IN SPITE OF HAVING WRITTEN much about sex work itself, I’ve never figured out how to describe the people who perform the labor. “Hoes are the best,” declared the resplendent Ceyenne Doroshow, host of the Sex Workers’ Festival of Resistance on March 4 at MoMA PS1, and that’s one way to do it. The crowd, which, obviously, primarily consisted of self-identified hoes, eagerly agreed, not only because of the sentiment, but because Doroshow’s commanding yet candid demeanor makes her every word sound like God’s straight truth. “You can’t really do this work without being a phenomenal motherfucker,” she also said, and I liked this ostensibly laudatory, subtly ambiguous adjective so much that I did something I never do, which is consult the OED. The first example of the word’s use comes from Coleridge’s 1839 volume, Aids to reflection in the formation of manly character, where he puts it up against “sin,” so, yes, “phenomenal” feels just right. Sex workers are the best, though what they’re the best at depends on the individual and the moment.
I’m allowed to say this because I sold sex for years and years, and I love lots of people who sell it still, though that’s rarely the most interesting or worthwhile detail about them. (I hope it’s one of the less interesting aspects of me, too.) It’s a fantasy to imagine all sex workers are likable or clever or kind; I’ll never forget the moment at my first massage incall when the woman whose shift was ending stuffed an Ann Coulter hardback in her purse. But there are unique pressures of the job to which communal celebration and elevation are a sound response. Considering all the rights we’re denied, it’s understandable we covet our right to hyperbole.
What made the nature of Sunday’s crowd “obvious” was the supportive spirit that pervaded the room, the sense of an assumed camaraderie fiercely felt if a little brittle. Sex workers often have to trust each other because they can’t trust anyone else, though that trust isn’t always rewarded. One recurring theme in both the afternoon’s panels was the presence of competition and in-fighting, at work—as discussed by Gizelle Marie, organizer of the ongoing New York City Stripper Strike—and in internal politics, too, as alluded to by a variety of activist participants.
This low level of tension was compounded by the fact that while sex workers were the event’s topic, they were not quite its instigators. After weeks of inquiries, journalist Melissa Gira Grant received confirmation that PS1 and Scottish “political arts organization” Arika were organizers, while sex worker–run groups like Doroshow’s GLITS (Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society) and Spain’s APROSEX (Association of Sex Professionals) were brought on after. (When Gira Grant pressed for clarification as to whether the event was “organized by” or if it were simply “about” sex workers, a museum spokesperson replied it was “organized with.”) The Incredible, Edible (MF) Akynos mercifully cleared the air on this point in She’s a Bitch, her film and performance piece that closed the show, which blasted non–sex workers who act in sex workers’ names:
They take the power, they call the shots: Eliminate the sex workers, divide us. Before you know it, things are happening that we never even had a say in. Even the title of this festival wasn’t suggested by us . . . It’s really for them, and by them . . . Everything that you’re about to see here is all about resistance: resisting [those who] keep us down, keep us out, try to steal our stories, try to steal our history.
At least all the participants were paid.
And while the event didn’t provide opportunities to “strategize” or “expand awareness” as the description suggested, because of who showed up, the gathering felt just as it should: scrappy and a bit chaotic and entirely sincere. A bunch of strippers and whores splayed out on the floor or else snuck between folding chairs to record their friends speak about labor rights, and to watch in delight while foremothers like Miss Major, subject of the 2015 documentary Major!, spoke on camera about running in heels and jumping over cars to escape the NYPD in the 1970s. (“Hooking was fabulous back then.”) “Sex work” coiner and activist Carol Leigh’s name was cheered at every mention. “Hey, it’s Jo!” shouted someone in the crowd when iconic burlesque performer and local girl Jo Boobs made a cameo in Akynos’s film. It felt good to be there in spite of the political weirdness, in the dark pink glow of the drafty Volkswagen dome under a projection of a man ejaculating massive dollar bills. The afternoon’s second panel tried to entertain some questions about whether or not sex workers see themselves as artists, or if clients are part of their “performances,” and I still don’t understand who cares. Art is whatever. Sex workers are the best.