Activism

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 on 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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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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Monica Jones this February. (Photo via the Support Monica Jones Facebook, courtesy of Monica Jones)

Monica Jones. (Photo by PJ Starr, via the Support Monica Jones Facebook, courtesy of Monica Jones and PJ Starr)

In May 2013, sex worker and trans rights activist and Arizona State University social work student Monica Jones was charged with “manifestation of prostitution” in Phoenix after accepting a ride from an undercover cop.  Her arrest ignited a firestorm of protest against Project ROSE, a prostitution arrest diversion program run by the ASU School of Social Work and the Phoenix police that utilized arrest sweeps; transphobia in those prostitution arrests; and the potentially unconstitutional “manifestation of prostitution” statute under which she was prosecuted. The ACLU, SWOP-Phoenix, and other sex work and GLBT activists stood in solidarity with Jones as she gained international attention speaking out against her charges. 

“The reason why this law [the manifestation of prostitution statute] is so unjust is because it gives the police the credibility to say who’s a sex worker, who’s not a sex worker…it violates our [our First Amendment rights]—just to walk down the street, our freedom of speech,” Jones explained to us. Since her arrest, Jones has gained prominence as an eminent activist, been interviewed by dozens of media outlets, met Laverne Cox, and traveled to Australia for public speaking engagements and study, all while working towards finishing her social work degree.

In November, Jones told Best Practices Policy Project that Project ROSE had been shut down, a crucial victory for the movement in Arizona. And though Jones was initially convicted, her January 2014 appeal was successful and the conviction was vacated. We spoke with her just before the announcement was made; below is a condensed and edited version of our interview, originally conducted via video chat.

Recently, your conviction was vacated. What does that mean for you? What’s next?

I got a call from the court yesterday evening saying that the prosecutors are not going to retry me. So right now we’re looking to see if it’s with prejudice or without prejudice and will it still have an effect on me challenging the constitutionality of the law.

So your ultimate goal with your legal team is to use the case to overturn the law altogether. How can people from other states help fight the law; help fight your campaign against it?

I think there’s a lot more laws like this across this country—like “loitering with intent of prostitution,” and condoms as evidence. I think that they need to take on their own fights in their own homes and their own cities. Because when we get rid of these laws it basically gets rid of sexism and discrimination and transphobia. And it takes the power away from the cops and the justice system to say who is sex working and who’s not sex working.

 A story that brought you to the news in the last few months was your deportation from Australia at the Sydney Airport. From what I read, during your encounter with immigration you were pressured by the producers of the reality show Border Security to have your case filmed. When you refused after initially agreeing, after you realized they planned to sensationalize your story, customs officials began to treat you much more harshly. Can you tell us more about what happened there?

So what happened was I was legally constrained to come back to my appeals. I was doing my internship in Australia, with Scarlet Alliance, a great sex worker organization there, and I was leaving there to come back for my case and I was traveling back to Australia in three days. So when I got to the airport to leave to come to the U.S., they went through all my stuff. They went through my purse, they went through my phone, they went through my suitcase, they went through everything. I had everything about my court case in there in the folder. They went in a back room and went through that. They said, “Okay, you’re good to go.” So I was thinking, okay, I’m good to go.

And when I came back from the U.S., they had pulled me to the side and took me into this room, where I was proceeded to be asked, “Do you want to be filmed by this camera crew?” And the producer of the show said, “We think that your story is interesting.” Which, I’d never told them anything about my story—they know nothing about my story! And so I’m thinking, how do they know my story is interesting? So they kept on asking me questions.

After being pressured I agreed to be filmed. But during the middle of it, I said, “I don’t feel right with this, I think this is suspicious.” And once I did that they were very harsh against me—”Oh, you were doing this, you violated your visa…”

If I violated my visa, you guys should have let me know when you guys originally checked me on my way out of the country! The judge later asked [the immigration officials],” Why were you checking her on her way out of the country?” So they said I was a threat to national security. So I guess activism is a threat to Australia’s security.

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image via SWOP-Seattle on Twitter

image via SWOP-Seattle on Twitter

The Seattle City Council’s unanimous vote to change the legal terminology for buying sexual services from “patronizing a prostitute” to “sexual exploitation” is an example of the limits of the city’s politically progressive character. Seattle’s progressive leaders think it’s their mission to perpetuate the idea that sex workers are victims who need rescuing and eradicate the adult entertainment industry to stop violence against women.

There have been a shocking number of bills introduced in the Washington state legislature this session regarding sex work and human trafficking. The language in these bills synonymizes consensual adult sex work with trafficking, coloring all sex workers as victims and all sex work as victimization. Senate Bill 5041 goes so far as to say that prostitution is “modern day slavery.” The bills embrace the increasingly popular “End Demand” model and suggest such measures as giving local law enforcement the authority to seize clients’ assets if they are used in the crime of buying sex (e.g., confiscating their vehicles if they negotiate with street workers from them), increasing the penalty of soliciting a prostitute from a simple misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, and amending the state’s definition of human trafficking to include forced labor by “abuse of power, or abuse of position or vulnerability.” This vague language conflates sex work with trafficking and the bills as written would erase any remaining legal concept of sex workers’ individual agency.

These bills are a reaction to the trafficking hysteria pervading the country and Seattle in particular. Anti-trafficking groups in the area are more active than ever, hosting panel discussions and other public events, spreading misleading statistics and creating moral panic in concerned citizens. These groups fail to recognize that their efforts directly endanger consensual adult sex workers. They cannot conceive of anybody willingly choosing to do sex work. [READ MORE]

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image via Flickr user  Riccardo Cuppini

image via Flickr user Riccardo Cuppini

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