Category Archives: Immigrants

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.

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.