The author testifying against C-36. (Photo courtesy of Naomi Sayers.)

The author testifying against C-36. (Photo courtesy of Naomi Sayers.)

When I woke up in Ottawa back in July 2014 after flying in from out west, there was a huge knot in my stomach. I did not want to go to the morning hearings about C-36, the anti-prostitution bill proposed in response to the Bedford decision that had invalidated three sections of Canada’s prostitution laws. But I mustered up the energy to attend and listen to what Justice Minister Peter MacKay had to say.

The room was packed and there were people standing all the way to the back. I came in a bit late. As I listened to the Justice Minister say that the bill would protect the exploited, it became clear he knew very little about how criminalization affects the most marginalized populations.

By the time the afternoon sessions started, the tension in the room was heavy. As I sat up there next to my peer nearing the end of our session, I wondered if my friends were able to make it inside. Throughout the entire session one Conservative MP kept asking me questions like whether Indigenous women have a free choice to enter into prostitution, whether I encountered any Indigenous women who were exploited, and whether the New Zealand model reduced the number of street-based sex workers in NZ. I reminded the MP that the New Zealand model’s goal was not to eliminate street-based prostitution but to provide protection and safety to street-based prostitutes.

Then, just as I started to feel alone and frustrated as the only Indigenous woman who supported decriminalization on the panel that day, I turned around and noticed my friends. They made it in! When I looked at them sitting behind me along the side of the room, they waved and smiled. I remember one giving me the thumbs up. I did not feel alone anymore—I had an army of fierce Indigenous women and allies supporting me, sitting right behind me.

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Samuel Pepys (photo by Glyn Thomas)

Brooke Magnanti’s “deranged Samuel Pepys” of an ex-boyfriend actually kept his own diary where he talked about her sex work: so much for his claims that she made it all up, inspired by dead sex workers she saw in the morgue.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown explains why the lay-feminist should also be glad that the Senate trafficking bill is currently dead.  Why do we need another bill for things that are already illegal? Brown points out that

Federal law already prohibits a wide range of conduct related to human trafficking, slavery, and child sexual exploitation. It’s against the law to “recruit” or “entice” anyone for forced sex or labor, or any person under 18 years old for commercial sexual activity. “Harboring,” “transporting,” or in any way “obtaining” them is also illegal. So is “providing” or “benefiting from” them. Additionally, all 50 states have laws specifically criminalizing human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of minors.

Jon Stewart should maybe read more of Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s work.

And more on the stalled bill.

Monica Jones spoke at the UN in Geneva about the need for increased action to protect the human rights of sex workers.

The South Carolina Supreme Court awarded workers’ comp to a dancer who was shot on stage and had previously had her claim denied by a lower court.

Carol Leigh writes about the damage that anti-trafficking campaigns do to sex workers for Open Democracy.

San Diego non-profits Via International and Women’s Empowerment International are teaming up to offer micro-loans to Tijuana sex workers.

The LGBT community in Indonesia, already doubly marginalized through homophobia and the stigma of sex work many in the community engage in to survive, now has to deal with an unofficial fatwa.

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Meg Munoz. (Courtesy of Meg Munoz)

Meg Munoz. (Courtesy of Meg Munoz)

Meg Munoz became an escort at age 18, and had a relatively good experience working. She then took a break from the business for two years.  Some time after her return to the work in order to pay for college, a close friend turned on her, blackmailing her and forcing her to turn over all her earnings to him for the next three years.  Her experience led  Munoz to found Abeni, an Orange County-based rescue industry organization. But Abeni’s participation in nuanceless anti-trafficking rhetoric bothered her, and after some re-examination, Munoz repurposed Abeni to be a safe space for both sex workers and trafficking survivors.  Nowadays, Munoz uses her unique experience as both a voluntary worker and a survivor of exploitation to attempt to create understanding between the sex workers’ rights and anti-trafficking movements.

Prominent activists with history as trafficking victims, such as you and Jill Brenneman, have come out on the side of decriminalization of sex work. You turned Abeni, your organization, from a rescue industry vehicle to a safe haven that serves both trafficking survivors and sex workers—plus the people who fall in between those two identities—and promotes their agency. Ruth Jacobs, a woman with deeply negative sex work experience, also recently made an about face from being a sex work abolitionist to joining the sex workers’ rights movement. How do you interpret this phenomenon?

Jill’s story wrecked me in some of the worst and best ways. She’s one of those people that you want to make everyone sit down and listen to. Her story is a powerful reminder of just how complex this can be, but how necessary the more critical conversations are in regards to hearing different voices and current legislative trends. But most of all, my hope is that [her story and those like it] would allow people to humanize sex workers and survivors in ways that extend beyond the victim narrative. Ruth Jacobs does this very well. I [see] Jill and Ruth’s perspectives as that of women with deep, intimate, experiential knowledge (both negative and positive) of the industry. They seem to genuinely understand how approaching sex work and exploitation with risk reduction concepts and better policy can boost agency and save lives. I don’t think any of us want to further entrench ourselves in more policies and laws that isolate, stigmatize, and criminalize already marginalized people.

What made you personally change your mind about Abeni being an anti-trafficking organization, motivating you to make it into “a reality based social services organization for sex workers and trafficked people”?

From a practical standpoint, Abeni was founded on developing the kind of support I wish I’d had when I was in the industry. But, from a philosophical standpoint, we had a lot of maturing to do. Back in 2009, we were the only Orange County-based organization of its kind. I was coming out of, but still being influenced by the Christian culture I’d been a part of for the last 10+ years.

We’re starting to see a slow cultural shift, but what I was hearing in regards to those in the industry usually sounded like this:

  • Girl (or usually a girl) experiences abuse, trauma, or loss.
  • She’s addicted or broken, so she enters [the] industry and experiences more of the same.
  • She meets Jesus, repents, gets rescued/leaves the industry, and then some modified version of ‘happily ever after’ follows.

The inherent danger in that is when the Christian community become consumers of these stories and insist on acknowledging and promoting only a singular type of industry experience. That’s dishonest and damaging. I just didn’t feel like that narrative reflected my story or the complexity of so many other stories I’d heard. There are hundreds of reasons people enter the industry and those were missing from the conversation. Also significant to me was the fact that it didn’t reflect my spiritual narrative, which has been a significant part of my journey.

In order for Abeni to evolve, I was going to have to evolve. I was processing trauma as well as my non-trauma experiences, so it took some time for me sort through that. I left escorting following years of intense abuse and exploitation, so that was fresh on my mind and it definitely influenced how we saw the industry. We were always supportive but ultimately had an agenda that was “exit-hopeful.” As long as we were serving “repentant” women who’d internalized their stigma, hated sex work, and felt shame about working in the industry, we served a purpose. We didn’t realize we were part of the rescue industry and, ultimately, part of the problem. We were the ones to call if you had a dire need for lip gloss or cookies. But after about a year, I began to instinctively understand that we lacked relevance and substance. I started to feel an incredible amount of conflict in regards to how we were growing and our direction. I could write a book on that alone.

Good intentions weren’t enough and I realized that if we continued down the road we were on, we could hurt or further stigmatize people. That is the thought that broke me. I knew we had to change or shut down, so we did the unthinkable: We literally stopped in our tracks and decided to undergo an organizational soul-searching. We took the next two years and continued to work with those who were already with us, but did little else but learn from and listen to the sex work community, and analyze intersecting issues like human rights, sex work, feminism, race, gender, socio-economics, labor exploitation, policy, etc.

We didn’t know of any other organization[s] that had undergone such radical shifts, so we had no idea how to navigate that. We understood how we’d been viewed by those in the industry as well as those in the anti-trafficking community, so we weren’t sure how we were going to explain our growth and change. We had real concerns about how we would be viewed and received. One of the people I really respect and listen to is Donia Christine because she was honest as fuck with me. When I met her at CCON West back on 2013, she was skeptical and didn’t hold back, letting me know exactly what she thought and what her concerns were. I value that moment so much because it showed me how much work we still had to do. And we don’t mind doing it because the sex worker community isn’t just this group of people we serve, it’s MY community. Sex work wasn’t just a pit-stop for me, it’s part of who I am and part of my identity. I love Abeni’s story because it’s my story, too.

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IWW

Together we can be the ones doing the shakedown. (photo courtesy of Tobias Higbie, from Industrial Pioneer, Februrary 1924)

I’m currently in the beginning stages of suing local Portland strip club Casa Diablo. So of course when last fall the Oregon chapter of the National Association of Social Workers hired lobbyists from lobbying firm Pac/West to find out what protections strippers need and to craft a bill that offers these protections, I was very interested. But by the second meeting it was clear that as far as knowing strippers’ rights was concerned, both groups were starting from a blank slate.

To clear the matter up, I talked via e-mail to Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, a lawyer from the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, an Oregon organization that represents workers in wage claims, does education and outreach about wage theft, and works on other ways to promote human and labor rights. This fall, Spencer-Scheurich represented a dancer in a lawsuit against Portland club Rose City Strip, which won in arbitration. She’s also done two presentations on the legal rights of strippers for SWOP-PDX.

Red: In most of the country, strippers are working thinking they’re independent contractors.  But are they really?  We’re winning these lawsuits for employee status across the country—Rick’s, Sapphire, Spearmint Rhino, Rose City—what are the indicators of independent contractors status?

Corinna Spencer-Scheurich: Those are a lot of big questions so let me see if I can break it down.  Many workers (including dancers) are treated as independent contractors, when they are actually employees. This happens in a lot of industries.

Red: Like FedEx drivers it turns out! And Uber drivers.

Spencer-Scheurich:  Exactly.  So this is a big problem overall.  It is especially rampant in the exotic dancing industry. Clearly, there are independent contractors who are dancers. The clear cases are where people are headliners or traveling acts, etc. Where they are their own business entity separate from the club. But, there are many more dancers who are employees. And those are the cases that you are seeing dancers bring across the country.

Red:  So to really be an independent contractors would you have to be registered or licensed as your own business?

Spencer-Scheurich: That would be one hallmark of an independent contractor. Another might be that the dancers could actually negotiate their contracts (instead of everyone [being] subject to the same rules).

Red:  So being able to change prices for dances, or [deciding] when they show up to work and leave?

Spencer-Scheurich: Right, the less control the club has over the dancer, the less likely the dancer is going to be an employee. So, you are more likely to be an employee if you are subject to fines, can’t set your own schedule, have to dress a certain way, can’t control how you are paid, etc. No particular factor determines whether you are an employee or [an] independent contractor. Courts just look at the whole picture. One big piece of the whole picture is whether the dancing is an integral part of the club’s business. As we know, strip clubs need strippers.

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(Via HIPS' Facebook page)

(Via HIPS’ Facebook page, courtesy of HIPS)

HIPS is seeking donations for their new stationary space! HIPS’ mobile outreach program, now over 20 years old, is expanding into a brick-and-mortar location which will offer medical, mental health, and drug treatment services as well as their usual harm reduction, advocacy, and community services.

A new take on a tired trend: in this new “John school,” unfortunate clients read poetry and look at art by sex workers as part of a process of viewing them as victims exploited human beings.

The latest entry in the growing file of Strippers’ Court Cases finds that yes, pregnant strippers can be sexy and thus pregnancy is not viable grounds for termination. Heya! Read the opinion here.

Sex worker activists and advocates from SWOP, Desiree Alliance, and Best Practices Policy Project are in Switzerland at the UN Human Rights Council, to present a report on the US’s failure to protect sex workers’ human rights.

In the least nuanced or ethical argument for End Demand yet, someone at the Zimbabwe National Aids Council suggested End Demand as a way to curb the spread of HIV.  Rich men spread HIV, apparently, and

The best way is to stop these men from paying for sex first. From there on we will work with the sex workers by empowering them through various initiatives that stop them from visiting beer outlets.

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