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“Dragged Off By The Hair”: An Indian Sex Worker Recalls a Raid

VAMP members after the raid (Photo by Dale Bangkok, courtesy of Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers)
VAMP members after the raid (Photo by Dale Bangkok, courtesy of Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers)

Sitting in a warm room in Phnom Penh with several other women from the Asia Pacific region, Kamalabai Pani, a sex worker and a board member of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP, Prostitutes’ Collective Against Injustice) in India, became visibly upset when discussion turned to the efforts of U.S.-led feminist groups to discredit several United Nations bodies’ recommendations to decriminalize sex work in support of HIV prevention. These recommendations have been welcomed by sex worker-led groups as they believe criminalization endangers not only condom use but their very livelihoods.

In their writings and speeches, Western feminist groups have used the tactic of labeling sex worker collectives—essentially a form of trade union—as “promoters of prostitution” and “traffickers.” This lack of logic infuriates sex worker union advocates and the impact on sex workers’ lives is far more severe.

A warm woman with a demeanor of quiet strength, Pani spoke with anger recalling the raid on the VAMP community on May 20th, 2005. “These guys came to our brothel area and gave out contraceptives and sweets. Then they asked us details about the girls, how much they studied and things like that. The next day, a Friday, then came the police. There were about 40 people in plain clothes, 20-30 police in six vehicles that came to the red light area of Gokulnagar. They blocked off about five lanes and the houses. They did not ask us anything, they just came in.”

Leaving Las Vegas with Laurenn McCubbin

A few months ago, I came across an article about Laurenn McCubbin’s  recent art show, which featured a variety of sex worker stilettos, in the University of  Nevada Las Vegas student newspaper. I recognized her name as the former art director of Kitchen Sink magazine, and the illustrator of Rent Girl, Michelle Tea’s 2004 graphic novel/prostitution memoir.

Laurenn and I have both spent more time in Las Vegas than we’d like to: me in strip clubs hustling for money that’s just not happening in my hometown these days, and her finishing a degree at the University of Nevada. I caught up with her days after she completed her MFA as she was plotting her next move to Duke University, where she’ll be getting a second MFA in Documentary and Experimental Art. On a typically nasty hundred-something-degree afternoon, we sat down to talk about her recent projects, Nevada’s hypocritical politics, and post-Vegas plans.

From SWOP’s Official Statement on PWL

One of the most disappointing aspects of this story has been AIM’s response. While quick to defend their own organization, calling themselves victims of a security breach comparable to the hacking of the Pentagon and virulently noting that not all the information on the site came from them specifically, there has been no discernible effort made to notify the victims that their information has been made public. […] Sex workers want a medical center tailored to the specific needs of the sex industry, including protection of anonymity.”

Read the entire press release here.

Activist Spotlight: Synn Stern on Homelessness, Harm Reduction, and Sex Worker History

Synn Stern (photo by Martin Diegelman)
Synn Stern (photo by Martin Diegelman)

L. Synn Stern has been doing outreach work since the 1980’s.  As an ex-sex worker and ex-injection drug user, she has a unique perspective on her work and the lives of her clients. She is now a certified R.N. and works as Health Services Coordinator at the Washington Heights Corner Project, a community space in Washington Heights that provides syringe exchange, counseling, and various support groups among other services. She also helps run the weekly women’s group there. I took some time to talk to her about her past doing sex work, her passion for outreach, and how she was rebirthed into the woman she is today.

What was your experience being homeless for much of your youth in NYC?

I spent a lot of time as one of the hidden homeless; the couch surfer, the office dweller, the sleeper in locker rooms, exploiting the rich, unpoliced resources of college campuses. I spent more time than that frankly homeless; out on the street with nowhere to to stash my blankets and nowhere to wash. NYC is a cruel place for those in need of a public toilet, and the more homeless one looks, the harder they are to find. Although it took me a while to figure out, as long as college was in session, I was able to keep myself together by sleeping in unused campus spaces or befriending legitimate students, eating in their cafeterias (or getting students to steal food for me) and bathing in gym buildings and the like. I lived several relatively undisturbed years in the dance building of a campus under construction. I had my own set of lockers, unlimited access to showers. Fantastic. Between semesters I ran the gamut of out-on-the-street homeless, to sleeping on trains, to living in abandoned buildings, squats, emergency rooms, and tricks’ houses. The usual thing.

How did you get involved in the sex industry? What was it like working then in comparison to how it is now?

I remember sitting in a bar once, very underage, during school hours, and the guy next to me said, “Penny for your thoughts.” I scoffed. Then he said, “Twenty bucks for your thoughts,” and it was that simple. Before that I had not realized that there was any value to what I’d been giving away.

And for the first dozen paid encounters, I felt like Queen Feminist. I felt like I’d invented it. I could not have been prouder. Of course, I was out there a long time, vulnerable, incautious and young enough to experience at lot of pain and shame as well…

The biggest difference between then and now is technology. Cars were bigger and child safety locks had not yet been invented, and there was no such thing as a cell phone, an ATM, or Craigslist. Some changes have been for the better, some for the worse.

A Tale of Two Petitions: CATW’s Amnesty Open Letter Fail

Why listen to us when you could listen to Meryl Streep? (Photo by Flickr user mostribus84)
Why listen to us when you could listen to Meryl Streep? (Photo by Flickr user mostribus84)

On July 22, a long list of prohibitionists, working through the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, released an open letter to Amnesty International as part of their long-running fight to stop them from officially adopting a pro-decriminalization of sex work stance. The letter urged the organization to vote against a draft proposal supporting decriminalization at their International Council meeting in Dublin this coming week. Besides roping in many of the usual suspects in anti-sex work circles—Janice Raymond, Julie Bindel, Rachel Moran, Robin Morgan, Meagan Tyler, etc.—the petition sought celebrity endorsements in an attempt to use fame to advance its cause. And sign on the celebrities did: Lena Dunham, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Emma Thompson, Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Kline, Christine Baranski, and Chris Cooper were among the more prominent names included.

When I first read that list, besides feeling like half of my favorite films had just been ruined for me, I was also really worried. People look up to these names. Who would listen to us in the sex workers’ rights movement when they could listen to Meryl Streep? The battle to support Amnesty International’s proposed stance has been a long and draining one for sex workers internationally, and it saw some particularly nasty fights here in Australia when prohibitionists tried to shout down sex workers at Amnesty Australia’s annual general meeting last July. As absurd as it was that a bunch of Hollywood’s most privileged could consider their voices about our oppression more important than our own, there was a lot of power and money in that list of names, and I was concerned that it might actually shift the course of Amnesty’s vote.