When you envision the perfect mother, who comes to mind? Perhaps you think of your own mother. Or maybe, like many of us, you have a portrait in your mind’s eye of a woman who, despite having produced children, is completely desexualized. From pop cultural representations of idealized mothers like Carol Brady, to mother-of-three Kim Kardashian being shamed by her critics for taking nude pictures, our socially acceptable vision of motherhood is often that of a woman who does not exhibit visible sexual agency.
As a result, mothers working within the sex industry are often heavily stigmatized. As a mother to a precocious four-year-old, and a former sex worker, I know this stigma all too well. Even though I command a certain degree of social capital with my credentials— I hold a PhD— I nevertheless experience the stigma of my former work more often than most might think. Even after earning my PhD, countless lawyers advised me that my former sex work would likely result in me losing full custody after my child’s father and I split.
My experience is not an anomaly. According to a 2015 report from the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, sex workers in Portugal, amongst other countries, may lose custody of their children through social services or the family courts solely due to their profession. And in some cases, they may lose their children to abusive or negligent partners, as in the case of Petite Jasmine, the Swedish sex worker forced to relinquish her children in 2010 to a man who was a known domestic abuser. He ended up murdering Jasmine in 2013, on the day she had planned to see her children for the first time in a year and a half.
Before her death, Jasmine was asked if she'd be happy if her daughter grew up and became a sex worker. "My children can grow up to be anything they like and I will support them regardless," Jasmine is said to have replied, according to her friend and fellow activist Pye Jakobsson. "[But] if they choose sex work, I will warn them of the stigma.”
The social stigma of sex work is both codified in the laws of many countries, and a cultural practice. Sex workers' bodies are referred to as "vectors of disease" in public discourse and police officers allegedly rape sex workers before arresting them, even in the US. The criminalization of sex work in many countries, including in the US, has the effect of entrenching inequality and discrimination, according to Amnesty International. And state-sanctioned social stigma is compounded for sex-working mothers and makes its way into our interpersonal interactions, too.
As the author of How Mamas Love Their Babies, which is the first children's book to openly discuss sex work, I wanted to introduce children to a historically stigmatized form of labor in an age-appropriate manner. From domestic and day laborers to strippers and stay-at-home-moms, the book paints an inclusive portrait of the many mamas who do this work. But my desire to destigmatize sex-working mothers came at a price: I received death threats, strangers have called Child Protective Services on me, and I’ve even been accused of practicing Satanic witchcraft in order to coerce children into the sex industry. I'm not alone—the juxtaposition of sex work and parenting makes a lot of people uneasy.
Despite the profound stigma that comes with being a sex-working mother, many sex workers enjoy the flexibility and financial security it brings. Chicago-based Lola Luscious, 29, was a struggling single mom when she began sex work. (To protect the identity of the sex workers interviewed for this piece, all names are pseudonyms.)
“I was living alone in a shitty apartment, barely making rent and daycare expenses only to never to see my own child," Luscious tells me. "Sex work became the best option for me.”
Now 11, Luscious’ oldest daughter knows what her mother does for a living. “My oldest and I have a really great relationship and open dialogue about all things in life, including sex," she says, "and over time I've explained about how my job involves sex.”
Not all sex workers are able to speak so freely with their families about their work. Autumn, a 26-year-old sex worker from Texas, isn't out to her friends or family. "If there were no children,” she says, “I don’t think I would be as quiet about it.” As mother to a six-year-old, Autumn fears losing custody to the state if knowledge of her sex work surfaces.
Regardless of whether sex-working mothers are out to their children, many of the nine mothers with whom I spoke cited agency and more time spent with their children as the greatest benefits of sex work. But being a sex worker mother isn't just a painfree way to balance childcare commitments with regular work—there are significant downsides, especially if you're a member of a marginalized group.
“I think it's important to not just focus on the empowerment aspect of sex work,” says 28-year-old Chicago resident Suprihmbé, “as so many non-Black or middle class sex workers are wont to do. We don't have to ignore the cons of sex work for women like me in order to extol its benefits.”
A writer, artist, sex worker, and mother, Suprihmbé believes that racism and misogynoir [racialized misogyny against Black women in particular] are amplified within the sex industry. When white middle-class sex workers focus on the empowering aspect of sex work, without acknowledging state-sanctioned violence or societal stigma, this can create a false dichotomy between empowerment and victimization. This dichotomy, Suprihmbé notes, "erases the very women who need visibility.”
Stigma aside, like Luscious, Suprihmbé is prosaic about the possibility her son may find her work online.
“My son might find me on PornHub one day,” she says, “and that's okay because moms have sex. If he [my son] finds me, that'll be my response: ‘Moms have sex.’”
Moms have sex! None of us would be here if they didn't. And some of us, for various reasons and in myriad contexts, choose to engage in commercial sex. That choice, albeit constrained in much the same way that other service industry labor is, must be understood as a complex, personal, and sometimes, difficult one to make.
Having worked in the sex industry for most of my adult life and as a mother who tries to be kinder, more patient, and loving with each passing day, my vision of the perfect mother is an amalgamation of all the inspirational sex worker moms I know in my day-to-day life. But when I think about motherhood, I also think of my own mother, who lost custody of me after having a marital affair.
The impossibility of the dichotomies imposed on the lives and bodies of women mean that all femmes—not just sex workers—can find ourselves punished by the state at some point in our lives, merely for being sexual beings. This punishing stigma will continue to flatten the full personhood of all mothers until we eradicate the racist, sexist, ableist, classist, and heteronormative cultural perceptions of what constitutes the perfect mother.