Interviews

Bruises Brenneman sustained from one of the beatings she suffered at the hands of men hired by Isgitt. (Photo by Amanda Brooks via her blog, courtesy of Amanda Brooks and Jill Brenneman)

Bruises on Brenneman’s back from a beating she suffered at the hands of Isgitt’s hired men. (Photo by Amanda Brooks via her blog, courtesy of Amanda Brooks and Jill Brenneman)

Interview co-authored by Josephine and Caty

Content warning—the following contains descriptions of extreme injuries and rape suffered by two sex workers due to a campaign of violence by an abusive client, as well as an account of child abuse.

Jill Brenneman and Amanda Brooks are veterans and heroines of the sex workers’ rights movement.  As a teen, Brenneman suffered years of of brutal abuse in which she was coerced into working as a professional submissive. In the early aughts, Jill made an amazing conversion from membership in the prohibitionist movement to sex workers’ rights activism. She set up SWOP-EAST from the remains of an anti sex work organization she’d led. SWOP-EAST grew to be one of the most vital sex workers’ rights organizations of the era. Brenneman was also a frequent contributor to early sex workers’ rights blogs like Bound Not Gagged.

Amanda Brooks is the acclaimed author of The Internet Escort’s Handbook series, the first one of which she published in 2006. They served as an important resource for escorts advertising online back when there were few other how-to sources on the topic. She was also one of the earliest escort bloggers starting in 2005, writing entries brimming with eloquence and common sense at After Hours.

The two fell off the map recently.

When they returned, we were shocked to read Brooks’ blog post about what they’d endured: a campaign of terror by one of Brooks’ clients, affluent lawyer Percy LaWayne Isgitt. Isgitt—Brenneman and Brooks call him “Pig”—caused both Brenneman and Brooks severe brain injuries when his arrogance and negligence piloting a plane the three of them were in led to a catastrophic “hard landing.” Despite the fact that Brooks was clearly incapacitated and near death, Brenneman had to browbeat Pig into taking her to the hospital the next day. Once Brooks was checked in, Pig fraudulently signed in as her relative and attempted to control her treatment. Despite her still severely injured state, Brooks continued to see Pig as a client for two sessions after her hospitalization, in desperate need of money to pay for medical bills. When she finally tried to break ties with him, he hired people to make threatening phone calls to both women. In response, Brooks went into hiding, so Pig sent men to stalk, rape, and beat Brenneman on a number of occasions, trying to discover Brooks’ location. Neither the police, nor the many medical facilities that misdiagnosed them along the way, nor the personal injury lawyer they hired were any help to the two women against a deranged, abusive man with wealth and social capital.

The injuries Brenneman suffered from the plane crash combined with the injuries she sustained from the attacks led to the fatal exacerbation of her previous medical conditions. Her doctors have told her she has very little time left to live.

This story illustrates the insidious way institutions empower abusers to commit violence against sex workers. The only people they can often rely on in these situations are other sex workers. You can read the original account here and donate to their Giftrocket account using this email address: abrooks2014@hush.com. Donations will be shared equally between them to cover their respective medical costs.

Amanda, you write in your blog post, in reference to Jill’s past abuse:

To those who doubt, her stories are true. They’re things only men would think up and most of the time, it’s the mundane details that stand out the most to both of us. I’ve read stories from so-called trafficking victims who describe ridiculous “Satanic” rituals or elaborate set-ups. The truth is, the men who were Bruce’s [Jill’s captor’s] clients weren’t very bright, in my opinion, and they had a lot of the same stupid fantasies and beliefs that most vanilla clients do—only much darker and violent.

This factor plays into your story of how Pig hurt you both, too. There’s a voyeuristic undertone to the way people listen to stories of abuse. People expect the “elaborate set-ups,” and yet abuse is usually no different than other misbehavior in kind, if not in degree—abusers do it because they want to feel big, or because they care about themselves a lot more than they care about anyone else. How do you think the fact that often stories of abuse are mundane and banal makes it harder for victims to get help?

Jill Brenneman: People don’t want to believe the mundane stories, they want to believe the exotic stories. Like a wife who gets hit. Unless she’s put in the hospital, no one cares. Or she returns home because she has children. But the trafficking victim imported from Estonia gets all the attention.

Amanda Brooks: Because they’re too believable or not dramatic enough. [Pig] raped me twice, yet it’s not something most people acknowledge as rape. It even took me a while to realize that it was rape, despite how I felt about it. People like to parse situations down to the point where the only way it’s “real” is if it’s outlandish.

Jill, you were held captive by a sadist for three years in your teens, and forced to endure unimaginable abuse. As an adult you returned to sex work voluntarily to make a living, and then you went through this ordeal with Amanda at Pig’s hands. What unusual problems have you faced as a sex working abuse survivor? What can we do as a movement to make things better for the abuse survivors among us?

Jill: The ordeal that Amanda went through made me livid and still does.

Working as an abuse survivor led me to more abuse. I learned from [my captor and abuser] Bruce in the 80’s. Bruce was a cliche master sadist. There was never a sense of love or affection between him and I. I was an object. I did what I was was told. I was taught how to relate to clients. I overapplied this training as an adult. I willingly went back to work as a professional submissive. This was a place that I did not belong. Despite there being a 19 year gap between [my captivity and going back to] sex work, I did not belong in sex work —especially as a professional submissive. I needed the money to pay for very expensive subcutaneous blood thinners because of a clotting disorder. I needed to pay the rent, the car payment, food, care for the dog, etc. I took the work that came. I started off with two old pictures of myself, no website, no reviews, and took some pro-sub clients to make money when it was tight. I did not belong in sex work. I was still far too impacted from previous abuse to be doing it but I had no choice, I needed the money.

The most important thing the movement needs to do is work on decriminalization so that we have options.

Amanda: The movement truly doesn’t have the power to deal with this, unfortunately. Until the laws are changed, we never will.

[READ MORE]

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Juniper Fleming's "Venus of Urbino" in Reclamation and (Dis)Atonement. (Via Fleming's site)

Juniper Fleming’s “Venus of Urbino” in Reclamation and (Dis)Atonement (courtesy of the artist)

I interviewed sex worker artist Juniper Fleming on her collaborative photo series with other sex workers, Reclamation and (Dis)Atonement.

Your project consists of remaking iconic Western art works, creating photographic reproductions in which you replace the main figures in the paintings with sex workers. What does depicting sex workers in these roles achieve?

As sex workers we use the archetypes represented in these paintings every day in our performances, at work and in life. This history, and reality, of the feminine script is one that you cannot escape, but you can define your relationship to, through fantasy and inversion. As sex workers we are the inversion, at the same time as we are the embodiment, of the feminine.

How do you feel about the way sex workers are classically portrayed in the Western canon? I do recall some bright points, like all those gory paintings representing the triumph of heroic Biblical harlot Judith, when she beheads the general (and client) Holofernes for the Israelites.​ I was happy to see one of your photos is a riff on one of these paintings.​

Well, first what has to be re-established from history is that sex workers were often models and muses for artists. Caravaggio often employed sex workers as models in his paintings. His piece ”Death of the Virgin” was rejected by the commissioning parish because it depicted the well-known courtesan, Fillide Melandroni, as the Virgin Mary. And the modern (Western) canon has painters such as Manet, Degas, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Seurat divulging their fascination or at least proximity to sex work in their paintings. Many of them went directly to brothels to do some of their most famous work. Countless other times, however, our position as the model, muse, and/or subject has gone undocumented. These reimaginings are so important because they include us in celebrated and preserved artifacts, when so much of our history has been erased, deemed invaluable, throughout time.

Which model did you decide to use for each photo and why?

Actually, when a worker decides they want to collaborate with me on the project, they get to choose the painting. I have a growing index of paintings, throughout the span of art history, that represent the feminine in some way. Each person looks through that index, or comes with a painting I don’t have, and we go from there. Then we work together to design the props, with them collaborating as much or as little as they want.

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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.

[READ MORE]

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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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