Is sex work a viable job for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses?
It’s a cold, blustery December day in Cleveland. Saturday, December 17, 2022 to be exact. Better known to Jeanne (pronounced jay-nee) Li and her fellow members of the Cleveland Sex Worker Alliance as International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The Sex Workers Outreach Project USA tries to maintain a list of dozens of sex workers who lost their lives in the USA and globally to memorialize them.
Today, Jeanne (pronouns: they, them) and about a dozen other sex workers and their friends gather on the corner of Euclid Ave. and Ford Rd. on the eastern edge of Case Western Reserve University and across the street from the iconic, mirrored façade of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, one of 60+ major arts, cultural and educational institutions in the University Circle District. The occasional ambulance roaring past reveals that it is also where the city’s two major medical centers, University Hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic, operate their main campuses.
After waiting a few minutes to see if passersby will stop at the banner a couple of the members hold that says CLEVELAND SEX WORKER ALLIANCE, Jeanne steps up onto a bench. They hold a microphone connected wirelessly to an amplifier on wheels. Holding lit candles, everyone surrounds Jeanne. They give a deeply impassioned speech about the need to protect sex workers from violence, which ranges from being mugged, stealthed (when the man removes a condom without consent), robbed, and sexually assaulted. They read a list of sex workers from around the world who have been murdered.
When Jeanne finishes, they step down into the arms of a male friend who hugs her for reassurance as much as warmth. Lana, one of the Cleveland Sex Worker Alliance leaders, has picked up the microphone and jumped onto the bench. Having distributed a sheet of lyrics, she leads everyone in singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The popular song adds an air of spirituality as a benediction to close the event.
“For our small group, which is kind of scrappy, we were prepared for our event,” Jeanne tells me later about their first official solo action. “We did what we had to do. It was nice. Even the fact that ten people showed up on a miserable Saturday morning was good enough for me.”
One downside was a weird interruption by a couple in their 20s who wandered up near the end. The man interrupts by telling the group that they’re all going to hell. When a few of the members engage with him and ask him to leave them alone, he stands his ground: “But I’m trying to save you from the road to hell,” he implores. “I want to free you from your sins!”
Despite tossing a few choice and colorful rejoinders, they keep their growing annoyance controlled and finally turn away. After a few minutes of chatting and hugging, Jeanne leaves with her male partner, while the others retire to a Starbucks down the street for an impromptu meeting.
Lana, who got involved shortly after the alliance was founded in the fall of 2021, tells me later that the group has been meeting monthly ever since. At first, finding a pubic place to convene was difficult because the topics they discuss aren’t always appropriate for family friendly establishments. Some members were concerned about being outted as sex workers. They eventually found a place that worked well for everyone and have been meeting there ever since. Mainly, the meetings provide emotional support for the members along with opportunities to discuss harm reduction tactics and plan future community outreach projects.
“Jeanne talked about a lot of things that are really important to us,” says Lana of the December event. She had been working as a stripper but is now taking a hiatus to decide what she wants to do next, possibly sex work online, but has remained committed to supporting her colleagues. “It was very important that we all went together,” she continues. “I definitely would like to have seen more people caring about sex workers.”
“We’re still building capacity, and we eventually would like to push decrim in Cleveland, but that’s still further down the road,” says Jeanne, who has spoken openly to the local media, especially around promoting the Cleveland Sex Worker Mutual Aid Fund during the height of the COVID-19 nightmare. “The most advocacy I’ve done is just trying to be open about what I do and trying to reduce the stigma and the misconceptions that people have around sex work.”
Jeanne, who adamantly believes that “decriminalizing sex work will be on the right side of history,” and the other members of CLESWA all hold that “Sex work is work.” That statement appears on their website with a red arrow below the second “work” that inserts the adjectives “difficult, dangerous, necessary.”
That annual event marks the greatest of the dangers of sex work, but Jeanne and others I’ve interviewed who support decriminalization believe that will significantly increase safety for sex workers by bringing their activities into the open instead of remaining an underground. By doing so, sex workers will be better able to communicate openly with inquiring clients about the services they provide and also be able to vet them more closely.
Several years ago, after working for a company and achieving the status of having her own desk and a 401K, they inform, Jeanne came into work one day and informed her boss that she was quitting. After a decade of “mediocre sex,” she had decided to seek employment in the adult film industry to experience sexual acts she never thought she’d be able to. They had turned 30 and felt if they didn’t do it now, they never would.
After a couple years, though, Jeanne had done a lot of the more daring activities they had desired, but was getting a little frazzled by the extensive travel to porn film centers like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami and bouncing in and out of Airbnbs. Especially since they had to pay for most of their travel expenses. They also tired of the 24/7 hustle to promote themselves and their videos to maintain a paying fan base. They decided to focus entirely on full-service sex work in Cleveland.
I’ve known Jeanne for several years since she took a magazine pitching workshop I taught through Literary Cleveland, and they post on social media about being a sex worker. When I first started interviewing them for this project, they were working in a studio that provided some security, camaraderie and other advantages. However, when we talked in January, Jeanne had stopped going there because the “House Mom” had significantly raised the fees for using the shared space.
A couple years ago, Jeanne began to grow tired more frequently and unable to work for long periods of time. They believe they had become disabled by myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). They were no longer able to hold a 9-to-5 job so turned to full-service sex work as a way to earn a living and pay bills.
These days they’re able to work roughly 10 to 15 hours a week, they say. Tired of dealing with it and explaining it, Jeanne gets a little frustrated when I ask if there might be other employment opportunities instead.
“I literally have no other options and have been wracking my brain for a long time,” they say. “I don’t think people are like, ‘Oh shoot, I could find another job’ and immediately their mind goes to, ‘I’ll just whore myself out.’ That’s not my first choice. For survival sex workers, it’s just the way we can make money because we don’t have other options. There’s nothing that pays enough for us to live. Otherwise, I’d be homeless.”
Because of her disability caused by ME/CFS and some mental health issues, they say, sex work is the only job that’s flexible enough for Jeanne to survive those challenges.
“I shouldn’t be punished for trying to make ends meet, and being anti-sex work is pretty anti-disability,” Jeanne states. “A lot of disabled folks use sex work as a way to make income because they can’t hold down regular 9-to-5 jobs, so being anti-sex work hurts a lot of chronically ill and disabled people.”
I finish our January interview by asking several of our Solutions Journalism Network Complicating the Narrative questions. When I ask – How has this conflict between those for and against decriminalizing sex work affected your life? – Jeanne responds:
“I see it like a job. Sex work is just work, and human trafficking is exploitive, like being enslaved to do sex, and that doesn’t count as work. These two things are not the same, and I feel like they’re being conflated as the same thing.”
As to how they are doing overall, Jeanne says:
“There are days that I enjoy it, and then there are days that my PTSD from my sexual trauma really flares up, and work gets pretty triggering. It’s a hard job. In an ideal world, I would love to be doing personal transformation work like life coaching or community organizing, but I can’t because I don’t have that capacity. So this is what I do, and most of the time it’s fine.”
Next Up: Rochelle Keyhan, attorney and Founder/CEO, Collective Liberty, a nonprofit organization in the Washington, DC/Baltimore area that works closely with government agencies to support sex and labor trafficking survivors while stopping traffickers.