Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Stormy shaming

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Can we talk about Stormy Daniels? More specifically, can we talk about how we talk about Stormy Daniels?

Daniels, real name Stephanie Clifford, first gained mainstream attention in 2009 when she considered running against David Vitter, the GOP senator from Louisiana who was caught up in the D.C. madam scandal. Now, she is back in the news after allegations that Michael Cohen, President Trump's personal attorney and "fixer," paid Daniels out of his own pocket to keep quiet about a sexual encounter she claims to have had with Trump. With the recent FBI raid on Cohen's office and the revelation that Sean Hannity was one of Cohen's few clients, it is safe to say Daniels will probably be in the news cycle for a while.

Male political pundits, columnists and commentators can rejoice that they are guaranteed at least a few more weeks to put their misogyny on full display with more tired jokes and snide remarks about Daniels' enhanced appearance and her completely legal work as an adult film actress and dancer. After she gave a prime-time television interview and took a lie detector test wearing what was a perfectly normal outfit, a chorus of men, including those who claim to lean left, took the opportunity to take as many shots at Daniels as possible. Calling her breasts "preposterous" and referring to them as "hooters" and implying she will have sex with just about anyone were some of the more tame, but still offensive, jokes. I refuse to repeat some of the more obscene, but if you are on social media, I'm sure you've seen what I'm talking about. Sure, in between the digs, a few compliment her here and there about how she is clever or articulate, but in the end, because of her line of work, her blonde hair, and large breasts, she is a punch line. A joke.

Never mind that Daniels comes across one of the most sincere, intelligent and human players in the whole Trump fiasco. She is a mother, a success in her industry, and her sense of humor is far more sophisticated than those who want to reduce her to body parts and sex work. She also had the sense to hire Michael Avenatti, who by all accounts seems to be the sharpest and most competent attorney in this whole dang mess.

Before you call me a humorless scold, I'll admit I'm guilty of having made light of sex workers in the past and laughing at stripper jokes. No more. Over the years, I've represented sex workers in various court proceedings and am always frustrated when a few judges, prosecutors and police immediately discredit them due to their work. I think we all know women and men who use sex as currency. They just aren't as brave as Daniels to admit it. I think the thing that put me over the top with my intolerance for the bashing of sex workers is when I attended a convention in New Orleans for attorneys. Two other groups were meeting at that same hotel: a Lutheran youth group and the Desiree Alliance. The Desiree Alliance describes itself as "a coalition of sex workers, health professionals, social scientists, professional sex educators and their supporting networks working together for an improved understanding of the sex industry and its human, social and political impacts."

I was immediately curious to see their itinerary. They had classes on harm reduction, human trafficking, effective lobbying of local and state governments and access to health care, but what immediately stood out to me was that the Desiree Alliance provided free on-site childcare for all of the attendees. The attorney conference, with a large amount of women attorneys present, did not.

Why is this such a big deal? I work as a criminal defense attorney. It's a job that many people don't understand. Over the years, I've represented men and women charged with terrible crimes against children. I'm received scorn from friends and family members for doing something they see as immoral and inconsistent with my role as a mom. Don't understand? Look at the comments about Melisa McNeill, the public defender assigned to defend Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz. Look at the attacks on political candidates who have worked in criminal defense. I know attorneys who've received death threats and had their websites attacked because of the unpopularity of their clients. Being a criminal defense attorney isn't the same thing as being a sex worker, but I think, like many of the women attorneys who had to struggle to arrange child care while we attended our conference, I felt a kind of kinship with these women who do work that is necessary and needed, yet they are maligned for their decision to do the work. That they supported each other enough to provide free childcare and to acknowledge their roles as mothers and caregivers forever endeared me to them.

But back to Daniels. In her interview she pointed out that she initially took the money from Cohen because she knew she would be the subject of scorn and ridicule if the story got out. She was right. In the end, the only thing preposterous about Daniels is the idea that her bra size and her career mean she is fair game to be slut-shamed by progressives and conservatives alike.

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