Dr. Maya Angelou – activist, writer, and all around boss. A civil rights icon who continues to inspire generations from beyond the grave with her intellect, fortitude, and compassion. Also someone who happened to identify as a sex worker at various points throughout her life. Someone who openly shared this information with the world because she was not afraid to stand in her truth. Talk about goals. 

Maya Angelou’s Sex Work Career

Dr. Maya Angelou in her full erotic goddess glory. Photo Source: Getty Images

In her 1974 memoir, Gather Together in My Name – the second of seven autobiographies – Maya detailed her experiences working as both a prostitute and madam between 1944 and 1948. The book opens with 17 year old Rita (the character based on Maya) giving birth to an illegitimate son in San Francisco. After bouncing from job to job, she finds herself in San Diego, where she becomes a madam for a lesbian couple. Most of the clients are sailors whom they charge $20 for a trick – $7.50 to the woman providing the service, $7.50 to Maya for brokering the deal, and $5 to the taxi driver who drives the clients over. Eventually the illegal nature of the venture puts Maya and her son in danger with the law, and they end up relocating to her grandmother’s house in Arkansas temporarily. 

Years go by and Maya pursues other endeavors. She tries enrolling in the army but can’t due to her former affiliation with a socialist group, so she ends up getting trained as a dancer instead. Eventually she meets and falls for a gambler named L.D. Tolbrook, who ends up manipulating her into becoming a prostitute. In rationalizing her decision to sell her body, she says:

Prostitution is like beauty. It is in the eye of the beholder. There are married women who are more whorish than a street prostitute because they have sold their bodies for marriage licenses, and there are some women who sleep with men for money because they are doing it for a purpose.

Unpacking Maya’s Experiences

Maya never lost sight of her purpose. She did what she had to do to create a better life for herself and her son. And while I am fan-girling hard over her tenacity and grace, make no mistake. I am not here to romanticize her stories. Though beautifully written, there is no denying the tragedy which pulses through the pages of Gather Together in My Name. A victim of racism, poverty, and sexism in mid-century America, Maya resorted to sex work out of a need to survive – not because she grew up watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s and regarding sex work as a means of female empowerment. She did it because her opportunities were limited and she needed a way to provide for her son. It was by no means the elevating sort of experience we at Sensuali are striving to facilitate. 

And yet it is still a story worth sharing. Why? Because it is a story about sex work told by a sex worker. No filter, no fetishization, no shame. Just truth and the power that comes from owning one’s experiences – good and bad – as the teaching moments they are. Maya Angelou would not be the same public figure we all know and love today had she not gone through what she went through. Well-intentioned people try their best to erase the sex work stain from her otherwise perfect record. Given our culture of moral condemnation and the fervor with which we use female sexuality to diminish the accomplishments of women, this comes as no surprise. Even so, it is disappointing because it is not what Maya would have wanted.  

Taking Note from Maya’s Fearlessness

In explaining her reasoning for writing Gather Together in My Name, she said:

I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, ‘I never did anything wrong. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.’ They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, ‘Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.’ They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives. So I wrote the book Gather Together in My Name.

As someone who has brushed many of my own sex work experiences under the rug out of fear of being judged, Maya’s words are quite moving. She was able to embrace every part of herself – a feat even the most self-assured, modern-day feminists struggle to do. Society brainwashes us into believing that certain behaviors are immoral and that if we engage in them, we must do so in secret because god forbid we make others uncomfortable with our sinning. Women, in particular, are held to a ridiculous set of standards when it comes to purity and “goodness.” 

We are expected to be demure and fragile, so that the men in our lives can derive power from protecting and infantilizing us. The second a woman speaks her mind in a way that offends her patriarchal oppressors, she is deemed a bitch. When she reacts to an outcome with “too much” emotion, she is branded hysterical and met with degrading comments like: “Someone must be on her period.” And when she dares to take charge of her sexuality, she is written off as a worthless slut –  a woman who lacks self-respect and who is not to be trusted. But the patriarchy only wins if we allow it to. 

We have a choice over whether or not we choose to internalize the shame and stigma that comes with being a sex worker. We are conditioned to accept it at face value, to not question it. We keep our sex lives private so as not to make others uncomfortable. We know what we are doing is considered distasteful by the majority of society – even by the men whose patronage we rely on for our livelihood. But why? At its core what is so wrong about exchanging sex for money? The answer is nothing. Nothing about sex work between two consenting adults is “wrong” or “immoral” or “evil.” It is simply misunderstood and met with condemnation as a result. 

In Maya’s honor, I’ve included one of her poems below, which speaks to her radical self-acceptance and celebrates womanhood. 

Phenomenal Woman: A Poem by Maya Angelou

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Educational
Feminism
history
Sex Work
Jules

Jules

Author

Based in Brooklyn, Jules has dedicated her twenties towards harnessing her pussy power, exploring the muse, whore, and wild woman archetypes along the way. When not blogging, you can find her sweating the toxins out in a hot yoga class or sipping a matcha latte at a pretentious coffee shop, whilst she scribbles away in her journal.


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