, suddenly, my stomach lurched, releasing icy butterflies of anxiety up into my ribcage. I stared back into the picture again, focusing on details I hadn’t noticed before: she wears a t-shirt featuring red and blue wolves, circling menacingly around a white lamb. Behind her, a crowd of demonstrators gathers. Everyone in the crowd appears to be white. The demonstrators hold up American flags and signs, among which two are legible in the photo. One reads, “MAKE BREATHING GREAT AGAIN!” and pictures a surgical mask with a red X over it. Another says, “MOMMA BEAR IS PISSED. I DO NOT WANT TO COPARENT WITH THE GOVERNMENT”. This is an anti-mask rally. Sofia’s caption reads, “fuck muzzles”, and bears the hashtag, #FreedomOfChoice, which is, of course, a slogan directly appropriated from the decades-long fight for reproductive justice in this country.
If you’re still alive, you’ve probably heard of QAnon, though you may not yet know exactly what it means. Basically, a growing cross-section of Trump supporters believe in a network of conspiracy theories, and, during his presidency, they began to follow an anonymous online account called “Q”, which fed Trump’s audience (already primed with racism, anti Semitism, misogyny, and xenophobia), nefarious disinformation about current political and social issues. By 2018, QAnon supporters had joined forces with the Trump reelection campaign, and Trump, with his twitchy Twitter-fingers, giddily stoked the Q machine for the remainder of his time in office. By the end of his presidency, QAnon followers were growing exponentially in number, and all adhere to the general belief that, “a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles operate a global child sex trafficking ring and conspired against former President Donald Trump during his term in office.” (Wikipedia). What’s more, QAnon and Q-adjacent conspiracy theorists believe that Trump is a messiah-like figure, sent on a divine mission to end human trafficking and save us all from the mysterious network of pedophiles (it is well-documented by historians, as well as cult and conspiracy experts, that the myth of a “global cabal” of cannibals and pedophiles is rooted in anti Semitic “blood libel” conspiracy theories dating back to the Middle Ages).
According to QAnon followers and other right-wing conspiracy theorists, this imaginary “cabal” is made up of large, amorphous groups, including “Hollywood”, the “mainstream media”, “Democrats”, and, quite significantly during a global pandemic, the medical industry as an entity. They whole-sale believe that the real motivation for people like Dr. Fauci and those at the CDC and World Health Organization is not to eradicate the deadly, highly contagious respiratory disease known as COVID-19, but actually to puppeteer a master plan to mind-control citizens through mask mandates and vaccines.
The fervor around masking and vaccines is where I want to draw your attention, because that reveals the full context of who is driving these conspiracy beliefs. We absolutely must understand how the anti-mask/anti-vaccination “movement” intersects with the right-wing, pro-fascist crowd. But we also must understand how this “movement” intersects with the “wellness and spirituality” crowd. The global spread of vaccine disinformation began in 1998, when a since-retracted study was published in The Lancet medical journal, erroneously linking vaccinations with autism. Parents all over the world began to freak out, and, to this day, that one publication has extraordinary consequences. Every day in the United States, vulnerable, scared, new parents succumb to disinformation about vaccine science. They passionately believe that vaccines harm children, and, so, they join the global campaign to end vaccination. It has since been scientifically proven that autism has nothing to do with vaccines; that’s just not how autism works. Moreover, the idea that autism is an undesirable quality in children is extremely ableist and pervasively harmful to the neurodivergent community.
As one might imagine, the notion that vaccines are dangerous is popular with folks who generally distrust Western medicine. There is a large swath of the population whose distrust in Western medicine aligns smoothly with their financial privilege; they can afford to invest in non-Western healing practices, such as yoga, acupuncture, and expensive organic foods and supplements. Those who have enough money can, relevantly, also afford to live in less densely crowded areas, where disease does not spread as quickly; a self-confirming blind-spot amongst rural and suburban anti-maskers/anti-vaxxers.
When the distrust of Western medicine is combined with financial privilege and/or white privilege, non-Western healing modalities are frequently fetishized and exoticized, vaulted to a pedestal in the minds of white suburban “yoga mamas”, who then form communities where anti-science is regarded as the “truth”, and imbued into the very foundation of community philosophy, including how folks engage with food, exercise, and medicine.
Dangerously, these “wellness” communities include lots of different people–not just parents of unvaccinated kids–many of whom are seekers, looking for support, socialization, and something to put their faith in. Throughout the pandemic, various American “wellness” communities, both in person and online, have been a dumpster fire of medical disinformation, ignited by fear and propelled by privilege. When the “body is a temple” philosophical rhetoric of, for example, yoga, is combined with an anti-vaccination agenda, a malignant ideology emerges. Just as the far-right has produced a narrative about a secret cabal of pedophiles, the more crunchy-earthy conspiracy theorists have produced the ableist narrative that “fear is the real virus,” our immune systems should protect us from COVID-19, and, if they don’t, it’s because we’re not taking personal responsibility for our own health by doing things like manifesting and drinking green juice.
The “wellness and spirituality” crowd may insist that they stand for peace and love, but they are one of the most dangerous elements in this shitshow. Their investment in anti-science conspiracy theories, and their disdain for those of us who follow CDC guidelines, has invited their followers to cross a sinister drawbridge into more right-wing conspiracy territory, like QAnon. The anti-mask/anti-vaxx rallies, like the one my friend Sofia attended, are breeding grounds for the “wellness” crowd to adopt fascist ideologies; there, they can bond over their mutual contempt for us vaccinated “government sheep”. And they do, with gusto. We are now in an age where “wellness” community leaders and social media influencers are actively funneling their following into right-wing ideologies, many of which revolve around the imaginary war on the supposed “cabal of pedophiles”.
But what does that have to do with sex workers?
The Trump administration became emboldened by the support of QAnon followers. To slide them further into his pocket, Trump played an easy card: he took up their crusade against sex trafficking, nevermind that their zealous ideology is severely misinformed. In 2018, the Trump administration passed the SESTA/FOSTA bill. This law, for which law enforcement and conservative groups both pushed, was ostensibly introduced to “reduce sex trafficking” by tightening regulations for online platforms that host sex workers. What this law actually did, though, was close down websites like Backpages, where consensual sex workers had been in charge of their own business. As a result, sex workers across the country became more vulnerable to pimps and trafficking, because, suddenly, there were fewer online outlets for them to conduct business easily and autonomously. Following the implementation of SESTA/FOSTA, sex worker disappearances and deaths immediately began to rise. Then, in 2020, in the middle of mass-protests against police brutality, in which social justice activists and organizers relied heavily on encrypted messaging to communicate safely, came the EARN IT act, which targets encryption. The EARN IT act was also framed as an effort to restrict online child sex trafficking, but, as Kate Ruane wrote for the ACLU, “any threat to encryption is a threat to the privacy and safety of every American, but particularly to the LGBTQ community, sex workers, and to other vulnerable and marginalized groups.”
Sex workers, like me, who use Instagram for promotion, have had to jump through hoops over the past three years, quickly learning and sharing strategies for how to keep our social media accounts amidst ever-tightening restrictions around what we can post. It’s been a hands-on learning process, because we’ve watched so many in our industry lose their social media accounts overnight due to “explicit content”, which is an arbitrary descriptor often used to censor the accounts of anyone with a body perceived to be feminine, but especially those of us who the algorithm suspects are making a profit off our erotic labor. When a sex worker loses their promotional account, that usually results in a large or total loss of income, not to mention a lost connection with hundreds or thousands of current and potential customers. Following this financial turmoil, sex workers must then engage in the long, laborious, unpaid process of building a new social media account, without any guarantee that this one won’t also be dismantled by the host platform. It’s a logical conclusion that many deplatformed sex workers who’d previously used social media for promotion couldn’t afford to rebuild, and so had to turn to more precarious forms of in-person sex work. In short, the SESTA/FOSTA and EARN IT laws harm those they purport to protect; they have created a spike in vulnerability amongst sex workers, which means that many sex workers who’d previously been autonomous are now at risk of, or have fallen victim to, actual sex trafficking.
My panties are in a fucking bunch over this, you [email protected] Like all anti-sex worker laws throughout history, these new laws are doing immense harm to individual sex workers and forcing our community to scramble and reinvent ourselves at a rapid pace.
But it’s not just that. Culturally, the general public is actually primed to listen to the logic of the conspiracy theorists, opportunistic conservative lobbyists, and politicians who are driving the passage of these laws, because the general public does not understand the difference between sex trafficking and consensual sex work.
So, let me break it down for you.
Consensual sex work, just like all industries under capitalism, is striated depending on privilege, power, and opportunity. Those at the bottom rung of any labor market, including sex work, have the following in common: they live under the poverty line, and they have multiple intersecting marginalized identities (e.g., a combination of several of the following: Black/BIPOC, visibly queer/trans, disabled, neurodivergent, immunocompromised, mentally ill, struggling with addiction, doesn’t speak the primary regional language, undocumented, etc). Those at the top rung of any labor market, including sex work, live well above the poverty line, and have multiple intersecting privileges (e.g., a combination of the following: white, cis, able-bodied, thin, other labor opportunities, speaks primary regional language, college educated, etc). Naturally, those nearer the top of the pyramid, like me, have more autonomy and choice around which clients we serve. Being privileged in my labor industry is not unique to sex work; I’d be near the top of any labor pyramid. Those at the bottom of any labor period, including sex work, are more likely to face unsafe and unjust working conditions, such as exploitative scheduling, sexual harrassment at work, and/or limited ability to choose their clients.
The only difference between sex work and other labor markets under capitalism is that all sex workers, even the most privileged, must still contend with anti-sex worker stigma in every area of our public lives (and, tragically, often in our private lives, too). Therefore, even the most privileged sex workers are still at a disadvantage when compared to our peers in other industries; we are still often subject to abhorrent labor conditions, hiring stigma if we try to switch industries, and sexual harrassment from clients and civilians alike. Likewise, the most disadvantaged sex workers are at even higher risk for exploitation and violence compared to their peers in other industries, but even then, not by much. If you think about the rate of violence towards, say, migrant farmers perceived to be women or queer, it’s pretty comparable to the violence faced by heavily marginalized sex workers.
Human trafficking is not sex work, because it is not consensual. If you cannot consent to performing sex, but someone forces you to do it anyway, that is not sex work, even if you get paid. This category includes, of course, children, but also anyone who isn’t able to consent, including those being held in conditions against their will, or facing the threat of violence if they try to leave. All people experiencing trafficking, incarceration, or slavery, including those enslaved in the for-profit US prison industrial complex, deserve freedom and psychological care.
Human trafficking is a very real phenomenon, and must be brought to an end. But it is not an effective countermeasure to invest in the idea that, say, Hillary Clinton secretly trafficks children and drinks the blood of murdered babies by the light of the full moon. In fact, it’s never an effective countermeasure if you don’t see and hear the consensual sex workers who are caught in the crossfire. If you yourself want to take up the mantle of putting an end to human trafficking, get ready to invest yourself for life, and get ready to prioritize the voices of both consensual sex workers and actual trafficking victims. Research organizations in your city or state, and ask these two questions:
- Does this organization understand the difference between sex work and human trafficking?
- Does this organization affirm the dignity of all people, including Black, brown, and indigenous people, women, femmes, queer people, immigrants, and sex workers?
If you can answer “yes” to the above questions, that may be an organization worth investing in. If the answer to either or both of those questions is “no”, then it’s not an organization that can effectively combat trafficking, because it’s operating under the idea that it doesn’t need to ensure that consensual sex workers are safe while it works to disrupt sex slavery. This is indicative of systemic danger, like white supremacy and patriarchy, which are invariably harmful to sex workers, in the end.
ANYWAY, BACK TO THE BLOOD LIBEL AND THE YOGA MOMMIES.
Unsurprisingly, plenty of people on the “wellness” side of the conspiracy theory spectrum–again, mostly white, and mostly affluent folks–tend to think of themselves as “liberal” or “left wing”. Many consider themselves feminists. But the dominant version of “feminism” among wealthier, whiter demographics can trace its lineage to the first and second wave feminist movements, which were spearheaded mostly by privileged white women. Because of this lineage of privilege, many of its descendents have not yet fully deconstructed their individual privileges, or the general culture of whiteness that dominated the feminist movements of the 20th century.
The lineage of white feminism does not make room for sex workers as autonomous, self-sustaining entrepreneurs. Descendents of this lineage generally view us as “victims” in need of “saving”. Instead of accepting the reality that sex work has existed across time, cultures, genders, and political systems, white feminism insists that sex work is a disempowered reaction to the patriarchy. Again, I reiterate: the interplay of patriarchy and sex work is a reaction to queer and femme disenfranchisement within capitalism.
Many of the descendents of this 20th century feminism are the very same “yoga mommies” who are now leading the “spiritual” and “wellness” side of the conspiracy-based anti-science movement.
What we have here, folks, is a recipe for disaster:
- The conspiracy territory of anti-science, anti-vaccination, and Covid denialism, is the shared territory of both proud right-wingers and proud left-wing “liberals”.
- What they also share, although they may come at it from different angles, is a fundamental misunderstanding or denial of what sex work actually is, and/or whether sex workers have the right to choose it for ourselves.
- If you don’t (or won’t) understand what sex work is, you cannot understand the distinction between sex workers and victims of human trafficking.
- If you can’t see this distinction, your efforts to stop human trafficking will inevitably be ineffectual.
When all of these conspiracy ingredients combine with the general incompetence of elitist intellectual supremacy (aka when bitches think they know sex workers better than we know ourselves), what comes out of the oven is…drumroll please…a hot mess. The efforts to “stop human trafficking”, by both our government and misguided conspiracy-minded citizens alike, have been bumbling, sloppy, and, most importantly, they’re very dangerous, for both sex workers and trafficking victims.
Because so much of the general public doesn’t understand the distinction between consensual sex work and human trafficking, it can be difficult to steer clear of organizations and communities that don’t clearly understand the difference, either. Even if you’re not a conspiracy theorist, you still may be prone to supporting organizations with an honest, but misplaced, desire to protect trafficking victims. These organizations can cause much more harm than good if they don’t confront the general anti-sex worker biases baked into the foundations of our dominant culture.
Like the “wellness” industry, “left-wing” ideologies and organizations can be potential onboarding ramps for more violent ones like those espoused by QAnon believers. We must all be awake and aware of the ways that our desires to protect children and other vulnerable people can be weaponized by right-wing “save the children” campaigns, which are really just a front for the xenophobic, anti-sex worker, misogynistic framework that protects the values of white supremacy.
If you really want to help ensure that the world is safer for sex laborers, and you want to you want to ensure that the world is safe for people who do not wish to engage in sex for money, you can start by listening to us. Invest in, and listen to, sex-worker run organizations, like Decriminalize Sex Work, SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Project), The BSWC (The Black Sex Worker Collective), the Sex Workers Project, and Red Canary Song (an Asian & migrant sex worker collective), to name just a slim few.
About the author: Leilah is a stripper, anti-misogyny educator, podcast host. She’s the founder of A Stripper’s Guide, where she teaches anti-oppression strategies and provides coaching for sex workers, femmes, women, and queer folks. To learn more, follow her on Instagram, Twitter, or visit astrippersguide.com