Interviews

Velvet Collar is a comic book series written and produced by worker Bryan Knight and drawn by queer comic artist Dave Davenport. It depicts the lives of five male sex workers. In the course of the series’ narrative, an escort listing service is shut down by the feds—a thinly-veiled representation of the Rentboy raid and subsequent prosecutions.

Dale Corvino, who as Ask Dominick was Rentboy’s advice blogger, interviewed the creators of the comic series for Tits and Sass. He spoke with Knight in person in New York, while corresponding with Davenport, who is based in Los Angeles. Corvino is now a board member of the Red Umbrella Project (RedUP). The org’s 2014 documentary Red Umbrella Diaries was generously supported by Rentboy’s founder, Jeffrey Hurant. RedUP will be coordinating with SWOP Behind Bars to provide support for Jeffrey while he serves his sentence related to the Rentboy prosecution. Of this effort, RedUP Program Director Lola Garcia says, “While workers are our primary concern, nobody deserves to be jailed for involvement in the sex trade, provided they are not coercing sex workers (i.e. sex traffickers).”

The interview that follows has been edited for length from Corvino’s emails with Davenport and a transcription of Corvino’s conversation with Knight.

Dale Corvino: The Velvet Collar Kickstarter discusses representation of sex workers in alternative comics. Chester Brown is probably the most prominent creator who mines the topic, but he is admittedly writing from the trick’s perspective. Other depictions often feature characters with limited agency, as you point out. (Though there are a few inspiring exceptions to this rule.) In the queer comic space, sexuality is often depicted; sex work rarely. Does the project of depicting workers as fully realized protagonists in the comic space challenge both the comic genre and the queer comic sub-genre?

Dave Davenport: Definitely. But I’ve known sex workers at all points of my life, a good deal of my friends have been so at one time or another, and I may have had to hustle to make the rent at one point in my life. It’s a part of life, it always has been, and always will be. It needs to be a part of comics as well.

Bryan Knight: First, I’m telling stories about real people who have done or are doing illegal things…and whatever ethics we may have about it, there’s that first fundamental block. The practice has a long stigma and people are going to reflexively flinch. Second thing, there’s sex. There’s graphic sex. I made the choice not to censor that part of their lives because it happens. Not only in the transactional sense, but as a part of their private lives…it’s about as real an experience as I could fully capture.

As for queer comics…in early queer comics, we didn’t worry about mainstream acceptance, we made it for our friends. We weren’t concerned about sales or reputation because we were already fucked!

Right now gays are in the mainstream, we have marriage, and part of that strategy has been desexualizing everything we are so this particular comic pushes us back into that realm where sex and identity are intertwined…the narratives of acceptance have been, “We’re just like you!” but the truth is, we’re not…a lot of naked truths get exposed and that’s what I plan to bring to the comic genre.

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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)

Editor’s note, 8/31/2017: In light of Trump’s pardon of former sheriff Joe Arpaio for his contempt of court conviction re: the order to cease his reign of terror against immigrants in Arizona’s Maricopa County, we’re posting an updated edition of my September 2014 interview with PJ Starr. I interviewed Starr on her documentary about Marcia Powell, a sex worker left caged in the Arizona sun to die of heat stroke and dehydration in Perryville Prison. Arpaio is a mass inmate murderer and human rights violator. During his tenure as sheriff, many prisoners died of negligence and exposure, suicide in despair at intolerable conditions, and beatings from guards. Maricopa County paid out millions of dollars in lawsuits over these deaths. The Phoenix New-Times called them “a parade of corpses“, but Arpaio refused to disclose exactly how many prisoners had died. However, the paper verified that the rate of prisoner suicides alone in his facilities “dwarf[ed]” those of “other county lockups”. Arpaio himself once proudly called his tent city a “concentration camp.” His carceral tent city and chain gang model spread throughout the state, and Arpaio’s brutality was itself a reflection of the state’s violent, punitive criminal justice system. Powell wasn’t under Arpaio’s care when she died, but she went through his jail system, and the agony she suffered was a direct result of his approach to the prison industrial complex. Her blood is on his hands. And because of Arizona’s draconian prostitution mandatory minimums, many other sex workers endured Arpaio’s abuses as well. And yet, Arpaio himself is only a symptom of Arizona’s consistent disregard for prisoners’ human rights. 

I asked Starr a few additional questions this week which I’ve appended to the end of this interview, to find out what she learned about Arpaio in the course of making her documentary and working alongside SWOP-Phoenix.

Content warning: this post describes the murder of an imprisoned sex worker through neglect and human rights abuse in graphic detail. It also touches on structural violence and violence against sex workers in general.

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.

Who is the intended audience for 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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Alex Andrews.

Alex Andrews is the 53-year old lead organizer of both SWOP-Orlando and SWOP Behind Bars and the new North American representative to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). For almost a decade and a half in her younger years, she did various forms of sex work—beginning with stripping to supplement her hair dressing income, she went on to do escort and phone sex work, as well as to run her own escort service. She bowed out of active sex work in 1998 because, she explains,”multiple arrests and incarceration put [me] at risk for spending way more time in prison than [I] was willing to serve.” But she continued to represent sex worker interests in local anti-trafficking organizations and to do community work supporting incarcerated sex workers. In 2016, she started SWOP Behind Bars specifically to serve the needs of imprisoned sex workers, and in its year or so of operation, the organization has been extremely effective, providing vital resources for this population. The interview below is a condensed and edited version of an e-mail correspondence I had with Andrews on her work at SWOP Behind Bars.

How did SWOP Behind Bars get started?

We got started when I engaged an anti-trafficking corrections officer from a local women’s prison in a Twitter fight. I was on my civvie Twitter account and some other sex worker activists joined me and we [were] just hammering this guy on his philosophies and the way that women were treated in prison, particularly sex workers. After about an hour of just being humiliated by some of the most respected activists in the U.S. responding to his patronizing tweets, he suddenly direct messaged me that he hated his organization as much as we did.

He turned out to have been one of the key factors to [as to] why the Lowell Women’s Prison was investigated by the Miami Herald and these articles […resulted in] getting about six people fired, including the assistant warden. I met with him the following week and then Dr. Jill McCracken joined me for another meeting a couple weeks later. Katherine Koster jumped in and suggested we ask SWOP-USA for some money. And next thing you know, we had a website, Facebook, Twitter, and a newsletter. It went out to about 200 people the first month (May 2016) and we have almost doubled our requests every month.

Why do you think there wasn’t a peer organization specifically formed around supporting incarcerated sex workers before, since so much of the U.S. movement is focused around the injustice of sex worker arrest and incarceration? Is it because usually sex workers are only incarcerated for prostitution for relatively small periods of time, even though they may often be incarcerated for longer for other survival “crimes” such as trafficking charges, assault or murder charges incurred in self-defense against violent clients, and drug possession?

Well, there are actually a lot of people who are working inside of county jails all over the country. Jacqueline Robarge has been working with incarcerated sex workers in Baltimore for more than 10 or 15 years. SWOP-Baltimore has an active book donation program. Sherrie in San Antonio recently got her chaplain’s license so she could actually go into the prisons and jails and meet with incarcerated sex workers. We are far from the only prison program. LGBT Books to Prisoners sends resource packets inside every three months. Black and Pink is almost legendary in the work they do with pen pals.  Everything they do is a study in perfection!

But the great thing that kept sex workers from really digging in?  Fear.  There is within all of us a terror of engaging with the criminal justice system.  We try so hard to avoid cops and probation officers and courts…I still get incredibly nervous when I get pulled over or find myself behind a uniformed cop at the grocery store.  We didn’t know what we would find.  There are many of us that have worked within our county jail systems and done street outreach but I think the idea of engaging with women in PRISON was just terrifying. [It’s]  “whorearchy” and though many of us reject that idea…we all recognize it exists.

SWOP Behind Bars was unifying is some weird kind of way.  We all felt it pretty strongly.  The entire community wanted to reach out to these folks and we found the least frightening—and yet the easiest—way to do it!  Completely by accident.

As a fellow white woman, how do you deal with the racial disparities that must come up in your work? It’s much more likely for imprisoned sex workers to be people of color and for the sex workers with the time and privilege to do activism to help them to be white. How do you accommodate for that fact and the power imbalance involved in SWOP Behind Bars’ work?

I have found that being a white women of privilege working with incarcerated people of color is much like being a man talking about abortion.  Shut the fuck up.  People of color can and DO speak for themselves if we white people would just get out of the fucking way.  We shoot ourselves in the foot time and time again because we keep thinking we have to “Do Something For Them”, when really the best thing to do is make sure we haven’t gobbled up all the access to resources.  I would never try to tell someone what they need or how to get it…I’m absolutely rigid in requiring consent before working on behalf of someone else.

White people have oppressed and exploited people of color for centuries.  I may not be able to stop that, but I intend to exploit every ounce of my white privilege to make lots of room for voices that want to be heard.  If we concentrate really hard on including people who might be different than us to lead the way instead of insisting that they follow us…well, that’s a good start.  The next step is making sure we are doing that for the right reason and not tokenizing them.  And after that, step down!  Take a back seat and be supportive and don’t suck all the air out of the room.  For the love of all things holy—it’s not about us, so we should let the people who know what they need make the decisions.

SWOP Behind Bars has a significant service component to its work. Though there are some powerful service organizations in the movement, such as St James Infirmary, many peer organizations don’t have the resources to maintain direct service action. What tips can you give other peer organizations and sex worker activists in general about how to sustain service work in their communities?

PARTNER!  Stop doing things alone!  Put aside personal dislikes or differences and engage with other organizations and do meaningful work.  Sex workers self-isolate for lots of different reasons.  But we share the social media spaces and we get to know each other a little better.

Some of us have infiltrated service networks.  Others have partnered with like-minded human rights community-based organizations. There are a LOT of sex worker rights folks already doing stuff in county jails—they just don’t come in waving their red umbrella.  Go to meetings that are outside your comfort zone because you know they may share some—if not all—of the your viewpoints.  Start explaining decrim to people who don’t understand the difference [between decriminalization and legalization].  Carry copies of the Amnesty International policy recommending full decrim world wide and hand them to people who just saw headlines and didn’t get it.  Engage with your public defenders’ offices.  Especially if they have a social worker component.  Public defenders LOVE the idea of decriminalizing sex work because it would take a load of work off their desks.

And don’t be afraid to LISTEN. We TALK a lot because we have a LOT to say…but sometimes it’s important to let other people talk, and they will reveal how they feel and then we can tailor our response to meet their need.  I go to anti-trafficking meetings and take lots of fact-based literature with me and hand it out. They don’t have to hear me say everything out loud.  Understanding sex worker rights has to be absorbed slowly.  They need to have time to fully understand how the things they are doing—like end demand and raid and rescue—harm us.  They digest it a little more slowly by reading it at home when they have time.

Believe me—when a sex worker rights activist goes in an anti-trafficking space, we are unicorns.  Most [of them] have never seen one.  They don’t know we exist.

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Vee Chattie. (Photo by Mandy Flame, courtesy of Vee Chattie)

One of the best people I have met through sex worker groups is undoubtedly Vee Chattie. We met in person a couple of years ago in the back seat of a car on the way to a hearing at the Capitol.

Vee develops hard-hitting performance art and organizes activist events, but the bulk of their work is stand-up comedy. They took a brief hiatus from stand-up when moving to Seattle a few years ago, but came back to it with force, hitting multiple open mics per night and making a name for themselves as not only a hilarious stand-up, but a tough person who is cool to hang out with. What follows is an edited and condensed version of an interview I did with them via text messaging:

What was the impetus behind The Comedy Whore?

Basically, every time I went to an open mic, comedians (mostly the young male ones, go figure) would ask me questions about work. At first, I just told them I’d answer the question if they bought me a drink, and that request was completely ignored. So, I thought I could just invite them for a sit down and they could ask the questions in a more formal way. And also I could record it and use it for the entertainment value rather than just going home annoyed.

Also, you’ve got them on record being ridiculous. So they can’t ever deny being shitty (if they were being shitty rather than ignorant).

Honestly, it doesn’t take that much to get a comedian on record being shitty.

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Jacqueline Frances (Photo by Danielle Rafanan)

Jacqueline Frances has drawn attention and acclaim with her deceptively simple cartoons of everyday strip club doings.  The simplicity of her comics draws you in, and before you know it, you’re seeing men and masculinity from a sex workers’  view that few people can bring themselves to take on consciously. Frances toured last year with her baby-stripper memoir The Beaver Show, and is touring this year with her new project, Striptastic!, a comic book celebration of strippers.  She’s traveling the country for the next month and a half on the Sex Witch Tour.

Red: So, early on in Striptastic! you have a great illustration of a woman onstage saying she’s smashing patriarchy, and then you write a bit below that about how stripping is feminist and against patriarchy.

And I wanted to ask if you think it’s that simple, because there are later illustrations of “bad nights,” and one of a girl being groped where the caption is something like, “for every Instagram picture of a stripper with stacks, this is what she had to put up with” (which is WAY TOO REAL). These illustrations hint at a different reality, one where women/strippers don’t have all the power—or much power at all—and the work is a complex negotiations of boundaries with customers for cash and then with management for their respect (or for them to at least act like it) and with some management beggaring dancers before allowing them to leave after a slow night.

So, given these illustrations, I was wondering how you see stripping now, if you still see it as a patriarchy-smashing activity, or if it is in fact just another job with compromises like everything else, or if it can be both. Can it be patriarchy-smashing if the clubs are set up to profit men with as minimal benefit to the dancer as possible? Is a woman with low or no social capital being able to earn a living radical (I think it is!), but can that also co-exist with the fact that she’s able to make this living by working in a space that expressly centers men, male desires, and male conspicuous consumption of female energy, bodies, and services?

And is her work that benefits all these men, is that still smashing patriarchy?

Jacqueline Frances: No, it’s definitely not that simple. We exist within it and all have bills to pay. There are many ways to chip away at and/or smash the patriarchy, and I don’t believe there is one pure and simple way to do it.

Red: What’s your ideal outcome with the book? Are you trying to build stripper solidarity? What would you like to do with that, if that’s your goal? What are your visions?

Jacq: Yeah, I totally want to build stripper solidarity! Hmm, what was my goal with the book? I don’t know—the book kind of just happened organically, I started drawing and I knew that people were disappointed that The Beaver Show wasn’t illustrated—

Red: [laughing] Did you see the review—someone posted a review of The Beaver Show and it was clear they hadn’t even touched it, they describe it as a comic book and I was like, “Mmmm…”

Jacq: No, it’s not! But yeah, there are a lot of typos and it is a baby stripper memoir, it’s how you start. And so I was like, “I guess I should make a book of pictures!”

So I made it, and the survey made it not so much a book about me, more about other people. And I was talking to my mom today, [telling her that] I want it to feel like a yearbook, I want other strippers to open it up and relate to it and be happy about the positive memories and the strength they’ve discovered through stripping and sex work. I really want it to be an artifact for the women who’ve done the work, to celebrate their achievement. And I also want it to be educational for people who don’t do it, but that’s not my MO.

My MO is not teaching dudes, that’s all I do at work all day. I’ll offer some pearls of wisdom, or my zine, How not to be a dick in the strip club, which I just made available on Amazon again, but this is a gift for strippers.

…I’d love to usher in more women telling their stories. I know it’s not safe to come out, I know I have a ton of privilege that makes it safe—stripping is legal, I’m white, I’m educated—I have a lot of privilege that makes it easier to come out, so I want to use that. I want to start a dialogue. [READ MORE]

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