This week we saw FKA Twigs finally break her silence within a conversation that’s been been happening, pretty loudly, over the last damn-near year on social media between sex workers, strippers and allies, some of this conversation even taking place in the comments section of many of Twigs posts. The distaste for Twigs has largely been for her use of stripper aesthetic, sex work culture and pole dancing with zero acknowledgement of the inspiration, background, and reality of those doing this work for a living, to pay bills, and survive. One of her latest posts was promotion for a new video utilizing visuals obviously modeled after popular cam sites like Chaturbate, MyFreeCams and others alike, sites most prominently used by porn performers and other sex workers. The image also felt eerily similar to Kehlani’s latest visual for her song “Can I” feat. Tory Lanez (who thankfully did not appear in the video) in which Kehlani was seen to be enthusiastically tuned in to multiple live streams by black and trans (real) sex workers of all shapes and sizes. Some are crawling and posing seductively on their beds in flattering lingerie, while others are pole dancing in their living rooms under pink fluorescent lights. Kehlani is visibly intoxicated by these womxn, and continues to virtually tip and even shamelessly applaud. The video concludes with a statement by Da’Shaun L. Harrison, encompassing an explanation of the umbrella term “sex work,” as well as a call to action for the decriminalization of this work as the stigma and legality endangers those most vulnerable; black trans sex workers. Needless to say, we stan.
Twigs has been resistant in the past to thank those that have built this culture from the ground up, and not for the sake of cool, or “groundbreaking” art. While Pleasers are seemingly a crowd favorite, and even the most conservative have a hard time combatting pole dancing as an athletically demanding “sport,” there is obvious harm that is done when using a marginalized groups reality to showcase your own fantasy. Especially, when this specific group sells that fantasy to pay their bills.
If you follow (and you should) @prettyboygirl on Instagram, you would already be very aware of this distaste and most importantly, why. I do not personally know Selena, but I have followed faer account for a bit, and am a huge fan of how detailed and comprehensive faer work is, especially when exposing these injustices towards the sex work community, and the “culture vultures” alike. There’s many more where Twigs came from however, including Nicki Minaj, Saweetie, Ariana Grande, and Doja Cat just to name a few that love to slap a Pleaser on and twerk, but are quiet for those that birthed the culture. Now, for all the civvies wondering “So we can’t wear Pleasers if we’re not strippers?” “It’s just a shoe.” “So what, you don’t have to acknowledge the background of EVERYTHING.” You’re right, you don’t. However, if that shoe and that pole and that dance move were all created by Black and Brown sex workers and heavily associated with the sex work community that is targeted, silenced and stigmatized because of those very shoes, and that pole and for dancing that way, and it’s cool enough for you to wear in a music video, you have some respects to be paid that are well overdue.
Twigs finally spoke up on the matter and gave an explanation for her silence as well as her journey into pole dancing which was introduced to her by (shocker!) a stripper when she worked in a gentleman’s club as a “hostess” when she was nineteen. She then shed light on the challenges and struggles faced by the sex working community due to lack of rights, protections and the global pandemic (“these uncertain times”) and encouraged donations to organizations SWARM, Lysistrata, and ELSC, starting with her own of €10,000. These are great grassroots organizations that give directly to the community and prioritize the most marginalized, so obviously, any funds going to these groups is greatly appreciated. But there was something about it that still didn’t didn’t feel like a victory. However, this got me thinking; what IS the best way to support sex workers in practice? In your own community? On a ground level? And I realized, this is exactly why the stigma of sex work as a whole is the most dangerous and isolating issue that plagues the community.
The stigma creates this idea that there isn’t real access to sex work, or to sex workers, or to the beautiful community that goes unknown to most. A donation feels like the most tangible way to give to the community, when in reality, it is a distant gesture that still holds you at bay from those you are “giving back to.” By donating, you don’t have to interact with a sex worker or learn from them on a human level.* When JLo ventured into a strip club in NYC before the announcement of Hustlers, strippers weren’t upset because she came to the club and spent a mere $300 on a bar tab. We were upset because if she was about to accept a $41 million dollar paycheck to play a stripper on screen in a blockbuster film, the least she could have done was pay a couple of dancers for a couple hours in a private room, spoke to them, learned from them, and paid them accordingly (plus a large tip) for the “inspiration” she was gaining for a role (not to mention, the real stripper that inspired the film was not compensated by the studio) she knew nothing about. The least she could have done is hired a current or former stripper to teach her pole tricks that would actually be performed in a club, instead of taking lessons from a pole instructor greatly distanced from the culture.
Kehlani’s recent approach was admirable, and honestly a great model for how to support, pay, and promote sex workers on a ground level and directly impact their lives. She credited and promoted their pages, bringing followers and potential new subscribers for those who do online work, which provides longevity in income outside of what she paid them to appear in the video. She also took a stance, and made a public statement regarding her support of her profession and a call to decriminalize it. She received massive backlash from fans and supporters, considering most civvies do not understand the umbrella term, associate sex work with “prostitution,” and instantly shut it down due to shame and discomfort around the topic. She took a risk with her platform, something most celebrities and influencers are too afraid to do, especially for a community they don’t have personal ties to.
I’ve always liked FKA Twigs. Her style, visuals, aesthetic and art always felt new and innovative and I always took her as someone who truly didn’t give a fuck what people thought of her and her work, especially anyone “vanilla.” I used to work in high-end retail, long before I was a sex worker, and she used to come into my work, always dressed cool as fuck, reserved and shy, and I felt she was consistent to what she portrayed herself to be, which is rare. The recent events made me feel differently. Not specifically about her, given we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors and why she approached the issue in this manner. She has even recently reached out to Selena personally to discuss the feelings of the sex working community and take in the considerable feedback and frustrations that have been felt. Stepping forward and accepting responsibility for her actions is honorable, and we can only hope that more celebrities follow in Twigs footsteps.
As a white sex worker/stripper, I also recognize the privilege I possess to be empowered by sex work, and my circumstances with the job are different to many others in the community. There is a certain duty I have, even as a sex working person, to understand where my voice in the matter could potential mute others, and I need to remain accountable for where I hold space. I appreciate Twigs sentiment and transparency, and I completely sympathize with the desire to keep a lived experience as a young sex worker a secret, and we are not all entitled to her history and private life. Yet, it humanized her in many ways and made me gain a firmer grasp on the idea that these celebrities we think are so cool and the “bad bitches” they portray themselves to be, can’t even place a finger on the confidence and boldness of a real life sex worker. Sex workers aren’t sitting around waiting for your donation, or for your validation of the work and the art, or for you to place your “cool” stamp on it. Sex workers are too busy having the confidence to show up to work and dance near naked on a stage every night in front of strangers, or perform someones deepest darkest fantasies that their wife is too uncomfortable to perform, or coming out to their families about their job, or approaching potential patrons in the street, or doing a job they don’t love while trying to maintain self-love, or dropping their children off to school despite the disdainful looks from other parents. Sex workers require that validation, internally, to survive. It’s not a lot to ask that when you wear that Pleaser, or get on that pole, you validate it too.
All we ask is if you are going to incorporate sex work, stripper culture, and any other paraphernalia involving the aesthetic and beauty of sex work into your art, incorporate actively supporting the people (Black/Brown/Trans sex workers) creating the aesthetic and culture on a ground level. If you’re going to perform as a stripper on the big screen, make visiting an actual strip club and redistributing some of that $41 million into the pockets of those womxn, a regular expense. If you’re going to dance on a pole in a music video, take note from Rihanna and hire and highlight real strippers to dance on a pole in the video as well. If you’re going to write music with hoe-esque lyrics, mentality and ideals, take note from Summer Walker and incorporate calls to action in your merch, a la the singers “Support Your Local Strip Club” hoodies that insinuate just that, go to your local club and pay someones rent. If you’re going to use sex work-related content on your social media to promote your new video or album, acknowledge the feedback from sex workers like Selena who are offering you advice and insight, and consider hiring them as consultants. If you’re going to film in a dungeon, book a session from a real dominatrix and pay them for what you will gain from that experience. If you’re going to portray an escort for a role, hire a full-service sex worker for their hourly rate and enjoy dinner together. For some (begrudgingly) male examples of this, reference Migos, Drake, Future, and Post Malone, on how to redistribute wealth in a strip club. By incorporating real sex workers into your art, paying them for their labor and hearing their voices, you take the first step towards decriminalization, which is breaking the stigma. We are not as inaccessible or underground as you think we are. Sex workers are not on the dark web. They are in clubs, on social media, on OnlyFans, in your apartment buildings, in your streets, in your friend circles, on your Instagram and Twitter feeds. They are on your corner, literally. Probably wearing the same shoes as you.
*DISCLAIMER: This is in no way attempting to discourage donations to ANY grassroots organizations providing direct relief to marginalized sex workers and those most heavily affected by COVID-19. I am highly encouraging donations and will provide a link to Twigs SW Mutual Aid Fund here, as well as Gizelle Marie’s Black SW Relief Fund. Please give what you can, as most sex workers are ineligible for any government assistance during this time. I am simply trying to express a point that donating to organizations is not the ONLY way to support sex workers and there are many, many other tangible ways to do so that allow you to connect with and understand the individuals doing the work as well.