Advertisement

Sophia Leone’s Death Should Wake Us Up to Violence Against Sex Workers

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Instagram
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Instagram

You probably saw the articles. Maybe you innocently skimmed past like so many of us do. Or perhaps you impulsively clicked after seeing the salacious words “porn star” in the thumbnail.

Popular adult film performer Sophia Leone died earlier this month after she was found “unresponsive” by family members, as first reported by The Daily Mail. The death of the 26-year-old, now being investigated as a potential home invasion and homicide, according to her talent agency, is part of a disturbing trend of violence against sex workers.

A “sex worker” can be anyone who provides erotic professional services, such as acting in adult films, full-service sex work (formerly called “prostitution”), domination and fetish work, exotic dancing, erotic massage, nude modeling, and more. Some of these are criminalized; others are not. Full-service sex workers, in my experience, often share higher incidences of violence as they have the added layer of criminalization to worry about. Adult film performers and dancers, however, are just as vulnerable to client violence, stalking, and harassment.

Even though not all sex work is illegal, and carries different sorts of inherent and unique risks, stigma is what binds all of us together, whether we work on a glamorous studio porn set or stand on a corner in the shadows. And stigma is the one universal cause of violence against people in all facets of the sex industry. As a 20-year veteran of that industry, this is something I cannot escape.

People tend to think that the disparate rates of violence within the sex industry are a manifestation of the work itself. How many times have anti-trafficking advocates and right-wing politicians blamed the sex industry as somehow inherently incubating violence? But violence in sex work doesn’t happen because of the unavoidable “nature” of sex work, it happens because of stigma and criminalization.

The individual violence I experienced as a sex worker for two decades is especially heinous—as Law & Order: SVU will have you know—because there is no recourse for us. We cannot go to the police. Even if we’ve never been arrested, we are criminals. We cannot rely on help from the legal system because our work, and thus who we are, are not seen as legitimate. The result is that we are kept entrenched in economic isolation and systemic alienation that only serves to reinforce that we have no recourse but sex work, even when exit is desired. So just remember this: When you think, why doesn’t she just get a job at McDonald’s, know that while polite society doesn’t want us to do sex work in the first place, if we’ve already done it then it certainly doesn’t want to welcome us back in.

Many years ago, I was raped and robbed by a client I felt I had no choice but to see. I didn’t bother screening him because I was desperate enough to feel like I had to take the risk. Not only did I feel unable to get any help from police, but I didn’t even feel safe enough to go to the ER for the morning-after pill and PEP (Post-exposure Prophylaxis, a 28 day course of meds to prevent HIV upon exposure). I had no money and could not even afford the $60 box of Plan B from the drugstore, and couldn’t get it for free because I was too scared to seek medical help. So I spent the next few months terrified that I was carrying my rapist’s child.

And to be clear, it is possible to rape a sex worker because, 1. People can change their minds and 2. Consent is an ongoing, ever-moving process that moves with people’s comfort level and perceived level of safety and it can be revoked at any time. It is an important distinction to make, and because I did not feel like having to go into a whole dissertation about this, that was one reason I chose not to bother with the emergency room, whose staff, I feared, may have been confused as to how a sex worker can be raped. The last thing I needed was to answer these kinds of questions when I was just trying to get help. The friends I have who have also been raped on the job and have tried to report to law enforcement have been arrested in the process.

Criminalized and stigmatized people cannot rely on the law to help until it’s too late. And we cannot extricate what we do from who we are, especially for very public sex workers like Leone and myself. As an out sex worker, I can tell you that I have been fired from several jobs for which there is no recourse because “sex worker” is not a protected class. I have been prevented from being hired at others, only hurdling me back into the too-often violent cycle of survival sex work.

This isn’t Pretty Woman. This isn’t some high-rise Manhattan call girl fantasy. This is planning for your death multiple times a day, every day, when you go into that person’s house/apartment/car/hotel room and genuinely do not know if you will ever come out again.

Adult Film Star Sophia Leone Dead at 26 After Being Found Unresponsive

Sophia Leone is not an anomaly. The important lesson from her ongoing homicide investigation is that violence against sex workers does exist. You should not look away. And you can do something to stop it. That’s the good news. But to change circumstances for us, it requires you to not only care about humanity (as I believe almost every human does) and believe that change is possible, but also to engage the hard work of sitting with your discomfort around the topic of sex work.

When I say stigma causes violence universally to all sex workers across all sectors of the sex industries, what I mean is that the reason that client raped me, the reason he robbed me, was because he knew there was nothing I could do about it. We are not human beings according to United States law and according to American societal values. This is why I say that you have power to influence our situation.

Of course change can happen at the top when the community toils for years to make it happen, to force people not to look away. But changing individual mindset is perhaps even more powerful and efficient.

What our society does to sex workers is ugly. How stigma holds us back, holds us locked into cycles of exploitation and violence and alienation, is brutal. But please don’t look away. Sophia Leone and sex workers like her deserve more. I would not have dedicated the past 15 years of my life to fighting for the rights of sex workers. I would not have testified in October at the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, speaking truth to power against the United States government’s human rights abuses of us, if I didn’t wholly believe change to be possible.

Stigma can be changed, but not without acknowledgment by the society that created it. And to look at oneself, not just at the collective level, but the individual level is painful and shameful. But shame can be a good thing if it means an understanding that the stigma against us must be ended.

I don’t have a choice but to live this life, and carry this identity with me for the rest of my days. Just like Sophia Leone. But you still have a choice.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.