Category Archives: Desiree Alliance

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)

Hook Online Interview: Men in the Movement

Interview with Melinda Chateauvert

@Whorestorian talks social justice, leather and sex industry

SPECIAL EVENT: Melinda Chateauvert Sunday March 9th in NYC at HOOK’s Meet, Greet, and Eat.

HOOK: So much has changed in the gay world in the past 40 years. Is there a connection between gay liberation and sex workers rights?
Melinda Chateauvert: From my perspective, the early gay liberation movement wanted to abolish laws that restricted sexual freedom and let people “do their own thing” as they said in the ‘60s. Folks who did sex work, guys who hustled, their friends and lovers, led the first riots against police harassment and sweeps. But as Marx and others long ago observed, the proletariat starts revolutions, but the bourgeoisie takes them over and advocated for “reform” instead of radical change. Ironically, when the Supreme Court affirmed in 2003 that individual citizens – including gay people – have a right sexual privacy in Lawrence v. Texas, the marriage equality folks seized on it. Since then, it’s hard to imagine, but sex work has become even more criminalized with the passage of anti-trafficking laws.

HOOK: Can you tell us about Sylvia Rivera? Is she a role model?
Melinda: Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major and all the transwomen of color who organized STAR – the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries – understood that protesting wouldn’t accomplish much if it wasn’t tied to concrete demands and action. They modeled themselves on the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. And like those grassroots community organizations, STAR knew “the people,” young street hustlers like themselves, needed food, shelter and safe spaces. So they found an apartment and opened it up to anyone who needed a place to stay, no questions asked. They didn’t ask for money, they didn’t tell kids they had to stop hustling or using drugs; it was perhaps the first “housing first” or “harm reduction” shelter.

HOOK: Your book positions sex workers squarely in the middle of the social justice movement. Could you explain why? Are sex workers rights part of human rights?
Melinda: What I do in this book is to tell the history of the last fifty years of social justice movements from the perspective of sex workers. From that point of view, everything that’s a considered a social justice or human rights issue is an issue that matters to sex workers: the drug war, homelessness, LGBT youth, living wages, health care access, HIV prevention (and treatment!), the school to prison pipeline, violence against transgender people and other queers, police brutality, and so much more. And by looking at five decades of the movement, I show that activists have broadened their demands. Margo St. James, as leader of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) wanted to decriminalize prostitution because it was a victimless “crime” and a sexual privacy issue. By the 1980s, that was no longer enough, because AIDS, the anti-porn movement, and the Reagan’s war on the poor demanded a broader, intersectional analysis. A human rights framework allowed activists to tie sex workers rights with all these other violations of self-determination.

HOOK: Some reviews of your book suggest you give more attention to women sexworkers than to men. Has there been a role for men sexworkers in the movement? Do you see a role for men going forward? DO you think men will get more involved?
Melinda: Of course “women” and “men” is a bit binary, Hawk … but it’s true that there is more about women and transgender women in my book than about men who do sex work. In researching activists in the sex workers’ movement, finding men in the movement usually meant lawyers like William Kunstler or a client like Fred Cherry. There are two reasons, I think, why “men” aren’t visible in the sex workers movement. First, slut-shaming, whorephobia and femme-gender policing are most often directed at women, especially women perceived to be sex workers, and historically, when cops arrested people for prostitution, women were most often charged, and most often did the jail time. Second, when police arrested men who did sex work, they were often charged with solicitation for sodomy (it didn’t matter if it was for money or not), or with vagrancy or loitering which aren’t “prostitution” cases per se, but “homosexual” cases. In addition, from the stories I’ve been told, a lot of “gay rights” and AIDS activists financed their activism through sex work, but sex work was not at the center of their political analysis, in part because it didn’t carry the same stigma for men as it does for women.

HOOK: Do you believe male sex workers in NY suffer legal oppression? If so how?
Melinda: I think that any time the city’s mayors have curbed or shut down public sex venues – theaters, bars, bath houses, sex shops, cruising areas – male, female and trans sex workers have suffered. There have also been specific police initiatives to entrap male sex workers and/or their unsuspecting clients. These campaigns create not only fear for men in the sex industry but also shames men who want sex outside their bedrooms. It’s one of the primary reasons for the growth of online sites like Rentboy and Backpage as well as smartphone apps. But more harmfully, shutting down public sex venues exposes male sex workers to arrest, or forces migration to more obscure, darker corners of the city to evade police scrutiny. And that poses a potential for greater violence against male sex workers.

HOOK: What was your biggest discovery about male sex workers while researching this book?
Melinda: Personally, I love the story about the unnamed “red headed man” who stood up during COYOTE’s first prostitution conference in San Francisco in 1973 and asked/demanded that the movement include him.

HOOK: Where would you like to see male and female sex workers connect? Around what issue do you think possibilities for widening the movement is the strongest?
Melinda: Sometimes it seems to me that ending the stigma and shame that clients feel is our biggest challenge. I think sex workers today, whatever their gender and orientation, who are in the business by choice, have figured out how to deal with the stigma/shame/phobia that we’re supposed to feel. May not be all rainbows and unicorns, but we have communities and support groups and online discussions and other ways to connect with people. Clients don’t generally have that. Sure there’s the hetero-locker room/bachelor party/Wall Street wolf boasting that goes on, but observers would say that’s a masculine performance. Clients who regular hire sex workers don’t garner that same admiration. For the one Chester Brown graphic novel, Paying for It, there are ten “anti-punter” books like The Johns. And with the move toward the “Swedish model” to arrest, fine and imprison clients for trafficking, the climate can only get worse.

HOOK: You’ve worked with the Leather Archives and Museum. Can you share some of what your work there has been?
Melinda: I’ve been on the board of the LA&M more years than I can remember it seems. One of the biggest achievements was organizing a scholars’ weekend retreat to discuss what “leather history” means. There were flogging clubs in London and Paris in the late 18th Century; are they part of leather history? We decided yes, because they were organized for pleasure. But instruments of torture, used to force confessions from suspects or political dissidents or to punish prisoners or the enslaved could not be included. The other achievement may seem less so, but it’s been to constantly remind fellow board members and the staff that for leatherdykes and sex workers, AIDS was not the main issue of the 1980s: the Christian and feminist anti-porn movement, and their repressive efforts to impose “politically correct” sex on everyone had real consequences.

HOOK: Do you think the sense of community in the leather community holds examples for the escort community?
Melinda: As long as “community” doesn’t turn into a bingo word during title contestants’ speeches, yes there are some instructive examples. At Mid-Atlantic Leather in DC earlier this year, Hook’s Meet, Greet & Eat brought together a lot of guys who were working the event – in one way or another. Private gatherings like that provide a kind of safe space that doesn’t expect or demand the posturing that happens out in the hotel lobby. The big leather events and circuit parties can be emotionally stressful, but they began because there was a time when escorts couldn’t be so sexually open in public, and we needed space to create a community. I think Desiree Alliance conferences have become more welcoming, something that happened as a result of several guys stepping up and putting together an ad hoc panel on Men in the Sex Industry at the Chicago Desiree Alliance conference. It changed the dialogue and I’m glad for that.

 

This interview was first published for Hook Online. It appears here, with hyperlinks and minor revisions. Link to the original version: http://hook-online.com/interview-with-whorestorian-melinda-chateauvert/