Shaan Lashun and TT Baum never expected that a conference presentation would lead them to create an organization together. The self-described “co-founders, co-directors, co-everythingers” now host a critical space in a sex worker movement that has long been missing. Molly House Project started in 2019 as an organizing and social platform for masculine-of-center sex workers, including cisgender men, transgender men, transmasculine people, and anyone who identifies as male or was assigned male at birth.
Baum and Lashun have been longtime activists in the sex worker movement. They both intimately know the needs that come with being invisible, vulnerable, and unable to get support. In starting Molly House Project, they are working to change that.
The program started as a digital platform to connect masculine-of-center sex workers across the country. As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered in-person support groups of all kinds, the Molly House Project didn’t miss a step. In reality, they found that being a digital-only space for support, connection, and organizing allowed workers from all across the county to feel like part of something larger, breaking down the walls of isolation that many workers feel in their local communities.
TheBody correspondent Emmett Patterson recently caught up with Baum and Lashun to see how the project had evolved and what has been going on for masculine-of-center workers throughout the pandemic.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Emmett Patterson: It’s always a joy to see you two. I would love to hear a little bit about Molly House Project. When, why, and how did it start?
TT Baum: Back in—what year is it? [Laughs] Ugh, this is the shortest, longest decade of my life. Back in March 2019, I was coming out of a fog of having not been involved in activist spaces for a long time. I found out about a call for proposals for the Woodhull Freedom Foundation’s annual conference. There was a sex worker track that I was interested in submitting a proposal for. I had been wanting to do a panel for a long time about the challenges that [sex workers] who are masculine of center, assigned male at birth, or male-identified face, within the larger conversations and organizing within sex worker rights. I put out a call on Twitter to see who would be interested in this kind of space.
Then, I met [gesturing largely to Lashun] this person who I am now co-directing an organization with. Shaan showed up with ideas and really proved that they wanted to contribute a lot to this work. We prepared this talk, and it became apparent to us shortly afterwards that if we didn’t do something, this gap would still exist in the field.
Patterson: Shaan, why did you initially reach out?
Shaan Lashun: I’ve always been interested particularly in the invisibility of trans men and transmasculine folks. I mean, we’re so invisible that when I say that I’m trans, people assume I’m a trans woman, even trans women themselves. I had been working on this particular intersection that transmasculine people have in sex worker organizing with Reframe Health and Justice and S.W.O.P. [Sex Worker Organizing Project].
I thought TT’s tweet was dope, and we started to talk about the panel. Since then, [ours] has been a working relationship that I really appreciate. The development of the project has also been my ability to work with someone.
Patterson: Why does this gap exist in sex worker organizing? What are the issues that masculine-of-center workers are specifically facing that aren’t being held up in the larger sex worker activist spaces?
Lashun: I have so many feelings. Early in our working together, TT and I realized that men, categorically, hadn’t really ever needed to mobilize because their survival doesn’t necessarily depend on others. Obviously, we can talk about Black men and Brown men, but their organizing has more to do with their race and ethnicity than gender. By virtue of that, cis men being the dominant majority tend to have more access to the resources needed to survive. But there is an [absence] around not needing or wanting to mobilize—a lot of people don’t see “sex worker” as a job title to be proud of.
Baum: You’re making a lot of sense. It’s one of the things we don’t talk about a lot—unless we’re asked about it. I used to work at Rentboy, back before they were raided in 2015. I was proudest of the COO who was passionate about activism and getting men and masculine-of-center workers to realize that they had a place in that conversation. It was important for them to break down the myths we have about what sex work is, masculine-specific stigmas against us, and how we can become more of a community than being these disparate islands of workers.
Some masc-of-center workers are doing it as pick-up work or doing it full-time and still treating it like a side hustle. There’s a complexity to the experience of stigma and trauma in the larger sex work community as a whole. Having been active in sex worker spaces, I was often the only cis male active worker. That was the case for the Woodhull conference, where almost 200 active sex workers shared space together. I would have all of these really complex conversations about Shaan’s and my place in doing this work, even having my identity as a sex worker questioned.
We even had multiple people question if we deserved a panel spot in this conference. But if we never get the opportunity to talk about what is happening in this subset of the population, we’re never going to get anywhere.
Patterson: Wow. I want to pivot back to something Shaan said earlier, that men don’t have to organize because we’ve been allowed to be in isolation. Even as a trans man, I still feel like I’m an island even though I learned masculinity for myself at a different time in my life. It’s totally sucked me in! But what are those particular stigma or places to organize around for workers?
Baum: Patriarchy has made it that [masculine-of-center people] can only express our emotions through anger, and we can never ask for help from other people. Misogyny is also the lens through which most people view sex workers. Obviously, feminine-of-center sex workers are the most targeted when it comes to these views, especially by law enforcement, the government, and anti-“trafficking” organizations. Because we view sex work through this feminine lens, when men promote that they do sex work for work, they experience a lot of misogyny.
There’s also the impact of certain American myths that rely on this need for isolation: “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and “to ask for help is weakness” and “the only person who is gonna help you is you.” And then you’re doing work you’re not supposed to talk about. It’s this vicious cycle that feeds on itself.
But we see that there is violence that happens to men in the sex-worker world, and nobody talks about it. There is financial and emotional desperation that happens, and nobody talks about it. There are these masculine tropes that are detrimental to our mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, and nobody talks about it. Many workers I’ve spoken to over the years talk about getting lost in the work—they start making bad choices and don’t feel like they have any place to go for help. So they keep making bad choices until they break and show up on my doorstep saying, “Help. I need some direction. I’m feeling really lost in this work.”
Patterson: Shaan, I want to come back to you to talk about masculinity, specifically when it comes to transmasculine workers. When you’re thinking about the people who are organizing in Molly House Project, what are the intersectional issues in addition to gender identity that come up?
Lashun: I’m fascinated by the growth of thought around multiple masculinities. Being an “older trans”—although I’m not an elder—those conversations weren’t being had in the past. Until recently, I haven’t really had community with other transmasculine people as a transmasculine person myself. My version of masculinity was not modeled off of cis masculinity.
My inbox is now packed with messages from transmasculine sex workers. A lot of them want to transition either physically or medically and are worried that, in doing so, they won’t have access to the same clientele or kind of sex work they are currently doing. They feel like they aren’t going to know how to be a sex worker as a masculine-of-center person.
The biggest differences between transmasculine workers and cis masculine workers are pretty stark. Vetting is different. If transmasculine workers are working with cis men clients, they may not be able to accurately vet them. That’s not something that’s culturally the norm for cis masculine workers. We also talk about opportunities to “play both ends.” I know several transmasculine people who will play up a womanly persona and a manly persona; others will continue to work perceived as a woman in order to keep going in the work. I’ve seen a lot of different approaches to navigating this.
If transmasculine people want to continue to make the same funds they might have had before, bottoming is the fetish that gets a lot of folks the coin. So now, transmasculine people are dealing with this new type of fetishization they didn’t have before. There may be internal stigma that transmasculine people face about not wanting or being a bottom.
There’s also the possibility of becoming pregnant for us and how you navigate that in an already fucked-up reproductive rights system. Add in the fear of going to jails and prisons, and worrying about how your gender is going to be dealt with if arrested while working.
Finally, I know we’ve talked about men not wanting to ask for help, but that assumes that help is out there at all.
Baum: Right! Exactly.
Patterson: It definitely seems like you all are the ones who are helping!
Lashun: We are certainly trying.
Patterson: As with everything, I feel like we do have to talk about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. What kind of needs have you been responding to from sex workers coming to Molly House Project for support?
Baum: Now that we are in the 10th month of the pandemic, things have shifted quite a bit. The work that many of us were doing just dried up. Our clients didn’t want to be clients anymore, notably because of the historical stigma that sex workers don’t take care of their health. Even after restrictions started to loosen up, and some workers were making the choice to still meet in person, there still wasn’t a large client pool.
We decided that we were going to start a COVID-19 relief fund for masculine-of-center workers. Fundraising in this climate has been super challenging. We didn’t realize how much of a need there would be. We were overwhelmed by the requests for help, at a time when the government wasn’t helping us. We aren’t self-employed like everybody else, nor can many of us navigate the paperwork and hoops you have to jump through to access some of the programs that eventually did get put into place.
We are hoping that people can get back to work safely. In the last few months, more and more workers have really reached the end of their rope and have been forced back into unsafe working conditions. One thing I will say about sex workers is that we are pretty good at navigating risk, especially with where we are putting our bodies. This is how I make my money. I can’t afford to get COVID-19 or pass it to a client, similar to how we talk about STIs. I knew workers who were getting routine access to testing and others who took strict precautions just so they could continue to see clients.
There’s also been an explosion of new sex workers, as people have become more and more desperate for a job. Even if it’s a virtual platform, like OnlyFans, or live-camming, it becomes a sense of stability.
Lashun: I think with the explosion of new sex workers, we will see even more of that. I think it will be interesting to see what conversations look like beyond this moment. Mostly I just want everyone to survive so we can get there.
I’d obviously love to see our fund support more workers in the future. But what workers are requesting of us is really for social and support spaces.
Patterson: I want to talk about one particular social space that was so fun to be a part of. The New Year’s Eve Hustle show Molly House Project hosted was phenomenal. I loved seeing the range of performance, movement, and expression. Both of you have mentioned people’s misconceptions of sex work. I would like to hear a little bit more about what sex work looks like for the people Molly House Project is supporting.
Baum: We have people doing live-camming and making content for amateur porn sites. Others are doing in-person, full-service work. Some people are almost street-based but still freestyling and not accessing online platforms as much. For those who use dating apps or gathered at bars or clubs to find clients, it’s pushed them into a much different working environment.
For sex workers generally, everyone has had to learn how to multitask in the pandemic. People who had been strictly doing BDSM or pro-dom(me) work started something else. Others who never wanted to do BDSM work are now moving into that space because it can be a little bit safer than doing full-service work. Full-service workers are now joining online platforms, learning from content creators on how to become proficient overnight.
We are in this space right now where fetishes are going to get weirder, where people’s emotions are coming out sideways and frustrations are pent up. This is a time to find new ways of expressing sex-positivity. Sex work is going to change throughout these months. Why not try new things?
Of course, street-based work has risen. Like, bang.
Patterson: If folks are thinking about mitigating risk, why is street-based becoming even more popular?
Baum: People are desperate and don’t have enough food. They are being threatened with eviction. While it’s something we have always dealt with, it’s much more frequent and intense.
Patterson: What does Molly House Project’s future look like, during and post–COVID-19?
Lashun: World domination! But before that, we are setting quarterly goals and trying to build up. We’ve done two chats about disclosure and safety, focused on trans workers. We want to create specific spaces for different communities of workers to come together and problem-solve and hang out.
Baum: We also are talking about creating in-person meetups eventually. I would like to create a forum for folks to be able to communicate with each other, a static space for us to get support. So, if Joe in Wisconsin is running away from home and starting to do sex work for the first time in Chicago, he can find a community of workers in his area through the forum.
Patterson: I’m excited to see where this all takes you. Thank you both so much.
If you need support or want to contribute to the Molly House Project’s COVID-19 fund, visit the Molly House Project website.