Caty Simon

I'm a small town escort and activist, with purely *academic* interest in drugs and madness (because identity politics are so passe). I've been escorting low-end on and off for thirteen years, and haven't gotten sex worker burnout quite yet. I'm a co-editor here at Tits and Sass, and you can also find my writing at HTMLGiant, the emilybooks tumblr, the Red Umbrella Project's literary magazine Prose and Lore volume 4, in an upcoming issue of make/shift magazine, and in the soon to be published anthology, Eros & Thanatos. Recently, I've written a series of pieces on drug-using sex workers for the Influence, a new drug journalism site, and those pieces have been reposted in Vice, Alternet, Raw Story, and refinery29, among other sites. I also have experience in the mad movement, the harm reduction movement, and the low-income rights movement.


WTF, Backpage?

by Caty Simon on January 13, 2017 · 9 comments

in News, Politics

A screenshot of Backpage’s New York City escorting page as of 1/12/2017.

We all knew it was coming. With California Attorney General Kamala Harris filing a second set of multiple charges of pimping and money laundering last month against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, and with Ferrer and his shareholders’ Senate hearing coming up last Tuesday before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, plus the trafficking hysteria-fueled media scrutiny Backpage had been under over the past couple of years—well, let’s just say that few of us were buying Backpage credits in bulk anymore. But most of us expected that the government would find some way to stop Backpage’s adult ads operation, however legally unlikely that might seem after years of efforts to do just that by law enforcement zealots. (After all, the California State Superior Court spanked Harris pretty hard verbally in last month’s decision on her first set of Backpage charges, reminding her that the Communications Decency Act specified that third party sites were not liable for their posters’ illegal content. And on Monday, the Supreme Court stated it would not hear an appeal on that case.)

But what actually ended up happening is that on Monday night, a few hours after the publication of a Senate report accusing Backpage of editing ads to minimize evidence of trafficking, Backpage execs decided to shutter their U.S. adult ads themselves as a free speech protest. Where the ads had once been, the site announces that they are “censored” by the government in a loud red font. Visitors are encouraged to speak out in support of the martyred site by using the hashtags #FREE SPEECH #BACKPAGE on social media.

That night, us sex workers collectively panicked, wondering how we would survive this month with no well-established national advertising site to garner low-end to middle-end escorting clients.

As usual, when powerful institutions decide to use the sex work debate for symbolic ammunition, it’s sex workers who suffer horrific real life consequences. Here, two competing neo-liberal agendas are clashing, indifferent to the material plight of the sex workers caught between them.

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tolivefreelyA version of this review originally appeared in issue 19 of make/shift magazine

In March 2016, South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa made a historic announcement of a nationwide scheme to prevent and treat HIV among sex workers, proclaiming, “we cannot deny the humanity and inalienable rights of people who engage in sex work.” Though Ramaphosa remained mum on the topic of decriminalization, the rousing endorsement this statement represents can’t be underemphasized. It’s impossible to imagine a U.S. politician of any importance saying something similar. The credit for this sea change in attitude goes to South African sex workers’ rights organization SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce) and sex worker peer organization Sisonke. In her book, To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism In Africa, Fordham University law professor Chi Adanno Mgbako covers SWEAT and parallel organizations in seven countries.

Mgbako deftly and concisely goes over sex workers’ rights 101 material. The epilogue’s history of global organizing comprehensively places the African movement in its broader context, from the 1970s—Margo St. James’ COYOTE and the French Collective of Prostitutes—to the 2012 Kolkata Sex Worker Freedom Festival. Mgbako explains the importance of not reducing sex work to “a single story” of victimization, the necessity of respecting human agency, and the need to understand sex workers’ rights activism as a labor movement. She traces the connection between violence and criminalization as represented by police abuse and client violence and the structural violence of social stigma, labor exploitation, and healthcare discrimination.

To Live Freely also transcends respectability politics and actively includes the sex workers often left out of our histories. One of the book’s seven chapters is dedicated to the multiple stigmas navigated by queer, migrant, trans, and HIV-positive sex workers. Mgbako makes sure to discuss sex-working queer women, trans men, and gender nonconforming people, who because of their lower visibility are too often excluded.

Many times throughout the text, Mgbako provides long oral histories from sex worker activists. In an admirable and sadly rare move for an ally, she explicitly connects this choice with the fact that she is not a sex worker herself, “and too often, non-sex workers take it upon themselves to speak for sex workers when the latter are fully capable of speaking for themselves.” I found these sections of the book and the solidarity they represented perhaps the most valuable. Kenya Sex Worker Alliance’s Phelister Abdallah’s harrowing account of gang rape by police, the moment representing her personal awakening as an activist, was particularly affecting. Yet, Mgbako never allows these stories to become tragedy porn for non-sex-worker readers—in her introduction, she avers that she only included narratives of abuse when those narratives illustrated the sociopolitical realities of sex workers’ struggle against criminalization. “There are no broken people in this book,” Mgbako declares. Instead, the author’s interest lies in displaying the “radiating strength” of African sex workers.

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Uptown Thief (2016)

by Caty Simon on October 20, 2016 · 1 comment

in Books, Reviews

uptown-thiefSlam poet and African American studies professor Aya de León’s new novel, Uptown Thief, is every activist sex worker’s fantasy: her protagonist Marisol Rivera is a women’s health clinic director by day and an escort agency manager and expert safe-cracker to fund that clinic for survival workers by night. True, any enterprising hooker who actually tried this would get her pet cause into very hot water. But reading about Marisol’s escapades teaming up with her escort employees to rob their rich clients’ friends, practicing some creative accounting to enter these “donations” on her books, is the next best thing to pulling it off yourself.

Though de León has never been a sex worker, she’s been open about her respect for her ex-stripper mother and her aunt’s sex work. Her book is stolidly pro-sex worker without being blandly sex positive, representing a spectrum of experiences in its characters’ diverse backgrounds of high end escorting, survival sex work, and trafficking and abuse survival. There’s even a Live Nude Girls Unite poster in the clinic’s office. There’s never any hint of judgement in the tone de León takes narrating these women’s lives, although occasionally a tinge of didactic respectability politics bleeds through in the novel’s focus on clinic entrepreneurship classes and grad student escorts. Still, a story in which every whore makes good is a refreshing change from our usual crime fiction fate of death or destitution.

De Leon does make some gaffes in describing the way the agency operates which demonstrate her lack of personal experience with the work. Marisol’s escorts dress up as delivery workers in order to get into fancy hotels (huh?). And the agency’s clients agree on every sexual act they’ll perform with her employees in advance with her over the phone—a good way to get arrested. But once I started reading the book as a wish-fulfillment vehicle instead of holding it up to an impossible standard of realism, I began to really enjoy it. Plus, de León doesn’t make as many bloopers writing about sex work practice as many other writers do, perhaps because she made a point of having sex worker consultants edit her early manuscript.

The author’s general pro-lumpenprole stance is very clear here. For example, Marisol’s ex-NYPD love interest, Raul, left the department after suing them for racial discrimination and confesses that his one major regret is becoming a cop. When he catches on to Marisol’s heists, he’s openly admiring, wishing he could be a barrio Robin Hood as well. de León depicts some of the dangers sex workers commonly face by making his white ex-partner a cop who extorted sex from workers with the threat of arrest. And, of course, one of the most reprehensible characters in the book besides the abusive pimp is a snooty billionaire financier client.

De León also exhibits her populism in the way she’s marketed the novel: she’s explained in interviews that she purposefully branded the book as a women’s urban crime novel, a la Zane and Sister Souljah, to make it accessible to as many kinds of readers as possible. Indeed, one activist I know told me that this genre represents the most requested (and sadly, least donated) books to the books for women prisoners program she works with.

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(Photo by Flickr user Nasrul Ekram)

(Photo by Flickr user Nasrul Ekram)

Last month, I woke up to the news that a friend of mine had overdosed and died.

I’d never met her, but I’d known her for almost 15 years online. We’d found each other back in the days of Livejournal, back when it was a shock to my system just to be able to read the writing of another heroin-using sex worker like me. I read everything about us I could get my hands on back then, even tabloid trash or Narcotics Anonymous literature.

Reading someone writing about her life, our lives, in the first person—daring to construct her identity as more than a punchline or a cautionary tale—was revelatory. People talk about the value of “representation,” but there’s no way to describe what knowing she was out there like I was meant to me when I was 22.

I could always talk to her about all the things I couldn’t discuss with my straight friends: lazy dealers, asshole cops, and the constant grind of working enough to keep ahead of withdrawal. Later, when we both got on methadone maintenance, we groused to each other about the unique blend of bureaucracy and condescension we found at the clinics. She’d always keep me up to date on the latest drug war fiasco, and we could be candid to each other about our rage in response.

I’m still not sure what happened to her. She could have been a victim of all the fentanyl floating around the country mixed in the heroin supply. I know she hadn’t used dope in a while. Keeping her kid was too important to her. Her tolerance must have been low.

But I can’t shake the suspicion that her death wasn’t entirely accidental. Like many of us, she was incredibly harm-reduction savvy. She could have taught a class on overdose prevention. I don’t think she killed herself. But I’m not sure she was trying her hardest to stay alive.

And who could blame her if she stopped making that monumental effort to survive, for a moment?

I have to tell myself everyday that despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m worth something, even if I am a walking worst-case scenario to most people. Even if by every rubric of mainstream success, I’ve gone way off course. Even if living like I do is not only criminalized, but reviled.

But sometimes, it’s difficult to believe that message when you and your small circle of movement friends are its only source.

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image by Tim Evanson (Flickr user Tim Evanson)

(Image by Flickr user Tim Evanson)

One heartening development that came in the wake of Orlando’s tragedy was the massive show of support responding to the call for blood donations for the wounded. During the day on Sunday, people waited for hours in long lines for the chance to help by giving blood. The website of Florida’s blood donation network, OneBlood, crashed because of all the traffic. OneBlood spokeswoman Stephanie Zaurin said that donations were coming in at “record numbers.” By Sunday night, many of the city’s blood banks were at capacity. Some even had to turn would-be donors away. OneBlood did ask donors to return on Monday and Tuesday, as the shooting victims’ need for transfusions would continue.

And yet, so many LGBTQ people are barred from donating blood to help the trans and queer Latinx people wounded in this attack—our own community members.

Recent social and mainstream media outrage on the subject has mostly focused on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ban against men who have sex with men as donors. Since 1986, the FDA had maintained a de facto lifetime blood donation ban against any man who’d had sex with a man in the past ten years. The restriction was formalized as a lifetime ban against all MSM (men who have sex with men) donors in 1992. The American Medical Association called for an end to this restriction in 2013, citing discrimination and its lack of a sound medical basis.

In December 2015, the FDA amended its policy slightly. The new rule allows self-identified gay and bisexual men to give blood as long as they haven’t had sexual contact with another man in the past year. The FDA’s stricture now mimics that of many homophobic religious organizations such as the Mormon and Catholic churches: queer men are only acceptable so long as they are celibate.

NPR’s Hansi Lo Wong reported that some Orlando blood banks disallowed even self-identified queer men who’d been sexually inactive for a year or more from donating blood, refusing to adhere to the new policy.

In contrast, the city commissioner of Orlando’s fourth district, Patty Sheehan, stated on MSNBC that she thought blood banks were taking donations from gay men. This began a spate of hopeful rumors that the policy against sexually active queer men had been temporarily lifted in light of the demand for transfusions. OneBlood claimed later on Twitter that they were complying with all FDA guidelines, and corrected misinformation on social media that these policies were not in effect.

But the FDA also forbids many other groups of trans and queer people besides MSM from donating blood, including us sex workers. The current guidelines “defer indefinitely an individual who has ever had sex for money or drugs.”

Many LGBTQ people are in the sex trade for lack of other options, because of rejection from their families and discrimination in employment and education. LGBTQ homeless youth are seven times more likely than their heterosexual peers to engage in survival sex work. The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the largest reported survey of trans people to date, found that 11 percent of respondents had done sex work at some point in their lives. Black and Black-multiracial respondents reported the highest rate of sex work participation at 39.9 percent, followed by Latinx respondents at 32.2 percent. And trans women were twice as likely as their trans male peers to have been involved in the sex trade.

So when the FDA bars anyone who’s done full-service sex work from giving blood, they’re discriminating against a large segment of the trans and queer community—especially those of us who are most marginalized within that community.

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