Music, Movies & Moods is a monthly free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. This time, he talks to adult-film actress Ginger Banks about the harmful stigma facing sex workers.
Stories have been the story of the past several months. We’ve watched their tellers wield the power to nudge the long-inert wheels of justice and begin to heal deep, painful wounds. These stories have also raised critical questions about who gets to speak, be listened to, and, most importantly, be believed. The answers we have arrived at haven’t always been conclusive or comforting. Paradoxically, we have ousted serial sex predators from starring in or producing Hollywood movies but not from holding the highest government office in the land. Alabamans, if not for the moral decency of black voters, would’ve elected an alleged pedophile to the senate despite several credible accusations. Behind disturbing moments like these are voices we heard and shamefully dismissed. This particular story is about a group of (mostly) women whose stories we often don’t hear at all.
Or, worse yet, believe we already know.
Turn back to last December. The “Silence Breakers” of the MeToo movement were rightly receiving accolades, such as Time’s Person of the Year, and brave women and men seemed to be coming forward and outing serial sex offenders in the entertainment industry on a weekly, if not daily, basis. However, while an undeniable tipping point had finally been reached in the fight against sexual misconduct, a specific industry of working women still faced a deadly serious question: Who’s next? By late January 2018, five prominent adult-film actresses had died in just two months, the official causes ranging from drug addiction to suicide (possibly due to cyberbullying). Outspoken webcam model and adult-film actress Ginger Banks believes she knows one underlying cause of such tragedies.
“Sex workers are treated like second-class citizens,” Banks tells me point-blank.
It’s a powerful phrase to adopt – one with American roots in the civil rights movement, gender equality struggles, and other efforts determined to point out and rectify how certain groups of people have been marginalized and denied the full American experience. But it’s clear that Banks chooses her words carefully. “It’s both people and institutions,” she stresses, explaining that sex workers, even when in full compliance with terms of service, are far more likely to have financial institutions (banks like Chase or services like Paypal) close their accounts and freeze assets for months at a time, housing agreements terminated, or social media accounts shut down. Often for no other reason than it’s discovered that the client, tenant, or user in question is a sex worker.
However, it’s important to understand that this discrimination doesn’t just threaten livelihoods but lives as well. As we chat, Banks regularly circles back to the stigmatization that sex workers face. “When you’re unfamiliar with something, you rely on stereotypes,” she explains. “You see that a lot with porn. People think we’re all forced into it, we all have daddy issues, we’re all drug addicts … we’re all this, this, and this, when the truth is we’re a lot of different things just like any other segment of society.”
As a result, many sex workers find themselves pressured into keeping their careers a secret. “It’s really terrible,” Banks sighs, “having to lie and hide what you do even though you are proud because you know friends, family, and even [potential romantic partners] will have negative reactions.” All of which can, of course, lead to higher rates of depression and a sometimes-tragic reluctance to reach out for help when needed. Any group forced to endure a stigma, like the one sex workers face, will be less likely to seek help for serious issues – depression, drug abuse, sexual or physical violence – that other segments of society would less often have to fight through alone.
Just how prevalent is this harmful stigma?
Look no further than last week. When asked how Melania Trump was enduring the embarrassing allegations raised by the ongoing Stormy Daniels case, one of the president’s senile legal goons, Rudy Giuliani, all hot air and flabby jowls, responded, “She knows it’s not true … [shrugging] Look at Stormy Daniels.” He added, “I don’t respect a porn star the way I respect a career woman or a woman of substance or a woman who has great respect for herself as a woman.”
Condemnation and cries of misogyny quickly ensued, but the three-times-divorced Giuliani – besides moving neck and neck with his dotard of a client for least desirable male on the planet – was simply tapping into the stigma that too many Americans already believe: that sex workers lack integrity, substance, and self-respect. As media figures tore into his comments and defended Daniels as a woman and mother, only a very small handful (Meghan McCain of The View, among them) came out and defended her as a sex worker, acknowledging that there’s nothing wrong with Daniels’ career choice and that, yes, she’s a successful businesswoman. The lack of media support on this front isn’t shocking. After all, these are the same talking heads who praise Daniels as a credible witness while snickering on-air at how a “porn star” might be the catalyst for Trump’s downfall.
It’s these blanket dismissals and harmful stereotypes that Giuliani sinks to – assuming the public will eat it up — that Banks is dedicated to fighting against. And she’s prepared for a long battle. “Society has been told how to think about sex and porn for so long that it takes a while for people to start questioning that, but there’s been a pushback, and it’s getting better,” she reports. “But you can’t just scream, even though you’ve been treated like shit for so long. To change minds, you have to connect with people and show your human side.”
Banks sees social media as a major force for this type of change.
“Social media has made it so you can’t push us to the side anymore,” she says. “I mean, they try but we keep coming back. Our voices are being heard. If someone talks shit on porn stars, now thousands of people will instantly tweet them and say, ‘That’s a fucked-up thing to say about porn stars.’” (Luckily for himself, the thin-skinned, crypt-keeping Giuliani isn’t active on Twitter.) But even more importantly, Banks sees social media as a chance for sex workers to break down stereotypes by being themselves and showing the public the many different faces of today’s sexual woman.
And significant progress has been made.
In a month that saw mainstream film luminaries such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Morgan Freeman indicted, convicted, and accused of sexual misconduct ranging from rape to harassment, I ask if the MeToo movement has trickled down to the world of adult film. “Definitely,” Banks says. “We’re finally rising up and saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ We been told our whole lives to ‘deal with it’ as sexual women, but time is finally up.” As signs of progress, she cites law suits against adult-film companies that have created unsafe environments for sex workers and makes no effort to hide her satisfaction that porn legend and famous scumbag Ron Jeremy has started to be banned from certain expos and events after the adult-film industry overlooked his serial groping for years.
Banks is fighting a battle that needs fought on many fronts, and that includes the streets. On April 11th of this year, Donald Trump signed the FOSTA-SESTA bill (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act). On its surface, the bill appears to be a noble piece of legislation. In reality, it’s largely backed by self-righteous organizations with an ax to grind against sex work (think the anti-abortion crowd that George Carlin once joked nobody would want to fuck to begin with) and criminalizes any online facilitation of prostitution. The end result is that safeguards are disappearing and sex workers who could once screen their clients safely online are now forced into more dangerous manners of conducting business. It’s not a mystery what will happen: the rate of violence against sex workers will increase (they face higher rates than others already) while the amount of sex trafficking will not be affected in the least.
It all ties right back into the idea of being a “second-class citizen.” And while Banks is fortunate enough to make a living on cam and on set, she understands that a path to first-class citizenship for sex workers can only be paved through unity. “We will no longer be silenced,” she says. “Marching with my fellow sex workers and our allies gives me so much hope for our future.” It’s a future that looks much brighter with determined, young women like her in the fight.
On the phone with Banks, I find us still talking long after my questions have run out. We’re joking, as friends might, comparing reasons why we each abandoned chemical engineering degrees and pointing out similarities between her burgeoning brand as an adult-film actress and my efforts at helping to build the CoS name over the last decade. My takeaway from our chat is no different than her message: “Sex workers are people.” If we sincerely take that message to heart, we’ll have finally taken a significant step towards doing away with a stigma that keeps many mothers, sisters, and daughters in harm’s way.
Follow Ginger Banks on Twitter at @gingerbanks1 to learn more about her business and advocacy for sex workers’ rights.