Navigating Fetishism as a Queer, Non-Binary, Black Sex Worker
If I didn’t manage so well to adhere to the image of the hung, dominant, rough, and forceful “Mandingo,” I would not have nearly half as many clients.
By Cosima Smith
Many Black people and other POC are well-versed in the exchange of their fetishized identities for their livelihoods and livability. As a sex-worker, I navigate this exchange perhaps more consciously and narrowly than others may. It has become a norm by now; I exchange my, or a, fetishized Black manliness for money, for food, for survival. The biggest problem with this exchange? I am forced to leave pieces of myself in the shadows and throw on identities and characteristics that do not belong to me as I fashion myself to match this hyper-fetishized identity. I am a queer, non-binary, Black person; but, to a lot of clients I have worked with, I am a strong, dominant, “str8,” Black Man (read: nigger/thug/gang member/etc.).
This is what fetishization does, it negates our humanity. There is no room to deviate from the imagery that is popularized if a sex worker wishes to use this fetishization to their own benefit. If I didn’t manage so well to adhere to the image of the hung, dominant, rough, and forceful “Mandingo,” I would not have nearly half as many clients. And many of my clients, especially white men, love to remind me why they chose my services—spouting things about how my “nigger-dick” feels, how I’m a “real man” that is taking them, and, of course, countless comments about my skin tone and build. Even many of the jawns who feign the basest respect in sexual situations often do so only in the context of the exchange itself. The idea that they are, indeed, submitting themselves to me and my wishes pushes their sexual buildup; once the session has ended, so has the respect they put on show.
This is not just in my real-world encounters, these sentiments pervade the online kink and domination community as well (both within and outside of the bounds of sex work). Particularly in the financial domination sector of any website that finds itself home to dominants and submissives searching for connections and community, simply viewing the responses to Black creators’ content will show the fetishes associated with us, as well as the stereotypes and prejudices that fuel them. We are turned from our preferred roles, our own playful fantasies in which we retain autonomy, into the fantasy of those who choose to support or extort us.
Even outside of the actual work we do, (Black, queer) sex workers are met with various reactions when disclosing our working status to those around us. Even within our communities, it is often difficult to find others who see our humanity for what it is. There is already a shift between my Black and queer identities, there is a shift between my sexuality and my gender, there are so many shifts between things I am not allowed to be simultaneously. Being placed into a category seething with pity, or jealousy, or whatever else my mistaken confidant projects onto me also lends itself to their fetishization of the sex worker.
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To some, I am the victim. This reductionist projection causes the person to believe me to be completely lacking autonomy, without the ability to choose my limits, my practices, my expressions of sexuality. I like sex! I like kinky sex and vanilla sex and sex for money and for free! Sex work gives me the opportunity to meet and explore the kink community, oftentimes in settings I choose, with activities, limits, likes, and dislikes having been discussed before any meeting is planned. I have gotten to explore so many sexual practices I would have been simply too afraid to ask a partner for or about, all because I do sex work. I am not a victim because I chose the work that I do, I like the work I do, I like a lot of the sex I have.
To others, I am some godly empowered queer, completely in control of my own sex and sexuality. As flattering as this imagery is, it still reduces and dehumanizes my lived experience. I do actually have bills to pay. Rent, phones, transportation to and from meeting places, booking rooms if necessary. I factor all of these things into my decisions and client load. It isn’t always sunshine and curled toes; it is still work and that means it sucks sometimes. That’s the part that people don’t understand. When I set up a date, appointment, meeting with someone, I always make sure to leave enough time to change at home or take a pair of clothes with me. I’m scared my femininity will be found out and lead me to lose a client, or even put me in danger. Even when I explain this, people question why a 6’3” (okay, maybe 6’2.5”) Black amab person would be afraid to meet a jawn. The reason is that there are too many people like Ed Buck who get joy from harming Black sex workers, queer or not. There are people who don’t understand that I use an alias when meeting with clients in case one decides to stalk me. Some even feign disbelief at the idea that someone would bother to harm me, but things like that happen every single day.
Seeing us, hearing our voices, means listening to our needs and fighting with us on the path to liberation. The first step is decriminalizing our lived experiences and methods of survival and advocating for our livability/livelihood, on both a legal and social level. It means fighting for the funding of social programs like Planned Parenthood, where I can go to get tested for little-to-no money, where I can get and refill my PrEP prescription. And it means an end to the silent and violent banning and “soft”-banning on popular websites like Twitter, Grindr, and other sites and apps sex workers use to communicate with clientele. Each time we experience this rejection of our sociability via the gatekeeping and censoring of community resources, we are told that our livelihood and work is worse than the Nazis, racists, and queerphobes who continue to thrive in these spaces and are free to go on cultivating their online social presence. Supporting us simply means believing in our right to live and experience freedom.
Right now, it’s as if we can’t win. We are fetishized by our clients, by our non-work encounters, and even in activist and “woke” spaces. Yes, the fetishism manifests on opposite ends of a spectrum, or perhaps on different spectrums entirely, but this is nothing new for those of us who experience it regularly. Neither pity me nor hail me as a hero. I am a sex worker, and a student, and Queer, and Black. I have my own privileges and my own difficulties because I am human, I am alive, and that in itself should be enough to be respected, to be loved, to have access to life and livelihood, and to not be turned into a token for political, moral, or personal agendas.
Cosima Smith is a freelance writer, yoga teacher, and photographer (and polyglot!) from Keysville, Virginia. The degree they received in Gender and Sexuality Studies from the University of Virginia has pushed them to further explore notions of the body, sex and sex work, and cultural/religious/linguistic representations of the gender and sexual spectrums.
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