Interviews

Monica Jones and Derek Demeri in the United Nations Gardens in Geneva. (Photo by Derek Demeri, courtesy of Penelope Saunders and Derek Demeri)

Monica Jones and Derek Demeri in the United Nations Gardens in Geneva. (Photo by Derek Demeri, courtesy of Penelope Saunders and Derek Demeri)

On May 11th, American sex workers’ rights activists Monica Jones and Derek Demeri met with the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in Geneva to advocate for protections for sex workers, in preparation for the Council’s quadrennial Universal Period Review of the US’ human rights record that same day. The following interview was conducted with Demeri, of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, via e-mail and edited for clarity and length. 

What were your goals in making recommendations to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council? If the Council absorbed just one point from your presentation, what do you hope it was?

Ultimately, we want people in positions of power to hear and recognize the struggle that sex workers have been facing for centuries. Sex workers and their allies know all too well the violence that comes at the hands of the police and [those in] other positions of authority. We know how deep stigma runs in society when sex workers can face eviction from housing or termination from employment for past experience in the sex trade. We know how the government has completely failed to aid sex workers against the HIV epidemic that continues to sweep the country. Our community knows these things, but we need to let the world know.

Unfortunately, there were no specific recommendations that sought to protect sex workers during this UPR [Universal Periodic Review] round of the United States. There were several recommendations that encouraged the United States to do more to end human trafficking, which we of course know means more policing of our communities and public shaming for our work. However, Thailand made a recommendation to have “more holistic monitoring” and “evidence based” research when combating human trafficking, which we can use to support sex workers. Many countries also made recommendations regarding ending racial profiling, torture in the prison system, and ending police brutality, which are all important for our community.

[READ MORE]

{ 1 comment }

Current offerings on TRENCHCOATx

Current offerings on TRENCHCOATx

In March, Kayden Kross and Stoya launched TRENCHCOATx.com, a pay-per-scene porn site they describe as “curated smut.” The performer-run and owned site is powered by the vision of its two partners and stands in stark opposition to the search-optimized tube sites that are closing in on monopolizing porn distribution. As Stoya wrote about tube sites, “I believe the worst sorts of capitalists would consider Manwin’s behavior a win of the highest order.” She spoke to us last month shortly after the launch about the origins and intent of TRENCHCOATx and about workers seizing the means.

Stoya: For years, because we were both under contract together at the same company, on set or when we were signing stuff together or just like sitting at a coffee shop, we would do a lot of complaining about, “This is how it should be done, this is what I think would be the right process for having barrier-optional performance choices with regards to safer sex procedures like condoms and dental dams, how adult material should be described,” and our shared distaste for the way it was moving more and more to tags. Kayden described it best as “kindergarten Mad Libs of naughty words.” For years we’ve been both sitting there saying “This is how it should be and it would be perfect and magical!”
[READ MORE]

{ 2 comments }

Meg Munoz. (Courtesy of Meg Munoz)

Meg Munoz. (Courtesy of Meg Munoz)

Meg Munoz became an escort at age 18, and had a relatively good experience working. She then took a break from the business for two years.  Some time after her return to the work in order to pay for college, a close friend turned on her, blackmailing her and forcing her to turn over all her earnings to him for the next three years.  Her experience led  Munoz to found Abeni, an Orange County-based rescue industry organization. But Abeni’s participation in nuanceless anti-trafficking rhetoric bothered her, and after some re-examination, Munoz repurposed Abeni to be a safe space for both sex workers and trafficking survivors.  Nowadays, Munoz uses her unique experience as both a voluntary worker and a survivor of exploitation to attempt to create understanding between the sex workers’ rights and anti-trafficking movements.

Prominent activists with history as trafficking victims, such as you and Jill Brenneman, have come out on the side of decriminalization of sex work. You turned Abeni, your organization, from a rescue industry vehicle to a safe haven that serves both trafficking survivors and sex workers—plus the people who fall in between those two identities—and promotes their agency. Ruth Jacobs, a woman with deeply negative sex work experience, also recently made an about face from being a sex work abolitionist to joining the sex workers’ rights movement. How do you interpret this phenomenon?

Jill’s story wrecked me in some of the worst and best ways. She’s one of those people that you want to make everyone sit down and listen to. Her story is a powerful reminder of just how complex this can be, but how necessary the more critical conversations are in regards to hearing different voices and current legislative trends. But most of all, my hope is that [her story and those like it] would allow people to humanize sex workers and survivors in ways that extend beyond the victim narrative. Ruth Jacobs does this very well. I [see] Jill and Ruth’s perspectives as that of women with deep, intimate, experiential knowledge (both negative and positive) of the industry. They seem to genuinely understand how approaching sex work and exploitation with risk reduction concepts and better policy can boost agency and save lives. I don’t think any of us want to further entrench ourselves in more policies and laws that isolate, stigmatize, and criminalize already marginalized people.

What made you personally change your mind about Abeni being an anti-trafficking organization, motivating you to make it into “a reality based social services organization for sex workers and trafficked people”?

From a practical standpoint, Abeni was founded on developing the kind of support I wish I’d had when I was in the industry. But, from a philosophical standpoint, we had a lot of maturing to do. Back in 2009, we were the only Orange County-based organization of its kind. I was coming out of, but still being influenced by the Christian culture I’d been a part of for the last 10+ years.

We’re starting to see a slow cultural shift, but what I was hearing in regards to those in the industry usually sounded like this:

  • Girl (or usually a girl) experiences abuse, trauma, or loss.
  • She’s addicted or broken, so she enters [the] industry and experiences more of the same.
  • She meets Jesus, repents, gets rescued/leaves the industry, and then some modified version of ‘happily ever after’ follows.

The inherent danger in that is when the Christian community become consumers of these stories and insist on acknowledging and promoting only a singular type of industry experience. That’s dishonest and damaging. I just didn’t feel like that narrative reflected my story or the complexity of so many other stories I’d heard. There are hundreds of reasons people enter the industry and those were missing from the conversation. Also significant to me was the fact that it didn’t reflect my spiritual narrative, which has been a significant part of my journey.

In order for Abeni to evolve, I was going to have to evolve. I was processing trauma as well as my non-trauma experiences, so it took some time for me sort through that. I left escorting following years of intense abuse and exploitation, so that was fresh on my mind and it definitely influenced how we saw the industry. We were always supportive but ultimately had an agenda that was “exit-hopeful.” As long as we were serving “repentant” women who’d internalized their stigma, hated sex work, and felt shame about working in the industry, we served a purpose. We didn’t realize we were part of the rescue industry and, ultimately, part of the problem. We were the ones to call if you had a dire need for lip gloss or cookies. But after about a year, I began to instinctively understand that we lacked relevance and substance. I started to feel an incredible amount of conflict in regards to how we were growing and our direction. I could write a book on that alone.

Good intentions weren’t enough and I realized that if we continued down the road we were on, we could hurt or further stigmatize people. That is the thought that broke me. I knew we had to change or shut down, so we did the unthinkable: We literally stopped in our tracks and decided to undergo an organizational soul-searching. We took the next two years and continued to work with those who were already with us, but did little else but learn from and listen to the sex work community, and analyze intersecting issues like human rights, sex work, feminism, race, gender, socio-economics, labor exploitation, policy, etc.

We didn’t know of any other organization[s] that had undergone such radical shifts, so we had no idea how to navigate that. We understood how we’d been viewed by those in the industry as well as those in the anti-trafficking community, so we weren’t sure how we were going to explain our growth and change. We had real concerns about how we would be viewed and received. One of the people I really respect and listen to is Donia Christine because she was honest as fuck with me. When I met her at CCON West back on 2013, she was skeptical and didn’t hold back, letting me know exactly what she thought and what her concerns were. I value that moment so much because it showed me how much work we still had to do. And we don’t mind doing it because the sex worker community isn’t just this group of people we serve, it’s MY community. Sex work wasn’t just a pit-stop for me, it’s part of who I am and part of my identity. I love Abeni’s story because it’s my story, too.

[READ MORE]

{ 5 comments }

IWW

Together we can be the ones doing the shakedown. (photo courtesy of Tobias Higbie, from Industrial Pioneer, Februrary 1924)

I’m currently in the beginning stages of suing local Portland strip club Casa Diablo. So of course when last fall the Oregon chapter of the National Association of Social Workers hired lobbyists from lobbying firm Pac/West to find out what protections strippers need and to craft a bill that offers these protections, I was very interested. But by the second meeting it was clear that as far as knowing strippers’ rights was concerned, both groups were starting from a blank slate.

To clear the matter up, I talked via e-mail to Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, a lawyer from the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, an Oregon organization that represents workers in wage claims, does education and outreach about wage theft, and works on other ways to promote human and labor rights. This fall, Spencer-Scheurich represented a dancer in a lawsuit against Portland club Rose City Strip, which won in arbitration. She’s also done two presentations on the legal rights of strippers for SWOP-PDX.

Red: In most of the country, strippers are working thinking they’re independent contractors.  But are they really?  We’re winning these lawsuits for employee status across the country—Rick’s, Sapphire, Spearmint Rhino, Rose City—what are the indicators of independent contractors status?

Corinna Spencer-Scheurich: Those are a lot of big questions so let me see if I can break it down.  Many workers (including dancers) are treated as independent contractors, when they are actually employees. This happens in a lot of industries.

Red: Like FedEx drivers it turns out! And Uber drivers.

Spencer-Scheurich:  Exactly.  So this is a big problem overall.  It is especially rampant in the exotic dancing industry. Clearly, there are independent contractors who are dancers. The clear cases are where people are headliners or traveling acts, etc. Where they are their own business entity separate from the club. But, there are many more dancers who are employees. And those are the cases that you are seeing dancers bring across the country.

Red:  So to really be an independent contractors would you have to be registered or licensed as your own business?

Spencer-Scheurich: That would be one hallmark of an independent contractor. Another might be that the dancers could actually negotiate their contracts (instead of everyone [being] subject to the same rules).

Red:  So being able to change prices for dances, or [deciding] when they show up to work and leave?

Spencer-Scheurich: Right, the less control the club has over the dancer, the less likely the dancer is going to be an employee. So, you are more likely to be an employee if you are subject to fines, can’t set your own schedule, have to dress a certain way, can’t control how you are paid, etc. No particular factor determines whether you are an employee or [an] independent contractor. Courts just look at the whole picture. One big piece of the whole picture is whether the dancing is an integral part of the club’s business. As we know, strip clubs need strippers.

[READ MORE]

{ 1 comment }

Alissa Afonina. (Photo by Twitter user carnalcinema, courtesy of Alissa Afonina.)

Alissa Afonina. (Photo by Twitter user carnalcinema, courtesy of Alissa Afonina.)

In 2008, high school student Alissa Afonina, her mother Alla Afonina, and her brother were in a disastrous car accident on the Trans-Canada highway, the result of her mother’s boyfriend Peter Jansson’s reckless driving running the car off the road and overturning it. Both Alissa and her mother suffered brain injuries. Alla, a Russian immigrant with a degree in chemical engineering, began to have trouble with basic arithmetic and was unable to keep her job as a bookkeeper. Alissa, a bright student with film making aspirations prior to the accident, began the 12th grade displaying problems with impulse control, following directions, memory, energy level, and social appropriateness in class. She dropped out of school to finish grade 12 at home, and was able to only briefly attend college. Psychiatric evaluation revealed that she didn’t have the ability to maintain most employment.

Around 2013, Alissa Afonina became a pro domme in order to support herself, working under the name Sasha Mizaree. In January 2015, the British Colombian Supreme Court finally awarded Afonina and her mother 1.5 million in damages for loss of employment opportunities. Most reporting on this story has taken the court case and salaciously interpreted it as “BRAIN DAMAGE TURNED HER INTO A SEX MANIAC DOMINATRIX!” The following is a condensed and edited version of the e-mail conversation Afonina and I had to clear up the whorephobic hype.

Can you talk about the importance of sex work as an option for disabled people?

Sex work should be decriminalized. The fact is, many disabled or otherwise marginalized people need this as an option, and it makes no sense to take [it] away or make it more dangerous for sex workers to screen clients (which is what happens when you have the Swedish model for example) without offering alternatives.

I am thankful that in my area I was able to work without any legal issues. That is a freedom that everyone should have, disabled or not. However, people with limited options especially need that freedom.

When it comes to brain injuries, what one aspect of your condition do you wish the public were more educated about? How would you instruct our readers to be sensitive to people suffering from the sort of injuries you have?

A huge thing is that people think you need to “look” disabled for it to be “real.” For example, if I had a scar on my face but had no physical or mental difficulties, people would probably feel much more automatically accepting of the reality of my injury. It’s rather backwards since the brain is such an important organ and even small changes in it can have devastating effects, but still, time and time again it comes down to me not looking the way people imagine a disabled person should look.

Another huge thing is how against medication people are when it comes to emotional problems. I have been told countless times by people with zero medical training that I should look for more “natural” alternatives and get off antidepressants ASAP. Can you imagine someone telling a person to get off insulin or their heart meds? But when it comes to things like antidepressants, everyone thinks they’re an expert. Truth is, I had a hard enough time accepting that I need a pill in order to function, and don’t need anyone else doubting me.

Lastly, I wish everyone who got a concussion of any kind would pressure their doctor to do an actual MRI, not just a CT scan. I had a CT scan done when the accident happened and it didn’t show soft tissue damage. Only an MRI did a year later. The only reason that was even done was because my mom took charge of the situation, and a lot of people I talk to seem to think that concussions aren’t a big deal.

As you wrote to me in our initial e-mails, the way the media framed the quotes from the judge and your lawyers in your case was “done specifically to support the sensationalism.” In most coverage on your case, the judgement is interpreted to imply that only someone who was incapable of making “correct decisions” would ever choose to do sex work, rather than sex work being the most rational economic option for someone who’d suffered a brain injury which made it impossible for them to earn a degree or work at a nine-to-five job. How would you retell the story the media tried to tell for you?

The judge’s comment [“the plaintiff argues that it [her pro-domme work] shows a lack of correct thinking on the part of Alissa”], at least how I understood it, had to do with lack of safety measures implemented for my work. That part is very true as I failed to have even the most basic safety measures such as texting a friend. The judge also made comments about how he understood my financial needs and he actually declined the request to open the trial when the defense brought in “new” evidence showing that I am still working. This leads me to believe his comments were not meant to be sex worker negative.

My brain injury is supported by far more than just the sexual symptoms, which is all the media decided to focus on. The truth is I have brain scans, countless assessments and [a] history of behavior that is totally congruent with my type of brain injury. I very much wish that my story was just as readable to people if it was not full of flashy sexual context to spark their enthusiasm. I would love for people to be [just as] interested in being educated about mental illnesses and brain injuries.

[READ MORE]

{ 3 comments }