What Happens When Sex Workers Put Women of Colour First
We asked escort Amber Ashton about industry racism and the WOC-elevating hashtag she started.
Photo of Women of Colour Wednesday creator Amber Ashton courtesy of Sekushi
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
When a sex worker from the UK created a hashtag this November after being frustrated at the lack of diversity on her Twitter timeline, she didn’t anticipate how much it would resonate in the industry.
“Let's flood the TL with glorious images & occupy some space,” she tweeted, ”Respond to this thread w/ a hot photo, your website or advert & the #WOCW! Then RT other babes & watch the TL flourishhh.”
Amber Ashton, 27, who started the Women of Colour Wednesday (WOCW) movement on Twitter, has been in the industry for nine years. She’s done sex work in a number of forms and has toured the world as an independent escort. Like many sex workers who have a presence on Twitter, Amber gets a number of her bookings (about 30 percent) via the social media platform. By sending off the first WOCW tweet, Amber hoped to elevate other sex workers of colour by getting them exposure that could lead to bookings.
The Women of Colour Wednesday hashtag has been going on for over a month now and has thousands of posts promoting women of colour in sex work. Amber said it has directly led to women of colour in the industry getting booked by clients. VICE reached out to her to discuss what led up to her creating the social media movement and to hear about what her experiences have been in the industry.
VICE: What led up to you creating WOCW (Women of Colour Wednesday)?
Amber Ashton: Some people assume I sat down and planned it. The reality is that I was jet-lagged in the supermarket doing some grocery shopping… I was scrolling through my timeline [on Twitter], and it was like: size eight white chick, size eight white chick, size eight white chick. Then I’d click on the size eight white chicks—excuse my not-so-PC language—but I’d notice that everyone they were tweeting was the same. It really bothered me, and it’s something that I often talk about and think about: the fact that women of colour, especially within this industry, especially black women, I feel like we have to almost work twice as hard to get the same amount of exposure.
In general, it leads back to society’s beauty standards. It’s no surprise to anyone: You open up magazines, and the bodies are primarily white and slim, cisgender white women. I was like, I don’t want to see this constant branding I always see from the same cookie-cutter sex workers—I want to see more diversity! So, I’m like, I’m going to tweet this thing.
It also came from the fact that being a woman of colour, being a black sex worker, I do think it’s been harder for me in this industry. However, within this industry, I do also recognize my own privileges: I am British, I speak English, I speak many languages, I am degree-educated. I’ve had these privileges that have meant that I have a good following on Twitter, that have meant that I’m fairly consistent with work… It was a matter of helping other people get that reach.
Ultimately, I just wanted to see a less white, Eurocentric timeline and uplift the other workers of colour who put in the work, who are gorgeous, who are intelligent, who are such savvy business women—but, for so many reasons, get overlooked.
What issues do women of colour in the industry face that white sex workers don’t?
My experiences are my own, and I can’t talk for other providers. I know a lot of providers would’ve had it a lot worse than me, but I also know a lot of women of colour who say they haven’t had issues. I started in the sex work industry when I was 18 at an agency.
One of the biggest stand-out things for me that I discussed with other women of colour is being priced different. Our rates in the agency were set rates, and my rate was always less. When I questioned it I was told, “You’re not as desirable; you’re not as in-demand. I can’t charge as much for you because the guys won’t pay it.” This is something that is across the board… Providers of colour, especially black providers, get emails like “$300 for your ‘insert racial slur here’—you’ve got to be crazy.”
It’s this idea that we don’t have the same amount of worth. I think it links into other things, such as classism, this idea of black people being “ghetto” and such. This is why my marketing, and that of others, has to focus on how highly educated I am, the languages I speak, and almost push away from my blackness. It’s interesting in the last couple of years when the idea of being a “thot,” or people like Cardi B have become popular, everyone is hashtagging “bubble butt”—stuff a few years ago, I really avoided that because it meant that I wasn’t as “high-class” as my fellow colleagues.
Can you talk about the trajectory of your career in sex work?
I’ve worked in essentially every form in the industry: I’ve worked for agencies, I’ve worked for brothels, I’ve worked in strip clubs, I’ve freestyled at bars. Now, I’m independent and have been for years. But there isn’t a single aspect of this market that I haven’t noticed being treated differently as a black woman.
When I was freestyling—this is when you would go out to bars to try to pick up clients—I had instances where me and another black girl would be kicked out of a bar, but the other white girls would be allowed to stay because, I’ve been told, “You don’t fit our image.” In the brothels, the last time I worked in one, there’s about 15 workers on shift at one time. The owner was adamant that she could only have one black girl on shift at a time. I was like, “Why?” She was like, “There’s only so much demand for black women. You’re not standard. I also don’t want clients to have this assumption that we’re a black venue, that they’ll only come and find black girls. It’s a high-class venue.”
I looked at the other black girl who turned up: She was six-foot, Sudanese origin, beautiful blue-black skin, size six, cropped hair. I’m five-foot-seven, a size 12, of a lighter complexion. We are completely different. I looked at the white girls in the room, and we had about six size eight blondes. Without being so direct, it felt like she didn’t want to tarnish her establishment with this reputation. I was like, so what if it becomes known as a place where you can find black girls? Surely the best kind of place it could be known as is a place where you’ll find variety.
As a private sex worker, it’s the whole thing of racial fetishization. It’s a really big deal. It’s something I talk about and I think people think I complain about. And I do, because it’s my right to complain about it. I get shit from people because I openly discuss that I openly profit off of it. My reason behind it is, regardless of how I market and label myself, I will always be “ebony.” I will always be “chocolate.” I will always be “caramel.” Those aren’t things that make me particularly jump up and down for joy. However, I know I can turn around and use those in my marketing… It’s almost reclaiming something, because you know it’s going to be done to you, so why not take it and use it and spin it, make it sexy.
Speaking of ads, some sex workers will say in theirs that they don’t see black men or Indian men or Middle Eastern men. What are your thoughts on that?
It is such a controversial topic… I can’t remember a time when this conversation wasn’t a thing. All I can say is from my personal perspective: I believe that as a sex worker, an independent contractor, as someone who engages in intimate acts, that you are the ultimate decider on what you do with your own body. If you don’t want to see somebody, that is completely your choice. There are also things that are based on trauma… and I’m in no position to discuss that person’s trauma and their decision that comes from it.
But in a general capacity where it’s like “I don’t see African American men because their dicks are too big” or “I don’t see Indian men because they’re rude”—if somebody is completely discriminating against an entire race, to me that is a racist action. People always jump and say “I’m not a racist!”—but I didn’t say you were a racist, I just said that the decision you’re making is a racist decision. It’s ingrained in racism.
They’ll say, “Oh, but I’m just not attracted to ‘insert ethnicity here.’” OK… but are you attracted to the old white men you see? I’m a sex worker, and I find something attractive in anyone and everyone. Even to say “I’m not attracted to this person because they’re black”—the whole idea of being attracted to someone because of race is surrounded by racism. That’s you essentially saying, “I think all black people look the same.” How can you say you’re not attracted to an entire race?
There’s also more complex [situations]: I know some black workers who won’t see black clients, and I think that comes more down to cultural things where they don’t want to bump into someone or don’t want to have to deal with talking in a language to someone… My rules are if you’re polite and well-mannered, I have time for you.
You tour around the world for work. Is there anywhere you’ve found the market has been especially good to you?
Australia has always been very, very good for me. I love the clients there. They’re some of the best gents in the world. Ireland I’ve always done especially well in. I know exactly why this is: When I started in Dublin in 2011, I think there was approximately 250 of us in Dublin, and there was four, maybe five, black women (including me). Whilst being a woman of colour in this industry has made it more challenging in certain ways, in other ways, it’s made me more of a rarity. It’s like this unique thing. Especially smaller towns in Ireland, it’s not the most multicultural place. You get the guys who are like, “I’ve never been with a black chick before!” And you’re like, “Cool, bro. Let’s do this!” Sometimes in the back of my head I’m thinking: I’m just like the other chicks, just a bit browner. [laughs] At the end of the day, it’s what works. In Sweden, I always know I will be booked out because the common beauty in Sweden (less so lately with immigration and such) is tall, slim blonde. So when I turn up, and I’m shorter, I’m darker, I’m curvier—people [are interested].
What has the reception been to WOCW?
There’s two sides to it… I never expected it to blow up the way it did. I would’ve turned my notifications off if I knew it would go that crazy. I ended up postponing family plans that day to retweet and keep it going. There was negative backlash as well, which I never expected to happen. It ranged from a specific person on Twitter, quite a high-profile escort, saying that they thought it created more “division.” Like, “We don’t need a Women of Colour Wednesday. Every day should just be sex worker day.” In theory, great—but that’s not how it works.
I was ripped into and told, “This is stupid. This is you making things worse.” It’s much like other arguments when people discuss diversity in any industry. People start kicking up a fuss, like, “Oh, it should be merit-based.”
It’s when feminists talk about how women only make 70 cents to a man’s dollar. Then they forget to discuss the fact that black women are making 60 cents on a man’s dollar, which is less than white women.
Is there anything else you’d like to discuss about Women of Colour Wednesday and elevating women of colour in sex work?
I often find white women asking themselves, “What can I do? I want to be an ally; I want to help other workers.” Then you get things like them offering discounts to men of colour [as clients]. When people ask me, I think the simple answer is: Signal boost women of colour. Like their content, retweet their content, engage with them. People discuss offering duos with them. I’m not saying you have to have at least three people of colour on your duo page—but check the company you’re keeping. If you’re surrounded by fellow white women, if your entire timeline is white women, why is that? Is it that your brain has tricked you into thinking that is what’s aesthetically pleasing based on what you see in the magazines and on the TV? It’s easy to make the effort. One retweet can get someone a booking.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Follow Amber Ashton on Twitter.