Activism

Do not use our passive bodies as props for your agenda (Photo by Anton Marcos Kammerer, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

Stop using our passive bodies as props for your agenda. (Photo by Anton Marcos Kammerer, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

I am a sex worker who was coerced into doing work I felt violated by, and I am horrified by SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Reactionary Feminists) who insist that all sex work is by nature coerced and non-consensual.

Recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing rise in anti-sex work rhetoric that rests on the premise that all sex work is coerced. The proponents of this claim argue that because the workers may need the money and thus feel unable to turn down a proposition they are uncomfortable with, sex work encounters are always non-consensual. As far as they are concerned, if money is involved, sex can never be consensual. They claim that by promoting the criminalization of all forms of sex work, they are “protecting” sex workers and engaging in “feminist solidarity” with us.

I’ve already seen a number of brilliant sex workers debunking this argument: by discussing their own consensual sex work experiences, by pointing out that all professions involve money and thus a potential for coercion or abuse of workers, and so on. Tits and Sass contributor Red wrote a particularly interesting piece on her tumblr in which she notes that she finds the term “constrained consent” a far more accurate term than “coerced consent.” All of those points are valid and important, if often ignored by the audience they’re intended for.

But I’ve noticed one perspective missing from the discussion: that of someone who was sometimes unable to consent to sex work, and is harmed by those who would tokenize that experience and devalue the experiences of other sex workers. After seeing my experiences casually commandeered by SWERFs as a talking point, I’ve decided to speak up.

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(Screenshot of a tweet by PepperHeartsU)

(Screenshot of a tweet by @PepperHeartsU)

If you’ve been hanging out in the digital sex work community for long enough, you’ve learned a handful of things. One is that some men really like to interrupt your conversations uninvited to assume that you do your work for the sake of your sexual liberty, and to assure you that they’re totally cool with it. Secondly, sex work statistics are kind of like recipes and can be tampered with to fit the occasion of the person whose hands they’re in. And the third is that sex workers are really fucking funny. In the very likely event that I out myself one day in an effort to feed an ego that is starved for affirmation from strangers, I want to start by writing a book called Everyone Is Basic But Us: The Story of Some Funny Paid Sluts I Know From Twitter. I am currently accepting submissions for the collection.

I came across this brilliant satirical press release from Sex Worker Open University that pokes fun at the plans of Scottish Police to conduct “welfare visits” at the homes of sex workers as part of “Operation Lingle.” Putting aside for the moment that “lingle” sounds like a medieval wasting sickness, the plan itself was clearly a surveillance effort dressed up as charity. The response from SWOU instead suggests home visits for the 17,000 known police officers “plying their trade” in Scotland. It turns the tables on law enforcement and makes clear just how invasive and ridiculous such visits would be if directed at any other profession. It was one of many examples of how sex workers have used humor to their advantage when combatting the grave injustices and daily humiliations to which we are constantly subjected.

But in the same moment that I was applauding another job well done, I was reminded of a recent conversation I had with a civilian dude who loves Sex Work Twitter for its entertainment value. He isn’t a client (to my knowledge) and isn’t an activist, he just thinks sex workers are really funny. Seeing as I think of Sex Work Twitter as an impenetrable digital slumber party where we make fun of shit clients and antis, it hadn’t occurred to me that people outside of sex work or the surrounding debates paid it much mind. So if you were wondering what remarkable naivete looks like, add me on Snapchat and I’ll send a selfie. It made me wonder to what extent our movement is taken seriously when so much of our public discourse is decidedly unserious.

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Annie Sprinkle: a woman who needs to get back in touch with her movement rather than speaking over it (Photo by Creatrix Tlara, via her flickr and the Creative Commons)

Annie Sprinkle: a woman who needs to get back in touch with her movement rather than speaking over it (Photo by Creatrix Tlara, via her flickr and the Creative Commons)

As a general rule, I absolutely love being called “adorable.” It reaffirms a lifetime of well-intentioned cheek pinches and makes me feel like I still look youthful as I approach 30. But being an adorable person is a very different thing than being part of an adorable movement. So when Annie Sprinkle took to Facebook to chastise sex workers who decided to “act up” at a conference called “Fantasies that Matter–Images of Sex Work in Media and Art,” and used condescending terms like “adorable” and “well intentioned” to describe sex workers who seek a voice in discourses about them, well, I got just adorably incensed.

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(Image via St James Infirmary's flickr)

(Image via St James Infirmary’s flickr)

I have experienced a lot of abuse in my life. The realization of each instance was a gradual process, despite how accustomed I should be to identifying it by now, despite how thoroughly I understand the dynamics, the signs, the underbelly of the beast. I have always believed, since I was 18 years old, that talking about the abuse was not only cathartic but a small step towards ending the silence surrounding it. It’s not my fault, so why should I be ashamed? Why should I protect abusers with my silence? Still, the realization that I am in fact someone who was forced into the sex industry, that group of silenced victims fauxmanists and policy makers alike claim to care so much about, was a realization that happened in stages. It was a slow process right until I was shouted down by a sex worker exclusionary radical feminist because my views on sex work and decriminalization weren’t taking into account the lives of people who were forced or coerced into the industry or abused in it and unable to leave. And I was livid, because that is my story.

The definition of what constitutes sex slavery and sex trafficking is intentionally blurry. Obfuscating the reality of sex industry abuse is a deliberate tactic utilized to attack the industry in general. Most people I know imagine trafficking victims to be forced to travel from South East Asia or Eastern Bloc nations in terrible conditions to arrive in affluent countries where they can be bought and sold as objects by sadistic rapists while being kept under lock and key. In truth, NGOs and governments usually define trafficking as involuntary participation in the sex trade. In essence, the term sex trafficking is a misnomer; the “trafficking” itself may be no more than a 15 minute drive from home to the brothel, like it was for me. It’s a phrase that brings up very specific associations that are generally inaccurate.

By the definition above, I guess I’m a trafficked person. Wider definitions also include underage sex workers, so a lot of people I know who started before they were 18 years old are as well. This is fairly well understood in most sex worker activism and yet there seems to be no emphasis in our movement on acknowledging and supporting survivors who enter the industry through force or coercion. Through describing some of the difficulty of my experience within activist circles, I hope to be able to offer some insight as to how to better support all members of our community while tackling head on the erroneous idea that antis are trying to help survivors within the industry.

When I was 21, I went to a queer event at my university and met a bunch of people, including a few sex workers. We hung out, chatted, and exchanged Facebook info. I went home and told my partner about the experience. I was primarily interested in talking about the workshop I’d run and the friendships I’d made but my (now ex) long term boyfriend was fascinated with the idea of my becoming a hooker. During our relationship he’d visited various brothels a number of times (though he’d sworn he wasn’t doing that anymore) so I guess at that point he knew more about the industry than I did. Behind my back, he began talking to my friends on Facebook through my account, pretending to be me, asking about the work and how to get into it. Meanwhile, he would bring up the idea whenever the issue of money came up—which it often did, with him being a meth addict—when we were in bed together, really any time he could. When his cajoling, against the backdrop of his verbal, sexual and physical violence didn’t work, he delivered an ultimatum: if I didn’t start hooking, he would start cooking meth again. I had been through this before: visits from the cops at all hours of the night; waking up and walking into my living room with ammonia gas filling the house my children were sleeping in; strangers coming through the door and cutting up, weighing and bagging ice in the kitchen; and his escalating violence under the influence of his constant use and paranoia. It wasn’t something I could go through again. The potential money I could be making working with a friend at the parlor, $100 to $500 a night, seemed like a much better choice. He was already using my bank card to take all of my money to the point where a friend of mine had to steal a container of formula so I could feed my daughter because my ex spent my last $50 on half a point. Sex work seemed like an out. And you know what? It was.

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(Image from the film: Advocating in Albany, (No Condoms as Evidence), Red Umbrella Project)

(Image from the film: Advocating in Albany, (No Condoms as Evidence), Red Umbrella Project)

I’m a community organizer for Red Umbrella Project, and for the past year and a half I’ve been one of the leaders in the struggle to ban the use of condoms as evidence of all prostitution-related offenses in New York. We recently had a great victory in this campaign with a NYPD directive issued that bans the use of condoms for three misdemeanor offenses: prostitution, loitering for the purposes of prostitution, and prostitution in a school zone. Unfortunately that still excludes most prostitution-related offenses which, while targeted at clients, managers of the sex trades, and human sex traffickers, all too often are an initial charge filed against those doing sex work, especially transgender women of color. So our battle continues. But I feel it is important to clarify for people in the sex trades around the world why it is that we as a peer-led group by and for people in the sex trades place such great importance in this issue. While some may say that advocacy of any goal short of the decriminalization of all prostitution laws is selling out, the decriminalization of condoms opens the door for greater possibilities in organizing around other decrim efforts both in New York and elsewhere.

Handcuffs empower no one. Red Umbrella Project knows, from the arrests and incarcerations of our comrades, family, and friends, that the criminal justice system is toxic to the lives of people in the sex trades, especially those most marginalized within it. All too often sex work criminalization goes hand-in-hand with the criminalization of trans women and queer youth of color, undocumented people, and low-income women of color. Believing strongly that a peer-led model personally empowers the lives of people in ways that even the most progressive justice system cannot, we oppose the tearing apart of our communities by arrest and incarceration.

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