In observance of Mother’s Day, I wanted to address one of the viler applications of the Madonna/whore fallacy, namely the practice of officially abducting the children of sex workers by branding them “unfit parents” on the strength of nothing but the fact that they are sex workers. But I knew that nothing I could write would have the impact of my friend Kelly’s telling of her own story, to which the rest of today’s column is dedicated.
I became involved in the Sex Industry at the age of fifteen, living alone on Fort Lauderdale beach; it’s a haven of teenage prostitution and provided the means for me to take care of myself. I was too young to have a job in Florida without my parents signing, and having no parents meant having no job. For me it was an easy transition from men that fed me and gave me a place to sleep in exchange for sex, to men directly paying me for sex. Even at that early age sex was a commodity that I controlled, and I viewed it as both an industry and a science. But an arrest prompted me to leave that life to marry my husband. I became a mother in 1993 and again in 1996 and 2001; I stayed home and raised those children for thirteen years.
Then in 2007 the housing market crashed; my husband lost his job and could not find another. Christmas was approaching and we were about to lose our home, when after another fruitless day of job-hunting he asked me through tearful eyes to put in ads as an escort again. I wasn’t alone; as the economy continued to decline, more and more women were turning to sex work to make ends meet, and not as reluctantly as you may think. For me, sex work improved my self-esteem and financial position enough that divorce seemed possible for the first time; I had already tried to escape that marriage twice through domestic violence shelters, but they could never help me become economically sound. And now I was thinking of divorce even more: my husband’s jealousy of my growing independence had incited his rage, and he was arrested twice for domestic violence.
The first time his parents quickly bailed him out, but by the second time they were angry at his lack of self control. He thought quickly and told them that his rage had been incited by the “discovery” that I was working as a prostitute; this shocked them into sympathy. No longer was he the villainous wife-beater; suddenly he was viewed only as a whore-beater, and that wasn’t nearly as bad. He didn’t mention that it was his idea, or that he had answered client emails pretending to be me while I visited other clients. His parents told him that the only way that they would bond him out this time was if he took our children and placed them on a plane to his brother (whom the children had never met) in another state. He agreed, and on July 8, 2008 he and his family began a campaign to keep the dirty whore from being anywhere near the children. And it worked: at first the state took custody from both of us, he for domestic violence and me for prostitution, but he quickly signed a case plan and “cooperated”, while I plead not guilty and chose to go to trial; this made me the “hostile” parent.
For five long years I held faith in the justice system…Five years with no school pictures, teacher conferences or chaperoned field trips. Five years of Mother’s Days with no breakfast in bed. I really believed that when the case came to court and a Judge heard about the way that my husband had continued his abusive behavior, the ordeal would be over. Surely the judge would look badly on my husband’s completely withholding visitation from me for six months despite a court order. Surely when the court heard that in his two years of custody he had never taken them to a doctor or dentist, or provided them with the glasses the two younger ones needed, they would be returned to me. Surely when they heard the sad stories that the children recount of living in their father’s home, they would be removed from there. But it didn’t work out that way, because I was a sex worker.
I did not realize at first that the court officials were totally on his side; they expedited his case and delayed mine to ensure that his was finished first, thus earning him reunification with the children. He also left the filing of the divorce papers to me, which delayed matters still further because I knew by that point I would need a good lawyer. I stopped working as an escort and began working as a tantric instructor, but my lawyer told me I had zero chance of reunification doing any kind of sex work; I therefore opened a catering company which moved into a restaurant over the next year and a half. The court had investigators crawling in and out of my restaurant and interviewing my employees, but never bothered to verify that my husband really had a job nor to ask why he hadn’t filed tax returns for over ten years. When it came to trial, the head investigator reported that my restaurant was “questionable” because I subleased the kitchen of an existing pub; she also told the judge that if my work as a tantric instructor wasn’t prostitution, “It is something similar to prostitution.” It didn’t matter that it had been more than a year since I had been involved in that, or that I admitted being previously involved; once a dirty whore, always a dirty whore. Needless to say, the court awarded him full custody. I haven’t finished fighting, though, and as he continues to neglect the children, I will continue to drag this case back to court to ask why I was never considered a “real option” in spite of the details of emotional abuse and neglect that continues in their father’s home.
Maggie was there all along, listening with a sympathetic ear and helping me to understand that the details of the case were not what mattered; she helped me understand that the stated purpose of family court (which of course is to “protect the children”) is not at all what they are truly interested in. When it comes to sex workers, keeping the status quo and punishing the dirty whore was the objective, not only in my case but in many others. The more I saw this theory proven, the more I wondered why more attention is not paid to the issue of families and custody within the sex worker rights movement; I personally found no organizations offering support for custody issues and vowed to change that. I began to notice the reinforcement of the negative stereotype of sex workers on television, and began to contemplate the way that this programming influences decision makers like guardians ad litem, who have little to no education or experience with sex workers. With that I began a Kickstarter project to produce a documentary film in which I will share my experience as a sex worker dealing with family court, and to dispel myths about sex work by looking at my life as I embark upon a typical tour.
This Mother’s Day, I propose that we take a closer look into sex work and the family court; let’s think not only about the rights of sex workers, but of the children that love them and are needlessly removed from their parents. Porn Stars have the right to custody. Strippers have the right to custody. Why should escorts be treated any differently? Sex work should not be considered in custody decisions when it does not affect the children directly, and we as a group need to stand up to demand unbiased treatment in custody decisions. Please visit “Whoremom” at Kickstarter.com to support my effort to educate the public on the reality of being a whore-mom in the state of prohibition.