Activism

The author with Cupcake Girls Bri and Amy (Photo by

The author with Cupcake Girls Bri and Amy (Photo by author’s coworker)

“But how should I address the invitations?” the young brunette across from me asked.

“Husband first, so ‘Mr and Mrs blank,’” advised the older woman next to her, and everyone nodded.

I blinked and made a note, tried not to look confused or judgmental. I was at a planning meeting for It’s a Cupcake Christmas!, a benefit for the Cupcake Girls. They talked about logistics, about raffle prizes, about how much money they wanted to raise, and I played with my mug of tea, not sure what to make of these nice ladies who bring cupcakes to strippers, all of whom were younger than me and married.

Their mission statement reads, “We exist to bring non-judgmental support, consistent caring, community resources and peace, love and cupcakes to women in the adult entertainment industry.”

It sounds simple, but I didn’t get it. That’s why I was there, because I didn’t know what to make of them. This was like a “behind the scenes with the Cupcake Girls!” deal, and we’d scheduled a real sit-down interview over tea the upcoming week and between the two of those I hoped to have a better grasp on what was up with them. In the meantime I wanted to make the most of my sneak peek into how they worked but I kept getting sidetracked by questions like “Who goes first on the invitation?” I didn’t even know people my age cared about such things outside of like, Gossip Girl.

The first time I heard of the Cupcake Girls I was really confused. “The Cupcake what?”

My friend tried to explain:

“They’re Christians, they bring cupcakes to the club and spread the message of the Lord.”

“They bring actual cupcakes?”

“I think sometimes they do hair and makeup too. But they’re trying to make church look less scary and win Christ followers.”

“No way!”

I couldn’t wait to meet these people.

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via soulkreations on Etsy

via soulkreations on Etsy

Monica Jones was both a student in and a target of the Arizona State School of Social Work when she was arrested in a sweep that was part of Project ROSE, the prostitution diversion program that’s a partnership between the school and the Phoenix PD. We asked sex workers who, like Monica, are students in or graduates of social work programs, to talk with moderator Tara Burns about the ethical and professional intersections of sex work and social work. The participants are:

Serpent: I’m a longtime sex worker, an active board member of SWOP-Chicago and one of the people behind AIT Research, a research project on trafficking in the sex trade. I’m also currently enrolled in a MSW program in Chicago. Find my websites at sexpros.net, redlightdistrictchicago.com, and AdultIndustryTruth.com, and my tweets at @redlightchicago and @AITResearch.

Katie: I have been a dancer for about 18 months, and I recently entered and withdrew from a Masters of Counseling in Marriage, Couples, & Family Therapy program. I currently work full time as a domestic violence advocate and work with our local sex worker outreach coalition. I write at sexualityreclaimed.com.

Cyan: I danced and also did the more private variety of sex work from age 21 to age 27 in Los Angeles and in Vegas. Now I am in my second year of a Masters in Clinical Counseling program. I’m currently too busy with school, work, and single parenting to write in it very much lately, but I have a blog called snapshots of a spiral path.

Annie: I have been involved off and on in sex work for about the last seven years, mostly escorting, some massage. I’m currently in a Social Work Ph.D program, and finished my MSW in 2010. I also work as the program coordinator for an LGBTQ IPV program. Before starting my Ph.D program, I coordinated a harm reduction program for folks working on the street. Right now, I’m doing a lot of education with a colleague, to various organizations and university programs, on students working in the sex industry. Annie is one of my working names.

Tara: I’ve done all kinds of sex work off and on for well over a decade, and I recently had a brush with an MSW program. I blog at ecowhore.com.

What is/was your experience with a social work/counseling program? Did they know you were a sex worker? [READ MORE]

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Adrienne and Annie's Student Sex Worker Outreach project pamphlet (Photo courtesy of Adrienne Graf)

Adrienne and Annie’s Student Sex Worker Outreach project pamphlet (Photo courtesy of Adrienne Graf)

Adrienne Graf and Annie O’Niell are two social workers whose focus  has been sex workers. O’Niell has experience as a sex worker and Graf is an ally. Together, they have facilitated workshops at the university, state and national level on how to work with students in the sex industry. Here, they have a conversation about their work as social workers reaching out to sex workers.

Annie: How does your work with sex workers intersect with social work?

Adrienne: Even before I started doing social work I have always been in community with many types of sex workers. I was privileged to get to interact with many different people around this topic, and receive a lot of education and exposure that my current work is based off of. So from very early on in my young adulthood I was thinking about sex work as legitimate labor and sex workers as people in my community facing different types of marginalization. When I started in social work,  I just always thought of social work as a profession working with and for various communities and sex workers are in our/those communities communities. So for me there was never a moment of “Wait, does social work address the concerns and experiences of people in the sex industry?” I always assumed that of course it would. Cue massive disillusionment.

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atheemperor

The Emperor’s New Clothes (Illustration via Commons, by Helen Stratton)

Once upon a time, there was a cold little kingdom in the north—we can call it Swedala. Now, you might not believe in magical spells, frogs that turn into princes, or other imaginary things. But believe me when I tell you that in this kingdom people were living in two parallel worlds so different they might as well have been different universes.

The emperor who ruled the country had, for the longest time, tried to erase any individual forms of expression among the people, aiming for a kingdom where each and every person lived the exact same life as their neighbor. Now, you might think that the emperor was an evil man, but he was actually a simple soul, worried about receiving love and worship from his constituency. To achieve that he hired a stable of advisers. They assured him that in order to receive the approval of the people as well as the admiration of neighboring kingdoms, it was necessary to repair the very fabric of society. They told him that magic rules to control the population were the only way that could be achieved. Sometimes the rules seemed unnecessary, complicated, or harsh to the emperor. But the few times he questioned them, it was insinuated that he might not understand the brilliance of the golden rules, for only smart men could truly grasp their innovative greatness.

Those who learned at a different pace were locked up and denied the right to have children. Others who chose to use gold dust to enjoy life were left to die in the streets, and alternative ways of expressing what it meant to be a human being were punished severely. So all those who wished to stay the way they were had to hide in the parallel world of shadows where no one could hear them—even though they could be seen, people knew to ignore them as if they were invisible. At times the emperor had doubts about this being the right way to treat the kingdom’s citizens, but he was afraid that the advisers would find him a simpleton, and quickly pushed away his doubts.

A particularly evil adviser, the adviser of state feminism, had decided that yet another group should be sent to the shadows of the parallel world. This time it was those who provided pleasure in exchange for gold. Pleasure was seen as something that only had value if it was provided for free. The adviser of state feminism assured the emperor that if he banished these people, all the neighboring kingdoms would not only admire but eagerly line up to emulate his magic rules. The people in Swedala applauded this new idea, as they never questioned the emperor’s wisdom, but in the shadows the pleasure providers feared for their very existence.

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sxwrkrsuniteAny book that aspires to be the first history of the sex workers’ rights movement in the United States will inevitably face accusations of exclusion. But despite some unavoidable failures in representation, Mindy Chateauvert’s Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk, is a pretty damn good history of our movement. Still, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s critique in her review of the book—that male and genderqueer sex workers are given short shrift in Chateauvert’s work—is valid. Glancing references to Kirk Read and HOOK Online aside, the book is a bit of a hen party.

Then again, so is the movement it chronicles. Sex Workers Unite is a fairly accurate portrayal of our organizing, for better or worse. The index and the footnotes provided me with a comforting sense of familiarity as my eye skimmed over names well known to me, from Carol Leigh to Kate Zen. (Full disclosure: Tits and Sass posts were often cited, including one of my own.) At least, finally, in this text trans women sex workers are given the central role in our story that they’ve played in our activism. The book covers early movement trans heroines like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in depth, documenting their participation in the Stonewall riot and their founding of STAR House, a community program serving queer and trans youth in the sex trades. They were also involved in the lesser known organization GLF (Gay Liberation Front), an anti-capitalist group that “made room for prostitutes and hustlers, including transwomen, straight and lesbian prostitutes, gay-for-pay hustlers and stone butch dyke pimps,” but hilariously enough, couldn’t come to a consensus on whether it was still okay to take money for sex after the revolution. Chateauvert follows this thread of trans history throughout, never failing to highlight trans women sex workers’ contributions to such integral activist projects as Women with a Vision, HIPS, and Washington DC’s Trans Empowerment Project, as well as their more general influence in shaping sex worker culture.

When I first picked up the book and noted the subtitle, I felt a brief pang of disappointment at the fact that our movement is still so little-known that the the two iconic events that bookend Chateauvert’s summation of our chronology in her title—Stonewall and Slutwalk—actually properly belong to other movements. But as I started to read, I was delighted to realize what the author had done by integrating our narrative with that of so many other struggles for social justice, reminding the reader of sex workers’ critical participation in so many movements over the decades. From GLBT/queer rights and feminism to AIDS activism and harm reduction, Sex Workers Unite makes it clear that you can’t really talk about the history of activism in the US without talking about us. The book tackles our invisibility in these integral roles—in its chapter on Stonewall, for example, it highlights the rarely mentioned fact that drug using trans sex workers were the key participants of the riot, and strips the respectability politics from the typical portrayal of Stonewall rioter Rivera, who is often remembered as a trans activist forebear but not so often revered for supporting her activism via street sex work.

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