Stormy Daniels and I have a lot in common: We both wear a Scarlet Letter, we both have children, and we both harbor the secrets of powerful men.
Sadly, I’ve never been offered six figures to stay silent about a rendezvous that may or may not have happened. And I’m definitely not a Republican. However, the part of Daniels’s now-famous 60 Minutes interview that was most chillingly familiar as a former sex worker was the anonymous threat she says she received while she was with her daughter in a parking garage. “It would be a shame if something happened to your daughter’s mother,” the man allegedly told Daniels.
While there is a lot of talk these days about sex workers — including in relation to policies like the Senate’s just-passed Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) that will gravely affect current workers, particularly sex workers on the margins — there is far less conversation about the ways in which current and former sex workers’ children are harmed by whorephobia, sexism, and stigma.
In a popular Las Vegas strip club before I myself became a parent, I would watch as my fellow stripper colleagues performed for moneyed men. They flung their bodies across laps and over tables, hung from poles, and hustled cocktails, lap dances, and emotional labor in the darkness of nights and early mornings. More important, in the brief intermission between slinging drinks and selling dances, my colleagues would disappear into the dressing room to call home, checking in with babysitters or singing sweet lullabies to their babies at bedtime.
Although I never experienced the direct intimidation of a shadowy figure threatening my child with a motherless future, the threat exists in complex ways for all sex-working mothers. And now, with the passage of FOSTA — which has a purported aim to curtail sex trafficking but will instead break down the internet safe spaces on which those in this risky business rely — sex-working mothers not only chance losing their children to the state, which deems sex work incompatible with child rearing, they also now face the imminent threat of lost income and housing.
The prevalence of sex-working mothers losing custody is greater than most people likely realize. And while there is indeed an uncontested belief that in heterosexual custody cases, mothers are favored, it is not true for women who step outside of cultural norms and values surrounding sexual behavior. In fact, when I split with my child’s father, my lawyer informed me that my prior sex work could lead to my losing custody completely. To make matters worse, after my divorce, I was penniless. I told my lawyer (whom I paid with funds I had crowdsourced) that reentering the sex industry was my only option for financial support during that difficult time. And I will never forget her response.
“Do you ever want to see your kid again?”
I have since gone on to complete a PhD and write the first-ever children’s book to depict a sex-working mother, entitled How Mamas Love Their Babies, illustrated by the phenomenal Elise Peterson and published by the illustrious Feminist Press. As a sociologist, I understand the profound impact of representation. And the outpouring of support the book has received from other sex-working parents is indicative of the need for our better representation.
“Thank you so much for doing this book,” one mama wrote me. “I am a new mom and my sex work was recently held against me in my custody case … and my ex-husband threatened to publicly out me.”
There are, of course, more famous cases of sex workers losing their children because of their work. Swedish sex worker Petite Jasmine, for example, lost custody of her three children to the father, a man with a criminal record of domestic abuse. He was nonetheless deemed fitter for parenthood than Jasmine. Horribly, Jasmine’s ex-husband wound up murdering her.
These examples are vast, as evidenced by the list of deceased sex workers that we (sex workers and allies) read every Dec. 17 on the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. And like anything, it is always the most marginalized sex workers — transgender, black and brown, indigenous, neurodivergent, drug-using, etc. — who experience the brunt of cultural stigma against sex-working parents, and whose lives are always on the line.
Our culture fails to see the humanity in sex-working mothers because our culture is built on the pillars of patriarchy. While many feminists like Gloria Steinem view sex work as an extension of patriarchy, these viewpoints only further stigmatize sex workers. And it is the stigma of sex work — and the ways that stigma becomes codified — that perpetuates the harmful belief that sex and motherhood (and sex and womanhood) are incompatible.
We shame sex-working mothers for the same reason that we create dress codes that target femme bodies. We shame sex-working mothers for the same reason that we shame little girls for expressing desire while encouraging the same behavior in boys. We shame sex-working mothers for the same reason that we call Stormy Daniels “slut” without any indication of disdain for the exact same sexual behavior in the man with whom she had alleged relations. We shame sex-working mothers because when we, as a culture, prevent women and girls from owning their own bodies, society gets to set the price.
No parent should fear the loss of their children because of their choice to engage in sex or the performance of eroticism with other consenting adults. And while all choice in labor is constrained by something, it is time to eradicate the notion that sex workers do not have agency over our own lives and bodies. It is time to decriminalize sex work so that all of us — from respectable rich women to hos, whores, and sluts — will cease to be judged by cultural constructions of sexual currency.
If you want to “save the children,” as many anti-sex-work organizations claim to do, you have to start by supporting sex-working parents and by eliminating the stigma that follows us for lifetimes and generations. It is time to stop shaming sex workers so that all parents — civilians and sex workers alike — have the opportunity for rich, fulfilling, and dynamic relationships with our children.
It’s a truth that I, and Stormy Daniels, actually, know all too well. And the idea that I — a girl from the Midwest who used to live in a warehouse — can at all relate to Daniels, a girl who messed around with the now-president of the United States and whose story is commanding a worldwide spotlight, proves a painful point: that the stigma surrounding sex-working parents is profound, and that sexism and stigma are undeniable realities of our culture.
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