Interviews

Mother's Day protest at an Arizona prison (Photo by PJ Starr)

Mother’s Day protest at an Arizona prison. (Photo by PJ Starr)

I spoke to sex worker rights film maker and photographer PJ Starr about her upcoming documentary film, NO HUMAN INVOLVED, on the death of Arizona street worker Marcia Powell through prison brutality. The interview that follows is a composite of a week of e-mails between the two of us.

Who was Marcia Powell? 

Marcia Powell was arrested in 2008 for solicitation of prostitution and was sentenced to 27 months in Perryville Prison, a women’s prison located in Goodyear just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. In 2009, while she was serving that sentence, she was left in a cage in the sun during the heat of the day for hours. She collapsed and some hours later died in a hospital in Goodyear when the Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections had her removed from life support.

Marcia should not be and cannot be defined solely by her death. Marcia Powell was a parent; she named one of her children—her daughter—Eureka. A former partner described her as “so beautiful she would stop traffic.” Marcia loved coffee, everyone who knew her in prison mentions that. She had experienced mental health issues, that was clear, but as one of her friends from Perryville said to me during an interview, “she had good sense.” On one hand, there is the public figure that Marcia came to be after her death, but, as is always the case, her story is much more nuanced than what we can contain in one news story. At points in her life she did not even choose to be “Marcia Powell.” She sometimes used another name, but in prison, her ID name Marcia Powell came to be how she was known and is now remembered.

How did you get the idea to make a film about her death?

Firstly, in 2009, when Marcia Powell died, my friend Cris Sardina (who is now the co-coordinator of Desiree Alliance, but then was involved with the Women’s Re-Entry Network in Arizona) sent me an e-mail telling me about what had happened. Cris’ message put the story in my mind and I continued to think about it for a long time. Secondly, I was given a space to be part of the Filmmakers’ Collaborative at the Maysles Institute in 2010 and the collaborative focused on writing a treatment for documentary film. I proposed three ideas to the other filmmakers and every person in the collaborative advocated for me to make a film about Marcia Powell. That was a wake up moment for me to think that other people outside of the movement for sex worker rights would be so affected by the story, so I prioritized the film. I thank the other filmmakers at Maysles for helping me see what was important for me to pursue.

What is the intended audience of your film? What would you like viewers to learn about the prison system and survival sex work by watching No Human Involved?

I am very proud that we have the genre of representation that has been carefully encouraged by people like the incomparable Carol Leigh, and I am always keen to make films that speak to the sex worker community, but I have been working on this film with the aim of having a broader audience as well. I am aiming for the film to also resonate with people who may care about human rights or women’s issues already, but who really have not yet had information about what I am starting to think of as a conveyor belt that moves people along via arrests for prostitution, or related issues like “trespassing” of “camping” in urban areas, to the court where they have no choice but to plead guilty, to the prisons where they are at the mercy of a brutal system of incarceration.

In the promo video for your film, Peggy Plews laments, “How can sixteen people pass by a human being in a cage—defecating over herself and pleading to be let out—and do nothing?” Where does this systemic brutality come from? How can we combat it?

Yes, how can so many people ignore someone who is begging for water? Incarceration relies on categorization, dehumanization and a hierarchy of command that distances each person from responsibility. Part of the problem that day was that Marcia was not seen as a person in a cage by the officers walking by. She was viewed as an irritant, a thing to be ignored until the sounds (i.e., her pleas) stopped. But no matter how responsible those individuals are for what happened, there is equal responsibility held by the people who have designed the current approach within the Arizona Department of Corrections. People who institute and maintain systems of brutality have a vested interest in erasing its history so that it seems that the the system is “normal” and permanent, and that there is no way to create change.

The first step to being involved in change is then to learn how the system was set up so we can dismantle it. One excellent resource is the book Sunbelt Justice by Mona Lynch, which explains how Arizona’s carceral policies developed and the role that their approach plays in America’s current system of mass incarceration. Another step in combating brutality is to be in solidarity with prisoners, because wherever there is injustice there is always resistance. And perhaps one more element to remember is to keep an open mind about who can be part of standing up against the abuses as allies. There are people who have worked in Corrections who challenge the dehumanization and who have questioned what happened to Marcia Powell. The system is not as invulnerable to criticism from within as the leadership might want the public to think.

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Poloroid by Meneline Puryear.

Poloroid by Meneline Puryear

The name Colby Keller might be unfamiliar to you if you don’t follow mainstream gay media (or don’t watch gay porn, I guess). But if that’s your thing then you have surely heard by now that Keller, a ten-year veteran porn performer, has decided to buy a van and cross the country (and maybe Canada) in order to make porn in all 50 states. There’s an Indiegogo campaign to help him do it, and right now he’s actually surpassed his goal.

Colby Keller is tall—especially for someone in the porn industry—and scruffy, which is a thing now in gay porn but which wasn’t, really, when he started. He has a pretty massive fan base that likes him for his kooky sense of humor as much as for his porn work. He also visits more museums than anyone I’ve ever met who wasn’t directly employed by one, which he frequently documents on his blog, Big Shoe Diaries.

I’ve met Colby a handful of times. We have mutual friends, and a couple of years ago we saw each other at The Hookies, the international gay escort awards. (Those exist.) He was presenting one of the trophies and kindly snuck me his wristband to get into the VIP area, where a small group of us awkwardly marveled at everything that was happening around us.

He’s in LA right now on something of a media blitz—Vice declared him “the Marina Abramovic of gay porn” just a few days ago — but he was nice enough to answer some questions about Colby Does America over the phone. [READ MORE]

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via flickr user Iain Farrell

via flickr user Iain Farrell

Leaving academia isn’t just for sex workers, but there are a good number of former academics among our contributors and readers. Once you’ve done sex work and experienced the particular freedoms it affords, academia’s constraints can seem more chafing and its endgame more pointless. This post in particular prompted us to have some of them talk about their experiences with higher education and why they left. Thank you to our participants, who will introduce themselves:

Charlotte Shane: I’m in the US and I went to school here, mostly. I got one graduate degree (M.A.) and then went for another. The second time was when I became…A DROPOUT. I’ve been sex working in one form or another since the start of my first grad school stint. I also have various straight jobs, but none of them are dependant on any degree. (Not even high school, I don’t think.)

chelsea g. summers: Possessing a checkered academic past, I didn’t graduate college until my mid-30s, a few years after I started stripping. I worked the last year or so of college as a stripper, the year between undergrad and grad school, and the first two years of grad school. When I started my Ph.D. program, I quit stripping because I realized my students had fake IDs. It was fine if they were hot for teacher, but I didn’t need them to see the evidence that teacher was hot. Plus, I did my work at a Jesuit college here in New York City. I left my program with an M.Phil in 18th-century British Literature and a staggering amount of debt.

Lux ATL: You can find me on Facebook and Twitter. I spent 12 years in higher education, earning a B.A. in English, an M.A. in Creative Writing, and a Ph.D. in Literary Studies. In 2013 I finished my Ph.D. and officially became a doctor.  I taught Freshman Composition from 2006 until 2014. I also spent my entire adult life working on and off as a stripper and occasional nude model. I started stripping when I was 18 and have continued to strip, with breaks in between, until present. I am currently 32. [READ MORE]

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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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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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