“I’m having trouble with words right now,” Finley Fawn says, her voice breaking over the telephone. Almost a month ago, Fawn lost custody of her six-year-old son. She’s managed a measured tone throughout most of our phone conversation, but the facade starts slipping as we finish up. There’s pain in her voice and I long to offer her some reassurance that everything will be okay. But vague platitudes don’t win custody hearings and reassurances can’t cover the mounting legal bills. The fact is, I have no idea if Fawn will get her child back.
This isn’t happening because Fawn is abusive. She brought eight character witnesses and a mountain of paperwork to her initial custody hearing to prove just the opposite. It’s because, at the present, courts have sided with her ex-husband in the belief that Fawn has allowed her son too much awareness of her job — which is legal and taxed. For her part, Fawn insists her profession is unknown to her child. It’s important to note here that Fawn is not a prostitute, but a cam model, someone who performs solo via webcam for paying customers from home. She tells Uproxx that when it comes to the court, she hasn’t been able to shake the stigma that comes with any form of sex work.
To say Fawn was stunned by this recent turn of events would be an understatement. The emergency order to remove her son from her home — filed by her ex last month — hit her like a mack truck. She says that a man came to the door while her son was with his father, served her with papers, told her “it was no big deal,” and then waited in his car for Fawn’s husband to come home, to serve him, too. The “no big deal” part was untrue. The documents included a notice that her son wouldn’t be coming back to her house at the end of his time with his father. Fawn’s ex had filed for sole custody, arguing that Fawn was an unfit mother. He states that the six-year-old boy has shared details with him about his mom’s job, and that she does not have proper boundaries when it comes to her work. Fawn insists that she’s never shared anything about her work with her son. She provided the court with printouts of tweets she’d sent from her work account, which, she says, is where her ex got his knowledge of her professional life.
In court, Fawn says, the judge made a statement that will “stick with me forever.” Before hearing any witnesses, and with only Fawn’s Twitter introduced into evidence, the woman presiding over the case reportedly said that anything more than her ex’s testimony was superfluous. Before Fawn even had a chance to speak, she says, the judge admitted she’d made up her mind. This despite the fact that Fawn had prepared the best case she could in the short amount of time she’d been given before the hearing. She had paychecks, pictures of her house, her son’s school records, and other information at the ready. Fawn printed anything, she says, that would make it clear that she wasn’t a “drug-addicted, alcoholic prostitute.”
None of that evidence was seen. Instead, Fawn’s lawyer sat her down and explained that a trial would be long and expensive. It would involve paying an attorney, hiring expert witnesses, paying court fees and appealing (something that Fawn might have to do more than once). In total, the attorney Fawn had retained on an emergency basis told her that getting her child back on the same terms as before — joint custody — would cost more than $100,000. Money that Fawn doesn’t have.
Fawn isn’t alone when it comes to this feeling of powerlessness in court. While cam work is a taxed business that brings Fawn a livable income, it’s highly stigmatized. Take the case of Tanaha Koontz, whose children were taken away from her and given to her ex despite numerous instances of domestic violence, two arrests, and a kidnapping:
From Koontz’s account, via Mommyish:
Six months after my abusive husband began trafficking me on the internet I began to resent him, and thought that if I had to be a hooker, there was no reason to put up with his abuse anymore. I could afford the child care and rent on my own and began to work toward becoming independent from him, and furthering my non-prostitution related ideas for websites. I began to study web development and created an adult network online though it has yet to show any profit.
You would think that state agencies would help me to recover from an abusive husband that fancied himself a pimp, and had more than a dozen documented cases of domestic violence reported. I thought they would help me recover my children but in reality the opposite happened and my children have not lived with me in three very long painful years.
In 2015, Koontz started a YouCaring fund to help defray some of her legal costs. She claims that in the time that her children were away from her they faced a greater abuse than anything they might have suffered if they’d stayed with her:
The children originally reached out to the Guardian Ad Litem, pleading to be placed with me and describing an abusive home with the father. Their pleas were ignored, and they were punished for discussing the abuse.
Now the children are afraid to speak up, afraid to anger their father.
It has come to my attention that my youngest daughter has been engaged in self mutilation, and continues to mutilate her body. She was recently Baker Acted indicating a serious crisis involving a threat to herself.
Since I brought her to the hospital, I have been treated like a criminal. I am facing kidnapping charges, despite her father having gave permission for her to come with me.
The stories of Fawn and Koontz are just two in a sea of stories about sex workers who believe that their children were removed from their care due to their profession. In 2005, Janet Duran, a sex worker and the regional director of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance — an organization that advocates for the right of sex workers — had her children taken away and was forced to pay child support despite the fact that her former partner had a long and documented history of abuse.
The Passaic County Courts, and most recently Judge Sohail Mohammed, have granted the father of Ms. Duran’s children full custody with no visitation access since 2005. This decision was made despite the fact that he has been known to be physically abusive in both private and public settings. Ms. Duran has even filed a restraining order in the past because of the physical beatings she has received from him. What’s more, Ms. Duran’s perceived involvement for engaging in the sex trade was openly used against her during the case. Ultimately, the Passaic County Family Courts found a violent man to be more of a fit parent than a working mother providing for her children.
Most notable is the case of Petite Jasmine, a Swedish sex worker who fought for custody of her children after they were taken away — due, again, to her profession. She was harassed and stalked by her abusive ex and was later murdered by him at a supervised visitation.
Like Fawn, the courts suspected that Jasmine was addicted to drugs due to her involvement in the sex industry. No such evidence was found. Fawn faces these same allegations, although she vehemently swears they are unfounded. Fawn’s ex, meanwhile, says that his son has been exposed to inappropriate conversations and told Uproxx that he thinks she should rent a studio away from her home.
“This isn’t about being a sex worker,” he said over the phone, “this is about protecting my son.”
While Finley Fawn’s case is still evolving, the general notion that a sex worker will somehow be inappropriate with their child or influence them negatively is a myth, created by a society which creates the country’s rampant demand for sex workers in the first place. In article for The Daily Beast, Tracy Quan notes that sex work, like any other job, is just that (work) and doesn’t say anything about a person’s ability to parent. Sex worker Zoe Hansen told Quan she hadn’t even talked to her child about sex by the time he’d turned seven so as to keep him a, “child as long as possible.”
Being outed as a sex worker, in fact, is often much more detrimental than the actual sex work. Ruth Morgan Thomas, a sex worker and activist, told Quan that when someone at her daughter’s school found out that Thomas was a prostitute, her daughter was bullied by her classmates, something that the school felt Thomas should be ashamed about due to her profession rather than being upset over those taunting her daughter:
Ruth, who has since evolved into a globally recognized sex-worker activist, challenged the school. “I said, what are you going to do about this bullying and harassment? They didn’t expect me to come in and stand up for her. I was supposed to hang my head in shame.” A school medical officer began sending Ruth “invitations to lectures on moral rearmament—yes, that’s the actual term that was used.” The attention Tara received from teachers and officials ostensibly concerned for her well-being was overwhelmingly negative. Ruth was forced to make a difficult decision: She moved her daughter from a state school to a private day school. “It wasn’t my first choice, because I believe in state education, but I couldn’t protect my daughter from the level of stigma and discrimination she was experiencing there.”
Combating that kind of stigma is an uphill battle when just admitting you’re a sex worker can get you into trouble. That’s why so many women (and men) have to hide their sex-worker activism work. It’s one thing to believe that sex workers deserve equal rights in theory, but in practice those who speak out about their work, especially those who say they enjoy it, are more likely to be punished for their honesty than accepted.
Between now and Fawn’s next court date, Child Protective Services will become involved in her son’s case. A psychologist will be hired (and the fees split with her ex) to assess her child, and her ex will maintain sole custody. She’ll be able to see her child for a maximum of thirty hours a month, with no overnights, and no weekends. A recent blog post looked forward to May 2, as the first time she would see her child in nearly a month. It’s clear to Fawn, from the conversations she’s had with her son on the phone, that this separation is more painful than any kind of damage her profession could cause.
“I’ve talked to him on the phone and each time I’ve talked to him on the phone he says he wants to come home,” she says, “that he wants it to go back to the way that it was and go back and forth. Then, at the end of the call, he cries because he doesn’t want me to leave. This is definitely having an emotional impact on him. My work has never had an emotional impact on him but this is hurting my child more than anything.”
Fawn’s current office
In Fawn’s opinion, her child had a chance of going through his childhood with very little trauma — though Fawn’s ex vehemently disagrees. Fawn says that her son was never present while she was working, and couldn’t get into her office if he tried (she sent picture of locks on both sides of the door and a heavy curtain just inside the door). Now, he’ll have to come to terms with losing his mother and getting removed from his home. This, Fawn says resolutely, isn’t in the best interest of her child. In fact, what her ex did (to hurt her, she claims) turns her son from a person to a possession, a pawn in a battle she never wanted to fight.
From an open letter on her blog:
My son had a good chance at not having some kind of trauma in his younger life. He had a good chance of not having something major like this happen that he will have to come to terms with, probably in therapy. I mean, can you imagine being ripped from your home for no reason and not understanding why? I’m sure plenty of people can identify with that feeling unfortunately. It should be a last resort because these kinds of things are emotionally traumatic. But it was never a last resort, it was a first resort, and the court helped my ex do it. What should have happened was CPS was called and a report filed, they would have come to my house and investigated me and my house and talked with my child. Then if there was an issue of him being exposed, they would go from there. But that never happened, and it most likely never happened because it was never about the best interests of my child, but what my ex wanted to do to hurt me. My son should be the only one people are thinking about here, and yet he’s the only one that seemingly no one except myself is thinking about. He’s a person, not a possession.
Fawn doesn’t know what the future holds. “This is harder than anything I’ve been through,” she says on the telephone. “I’ve survived cancer and this is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my life.”
“The message that I want to get out there,” Fawn says, “is that the judicial system in the United States is discriminatory and prejudiced against sex workers. That’s why I’m writing about it because it’s important to see a first hand account of what is happening. It’s so imperative that people read this and people share it. My story is just one story, they need to know that this is not the only story. There’s so many other people going through this out there. Something needs to change. The judicial system should not be discriminating against us because of our profession. It should be a last resort to take a child out of a home. There was nothing before the temporary restraining order. No mediation, no communication, no nothing. My ex would talk to me and we could have gone to mediation, I don’t know…something.”
“What if the court says ‘okay, you win’?” I ask.
“If they say that I’m good and they drop the case, I’m not going to stop fighting,” Fawn responds. “This is horrible. No one should be treated like this. The discrimination and the prejudice in the judicial system, it needs to stop. It’s a basic human right that you’re not discriminated against. I’m not going to stop fighting. I am going to fight for policy change and that you can not use a legal job against someone to take someone’s child away.”
While the case between Fawn and her ex-husband is a disputed family matter, the idea that sex workers deserve equal protection in family court stands. There is an obvious incongruity in the United States, when society creates a massive demand for sex work, then stigmatizes the people who take jobs in the field.
“I’m not stopping,” Fawn says at the conclusion of our interview. I can feel the frustration in her voice. “Being a sex worker, we face discrimination and prejudice every day. This is the highest level of prejudice and discrimination I’ve experienced, but others have experienced much more. This is a catalyst for change, because change needs to happen.”
Mark Shrayber is senior writer at Uproxx Life. You can contact him directly on Twitter.