Robin D

Robin D has been involved with SWOP since 2008 and Prax(us) (now closed) since 2011. She's a big believer in "meatspace" collective activism, building community/community organizing, and coalition-building. She obsessively shares articles about sex workers' rights and other social justice issues, and can spend an embarrassing amount of time on the internet, which is both magical and poisonous.


Hillary Clinton in 2009. (Official photo from Department of State page)

Hillary Clinton in 2009. (Official photo from Department of State page)

For our second installment of Big Mother Is Watching You, a guide to prominent anti-sex worker activists and officials, we’d like to remind you of a few salient facts about Hillary Clinton and her relationship to Somaly Mam, after the formal launch of Clinton’s second presidential bid on Sunday. 

While U.S. Secretary of State (2009-2013), Hillary Clinton was responsible for the continuation, from the Bush Administration, of trafficking-related foreign policy harmful to sex workers in the Global South. Under her tenure, the U.S. Department of State continued enforcing the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath, a policy that led to the defunding of a number of very effective anti-HIV/AIDS organizations operating in the Global South who were were unwilling to condemn the sex workers receiving their services. The U.S. government defended that policy to the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled 6-2 against them in 2013 on free speech grounds (Justice Elena Kagan recused). Unfortunately, that ruling only applies to organizations based in the United States, though it was recently reinterpreted to also apply to organizations based in the U.S. but working in affiliates or offices abroad.

During Clinton’s administration, the Trafficking In Persons Office, a division of the U.S. Department of State, also continued to reward Cambodia with an improved TIP Report ranking for its 2008 criminalization of prostitution, a Bush administration move that led to the imprisonment of sex workers in Orwellian “rehabilitation centers” and other horrors, including beatings, extortion, and rape.

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Cindy McCain speaking at an event hosted by The McCain Institute in Phoenix, Arizona on November 22, 2013. (Photo by Flickr user gageskidmore)

Cindy McCain speaking at an event hosted by The McCain Institute in Phoenix, Arizona on November 22, 2013. (Photo by Flickr user gageskidmore)

Welcome to Big Mother Is Watching You, a guide to prominent  anti-sex worker activists, most of them women. This new feature is brought to you by Robin D.,  veteran activist with SWOP-Denver. Today’s Mothers are a pair of powerful heiresses and philanthropists who, of late, have focused their efforts on influencing policy affecting sex workers. 

Cindy McCain

Cindy Hensley McCain is an American beer (Anheuser-Busch) heiress with an estimated 2007 net worth of $100 million dollars, plus an income of at least $400,000 per year and at least $2.7 million in stock from Hensley & Co., one of the largest Anheuser-Busch beer distributors in the United States. Hensley & Co. was founded by her father Jim Hensley in 1955. McCain’s fortune was a major driver of her husband Senator John McCain’s failed Presidential bids in 2000 and 2008. In addition, she serves on the boards of a few well-funded charity NGOs, and is currently the chair of Hensley & Co..

Cindy McCain has been stoking sports event-related trafficking hysteria since at least late 2013, using the occasion of Super Bowl XVIII in her home state of Arizona to attach her name to the cause. She has campaigned for End Demand-style anti-trafficking legislation both in Arizona and at the federal level.  She began her human trafficking work in conjunction with The McCain Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank funded in part by Walmart Stores, FedEX, and Paul E. Singer, a hedge fund manager and vulture capitalist implicated in the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2012.

Sports-event-related trafficking hysteria harms sex workers in a few ways. Unfortunately, law enforcement have started using these occasions as opportunities for ramped up stings and other arrests. Sex workers often expect that large sports events might bring increased business, only to find that not only is this not the case, but they’re at higher risk for arrest during these events. The harmful effects of “End Demand”-style legislation are well-documented, especially in the US, where no attempts are ever made by proponents to remove penalties against sex workers, and where penalty increases often target actions that sex workers take to stay safe, as well as prostitution itself. [READ MORE]

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(Image by Scott Long, courtesy of Scott Long)

(Image by Scott Long, courtesy of Scott Long)

The Cambodian garment industry’s factories often serve as the canonical example of sweatshops. Women toil away in them for long hours with low pay and awful, unsafe working conditions. There are regular mass faintings due to poor ventilation, chemicals such as insecticides and shoe glue, long hours, and lack of access to health care.

There are about 650,000 Cambodian garment workers, and 90% of them are women. The current Cambodian minimum wage is US$80 per month, though the lower end of a living wage in Cambodia is twice that, at US$160. Many Cambodian garment workers have organized themselves and are working to institute change through collective bargaining and by pressuring companies looking to improve their brands’ image. Local unions have even secured support from a number of international corporations, and these corporations and unions (as part of IndustriALL Global Union) were able to meet peaceably with government officials on May 26th. At issue were a new trade union law, mechanisms for setting wages, a demand for a US$160 per month minimum wage, and the fates of 23 garment workers who were arrested in January for protesting working conditions and pay. Unfortunately, a strike that was planned for the previous month failed. Still, protests continued.

The 23 workers were arrested as part of a violent government crackdown on January 3rd that left at least four dead and 80 wounded. There were similar protests and crackdowns the previous November, when police shot and killed one protester and wounded nine. There was another protest the previous September over mass dismissals of workers on strike and intimidation measures including the presence of military police during inspections.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, however, practically idolizes Cambodian sweatshops. Kristof has recently come under fire for disseminating false stories about sex trafficking that were fed to him by the Somaly Mam Foundation and Mam’s “rehabilitation center” AFESIP in his columns, in the forward to her memoir, and in his 2012 “documentary” Half the Sky. Information about Mam’s fraud, however, had been published in the Cambodia Daily since 2010, and it is highly unlikely that Kristof was unaware of this fact. Her fraud and its horrific consequences for local sex workers were hardly a secret among sex worker rights activists in the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Work Projects.

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(Image via the Stigma Project)

(Image via the Stigma Project)

With thanks to members of SWOP-USA

Laws that criminalize HIV exposure are supposed to benefit public health, but in practice are extremely harmful to public health and to the targeted HIV-positive individuals. Sex workers are highly vulnerable to these laws, which sometimes target HIV-positive prostitution specifically. Many require forcible HIV testing, and sometimes they simply criminalize HIV but in reality are applied to sex workers more frequently than to other populations.

The criminalization of HIV-positive sex workers and mandatory post-arrest HIV testing arguably violates international human rights treaties signed by the United States. Treaties with applicable provisions include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), specifically their provisions on privacy, rights to equality before the law, and sanctions against inciting hatred and racial bias. Recent forced HIV testing in Greece provoked outrage among international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. WHO/UNAIDS (World Health Organization/the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) made a statement opposing forced testing. It is widely accepted that best practices for HIV testing, with the best public health outcomes, involve three key principles—consent to testing, the provision of counseling before and after testing, and confidentiality of results. The imposition of felony offenses on individuals who are said to be engaging in sex work while living with HIV punishes members of already vulnerable communities. They are prosecuted even when they use condoms and engage in less risky forms of sex with their partners, sometimes even if they have disclosed their status to their partner. Information about their HIV status, sometimes accompanied by photographs, is often distributed widely by the media in their communities, placing arrestees at risk of retaliation and other abuse. This incentivizes avoiding testing and does nothing to encourage treatment or safer sex practices. [READ MORE]

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Magalie speaking at a city council meeting. (Photo by Kendra Kellog)

Magalie speaking at a city council meeting. (Photo by Kendra Kellog)

Magalie Lerman joined Prax(us), a Denver homeless youth and anti-trafficking organization, in 2010, as an outreach worker – one who knew the lay of the land in a way that others at Prax(us) did not. She now directs the outreach program and Hartcore, the constituent community organizing program. Hartcore and SWOP Denver  (Sex Workers’ Outreach Program Denver) have collaborated on many projects – Know Your Rights trainings, a zine, a speakout, and so on. In 2012, Magalie joined SWOP Denver (which already had overlapping membership), and Hartcore and SWOP Denver have continued to collaborate. Magalie formerly traded sex and is a current webcam model. She is a queer lady and likes music and shows.  

When you joined Prax(us) in 2010 you brought street experience and knowledge that was lacking in the organization at the time, and you contributed a lot to their abilities to offer harm reduction and outreach. Can you comment on the relationship between experience and effective outreach?

Outreach can happen regardless of a person’s experience. I think many good outreach workers are social workers, etc. But I would say that HartCore’s community organizing became possible after a person with the lived experience stepped in. I can say, “This happened or is happening to us. What can we do to heal ourselves and our communities?” It’s inclusive and real that way. Outreach is one of my favorite things ever, and I think it’s super important for street-based folks or people who have left the street to be able to do outreach because outreach is a way to redefine the streets. I have always known I have a place on the streets, and outreach allows me to take it back. [READ MORE]

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