Sex Workers Are No Longer the Butt of the Joke. They’re Making Them.

Stand-up comedian Jacqueline Frances (Photo credit: Rachel Lena Esterline)

A joke from Chris Rock’s 2004 HBO stand-up special Never Scared goes like this: “Sometimes I pick up my daughter and I just stare at her, and I realize, my only job in life is to keep her off the pole. Keep my baby off the pole.” He paces across the stage, with his trademark Cheshire grin. “If your daughter is a stripper, you fucked up.” I remember this particular bit—and the way the audience crackled with laughter and applause—because that same year I had, ungracefully, danced a few laps around a pole in a dark Los Angeles bikini club wearing a pair of secondhand Lucite platform heels. I’d just graduated high school and received a partial scholarship for college, but it wasn’t enough to cover expenses, so I’d decided to explore other options. I didn’t especially blame my father for this decision.

Rock’s stripper joke—predicated on the assumption that the sex industry runs on women’s unresolved daddy issues rather than the labor of people trying to meet their material needs—was neither the first nor the last time that a stand-up comic has drawn from our deep cultural well of myths and distortions about sex workers for a laugh. Like all forms of popular entertainment, comedic performance has a long history of using sex workers as rhetorical devices; they exist as shorthand for grit or authenticity, the inspiration for edgy male auteurs, but they’re seldom permitted to tell their own stories.

Most famously, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, who both reveled in the spirit of épater le bourgeois, often leaned on their proximity to sex workers to spice up their acts. Bruce worked out his early routines in the strip clubs of the San Fernando Valley, where he met and eventually married an exotic dancer, “Hot Honey Harlowe,” who later served as his muse. Strippers helped teach him that sexuality and the human body were not inherently shameful or evil—a concept that formed a major pillar of his oeuvre. Pryor, who grew up in a brothel with a sex-working mother, shocked and titillated his white middle-class audiences with depraved tales of his youth; jokes about young Pryor brokering deals between the neighborhood johns and hookers were funny because they were abject.

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Since then, open-mic comics with far less talent and observational acumen than Bruce and Pryor have been using sex workers as punch lines. Even beloved female comedians like Tina Fey and Amy Schumer aren’t above writing jokes about strippers getting abused, murdered, and buried. In that way, stand-up comedy has served as an arena in which our violent cultural fantasies about sex workers can be aired and trivialized. But the climate is changing as more sex workers become stand-up comedians themselves: In 2019, Stormy Daniels joined a growing list of comics who are out as current or former sex workers—such as Cole Escola, Alia Janine, Kaytlin Bailey, Bella Green, and Queenie Bon Bon—when she started headlining comedy shows after spending months roasting her digital hecklers on Twitter. Some of these comedians, including Chase Paradise and Green, have openly discussed their side hustles on stage. They come from all parts of the industry—stripping, escorting, camming, and professional BDSM—and bring a critical eye to a genre notoriously hostile toward women in general and sex workers specifically.

Comedian, artist, and “enterprising slut” Jacqueline Frances, who had a cameo in Hustlers and runs a popular Instagram account full of cheeky cartoons about dancing, first tried stand-up five years ago in New York City. Back then, Frances noticed that “every other comic [was a] misogynist piece of shit,” and open-mic acts were full of “disdain for hot, confident women in control of their sexuality.” So Frances decided to partner with her friend Rachel Green to produce her own show, Venus Fly Trap. “We just kind of built our own ship instead of trying to fit in with other people’s ideas of what the comedy scene was supposed to look like,” she says. Frances now teaches a comedy workshop and delights in seeing more sex workers interested in the craft. “We’re too funny, we’re too capable, and everybody wants to sit and stare at us, so why not put the mic in your hand and make them listen, too?”

Comedian and professional dominatrix Karmenife X also created a sex-worker friendly show after finding some of the jokes at open mics “horrifying” for her as a Black woman and a sex worker. “I’m seen as this disposable thing, [and] going to a space where that’s being made into a joke—I don’t really have time for that.” So with friend Zilla Vodnas, she started Dom the Mic at Nowadays in Queens, New York, as “a night where we showcase Black and Brown POC femmes and women comedians.” By watching her onstage telling funny stories, she says, the audience “gets to see me be a multifaceted human being,” which creates an opportunity to challenge social stigma and help normalize the way she earns a living.

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Sex-worker comics want to expand the kinds of voices that find audiences; they aren’t out to censor offensive jokes or force political correctness. This is a community, after all, that constantly fights censorship of their own content. “I never tell people that they can’t use certain words,” says Vee Chattie, a comedian based in Seattle. “But I always tell people if you write a joke [about a job], somebody with that job should laugh at it. You want to make the most people laugh possible in an audience. And you don’t know how many of the people in the audience are sex workers.” In 2017, tired of “seeing the same shitty bit a thousand times,” Chattie curated a monthly competition called Your Hooker Jokes Are Lazy, which encouraged comics not to rely on hacky, stale routines that punch down at sex workers. He says that type of humor is ultimately “a cheap way to make a mean joke about somebody who you don’t think is in the room.”

It was somewhat inevitable that sex workers would begin asserting their presence and expertise in comedy clubs; erotic and comedic performance have a lot in common. For women, they have historically overlapped; burlesque contained elements of both humor and striptease, and according to Richard Butsch’s 1994 article in American Quarterly, the first American stage actresses were disparaged as much as the prostitutes of the time, for being “public women.” Throughout the 20th century, there was an assumption that a woman performing for strangers was dangerous and disreputable, which contributed to the era’s significant gender imbalance in stand-up comedy. The social opprobrium for female comics has let up significantly since the ’60s, when Joan Rivers’s parents nearly disowned her for pursuing a comedy career. The same cannot be said for women in the sex industry.

Frances points out that both types of work require a certain adventurous lifestyle. “You have to be a degenerate creature of the night,” she says. The similarities don’t end there; while sex work and stand-up are, for the most part, accessible to everyone without financial overhead or institutional barriers to entry, to do either successfully demands a degree of emotional labor. Kate Kennedy, a porn actor living in Hollywood who also performs comedy, explains, “You have to be able to simultaneously be incredibly vulnerable and extremely un-fuck-withable. You have to be willing to tear yourself open and let people see your guts, emotionally and physically, and then zip yourself back up and keep going.” Not everyone has the skill set, personality, or instant charm required to succeed. Adult model and comedian Sovereign Syre says that, for workers in both industries, “our money, our livelihood, is tied to creating a connection with a stranger [and] making people like us in a very short amount of time.”

Syre also observes a “punk-rock ethos” attached to both jobs. Stand-up comedians and sex workers are both social rulebreakers and transgressors, tricksters and shapeshifters, the masters of crafting and selling personas. While Syre’s “only goal onstage is to slaughter the room,” other sex-worker comics smuggle political messages into their acts, teaching audiences about regressive laws like FOSTA-SESTA, the movement for decriminalization and labor rights, and other issues that most people outside of activist circles may know little about. It’s a challenge to venture into this territory without coming across as didactic or heavy-handed, but the payoff seems worth the effort. As Kennedy puts it, “if you’re able impart something important to a stranger, have them understand your perspective, and make them laugh at the same time—that goes a long way toward destigmatizing sex work.”

The sex worker has always been intrinsic to the comedy canon as a symbol, but now she emerges as a storyteller in her own right.

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Humor can be an antidote for discomfort, shame, and ignorance—all of which can be funny, Frances says, “until they result in violence. So, the trick is to catch it before it becomes violent.” Providing alternatives to the entrenched archetype of the “whore” as a victimized, psychologically damaged bimbo is one way to change the predominant understanding of the industry. Another way is to turn the tables and make fun of clueless, delusional male clients, which Frances does in her illustrations and performances. For instance, in a single-panel cartoon of six men receiving lap dances, they say, in unison, “I’m not like all the other guys in here.” Frances has a separate Instagram account for a character called “Brian,” a generic strip club patron from Westchester, New York, who always wears the same plaid shirt and fleece vest and sees himself as one of the good guys. With her lips pursed tightly and her eyes wide, the impression has a touch of Maria Bamford’s demented energy.

Those who make the transition from sex work to stand-up notice one stark difference between the two gigs: the level of compensation. Because stand-up pays so little except to big industry names, most performers rely on other revenue streams to make a living. For this reason, many sex workers who perform comedy also continue to produce adult content, cam, dance, or do whatever else pays their bills. It’s not so different, of course, from aspiring actors who drive for Uber or wait tables, though having a more lucrative hourly side hustle frees up more time to write and rehearse material. But there’s always a trade-off; well-known sex workers might notice that comedy club audiences are Googling their porn or wondering whether they’ve been trafficked. “It introduces all of this psychological jujitsu that people have to do in the audience,” says Syre, the last thing she wants to think about “while I’m trying to tell a fucking joke.”

It has always been more difficult for women and people from working-class backgrounds to fund their creative endeavors—especially without dipping into underground or criminalized economies—but we don’t like to talk about this because it means focusing on behind-the-scenes labor instead of artistry. It’s a reminder that access to resources matters as much as raw talent or dogged dedication when it comes to professional success. Ultimately, as Kennedy points out, “It’s deeply unsustainable for the comedy scene if the only way you’re able to devote yourself to the craft is by either having a trust fund or doing porn on the side.”

The economy of stand-up may be the toughest to change, but the content has come a long way. The new sex-worker comedians allow audiences to finally see erotic labor through the lens of the people who actually do it, rather than from the perspective of consumers, clients, finger-wagging moralists, or male entertainers who use hookers and strippers as narrative fodder. The sex worker has always been intrinsic to the comedy canon as a symbol, but now she emerges as a storyteller in her own right. “I’m not the butt of your joke,” says Frances, blithely impervious to the haters. “It’s your turn. It’s your turn to be the butt of mine.”

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by Sascha Cohen
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Sascha Cohen is a historian and freelance writer from Los Angeles, California