Issue 10.1-10.2 | Fall 2011/Spring 2012 / Guest edited by Joseph N. DeFilippis, Lisa Duggan, Kenyon Farrow, and Richard Kim

Sex Work and Queer Politics in Three Acts

(PAGE 2 of 4)

Ignacio Rivera

Ignacio is a queer trans-entity, black Boricua, lecturer, activist, and community organizer. Ignacio is also a poet and performance artist, mother, sex worker, and sex educator. In this interview, Ignacio reflects on their experience of queer and trans movements since the 1990s, taking up many of the themes that Amber raises, including that of sexual liberation.

IR: Okay, where do I start? Maybe I should start with my take on sexual liberation. I’ve been doing a lot of sexual liberation work around making a connection with how poor people, people of color, trans people, and women—around how our bodies have been regulated by the state, starting with slavery and forced sterilization, to the scare tactics around HIV and STDs and sex work. All of these things where there are policies, laws, regulations, and norms around how people should use their bodies. And when we don’t use our bodies in that way, then we’re marginalized, we’re discriminated against, we’re ostracized. I think about all of it in a multilayered kind of way: from trans people being able to alter or modify their bodies and use their bodies the way they want, to queer people having queer sex. When we talk about queer bodies, trans bodies, when we talk about sex work—I’m talking about [these issues in] a sexual liberation context.

Before talking about sex work as sexual liberation, I guess we have to determine the levels or layers of sex work that exist, and these are just a few. You can’t talk about being in pornography, escorting, or phone sexing in the same way that you can talk about being on the street, or someone who does video-cam work, or someone who’s dancing. I like talking about sex work in the context of sexual liberation because for me, it brings in this unifying way of looking at sexual liberation and the need to decriminalize this work that has existed for so long. I feel like sex work is legitimate work—it’s been around forever. There’s a need for it, and I think because it is not seen as legitimate work and we don’t see the piece around sexual liberation, we create shame and disgust around it. We create very unhealthy, very violent situations for women and men who are in this field. If the shame and the disgust and the blame were eliminated, and if it were seen as legitimate work and as sexual liberation, then we would have more open discussions about having a harm-reduction approach for reducing the risk of HIV and STDs for people who are sex workers. We’d also have less violence against sex workers because right now they’re seen as nothing, as dispensable. They get raped or murdered. If a sex worker goes to tell the police she was raped, that’s a joke. Because you know, how do you get raped if you get paid for sex? That’s how people see it. Like married women—”How are you married and get raped by your husband”?

SS: Could you talk a little bit about how your thinking developed around this, maybe a little about your journey that brought you to connecting all of these things?

IR: My initial thoughts around sexual liberation began with polyamory and it evolved from there. I started doing a lot of research on different types of relationships, like polyamory, asking people about it, outing myself as a polyamorous person to people so we could have conversations about it. I was doing my own little sociological study asking, for the most part, queer people of color. Through this, through the groups that I tried to access, I got really frustrated really quickly because it was all around white people. There were no, or very few, people of color […]. The polyamory groups [in New York] would be predominantly white people, predominantly men. And I was like: “This can’t be the case! I know there are folks of color out there that are polyamorous.” So I started doing my own organizing, trying to find out why queer people of color weren’t on this radar and coming to my own conclusions about it. I started a group called Shades of Poly a couple of years ago, which was basically a social group and an education group about polyamory. And even people who were not polyamorous could go there and learn about how to negotiate within your own monogamous relationship. And then I went on to doing more political work with it. An ex-lover of mine and I did a forum called Revolution, and we did this series called Polytics. It was a series of workshops and trainings about why unconventional or non-normal monogamous relationships are important. Why it is a political discussion? Why it is important even to someone who doesn’t even identify as polyamorous? And I was doing play parties before this, but then started doing play parties with this ex, and then we did two sexual liberation retreats with queer women and trans people It was wonderful. That’s where it started, just trying to think outside the box. Through that, I started connecting it to a whole lot of other things, because I started to do sex work myself. I guess everybody comes to sex work in a different way; there’s no one way to come to sex work. And I started thinking about sex work as well in this sexual liberation way.

I feel very privileged in the sex work that I do because I started off doing prostate massages, and then dancing, and then right now I do pro-dom [professional dominatrix] work as a female, and then I’ve done some porno as myself as a trans person—as a female-bodied trans person. I feel in that line of work—in terms of being a pro-dom, especially an independent pro-dom—I have choice. If customers ask me for something, I have the power to negotiate with them over the internet via e-mail or on the phone. I can tell them what I will and will not do before I meet them. I like that feeling. And I know a lot of sex workers don’t have that option. So I feel privileged in the sense that I could do that.

You know, I feel like sex work’s chosen me, in a sense, because I have come from poverty, I was on welfare, I lived in the shelter system, I was homeless for a while. I was a young teenage mom and sex work was always something that was in the back of my mind that I was willing to do, but because I was poor, because I was on welfare, because I was a young mother, I was terrified that my daughter would be taken away from me. So I did everything else but sex work to earn a living. Later on, I put myself through school and earned a degree. But then working within nonprofit organizations really left a nasty taste in my mouth in terms of how these organizations said they were progressive and radical, but the work that was being done wasn’t something that I felt was something that I wanted to put my blood, sweat, and tears into, you know?

SS: Because you felt like the priorities were not there? Because the class politics were not there?

IR: Yeah, the race politics, the class politics, just a whole bunch of stuff. I was really upset within organizations. It wasn’t going anywhere. So I decided I wanted to do organizing on my own, support the few organizations that I considered progressive, and lecture, […] so I became an independent worker doing consulting, but as any consultant knows, this work comes and goes. So there’d be a couple of months were I was getting consistent gigs, and I’m also a performance artist. But then there would be three or four months where I didn’t know how the hell I was going to eat. At the same time I loved the flexibility that I had. I loved that I could stay with my daughter. I had time to be with her. There were a lot of things that it afforded me. But then I had to think about how I could supplement my income, and that’s when sex work came into it. And at this point in my life I didn’t think about sex work [negatively] the way I did before. My daughter knows I’m a sex worker now. I’ve talked to her very openly about sex work and letting her know that this is a reality for many people.

I remember one time I saw this program on HBO and I think they were doing a program on the red light district in Amsterdam. And I remember they were interviewing this black young lady who was a dancer there, and she said she had a master’s degree, and I remember thinking to myself: “She is so stupid. How can she have a fucking master’s degree and be doing this fucking work? Such an idiot!” I look at myself now and I have a master’s degree and am a sex worker. Even though I have my master’s, I’m able to do certain things with sex work. But it’s funny, I also have to acknowledge my privilege in that. If tomorrow I decided I didn’t want to do sex work anymore and I’m gonna start looking for a job, then I have that privilege. And I’m happy that I have that privilege; that I could do that.

SS: So, ultimately, do you think sex work is something that queer people should be thinking about?

IR: Most definitely.

SS: Could you say why?

IR: I think it’s connected to many things. Sex work is a queer issue as much as any other issue is. There are a lot of people who are queer or trans who because of discrimination or because of homophobia or transphobia, do not have support from their families, economically or emotionally. Young people, too, for that matter, end up on the street and a lot of times, for either short periods of time or longer periods of time, have to engage in survival sex work. I think it’s a really big issue in the queer community. Not to say that all queer people are sex workers.

SS: But a lot of people do sex work as they’re coming up.

IR: Yeah. So that’s one area of it. I think you asked specifically around queer, and then trans people as well. If you’re a trans person who wants or needs to physically transition, or get hormones that are safe, sex work is an option; it’s something that’s a possibility for anyone. No one knows at one point in their life, if they come to a position where they say: “This is what I’m going to do, this is the route I have to take. This is the ‘option’ or the choice I have to make.” Or, “I have no choice. This is what I have to do.” No one is immune from that.

SS: That’s really helpful. I know you’ve done a lot of community-based organizing as well, and I’m wondering about whether you see all these movements connecting with each other, or where you see them as connecting, or even if you see them as distinct.

IR: I think that there are definitely a lot of connections among movements, but I don’t think that’s something that people are really thinking about. Especially when we are talking about queer, I feel very strongly that the queer movement—whatever the hell that means—is really going on this normative tip. Especially with this fucking gay marriage, you know, it’s really going into this area of: “We are just like you, thus we deserve rights.” So anything that’s outside of that: trans people, sex workers […].

SS: People who don’t want to live in couples.

IR: Right. It doesn’t fit within that analysis so: “We’re not gonna have a project to talk about those things because those things don’t exist. That underbelly. Those are the other people, not us. We adopt children, we have children.” I understand where that started coming from, but it’s totally turned into something else. You know, we were trying to talk about it in terms of, “we are many things.” But instead of many things it turned into, “we are just like you,” very normal people. And I don’t want to be seen like that, you know? Because I think it does a disservice to the movement.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 All Pages

Previous page Next page