Activism

(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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(Image via Melissa Gira Grant's twitter account)

(Image via Melissa Gira Grant’s twitter account)

You might recognize this sentiment: the sex workers’ rights movement is funded by “the industry.” We are “the pimp lobby,” whether we’ve ever been in any sort of management role ourselves or not, let alone whether we’ve abused or exploited other workers. You might think it’s pretty easy to laugh at that sort of thing, but if you’ve ever spent any time going through the e-mails that sex workers’ rights organizations receive, you’ll hear a lot of this, even from people and organizations who are sympathetic. They’ll make assumptions about “staff”—”we want to meet your staff”or they want to meet in “your office.”  There are people who try to chat you up about nonprofit careers at events, thinking you have jobs to offer them. And so on. It would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating, and if people with nasty motives didn’t use these assumptions against us.

It’s human to overestimate the resources of others and to underestimate one’s own. But let’s have some real talk.

Management doesn’t want to fund the sex workers rights movement. They do not have an interest in our vision for social change beyond issues of their own legality. Don’t believe me? This is management in action, or more specifically, strip club managers in action, allying themselves with anti-trafficking organizations. Management-directed organizations want to cover their own asses and reap benefits from the REAL money spigot, the anti-trafficking movement, of the “End Demand” variety, funded by former ambassador and current filthy rich lady Swanee Hunt. You’d see the same from escort agencies if they were legal, and you already do see the same from the legal Nevada brothel industry. As it is, some of the individuals in sex work management give us mild, conditional support, sort of the same way clients do. You know the storythey have many more demands than they do contributions. I have never seen any of them donate money.

Radfems, the “pimp lobby” is pretty firmly on YOUR side on this one.

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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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