Category Archives: HIV/AIDS

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)

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.

#NotYourRescueProject

Twitter hashtag #NotYourRescueProject began as a small convo on January 2nd to challenge anti-trafficking activists who see all sex workers as victims in need of moral rescue to the exclusion of all other forms of labor trafficking. For the next ten days, sex workers tweeted their own truths and drowned out prohibitionist myths and lies. A Thunderclap of tweets landed on January 11th “Human Trafficking Awareness Day” demanding that anti-trafficking activists focus on freedom for “the millions of people who are trafficked each year, the children sold into debt bondage, the agricultural labourers who are raped and exploited, the fisherman trapped into working.”

Beacon Broadside posted a fact sheet, drawn from Sex Workers Unite,  to counter anti-prostitution rhetoric on January 4. It is excerpted below.

In 1990, health researchers estimated that one in one hundred US women has done some form of sex work during her lifetime. And yet, despite sex work being legal in fifty nations including Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Macau, the Netherlands, Austria, New Zealand, Israel, France, Germany, and England, the United States continues to be one of the few industrialized nations to criminalize prostitution. More than that, the US has actively worked to keep sex workers marginalized, and these discriminatory practices have placed them in harm’s way.

The dangers, unfortunately, are quite real. As gentrification pushed people in the sex trades and street economy out of city centers, zoning laws and “move along” ordinances have forced sex workers into isolated areas where they—and other marginalized people—are more susceptible to abuse by police and violent criminals. In the last four decades alone, more than 3,000 women who were or were perceived to be sex workers were killed by serial murderers. Criminologist Kenna Quinet identified 502 male serial murderers active in the United States between 1970 and 2009; she also identified 3,228 of their female victims. Nearly one-third (32 percent) had been engaged in sex work or street-based trades.

There are, however, signs that conditions might be improving… due to the sex workers themselves.

The first and most recognized sex workers’ advocacy group, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), was formed in May 1973 in San Francisco. COYOTE won several public policy victories in the 1970s to protect women and transgender people arrested on prostitution charges, such as the abolition of mandatory venereal disease tests, mandatory penicillin therapy, and multiday jail quarantines.

Now the fight has moved online, with sex workers around the world rallying around Twitter hashtags like #SexWorkIsWork and #NotYourRescueProject that advocate their struggle for legitimacy and safety while casting off the identity of victimhood that continues to plague them. ….

More facts about the struggle for sex workers’ rights:

  • As of 2010, half of all sex workers in the United States were employed, in one way or another, in the commercial sex industry, including: escorts, brothel workers, professional dominants, telephone sex operators, strippers, exotic dancers, sensual massage workers, webcam entertainers, porn models, adult film performers, and specialists of all types, genders, colors, shapes, sexualities, and fetishes.
  • In 1949, the United States voted against a United Nations convention calling for the decriminalization of prostitution when 48% of the UN endorsed it.
  • In 1967, in an effort to crack down on the drug market in Times Square and to force commercial sex businesses to tone down their advertising and merchandising practices, Governor Nelson Rockefeller issued that the maximum penalty for prostitution in New York State was fifteen days in jail for a two-year period. After loud protests from police and voters, prostitution became a Class B misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of ninety-one days.
  • In thirty-four states, prostitution is a felony if the sex worker is HIV-positive, regardless of the type of service performed or whether transmission to the client occurred.
  • The 1986 “Prostitute Study” was the first federally funded effort to focus specifically on AIDS among women.
  • Nevada was one of the first states to criminalize illegal sex workers with AIDS, and in March 1986, it was also the first state to adopt mandatory AIDS tests for brothel workers.
  • In 2005, President Lula da Silva rejected $40 million from the United States to fight AIDS because it came with the stipulation that Brazil’s government take a pledge against prostitution.
  • In 1999, the St. James Infirmary in San Francisco became the first occupational health clinic for sex workers.
  • In 2011, two billboard companies refused to accept public awareness ads for the St. James Infirmary created by Rachel Schreiber because by including the term “sex worker” St. James had failed to meet “community standards.”

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.