Category Archives: Feminism

That Roving Band of Gypsy Whores…that Wasn’t

Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro

Hysteria Alert! We’re heading into another international sporting event, so the predictable, hysterical, and utterly fantastical stories about international sex trafficking are on the rise. We heard this claptrap about “sex tourism” two years ago when Brazil hosted the World Cup, when some NGOs claimed “40,000” women and girls would be involved. Time Magazine’s numbers were moderate compared to the exaggerations made by others. They claimed 250,000 children would be working the streets during the tournament—or one in every sixty-eight adolescent girls in the country.

Sex work is not illegal in Brazil, but citing the possibility of “child sex trafficking” before the Cup, police raided legal brothels, shutting them down and putting hundreds of adult women out of safe places to work while also undermining their own children’s economic well-being. Yet by the time Germany won in July 2014, there had been “no reports of sexual exploitation during World Cup that had to do with World Cup” according to the Conselho Titutlar for the city’s South Zone, “the organization that basically deals with all the accusations of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children.” Nor did the state Prosecutors Office pursue any cases of child sexual exploitation.

Brazil’s current economic and political crises have severely disrupted the lives of millions of workers, and brief weeks of the Olympics will not provide respite. Last week, I spoke with Thaddeus Blanchette, an anthropologist at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro/Macaé whose team has spent thousands of hours interviewing people in Rio’s sex trades since 2004. This year, there’s been “a perfect storm in sex work.” During the boom in Rio, women left the brothels to work in other industries, but since the 2008 crisis, they have returned to sex work. Everyone is complaining about the money. Blanchette interviewed a “high school teacher who just got laid off because of the economic crisis and another white secretary with half her university degree completed.” Both women were making three to four times as much as they had in previous their straight jobs, but that’s only “half of what they made before.” There are twice as many sex workers, and perhaps half as many clients. “Profitability is the lowest I’ve ever seen,” said Blanchette.

Rio’s downtown development in preparation for the Olympics has greatly shifted the population, so that the businessmen who used to patronize the upper-end clubs don’t stay after work. Instead, the “fast fadas”—a Brazilian word play on “fast food”—are doing better, largely because of the construction crews that have been working almost all day and all night. It’s also led to the displacement of sex workers—the real source of sex worker migration and those “roving” bands—who have moved into the Copacabana beach area, the heart of the tourist district. That’s where Centaurus (of Justin Bieber fame) is located. Yet since 2009, the city has tried to shut down the sex clubs and brothels with little success.

Still, the myths about roving bands of gypsy whores and trafficked girls during sporting events continue making the rounds, despite the best efforts of Brazilian activists and journalists elsewhere to challenge these fallacies. Catholic charities are telling tourists to report incidents of child sexual exploitation. (But please, folks, report only what you see in Rio, not in your own parish.) A sensationalist story in Rio de Janeiro’s O Globo newspaper about the police rescue/arrest of “child” prostitutes from a beach area in July was rewritten by Fox News and other rags to warn U.S. tourists. But the real story, as Dr. Blanchette explained, was more about impressing the media than child prostitution. Police arrested eight people, all of them black. Five were adult women and three were teenagers between the ages of fifteen and sixteen. No pimps or clients were arrested; in fact, there was no evidence that any of the minors was doing anything more than hanging out on a street corner in the evening with women a few years older than them in a faraway working class neighborhood where “gringo” tourists are highly unlikely. It’s also worth noting that the police official who spoke about the arrests, Cristiana Bento, is Rio’s own “S.U.V.” sex crimes investigator. Notably, Bento was already under fire after taking over a poorly handled police investigation of the brutal gang rape of a sixteen-year-old girl in May that roiled Brazil’s social media networks.

The Time Magazine and O Globo reports were cover-ups that distracted the public from the arrests in June this year of elite businessmen, politicians, and police officials who knowingly recruited and sexually exploited girls as young as twelve and thirteen years old for a high class “gentleman’s club” operated by the military police. The convictions of politically-connected men were extraordinary, but the media didn’t report it. Tracking both of these stories globally, Dr. Blanchette said, “The one bona fide case of child sex trafficking no one is talking about, but this case of young black women in a far, far suburb, becomes the story.”

In fact, as scholar Sonja Dolinsek writes, children in Rio faced greater risk of exploitation from the overlooked side effects of this hysteria. An “essential aspect…is the forced displacement of people and families from their homes in the context of the so-called ‘pacification’ of the favelas or slums. ‘Pacification’ is a police strategy carried out by military-style…to reduce crime, improve the public image of Rio de Janeiro and to secure the areas close to event sites.”

In sum, during the Cup as well as the Olympics, hysteria about sex trafficking was used to support aggressive, paramilitary policing of poor people of color, facilitating land grabs by developers who profited from forcing families out of their homes and sex workers out of their legal places of work. Where’s the outrage?

Introducing the Front Porch Research Strategy

We’ve been keeping it quiet, but it’s time:

We believe

We believe

Announcing our new project, Front Porch Research Strategy this weekend, April 30, 2016 at the Anna Julia Cooper Center for the ‪#‎KnowHerTruths‬ Conference.

‪Our ‎Front Porch Research Strategy‬ begins at the intersection of service, activism, and research. Our work unfolds at the intersection of race, gender and sexuality in the Deep South. Our approach honors the political actions of African American women that began in their collective resistance to capture, trafficking and enslavement. We use an integrated, multidisciplinary research approach that centers on collaboration to unveil indigenous analyses, organize data, and inspire new processes and theories of change.

We call this “Front Porch Strategy” in honor of the long legacy of southern women building community, speaking truths, and crafting analysis in the interstices between street and home, between public and private. I’m honored to begin this adventure with Laura McTighe, Shaquita Borden, Deon Haywood, Mary Frances Berry, and the wonderful activists of Women With A Vision in New Orleans.

For me, it’s kind of a magical homecoming announce to announce this project at a place honoring the legacy of Anna Julia Cooper. Long ago as an undergrad, I began my intersectional work reading A Voice From the South, by a Black Woman from the South, AJC’s 1892 collection of essays. Few had heard of it then, but I found a first edition tucked away in the Smith College library and was hooked. (If you don’t know why, read this.)

Later as a master’s student in Washington, DC, I was fortunate to discover AJC’s “Third Step.” In the late 1920s as a retired DC public school teacher, *Doctor* Cooper, having earned her doctorate from the Sorbonne for her dissertation on slavery and the Haitian Revolution, became the president of Freylinghusen University, a night school founded to educate African Americans shut out of the elite Howard University. My first peer-reviewed article documented the Dr Cooper’s struggles with the DC Board of Education to keep this school open. And that article was published in 1984 in Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, now sadly defunct.

Anna Julia Cooper’s house in Washington, DC has the most magnificent front porch, a wrap-around masterpiece that one can easily imagine the Doctor sitting in, talking about revolutions then and now.

My Mother Kind of Freaked

My mother kind of freaked out when I told her about the book proposal for Sex Workers Unite! I never thought of her as a prude. When I was growing up, she rarely seemed embarrassed about sexuality matters, and her several non-traditional but heteronormative relationships definitely influenced my critique of the whole white picket fence family idea. But for her daughter to write about prostitutes’ rights threw her for a loop.

There are huge stigmas against sex work. For my mother, who came of age after World War II when the sexual double standard was as popular as drive-ins and girdles, embracing the women’s movement and sexual liberation of the 1960s was a radical rejection of her parents’ protestant conservatism. As a feminist, she rejects the idea that a woman’s sexual history is evidence of her worth or her integrity.

But sex work and the sex industry are another matter. For her, women “shouldn’t have to” be prostitutes; women should have education and employment opportunities and enjoy wage equality and childcare. My mother is also a successful businesswoman, a pioneer in a field that had very few women when she entered it in the early 1970s, rife with sexism, harassment and even sexual violence. She’s a feminist because the movement was supposed to liberate women through economic independence so they didn’t have to exchange sex for money or other support.

I don’t know any sex worker, male or female, who doesn’t support ending the wage gap between women and men, or better, a living wage for all workers. The sex workers’ movement has always spoken out again sexism, sexual harassment and sexual violence too. Sex workers with children understand acutely the burdens of organizing their care and the costs of raising children; indeed, they do sex work because they earn more and have flexible hours to care for their kids. My mother and Margo St. James, the founder of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, the first feminist prostitutes’ rights organization) were born only a few years apart; I think they would agree about a lot of things.

For all that Margo and COYOTE accomplished, sex worker activists today have other views about the movement’s direction. Their perspectives have been shaped not by the “bra burners” of the 1960s but by HIV/AIDS, immigration, the prison-industrial complex, gentrification and even the revival of burlesque. Sex workers have fought the war on drugs, educated clients and the adult public about sex and HIV prevention, and are challenging the anti-immigrant sex panicked rhetoric about human trafficking, and demanding #BlackLivesMatter and #TransLivesMatter. These are matters literally of life or death, of freedom or imprisonment, of empowerment or impotence.

Burlesque, Beyonce, and sex-positive feminism have helped to overcome some of the stigma against sex and sex work. Cultural attitudes towards the sex industry and alternative sexual expression have shifted, emphatically so in some areas of the U.S. Burlesque and boylesque performers, professional and amateur, enjoy titillating their audiences, celebrating the public display of the human body, while Beyonce declares herself “FEMINIST” in cut-to-there spangled high-cut briefs. Feminism is sexy.

The sex workers movement recognizes that no one “should have to” engage in prostitution because they have no other choice. That’s why activists are involved in efforts to change immigration laws, to provide safe, nonjudgmental health services to drug users and others at risk for HIV or impregnation. It’s why sex workers volunteer in shelters for battered women and for homeless lgbtq kids. It’s why they’re out protesting with Occupy and in Ferguson. But however narrow or wide the choices are for those who engage in sex work, stigmatization is violence.
Stigma remains and stigma kills. Slut-shaming, what my mother and Margo called the double-standard, can be found everywhere, online, in real time, in Tickfaw, Louisiana as well as San Francisco. Girls and queers are bullied by their classmates when perceived as sexual or otherwise transgressive. SlutWalk participants rightly denounced law enforcement procedures that question the “virtue” and integrity of female sexual assault victims. Transwomen of color are being murdered every week, but the media mis-genders them, suggests they had it coming because there bodies were found in areas “well-known for prostitution.”

Sex Workers Unite! is about sex workers who became political organizers and cultural activists to fight against stigma. “Brazen hussies,” “crack ‘hos,” “American gigolos” and “screaming queens” dare to believe that they deserve respect and human rights. These are stories about their many campaigns for justice.