Category Archives: December 17

photo credit: Carol Leigh the Scarlot Harlot (CC)

“We ARE Organizing!” A Dozen Sex Workers’ Groups Not Named in the NYT Magazine

photo credit: Carol Leigh the Scarlot Harlot (CC)

photo credit: Carol Leigh the Scarlot Harlot (CC)

Over the last week and before the print edition appeared, Emily Bazelon’s cover story “Should Prostitution be a Crime?” for the New York Times magazine, sex workers and their allies were sharing and discussing it widely through Facebook, Twitter, and their blogs. I was thrilled to see people I know, activists I’ve admired and worked with, being given a national platform to have their say. This was and is a phenomenal media moment for the sex workers’ rights movement.

Yet, except for a throwaway nod to Margo St. James and COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and a minimal reference to the online sex worker weekly Tits and Sass, the article hardly mentions the many sex worker-led U.S. organizations, local and national, that seek to decriminalize prostitution and make the lives and work of sex workers safer. Though the portraits of sex worker activists are more diverse, the article does not acknowledge the racial, gender, and sexual diversity of the movement. Instead, and perhaps predictably – this is “white savior” Nicholas Kristoff’s platform after all – the article is framed as decriminalization advocates against abolitionists. More disturbingly, abolitionists are given organizational strength. Equality NOW, GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services) and the other promotors of harmful and hateful policies are spotlighted, almost as though the Times wants to ensure pearl-clutching concerned readers know where to send their money. Parenthetically, it seemed the Times’ anti-prostitution editorial staff designated the “NYT Picks” in the comments section because almost every one of them was against decriminalization.

Bazelon’s deinstitutionalization of the sex workers’ rights movement into a “fractious bunch” is a serious oversight. The many organizations currently active use many different strategies and take sometimes conflicting approaches to achieve a modicum of physical safety, civil rights and labor protections for people working in the sex industry. Those vigorous tensions, as I documented in Sex Workers Unite! A history of the movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk, would have given readers a much better understanding of the movement and its goals.

Almost everyone in the movement agrees abolishing laws that prohibit adults from earning money in exchange for consensual sex would be good, and they often cite the decriminalization of marijuana as the most recent example. But porn performers, strippers and other workers in the corporate legalized sectors of the sex industry are more affected by social stigma and whorephobia than criminal laws. This difference leads to diverse strategies: some seek to destigmatize “whores” through cultural projects, others believe the First Amendment or the Supreme Court’s decisions on sexual privacy are constitutional grounds for abolishing laws against prostitution. Many groups are providing non-judgmental harm reduction services to people wherever they are, services that provide vital health and safety interventions against HIV infections, drug overdoses and other dangers. Those differences make the movement vibrant, and it pushes activists to adopt intersectional analyses that address the multiple personal, financial, and social circumstances under which people decide to engage in sex work.

Listed below are a dozen sex workers’ organizations – create by and for sex workers – and what they do. Finding the websites for these groups isn’t difficult, but you’ll see more results by turning off “safe search” blocking. Even though these are registered with the IRS as non-profit organizations or advocacy groups, and the websites are “safe for work,” blocking algorithms tend to load anti-prostitution and anti-pornography websites, while suppressing links to sex workers’ rights groups.

The Red Umbrella Project (RedUP) brings the voices of people in the sex trades through storytelling, using their stories for policy advocacy and community organizing. A new documentary The Red Umbrella Diaries in which former and current sex workers read and stage autobiographical pieces about their lives, has been making the film festival rounds. Several stories were first published in RedUP’s Prose and Lore anthologies.

The Sex Workers Project, which is part of the Urban Justice Center in New York City, provided legal assistance and social services advocacy for anyone in the sex industry whether by choice, circumstance, or coercion. SWP attorneys pioneered a human rights approach to serving victims of trafficking in the courts, and their policy reports on sex work and human trafficking are grounded on clients’ real life experiences.

The St. James Infirmary in San Francisco opened in 1999 to provide non-judgmental holistic health care to current and former sex workers of all genders and sexual orientations as well as their family members. Their 290-page Occupational Safety and Health Handbook for people in the sex trades is an invaluable resource.

The Best Practices Policy Project (BPPP) researches policies affecting sex workers and people adversely affected by anti-prostitution policies, such as its 2015 report “Nothing About Us, Without Us: HIV/AIDS-related Community and Policy Organizing by US Sex Workers,” documenting the stigmas transgender women face when attempting to access medical care and the criminalization of their lives. (Full disclosure: I participated in this research.) BPPP with Desiree Alliance, and other sex worker groups have challenged the Obama Administration’s National HIV Strategy for its silence on the critical role of sex workers in preventing HIV. In 2010 and 2015, BPPP led the campaign to report the human rights abuses of sex workers in the U.S. to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

HookOnline.org a nonprofit organization offering advice on and advocacy for men working in the sex industry, has extensive online resources, hosts “live chats” as well as in “Rent U” classes on current issues. Though HookOnline was not implicated in the widely denounced Homeland Security raids of Rentboy.com in August 2015, the escort site provided much of the funding for its work.

The Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP USA) is undergoing a revival since the loss of its founder Robyn Few. With a national board as well as dozens of local chapters throughout the U.S., SWOP seeks to end violence against sex workers, develop new movement leaders, and provides assistance to those who have been persecuted by law enforcement. For people in need of crisis counseling, general support, referrals or information about safety and legal rights, SWOP USA operates a 24/7 hotline (877)-776-2004. Every year since 2003, SWOP has coordinated International Day Against Violence against Sex Workers on December 17th.

ESLERP (Sex Workers and Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project) has mounted quixotic class action lawsuit in the federal courts, claiming that the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, as well as in Obergefell requires the abolition of prostitution laws.

In Alaska, Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP) founded by Tara Burns, has successfully fought back against a 2012 state law that classified all consensual sex work as sex trafficking. CUSP’s report, documenting the lived experiences of Alaskan sex workers and policy recommendations that have changed law enforcement approaches to focus on crimes committed against sex workers including rape, intimate partner violence, extortion, and robbery. They are also lobbying for legislation that allow sex workers who are victims or witnesses of crimes to report them without fear of arrest.

Power Inside in Baltimore, founded in 2001, doesn’t look like a “sex worker” group because for many marginalized women and girls, working in the street economy is a survival strategy. Focusing on gender-based violence and incarceration by the “Jane Crow” criminal justice system, Power Inside assists with housing, reunification with their children, access to social services and leadership development.

Self-determination and self-sufficiency for drug users and sex workers in Washington, DC, is the goal at HIPS, founded in 1993. Showers, laundry, community lunches, and computer lab, as well as harm reduction supplies, housing assistance, and medical attention are available at their new onsite location; in addition, their mobile van services low-income neighborhoods almost every night of the week. HIPS hotline number (800) 676-4477 offers counseling and advice to anyone, anywhere.

SWOP Behind Bars, a new SWOP project, encourages people to donate books women’s prisons, building a nationwide network of sex worker-supported letter writing, and a newsletter to women in prison. More than one million women are incarcerated in the U.S. and the conditions – including prison libraries – are even worse than those in men’s prisons. Educational opportunities and post-release programs are practically non-existent, a form of sex discrimination that Margo St. James first fought in the 1970s.

Red Light Legal, a brand new non-profit organization founded by an attorney who put herself through law school by doing sex work, currently offers webinars to educate sex workers on legal matters. In the future, they will provide direct legal services and representation as well as engage in policy advocacy.

The Adult Performers Advocacy Committee was formed in 2014 by people working in the porn industry to oppose passage of California’s Measure B on the grounds that government regulations for workers’ health and working conditions should be decided by the appropriate state agency, not by voters in a ballot referendum.

Grassroots organizing to empower sex workers has been going on for a very long time. Women With A Vision in New Orleans has been doing just that for more than twenty-five years, the one group aside from Amnesty International, Bazelon cites.  As activist and blogger Renegade Evolution wrote almost a decade ago, “We ARE organizing, you’re just not paying attention.”

(This piece was first published by Beacon Broadside, 5/11/16)

Human Rights for Sex Workers: An Interview

This interview first appeared in The Beacon Broadside, December 17, 2013firstslutwalkTO

Melinda Chateauvert agreed recently to talk with us at Beacon Press about Human Rights Day and how important it is that the international campaign for human rights include sex workers, who have always been key activists in the struggles for gay liberation, women’s rights, reproductive justice, labor organizing, prison abolition, and other human rightsrelated issues.

Why is it important that human rights advocates include sex workers in their efforts and activism?

“Prettying up,” “normalizing,” or “sanitizing” the poster children (or martyred adult victims) of any movement means that the policy solutions will never address the people who are most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. It’s rather instructive, for example, how the mainstream of the immigrant rights’ movement places students, military veterans, and “hard-working” successful workers/business people at the forefront. (The same can be said about gay rights organizations too.) This makes them “worthy” and “deserving” of citizenship rights in the US. But what about immigrants who seek residency and asylum because they are transgender or gay or lesbian? Or who, once they arrive, find they cannot obtain “honest” work and turn to the sex industry to support themselves?

For the labor movement, organizing in the sex industry itself is certainly one focus for activism. But in truth, winning a living wage for workers everywhere would mean that a lot of workers could choose to leave the sex industry, especially those who moonlight to make ends meet while holding on to their “legitimate” day jobs.

How do sex workers rights relate to other global human rights issues?

1) Global democracy movements: Sex workers have the right to participate in government as voters, and as officials, elected or appointed.

2) HIV/AIDS: Sex workers are front line adult educators to prevent new HIV infections worldwide. They can only do so however, when government officials, health agencies and law enforcement recognize them as people who have these skills and bring them into the process, and, preferably, let sex workers determine the best harm reduction practices for themselves.

3) Immigration and migration in a globalized economy: People move from place to place looking for work and economic opportunity, for money to remit to their families back home. That women and men would move from place to place (from Lagos to Capetown to Amsterdam for example) to work in the sex industry should not surprise anyone. What should concern us however is that the criminalization of undocumented or un-permitted migration makes all migrants vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Without a visa or a passport, public officials as well as criminal traffickers can make the life of undocumented migrants hell.

Over the last few decades, sex workers have sought to reframe sex workers rights as a human rights issue. What are some of the steps they have taken?

Sex worker activists and advocates have historically called on lawmakers and the courts to decriminalize prostitution, so that people could work without fear of arrest and persecution, including harassment, stalking, prohibitions against renting apartments, from holding certain types of jobs, or from obtaining professional licensing. The discrimination that sex workers face is similar to the policies and attitudes that once prevented gays and lesbians from finding jobs and housing, from patronizing public establishments, and that threaten their rights as parents. While securing civil rights for sex workers remains an issue, activists have come to realize that the effects of discrimination perpetuates a climate of hate. Whorephobia—and its cousin slut-shaming—are dehumanizing, reducing “hookers,” “prostitutes,” “whores,” and “hustlers” to people who aren’t worthy of concern, and indeed, people who should be chased out of neighborhoods or locked up in prison. More seriously, because the police regard sex workers as lawbreakers, they often ignore or sloppily investigate crimes of violence against sex workers. Rape, battery, assault, domestic violence, armed robbery, and the kidnapping and murders of sex workers is dismissed because their jobs (a.k.a., their “lifestyles”) are considered dangerous and they were “asking for it.”

Activists have been challenging dehumanization in multiple ways. Recently, Canadian journalist Joyce Arthur called on editors, opinion columnists, and reporters to revise the style guides for terms referring to the sex industry after a Toronto Globe and Mail columnist called prostitutes “lumps of meat.”

On Monday this week, a New York Times editorial, “France’s New Approach to Curbing Prostitution”, praised the French Parliament for approving a law that would punish the clients of sex workers. It also dehumanized sex workers. The proposed law would “treat prostitutes as exploited and abused victims,” but where are the complaints from sex workers themselves about abuse and exploitation by their customers? Indeed, neither the NYT nor the commercial press is reporting on the thousands of French sex workers who are marching and protesting against the proposed law. By failing to acknowledge that sex workers chose to do the work they do, we deny them agency and control over their lives. Even saying that “we” want to “help” them get out of sex work is a denial of their agency and self-determination. Sure, some sex workers hate their work, many would like to change the working conditions, and some would rather do something else entirely. But so do a lot of fast food workers and even some blog editors.

To say “sex workers rights are human rights” is to recognize that people have the right to make decisions about their lives and their work, to say that they have the right to be safe from violence and harassment, to say that they deserve human dignity and to have a voice in society.

What Rights? From the ACLU National Blog of Rights

I spoke at the ACLU National Office in Washington, DC on Wednesday, March 12. This blog originally appeared on their website on March 5, 2014.

Do sex workers have rights? Put another way, can whores, hustlers, strippers, streetwalkers and porn stars demand respect and justice?

The idea that people who trade sex for money, drugs or survival should enjoy civil rights or liberties deeply divides public opinion. The ACLU position holds that laws against prostitution violate “the right of individual privacy because they impose penal sanctions for the private sexual conduct of consenting adults,” but the suggestion that sex workers themselves possess other basic rights is controversial.

For example, many citizens believe that “public women” (an old term for prostitutes) should not be allowed to work on public streets. Numerous cities have created “prostitution-free zones” that permit the police to target undesirables, forcing them to “move along” through arrest, prosecution, and banishment as a condition of probation; in Phoenix, women arrested for offending “public morals” are sent immediately to a church-operated “prostitution diversion” program and prohibited from speaking to an attorney.

In several states, sex workers convicted of felonies must register on public sex offender lists—making them vulnerable to stalking and harassment. One Virginia assemblyman recently introduced a bill that would allow law enforcement to seize the assets of any person arrested for prostitution.

Stigmas against sex work and sex create this hostile environment. Clients—specifically heterosexual males—have become new targets for public humiliation, with legislatures in several states proposing laws that levy steep fines, even prison terms, for those who choose to pay for sexual services. In practice, these laws actually endanger sex workers more. Clients who fear arrest may refuse to negotiate openly, or react violently when they feel threatened. Sex workers, concerned about self-incrimination, rarely report crimes committed against them.

Public harassment and misconduct by law enforcement are some of the dangerous consequences of client criminalization, prostitution-free zones and other laws against sex work.

Chicago police have arrested transgender women—particularly African American and Hispanic transwomen—for “buying” rather than “selling” sex and charged them with felonies, while simultaneously “proving” that they are arresting both “men” and “women.”

Even more chilling for public safety, US Department of Justice investigations of several police departments revealed patterns of systemic violence against street-based sex workers. Police officers have been convicted on charges that include the kidnapping, rape and sexual exploitation of “suspected” prostitutes; homicide detectives have conducted haphazard and careless investigations of serial murders when the victims are, or are perceived to be, sex workers.

Despite limits on “stop-and-frisk” policing in New York City, sex workers, especially young transwomen of color, are still routinely stopped. Though New York has no law against carrying condoms, police use possession of three or more condoms as grounds for arrest on suspicion of intent to engage in prostitution—a practice that goes against all the logics of harm reduction. Police departments in San Francisco, Washington, DC and elsewhere have similar policies.

The myriad federal, state and local laws against prostitution mean that “rights for sex workers” will require more than decriminalizing sex for money or other consideration.

Sex workers are human beings with the right to self-determination. It’s time for policymakers, the courts and law enforcement to recognize they are equally deserving of the civil rights, civil liberties, and above all human rights accorded to the rest of us.

View the comments posted on ACLU blog.

 

Macedonia March December 17, 2012

Remembering Violence Against Sex Workers since 1991

You might see a lot of red umbrellas today. Not because it’s raining or snowing; it may even be bright, sunny and warm where you are. But whatever the weather on this December 17th, people will be carrying red umbrellas to honor and remember the many victims of violence against sex workers.

Jasmine and Dora are two of those who will be remembered. I met Jasmine last year at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. A petite, Swedish blonde woman, it was her first trip abroad as an activist with Rose Alliance, Sweden’s sex worker advocacy organization. The mother of two children, Jasmine’s work in the sex industry was used by her ex-husband to have her declared an unfit parent on the grounds “she lacked insight and didn’t realise sex work was a form of self-harm.” She fought back and after four trials, was finally allowed to see her children again. Outside of court, the father of her children harassed and stalked her while the police did nothing. On July 11 this year, he killed her.

Two days earlier, Dora Őzer, a transwoman and sex worker in Kusadasi, Turkey was killed by a client. She was one of thirty-one transwomen murdered in that country since 2008, the highest among the Council of European nations, but Kemal Ordek, chair of Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association, suspects that far more have been murdered but remain unreported.

Jasmine and Dora are only two of the many victims who will be remembered around the world this Tuesday at events organized by sex worker activists and allies. In some cities, there will be public protests; in others, people will gather in private for fear of harassment even arrest.  At these commemorations, the names of 95 people who died will be read aloud. Some don’t have a name; all we have is a date, a place and an approximate age. “Unknown,” age 22, died in Redford Township, Michigan in November. Three times this year in Baghdad, gunmen attacked local brothels killing at least twenty-one unnamed people. In some cases, we know who killed them: Ivanice “Ivy” Harris, age 29, murdered by a US Marine in Waikiki on May 16th. For all of them we can and will call for justice.

Yet we cannot rest even if their murderers are convicted. Violence against sex workers is systemic. Their deaths and other violent assaults on sex workers are not just hate crimes, but also a sign that consensual sex remains highly stigmatized. Structural racism, gender discrimination, and the criminalization of migration and of poverty create other vicious barriers for sex workers and other marginalized people. We should all be concerned about violence, and seek to confront and expose the complex circumstances that make sex workers — as well as all sex outlaws and gender rebels — vulnerable.

Police officers have been indifferent to violence against sex workers, refusing to take their complaints seriously, or conducting their investigations haphazardly or sloppily. In 1982, the bodies of six women, all known on “The Strip” were found in Seattle. Over the next two decades, there were 64 more bodies.  But it was not until December 17, 2003 that police finally arrested Gary Leon Ridgway, the “Green River Killer,” who eventually admitted to killing 49 sex workers. Ridgway said he preyed on these women “because I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”

A vigil for Ridgway’s victims and for all sex workers killed from hate and stigma was the idea of Annie Sprinkle, a San Francisco performance artist and sex worker. The Sex Workers Outreach Project USA held its first day of remembrance in 2003, building unknowingly on the Valentine’s Day annual marches in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side to protest against the deaths and disappearances of their sisters that began in 1991. In the late 1990s in Washington, D.C. HIPS and the punk collective Positive Force also organized candlelit ceremonies for murdered women who worked the streets.

If you see people gathered under red umbrellas today, stop and join them if you can, everyone is welcome. When that next sudden downpour occurs and you dash into the drugstore for an umbrella, maybe you’ll choose the red one. Remember that only rights can stop the wrongs.