Early in April, undercover Providence police posted escort ads on the website Backpage.com, and arrested 22 respondents for soliciting sex at the hotels where they were waiting to meet the women they had contacted. “Operation Backpage” was carried out in hopes of curbing the rise of sex trafficking in Providence. “They’re not necessarily women. Many, many are kids,” said Mayor Jorge Elorza of the ads on Backpage.
Just a few weeks earlier, I contacted and met 25 year-old Madeira Darling through an ad on the very same website. She explained that, as a dominatrix, she does “your standard beatings, bondage, humiliation, forced feminization, roleplay,” all of which are legal under Rhode Island law because Madeira does not actually engage in sexual contact with clients. Laws on kink-related sex work vary from state to state, and the exception Rhode Island makes is “incongruent” with Rhode Island’s criminalization of prostitution according to Erin Basler-Francis of the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health in Pawtucket. She added, “For most, sex is a biological drive. That drive creates a market. When it comes down to it, sex work is a service industry, and deserves to be treated with the same standards.” Sex work is a broad term, including professions like porn acting and dancing along with prostitution, which is most commonly associated with the term.
In most states, prostitution has been considered a misdemeanor since the early twentieth century. Until 2009, prostitution was legal in Rhode Island, after a decades-old loophole was discovered in the law. In 1980, after years of
legal battles, a group called “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics” (COYOTE) succeeded in getting lawmakers to remove language from prostitution laws COYOTE felt was unconstitutional. This change in language, unbeknownst to lawmakers, meant prostitution was technically legal, a discovery made in 2004, when lawyers representing eight women arrested for prostitution in Asian massage parlors were successfully able to get their cases dismissed by pointing to the wording of the law. In 2009, Governor Donald Carcieri signed a bill making prostitution illegal again, saying “I think it’s been a black eye, frankly, in our state, that we’ve allowed this to go, for whatever the reason is, for far too long.”
The movement to criminalize prostitution was in part led by University of Rhode Island professor Donna Hughes, who researches sex trafficking and sees the criminalization of prostitution as an important step in its prevention. However, according to Basler-Francis, “Laws that criminalize sex work make it harder for people who are trafficked to seek assistance from police.” Outside of her job, Madeira Darling works to organize sex workers and protest the criminalization of prostitution in Rhode Island. “I don’t like seeing my friends unsafe. Arresting them isn’t right, it doesn’t improve conditions for anyone. Rape and STDs are more common, and it prevents things like labor safety laws from being enacted. You can’t picket as a hooker. And so many sex workers are vulnerable in some way—they’re trans, or poor, or undocumented.”
Darling is also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical labor union whose Providence chapter has done work to organize and inform local sex workers. In February, the Providence IWW posted a guide to sex workers’ rights in Rhode Island, ranging from advice on dealing with law enforcement (“You have the right to ask a law enforcement officer for their badge number, name, and other identifying information. This information will be useful if they are violating your rights,”) to rights in the workplace (“You have the right to form a union, attempt to form a union, or join a union whether or not there is official union representation at your job”).
Police can use condoms as evidence of prostitution, which, Darling explained, discourages their use and leads to high rates of STDs. The lack of protections for sex workers also extends into legal sex work. In strip clubs, dancers are independent contractors rather than employees, preventing them from getting the benefits full-time employees receive such as breaks.
Though Darling identifies strongly as a sex worker, she recognizes differences between her experience of sex work and that of others. “I’m really privileged to be doing legal work as a white woman from an upper class background. Men often say they like me because I’m classy, or I have good teeth. That’s why I can get paid more.” Yet it’s still a common misconception that Madeira is a prostitute. Sex work is a broad term, and according to Erin Basler-Francis, “One of the main misconceptions about sex work is that it only encompasses prostitution—which is where most of the images of sex workers are pulled from in pop culture—forgetting that porn actors, dancers, camgirls, prodoms, et al. are also engaging in sex work. Beyond that, sex workers are crammed into two boxes: the poor, strungout street worker and the workers who do sex work because they love sex work.” This dichotomy excludes those like Darling, who view their work as a normal job that helps make a living.
The misconceptions about sex work like Darling’s aren’t limited to a conflation of sex work with prostitution, Darling explains, but also include the conflation of BDSM with abuse. “It’s confused with non-consensual abuse. Of course, that happens in the community, but that isn’t what it is. And the surface power dynamic isn’t always the underlying power dynamic. It’s not visually obvious. Dominants can be abused, even raped.” It’s also not necessarily more difficult to be in a submissive role. “There’s a lot of work involved in being a dom [industry lingo for the dominant partner in a BDSM encounter], and in my case, it’s the sub [the submissive partner] who’s being serviced, they’re the boss, they’re the one telling me what to do. I can have a shitty level of control sometimes. If I’m having a shitty month and need money, I’ll do things I wouldn’t do—like I normally wouldn’t do golden showers, but I did them when I’ve needed the money. It’s also physically demanding—if you flog someone for an hour, your arm’s gonna hurt.”
In spite of the job’s drawbacks, it’s still a steady job, because in the sex worker economy, dominatrixes are always in demand, according to Madeira. “There’s a gender imbalance in the BDSM community. There are more male subs than female doms,” Darling said. “And people have some really specific, elaborate fantasies. It’s hard to find a partner who’ll do that.” She added that a number of clients often also have issues with their sexuality they find difficult to discuss. “I often will get a client who really needs a therapist. Men seek out sex workers because they feel safe opening up to them—you see so many men crying as a sex worker. So I listen, and try to get them a referral for a therapist. You need boundless empathy for the job.”
Darling has friendships with other sex workers, and has found an online community of sex workers on Tumblr. “Sex workers form bonds, because it’s not easy to talk to others. We swap stories about work. We’re very human. I have zero compunction about seeing a body naked. It’s not gross, it’s human, it’s vulnerable. It’s a caring profession like any other.”
The same day that the news came out about Operation Backpage, Donna Hughes penned an op-ed in the Providence Journal on the movie Pretty Woman and the myth of prostitution she claims it perpetuates. “Prostitution is not a romantic comedy any more than domestic violence or acquaintance rape are funny love stories,” Hughes writes, calling clients “cruel men” with little concern and even sometimes malice for the workers they pay. Yet others, like Darling and Basler-Francis, question the conflation of sex trafficking with prostitution, and the safety Hughes claims criminalization brings. According to Basler-Francis, “When people talk about sex work, they focus on the sex and not the work. Sex work is a job, and like all jobs, there are a number of occupational hazards—except for sex workers, the hazards are more dangerous because the job itself is illegal. Sex workers are denied labor protections because society has issues with sexual agency.”
JANE ARGODALE B'18 is a broad term.