Category Archives: Violence

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?

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)

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.

IMG_0366.JPG

The Origins of that 12 to 13 Age of Entry into Prostitution Factoid

For years, we have all been dogged by the “factoid” that the “average” age of entry into prostitution for girls is 12 to 13 years of age. As researchers who work with sex workers, and as sex workers, too, we “know” this can’t possibly be right. Anti-prostitution activists love to throw the “fact” into debates, yet when challenged, they too have difficulty citing any reliable source for their statistic.

I finally traced this “fact” to its source. The original academic article, “Victimization of Street Prostitutes,” was published in the journal Victimology in 1982 (7 [1982]: 122-133). The data came from research conducted by Mimi Silbert of the San Francisco Delancey Street Foundation and Ayala Pines of UC Berkeley, who interviewed 200 women and girls in SF, all of whom were Delancey Street clients. The authors note that the number of juveniles arrested for prostitution had “doubled” from 38 to 86 from 1976 to 1977. Still, this was 86 minors among more than 2,300 adult women arrested for prostitution in 1977. (FWIW, I was one of the women arrested that year. The SFPD and was engaged in a major crackdown at the time, especially in Union Square and the Tenderloin areas as developers had begun eying those neighborhoods. There were arrests across the entire /hetero/ sex industry: clubs, parlors, bars, hotels, streets, etc.).

The methodology section of the Delancey Street study states:
“200 juveniles and adults, current and former women prostitutes in the SF Bay Area served as subjects of this study. The mean ages of the subjects was 22. The youngest one was 10, the oldest 46. 70% of the current prostitutes were under 21; about 60% were 16 and under; many were 10, 11, 12, and 13 years old.
“78% of all the women interviewed reported starting prostitution as juveniles. 69% of them were white, 18% were black, 11% were Hispanic, 2% American Indian, 1% Asian, … [insert heteronormative assumptive data on marital/relationship status here]
“Despite the fact that two-thirds of the sample came from families of middle or higher income, the average financial situation of all women interviewed was described a ‘just making it.’ 88% of the current prostitutes and 92% of the juveniles described themselves as either ‘very poor’ or ‘just making it.”

It’s important to understand this data from a historical perspective. In 1977, the drinking age was 18. That meant that “juveniles” could work in strip clubs, serve liquor, and obtain a license from the city to work in a massage parlor or encounter parlor. (There were no educational requirements to receive a massage license at that time). A young person only had to show an ID stating she was 18. (And remember, this was when many states issued a driver’s license on paper, and did not necessarily include a photograph.)

Nowhere in the Delancey Street report is the term “juvenile” defined. There was (and remains) legal and social science obfuscation of this term, especially for females. An 18 year old woman is not necessarily viewed as an “adult.” Even at 21, rampant sexism meant that young, unmarried women were still considered “minors” who, though they could vote, could not sign a lease, get a credit card without a (male) co-signer.

The mean age in the survey group was 22 (n=200). If the researchers defined an “adult” as a woman over 21 years of age, then of course it would appear that “juvenile” prostitution is rampant, even though arrest statistics by the SFPD don’t support this assertion. Pines and Silbert claim that the ready availability of fake IDs meant that there were more juveniles arrested than the numbers suggest, but indoor parlor licenses were issued by SFPD, and were thus “verified” by the police, in those pre-internet times.

A second observation about the report and the academic article, and this is perhaps scarier from a social science perspective, the methodology in this study is the same one used in later studies, perpetuating the same biases. For example, Jody Raphael and Deborah L. Shapiro copied the methodology and even the survey instrument for their report on Chicago’s “prostituted women,” Sisters Speak Out (2002). This study also appeared later in the academic journal, Violence Against Women. (Raphael and Shapiro, “Sisters Speak Out: The Lives and Needs of Prostituted Women in Chicago; a research study,” [Center for Impact Research, Chicago, IL, August 2002]; Raphael and Shapiro, “Violence in Indoor and Outdoor Prostitution Venues,” Violence Against Women 10 (2004): 126-139.) Their work was challenged by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project (YWEP) which investigated “girls, including transgender girls in the sex trade and street economy” because they believed the numbers were skewed and the methodology flawed.

Third, the original report, issued in 1981, was conducted for and funded by Delancey Street mission, where Pines worked. It was conducted to justify the need for more funding from government and private donors. Pines and others would say that they were attempting to identify client “needs.” However, the recent investigations of “tragedy porn” stories circulated by Somaly Mam and other rescue missions should give us pause as the credibility of this research.

But finally, because I’m such a research-footnote-tracing nerd, it’s useful to know that the Pines & Silbert report didn’t actually have a lot of traction on its own. It is not the source most often cited in the 1980s when this “age of entry” entered the discussion. Unfortunately, it first appeared in public circulation in an essay by Priscilla Alexander, the co-director of COYOTE, in Sex Work, (Cleis Press, 1987, and 1998). Alexander was also the co-editor of the anthology with Frederique Delacoste. Indeed, in the first reviews of Sex Work published in the radical feminist newspaper off our backs, both reviewers cited that statistic.

The sad fact is that because the “factoid” appeared in a “pro-sex work” book, the antis seized on it, and began spreading it around. There’s another on our backs article, this one by Melissa Farley, “Prostitution: The Oldest Use and Abuse of Women,” (Vol. 24, No. 5 [May 1994], pp. 14-15, 22) that also uses Sex Work as its reference.

What Rights? From the ACLU National Blog of Rights

I spoke at the ACLU National Office in Washington, DC on Wednesday, March 12. This blog originally appeared on their website on March 5, 2014.

Do sex workers have rights? Put another way, can whores, hustlers, strippers, streetwalkers and porn stars demand respect and justice?

The idea that people who trade sex for money, drugs or survival should enjoy civil rights or liberties deeply divides public opinion. The ACLU position holds that laws against prostitution violate “the right of individual privacy because they impose penal sanctions for the private sexual conduct of consenting adults,” but the suggestion that sex workers themselves possess other basic rights is controversial.

For example, many citizens believe that “public women” (an old term for prostitutes) should not be allowed to work on public streets. Numerous cities have created “prostitution-free zones” that permit the police to target undesirables, forcing them to “move along” through arrest, prosecution, and banishment as a condition of probation; in Phoenix, women arrested for offending “public morals” are sent immediately to a church-operated “prostitution diversion” program and prohibited from speaking to an attorney.

In several states, sex workers convicted of felonies must register on public sex offender lists—making them vulnerable to stalking and harassment. One Virginia assemblyman recently introduced a bill that would allow law enforcement to seize the assets of any person arrested for prostitution.

Stigmas against sex work and sex create this hostile environment. Clients—specifically heterosexual males—have become new targets for public humiliation, with legislatures in several states proposing laws that levy steep fines, even prison terms, for those who choose to pay for sexual services. In practice, these laws actually endanger sex workers more. Clients who fear arrest may refuse to negotiate openly, or react violently when they feel threatened. Sex workers, concerned about self-incrimination, rarely report crimes committed against them.

Public harassment and misconduct by law enforcement are some of the dangerous consequences of client criminalization, prostitution-free zones and other laws against sex work.

Chicago police have arrested transgender women—particularly African American and Hispanic transwomen—for “buying” rather than “selling” sex and charged them with felonies, while simultaneously “proving” that they are arresting both “men” and “women.”

Even more chilling for public safety, US Department of Justice investigations of several police departments revealed patterns of systemic violence against street-based sex workers. Police officers have been convicted on charges that include the kidnapping, rape and sexual exploitation of “suspected” prostitutes; homicide detectives have conducted haphazard and careless investigations of serial murders when the victims are, or are perceived to be, sex workers.

Despite limits on “stop-and-frisk” policing in New York City, sex workers, especially young transwomen of color, are still routinely stopped. Though New York has no law against carrying condoms, police use possession of three or more condoms as grounds for arrest on suspicion of intent to engage in prostitution—a practice that goes against all the logics of harm reduction. Police departments in San Francisco, Washington, DC and elsewhere have similar policies.

The myriad federal, state and local laws against prostitution mean that “rights for sex workers” will require more than decriminalizing sex for money or other consideration.

Sex workers are human beings with the right to self-determination. It’s time for policymakers, the courts and law enforcement to recognize they are equally deserving of the civil rights, civil liberties, and above all human rights accorded to the rest of us.

View the comments posted on ACLU blog.

 

Macedonia March December 17, 2012

Remembering Violence Against Sex Workers since 1991

You might see a lot of red umbrellas today. Not because it’s raining or snowing; it may even be bright, sunny and warm where you are. But whatever the weather on this December 17th, people will be carrying red umbrellas to honor and remember the many victims of violence against sex workers.

Jasmine and Dora are two of those who will be remembered. I met Jasmine last year at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. A petite, Swedish blonde woman, it was her first trip abroad as an activist with Rose Alliance, Sweden’s sex worker advocacy organization. The mother of two children, Jasmine’s work in the sex industry was used by her ex-husband to have her declared an unfit parent on the grounds “she lacked insight and didn’t realise sex work was a form of self-harm.” She fought back and after four trials, was finally allowed to see her children again. Outside of court, the father of her children harassed and stalked her while the police did nothing. On July 11 this year, he killed her.

Two days earlier, Dora Őzer, a transwoman and sex worker in Kusadasi, Turkey was killed by a client. She was one of thirty-one transwomen murdered in that country since 2008, the highest among the Council of European nations, but Kemal Ordek, chair of Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association, suspects that far more have been murdered but remain unreported.

Jasmine and Dora are only two of the many victims who will be remembered around the world this Tuesday at events organized by sex worker activists and allies. In some cities, there will be public protests; in others, people will gather in private for fear of harassment even arrest.  At these commemorations, the names of 95 people who died will be read aloud. Some don’t have a name; all we have is a date, a place and an approximate age. “Unknown,” age 22, died in Redford Township, Michigan in November. Three times this year in Baghdad, gunmen attacked local brothels killing at least twenty-one unnamed people. In some cases, we know who killed them: Ivanice “Ivy” Harris, age 29, murdered by a US Marine in Waikiki on May 16th. For all of them we can and will call for justice.

Yet we cannot rest even if their murderers are convicted. Violence against sex workers is systemic. Their deaths and other violent assaults on sex workers are not just hate crimes, but also a sign that consensual sex remains highly stigmatized. Structural racism, gender discrimination, and the criminalization of migration and of poverty create other vicious barriers for sex workers and other marginalized people. We should all be concerned about violence, and seek to confront and expose the complex circumstances that make sex workers — as well as all sex outlaws and gender rebels — vulnerable.

Police officers have been indifferent to violence against sex workers, refusing to take their complaints seriously, or conducting their investigations haphazardly or sloppily. In 1982, the bodies of six women, all known on “The Strip” were found in Seattle. Over the next two decades, there were 64 more bodies.  But it was not until December 17, 2003 that police finally arrested Gary Leon Ridgway, the “Green River Killer,” who eventually admitted to killing 49 sex workers. Ridgway said he preyed on these women “because I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”

A vigil for Ridgway’s victims and for all sex workers killed from hate and stigma was the idea of Annie Sprinkle, a San Francisco performance artist and sex worker. The Sex Workers Outreach Project USA held its first day of remembrance in 2003, building unknowingly on the Valentine’s Day annual marches in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side to protest against the deaths and disappearances of their sisters that began in 1991. In the late 1990s in Washington, D.C. HIPS and the punk collective Positive Force also organized candlelit ceremonies for murdered women who worked the streets.

If you see people gathered under red umbrellas today, stop and join them if you can, everyone is welcome. When that next sudden downpour occurs and you dash into the drugstore for an umbrella, maybe you’ll choose the red one. Remember that only rights can stop the wrongs.