Dr. Melissa Ditmore is one of the sex workers’ rights movement’s most cherished academics. For twelve years, she has worked as a freelance research consultant, with an impressive list of clients that includes AIDS Fonds Netherland, UNAIDS, The Sex Workers’ Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center, and The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). Her work has focused not only on sex workers’ rights, but also those of similarly marginalized groups like migrant workers and drug users. She edited the groundbreaking anthology Sex Work Matters and the history Prostitution and Sex Work, headed seminal research like the Sex Workers’ Project’s “Behind Closed Doors,” and she’s written regular pro-sex workers’ rights pieces for RH Reality Check and The Guardian. The project she’s most known for, though, is the gargantuan effort that produced Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, a two volume labor of love that has already become a movement classic since its publication in 2006.
Jessica Land: How did you come to edit the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work? It’s such an important work for both academics and sex workers’ rights activists, but buying the Encyclopedia isn’t feasible for many people due to price. For this reason, I’m almost giddy every time I find the volumes in a library. Is the Encyclopedia widely available in library settings?
Melissa Ditmore: I am always thrilled to see the Encyclopedia in libraries and in their catalogs! As you say, it’s an expensive book, as are most reference works. Reference books are intended for libraries, so this is how most people will get access to it. It had a second printing, so it sold well, mostly to university libraries and public libraries. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story about a fictional encyclopedia that influences history. What I want for the Encyclopedia is for some of the history to be easily found and remembered, and being in libraries is key to that.
The publisher wanted to do this, and contacted Priscilla Alexander, who co-edited Sex Work, about taking it on. She was interested and asked me to work on it with her. As we worked on the proposal, it became clear that her job was too demanding for her to be able to do both her job and such a large editing project. And it was a large project: Priscilla helped with the initial list of entries, and there are 342 entries by 179 authors. Priscilla remained on the advisory board and was very helpful throughout.
Your vast contributions to sex work research have served the interests of sex workers’ rights activists for twelve years. You’ve been involved with a wide range of organizations, from the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) to PONY (Prostitutes of New York.)What are some of the harder things you have confronted?
PONY once received an inquiry from a female law enforcement officer in the American south, and I followed up. This officer told me that a well-connected officer she worked with was abusing his power to commit extreme violence. She said that he used his badge to force women into his car, and then he would take them far away from the place they met. She believed he had murdered women, and she feared for herself if she brought attention to it, but could not live with staying quiet either. While PONY had helped other people with referrals to attorneys and even introduced them to someone who successfully pressed charges against a serial rapist in NYC, PONY had nothing to offer her in her region, and this guy may have murdered again. She only got to vent, and I hope she found the courage to report her violent co-worker to the feds, as she made it sound like the equivalent of internal affairs there would not be helpful or concerned. That was deeply distressing for both of us.
A number of the projects you’ve worked on were efforts based within the Sex Workers’ Project (SWP) in NYC, a legal project that assists sex workers exclusively. What initially led you to collaborate with the SWP? What roles have you held within the organization?
Juhu Thukral called PONY (Prostitutes of New York) in 2001 to say that she wanted to start a project, and to talk about what would be useful. PONY put me on this, to meet her and find out more, and we have worked together since then. Part of the vision for SWP included advocacy, so I suggested a research component. This lead to my writing a number of reports, documenting that sex workers in NYC said that housing and employment were their greatest needs, and that women forced into sex work were arrested as many as ten times by NYPD before being identified as trafficked. Thukral has moved on but is still very active, and I continue to work with SWP.
When Juhu left, I became the interim director, which was ideal because I knew the details and could undertake the administrative and fundraising work while leading the search for an attorney to direct the project. This was when SWP was growing with the addition of social services, and I was finishing up the raids report about the experiences of people forced into sex work in NYC. Currently, someone who was a staff attorney at that time and a social worker serve as co-directors of SWP, and we have released another report, “The Road North” about people’s experiences before being put in these crazy trafficking situations. Many people and organizations focus on the sex in sex work, but less on the ways poverty and gender roles constrain opportunities and culminate in difficult situations and vulnerability to violence, and the ways involvement in criminalized and stigmatized activities create obstacles when sex workers seek services like healthcare and legal representation.
How have both sex worker-led projects and organizations serving sex workers changed the way they operate over the years?
Now there are a range of organizations created by sex workers that are funded to offer programs and services. Most have small amounts of funding, but this is a great change from organizations setting out to work with sex workers, but not seeking to find out what would be welcomed by sex workers and in some cases refusing to hire people who sell sex, going so far as to fire staff members who sell sex. The policy of firing people who sold sex was particularly galling, because employee wages at one particular organization I am thinking of did not even amount to a living wage. There are a lot of people with history in the business who are now working at big agencies, not only as outreach workers but also as program managers.
Some of these organizations include the Red Umbrella Project and HOOK. HOOK focuses on men in the industry, and offers a series of life skills workshops, including financial education like how to address different kinds of debt, and workshops on body image, for men. RUP offers media training and storytelling workshops in order to help sex workers control their own image and tell their own stories in their own voices, rather than relying on or being frustrated by tired tropes in mainstream media. My favorite recent item pointing out the lack of nuance in portrayals of sex workers comes from The Gloss, a mainstream girl site.
Can you talk a bit about your work with the NSWP? How significant is the organization in international communities of sex workers?
I was associated with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP,) as a representative, a board member, and acting coordinator after the death of co-founder Paulo Longo. At the end, I secured funding for an organizational consultation that lead to the current formal structure of NSWP, with support from Open Society Institute (now Open Society Foundations.) I haven’t been involved with NSWP for a few years, but NSWP still works at the international level to promote the interests of sex workers, primarily in UN documents like the UNAIDS guidance on sex work. That was revised with NSWP input in 2009.
Following up on your experience with NSWP and international sex workers’ rights activism, are there specific international issues you’d like to see sex workers’ rights activists in the US focus on?
People in the US can affect US policy in ways that are very difficult to achieve from outside the country. For this reason, I was really excited to see people’s interest in PEPFAR funding restrictions. This got some international attention because it affects projects outside the US, but not much international activist attention. In part, that makes sense, because people in the US have much greater influence on US policy. And so a few sex worker rights activists from Bangladesh and India and elsewhere have spoken to the House Committee on Foreign Relations about this, and Open Society Foundations filed a lawsuit in 2005 that was heard by the Supreme Court. Dan Allman and I published a paper about the effects of these funding restrictions, and so I was very pleased when SCOTUS overturned this restriction for US-based organizations. It remains to be seen how this will be implemented in the field and what guidance is offered to programs and US personnel managing these contracts overseas.
Other issues that are heating up include campaigning to end police use of condoms as evidence of prostitution, which research has shown deters people, including sex workers, from carrying condoms. There is the ongoing and endless reiteration of various efforts to further criminalize sex work by people who claim to be against trafficking, but these proposals seem less driven by the desire to help trafficked persons and more about punishing men for pursuing sex with sex workers. The raids report from SWP found that clients and colleagues of trafficked persons in sex work were the people most likely to help these trafficked persons. So proposals to add criminal penalties to the very people most likely to help are misguided at best and at worst are a counterproductive attempt to punish people, perhaps driven by desires to curb particular sexual behavior like selling and buying sex more than any desire to help victims of violent crime.
You’ve studied not only sex workers, but people who use drugs, research ethics, and more. How does all that fit together, assuming it fits together at all?
Sometimes, everything fits together. I’m working on a report about the overlap of sex work and drug use that should come out at the end of the year. And there is a lot of overlap, and overlap where people aren’t looking. For example, there is very little about alcohol use at work in nightclubs, where drinking is practically part of the job description! And, working with Korsang, in Cambodia, which offers services to people who use drugs, 40% of the men (and more of the women) we spoke to said that they sell/sold sex. We’re still writing this up, there is so much. But most programs for people who use drugs have more male participants than women participants, and most talk very little about sex, never mind talking about selling sex! So one recommendation is for programs for people who use drugs to collaborate with sex work projects to address the needs of their participants who sell sex, even if they don’t know whether any people who sell sex come to them for services. Just like many sex work projects may not be aware of specific drug use and might benefit from such collaborations, too.
It’s not only sex and drugs that overlap—sex work brings not only specific issues like violence targeted against sex workers, it complicates everyday life, in relationships, in other work, in law enforcement interactions, and health care or housing situations. Studying sex work brought me to all the other things I’ve worked on. But my next project will be different: I want to know more about the effects of sunshine on kittens!