Category Archives: Gay liberation movement

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.

Profile: Sex Work Activist Hawk Kinkaid

This essay first appeared on Biographilehawk, a blog of Random House, January 24, 2014

Hawk Kinkaid is part of a new generation of activists in the sex workers movement: he’s a web-geek who networks online and face-to-face with guys who have sex for money, providing tips for improving health and safety and sharing “stories with other men as a way of learning and teaching about life in the sex industry, its foibles and fantastic.” Around 1998, Hawk and his friends retooled HOOK, a popular ‘zine, into the first online non-profit publication and educational organization for men in the sex industry. Operated on a shoestring budget with some corporate support and individual donations, HOOK gets several thousand hits a month from men actively working in the industry, and has a thousand subscribers.

Oh, did I mention he’s a man? Sex workers, people who earn money by exchanging sexual services or erotic entertainment for money or other goods, are usually represented as female. But hustlers, escorts and other males who have sex with men have been around just as long as prostitutes, strippers and other sex workers. COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), the first formal organization for sex workers’ rights, was founded as a feminist group for women’s liberation, but not without criticism. “What about the rights of male prostitutes?” a “thin, red-haired young man” demanded during COYOTE’s first convention in 1974.

Hawk’s activism is inspired by the men who came before him, and is evidence that their efforts to bring “men’s voices into the larger dialogue” and recognize sex work as more than a “women’s issue.” Affirming the human and labor rights of all adults, women, men, and trans* to engage in safe, consensual sex work is this generation’s point of unity. Men aren’t engaged in the movement Hawk says, because many see their jobs as temporary rather than as “real” work, and as a result aren’t interested in better working conditions. “Once, I stood face-to-crotch with a go-go boy explaining to me that he is actually not a dancer, but a choreographer en route to the big riches.”

Men in the industry keep writing to Hook, “asking for information and praising its benefit for helping them work smarter.” Through online advice and classes, programs provide information about drug and alcohol addiction, disease prevention, mental health care, access to medical care, retirement savings, financial planning, and disclosure about one’s work to support systems. For male “careerists” in the sex industry, the challenge of staying strong and persisting with pride might be another way of protesting against injustice.

“For an industry in which unfathomable numbers of gay, bi, and straight men have participated,” Hawk says, there are very few male activists. Decades ago, the mainstream gay rights movement abandoned its demand to decriminalize prostitution, even though men and transwomen remain police targets for solicitation and loitering charges. The invisibility of men at sex worker demonstrations and community social events makes organizing more challenging.

To move forward, Hawk says, “we need to translate these practical conversations” about health and safety into movement participation, “to energize a generation of men who are bold enough to speak publicly about their work” and aware that social justice requires shared successes. “I don’t have the answer for how this is done, and I am proud Hook is among the many programs testing out ideas… When we all collaborate on that solution, I feel confident that we’ll no longer wonder where the men are, because we’ll be there on the front lines.”

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/