How a Mom’s Sex Worker Past Can Be Used Against Her—and Her Kids
Being a new mom is hard for anyone. For many former sex workers, it means balancing custody battles and workplace discrimination with midnight feedings and peek-a-boo.
Photo by Sean Locke via Stocksy
"You don't have energy to exercise. You don't have energy to cook. You don't have energy to clean. Before, when I was dancing, I had money to order whatever meal I wanted. My schedule was flexible. I could take a couple days off to relax, get my nails done, go to the gym. You don't have energy for any of that anymore. It's different than the days of being out all night, working. It's not like that. You know?"
Raven* is talking about sleep deprivation as a new mother, and no, I don't know (though I do know what it's like to have worked all night in six-inch plastic heels). As she talks about balancing her part-time job in data entry with late-night feedings and playing peek-a-boo, Raven sounds like any other new mom: She tells me about the tendinitis she got in her shoulders from the repetitive motion of picking up her child. She talks about making time for sex with her husband and what happens when the baby takes a shit while you're giving her a bath.
Less typical are her thoughts on losing the baby weight ("I felt like maybe I was harder on myself because of dancer expectations") or her relationship with her mother-in-law ("We butt heads, but not about my past.") Raven worked as an exotic dancer for years before transitioning out of the industry and, later, getting pregnant with her first child. On the subject of breastfeeding, Raven tells me, "It hurts. It hurts bad. And it was weird for me, trying to do the breastfeeding thing, because I had breastfed so many grown-ass men. Having a baby is... hard."
Whereas Raven is happy what share it's like being a former sex worker raising a child, others are understandably wary to go on record, even anonymously, as having worked in the sex industry. As one single mom I reached out responded: "I would never jeopardize my son's life that way."
Their unwillingness is for good reason: The stigma of having worked in the sex industry is rampant, and can impact their children as well. One friend was willing to speak on the condition of anonymity. "Even though there is more than a decade (almost two!) between my pregnancy and my sex work, given how very vicious and judgmental [the public is] about sex workers and their life choices, I am very protective of my family—from my partner to my parents to my in-laws to, of course, my child." She went on: "I'm not ashamed of my past, but I'm not cavalier about how it might affect others, and putting up some sort of social media barrier around my family seems prudent."
I felt like being a mother was really who I was, and yet my parenting skills were called into question.
For sex workers, there are no legal protections against discrimination, should we become associated with our current or former occupations. Current and former sex workers risk losing their housing or being refused service by landlords, property owners, and co-op boards. Sex workers are also often unable to transition to other work. I worked as an exotic dancer and then a Craigslist call girl on and off until 2007, and when my boss at my new job as a public school teacher became aware of my career history, I was eventually fired, and I couldn't get another job in elementary school education in spite of my education and teaching credentials.
Current and former sex workers can also lose custody of their children. Finley Fawn is a cam model—a taxed, legal profession—who has been fighting for custody of her six-year-old son since April of this year. According to Uproxx, Fawn was served with an emergency order to remove her son from her home after her ex-husband told authorities that Fawn was an unfit mother because she had let their child learn too much about her work; he alleged their son had "shared details with him about his mom's job." In 2008, a tantra provider lost custody of her children to a man with an extensive documented history of domestic violence. According to the parenting blog Mommyish, in 2013, former sex worker Tanaha Koontz lost custody of her three children to the abusive husband who Koontz claims sex trafficked her during the course of their relationship.
Then there's the devastating case of Petite Jasmine, a Swedish sex worker whose children were taken away from her due to her involvement in the sex trade. Jasmine was an outspoken sex worker's rights advocate, arguing against a system called the "Swedish model," which criminalizes the clients of sex workers but not the sex workers themselves. In spite of a documented history of abuse, Jasmine's ex-husband was granted full custody of their two children, leaving Jasmine with supervised visits. During one such visit in 2013, he killed her in the social work office.
Those who view sex work as incompatible with motherhood often cite a concern for the children's safety. They conflate issues related to poverty with sex work—unstable housing, food insecurity, and erratic incomes, for example—even though sex work can often be the very solution to these economic woes. People also assume a relationship between sex work and addiction, but the idea that all sex workers use drugs is a myth. Perhaps the only legitimate concern having to do with explicit relationship between sex work and a child's safety is the fact that individuals working in prostitution are still being criminalized, so these women tend to be incarcerated or face arrest, which can mean having their children sent to a relative or taken under the dysfunctional care of the state.
In this press release, the Sex Workers Outreach Project–USA describe the socialized belief that sex workers are unsuitable parents as both "inaccurate and part of a broader, deplorable pattern" where systematically marginalized groups are deemed as unfit parents and subjected to state interference. They point to studies that document bias in the family court system: against black parents, poor parents and single mothers, indigenous parents, and survivors of domestic violence. Current and former sex workers, we know, can be a constellation of any of these identities.
Ruth Fowler is a British-born author, screenwriter, and journalist based in Los Angeles and London. She first came to media attention after writing several articles for the Village Voice as "Mimi," blogging about her day-to-day experiences working at a gentlemen's club in Midtown Manhattan. Since then, she's published two books documenting her complicated experiences in the industry: Girl, Undressed: On Stripping in New York City and No Man's Land.
Back in 2008, Fowler told Guardian readers that she became a stripper because she desperately needed the money, while acknowledging that a part of her "loved retreating from [her] privileged, academic background and reveling in a dark and sordid world."
"I remember distinctly when dancing turned from fun into something dark," Fowler tells me. "I got super drunk and cried. I think it was just a shitty day, with guys trying to stick their hands in my pants and put my boobs in their mouth or something. It took me a good few years to feel like Fowler, the writer, and not Mimi, a fucking fictional construct who was always hovering on the edge of being deported or molested."
It was weird for me, trying to do the breastfeeding thing, because I had breastfed so many grown-ass men.
Fowler left the industry, met and married her husband, and had a child soon after that. At that time, her husband was understanding about her past and supportive of her work as a writer, even participating in a project documenting the birth of their son, Nye. But when the marriage ended, his attitude soured.
"When my husband left us when Nye was tiny, he used dancing against me in court," Fowler says. "All the dark times, all the honest admissions, everything I'd written. It was so traumatic and heartbreaking to have a judge basically call me a slut and call into question my mothering skills because of stuff I did for two years over a decade ago merely for survival."
Whereas her ex-husband's past was deemed irrelevant, Fowler says hers was held up for massive scrutiny. She was investigated by the Department of Children and Family Services, an experience that added to the trauma and depression she says she was already experiencing as a result of having worked in the industry. "I felt like being a mother was really who I was, and yet my parenting skills were called into question."
Current and former sex workers, in spite of society's fears, can make great parents—but like all moms, they need support. Due to the criminalized and stigmatized nature of the work, they don't always get it. But current and former sex worker moms speak out, and band together. Red Umbrella Babies is a newly formed collective working to spotlight the intersection of parenting and sex work with a blog and forthcoming book. "Every sex worker I know who's a parent and has gone through a divorce or separation has had their ex try to use that to take the kids away," Red Umbrella Babies member Juliana Piccolo said in an interview for the Daily Dot. Red Umbrella Babies gives current and former sex workers a place to share these horror stories, as well as talk about how sex work has transformed some parents' lives for the better.
This past Mother's Day, Katherine Koster of the Sex Workers Outreach Project celebrated sex worker moms in a post that led with the reasons working in the sex industry makes some a better parent. She cited the perks of the job, such as its flexible hours and relatively higher wage, as reasons why women choose sex work "not despite, but rather for [their] kids."
"I know moms making money in the sex trade and adult industries are some of the best moms in the world," Koster writes, "giving their kids unparalleled and non-judgmental love and understanding."
Nkenge Burkhead started selling sex at 16, she says, "by accident."
When my sons are old enough, they'll know about my past. I hope this helps evolve their thinking about women.
"It was a means of survival at the time I was homeless," she explains. "I lived in a motel and worked at a salon to pay my room fee. A few women who did sex work worked from the motel. There were often men in the lobby, and I was friendly with a couple of the women. One day my 'neighbor' asked me to keep her friend company in the lobby because she was busy," Burkhead recalls. "She paid me. I went to the lobby and met an older guy in a wheelchair. At the time this blew my mind, because I had stereotypes of what a 'john' was supposed to look like."
After that, Burkhead says, the man became her "friend," or client. She gained a few more friends through him and by living in the motel. Thanks to sex work, Burkhead says, "I was able to get an apartment and live what I think was a pretty normal young adulthood." She stopped at 21 when she got pregnant with her first son. Four years later, she met and married her wife, Jonica. Together they have two sons, 8-year-old Patrick and one-year-old Johan. (The couple conceived Johan through artificial insemination and Jonica's legally adopted them both.)
Burkhead says her experience in the sex trade impacted her as a mom in a positive way. Currently employed as a social worker, Burkhead no longer trades sex for money, but the knowledge that she could if she needed to is comforting. "I feel like I have a marketable skill. I feel more able to provide for myself and kids because of my experience."
What's more, Burkhead says she gained valuable skills during what she calls her "Fountain Inn days."
"Much of my womanhood is based on taking care of someone," she says. "Listening to the same stories, pretending to be interested and making the other party feel good, negotiating so that everyone has their needs met." These skills apply to both sex work and motherhood.
Burkhead's one issue, she ventures, is going to be telling the boys about her past. She says that she and her wife don't necessarily want to condone the purchase of sex, but she also worries that "if we allow our sons to only see compartmentalized versions of me, then they'll always need women to fit into neat boxes."
"When my sons are old enough, they'll know about my past," she continues. "I hope this helps evolve their thinking about women. I hope they know that no women is solely a queen or hoe or mom... but capable of being all those things or none of those things."