Scholars studying sex work are often guided by compulsory able-bodiedness, asking sex workers for demographic information such as race, gender, and socio-economic position but not about disabilities. In addressing sexual ableism and the reproduction of compulsory able-bodiedness in studies of sex work, I demonstrate how disability is both a factor determining sex work participation and how sex work is a vehicle for disabled workers to explore their sexuality and disrupt tired stereotypes regarding disability and sexuality. In this article, I draw from data from two different studies 1) a five-year mixed-methods study on the erotic webcam industry and 2) an interview-based study on the workplace experiences of transmasculine and non-binary escorts. I use these data to demonstrate the role of disability, especially chronic illness, in individual motivations for entry into sex work. Research on sex work generally relies upon and proffers economically deterministic theories that show how whether, by choice or circumstance, people look to sex work for the same reasons they look for any job in a capitalist system—wages. However, the use of an intersectional frame yields richer results. Here, I also explore the convergence of cissexism and ableism in the lives of disabled trans sex workers, demonstrating how, for the most marginal, sex work is often a lifeline. Further, I examine the implications of these findings for thinking about disability justice movements and pushing back on capitalist, white supremacist, and ableist notions of productivity that have come to govern our lives.
"I Can't Stand Up for An Eight Hour Shift, But I Can Bend Over for One"
Miranda Elizabeth on the Podcast Revolutionary Lumpen Radio, Sex Work & Marxism #2: Disability & Self-Determination
In our interview, Sascha, a 39-year-old white trans man from Germany, said, "I'm disabled or chronically ill and can't really work any normal job [emphasis his]. So, I can't really work nine to five. I can't do long days of work. So, sex work is something which helps me, which is very flexible. So, I can choose when I want to work and when I need time for myself." What makes people choose sex work and not what Sascha calls a "normal" job?
Throughout my research on sex work, I've had the opportunity to survey and interview a wide range of sex workers laboring in the erotic webcam industry, pornography, pro-domme work, and escorting. In my work, I found that people across demographics such as race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and age described workplaces, especially capitalist ones, as ableist organizations that too often provide little to no accommodations for people with disabilities. As Sascha says, "I can't really work any normal job." Inaccessible spaces and long grueling hours under poor labor conditions mean that many people with disabilities are often shut out from what sex workers colloquially call "square work," "vanilla work," or "civi (civilian)" work. Also, racism, sexism, cissexism, and transmisogyny shape workplaces and exacerbate these labor issues for people experiencing intersectional forms of disadvantage. Thus, despite commonalities among disabled workers' labor experiences, an intersectional analysis is critical to understanding how various axes of oppression shape disabled workers' motivations for choosing sex work and their labor experiences. As a result of institutionalized and overlapping ableism and cissexism in the workplace, workers like Sascha choose sex work. Sex industries are certainly not free from exploitation, ableism, racism, sexism, cissexism 1, and transmisogyny 2. Still, according to disabled sex workers in my research, erotic labor is far more accessible and, for the most part, accommodates their lives and needs.
People with disabilities face rampant workplace discrimination (Harlan and Robert 1998; Schur 2003; Schur, Kruse, and Blanck 2005; Vedeler 2014; Dick-Mosher 2015). Visible cues of disability often prompt discrimination from employers, managers, and co-workers, and employers sometimes outright refuse to hire people with disabilities (Vedeler 2014). Some nations and jurisdictions have no laws protecting disabled workers' rights and mandating accommodations. Even in countries like the U.S.A, which have such regulations, the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) exempts companies under fifteen employees. Even those meeting the employee threshold often refuse to provide accommodations, claiming requests are "unreasonable" and cause "undue hardship" (e.g., having to hire additional employees or acquiring other new costly resources and changes to the workplace landscape). Empirical studies have found that employers and managers restructure jobs to ensure that employees with disabilities cannot complete specific tasks and then ostensibly have cause to fire them (Dick-Mosher 2015). Dick-Mosher (2015) found that when examining such discrimination intersectionally, working-class people with disabilities who perform blue-collar work were likelier than those in white-collar jobs to be denied accommodations and harassed. Women were twice as likely to report harassment than men, and these reports often include sexual harassment. When employers provide accommodations, laborers must apply for accommodations, requiring they provide medical documentation of "qualifying" disabilities and dealing with extensive bureaucracy to access accommodations. Further, there are no guarantees that businesses have well-trained, culturally competent human resources staff to facilitate these processes. The research on ableist workplace discrimination has focused on cisgender people's labor experiences in non-sexual workplaces. Thus, I focus on how pervasive ableist workplace discrimination, especially for working-class transgender people with disabilities, is a critical yet understudied motivation for choosing sex work.
In this article, I draw from data from two different studies 1) a five-year mixed-methods study on the erotic webcam industry and 2) an interview-based study on the workplace experiences of transmasculine and non-binary escorts. While the studies focused on two different sex industries, it is critical to note that sex workers often labor simultaneously in various segments of the sex industry. As a result, workers I spoke with have worked across sex industries, even if I initially approached them about their work in one particular segment. I use these data to demonstrate the role of disability, especially chronic illness, in individual motivations for entry into sex work. Research on sex work generally relies upon and proffers economically deterministic theories that show how, whether, by choice or circumstance, people look to sex work for the same reasons they look for any job in a capitalist system—wages. However, the use of an intersectional frame yields richer results. Here, I explore the convergence of cissexism and ableism in the lives of disabled trans sex workers, demonstrating how, for the most marginal, sex work is often a lifeline (Jones 2021b).
Intersectionality is a conceptual tool or framework that examines power regimes and systems of domination. Intersectionality focuses on how an individual's location within various overlapping systems of oppression or stratification determines their social positions, and thus access to resources, institutions, and treatment by others in the context of social interaction (Davis 1981; Lorde 1984; Crenshaw 1989, 91; Collins 1990; Nash 2019). Scholars and activists often use intersectionality to examine people's lives situated on the lower tiers of overlapping social hierarchies—people disadvantaged by ableism, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, cisgenderism, and/or heterosexism. However, theorists also show that people have both advantages and disadvantages due to their positions in multiple systems (e.g., Ehrenreich 2002). Moreover, intersectional social locations are complex and tricky; individuals can receive privilege from their position in one system (e.g., race), but be disadvantaged by their position in another overlapping system (e.g., gender). In this study, I take an intersectional approach to consider how cissexism exacerbates experiences of workplace ableism for disabled trans sex workers.
Further, drawing from crip and feminist disability studies, as well as reflections from sex workers with disabilities, I seek to " unsettle tired stereotypes about people with disabilities,….challenge our dominant assumptions about living with a disability,…retrieve dismissed voices and misrepresented experiences,….understand the intricate relation between bodies and selves, [and]….reimagin[e] disability" (Garland‐Thomson 2005, 1557). I examine how, in addition to wages, sex work can often also provide these workers with autonomy, affirmation, and pleasure (Erickson 2015; Jones 2020). Far too often, overly economically deterministic models erase the other motivations and benefits of sex work for a wide range of laborers (Jones 2016, 2019, 2020). In examining disability as a motivation for choosing to work in erotic labor, I am not advancing ideas related to desperation. Respondents did not describe sex work as a last resort. Instead, participants noted that sex work provided the most flexibility relative to other available jobs. Once working in the industry, they felt less exploited, more autonomous, able to honor the needs of their bodies and minds, and reported increased job satisfaction, and in some cases, pleasure. The absence of a critical disability studies lens in studies of sex work speaks to the "sexual ableism" in knowledge production that perpetuates ableist, heteronormative ideas regarding sexuality (Gill 2015; McRuer and Mollow 2012). As Gill (2015, 3) notes, sexual ableism "denies an understanding of disability as a valuable difference that yields unique perspectives of personhood, competence, sexuality, agency, and ability."
In addition to reproducing sexual ableism, the absence of discussions of disability in sex work reproduces what McRuer (2006) calls "compulsory able-bodiedness." As McRuer and critical disability scholars argue, notions of "normalcy" are socially, historically, and politically constructed discourses that have led to institutionalized ableism. Institutionalized ableism erases disabled people from the cultural imaginary and creates sanctions and harms for those whose minds and bodies fall outside these standards. Further, when disability is recognized across institutions such as schools, medicine, workplaces, and media, disability is framed as pathological and needing fixing and curing. The pathologization and erasure of disabled people from public life extends to academic spaces, and scientists are often responsible for producing and reifying compulsory able-bodiedness.
Scholars studying sex work are often guided by compulsory able-bodiedness, asking sex workers for demographic information such as race, gender, and socio-economic position but not about disabilities. In addressing sexual ableism and the reproduction of compulsory able-bodiedness in studies of sex work, I demonstrate how disability is both a factor determining sex work participation and how sex work is a vehicle for disabled workers to explore their sexuality and disrupt tired stereotypes regarding disability and sexuality. Further, I examine the implications of these findings for thinking about disability justice movements (Tastrom 2019) and pushing back on capitalist, white supremacist, and ableist notions of productivity that have come to govern our lives (Hacking//Hustling 2021).
Sex Work and Disability
There is a dearth of research at the intersections of disability and sex work studies. There are a few excellent accounts of full-service sex workers providing sexual services to clients with disabilities in both academic texts (Sanders 2006, 2007, 2010, 2015; Wotton and Isbister 2010; Liddiard 2014; Owens 2015) and mainstream press (Williams 2017). However, research focuses on how primarily white cisgender women trade sexual services with cisgender men with disabilities and sexual assistance and surrogacy programs (Sanders 2007, 2010; Liddiard 2014). As a result, there is also a paucity of published academic research about sex workers with disabilities (Erickson 2015; Fritsch et al. 2016; Piper 2019; Tastrom 2020; Jones 2020). Also, the existing research frames the issues regarding disability and sex work around cis men's entitlement or what Jefferies (2008) has called "the male sex right," which reifies patriarchy.
Additionally, available research often fails to use an intersectional framework, which would help situate race, gender, and class alongside disability (Obourn 2020). In studies of disability and sex work, an intersectional frame is critical because, as Eli Clare (2009, 123) writes, "gender reaches into disability; disability wraps around class; class strains against abuse; abuse snarls into sexuality; sexuality folds on top of race…everything falls piling onto a single human body." Instead, existing writing about disability and sex work uses a binary cissexist framework of gender only and generally focuses on white people's experiences. Even in the case study here, while I bring trans and non-binary people into the conversation, there was a notable overrepresentation of white people among participants who spoke about disability. Thus, while I attend to whiteness as a mitigating privilege, my inability to document the experiences of disabled trans sex workers of color is a limitation of this paper—one I hope future research addresses. Finally, what research exists, focuses on full-service sex work. As a result, we know very little about disability within other sex markets such as camming, pornography, pro-domme work, sexual massage, and stripping. Scholars should consider attending to these gaps in future lines of inquiry.
Finally, and critically, disabled sex workers write, organize panels, post on social media, live stream on Youtube, give interviews on podcasts (see this article's epigraph) and in the news, and speak in various public forums about disability and sex work. Yet, academics (not that these two identities are mutually exclusive) rarely engage with these experts as sources of knowledge (Erickson 2015; Piper 2019; Tastrom 2019, 2020; Hacking//Hustling 2021; Sinclair 2017, 2021; Elizabeth 2020). For example, cam model Minnie St. Clare regularly live streams on her Youtube channel. In an episode called "Living with a Chronic Illness and Working as a Cam Model," and in many other videos, she discusses living with bipolar disorder, PTSD from being held captive for a year and a half, and chronic illness (M.S.). In the "Living" video, St. Clare begins by talking about how paltry government disability support is "not livable." While she doesn't want government assistance, vanilla work is too physically demanding. Also, she devotes much of her time to providing self-care and financial tips to other cam models. Considering that almost all the academic research on sex work and disability focuses on full-service sex work (for an exception, see Jones 2020), scholars can learn a lot from cam models like Minnie about how disability drives people into a wide range of sex industries and affects their labor experiences. As Aherne (2021, 5) argues, "the academy must place more value on lived experience and on narratives that disrupt the status quo and challenge the discipline."
Disability and Sexuality
For far too long, as Mollow and McRuer (2012, 1) note, in popular cultural imaginations, "able-bodiedness is the foundation of sexiness," and disabled people are constantly "desexualized" (Erickson 2015). As "queer, femmegimp porn star academic," Loree Erickson (2015, 225) writes, "because of homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, people often do not see my queer sexual and romantic relationships, repainting them as family or care relationships….For many people, the only understanding of disability they have regular contact with is the sad, unlovable person in M.D.A. ads or cystic fibrosis poster campaigns." Stereotypes suggest disabled folks are not assumed to be sexually attractive or desirable sexual partners (Gill 2015), and racism, cissexism, transmisogyny, and misogynoir 3 undoubtedly compound ableist stereotypes (Albertz and Lewiecki-Wilson 2008; Clare 2009; Obourn 2020). Further, across cultural contexts, people, especially law enforcement, often see disabled people, especially those with intellectual disabilities, as susceptible to sexual abuse and exploitation (Keilty and Connelly 2001). Still, disabled sex workers actively negotiate consent, thus dispelling stereotypes to the contrary, simultaneously showing us that disabled bodies are sexually attractive and desirable.
I argue that academics reify sexual ableism just as critical disability scholars have argued that popular cultural representations in media erase the sexualities, desires, and sexual needs of disabled people and reinforce sexual ableism (McRuer and Mollow 2012; Gill 2015). Gill (2015, 3) defines sexual ableism as "the cultural and historical processes, juridical logics, institutional norms, and spatial practices that comprise a system of imbuing sexuality with determinations of qualifications to be sexual based on criteria of ability, intellect, morality, physicality, appearance, age, race, social acceptability, and gender conformity." Further, as we learn from crip theorists, compulsory able-bodiedness is deeply connected to and intertwined with heteronormativity (McRuer 2006; Kafer 2013). Thus, it is also critical to consider how queer and disabled trans sex workers crip notions of compulsory heterosexuality.
The mainstream desexualization of disabled bodies and the patronizing way many see disabled people (Clare 2017) shape sex workers' motivations for entry into sex work. The labor itself (while still capitalist and generally exploitative) can provide many benefits. In Erikson's (2015, 226) words,
This constant desexualization is why…I started making porn. I first started taking dirty pictures of myself as a way to finally see my body, my self, as hot and sexy. I started making porn to expose people to bodies that flaunt asymmetrical curves, bodies that move differently than the nondisabled desirable norm. I started making porn to give other queer crips a chance to see something a little closer to their lives depicted on screen….I love how it causes rupture. Ideally, people can no longer pity or patronize me after they know I make porn.
Disability shapes motivations for entry into sex work, and disabled sex workers challenge sexual ableism daily. Centering disabled sex workers' labor pinpoints new directions for research and writing in disability studies, especially feminist and queer crip studies.
In this article, I draw data from two studies—one mixed-method study on the camming industry and another interview-based study on the workplace experiences of transmasculine and non-binary escorts. The camming study used multiple methodologies, including web analytics, participant observation on cam sites, statistical analyses of data collected from cam model profiles, content/discourse analyses of web forums for cam models, survey data, in-depth interviews, and autoethnography. I began this study in 2013 with a year of participant observation on various cam sites and continued such online fieldwork until its conclusion in 2018.
Next, I gathered and analyzed demographic and camscore 4 data on the cam site MyFreeCams (N=343). Then, I conducted content analyses on four web forums for cam models, including analyzing hundreds of threads and posts. Third, I researched the history of the webcam industry. With a sound understanding of the industry, I developed a survey and interview schedule, which I launched in late 2016. The survey was open for approximately one year, consisting of both quantitative and qualitative questions, and yielded 105 responses from an international sample of cam models (See Table 1 (http://hdl.handle.net/1811/102242). I conducted 30 in-depth interviews from this sample, including twenty-three cam performers and seven other market participants, including one cam-site creator, two studio owners, two web forum creators and moderators, the founder of the Live Cam Awards, and a lawyer specializing in pornography law. I analyzed all qualitative data using Atlas Ti and explored themes emerging from the data.
In the second study, I interviewed 34 transmasculine and non-binary escorts from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Norway, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America using an online video conferencing platform (See Table 2 (http://hdl.handle.net/1811/102242)). Taking a cue from transnational scholars' critiques of USA-centrism in sociology (Kim et al. 2005; Patil 2013; Moussawi 2020), I did not limit recruitment to one region or location. Given the transnational character of capitalism, my objective was to open up space for analysis regarding how cissexism shapes workplaces in similar ways despite spatial, geographic, and cultural differences. While my sample size is too small to make grand cross-cultural claims, this data and analysis pinpoint directions for future lines of inquiry.
Using an IRB-approved script to recruit participants, I messaged sex workers on advertising sites and social media platforms such as Twitter. While I initially reached out to escorts working independently only, several respondents also had prior work experience in third-party managed brothels. I sent 109 recruitment emails and conducted 33 online interviews and one asynchronous interview via email. I used a semi-structured interview schedule and recorded all interviews. Interviews ranged from thirty-one minutes to one hour and forty-eight minutes. Upon completion of individual interviews, each participant received $100 via online money transfer as ethical compensation for their time. Once I achieved data saturation, I transcribed interviews and used Atlas Ti and a flexible coding system to analyze the interview data (Deterding and Waters 2018).
Finally, recruiting stigmatized and marginalized groups can be challenging because respondents may question a researcher's motives. I was, therefore, intentional about building mutual trust. When I reached out to potential participants in both studies, I introduced my academic background and personal history of sex work (which happened throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s); such a disclosure helped build initial rapport. Also, I always asked participants if they had any questions about the study in our initial communications. It was common for sex workers to "screen" me, just as they do their clients. Many wanted to know my agenda and ensure my work would not further stigmatize or harm them. In the escort study, several asked about my gender identity: I explained I identify as a non-binary aggressive femme. These conversations were essential to building rapport with this particular study population. Researchers can learn much from sex workers. Just as sex workers screen their clients, as researchers, beyond a consent form, we must invite participants to screen us—to provide them, especially marginalized people, with the space to become comfortable working with us.
Disability Shapes Decisions to Choose Sex Work
Sex work is work, and people choose erotic labor for the same reasons anyone decides to work under capitalism—they need money to survive. However, what happens when you are literally pushed out of the so-called traditional labor market? Katie Tastrom (2020, par. 6), who was a disability lawyer before entering sex work, writes, "many sex workers I know have similar stories of being too disabled to work a traditional job. Or rather, we are unable to find any other jobs that are accessible — theoretically I could work a civ job with the proper accommodations, but finding an employer willing to make those accommodations is impossible as the law would find them beyond the definition of 'reasonable.'"
Sinnamon Love (2021, par. 24), the BIPOC Adult Industry Collective founder, echoes Tastrom in an interview with Vilissa Thompson. "I think for a lot of people with invisible disabilities, sex work is extremely forgiving and allows you to still be able to provide for yourself where traditional employment might [not]. The level of respectability politics when it comes to work are not as lenient towards people with invisible disabilities." This is precisely why Kim, a 33-year-old straight white cis woman from the United States, explains that camming is "easier to work with my bipolar disorder." Halona, a 32-year-old queer Native American trans woman from the U.S.A., says she began working in the camming industry after "I dropped out of college due to mental health issues and bad grades, and couldn't find a job in science or service industries, despite having novel and influential research to my name." Michelle, a 21-year-old white trans woman from the U.S.A., notes she started to cam because "I have a learning disability that prevents me from doing well in conventional settings, and good-paying jobs for trans girls are hard to find." Ableism overlaps with other forms of oppression and makes finding and keeping most non-sexual jobs nearly impossible.
People with a range of disabilities require flexible work, and most labor is not. While these conditions are the worst in capitalist economies, even in social democracies, most "normal jobs," as Sascha puts it, are unbearable for people with disabilities. In my interview with Sascha, a 39-year-old white trans man from Germany, he says that after working in a retail store,
I didn't want to work for a boss anymore. And I felt that escorting would be self-employed meaning that I can decide what I want to do and how I want to manage my time and stuff like that. I'm also disabled or chronically ill and can't really work a normal job, quotation marks. So, I can't really work nine to five, I can't do long days of work. So, sex work is something which helps me, which is very flexible so I can choose when I want to work and when I need time for myself. I have the experience that all my jobs that had certain strict schedules brought me into burnout, I guess… And in sex work, I have the luxury to, like, concentrate on one or two persons, and that's exhausting. But it's not as exhausting as, like, spending eight hours at the counter and having hundreds of people talk to me.
Avery, a 29-year-old white non-binary escort from the U.S. explains,
We were all working to put money in this like, you know, fat cats fucking pockets…And people aren't happy, and people are spending the best years of their lives just working themselves to death for nothing….I saw my dad do it. I've seen other people in my family do it, and I couldn't do it. And plus, I have some really bad anxiety issues, and severe I.B.S. So it just didn't work for me anyway, being on my feet for eight or nine hours at a time and having to deal with people and not being able to just take a break whenever I wanted. It just wasn't working for me and was making me miserable and more sick.
So, as Sascha and Avery tell us, "vanilla" labor literally makes them sick, and Avery, critical of capitalism in the U.S.A., notes how workers are forced to harm their bodies in the service of producing profits for owners. Now, sex industries are marred with various forms of exploitation and are not an economic utopia or a queer crip paradise (Jones 2020). Still, according to respondents, they are far more accessible and forgiving on the body than available non-sexual ones.
Chronic illness is why some sex workers choose sex work over non-sexual labor (Tastrom 2019). As Sheppard (2019, par. 1) writes, "Chronic pain is a disability; while disabled people can experience chronic pain as a part—or result—of their disability, in terms of bodily formations, capacities, or (un)chosen adaptive approaches, others may experience chronic pain as a central aspect of their disability." When I spoke with sex workers with chronic illness and pain, they clarified why sex work is their only option. In my research on the camming industry, performers explain that they are barred from so-called traditional employment because most capitalist workplaces are ableist and not supportive of workers who, even before the global Covid pandemic, required remote work or otherwise had trouble with restrictive work schedules.
Amelia, a cam model, talked with me about how Crohn's disease often makes it challenging, if not down-right impossible, to adhere to a rigid work schedule. Amelia, a 29-year-old straight white cis woman from England, explains why she started camming:
I had no other options. I have Crohn's and was unable to hold down a regular job. I didn't have a degree [and] I dropped out of college due to the disease. My parents had no money, and I felt guilty asking them for help. So I decided to research ways to earn money from home. This worked well.
I asked Amelia to tell me more about working with Crohn's disease. She says:
I used to work in a call center before I started working as a cam model. And I was kind of forced to resign because they were just getting fed up with me having to take time out for hospital appointments. Ya know, with Crohn's, you can't have surgery; you have to have a lot of treatments to get yourself into remission, and they just weren't very understanding about it. And it got to the point where I was, like, I'm going to have all these gaps in my employment. It's going to be really difficult to explain to future employers. Do I really want them to know my health history, 'cause that's probably going to prevent me from getting hired … and I thought, what am I gonna do? So, I began thinking about things you could work from home, and most of them were just pyramid schemes. So, it was just sell makeup, sell whatever, or vitamin supplements, and I just thought, I can't do that. I can't actually make any of that work—these pyramid schemes.
People with chronic illnesses face myriad career barriers (Beatty 2012). Chronic disease often means workers have gaps in their employment history, which raises eyebrows in capitalist industries that privilege non-disabled workers with uninterrupted employment histories.
Specifically, chronic pain can make it downright impossible to keep up with the demands of many non-sexual jobs with rigid schedules and physically demanding requirements no matter the country's economic structure. This was a theme I discussed with Henrik from Norway. Henrik is a 27-year-old white man who worked as a nurse (among other jobs) before becoming an escort.
I have a degree in nursing, but I don't work that much as a nurse… My struggle is that I have a lot of pain. I have a lot of body pain, and so I struggle a lot with doing my full-time job as a nurse. It's been way more demanding on my body than I was thinking it would be. And so, and this has been true for the other jobs that I've been doing as well because I am working class. I come from a working-class family. So, the jobs that I've had…like at a cafe or doing like short term jobs, they've been very physically demanding, where I'm on my feet all day which for me is nearly impossible if I do it regularly over a long period of time, and so sex work for me has been physically just much easier because I do a lot of my work is just getting the customers and marketing…And it just lasts an hour. So, for me, it has been like a huge good thing…the freedom and the flexibility, which is something that I really enjoy…And my previous jobs were where I would be working at places where I could get shifts that were late and where there were no flexibility at all in the schedule, which has also been a struggle because I also have had some mental health problems…[and] that lack of flexibility inevitably just ended up with me not being able to do that job for any length of time.
Critically, despite privileges of whiteness, for working-class disabled people, and especially for a trans person, like Henrik, the available jobs can be poorly renumerated and so demanding physically that it is impossible to do. Further, as Henrik points out, sex work is labor that he can do, and having freedom, autonomy, and flexibility is something he enjoys.
Coen, like Henrik, had to quit their job at McDonald's because they could not deal with the physical demands. However, Coen found they made more money and had to work much less as a sex worker. Coen is a 22-year-old non-binary white-presenting 5 Indigenous Australian (Yorta Yorta Peoples).
I stopped working at McDonald's, [and] part of the reason I stopped working was my health went downhill in the same time as the house burnt down. So, I've got fibromyalgia, …it's the central nervous disorder, effects neurotransmitters, and basically causes widespread pain, fatigue—fibrous fog, which is quite similar to dissociation. So, my physical capacity to work at McDonald's is not there, but I can handle sex work because I was able to do an hour and pay my rent for two weeks. So, an hour versus working, I think 30 hours [at McDonalds] to pay rent.
When we were concluding our interview, I asked Coen if there was anything they thought we hadn't covered or anything else I should know. Coen told me that when I ask for demographic information from sex workers, I should ask about disability because, in Coen's words, "every trans disabled person I know has done sex work. It's a massive thing in the community, especially if you're disabled."
I spoke with several workers like Coen, who also have fibromyalgia. Rio, for example, is a 23-year-old non-binary Hispanic escort from the United States, and they tell a similar story.
So, I have fibromyalgia, and so there are times where my nerves act up. I'll be in pain for an undisclosed amount of time. My body just kind of gives up on me for a week, and I think that going to a vanilla job can be really rough in those areas, especially since I'm not on my schedule; I'm on their schedule. So, it's been really good for that.
Sex workers also taught me that the decision to do sex work is not always a linear story, and workers move in and out of sex work for different reasons.
David's comments underscore this point. David is a 42-year-old white non-binary escort from the U.S.A., who notes,
I started doing sex work when I was a teenager, so when I was like 15 until I was in my early twenties and, that was mostly survival sex work, and then I exited sex work, went into the service industry. Eventually got some trades under my belt and hadn't done sex work in a long time, but the last few years I've been dealing with a disability issue [and dealing with]…the inability to work. I had a really terrible rotator cuff injury that I wasn't able to access healthcare for many years, and so it got really bad.
Then, once David finally moved to a different state where he got access to Medicaid, he finally got the surgery. Then he told me, "soon after my surgery, while I was in recovery from that surgery, I fell through a second-story porch that had a rotten floor and broke my foot and my ribs." So, David's story is not only about having a physical disability and chronic pain but about a broken healthcare system that plays a role in people's inability to work. I would argue that governments that do not provide universal healthcare, including access to effective treatments and therapies, are culpable for harm and people's inability to work in most labor environments.
Blake, a 27-year-old white non-binary escort from the U.S.A. said, "I'm also disabled, and I have a really hard time working traditional jobs, so I basically don't….In a lot of ways, sex work has been the only way I can work sometimes because I am physically and mentally disabled. And I have a long work history, but it all came with a cost, and I now haven't worked, like worked a square job, I guess you'd say, in two years." Blake points out that capitalist labor and the cultural focus on productivity mean that disabled folks work to meet these demands. Still, doing so can exacerbate and worsen their existing health. As I turn to shortly in the discussion, Blake's and other sex workers' comments are critical to our understanding of all labor, especially capitalist labor, where work demands adversely affect people's physical and mental health.
Not only can it be challenging to find and keep square employment for chronically ill people, but even when they can, on-the-job treatment and micro-aggressions cause harm, especially for those who are multiply marginalized. Take Marlow, for example. Marlow, a white non-binary 27-year-old escort from Canada, remarks, "being chronically ill and trans in the workplace, I have developed a healthy amount of trauma around mainstream jobs, which is why I still really love sex work, but it's also now something that I can do… I don't have any trauma around being a sex worker…I think sex work is something that I need more than I used to." Furthermore, according to Marlow, unlike previous jobs they have held, sex work is not only something they can do, but because it provides autonomy and minimizes (not eliminates) trauma, worker job satisfaction increases.
This article about disabled sex workers fills a much-needed gap in the research about sex work and disabilities and sexuality. Although, given the limitations of my sample, and the overrepresentation of white and white-presenting people in my data regarding disability, research on the intersections of racism and sexual ableism in sex work is still in dire need. Still, this study shows that for sex work researchers, treating disability just as one would a demographic variable such as gender or race is critical. The inclusion of disability as a frame for analysis yields rich results. In this study, using a feminist critical disability studies framing shows how disabled sex workers 1) challenge sexual ableism, broadening our understanding of sexuality and disability, 2) push back on capitalist, white supremacist, and ableist notions of productivity (Hacking//Hustling 2021), and 3) provide insight into coalition building in disability justice movements (Tastrom 2019).
Challenging Sexual Ableism
Sex workers actively resist and challenge sexual ableism. Tastrom (2020) says, "disability isn't just about ableism — disability can bring joy, and it can also improve sex and intimacy." Sex workers show us that ableism is not just something that passively happens to disabled people, but they resist and find joy despite compulsory able-bodiedness and sexual ableism. Whitney, a 28-year-old bisexual white cis woman from the U.S.A., explains what it has been like living with spinal muscular atrophy and the pleasure and affirmation she found in doing online sex work.
I have a physical disability … and had recently moved from the city to the rural area where I currently live. I wasn't working, and, honestly, I spent a lot of time at home bored and lonely. I started posting nudes on a social site and fell in love. I can remember being younger, watching porn, and thinking no one would want to see me doing that. They'll immediately know I'm disabled, and there's nothing sexy about that, even though it was the only career I could see myself enjoying. With the support of my husband, I started camming. People did want to see me, and I really did love it.
Also, while Whitney has a visible disability, many sex workers have disabilities that require constant disclosure. The types of disabilities people have complicate understandings of desire and disability. For example, this paper focuses primarily on physical disabilities and chronic illness, but respondents often had multiple disabilities, and sometimes they were physical and visible as well as psychiatric. So, people desire, lust after, and pay for access to disabled people's bodies all the time—even when they are unaware. Media representations of various types of disabled bodies as sexually desirable and presentations of disabled people who love their bodies and actively reject a sex-negative, ableist politics of shame and pity help disrupt ableist cultures (Erikson 2015; Gill 2015; Clare 2017).
Not only do disabled sex workers show that disabled bodies are desirable and that many find joy in their bodies and sexualities, but they also show us how much change is still needed in the sex industry. As Sinnamon Love (2021, par. 11) says, "there's a huge need for more diverse representation, in not just physical appearance but also body types and other disabilities and gender and sexuality." Love's words are also a reminder that sex industries are still spaces where ableism, racism, cissexism, and heterosexism exist despite the benefits of sex work to disabled workers and what their bodies do to challenge sexual ableism.
Challenging Capitalist Productivity
Disabled sex workers also raise critical questions about the economic ideal of productivity. They push back on capitalist, white supremacist, and ableist notions of productivity that shape our daily life experience (Hacking//Hustling 2021). Working-class people are often the first to note that work does not have to be the defining character of our identity. Capitalism proffers dehumanizing rhetoric that tells us we are lazy and immoral if we honor our humanity and bodily needs before production and work. As part of a Hacking//Hustling (2021) panel, "Work and Anti-Work: What are People in the Sex Trades Fighting For?," which centered disabled sex workers, Lorelei Lee (2021) poses the following thought-provoking question,
Work is central to public understandings of social membership in the United States, so much so that the legitimacy of one's claim to a job is often used as a proxy for legitimate claim to residency as in when people say immigrants are stealing American jobs. So, where does this leave people like many of us who are disabled, who aren't or can't be part of what's traditionally under the workforce? Do we have to be workers to be part of the American social body, and then the last question was like can we imagine a different way of calling for our liberation?
Disabled sex workers show us it is ok to want to work less, not to want to destroy our bodies for a job, and spend more time caring for ourselves, our kinfolks, and our communities.
On that panel, femi babylon, talks about the exploitative and alienating conditions of capitalist labor and raises critical questions about why all workers should want more flexibility and more freedom from the drudgery and pain of modern labor.
So, when you talk about work in this system, then yes, it's definitely exploitative or coercive for most people. Yeah, I don't know if a lot of people realize this,…but you're working more hours now than you used to, yeah, for less, for less money. They're taking your time. You have cell phones now, so you get emails all the time. All the time no one ever stops emailing you….If you're working nine to five, it's like bad because you're not actually working nine to five. You're working all the time, all the time, and they're telling you that work is good because work gets you money, but they're giving you less money for the work that you're doing. You're working more hours the poorer you are. The more hours you're working for less the darker you are….Yeah, and you know, and you know like with work but work also isn't inherently bad work. Under the conditions that we are living right now is bad.
Contemporary labor markets require more hours, as technologies have allowed employers to creep into our private and home lives. Further, these conditions adversely affect Black, Latinx, and other people of color, trans and non-binary people, and poor and working-class people.
In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx (1844) argues that workers are estranged from their own humanity under capitalism. The more humans work, the more degraded they become—this is the basis of what he calls alienation. Digital technologies have reshaped work and intensified and changed alienation. Franco "Bifo" Berardi (2009) famously notes that digital communication technologies have transformed capitalism and our relationship to labor. While the Internet and communication technologies have become critical resources for sex workers' branding, marketing, and harm reduction practices (Jones 2015), these technologies also adversely affect work experience.
Now, as femi babylon, underscores, time has collapsed, and there are increased expectations for people always to be working, especially during times ostensibly for leisure and what many now call "self-care." Berardi's point was that workers become psychologically invested in their labor in these new work environments, where mental labor is expected and valued. This psychological investment is critical because workers become even more complicit in their own exploitation through this new form of alienation. These new forms of alienation have had many negative consequences. Berardi (2009, 100) says, "social psychologists have in fact remarked two pathologies are of great actuality in these last decades of liberalist hyper-capitalism: panic and depression." Work has become soul-crushing and literally debilitating, and at the same time, people's lives even are economically precarious.
Thus, it is not just that many disabled workers want and need to slow down, but that all workers need to slow down. On the same panel, Madeline Marlowe, reflecting on the Covid pandemic, adds,
What we have shown — there's a lot of able-bodied people [who] want to slow down too, and they're starting to see, oh this is so weird like we can work from home. I'm seeing this whole new like vision, and you know, you're seeing people talking about like we're not going back to work. We want to work from home, so all of this is going on separate from us already, you know what I mean, and so as disabled sex workers have already been doing this for a long time — finding accommodations, talking about productivity or anti-productivity, and how that would actually benefit people as a whole, and so just like anything sex workers are and disabled sex workers could lead the way in changing the entire society into visualizing a new way to quote-unquote work.
Thus, drawing from a queer feminist crip perspective and ethos of care, I argue we all need to visualize and strive for a society where we work less and care more for our bodies and communities.
Challenging Disability Justice Movements
Worldwide, disability rights movements and activists have fought tirelessly for full civil and human rights for disabled people. An analysis of disability rights laws across the world is outside of the scope of this article. Still, in the U.S.A., United Kingdom, and Canada, for example, such efforts led to the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (A.D.A., 1990) and the Disability Discrimination Act (D.D.A., 1995), and the Accessible Canada Act (2019), respectively. Despite these critical gains, rights-based movements have often treated disabled people as a monolith failing to recognize the intersectional nature of oppression.
Disability justice writers and advocates from organizations such as the Disability Justice Collective have been calling for an intersectional politics in disability rights movements for years (Clare 2009; Piepzna-Samarasinha 2018), especially calling for the centering of the lives and needs of Black, Brown, and other people of color, working-class, and LGBTQIA+ disabled people. As Kitty Milford notes on the Hacking//Hustling panel, "one of the things I love about disability justice is that they talk like intersectionality is one of the tenets." Sins Invalid, a disability justice-based performance project, lists intersectionality as the first core principle in their "Ten Principles of Disability Justice" (Berne et al. 2018). At the same time, even disability justice movements have often been silent about sex work (Tastrom 2019). As Tastrom (2019, par. 12) writes,
I believe that in order to work towards true disability justice, the disability community needs to understand that sex work is a disability issue, and we need to put our full resources towards fighting all laws that harm sex workers….As disabled people and disability justice advocates, we need to understand how disability justice is intertwined with other fights. Disability justice requires advocating for the rights of sex workers to be able to do their job safely.
Bringing disabled sex workers into disability justice movements further actualizes their intersectional vision. Disabled sex workers provide much-needed insight into coalition building in disability politics.
While we do not have quantitative data at this time, the qualitative data suggest a significant number of sex workers are disabled. Tastrom (2019, par. 5) explains, "for many disabled folks, sex work and other underground economies are the only way they can survive. Even disabled people that are able to access some government benefits may be forced to supplement the measly benefits they are provided." Disability justice activists are critical of capitalist exploitation and ableist notions of productivity and could be at the forefront of the movement to decriminalize sex work.
While prostitution has been decriminalized in New Zealand since 2003, and it is legalized in over a dozen countries in Europe (to varying degrees), and in brothels in Nevada, U.S.A., it remains criminalized throughout much of the world. Science shows that criminalization causes much harm to sex workers, and decriminalization has many benefits for workers' rights and public health and safety (Jones 2021a). If disability justice activists are committed to the liberation of all disabled people, then why not be on the front lines with sex workers fighting against state policies like prostitution criminalization that deny disabled sex workers the ability to work with dignity and be free from state violence and harm? Decriminalization fosters autonomy allowing workers freedom over their bodies and to work as they choose. Especially given that multiply marginalized people like the trans sex workers in this study are often overrepresented in sex industries, the goals of the decriminalization movement are in line with disability justice movements' overarching goals. Drawing from the ideas of Liat Ben-Moshe, who works at the intersections of prison abolition and disability justice, I'd argue that the abolitionist and anti-carceral frameworks currently at work in disability justice movements lend themselves to focusing on the decriminalization of sex work (Ben-Moshe 2020). There are without question sex workers in disability justice movements and disabled people active in sex worker rights groups. Strategic coalitions between these often separate movements can pressure policymakers to develop inclusive policies and practices across institutional contexts that prioritize and center the intersectional needs of disabled people.
I am thankful to all the sex workers who participated in interviews and for sharing their labor experiences. I am grateful to the editors at the DSQ, Elizabeth Brewer, and Brenda Jo Brueggemann, for supporting the special issue on Sex Work and Disability. I appreciate all the invaluable feedback on earlier drafts of this article from my co-editors, Lindsay Blewett and Milo Obourn, and the anonymous peer reviewers.
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Cissexism refers to the disadvantages and discrimination produced by cisgenderism. Cisgenderism is a cultural ideology that deems any gender identity that does not fall within the binary system of girl/boy/woman/man unnatural and abnormal. This is a belief that only two genders exist and that they are inherently tied to a 'biological sex.'
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Julia Serano (2007: 14-5) defined transmisogyny as "when a trans person is ridiculed or dismissed not merely for failing to live up to gender norms, but for their expressions of femaleness or femininity, they become the victims of a specific form of discrimination: trans-misogyny."
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Moya Bailey originally posted an essay on the Crunk Feminist Collective blog and wrote, that misogynoir refers to "the particular brand of hatred directed at black women in American visual & popular culture (2010, par. 5)." Bailey subsequently deals with misogynoir in more depth in the book, Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women's Digital Resistance (2021).
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Camscore is a sorting and ranking mechanism used by MyFreeCams. This algorithmically
derived score is a reflection of performer success on the website. Performers who make the most
tokens in the least amount of time online have higher camscores.
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It was common for light-skinned people of color to use language like, "white presenting" in their descriptions of their identities. I found many were critical and reflexive regarding how colorism and "passing" for white affords privileges.
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