Interview: Elle Stanger
Elle Stanger has been a nude internet model for over a decade and an Oregon stripper for almost a decade, and she occasionally sells homemade porn and does webcam work. She has a B.A in Criminology from Portland State University, and has written about sex and relationships and parenting for various outlets like Men’s Health, Romper, Thrillist. She is currently finishing her training as a Certified Sex Educator with the Institute of Sexuality Education and Enlightenment. She also co-hosts a podcast called UnzippedPDX, which was nominated by the Willamette Week as Portland’s “Best Local Podcast”.
How would you describe your work?
My secret power is that I’m able to find teachable moments with my clients, especially around boundaries and communication. I’m basically a femme queer tattooed-Barbie that blends into the mainstream when she wants to, in order to make money or to educate. I’ve been so informed by my work with people, and I’ve learned that most mainstream Americans are looking for permission to be vulnerable, kinky, and intentional with their sexuality.
What are the sorts of experiences that led you to organize for better protections for sex workers in Oregon?
In 2014, I had worked in six different clubs, and been stripping in total for about seven years, and I had been horrified by some clubs, and impressed by others. Adult environments are like any other type of industry; there’s going to be a spectrum of minutiae that to wade through. Management and staffing is the biggest part of what determines a safe working environment, and infrastructure maintenance is important. If the venue owners don’t’ give a shit about their dancers, it is more likely that things like dancer abuse or injury will go undealt with. I and dozens of other strippers were contacted in September of 2014 by lobbyists and social workers from NASW and PacWest; they wanted to know if any strippers in Portland had workplace concerns.
About forty live entertainers gathered in a room at PSU, and we told them some of our needs: “The bouncers don’t kick out people who assault me”, “Our roof leaks water on to the stage when it rains”, or “I have a hard time finding housing that will rent to me”, “I pay $50 a shift to work and I leave with $20”. Everyone in the room eventually realized that the concerns were so wide-ranging, that it would make sense to create a hotline where live entertainers could find resources for their needs.
TL;DR is that we created one with bi-partisan support, Gov. Kate Brown signed HB 1359 in June of 2015, and a hotline was created, but within two years it was dismantled due to Oregon’s $1.8billion debt. The hotline only required $50k annually for staffing, but they killed it anyway.
The only reason that I’m not saddened by this is because I heard from many people that the hotline wasn’t being managed well. But I figure that it was worth the fight just to prove that things like this can be built.
Who would you consider your organizing/social justice heroes and what did you learn from them that inspires you?
I’m inspired by every single social worker I’ve met. They don’t get paid enough, deal with highly sensitive and charged situations, and juggle so many clients. These humans truly must have an altruistic souls if they’re consistently carrying with that much emotional labor.
What gives you hope for the future in the work that your do?
I’m only 31, and whores have existed for at least a few thousand years, so it gives me comfort to know that bodywork and sex work is a constant and that workers can adapt to changing times. I have hope for the future of sex work because the proliferation of social media has made our voices impossible to ignore. And things ARE getting better, especially as more young radicals do their work to influence young moderates.
What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social justice in your field in the future? Do you think that any of those obstacles are due to some people’s denial of sex work as work?
The most significant obstacle to social justice and equality is the continuing whorephobic attitudes that we hold for women who work sex. Stigma kills: we raise our children to think that violence against sex workers is funny and acceptable. Family Guy, 30 Rock, many shows and movies reinforce these ideas.
Then there are abstinence-”educators” that travel throughout the country, telling children that sex stretches our vaginas, or that multiple penises inside of a woman is like “multiple feet in a shoe”, and bad, inaccurate information like this reinforces the idea that sex is dirty or unhealthy.
Additionally, politicians and actresses make laws and films about sex trafficking, which is not the same as sex work. These people are not experts in these fields, and often do greater harm by confusing people between the issues of choice and consent. These things need to be addressed, and that’s partly what I’m here for.
What books or movies would you recommend people study to learn about social justice or organizing for sex workers?
That’s a great question, and can someone please email me when you find some answers to it! I haven’t yet found any books or movies about this particular intersection of topics. I would look for the writings of Audacia Ray and all things RedUmbrellaProject.org, she’s been a vocal and longtime organizer of sex worker rights.
Please don’t organize for sex workers unless you are one. If sex workers have concerns, please do ask how you can help facilitate their fight, if they want to make one.
We sometimes ask people to think about what things would be like “after the revolution”, meaning a really big change in which all the obstacles to social justice are demolished and social oppression is eliminated (obviously, an imaginary world!) After the revolution, do you think there would be sex work?
After the revolution there certainly wouldn’t be capitalism or commercialism in the way that it exists now, but people would still be working and making in order to live. There will always be activities that some people will be eager or willing to engage in, whether or not your rent depends on it.
I think it would be more of a “sex barter”. If someone wants to do my dishes in exchange for a handjob or a neckrub, let’s talk.
(Interview with Joseph Orosco, March 2018)