On Thursday, we went live with stand-up comic, sex worker rights advocate, and whorstorian Kaytlin Bailey to talk about the history of sex work in the United States. Her performance, “U.S. History from a Whore’s Eye View,” is even more timely given the state of sex workers’ rights during the COVID-19 global pandemic. We wanted to go deeper with Kaytlin to learn more about her project, The Oldest Profession, and what we can learn from the history of sex work in this moment in time.
How did you get the idea for The Oldest Profession project?
I’ve always been interested in sex work, history, and naturally, sex workers in history, but it was really a very awkward development deal my manager tried to talk me into in 2017 that drove me to start the podcast. I had put together a pitch for a show about sex workers in history and we were trying to sell it. A big production studio was interested in developing something with me, but not what I was pitching —they pitched me “Comedy Ho!” and I turned them down. The whole experience made me so mad, I started my own thing.
What do you think we can learn from the history of sex workers in the political and social moment we’re in?
Studying history feels like a way of preparing for the future, but it also feels like a way of contextualizing and trying to understand the current moment. When Maya Angelou — another old pro — told us to “know your history,” I believe she meant it as both a way to affirm your identity and also as a way to recognize our enemies. Studying things that have already happened is a way to familiarize ourselves with tactics that may be used again.
Those are the themes I’m most interested in exploring with The Oldest Profession. What are some examples from history where sex workers did amazing things and how did they do it? And what are some dangerous things we’ve seen before that we might see again?
“Studying things that have already happened is a way to familiarize ourselves with tactics that may be used again.”
Speaking of what we might see again — censorship. You’ve shared that when you first started exploring sex work, you learned a lot from message boards and from other sex workers. How has SESTA-FOSTA limited sex workers’ ability to connect right now?
It’s so dangerous what is happening to speech on the internet. I’m worried for sex workers, but I’m also worried for organizers, journalists, comics, increasingly criminalized abortion providers, and all the people who connect online over kooky or kinky interests they wouldn’t want their employers or anyone in government to know about.
I’m worried about going back to a time when medically accurate information about contraception was legally obscene and criminalized. I’m worried about returning to a time when suspect women could be rounded up and checked for venereal disease in the name of national security. I’m worried about bad actors using anti trafficking rhetoric to justify a police state that is just out of control.
The EARN It Act, which is similar to SESTA/FOSTA but broader, is making its way through Congress right now, and if it passes, I wonder what Donald Trump’s Supreme Court will decide “freedom of speech” means and what that will look like. But, on a hopeful note, SESTA-FOSTA brought a lot of people together. Coalitions are being built in the wake of that terrible legislation, and, like Hillary Clinton said, we actually are “stronger together.”
When you talk about your work with The Oldest Profession project, you talk about sex workers connecting with their history as a way to feel less isolated. How does doing this work help you feel connected?
Something that so many abusers have in common is that they use the lie that engaging in any kind of sex, but especially sex work, makes someone broken, dirty, or unlovable, as a weapon. Whorephobia is an extension of slut shaming, and its grounded in the belief that women as commodities become worth less the more sexually experienced they are — whether by choice, circumstance, or coercion.
It’s hard to hold on to that lie when you know the names and stories of so many incredible people who engaged in sex work. So basically I’m trying to bring down the patriarchy with sex workers’ stories because I believe they’re that powerful.
Photo of Kaytlin Bailey sitting and staring into the camera.
Photo Credit: Vice/Mindy Tucker
“I think the big message is that policing prostitution isn’t protection—it’s patriarchy.”
Who is one of your favorite sex workers that you share about in U.S. History from a Whore’s Eye View?
Victoria Woodhull is one of my favorites. I’m so excited to tell her story on the next season of The Oldest Profession Podcast! She was viciously attacked as a harlot in her lifetime, but she was still one of the first women on Wall Street, the first woman to address Congress about women’s suffrage, and the first woman to run for president! I think she’s the perfect example of what whorephobia costs us, not just as individuals but society.
We always love a Victoria Woodhull story! Lastly, why is comedy important right now? What’s making you laugh?
We will find a way to make art and say difficult things. It’s just so important that people keep telling their stories. I’ve been watching, and rewatching Ali Wong, Hannah Gadsby, Margarat Cho, and Gary Gulman — I can’t recommend them enough!