A Newsworthy Sex Worker

A front page CNN.com headline today: “Co-ed strips for her honors thesis, get a B.” The link goes to CNN video where they replay the feature story apparently shot by a news station in Jenny Heineman’s town.

Watch the story

Heineman is a sociology student who decided to start stripping as a way to explore sex worker rights. Not surprisingly, she decided to write her sociology thesis on the dynamic between customers and dancers in the club, as well as the stigma dancers face from society.

Heineman’s professor applauds her “courage” and how only Heineman, with her first-hand experience, can help sociologists identify the real issues surrounding sex work. The professor understands that sex work is a big industry, which makes it important for sociologists and anthropologists to shed some light on the injustices sex workers face. Heineman reveals the biggest injustice for strippers are the stigmas they face.

Hardly ground-breaking or newsworthy, at least to anyone on this blog. Yet it made CNN’s front page.

I stripped through my last year of college. I didn’t have any professors applauding my courage. Of course, I was just paying my bills – you know, treating it like a job. I guess that approach removed some of my intellectual validity in choosing the work.

I can just imagine my blonde Barbie-doll stripper-self appearing as a student in this professor’s class and being forthright that I strip for money, not to further the interests of research. The appalled reaction would probably include kicking me out of class. (After my leave, the class could enjoy a discussion of stereotypes.)

What I really want to know is; how can a sociology professor be completely blind to the sex worker rights movement? There’s a lot more going on than one college girl writing a paper. Does the professor not realize there is plenty of first-hand experience available all around her? How has she missed that every single day, the world over, there are people fighting the injustices sex workers face?

Yet this piece of mildly titillating, human-interest fluff made the front page of CNN.

Heineman is not what people think of when they think “stripper.” She would not be competitive in the clubs I worked in. And the club she dances in seems to be a small, slow club with few girls because she reports going up onstage about four times in a five-hour shift. So her experience is low-end to average and presumably for a short period of time.

Heineman says she constantly thinks about falling down when she’s onstage. (The reporter states that she dances in five-inch heels, although the shot of her dancing onstage shows much higher shoes.) After my first few times onstage, I stopped worrying about falling. My goal onstage was to dance well and get tipped. The other strippers I knew had the same thoughts.

And her story makes the front page of CNN.

What makes her story unique? That she’s a college student/stripper? That she wrote a paper about her experiences? That she…I don’t know, I’ve run out of ideas why she might be considered unique by a news station.

Although the story was positive, the seeming assumption that Heineman was the first person to notice or write about sex workers irked me. This is mainstream media and I assume it reflects mainstream knowledge and stereotypes about sex workers.

Why are our voices not being heard? How much more newsworthy do we need to get before local news stations cover sex worker stories? Or is it simply that she was willing to get in front of the camera? Are we stifling ourselves over something so simple?

All that desirable, precious, first-hand experience is right here – in every city across the country and all over the Internet. If the mainstream media can’t seem to find it, then we need to give it to them.

Our work will be done when the stigma and taboo are so removed that stories like Heineman’s aren’t newsworthy anymore.

6 Responses

  1. Thank you for this. I, too, became a sex worker while in college, but not to write a paper, but to be able to survive in pricey New York City while going to a fancy university I couldn’t really financially afford to attend. While it is old news for many of us , at least this voice is beginning to be heard. Like many marginalized populations, it seems that it is baby steps in getting representation in the mainstream media.

  2. […] A Newsworthy Sex Worker « Bound, Not Gagged “Our work will be done when the stigma and taboo are so removed that stories like Heineman’s aren’t newsworthy anymore.” (tags: awesome important sexwork stripping media stigma society) […]

  3. The mainstream news media likes reassuring titillation in their stories. The university student is a safe “nice” girl, who returns to her non-threatening world and everyone can pay lip service to the concept of improving working conditions, and then abandon the idea in time for the next news clip.

    Real voices are not heard because they aren’t relevant to the serious business of providing “news” as consumable entertainment.

  4. The stigma will never be removed. Prostitutes harm themselves and break up families. Why should that ever be considered a good thing?

    Wendy should thing about this really hard. Why is prostitution marginalized (hint: not because of old sexually repressive stereotypes). It’s because a society cannot thrive if the central child-rearing unit cannot exist. If you go around breaking up people’s homes, you are just creating more single families, more screwed up children, and more divisions between women.

    When will prostitution be destigmatized? When we no longer give a crap about children and families and the concept of love. (aka never)

  5. Ever since the 60s prostitutes have been the #1 cause of divorce. Even marriage counselors say that money is the most common cause of divorce. And, of course, sex work didn’t exist until the free-love 60s. God knows what men did for entertainment before then.

    And, naturally, marriages are only for producing children and women are only valuable if their wombs work. Which means prostitutes aren’t valuable because we all know they deliberately try not to breed with every client. Prostitution should never be de-stigmatized because prostitutes aren’t actual human beings!

    It’s great to know that American society cares about love. What with all the crazy Christian child-abusers out there, 24-hour marriages, bitter divorces, rampant infidelity by both sexes and politicians whose family values extend as far as the next vote — it’s good to know that everyone is putting love and family first.

    Imagine if they weren’t!

  6. Jaxon,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and beliefs. With all due respect, I would love to know more about why you think that sex workers break up homes. It is a common belief. It is not one that I agree with, but I would love to hear what you have to say about it. Of course, since you are asking me to think about what I am doing, I ask that you also take a moment and try to understand where I am coming from.

    I know and understand the practices of safer sex, and I can teach them to others. And not just regular sex, but all sorts of kinks and fantasies that someone might be into. I know how to make a safe space for fantasy to be enacted in a safe, and consensual manner.

    And this feels good. It does me good to share this knowledge with others, because the sex that I engage with is a learning and positive experience.

    Now, here is what may seem like a crazy thought: I don’t think that sex workers break up families. In fact, sex workers often save marriages!

    How?

    If a client is married and wishes to see me, the client is often wishing to maintain his marriage while getting some outside needs met that won’t hurt anyone. Instead of going to a bar, getting drunk and picking up a stranger (where drunken anonymous sex is much more of a setup for risky behavior that could harm others), instead of having an affair with someone at his or her work (and cause potential drama in the workplace as well as the home AND jeopardize the job), a client is negotiating activities with me.

    Maybe a client has a certain fantasy or sexual act that he can not perform with his his/her partner. Maybe this sexual need can be met without having to break up with the partner. Maybe this sexual need requires someone safe, knowledgeable and non-judgemental. This is where I come in.

    Many of my clients are not married, and for whatever reason do not have a partner, but would (as they are human) like to get some sexual needs met in a way that is simple.

    I have no interest in breaking up other people’s relationships. If possible, I help them strengthen relationships – sometimes my clients are couples who wish to explore and learn from a professional.

    Also, I agree that love is something this world needs more of, and I respect and honor that. It is love that makes art, that heals a community, and raises a child.

    I feel a great deal of love to my community, my friends, colleagues, and the families that are my neighbors. I am really excited because I am about to become an aunt, and I will take part in raising a child.

    I want health and love and social justice.

    I also am a sex worker, good at what I do, and I enjoy what I do, and what comes out of my sessions is positive and constructive.

    I understand that this is difficult for many people to understand, but I ask that you please try to hear what I am saying as a possibility. It may not be your reality, but it is the reality for many people.

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