Seven years ago on a scorching summer afternoon, I found myself lounging in bed with a blues musician. We were having a fling while he was in town on tour. Both of us were in between serious relationships, and we held no delusions of permanence. As I moved to peel a layer of sweat-soaked sheet off my torso, his hand snaked across my abdomen and clamped down on my wrist.
How Sex Work and Fetishization Increased My Body Confidence
“Hold on,” he insisted, his eyes lighting up playfully, “Do you mind if I look at you first?”
“Aren’t you looking at me now?” I asked, confused.
“No, I mean, under the sheets. Like, look at you,” he emphasized, raising his eyebrows and motioning towards where the sheet bunched up between my legs.
I immediately thought back to the college production of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” that I’d seen just the week before. There’s a specific piece called “Because He Liked to Look at It” that tells the story of a woman who spent her entire lifetime hating the appearance of her vulva until she fell into bed with “Bob: Vagina Connoisseur”. Through Bob’s lengthy, enamored crotch-gazing - peppered throughout with awestruck compliments - she began to see her vulva for what it was. Unique. Sacred. Beautiful.
I relayed this story to my musician, asking him if his goal was to be memorialized in feminist performance art. He laughed and dove under the covers, but not before grabbing the lamp off the bedside table “so he could see everything”. Once he was under there, I allowed my face to fall. My stomach churned with anxiety, an anxiety which was only exacerbated by the musician’s next question: “Has anyone ever said anything to you about your labia?”
Now, at the age of 29, that memory fills me with rage. I have long inner labia and a large clitoral hood, and I’ve spent a lifetime coming to terms with my genitals. I’d always been sexually precocious, and I began consuming pornographic content at an early age. From what I could see of the free clips I pulled off of tube sites, the women in the porn industry had vulvas that were radically different from mine. Hairless, petite inner lips, undetectable clitoris with no discernible hood.Obviously, I thought, I’m deformed in some way. I was way too horny to swear off sex altogether, but I spent many a teenage hook-up with the lights turned off, praying that the guy wouldn’t want to go down on me. Not ideal.
Obviously, I thought, I’m deformed in some way. I was way too horny to swear off sex altogether, but I spent many a teenage hook-up with the lights turned off, praying that the guy wouldn’t want to go down on me.
Although I entered the sex industry myself at the ripe age of 18, it wasn’t until I was 23 years old that I ventured from topless dancing into fully nude work. Why did it take me so long? Because I continued to get negative messages about my genitals well into my 20s. Whether it was one of my coworkers at the strip club snickering about another girl’s “meat curtains”, or my best lesbian friend complaining to me about a one night stand’s “big, messy vagina”, I became convinced that my options - both romantically and professionally - were severely limited.
Once I finally started performing in the porn industry in 2011, you could easily Google high resolution images of my vulva. Yet I maintained this ridiculous apprehension that once people “really saw” what it looked like, I’d be out of a job. That is, until my labia started getting their own bookings.
Turns out, my large labia were in high demand within a niche fetish market. Many of my shoots emphasized - or even exaggerated - the fullness of my genitals. I often got booked to work with cisgender women who had vulvas similar to my own, and I loved lavishing them with genital-focused attention and praise. The more exposure I got to both a fan base that worshipped my vulva - as well as a multitude of naked costars with a diverse array of vulvas - the more empowered I became.
Now I’m nude more often than not, and I have no problem whatsoever with bright lights in the bedroom (or on set!). Our society’s fetishization of my particular brand of genitalia is directly responsible for this confidence. All of that being said, this fetishization only benefits me to its generous extent due to the privilege I hold, and I have an obligation to remain acutely aware of that.
We have a saying in the sex industry that goes something like, “If it exists, someone’s getting off to it.” What we mean is that there’s literally a niche market for every kind of sexual response, every kind of power dynamic, every kind of demographic, and every kind of anatomical body part you can imagine. Many members of the public may only ever glimpse mainstream representations of pornography: young, fit, Caucasian bodies with silicone enhancements writhing around on one another. Yet there are countless companies and personal brands dedicated to more specific “alternative” desires.
Visit any tube site and scroll down the search menu options to get a quick and dirty idea of what I mean. “College”, “Babysitter”, “Nurse”, “Heels”, “Vintage”, and “Redhead” are all categorial examples. Harmless, right? Not so innocuous are the categories “Arab”, “Fat”, “Jap”, “Shemale”, “Ebony”, and “Ghetto”. For many marginalized porn performers - disabled, transgender, immigrant, black, brown, curvy - the sex industry’s fetishization of their forms does more damage than good.
For transgender women, the perceived “functionality” of their genitals - how quickly they can get an erection - as well as how “passable” they appear are highly fetishized elements that directly impact how much onscreen work they receive. The sexualities and gender expressions of transgender women are just as variable as any other demographic’s, yet they are forced into a narrow container that unapologetically lays bare the oppressive desirability politics of those who seek to consume trans porn. Male consumers typically want the “chick with a dick”/”best of both worlds” fantasy, and that places a lot of expectations and limitations on those performing that fantasy. The fetishization of transgender women is so pervasive that even in mainstream society - outside of the porn industry - a trans body is a commodity, a token, a paraphilia. Desiring trans bodies is something to conceal and harbor shame over. It’s the violent reactions to these internalized feelings of shame that present such a physical threat to the trans women who dare date cisgender partners. Many transfeminine sex workers feel trapped in the sex industry. On one hand, sex work is a frequently-utilized tool to escape poverty and homelessness for trans women. On the other hand, it also often sets them up for further exploitation.
Porn performers with larger bodies are also heavily fetishized within the sex industry.
“Feeling positive about my body was often in spite of sex work, not informed by it,” says Kitty Stryker, a fat activist and former sex worker, “Fetishization worked against me a lot, because people felt ashamed of their desire for fat bodies. Therefore they were more violent, more cruel, and less generous than clients my cis, slender, white sex worker friends seemed to get.”
“Getting booked as a performer is a fight. Getting recognized as a performer is a fight. Getting treated with respect is a fight, even among your peers...In my - albeit bitter - experience, I've rarely witnessed those with privilege in the industry stepping back from paid gigs so people with less privilege can step forward.”
Stephanie Catbutt is an exotic dancer of Asian descent, and although she’s never ventured into the porn industry, she routinely feels the effects of racial and ethnic fetishization through her interactions with customers.
“I hear the ‘Asian woman’ fetishization all the time. Young, mild, poised, submissive,” she explains, “That, or customers are put off by me because of the fact that I'm alternative. It sucks to get clients and they're like ‘OH MY GOD I LOVE ASIAN WOMEN!’ If there are no other Asian dancers working that night, they either spend money on me due to an imaginary scarcity model, or because I have a bunch of tattoos and piercings that contradict their fantasy they decide to go with someone else. When you don't fit the stereotypical meek, ‘school girl’ look, they don't know what to do with you.”
Some heavily-fetishized sex workers make the conscious choice to capitalize on their oppression rather than be consumed by the trauma inherent in it.
“This may not be a popular answer, but as a Black woman, I capitalize on that bullshit ‘magical negro mess’”, offers one woman of color who prefers to remain anonymous, “Yes, white man, I have thumbs, I conjugate verbs, and I love my dad. Pay me more. Yep, you were right, I'm not a ‘regular black’, uhuh, nope. If they try that shit when I’m off the clock, though, it would be a problem. I also randomly donate to [other marginalized] folks fighting for social justice when I can. It makes me feel good that some of [my racist clients’] money is going to a cause they'd hate.”
In listening to the experiences of my more marginalized peers, I found myself delving even deeper into my own privilege. While I still maintain that one’s individual experience in the sex industry is valid regardless of what privilege you do or don’t have, marginalized people are often seen as less human, so fetishizing and objectifying them feels much more like a continuation of that. Whereas the kind of bolstered body confidence I received after all my positive genital feedback is much more about feeling desirable than feeling equally human.
Marginalized people are often seen as less human, so fetishizing and objectifying them feels much more like a continuation of that. Whereas the kind of bolstered body confidence I received after all my positive genital feedback is much more about feeling desirable than feeling equally human.
I hear these sentiments often reflected back at me in non-sex worker circles as well. “Desirability politics” are something that everyone has to mitigate, although some far more than others. In fact, I’ve heard many sex workers - particularly people of color - say that they were initially drawn to sex work out of exasperation, a la “I have to navigate desirability politics in my day-to-day life as is; eventually, I figured I might as well get paid for it.” Desirability politics in the “real world” can extend anywhere from a fetishization of a skin color, to age, to an accent, to a disability, to character traits or “prowess” the person is assumed to hold based solely on their nationality and/or ethnicity. We tend to see this play out in the “white guy who only dates Asian women”, the “white woman who only dates African American men”, the “Indian guy who only dates Eastern European women”...sadly, I could go on, and on, and on.
As a PoC friend pointed out to me recently, the challenge in writing on this topic from the perspective of a white cis woman is that the fetishization of bodily features that aren't necessarily sites of marginalization significantly limit the scope of my experience. Large labia don’t have to be a part of my sex work, but you can't not be a person of color. It still makes the fetishization a choice, as opposed to a requirement, and within a market that’s already broad and bustling for white/cis providers at that.
Some sex workers find fetishization in sex work an experience that improves their self-image, and some find it to be one or that destroys it. Regardless, the feminist hustler in me will continue to use the industry to find power in the parts of myself that others find less acceptable, then charge those who oppress my community to worship them.
Andre Shakti is a queer journalist, educator, performer, activist and professional slut living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is devoted to normalizing alternative desires, de-stigmatizing sex workers and their clients, and not taking herself too seriously. Andre wrestles mediocre white men into submission and writes about the resistance for Rewire, Thrillist, MEL, Vice, Autostraddle, and more. She frequently lectures, coaches and advises on issues surrounding sexual health, politics and pleasure, gender diversity, sex worker rights, non-monogamy, and queerness. When not working, Andre can typically be found marathoning "Law & Order: SVU" under a chaotic pile of partners and pitbulls, and yes, she knows how problematic that show is. Andre is the reigning "polyamory pundit" at her non-monogamy advice column, "I Am Poly(amorous) & So Can You!"