Activism

A December 17th collage of Black sex working trans women victims of violence (Image by A Passion, courtesy of A Passion)

A December 17th collage of Black sex working trans women victims of violence (Image by A. Passion, courtesy of A. Passion)

On December 17th, we reflect on the overwhelming reports of violence against sex workers and put together plans of action to rise above it. We experience violence at the hands of law enforcement, clients, pimps and abusive partners, and each other. Though I have never found value in comparing suffering woe for woe, it is my goal to speak only from personal experience. Call it luck or divine intervention, but my life as a sex worker has been relatively charmed. I have flirted with danger, but for the most part I managed to get by unscathed. Physically, that is. It is important to remember that not all scars are visible and that those that are not can sometimes be the deepest and most difficult to heal.

I live the life of a career sex worker who is black, a woman, and transgender. Blacks, women and transgender people are three marginalized groups and often the thought of encompassing all three is overbearing. I’ve looked for purpose in the eyes of strangers—whether they sat behind a desk, confused as they dissected my qualifications and wondered about my gender identity, or loomed over me, swollen with the often lethal combination of lust and disgust.

Job discrimination is a form of violence. Denying anyone the right to support themselves legally and then criminalizing the means to which they turn to sustain themselves is inhumane and deplorable. For many of us, sex work is a job of last resort. The fact is that we are rarely given an alternative. Many employers simply will not hire trans workers for fear of losing customers. Another act of violence often overlooked is theft of service, typically defined as, “knowingly securing the performance of a service by deception or threat.” When theft of services happens to us, it is rape and the damage goes beyond the monetary value of what we’ve lost. I have been the victim of both. Like many of us, I considered rape one of many occupational hazards and did nothing about it when it happened to me. How do you report something like this, and to whom?

During my time as a street-based sex worker, I personally witnessed multiple acts of violence. Some girls survived and some didn’t. It was our own Mufasa-esque circle of life, and many of us dealt with it the only we knew how: Not dealing with it at all. To live in fear is to lose money, to lose money is to starve and ultimately become homeless. The key to survival is adaptation. Learn from the violence you experience, but do not succumb to it.

I developed a strict code of conduct for myself,necessary for my survival in the business. No drugs, no excess drinking, never steal, and always use protection. I thought this was enough to shield me from the bulk of the misfortunes that befell so many before me. For a while it did, but as the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end.” I still have issues with thinking of myself as a victim, because I know what happened to me could have been worse. Despite all of what I taught myself, as safe and as smart I thought I was, no matter how much I wanted to believe it would never happen to me, it did.

Four years ago I climbed into a stranger’s car, like I had so many times before. I began to direct him toward a crowded movie theater parking lot which provided the privacy and safety necessary to conduct my business. When I noticed that he was deliberately missing turns, I attempted to open the car door while at a red light. It wouldn’t open from the inside. I turned to look at him and was met with a swift blow to the mouth. I looked up to see the barrel of a pistol. I should’ve been afraid, but I wasn’t. This was not the first time a gun had been in my face. In fact, it was the fourth. I’d never been hit and they usually wanted money, sex, or both. However, I was always able to talk myself out of the situation or escape somehow. What I lacked in strength I certainly made up for in cunning. This time was different.

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photo via Reluctant Femme

photo via Reluctant Femme

This Wednesday, December 17th is the International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers. You can read about its history here. We’ve gathered a list of U.S.-based events for our readers. Here is the list maintained by SWOP. Here’s a list for events in Europe and Central Asia.

This list is organized alphabetically by city. All events are on Wednesday, December 17, unless noted. If we’ve missed one in your area, please alert us in the comments and we’ll add it. [READ MORE]

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via flickr user STML

(via Flickr user STML)

Have you ever wondered what’s taught in university social work classes about sex trafficking? Several sex worker activists recently decided to go forth and find out by taking the online Human Trafficking course offered by Ohio State University’s Social Work program through Coursera, an education platform that partners with universities to offer online classes.

Course grades were based entirely on starting and responding to discussion forum topics and the students’ creation of human trafficking public service announcements. Although Coursera claimed that the class had 30,000 participants, in the end only 97 completed the class and received a certificate. Those who completed the class have not received the certificates yet. As activist Bella Robinson, put it, “God knows what it will say.”

The forum discussion, according to one sex worker student who posted on Facebook, was “about 99.99% about forcing women to stop doing sex work.” There was little or no moderation, with students up or down voting each other’s posts similarly to the way Reddit users do. The instructor, Dr. Jacquelyn Meshelemiah, an associate professor at Ohio State’s College of Social Work, rarely interacted with students and never corrected misinformation or addressed abusive comments. [READ MORE]

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Truvada, the only HIV medication approved to be used in PrEP so far. (Photo by Jeffrey Beall, via Wikipedia Commons.)

Truvada, the only HIV medication approved to be used in PrEP so far. (Photo by Jeffrey Beall, via Wikipedia Commons.)

Lindsay Roth cowrote this post with sex worker ally and colleague Cassie Warren. Roth and Warren work together at PxROAR (Research, Outreach, Advocacy, and Representation), a program for community activists which offers training and support around biomedical HIV prevention research and advocacy. Readers can contact them with questions about PrEP at lindsay@swopusa.org and cassandra.r.warren@gmail.com.

So you’re telling me you can take a pill to prevent HIV?

Yup. We believe that if done right, PrEP has the potential to be one of the best tools brought to market for receptive partner protection and power since the pill in the 1960’s. PrEP doesn’t double as a contraceptive, but it does reduce your risk of HIV by 90% when taken correctly. It’s still a sweet tool to have in your make-up bag, hard femme box, tool kit, whatever you call it. We are still in the middle of an epidemic, with trans and cis women, men who have sex with men, and injection drug users still being hit hard and unjustly. We deserve to have access to all the options that protect us against HIV.

In what follows, we’d like to lay out the basics of PrEP (no really, what is it? does it cost the first month’s rent?), add context to some of the controversies, and offer our take on what this means for sex workers. We do not anticipate that we’ll be able to answer all the questions people have in this one post, and we hope that you will comment or reach out to us directly if you’d like to know more.

What the heck is it?

PrEP stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. The main part to note here is “pre,” implying treatment before exposure. In this context, we are talking about exposure to HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). So, PrEP is a medication an HIV-negative person would take to prevent them from becoming positive. Currently, Truvada is the only form of PrEP approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Truvada is an NRTI (nucleoside analog reverse transcriptase inhibitor) which is just a fancy name for an HIV medication. It has been used to treat HIV since 2004. We used to know HIV as the virus that caused AIDS, and knew AIDS as a death sentence. However, because of advancements in the treatment of HIV, positive folks can live long, healthy lives. Folks can even be positive, on treatment, and unable to transmit the virus to anyone else. Recently the medical establishment stopped giving AIDS diagnoses: Because of new treatment options people can be at various stages in their HIV diagnosis, and we now classify HIV as stage 0, 1, 2 or 3 HIV.

Many readers may be familiar with PrEP’s sibling, PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis, the use of antiretroviral drugs—ARVs (again, a fancy name for HIV medications)—to mitigate the risk of HIV transmission after a potential exposure. Any doctor can write a prescription for PEP, most Medicaid programs pay for it, and Gilead, the large research based pharmaceutical company which makes Truvada, has a patient assistance program to cover the the costs for the uninsured or underinsured, regardless of immigration status.

To summarize, PrEP vs. PEP:

  • Truvada as PrEP is taken before an exposure to HIV, specifically one pill a day, every day.
  • PEP is taken after an exposure to HIV, specifically within 72 hours, and consists of 30 days of full-regimen HIV treatment medication.
  • Both prevent you from acquiring HIV.

How does PrEP work?

The rationale behind PrEP is based on the way most doctors are treating HIV-positive individuals with ARVs. Truvada is a combination of two medications, tenofovir and emtricitabine. If HIV is presenting itself in one’s body, this medication blocks the replication of HIV in the body. Doctors currently prescribe one pill a day, as the medication must be present in the body to do its work. However, there are trials underway to test the efficacy of other ways of taking PrEP. So far, the results of the iPrEX OLE (open label extension) say that if you take it 2-4 times a week you are protected 85% of the time against HIV, and if you take it 5-7 times a week, you are protected 99% of the time against HIV (not other STIs or pregnancy). If you take it less than 2 times a week you have zero protection. 1

Can I take it right before I meet a date?

No. PrEP acts like a full metal jacket around your T-cells, so if HIV is introduced to your body it can’t get into the cells it wants to infect and replicate itself.2 It takes about seven days to make this metaphorical metal jacket around the cells in the rectum (drugs taken orally are absorbed quicker in the digestive track), and about 20 days to make a metal jacket around the cells in the vagina (our apologies if you call your junk something else) and in the bloodstream. So, for full protection, you’d need to be taking it every day for a week before you’re protected during anal sex, and every day for three weeks before you are protected during vaginal sex or during any activity in which you would share blood (e.g., sharing needles for tattoos, hormones, drugs, piercings, etc.).

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The RedUP gang at yet another conference. (Photo courtesy of Red Umbrella Project.)

The RedUP gang at yet another conference. (Photo courtesy of Red Umbrella Project.)

When I accepted the chance to go the International Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sex Work Conference in Toledo, Ohio, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The organization I work for, Red Umbrella Project, attended the conference to present our report on New York’s new Human Trafficking Intervention Courts. Just the fact that they accepted us—a sex worker-run organization—to speak threw me for a loop. When I saw that members of SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project) and Miriam Weeks (AKA Belle Knox) were also speaking, I wondered if this conference might prove an exception to the usual anti-sex work stance of the rescue industry. After all, “sex work” was right there in the title. Someone in charge must have understood the complex reasons people get into sex work better than to assume that everyone everywhere within the sex industry is being exploited and trafficked, right? But as a sex worker, I also knew what the rescue industry—and what seems like most of the world—thinks of me and my job.

Our organization has just completed an eight-month study on New York’s Prostitution Courts, now known as Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs). Now, in 11 jurisdictions within New York state, anyone charged with prostitution is assumed to be a victim of human trafficking and instead of being charged as a criminal can choose to do five to six sessions in a diversion program.

It felt to me like we were pretty well received. We didn’t deliver an impassioned speech about the plight of American sex workers, we instead explained the trafficking courts of our city, pointing out how they aren’t meeting the needs of the people they’d taken a seemingly more compassionate legal stance for. Our study found that the racially motivated arrest tactics of the NYPD were very visible within the courts, and that due to a shortage of capable interpreters, defendants who spoke English as a second language were progressing through the system at a third of the speed of native English speakers. We also suggested that the six weeks of therapy the diversion programs provided did little to address the needs of people doing sex work for survival. After a defendant charged with prostitution completes their mandated diversion program, they have an open record for six months, which can be a barrier when trying to find other work. They also cannot be re-arrested during this period or they have to start the process from the beginning again.There are more and more new court systems in the US that are similar to New York’s, and the idea of using “human trafficking” as a term that refers to all people in the sex trades is becoming more popular. And most of the time, the fight to end human trafficking is led by people who make no distinction between someone who is forced or coerced into the sex industry, someone who enters it by choice or curiosity, and the myriad scenarios in between the two. We saw a lot of this in the Toledo conference.

The best example might be the woman who, after finding out what Red Umbrella Project does, asked us, “But if your organization is made up of current and former sex workers, how do you keep the current ones from recruiting the former ones?” The member who she asked was floored as he tried to explain that that has never been a problem. How could you explain to someone with that view of sex work that no, our organization is not partially made up of unscrupulous hookers lurking around trying to sucker recovering trafficking victims back into a life of drug-addled degradation? We all tried to explain, taking varying tacks with forced cordiality. We explained that RedUP is made up of sex workers from all walks of life and varying circumstances, that our main goal is to give our members the tools to tell their own stories and advocate for themselves, and would you like to take a look at our literary journal of sex worker memoirs? It was exhausting, but it felt important for us to be there, no matter how much teeth-gritting it took.

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