- "She Ate My Ass and My Pussy All Night":Deploying Illicit Eroticism, Funk, and Sex Work among Black Queer Women Femmes
Anti-respectability as method takes the form of what Christina Sharpe calls "undisciplining"—a process by which scholars develop new approaches, methods, and modes of inquiry that productively challenge disciplinary biases.1 The work of scholars including LaMonda Horton-Stallings and Marlon Bailey indexes the importance of employing Black queer feminist methodologies to examine critical queer geographies forged through a resistance to concretized space as central to community and vestiges of colonial capitalist anti-Black racial/sexual terror and the deauthorization of racial biological epistemes that overdetermine kinship practices, Black death, and pleasure.2 Our respective projects center Black transgender women in Chicago and Black cisgender queer and lesbian women in Atlanta, and consider how vulnerable Black queer women deploy strategies of self-investment and find pleasure while participating in sexual economies and navigating respectability within these critical queer geographies.3
Black Queer Women's "Erotic Sovereignty": Sex Work and Self-Investment
Addressing respectability's influence when writing about sex work among Black transgender women remains inevitable, as it shapes popular (mis)conceptions of the reasons these individuals engage in this specific work. Scholars routinely frame transwomen's engagement in sex work as a consequence of social marginalization.4 The underlying assumption is that trans women seldom choose to do sex work and would not engage if they had equitable access to social institutions such as health care, employment, and public accommodations (public restrooms, restaurants, businesses, etc.). Respectability undergirds such an assumption by denigrating sex work as an illegitimate work form to which [End Page 171] no self-respecting Black woman would aspire. Further, respectability's appeal to hegemonic notions of decorum and propriety necessarily casts sex work as incapable of enhancing racial uplift or facilitating socioeconomic ascension. Deauthorizing respectability promotes understanding how sex work exists as a form of self-investment and pleasure among Black trans women in an anti-respectable manner.
My ethnographic data suggest Black trans women in Chicago's ballroom scene5 engage in sex work by mobilizing their embodied knowledge6 in order to earn a high income (tax free), set their own hours and the terms of their services, and establish/maintain a community of clients and transfemme sex work colleagues. Tethering Black trans women's sex work to survival narratives obfuscates their capacity to be agential operatives in navigating exclusion and violence rather than passive victims of numerous forms of social, economic, and political marginalization. Such narratives deny how trans women engage in acts of self-investment by leveraging their embodied knowledge in a manner often illegible to individuals who do not occupy similar or adjacent subject positions. Careful scholarly attention to strategies of self-investment among Black transgender people reveals how community members thrive despite existing in a hostile world unconcerned with their survival.7
While not all of my (Julian) interlocutors engaged in sex work, none ex-pressed disgust or annoyance with their sisters who do. The repeated phrase I heard in nearly every interview was "Do what you gotta do; just be smart about it [sex work]." As a member of the ballroom scene for over a decade, I am familiar with a range of attitudes about sex work among Black trans women. However, the prevailing attitude among my interlocutors indicates a significant lack of investment in respectability as an effective strategy for evading anti-Black violence and facilitating socioeconomic advancement. Probing my interlocutors to practically explain what "being smart" looks like revealed the deployment of strategies intentionally designed to prevent physical, verbal, or emotional violence while engaging with clients. These strategies include carrying mace and a small sharp weapon in their handbags, using pseudonyms while interacting with clients and (if possible) meeting clients while their sisters are physically nearby.8 One interlocutor asserted that if her sisters meet a client in their vehicle, the client should never park close to a wall on the passenger's side—a precaution that ensures the women enough space to quickly disembark from the vehicle should the client become violent or coerce the...