When thinking of disability, sex workers rarely, if ever, come to mind despite growing evidence that many sex workers have disabilities (Tastrom 2019, 2020; Hacking//Hustling 2021, Jones 2021; Disabled Women's Network of Canada 2014). There is a paucity of published academic research about sex workers with disabilities (Erickson 2015; Fritsch et al. 2016; Piper 2019; Tastrom 2020; Jones 2020). Thus, this special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly on Sex Work and Disability aims to advance academic and public understanding of disabilities and sexualities, emphasizing the labor experiences of disabled sex workers.
Studies of sex workers have largely failed to account for how disabilities shape entry into sex work and the labor experiences of these workers. A few accounts of full-service sex workers providing sexual services to clients with disabilities do exist in both academic texts (Sanders 2006, 2007, 2010, 2015; Wotton and Isbister 2010; Liddiard 2014; Owens 2015) and mainstream press (Williams 2017). Still, when studies of sex workers have addressed disabilities, they have focused on primarily white cisgender women trading sexual services with white cisgender men with disabilities in the context of sexual assistance and surrogacy programs (Sanders 2007, 2010; Liddiard 2014). As a result, the foci of these conversations have tended to coalesce around cis men's entitlement or what Jefferies (2008) has called "the male sex right," which reifies heteropatriarchy and encourages a focus on clients that can be dismissive of the experiences and knowledge of sex workers.
Critical disability studies scholars, too, have not adequately incorporated disabled sex workers in theorizing and writing. While disability studies made a critical turn away from theorizing purely from a social model perspective to include feminist (Morris, 1996; Wendell 1996), phenomenological (Paterson and Hughes 1999), and poststructuralist (Corker and Shakespeare 2002; Shildrick 1997) perspectives that emphasized the importance of the body alongside social barriers, these conversations have rarely included sex workers. Therefore, this special issue aims to fill gaps in the literature at the intersection of critical disability studies and sex work studies.
Intersectional Frames and Centering Those on the Margins
Research in both Critical Disability Studies and Sex Work Studies has historically often failed to use an intersectional framework, which situates race, gender, class, and sexuality alongside disability (Erevelles 2011; Obourn 2020). Writing about disability and sex work, for example, often uses a binary cissexist framework of gender only and centers on white people's experiences (Bell 2011; James and Wu 2006; Slater and Liddiard 2018). These limitations have adverse consequences on the development of meaningful social policy, as well as theoretical and material articulations of intersecting systems of ableism, racism, sexism, cissexism, transmisogyny, misogynoir, classism, and dyadism. Given this, the papers in this volume use intersectional and transnational frameworks, foregrounding the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) in and out of the U.S.A., as well as transgender, non-binary, agender, intersex, and other gender expansive sex workers. We aimed to include more papers using transnational frames and acknowledge that the papers are still primarily focused on the U.S.A. We hope to see future research explore disability and sex work globally. The authors in this special issue come from diverse social locations and use a wide range of methods, including surveys, in-depth interviews, and autoethnography. The volume includes authors with disabilities and/or sex work histories. The papers cover a wide range of issues, and while the authors and articles are diversely situated and focused, many important shared themes emerged across their writing.
Drawing from critical disability studies and activism, the pieces in this issue are attentive to overlapping systems of oppression. In "Disabled Trans Sex Working College Students: Results from the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey," B. Ethan M. Coston, Tyler Gaedecke, and Kristian Robinson analyze results from the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey to explore specific experiences and outcomes for disabled trans and gender expansive sex-working college students. Their findings indicate that disabled trans college students are much more likely than their non-disabled peers to engage in sex work and more likely to experience harassment from staff, faculty, and peers. Further, they find that Black, Indigenous, and other students of color (BIPOC) are, on average, more likely than white students to have ever engaged in sex work.
In "Cripping Sex Work: Disabled Sex Workers and Racialized Disgender in the Online Sex Industry," Shawna Felkins focuses on the knowledge shared by BIPOC trans and nonbinary sex workers with disabilities on online platforms, interrogating notions of privilege to argue that "white and otherwise privileged sex workers benefit from and uphold systems of power that financially benefit them through sexual gentrification, while multiply marginalized sex workers experience cyberviolence and microaggressions at the hands of other sex workers." In other words, we must look not only at ways sex workers may find themselves vulnerable to violence by clients or the state, but also at how sex workers experiencing intersecting oppressions are vulnerable to violence and marginalization perpetuated by other sex workers. Internal hierarchies and oppressions must be recognized and dismantled to create an interdependent community of support. In "I Can't Really Work Any 'Normal' Job:" Disability, Sexual Ableism, and Sex Work," Angela Jones explores how sex work can become a site of not only survival but also self-empowerment for disabled trans and gender expansive people in a capitalist system rampant with institutionalized and overlapping ableism and cissexism in the workplace. Similarly, in "The Experiences of a Disabled Dominatrix," Ness Cooper, writing autoethnographically, explores knowledge gained as a disabled professional Dominatrix to discuss mobility aids and sex tech, medical support, and pain. Cooper focuses, in particular, on ways gender and disability intersect in pro-domme work to create potentially unexpected sites of disability support, material access, pain relief, and pleasure. In "Navigating the Margins of Sex Work, Race, and Ability Status: A Black Feminist Autoethnography," Zee Xaymaca, analyzes their experiences in the U.S.A. and Germany as a Black disabled sex worker, arguing that informal interdependent communities, such as those built by and for sex workers, can function as sites to navigate debility under white supremacist capitalism and to provide more economic power and agency than formal economies and institutions.
In "Putas y Discas: Sex Work Activism and Disability Justice in Argentina," Leyla Savloff studies discourses on labor rights, disability justice, and online censorship in Argentina with a particular focus on the voices of trans, travesti, and nonbinary sex workers through an analysis of an online event, "Putas Y Discas" that explored coalitional possibilities for disability and sex worker justice. Finally, in "Disabled Sex Workers' Fight for Digital Rights, Platform Accessibility, and Design Justice," Emily Coombes, Ariel Wolf, Danielle Blunt, and Kassandra Sparks apply an intersectional frame to analyze how stigma, whorephobia, and ableism intersect with race, class, and gender, affecting platform access. They examine how user experience (UX) social media design intersects with punitive virtual content moderation systems to impact disabled sex workers negatively. In examining internet technology, sex work, and disability, they point to a critical need for collation building between disability justice, sex worker justice, and design justice.
Challenging Neoliberal Capitalism
A second theme is a focus, either directly or indirectly, on the politics of anti-work and what disabled sex workers can teach us about pushing back against ableist capitalist notions of productivity. While critical disability scholars have noted the ways disability is created as a marked identity category within capitalist labor structures in marginalizing and oppressive ways, these studies have not fully attended to how marginalized forms of labor can become sites of knowledge and resistance to ableism under capitalism (Rosenthal 2019; Abberley 2002; Hall and Wilton 2011; Roulstone 2002; Slorach 2016). Sex workers' experiential knowledge is critical to understanding labor systems, especially capitalist labor systems, in which work demands adversely affect people's physical and mental health. The essays in this special issue help parse how capitalism creates, exacerbates, and stigmatizes disability. In "Disabled Trans Sex Working College Students," Coston, Gaedecke, and Robinson demonstrate how deeply ingrained ableism is in capitalist workplaces. They write, "Disabled trans college students who engaged in sex work in the past year are significantly more likely than those not engaged in sex work to report lifetime job loss (57.59% vs. 32.10%), with over one-third reporting they believe they were fired, passed over for promotion, denied a job, or fired from a job because of the disability status."
Many articles also challenge ideas about what work is and can be, sometimes pushing back on the political claim that sex work needs to be understood always and only as work, questioning a system that grants worth in direct proportion to one's status as a so-called productive laborer. As Heather Berg (2021, 23) argues, "sex workers have long pursued sexual labor not just as an economic survival strategy, but also as a way to refuse more extractive and less pleasureful ways of working and living." Authors explore ways that sex work can be and has the potential to be a space of interdependence and mutual aid that challenges capitalist and labor-centered notions of productivity and autonomy. Many essays also suggest that sex work can be a site for challenging ableist, racist, sexist, cissexist, and heteronormative ideas about who and what is desirable and powerful; and disability can be a location from which to appreciate the ways that sex work can model inclusive communities and environments for all bodyminds.
Several essays in this issue expand upon questions raised at a Hacking//Hustling (2021) panel, "Work and Anti-Work: What are People in the Sex Trades Fighting For?," which centered disabled sex workers, at which Lorelei Lee (2021) asks since "work is [so] central to public understandings of social membership in the United States… 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? … Can we imagine a different way of calling for our liberation?" As Jones notes in their essay "I Can't Work Any Normal Job," "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." Jones goes on to argue that it is not only that disabled bodyminds challenge normative capitalist ideas about time and productivity but that they can also provide frameworks and rationales that allow all bodyminds to make space for and understand the need to work less and take care of ourselves more.
In "Navigating the Margins of Sex Work, Race, and Ability Status," Xamayca uses Black Feminist and Disability Justice frameworks to analyze their experiences as a sex worker, revealing how productivity must include acts of self-care and self-preservation. Like Jones, Xamayca argues for the inherent worth of a person and challenges the notion that capitalist productivity should determine human value. Following Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Xamayca argues that "Sex work gives us the time and flexibility to sit and deeply consider what the world could be if everyone were affirmed in their wholeness. Our discarded position in society gives us the freedom to create a microcosm of this world by living the principles of interdependence as empowerment." Likewise, in "The Experiences of a Disabled Dominatrix," Cooper shows us the importance of disabled knowledge as a method for managing pleasure and pain in sex work and creating interdependence. Cooper notes how disability can be used as part of pro-domme work in a way that is valuable and profitable. At the same time, she argues for decriminalization not so much to make sex work equivalent to any other job but to minimize the risk and stigma involved in accessing healthcare and medical support.
Savloff reads "Putas Y Discas" as a conversation that frames sex work as a profession of care work that serves the community, toeing the line between a politics of sex work as "legitimate" labor and a more anti-capitalist framework focused on ways that care work that is often devalued, underpaid, or unpaid in Western capitalist societies. Savloff links the valuation of care work to 1) the safety and support of sex workers, 2) reliable and accessible support for disabled people, and 3) interdependence as the basis for a sustainable economic and social system.
Internet and technologies have reshaped sex work industries and labor experiences. As Felkins writes, "As digital and physical spaces continue to integrate through new state-sanctioned surveillance technology, categorizations of sex work and associated risks become less tidy, and all sex workers are increasingly at risk for technosocial death." Coombes et al. and others, such as Cooper, point out accessibility technologies are critical for disabled sex workers. In "Disabled Sex Workers' Fight for Digital Rights, Platform Accessibility, and Design Justice," Coombes, Wolf, Blunt, and Sparks focus on social media and other internet platforms as ways for disabled sex workers to access community resources and to build mutual aid networks that challenge the economic and ableist systems that make sustainable work and life challenging or inaccessible. They also point to the way profit in a capitalist model motivates design platforms that are inaccessible to many users, thereby making online sex work challenging and even unsafe for disabled sex workers.
Implications for Activism and Social Justice
Many of the essays in this issue not only analyze and theorize the limitations and possibilities for individual and communities of disabled sex workers, but also provide concrete ideas and action steps for social justice and greater equity. Xamayca, for example, ends their essay with a focus on change, arguing for the necessity for allies "to contribute money and time to sex worker-led organizations so that directly impacted activists can have stability while doing the work, rather than take upon themselves the role of speaking 'on behalf of' sex workers." Xamayca reminds us that social justice change is slow work over time that entails continued consciousness-raising, centering the work of the immediately impacted, and a sustained and unrelenting effort to make accessibility essential rather than optional. Savloff similarly concludes that rather than work towards inclusion for disabled sex workers, activists should focus on access intimacy (a feeling that others understand your access needs and/or ways bodies respond to having accessibility needs easily met) as a tool for understanding the impact inaccessibility and ableism have on disabled people. Savloff suggests, building on the work of Mia Mingus (2011, 2017), that access intimacy "calls upon non-disabled people to disrupt the dominance of ableism, not by running away from disability but by moving towards it."
Jones specifically calls on the Disability Justice Movement to focus more on the needs and rights of sex workers, asking: "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?" Jones's essay highlights ways that the goals of decriminalization and abolition movements align with and need support from both the sex worker justice and disability justice movement. As Jones, writes "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," which draw from abolitionist and anti-carceral frameworks. Coombes, Wolf, Blunt, and Sparks also call for movement change, suggesting that disability rights and sex worker rights movements can form stronger coalitions by deliberately engaging with anti-surveillance digital rights groups and that such engagements must center sex-worker voices and sex-worker-led efforts.
Outside of sex worker and disability justice movements, the papers in this volume pinpoint structural changes required to advance social justice across social institutions. Regarding law and policy, many authors discuss the need for governments to decriminalize sex work and change existing whorephobic policies that make workers less safe, contribute to myriad forms of harm, and make political action harder, especially for disabled workers. As Xamayca writes, "legislation like SESTA/FOSTA and the German Prostitution Act increasingly make it difficult to screen clients and work in groups, common safety measures taken in the community. This constitutes institutional pressure to take risks to which a sex worker might otherwise be averse." As Cooper, too, argues, "U.K. brothel and sex work laws, and laws elsewhere such as SESTA/FOSTA can make networking and collaboration harder." Papers in the volume discuss the implications of U.S. law, SESTA/FOSTA, and the immeasurable harm it has caused sex workers. Coston et al. note, "existing sex trafficking policies at the state and federal levels often have a disproportionately negative impact on sex workers, trans folks, and disabled people." These papers bring nuance to our current understanding of SESTA/FOSTA's harms, demonstrating that policies like SESTA/FOSTA have an adverse effect on the most marginal as well as sex workers outside of the U.S.A. (see Savloff).
Coston et al. point to yet another institutional context needing significant change—education. Sex working students face discrimination on stigma on college campuses and in classrooms globally (Haeger and Deil-Amen 2010; Betzer et al. 2015; Sagar et al. 2015a, 2015b, 2016; Sanders and Hardy 2016; Ernst et al. 2021; Heineman 2019; Snow 2019; Morrow 2021; Simpson and Smith 2021; Waring 2021; Stewart 2022), which, as Coston et al. suggest is especially true for disabled trans sex working students. They call universities to action: "we call all student services providers back into action, encouraging colleges and universities everywhere to consider creating official offices and/or service provider programs for sex working students, as well as allow the formation of sanctioned—and therefore benefitted—sex working affinity groups, such as Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) chapters."
In addition to the necessary policy and structural changes pointed out by all authors, Felkins ends her essay with a list of particular actions compiled from suggestions made by her participants that individuals can take to support disabled sex worker justice and "to make online sex work communities more equitable and open for multiply marginalized sex workers." These steps include paying marginalized sex workers for all forms of labor, participation in mutual aid, promoting the content of multiply-marginalized sex workers, calling in more privileged sex workers for micro and macroaggressions, advocating against mainstream neoliberal platform models, self-education, and centering the voices and knowledge of multiply marginalized sex workers.
The contributions to this special issue demand a world where disability justice and sex worker rights are meaningfully entwined and where disabled sex worker knowledge is valued. As Felkins writes in her submission, "Disabled sex workers are at the forefront of new imaginaries and discussions of collective liberation, futures, and community care."
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