It’s widely acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic has hit some workers, like those in the retail and service industries, harder than others. But that list rarely includes another profession suffering just as much, if not more. Sex workers are largely excluded from government relief packages, and in countries like Italy, poverty and fears of homelessness are forcing some to get back to work. The stigma, of course, only makes finding outside help that much worse.
Six months into the era of social distancing, FKA Twigs and Kehlani are stepping in. The past few days have seen both musicians use their platforms to demand action, along with a reevaluation of the ways we treat and perceive sex workers and strippers. “Sex workers deserve proper pay, protection, and to exist in their careers without consistent shame & violence,” Kehlani wrote when sharing her new music video, which features—and properly credits—nearly a dozen sex workers who’ve inspired her.
Kehlani also tapped the nonbinary abolitionist and community organizer, Da’Shaun L. Harrison, to create a PSA: Sex work “is a legitimate form of labor that must be decriminalized so as to function as a safe form of work for all sex workers,” the video concludes. “Black people—as well as Indigenous people and other people of color—deserve to be able to perform sex work without any limitations or stigmas attached, and this means that everyone must commit to learning from sex workers about sex work and sex workers’ needs.”
Twigs, an acclaimed dancer, issued a similar call to action on Tuesday, after opening up about getting into pole dancing as a hostess at a “gentleman’s club” 13 years ago. “For those of you who don’t know, hostessing is when one person pays another person for their time, anything from a conversation over dinner to sex work, and the club gets a cut of the fee,” she explained. “My lived experience as a very young woman in these environments has not only informed the strong and formidable woman that I am today, but also a lot of my work as a music and visual artist—sometimes even subconsciously.”
“I feel like now is the time for me to step forward, pay respect, and shine a light on the challenges facing sex workers, especially during these uncertain times,” the 32-year-old continued. “Sex workers I know and have met have discipline, craft, talent and work ethic—not only do they deserve better long-term, but their income has been wiped out by the lockdown and many are invisible to the financial aid available to others.”
“There’s a bigger journey in challenging public attitudes, tackling stigma, and fighting for rights and protections,” Twigs acknowledged. But for the time being, she called on her followers to donate to a GoFundMe that will provide direct financial support to sex workers and strippers. (Donations will be split among Lysistrata, a mutual care fund and collective, and two U.K.-based collectives, East London Strippers and SWARM.) Twigs kicked it off with £10,000, and the fund is now roughly halfway to its £30,000 goal.
Praise and expressions of gratitude immediately flooded the comments section. But criticism came just as quickly, much of it from sex workers and strippers who’ve long urged Twigs to use her platform to credit and support sex workers. That was especially true just 24 hours earlier, when some alleged that their previous criticism had been deleted. “I love you but I think it’s time you spoke on the important roots of pole dancing and the stigmas attached to the brave and incredible artists who invented it – s*x workers,” @goldbouffant commented on a video of Twigs pole dancing posted the previous day. “I see too many people in your comments saying ‘wow the way you do it makes it so much more respectable!’”
In response to a comment asking her to acknowledge the criticism, particularly from Selena The Stripper, Twigs later clarified that she and her team had been working with the aforementioned organizations for months. “I have been working internally for years to find the right time to be transparent about my lived experience and where some of my inspiration comes from as an artist,” she wrote. “To get it right, these things take care and time. It’s a really sensitive subject for all involved. I am truly doing my best, as we all are.”