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For Alexandra Hunt, growing up as the daughter of two teachers in Rochester, N.Y., meant that education was paramount. It was education that brought her from Rochester to Richmond for college, then from Richmond to Philadelphia for graduate school, where the 28-year-old is making a liberal activism-fueled run to represent PA-03 in Congress.

It was also education — or rather, the cost of education — that could also soon make Hunt the first openly former stripper to hold a federal public office in the United States. The district, which covers most of Philadelphia, is the most consistently Democratic district in the entire country. She’s recently begun actively campaigning, and is seeking to unseat incumbent Rep. Dwight Evans, who has served in the House since 2016, in the Democratic primary in May.

For Hunt, the pandemic has made her run all the more urgent. Hunt holds a master’s of science and a master’s of public health from Philly-area universities, and although she currently works as a data manager at a biopharmaceutical company, her engagement with public health research and advocacy has been nonstop since she moved to Philadelphia in 2014. Congress still has only a handful of public health professionals among its ranks.

When the pandemic struck, “I realized that they weren’t coming to help us,” Hunt said of the state’s politicians. “We were kind of on our own. And to me, that’s a failed state.”

Although she wants to focus her campaign on policy, Hunt knew before launching it that her stint stripping nearly a decade ago could become a talking point for voters. Before the pandemic, and before she decided to run for Congress, Hunt had no plans to tell anyone she’d danced in college, she said. For many former sex workers, the stigma makes carrying a secret the simpler option. But running a campaign means becoming a public figure, and for Hunt, there was never really a question about including that chapter of her story. “I was in community and in conversation and connection with sex workers before I launched, and they said, ‘Don’t leave us behind,’ ” she said.

Alexandra Hunt speaks about her background as a community organizer, activist and sex worker at her kickoff campaign event in Philadelphia on Sept. 25. (Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)
Alexandra Hunt speaks about her background as a community organizer, activist and sex worker at her kickoff campaign event in Philadelphia on Sept. 25. (Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)

Bringing up a potentially controversial past before opponents or the media do can allow candidates to “inoculate themselves” against criticism, said Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia and the author of multiple books on women’s campaigns. But regardless of Hunt’s approach, Lawless said, it’s unlikely that Evans’s team (who has yet to publicly address Hunt’s run in any way and did not respond to a request for comment) would mention her history at all in the campaign.

“Especially in Democratic primaries, explicitly — or even implicitly — sexist attacks against a female candidate can backfire,” Lawless said. “Any grounds on which they attack her could be perceived as sexist.”

Hunt came to stripping the way many college women who engage in sex work do: She needed money, she said, and the low-paying job she had as a server on campus at the University of Richmond just wasn’t cutting it, she said. She started dancing during her freshman year.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” she said with a laugh. “I brought my résumé, and I got laughed at, that’s for sure.” During her first shift dancing, she was yanked from the schedule after offering up her real name, she said. In 2014, thanks in part to the money she made stripping, she graduated with her bachelor’s degree a year early. The money that didn’t go toward school and living expenses went into an envelope of cash she used to pay for three volunteer trips, she said, including one at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where she began working on suicide-prevention projects she’s still involved with.

According to RJ Thompson, managing director of the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center and himself an active sex worker, politicians or policymakers often represent issues or communities they don’t have direct experience with. “It’s one thing for a policymaker to say they support the human rights of sex workers, or even, ‘Sex work is work,’ ” Thompson said. “But they often really don’t want to hear about our lived realities, or really speak to people who are sex workers.”

Campaign posters show Alexandra Hunt. (Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)
Campaign posters show Alexandra Hunt. (Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)

For Hunt, navigating those identities is delicate. “I think that there is a balance that needs to be created of representing myself as someone who has participated in sex work and just … I don’t want to become the face of sex work,” she said. “And it’s not because of any sort of stigma or shame, but because there have to be things given back to sex workers that have been taken from them.” The focus, she said, should remain on the needs of sex workers as a community, which include economic security, safety from interpersonal violence and secure access to housing, health care and addiction treatment.

But already, her campaign social media pages (primarily her TikTok) garner less engagement when she talks about the elements of her political platform — which include pandemic-response programs, Medicare-for-all and ending mass incarceration — than they do when she shares tidbits about her background as a stripper. Of the nine videos on her page with over 50,000 views, only three don’t reference her stripping career, though it’s a topic that’s mentioned in less than a quarter of her videos overall. Her most-watched video, with more than half a million views, is the one most focused on stripping.

It’s impossible to parse apart how much of this is interest-driven and how much is caused by the popularity of the glamorizing world of “#StripTok,” although Hunt doesn’t use that tag. And though she’s thankful for the ways in which her background allows her to relate to others, she’s also wary of the messages that people can take away from seeing the glossed-over sides of some sex workers lives online, she said.

Hunt joins campaign volunteers at Triple Bottom Brewing in Philadelphia for a happy hour. (Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)
Hunt joins campaign volunteers at Triple Bottom Brewing in Philadelphia for a happy hour. (Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)

Hunt said she hopes that her openness in her campaign can draw meaningful attention to the needs of more marginalized sex workers as well as those with glamorous Instagram pages and thousands of OnlyFans subscribers. “I think that people who are our age, who are younger, and you know, accepting of sex workers, they see it as like, ‘Oh, this is something pretty cool about her,’ ” Hunt said. “And they don’t realize that actually I’ve taken some pretty hard hits for it. But if I can do this, then it can still be that cool thing for them, and it could potentially make the environment of sex work safer for other women and participants in it.”

According to Hunt, she’s still taking those hits. Although her employer, the T-cell therapy developer Adaptimmune, has supported her throughout the start of her run, she said that she was recently “pushed out” of a part-time job coaching youth soccer teams in the Philadelphia suburbs by players’ parents concerns about her history of sex work. According to Hunt, two directors at West-Mont United Soccer Association told her that her teenage players had found her videos on TikTok and that her only option would be to coach 4-year-olds instead. “For some reason, people have this stigma that people who are sex workers are going to exploit children,” she said. “That hurt my heart quite a bit.” West-Mont United did not respond to a request for comment.

Hunt prepares to embark on her “Bike Every Block” kickoff canvassing event in Philadelphia on Sept. 25. (Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)
Hunt prepares to embark on her “Bike Every Block” kickoff canvassing event in Philadelphia on Sept. 25. (Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)

Hunt would likely face stigma for her stripping in Congress as well — particularly from across the aisle — should she win the seat, according to Lawless. “Two years ago, I would say no one would even bring it up,” she said. But given the hyperpolarization and “craziness” of Congress these days, Lawless said, she’s “not confident” that Hunt wouldn’t be harassed by fellow lawmakers.

Hunt also believes she would be “looked down upon” if she made it to Capitol Hill. “I think that there could potentially be threats to my safety,” she said. “And I probably wouldn’t be treated very well, probably by men, but also probably by women, too. And I’m just prepared to face that.”

With a young, liberal wave of lawmakers beginning to enter Congress, Hunt’s campaign serves as a harbinger of what women in politics can and can’t talk about. Sexism wielded against candidates and politicians by one another has been an ineffective method of shame for years, said Lawless, citing the case of former Virginia candidate Krystal Ball who in 2010 received national support after refusing to apologize for explicit photos shared by a conservative blog. Personal openness from Democratic women has also seen increased support in the post-Trump era, Lawless said. It’s the same shift that allowed four members of Congress to openly share stories of their abortions last week, according to Lawless. (Hunt herself had an abortion at the age of 18, she said.)

(Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)
(Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)

It’s this post-Trump openness that shapes Hunt’s image as a viable candidate when she talks about stripping, Lawless suggested. There’s a story Hunt tells about sitting down with her arms crossed on the stage, refusing to dance for a group of men who’d spent hours watching her co-workers strip without tipping them. It’s her most empowering memory of her time as a sex worker, she said, and as a campaign-trail anecdote it feels selected to suggest she’d bring the same bluntness to the halls of Congress.

Talking to so many Philadelphians while campaigning, she said, has helped her shed the “chains of shame,” that she’s carried from more difficult moments as a stripper. “If people attack me for it,” she said, “that’s their misogyny. That’s their bigotry. That’s their discrimination. And it doesn’t faze me.”

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