It’s a name that in Zulu means “quiet, tranquil”. Contrary to what her name might suggest, Aziah “Zola” King has no intentions of silencing herself — at least not any time soon.
Zola became an internet sensation after telling the story of a weekend trip to Florida gone terribly wrong on her twitter account late last Tuesday night.
The story begins with Zola meeting Jessica, a fellow stripper, and agreeing to accompany her to Florida to dance. Also along for the trip is Jessica’s boyfriend, Jarrett, and a man described as Jessica’s pimp, Z. The story includes an unsuccessful night of stripping, a surprising descent into prostitution, a kidnapping, a shooting, a suicide attempt, and finally, an arrest of several of the key parties involved.
Sounds unbelievable, right?
According to Zola and several friends, you should believe it: it’s true.
Zola’s series of epic tweets were met with mostly positive responses from twitter users who were enthralled by her tale; writer and producer Ava DuVernay praised Zola’s story-telling skills. Actress KeKe Palmer jokingly offered to star in the film adaptation. Many people suggested Zola copyright her story and seek a book deal or Empire-esque drama series.
There were memes. There were hashtags. The story was eventually featured on heavily trafficked websites such as Buzzfeed, VH1, People, and Time Magazine. The general consensus: Zola’s tale was genius. Wild. Hilarious.
That is, until it wasn’t.
“Sometimes I forget how much people hate and dehumanize sex workers and then I see everyone laughing it up over the Zola story and I’m like..oh. Now I remember.” — @eucalyptusdiamonds
As someone who was quick to share Zola’s story (I found it riveting, perfectly paced, full of genius one-liners — I even considered updating my online bios to “Pussy’s worth thousands”), I found it sobering to be reminded by fellow writers and persons online that the brutalization of women’s bodies is no laughing matter.
Zola, of course, should be given the freedom to talk about her lived experiences — to speak her truth. Rarely do discussions of female sex work lead by actual sex workers appear in mainstream media, and rarely do these discussions come without some level of shaming or suggestions of sexual immorality. Zola owns her story, telling it unapologetically with pride and wit.
And though I admire her openness, it is possible to speak honestly about the perils of sex work without dehumanizing others like Jessica, who Zola described as having experienced sexual and physical abuse.
By rehashing the story online and identifying her by photos and name, Zola has forced Jessica into reliving what was likely a very traumatic experience, and on an incredibly large and public scale.
Huffington Post writer Zeba Blay writes:
The fact that King, a sex worker herself, is being hailed as a new kind of literary voice for adapting a medium often viewed as the antithesis of literary, is exciting. The reaction to King’s story proves the power of social media to give an elevated platform to people who otherwise wouldn’t have one. It’s great that King is getting attention, but it’s unfortunate that her popularity is at someone else’s expense.
The Instagram account of a woman who appears to be Jessica has been flooded with comments about the story — one person wrote “gonna grow up to be a good trapper” (i.e. sex worker) underneath a picture of her young, smiling daughter.
Sadly, this is the type of harassment women involved in sex work experience regularly. This is not just some sensationalized story — this is life.
True or not, when the memes, hashtags, and articles referencing Zola’s story are no more, the violence she described will still be the reality for many women involved in sex work. This, we know to be true.
Zola’s tweets seem to indicate that she has met with a lawyer and is taking the appropriate steps to copyright her story. Though we don’t know what the future holds for her, we can only hope that future discussions centering this topic will not only be thrilling, but will help bring awareness to the need to protect the safety and rights of those providing sexual services.
That is one thing we simply can’t afford to be silent about.
Promo image credit: Flickr/CC