Invisibility and Visibility of Queer Women and Lesbians (academic article)

Invisibility and Visibility of Queer Women and Lesbians In the Sex Work Industry Between 1970 and 1990

by leigh vandebogart


This paper focuses on the ways in which lesbians and queer women in the sex work industry were stigmatized in society and the struggle to gain visibility in a society that rendered them invisible. There has been a largely invisible history of lesbians and queer women involved in sex work. The era between 1970 and 1990 was laden with the second wave of feminism, sexual consciousness and sexual revolution, three factors still affecting society. I argue that the existence of lesbian and queer women as sex workers during this time was a difficult one. Lesbians and queer women involved in sex work were marginalized, faced with stigmas and issues of visibility and invisibility, both within and outside of queer and lesbian communities. Through focusing on narratives of queer women and lesbian sex workers, I include the ways in which lesbians and queer women within the sex work industry were oppressed and marginalized within their own communities. I also show not all communities were so oppressive, and some of the women involved in sex work found comfort and solidarity within the queer community.

“Lesbians and prostitutes have always been connected, not just in the male imagination, but in the actual histories of both.” [1] Lesbians and queer women are an invisible population in American society, and have been throughout American history. In the already stigmatized realm of sex work, the involvement of lesbians and queer women in sex work and prostitution is often ignored and invisible to clientele and other workers. Many lesbians and queer women find, like their heterosexual counterparts, sex work to be easy, less demanding than most minimum wage work and profitable. Though there are definitely stereotypes and stigmas surrounding such a tabooed sector of American society, there has always been and most likely always will be some form of women’s engagement in the sex work industry in American society and culture. Many people label prostitution and exotic dancing as immoral, degrading and even counterproductive to the positive roles feminism has played in our society.

Yet there are others who counter this negative attack. Those who counter this stance stand up for sex work and claim that it is very much a feminist endeavor, as well as one that should be treated and respected as such. In the late twentieth century, especially between the 1970’s and the 1990’s, there has been a great deal of discussion regarding this topic, as well as exploration of the sexual boundaries of various people. This paper will focus largely on self-identified lesbians and queer women, all were involved in the sex work industry between 1970 and 1990 and all detail their experiences with the visibility and invisibility lesbians and queer women faced within sex work, as well as how their involvement in the sex work industry was stigmatized and marginalized.

Increasingly, there has been discussion of lesbian and queer desire within the realm of sex work, a topic which has further been expounded on in detail during the time between 1970 and 1990. As Eva Pendleton, member of PONY (Prostitutes of New York) says, “Numerous historians and cultural critics have begun to document the rich history of lesbian sex workers; their work often highlights the stigmatized social spaces historically shared by whores and lesbians. Queer periodicals have increasingly devoted space to covering the hidden worlds of lesbian sex workers.”[2] This attention has highlighted a major segment of the population involved in sex work and prostitution: the queer population working in what is, largely, a patriarchal and heterosexual realm. Why do lesbians and queer women seek out jobs in the sex work industry? Why have they, and most likely will continue to be invisible within an already invisible subculture of American society?

There is much at stake for many women involved in sex work, no matter what their sexuality and sexual orientation. A great deal of research still needs to be done on this topic and further draw conclusions on the population of queer women who work as prostitutes or exotic dancers, both throughout history and today. However, it is enough to posit that there have always been and will continue to be lesbians and queer women in sex work. It is also significant to note lesbians and queer women constitute a much ignored population, one that needs to be heard to eradicate the stigmatism they’re forced to endure. Their presence is one which needs to be recognized in society today, by both academia and by those outside the academy. Without this recognition there can truly be no understanding about women’s experiences as sex workers or of the industry itself. And without recognition, there can be no erasure of the oppression queer women and lesbians experience within the sex work industry or because of their involvement in the industry.

Many people seem to be content with stereotyping women involved in sex work, of which all women working within similar realms feel the repercussions. However, lesbians and queer women working within the sex industry often have to deal with and contest the stigmas and stereotypes from their own community as well as the beliefs of American society. Not only do queer women have to deal with misogynistic beliefs and stigmas because of their occupation from mainstream society, they have to deal with horizontal hostility, though members of the queer community may be their only support. This double oppression, compounded with other elements of classism and racism lead to what is a double invisibility, effectively ostracizing queer women and lesbians within the sex industry from both mainstream society and the queer community. This hardship is one which women and queer women must endure when they become involved in various aspects of sex work, jobs which are, at times, hardships in and of themselves. Despite the double invisibility queers within the sex industry endure, their presence has been constant. When the presence of queer women and lesbians within the sex work industry is visible it is almost inevitably stigmatized. These experiences are narrated by queer women such as Denise T. Turner, Peggy Morgan and Les von Zoticus, all of whom detail their experiences within different aspects of the sex industry between 1970 and 1990.

The term “sex work” is one which has been highly politicized and fought for by many sex-positive activists, writers and sex workers. This term highlights the fact that women who are involved in the sex work industry are constantly subjected to titles such as “prostitute” and “stripper,” both of which have strikingly negative connotations. Such labels imply women are not working for their money – hardly the case. By labeling a woman a “prostitute” or a “whore” one is also forcing women into a very small box, typically one which only stereotypical images fill. As Bernadette Barton cites, “Carol Leigh, aka the Scarlot Harlot, invented the term ‘sex work’ to demonstrate both that women in the sex industry are actively engaged in a form of labor as well as change the focus from women being ‘used’ to being subjects.” [3] Carol Leigh herself recalls the moment in which she invented the term, during a conference in San Francisco in “1979 or 1980,” [4]

As I entered [the conference] I saw a newsprint pad with the title of the workshop. It included the phrase ‘Sex Use Industry.’ The words stuck out and embarrassed me. How could I sit amid other women as a political equal when I was being objectified like that, described as only something used, obscuring my role as an actor and agent in this transaction? At the beginning of the workshop I suggested that the title of the workshop should be changed to the ‘Sex Work Industry,’ because that described what women did. Generally, the men used the services and the women provided them . . . The term ‘sex workers’ resonated for me . . . [5]

Carol Leigh’s suggestion is one which has politicized and liberated women in the sex work industry. The use of this term denotes an image of worth to the women involved in such work, for it recognizes their labor. Perhaps not as the labor one would automatically think of, but a labor which is nonetheless in demand and ignored simultaneously. Since its invention, the term has gained popularity and acceptance, especially within sex-positive arenas. Leigh asserts the invention of the term highlights women’s work do when involved in the sex industry, and that the use of such a term actively promotes dispelling stigmas and dismantling oppressions. [6] Leigh goes on to say, “Created in the context of the feminist movement, at a junction of opposing views of prostitution, the term ‘sex worker’ is a feminist contribution to the language. The concept of sex work unites women in the industry – prostitutes, porn actresses, and dancers – who are enjoined by both real and social needs to disavow common ground with women in other facets of the business.” [7]

This important term does all which Leigh hopes to do with it – it gives a political and personal voice to the women involved in sex work and moves them away from the stigma associated with preexisting terms like “whore,” “hooker” and even “prostitute.” As Leigh states, “I remember the term ‘sex work,’ and how powerful it felt to, at last, have a word for this work that is not a euphemism. Sex work has no shame, and neither do I.” [8] Carol Leigh, in defining sex work for decades to come, defined a political rhetoric used largely within the feminist movement and queer populations, but perhaps even more so among the women who work within the sex industry. Despite the opposition, sex work and the demand for women involved in various aspects of the industry has been constant in the past and will most likely continue to be in the future. A great many of these sex workers identify as lesbian, bisexual or queer in some way, identities which many people do not think of when hearing the words “prostitute,” “sex worker,” “stripper,” or one of the other many pejorative terms used to label women who use sex as means to gather their income. Many people don’t think queer women and lesbians would want to be involved in the sex work industry, and therefore are not and have not been.

For many lesbians and queer women, the sex work industry is and has been the major contributor to their income, if not the sole contribution. In fact, the amount of money that can be made through sex work is, for many women, the most attractive thing about it. Many might say it was the deciding factor in becoming involved in the sex work industry, as it was for Denise T. Turner, a self-identified queer woman. Denise recalls in an interview, “I was working in a restaurant for $2 an hour, and Beth, my lover, was working for $2 an hour at a bookstore at the university. And here’s [Ann, our friend] saying ‘You can make lots of money’”:

. . . she kept telling Beth, who was really pretty and had big breasts, how much money she could make. Finally, Beth decided she was going to try it and see what it was like. We had never had any money. She did two tricks, two blowjobs, and came home with $100. So Beth started working at the massage parlor. She kept coming home with all this money and it came around to my thinking, ‘Well, why don’t I try it?’ That’s how we got into the parlor. We had a lot of friends from the lesbian community who ended up getting into the business, just through our friend and then through us. People wanted to make money. [9]

In Denise’s account, she recalls the amount of lesbians and queer women from her community who worked in the parlor for the amount of money it paid. Even in 1970, around the time of Denise’s narrative, $2 an hour for work was simply not enough to live on. Though $2 an hour was considered the minimum wage in 1970 [10], the poverty threshold was $2,010 for those who were under 65 years old [11]. By making only minimum wage, Denise would have made roughly $4,160 per year if she consistently worked 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year – not including taxes. Realistically, her salary would have been significantly less, as she most likely did not work 40 hours a week and was taxed. This rough estimate is only $2,150 above the poverty line in 1970. While this may seem a decent amount above the poverty line, one must also take into consideration food, rent and other factors such as health care that would have greatly diminished the gap between the poverty line and Denise’s salary. In comparison with $100 for half an hour, a mere $2 an hour must have seemed ridiculous to even consider as an alternative. As Peggy Morgan states,

. . . the bottom line in this business is money. Nobody – not even myself, not the other women – enjoys being pawed, poked, prodded and fucked by men we wouldn’t give the time of day if we met them elsewhere. The fact is, women still only make sixty-five cents to every dollar men earn, and have to do twice as well to be thought half as good. In my own experience with ‘square’ jobs, I’ve put up with condescension and sexual harassment that either would take complicated grievance procedures to redress – with no guarantees – or was too ‘subtle’ to confront without arousing accusations of oversensitivity and craziness. Besides, I had to worry about being fired if it was discovered that I’m gay – all this for a wage I could not live on … The fact is, there’s a livable wage to be made in the sex business, and we decide when, where, and with whom we’ll do what. [12]

This passage illustrates the motives many women, and especially lesbians and queer women, have in order to work within the sex industry. Many people have debated and continue to debate the morality of working in the sex industry, especially within lesbian and communities. The truth of the matter remains, however, that women are paid well for sexual services, which are in high demand while remaining invisible. Because the demand generally stems from a male population, the politics of working in the sex industry are highly contested in the lesbian community. Many see this as a form of “selling out” to the patriarchy and its inherent misogyny.

Denise Turner did not find much opposition from other members of the lesbian community as Morgan did, but instead found commonalities with the other lesbians and queer women with whom she worked, creating a new sense of community. Within Denise’s community there were many lesbians and queer women working at the massage parlor where she and her lover, Beth, began working. This population created a safe environment for themselves and others with whom they shared their space. For many others within the community they lived in, the choice whether or not to become involved in the sex work industry was not as difficult as one might find in another setting. Denise recalls, “… we were already pretty radical. We had been gay for about three years, and we kind of saw ourselves on the outside of society. We already experienced ourselves as fringe, as not subject to the conformity that other people were subject to. We already saw ourselves as ‘bad.’ The bad girls.” [13] This thought process and ideology is one which is consistent within many of the feelings lesbians and queer women have in regards to their work within the sex industry. Because they are already marginalized and stigmatized, many feel it is not so bad to be further marginalized and stigmatized for their work. Queer women and lesbians already know how to cope with some of the stereotypical attitudes of society because of their sexuality and sexual orientation. Though there are differences in the stereotypes they face, living through these stereotypes makes becoming involved in sex work easier, for it’s almost as if many lesbians and queer women know what to expect. Denise goes on to state, “[Sex work] was a bad that we felt righteous about. We had principles behind our badness. When you were a dyke in those days you knew you definitely were out on the margins. You felt more on the fringe than people do now, and you didn’t feel like you had that much to lose.” [14] The feelings of boldness and little respect left to lose in society’s eyes are feelings that are characterized in many accounts lesbians and queer women sex workers share of their time involved in the sex work industry. This commonality is one reason why many lesbians and queer women were attracted to the sex work industry of the 1970’s through the 1990’s.

More lesbians and queer women within sex work talk of their population within the industry during the last thirty years of the 20th century, as it is now safer to discuss such a population more openly. Denise Turner talks about the substantial number of lesbians and queer women in the massage parlor she worked at in the 1970’s, positing why so many queer women wound up in the sex work industry.

I think the reason why you have so many lesbians in the business is because of . . . us being on the outside and already having an identity that’s outside of social norms . . . You’ve already lost your faith by the fact that you’ve come out and you realize how bad the attitudes are how unfair it is . . . It’s real easy to make the jump. I think it’s very common.[15]

As Lyndall MacCowen, Denise’s interviewer suggests, Denise’s narrative is quite a different portrait, one which mainstream society might not be aware exists. “That’s so different from the ideas put forth now, and the history they imply, that feminist lesbians never approved of prostitution, or worked in the sex industry, that lesbian prostitutes are some kind of freak phenomenon.” [16] This myth is one which is perpetuated over and over again by the invisibility of lesbians, queer women and those who work within the sex work industry, further showing the double invisibility of queer women in sex work. There are many people who have no identity because they are invisible unless stigmatized, a very damaging prospect to one’s emotional, mental and physical state in either situation. Under such a subculture queer women and sex workers find comfort within each other’s stigmatized and marginalized identities, seeking solace in their “otherness.” The presence of many lesbians and queer women in the sex work industry is a positive factor for many women as well as a safety net. Many women describe a feeling of the formation of the strong community among lesbians and queer women within the sex work industry to be a very supportive atmosphere for sex workers.

However, not all queer women are so lucky as to have such a supportive populous. There are many lesbians and queer women who have worked within the sex industry and reported the few other lesbians and queer women working with them, despite the numerous rumors suggesting otherwise.

There seems to be a myth on the outside that a disproportionate number of lesbians work in this business – which is pure bunk. In all the years I’ve been there, I’ve only known three other lesbians (one of whom I got the job for) and a handful of bisexual women who worked at the bar. There is no unity among us either; they seem very uncomfortable when I try to acknowledge our common ground. So I only offer occasional polite questions about their lovers or whether they’ve been to any of the gay bars lately. [17]

Despite prevalent perceptions in various sectors of society, Morgan’s narrative shows there was not a surplus of lesbians and queer women in the sex work industry during the time she was involved in sex work. While the various sexual orientations of women involved in the sex work industry most likely depend on what location and environment the women are in, Morgan was in a situation sparsely populated by lesbians and queer women. This is a striking difference to the other passages and experiences of Denise Turner. Perhaps Morgan’s experience is related to the struggle many queer women experience when involved in sex work. Because they did not want to be doubly oppressed by society and the queer community they identified with, many queer women and lesbians could have consciously stayed away from involving themselves in sex work.

As well as detailing the lack of lesbians and queer women within the sex work she experienced, Morgan relates the difficulties she faced regarding her sexuality and her job. She recalls, “There have been times when I’ve had to deal with one of the dancers going around telling my regular customers that I am a lesbian in an effort to take their business away from me. This infuriates me, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t talk about my private life at work . . . Some customers have refused to sit with me again.” [18] Morgan details the problems she has encountered revealing her sexual identity to the women she worked with, some of whom merely utilized the highly personal information as a tool to better their own cash flow and hurt hers. The pain of such rejection and blatant disapproval from customers and coworkers, though they might not be the people Morgan is exceptionally worried about impressing, is emotionally straining nonetheless. Despite her painful encounters with disclosing her sexual orientation at work, Morgan retains an outlook that is optimistic masked carefully within a jaded exterior. “It’s not worth it to raise anybody’s consciousness – I’m there to work . . . The best I can do is just be myself and let my coworkers draw their own conclusions and hope they’ll be positive.” [19]

Like Morgan, Nell, a sex worker interviewed by Priscilla Alexander, discusses the disparity between the queer and lesbian community which existed within sex work and the queer community outside of sex work. As a sex worker, Nell worked exclusively with women, which she felt was incredibly supportive. However, she did not find such community or support within the larger realm of the lesbian and queer community, saying they “…offered little support. There are tons of lesbians who don’t like heterosexual women, or women who are involved with men, and they can’t stand prostitutes…Once, at a party, a lesbian I knew took me apart and told me, ‘Don’t talk about …hooking.’ I mean, could you walk up to somebody and say, ‘Please, don’t come out of the closet.’ It’s the same kind of thing.” [20]

Though Nell describes the comforting and supportive atmosphere she was lucky enough to find within the sex work industry, she also describes the horizontal oppression she faced with lesbians outside of sex work. The fact that she was forced to be silent about her work is telling, for it shows the powerful stigmas and shame that accompany involvement in the sex work industry, especially for lesbians and queer women. Like Nell, Sharon Kaiser further notes the stigmas surrounding prostitution, both within and outside of the lesbian and queer communities. “…the stigma surrounding homosexuality in the middle sixties when I came out was never even half as bad as it was around being a prostitute or doing pornography. I dated women who did prostitution in corporations, and the denial was so great that we never told each other what we were doing. We lied…mostly to ourselves …” [21] Kaiser goes on to say that though lesbians might not have seen sex work as immoral, they nonetheless found it revolting – making lesbians those whom Kaiser was most afraid of revealing her profession to. [22]

Kaiser enters interesting and difficult ground here, for she explores the discrimination which is a reality for so many lesbian and queer sex workers in what amounts to, in other circumstances, their support group – other lesbians and queer women. Instead she, as well as the other lesbian and queer sex workers she knew, was forced to deny her professional identity, which had a definite negative impact on her personal identity. She even compared the stereotypical attitudes toward lesbians and queer women to the stigmas she faces as a prostitute, and knows the stigma of being a sex worker is far more severe and harsh than that of being a lesbian. Being a lesbian prostitute is, perhaps, even worse – she belongs nowhere but a sort of sexual limbo, in which she is stigmatized for loving women and loving men in very different ways.

One of the most interesting aspects of many of the narratives of these queer women involved in sex work is the repeated and constant anxiety of how other women, especially women in queer communities, will perceive them. Not once have any of these women suggested that they worried what their customers or what other men in their lives thought of them or their profession. As lesbians and queer women, their communities and various friendships and partnerships are largely based in communities of women, a populace which is further increased by becoming involved in the sex work industry, a woman dominated field. Morgan, like many other of the women’s narratives, expresses her concern in admitting she was both a sex worker and a lesbian to the women she knew, in fear that they would abandon her, label her as a pervert, or worse. This horizontal hostility, found within many women’s communities, could be the result of internalized misogyny and the ever-present socialized need for women to adhere to their gendered sex roles.

Because sex work is so negatively stigmatized and such a blatant betrayal of the role women are taught to embody when dealing with sex, queer women and lesbians working within the sex industry often experience a backlash from those whose support is most needed – other women, and especially women in queer and lesbian communities.. Referring to when she first started becoming involved in sex work, Morgan admitted, “I remained carefully closeted at work, and outside, confused by both the cultural stigma of sex work and the apparently immutable feminist party-line that such work was degrading and oppressive to women, I kept my mouth shut.” [23] As she continued to work in the sex industry, she gained a different outlook. “Over the past two years, I’ve cautiously come out in the women’s community as a stripper. This was made easier by the fact that some women had begun to talk and write about sexuality openly and honestly.” [24]

Morgan had every right to be cautious in coming out. Despite the increase in talking and writing about sex and sexuality, as well as how both these issues focus around women, there was a hostile response in the feminist community during the decades between 1970 and 1990. The ability for many lesbian and queer women sex workers to reclaim their professional and personal identities and proudly announce those identities to the queer communities they were invested in were great achievements. The problem of lesbians and queer women “coming out,” in a sense, to communities of queer women was serious, for the breakdown of such barriers is important for women to be able to fully claim their sexuality.

Despite the population of lesbians and queer women within the sex work industry, there are surprisingly few women who offer their services to other women, or who solicit other women for sexual services. The battle to gain control over women’s own sexuality in the way society allows men to control theirs is yet another stigma women must contend with both in the sex industry and in society. Debi Sundahl, the creator of the lesbian pornographic magazine On Our Backs, recalls staging an erotic burlesque show that catered to the women she found were consistently missing from the sex work industry she became committed to and involved in. She remembers the sixty performers in the show were all lesbians who decided to reclaim sex work as something they could do for themselves rather than for men, who created so much in the sex industry. By creating the burlesque show, it allowed women, who worked within the sex industry, to reclaim their profession and entertain women like themselves. [25]

Sundahl became devoted, in many ways, to progress within the sex work industry. She, as well as many others, wanted to create an industry that was more women centered, as women are the true center of the sex industry. By creating a show for women, Sundahl had opened a new arena for sexual freedom and expression, as well as dialogue and even acceptance. Sundahl remembers, “Judging by the response and by the crowds, women were (and are) hungry for sexual entertainment and enthralled by the fact that, for the first time in modern history, they could have sexual entertainment to call their own … It was interesting to see the effect on the strippers as well: before the show, some felt cautious about letting other lesbians know what they did for a living. Now, they are treated with respect and awe in their communities. It has also been gratifying to see changes taking place in the lesbian community around sexual expression … the response was overwhelmingly positive.” [26]

Sundahl’s narrative is indicative of what changes need to be made to effectively build positive attitudes around sex work. The burlesque show she helped produce focused on women, and the entertainment they would want to see and experience. This allowed for a freedom previously unexplored within sex work, which is typically centered on men and their pleasure. Though women may be in control when working, their needs and desires are not accounted for. As Sundahl states, though, as soon as they are, various stigmas are virtually erased – the women who performed in the show were treated much differently than before their performances, and met their communities with newfound respect. If the sex industry becomes more women-friendly, fewer stigmas would exist in regards to women working within the industry from members of queer communities.

Sundahl expresses many positive changes in the realm of women’s sexuality and sexual expression with staging her all-women strip shows. The ability for many lesbian sex workers to reclaim their professional and personal identities and proudly proclaim them to the lesbian and queer communities they were invested in was a great achievement which might not have been possible under other circumstances. The problem of lesbians and queer women ‘coming out’ in a sense to their communities built of lesbians and queer women is a serious one, and the breakdown of barriers is important to fully claiming women’s sexuality.

Like Sundahl, Les von Zoticus envisioned a better environment for women’s sexuality and sexual expression. Von Zoticus describes her interpretation of a sex worker as a queer “butch gigolette” [27] who solicited femme women for her services out of concern that their sexual desires were not being met as easily as her own. Von Zoticus created an entrepreneurial business, which consisted of a type of “menu” that catered to the sexual tastes of her clients. Her very exclusive set of clients was a population von Zoticus carefully thought about. She seemed thankful for the very different circumstances that allowed her to have an easier time than many other women in the sex industry. “Unlike many other sex workers, I had the comfort of a day job to pay my bills, so I wasn’t reliant upon sex-work income. This allowed me the luxury of serving only female clients. I believe this afforded me a greater level of physical safety than my sister whores who must work with male clients. Additionally, the fact that my line of work was so new helped me to escape notice (or at least interference) from the police.” [28]

Many women involved in sex work know all too well the dangers of working with men, as well as the constant threat the police pose on their work, dangers which have not changed much for decades. Unlike people with what society deems as “normal” jobs, sex workers have no health insurance, no taxes, no Social Security, no job security, no sick pay, no vacation and certainly no protection from police, who may decide to do a sting the day they’re working. Because of these uncertainties, women in the sex work industry have repeatedly gotten jailed for trying to make decent money like anyone else.

Such compromising realities highlight the significant factor of invisibility in women’s lives, no matter their sexual orientation when they work within the sex industry. Though it is assumed to be common knowledge that women are involved in sex work of some kind and have been involved in sex work throughout history, there is little acknowledgment of their existence in society. The lack of any type of protection, whether it is medical, physical, or monetary is an issue that women in the sex industry must deal with alone, or with the support of others in similar positions, effectively isolating them from the rest of society. This isolation creates an invisibility which is only unveiled once a man seeks out a woman for her services, or when law enforcement becomes involved. This visibility dichotomy is one which places women involved in sex work in strange positions. They are visible when men want to utilize their services and their bodies for sex and when law enforcement highlights them for illegal activity, but are otherwise invisible for their “immoral” nature within society. However, von Zoticus had a much different experience when she was involved with sex work, for hers was a service exclusive only to women, giving her an entirely different environment for her work.

Clearly cognizant of all the opportunities von Zoticus had in front of her, she carefully thought out her preparation and presentation. She understood that, unlike men, women would have reservations and understandably be more hesitant or nervous in soliciting her for sexual services. Women are and have not been socialized to be sexual, especially not as blatantly sexual as buying what one desires. In the face of these conflicting realities, von Zoticus was determined to create a service based on pleasing her women clients, and did just that. Within von Zoticus’ description of what she called her “experiment,” she included facsimiles of the fliers advertising her services distributed to women, entitled “Sex A La Carte: A Guide to Negotiating Your Desires.” [29] The contents of this sexual menu included activities which would allow the client to engage in fantasies and desires, all of which were concentrated solely around the requests of the client. Eventually she had to end her six month experiment, because of a lack of participation, but mostly likely not due to lack of desire. [30]

“With only a handful of brave women able to overcome deeply embedded social proscriptions against sexual assertiveness, my initial attempt at butch whoredom was bound to be less than an unparalleled success.” [31] Von Zoticus makes note, however, that she averaged at least one call a day from interested clients during her six month period, and believes that she would have had greater success had she continued with the experiment past its six month time limit. She adds, “I’d like to think that even if most of the women I talked to could not or would not actually purchase illicit erotic entertainment, the very act of considering doing so just might have broadened their sexual horizons beyond the limitations imposed by our misogynistic culture.” [32]

As von Zoticus states, America is and has been, as a culture, misogynistic from its inception as a country. These values and beliefs are those which have shaped the way many people view women’s sexuality, effectively enforcing certain beliefs and stereotypes onto women that dictate their lives and sexuality in often negative ways. These beliefs are extended to the stigmas surrounding both sex workers and queer women, stigmas which are doubly enforced when lesbians and queer women become involved in the sex work industry. Though queer women and sex workers are often invisible to the dominant culture, they are visible enough to those who wish to see them. As Denise Turner recalls,

People have a lot of misconceptions about what [sex work] is. People have the idea that if you’re a prostitute you turn your body over. That you give up control of your body, and that it’s humiliating. Well, you don’t . . . You perform services and there ain’t a whole lot of layin’ down involved. Not in what we did. The clients lay down. They take off their clothes. You tell them what to do. You tell them what you will do and what you won’t do. And how you’ll do it. [33]

That, basically, is the bottom line for many lesbians and queer women who find themselves involved in sex work: They have control and power under the illusion that their male clients have the power and control over them. This powerful misconception is one that bleeds into much of society, which sees sex workers as people completely different than who they really are. Peggy Morgan challenges, “Take those surprised, quizzical looks I get when I tell people what I do: who, this short, chubby dyke, a stripper? Is she hiding some ‘exceptional’ body under those faded jeans and old sweatshirts? What does she do with all her money?” [34] Only a few sex workers could adequately belong to the assumptions and stereotypes she faced – not nearly the majority of queer women who actually made up and continue to make up a significant portion of the population of sex workers.

The invisibility of queer women and lesbians within sex work is a problem that needs to be addressed and remedied. However, who will address and remedy the problem when queer and lesbian sex workers are invisible and ignored by both mainstream society and the queer community? In order to help and make visible lesbian and queer sex workers, those within queer communities need to overcome their stigmas. Once stigmas are dispelled, people can then work to create more women-centered environments within sex work to improve working conditions and the industry in general. The stigmas which surround queer women and lesbians within sex work need to be dismantled, for such workers have a right to proclaim all facets of their identity. By limiting women to only one identity with strict regulations, society and the queer community is stifling women who have nothing to be ashamed of, despite what many people may think.

In the end, however, there are many women – queer women, lesbians, and any other kind of woman who identifies herself as part of the sex work industry – who are proud to be or have been sex workers. As Penny Morgan claims, “I am not ashamed of who I am or what I do – lesbian and stripper – and can’t wait until the day when it will be safe to use my real name.” [35] Perhaps in the spirit of the many queer women sex workers who came before Morgan and will undoubtedly come after, she strongly states, “In the words of the tune I’ve adopted as my theme song at work, the theme from La Cage aux Folles, ‘I am what I am.’” [36] It is a theme which many of us can afford to adopt. Hopefully through adopting such a theme many will take a look at the lives of women who have led difficult lives as queer sex workers, and this history will be the impetus to take a closer look at our own sexuality and sexual identity and beyond the ever-present stigmas – serious issues in the past, and most likely in the future as well.


1. Joan Nestle, “Lesbians and Prostitutes: A Historical Sisterhood,” in Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, ed. Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1987), 232. (Return)

2. Eva Pendleton, “Love for Sale: Queering Heterosexuality,” in Whore and Other
, ed. Jill Nagel (New York: Routledge, 1997), 74.(Return)

3. Bernadette Barton, “Queer Desire in the Sex Industry.” Sexuality and Culture v.5, no. 4 (Fall 2001): 25.(Return)

4. Carol Leigh, “Inventing Sex Work,” in Nagel, 229-230. (Return)

5. Leigh, 230. (Return)

6. ibid. (Return)

7. ibid. (Return)

8. ibid. (Return)

9. Lyndall MacCowan, “Organizing in the Massage Parlor,” in Nagel, 232-233. (Return)

10. Woodrow L. Ginsburg, “Minimum Wage Ain’t What it Used to Be.” <> (accessed April 20, 2005). (Return)

11. U.S. Bureau of Census, “Historic Poverty Tables,” U.S. Census Bureau, 26 August 2004, <> (accessed April 20, 2005). (Return)

12. Penny Morgan, “Living on the Edge,” in Delacoste and Alexander, 24-25. (Return)

13. MacCowan, 233. (Return)

14. ibid. (Return)

15. MacCowan, 236. (Return)

16. ibid. (Return)

17. Morgan, 24. (Return)

18. Morgan, 23. (Return)

19. Morgan, 25. (Return)

20. Priscilla Alexander, “Interview with Nell,” in Delacoste and Alexander, 54. (Return)

21. Sharon Kaiser, “Coming Out of Denial, ” in Delacoste and Alexander, 104-105. (Return)

22. Kaiser, 104-105. (Return)

23. Morgan, 23. (Return)

24. Morgan, 25. (Return)

25. Debi Sundahl, “Stripper,” in Delacoste and Alexander, 177. (Return)

26. Sundahl, 178. (Return)

27. Les Von Zoticus, “Butch Gigolette,” in Nagel, 170. (Return)

28. Von Zoticus, 175. (Return)

29. Von Zoticus, 171. (Return)

30. Von Zoticus, 176. (Return)

31. Von Zoticus, 175. (Return)

32. Von Zoticus, 175 – 176. (Return)

33. MacCowan, 233. (Return)

34. Morgan, 21. (Return)

35. Morgan, 27. (Return)

36. Morgan, 27-28. (Return)


Alexander, Priscilla. “Interview with Nell.” In Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, edited by Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1987), 54.

Barton, Bernadette. “Queer Desire in the Sex Industry” Sexuality and Culture v.5, no. 4 (Fall 2001): 25.

Delacoste, Frederique and Priscilla Alexander, eds. Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1987.

Ginsburg, Woodward L. “Minimum Wage Ain’t What it Used to Be.” <> (accessed April 20, 2005).

Kaiser, Sharon. “Coming Out of Denial.” In Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex
, edited by Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1987), 104-105.

Leigh, Carol. “Inventing Sex Work.” In Whores and Other Feminists, edited by Jill Nagel. NewYork: Routledge, 1997.

MacCowan, Lyndall. “Organizing in the Massage Parlor,” In Whores and Other Feminists, edited by Jill Nagel. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Morgan, Penny. “Living on the Edge.” In Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, edited by Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1987.

Nagel, Jill, ed. Whores and Other Feminists. New York: Routlege, 1997.

Nestle, Joan. “Lesbians and Prostitutes: A Historical Sisterhood.” In Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, edited by Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1987.

Pendleton, Eva. “Love For Sale: Queering Heterosexuality.” In Whores and Other Feminists, edited by Jill Nagel. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Sundahl, Debi. “Stripper.” In Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry,edited by Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1987), 177.

Tea, Michelle. Rent Girl. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2004.
U.S. Bureau of Census. “Historic Poverty Tables.” U.S. Census Bureau. 26 August 2004. <> (accessed April 20, 2005).

Von Zoticus, Les. “Butch Gigolette” In Whores and Other Feminists, edited by Jill Nagel. New York: Routledge, 1997.


leigh vandebogart is currently a junior at the University at Albany. Interested in the Women’s Studies program at the University, Leigh transferred from Wells College and Schenectady County Community College. She is majoring in Women’s Studies and looking into graduate work in the same field after her graduation in 2006. Leigh will be part of the Women’s Studies Teaching Collective next year and is looking forward to further involvement in the field of Women’s Studies, both here at the University at Albany and elsewhere.