“Think about your daughter!”: Motherhood and the Shaming of Sex Work – The Feminist Wire

“Think about your daughter!”: Motherhood and the Shaming of Sex Work


I know. I’m late. But for one, I honestly forgot all about this article after finishing it last summer. For two, y’all know I need a lot of time to marinate and stew on my thoughts, evidenced by my late response to Think Like a Man. Anyway, during the “Life Happens” episode of the third season of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, the fallout from the release of the sex tape cast member Mimi Faust made with her then boyfriend, now ex-boyfriend, Nikko London continued. At the time I originally wrote this article, I wrote that I wasn’t interested in whether or not Mimi and/or Nikko leaked their now-infamous sex tape. Now, we know they did, in fact, agree to leak the tape. However, I was and still am most interested in the rhetoric about the tape that concerned Mimi and fellow cast member Steven “Stevie J” Jordan’s now five-year-old daughter Eva.

At one point during “Life Happens,” cast member Erica Dixon says during a confessional, “She’s onto self-destruction. The more I thought about Mimi’s situation, the more I lost sympathy for her. It’s really her daughter that I’m worried about now.” While visiting Mimi at her home to discuss the tape, Erica remarks, “Talk to me, ‘cause what I saw, Mimi, I don’t like. I don’t like. I don’t appreciate. I am hurt, disgusted, disappointed.” After Mimi initially shrugs off her concerns, Erica replies, “Just remember what you doing effects everybody—your family, your friends, not just you.” She continues, “I’m speaking to you as a mother now. Because it’s selfish, and it’s self-absorbed. Because then, guess what? You thinkin’ about you. You not considering Eva […] You could put a price tag on that? Really?” So, of course, I was bothered by the ever-so-tired (as in played out) but still so very dangerous shaming of sex work that is motivated by the ways in which our society denigrates sex workers, especially when those workers are women and even more when those women have children.

Gn7bHDRNRiqYSUiu4kIu_Maya-AngelouAt one point during their conversation, Erica shakes her head negatively while Mimi claims, “What I did is going to benefit me and my family.” At that point, I started to wonder if Erica or anyone else questioning Mimi’s parenting because of the tape had ever heard of Maya Angelou, especially since it had only been a couple months since the world-renowned poet transcended. When Angelou passed, I was pleased to see so many people expressing their sadness about our tremendous loss—even though some young people had her confused with R&B singer Mya and comedian Maya Rudolph. However, I had to wonder then—and even now—if those folks really knew Maya Angelou and her work, especially the fact that she was a sex worker and wrote openly about her experiences as a prostitute in order to challenge the shaming that I referenced earlier. Not long after Angelou’s death, Aya de León visited HuffPost Live to join a conversation asking the same question, “Why Are Orbits Erasing Maya Angelou’s Sex Work?” Additionally, Peechington Marie of Tits and Sass set the internet ablaze with “The Erasure of Maya Angelou’s Sex Work History” in order to also remind folks—those who really know Angelou and those who don’t—about her full life, not just the parts that make us feel good, respectable, and comfortable. In the article, Peechington cites an interview The Teen Talking Circle Project conducted with Angelou during which she said,

If you’re in the very gutter, see where you are and admit it. As soon as you admit it, you can be like the prodigal son, the prodigal daughter. Get up and go home—wherever home is. Get up and go to a safe place, someplace where your spirit is not kicked and brutalized and your body not misused and abused. Get up. But you can’t get up unless you see where you are and admit it. I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, “I never did anything wrong. Who, moi? Never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.” They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, “Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.” They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives.

Now, back to this whole idea of sex work being a bad choice for mothers, especially mothers of daughters. Like Mimi and Erica, I also have a young daughter. She’s 9. She knows I’m a professor of Feminist & Gender Studies. She’s proud of me, I think. But why shouldn’t Eva be proud of her mom? Because she was in a relationship with a man that she was having sex with? Because they filmed themselves having sex? Because the tape was sold to Vivid Entertainment who then sold it to audiences interested in watching pornography? I’m calling bullshit. And here’s why:

Mimi and EvaErica called Mimi selfish and self-absorbed. Mimi defended herself against that charge, arguing that selling the tape would benefit her and her family financially. I understand her defense. Reports have her and Nikko earning anywhere from $100,000 to $5 million for the tape. In fact, Vivid Entertainment executive Steve Hirsch told TMZ that the tape earned $400,000 just based on its trailer. Perhaps Hirsch was just trying to drum up interest in the tape, but perhaps that was true. In any case, I’m willing to bet that Mimi made more on the sale of that tape than I make in a year. Additionally, she probably earned more money from media and club appearances than she did before the tape was released. I’d also be willing to bet that Mimi has invested a great deal of that money in her daughter Eva. The money has probably helped keep a roof over Eva’s head, food in her mouth, and it probably provided her with good medical care. The money might also allow her to travel the world, participate in all kinds of important and exciting extracurricular activities, and have whatever she needs and wants in order to thrive. I know full well that life isn’t all about money and profits; however, let’s not act like we can pay our bills with some patriarchal version of dignity.

And wait—what’s so wrong with a mother being selfish at times? I think I’m pretty successful, and I wouldn’t be if I didn’t put myself first…a lot. One of the main reasons I chose to write this article is to advocate for my style of parenting, which I call “airplane-in-a-crisis mode parenting.” If you’ve ever flown, you know flight attendants tell passengers that, during a crisis, we should put the oxygen mask on ourselves first and then help children and others who may not be able to help themselves. I parent that way, trying to always make sure I’m good, which actually helps me to be the best mom I can possibly be. The problem is that we live in a society that requires women, especially mothers, to be at the service of everyone else—their spouses, their children, their communities. It’s no wonder why “self-help” is a $10 billion dollar industry and that women comprise most of the consumer market at approximately 70%.

Regarding the sex work industry, even though “Shower Rod Gate” isn’t occupying as much space in popular culture as it once did, the denigration of sex work continues. Whenever I’m not teaching during the day, I admit to watching a lot of daytime television like The Bill Cunningham Show, during which viewers are invited to feel pity for or mock guests who make “poor choices,” like women who work in the sex industry. Probably once a week (if not more often), some show is dedicated to distraught family members trying to convince their loved one that sex work is a horrible career choice. If those loved ones happen to be women who happen to be mothers, the distress intensifies immensely. Check out this trailer for an episode from June 2012 for a sneak peek:

According to Nielsen, the number of U.S. citizens watching daytime TV rose from 31.49 million in 2008 to 35.7 million in 2014. That’s a lot of people absorbing the theory that women who do sex work aren’t worthy of love and respect (not to suggest that all that consumption is passive). This is why these critical conversations—which have been happening long before Mimi ever met Nikko—are important to continue having, even though it feels, as I wrote earlier, tired and played out.

Before I end this, though, let me be perfectly clear. I personally wouldn’t want any photos or videos of my husband and I naked or having sex to be made available to the public for free or for pay. I don’t want to be a sex worker. However, there are lots of things I don’t want to do or be. I don’t want to be an accountant. I don’t want to be a lawyer. I don’t want to be the kind of doctor that can prescribe pharmaceuticals. I don’t want to be the kind of teacher that educates children in elementary, middle, or high school. I’m sure that I’ve never even seriously considered sex work due to the societal stigma that comes with it, but I’d like to think that times are changing, however slowly. When I have these kinds of conversations, people often ask, “What would you do if your daughter told you she wanted to be a sex worker?” They never ask about my son, of course. But here’s the honest truth: I’d remind her about the amazing Maya Angelou and the brilliant Jennifer C. Nash and the incredible Jessica Holter and the fierce Mireille Miller-Young and the many other Black women who’ve committed their lives to alleviating the shame that clouds sex work, especially for Black women, and then I’d let her know that I will always love her unconditionally and that she betta werq. At least I hope that’s what I’d do.

CC3A3330Heidi R. Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Feminist & Gender Studies at Colorado College. Her teaching and research focus on feminist theory, gender and sexuality, Black Studies, Critical Media Studies, Critical Race Theory, Critical Whiteness Studies, social justice, and activism. Her essay “An Examination of the Kanye West’s Higher Education Trilogy” is featured in The Cultural Impact of Kanye West, and her article “Let Me Just Taste You: Li’l Wayne and Rap’s Politics of Cunnlingus” is forthcoming in the Journal of Popular Culture. Heidi has also been a contributor to Mark Anthony Neal’s NewBlackManNPR’s “Here and Now,” KOAA news in Colorado Springs, and KRCC radio, Bitch Media, Racialicious, and Act Out. Learn more by following Heidi on Twitter at @therealphdmommy and by visiting her FemGeniuses website.

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