If Stormy Daniels brings down Donald Trump, that irony will be delicious. Pan-seared, marinated deliciousness, the kind of poetic justice that only these absurd times can conjure up. Trump, a man who bragged on-camera about sexually assaulting women, is in legal hot water from a tenacious sex worker and her equally tenacious lawyer, Michael Avenatti. Is her purported $130,000 hush money payment some sort of illegal campaign finance violation? Tune in next week to find out!
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is an adult performer, director, and stripper. To be clear, she did not engage in transactional sex with the President. But in vigorously seeking out of her non-disclosure agreement, she is blasting her visibility onto every cable news show, courthouse press conference, and Saturday Night Live. She’s arguably the most high-profile sex worker in the modern American era — if not all American history. And she’s fighting to get out the trappings of rich male legalese purgatory: a place that is all too familiar to sex workers.
Sex workers, throughout history, have borne witness to the capriciousness of powerful men. They are are a politician’s dirty little secret, a corporate CEO’s weekend entertainment. A sex worker’s consumer-provider dynamic hinges on discretion — that the stigma of working in the sex trade is so embarrassing that patrons have the leverage to out them to their friends, family, whoever. The leverage goes both ways, sure, but in nearly every case, outed sex workers receive double the public shame and humiliation as their rich johns.
“There’s so little to be gained by revealing the sexual misconduct of a powerful man, as I tried to do and as Daniels has done,” wrote sex worker and activist Sydney Leathers in an essay for the Washington Post. When she was outed as having sexted with disgraced pol Anthony Weiner, he lost elections — but Leathers endured harassment, rape and death threats, and a cyberstalker who discovered her phone number and sent her disturbing text messages. Daniels has similarly spoken about harassment since going up against the leader of the free world: in the course of negotiating the payment with Michael Cohen (Trump’s lawyer who is also in boiling hot legal water), Daniels alleges that she was threatened by a goon to sign an NDA.
Female sex workers, some of the most vulnerable people in our society, face little protection against dangerous johns. Sex work has been criminalized for most of American history, so workers who are attacked on the job are unable to seek police protection. The few online screening sites and marketplaces that sex workers used to share information about safe dates have shut down, including Backpage and The Erotic Review, as a result of the Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act, or SESTA, which was passed by Congress earlier this year. Combined with perilous relations with law enforcement, these days, sex workers have even less recourse to seek accountability against shitty johns.
Rich johns may use NDAs and hush money to keep sex workers quiet, but johns of all socioeconomic status attack them with violence, threats, and coercion. It’s nothing new, but Daniels’ case is raising visibility for marginalized sex workers who, for whatever reason, can’t speak out. The more she talks, the more she normalizes her career choice, and bit by bit the stigma against sex workers crumble away. Stormy Daniels is the hero America needs right. May the cruel, dangerous johns of the world quake at the sound of her voice.