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Activist Spotlight: Melissa Ditmore on Responsible Advocacy and No-BS Research

amelissaditmore2Dr. Melissa Ditmore is one of the sex workers’ rights movement’s most cherished academics. For twelve years, she has worked as a freelance research consultant, with an impressive list of clients that includes AIDS Fonds Netherland, UNAIDS, The Sex Workers’ Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center, and The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). Her work has focused not only on sex workers’ rights, but also those of similarly marginalized groups like migrant workers and drug users. She edited the groundbreaking anthology Sex Work Matters and the history Prostitution and Sex Work, headed seminal research like the Sex Workers’ Project’s “Behind Closed Doors,” and she’s written regular pro-sex workers’ rights pieces for RH Reality Check and The GuardianThe project she’s most known for, though, is the gargantuan effort that produced Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, a two volume labor of love that has already become a movement classic since its publication in 2006.

Jessica Land: How did you come to edit the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work? It’s such an important work for both academics and sex workers’ rights activists, but buying the Encyclopedia isn’t feasible for many people due to price. For this reason, I’m almost giddy every time I find the volumes in a library. Is the Encyclopedia widely available in library settings?

Melissa Ditmore: I am always thrilled to see the Encyclopedia in libraries and in their catalogs! As you say, it’s an expensive book, as are most reference works. Reference books are intended for libraries, so this is how most people will get access to it. It had a second printing, so it sold well, mostly to university libraries and public libraries. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story about a fictional encyclopedia that influences history. What I want for the Encyclopedia is for some of the history to be easily found and remembered, and being in libraries is key to that.

The publisher wanted to do this, and contacted Priscilla Alexander, who co-edited Sex Work, about taking it on. She was interested and asked me to work on it with her. As we worked on the proposal, it became clear that her job was too demanding for her to be able to do both her job and such a large editing project. And it was a large project: Priscilla helped with the initial list of entries, and there are 342 entries by 179 authors. Priscilla remained on the advisory board and was very helpful throughout.

Your vast contributions to sex work research have served the interests of sex workers’ rights activists for twelve years. You’ve been involved with a wide range of organizations, from the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) to PONY (Prostitutes of New York.)What are some of the harder things you have confronted?

PONY once received an inquiry from a female law enforcement officer in the American south, and I followed up. This officer told me that a well-connected officer she worked with was abusing his power to commit extreme violence. She said that he used his badge to force women into his car, and then he would take them far away from the place they met. She believed he had murdered women, and she feared for herself if she brought attention to it, but could not live with staying quiet either. While PONY had helped other people with referrals to attorneys and even introduced them to someone who successfully pressed charges against a serial rapist in NYC, PONY had nothing to offer her in her region, and this guy may have murdered again. She only got to vent, and I hope she found the courage to report her violent co-worker to the feds, as she made it sound like the equivalent of internal affairs there would not be helpful or concerned. That was deeply distressing for both of us.

Readers of Tits and Sass know that murders of sex workers are all too common and often happen without diligent investigation, as documented in the recent book Lost Girls.

Some of My Best Moves Can Hurt You: Elle’s Martial Arts Training

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Would you know how to get out of this? Pictured: Elle and instructor Justin Norton

Foster Fitness is a humble little gym on SE Foster in Portland, OR. The atmosphere is chipper, the air perpetually sticky, and sometimes the young children of Troy, the owner, are toddling around. Foster offers a variety of martial arts classes: Jujitsu, Judo, Krav Maga, Karate, and my choice; Arnis (pronounced: Ar-niece). I like this place, but despite the dozen nearby adult businesses and dance clubs, I am the only female who trains there.

In only three years stripping, I’ve worked with hundreds of women. Recent statistics tell us that by the age of 18, one in four females and one in six males will have been sexually assaulted. And victimization statistics indicate that some individuals tend to be at a higher likelihood for victimization, meaning that they will experience assault more than once in their lifetime.

Why, then, am I the only woman in my class?

For Their Own Good: SWOP-Phoenix’s Campaign Against Diversion Intiatives

Monica Jones with other SWOP-Phoenix members (Photo by Peggy Plews, courtesy of SWOP-Phoenix)
Monica Jones with other SWOP-Phoenix members (Photo by Peggy Plews, courtesy of SWOP-Phoenix)

SWOP-Phoenix, a new branch of national sex workers’ rights organization Sex Workers Outreach Project, mounted a campaign this year against the Project ROSE (Reaching Out To The Sexually Exploited) Prostitution Diversion Initiative, in which Phoenix police and students from the Arizona State University School of Social Work team up twice a year to arrest local sex workers who then face criminal charges or a six-month diversion program. After SWOP-Phoenix protested against Project ROSE in May, one of the protest participants was picked up by an undercover officer the following night and taken to the Project ROSE site. The SWOP member, Monica Jones, an accomplished activist and a student who takes courses at the ASU School of Social Work herself, was deemed ineligible for diversion, and now faces up to six months in jail. Fellow Phoenix activists started an indiegogo fundraiser for Jones’ legal defense. I interviewed SWOP-Phoenix member Jaclyn Moskal-Dairman over the course of a week. The following is modified from the Google doc shared between us as an outgrowth of an email interview.

One of your members, Monica Jones, was arrested for “manifestation of prostitution” after participating in the protests against Project Rose. Jones was in the diversion program before, and spoke eloquently about her experience being mistreated there as a trans woman and a student sex worker. Can you tell me more about her case?

We believe Monica was targeted by the Phoenix police department. The evening after she spoke at the protest she was walking to a bar in her neighborhood. She accepted a ride from what turned out to be an undercover cop. He began to solicit her and she warned him he that he should be careful because of the Project ROSE stings that were going on that evening. He kept propositioning her and she asked to be let out of his vehicle. He did not let her out and actually changed lanes so she couldn’t exit the car. She was frightened and thought she was being kidnapped (which she was). She asked him if he was a cop, because she didn’t want to assault an officer. They were pulled over for a “routine traffic stop” and she was placed under arrest for the intent to manifest prostitution.

What was SWOP-Phoenix’s response when you first heard about Project ROSE? What would you say to those who claim that diversion is at least an improvement over wholesale incarceration?

When I heard about Project ROSE through an activist friend I set out to interview the professor at the ASU School of Social Work who spearheaded the initiative, Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz. As a researcher, I tried my best to go into the interview unbiased until I had all of the details. Upon completing the interview I confronted Dr. Roe-Sepowitz about what I felt was wrong with Project ROSE, particularly the inherent contradiction of fighting coercion with coercion. Dr. Roe-Sepowitz explained that the initiative is completely police-driven. The School of Social Work has community organizations meet the apprehended community members at the initiative’s command post at Bethany Bible Church. The arrestees are met with prosecutors, as well as “tour guides,” who are ex-sex workers, and are told that they can have access to hygiene products, a hot meal, clothing, detox, mental healthcare, healthcare, safe housing and more, if they meet the eligibility criteria. After the interview, I compiled the research and met with a couple of activists from the Phoenix Harm Reduction Organization to discuss what we should do about it. They knew some folks from SWOP Tucson (who are incredible and have been supportive and essential in the creation of the Phoenix chapter) and SWOP PHX was formed as an emergency response. We immediately reached out to other activists and organizations, such as members of  [immigrant rights organization] Puente and Arizona Prison Watch, and began to strategize. We found out the exact dates of the next stings and began street and internet outreach to inform workers of the impending raids, handing out pamphlets and Know Your Rights information. We also protested outside of the Project ROSE command post, Bethany Bible Church.

Interview with Stoya

When I first saw a clip of Stoya in action, I was awestruck. She was the only female porn performer I’d ever seen who genuinely seemed to be enjoying it—smiling, even laughing a little, and simply radiating happiness. With her pale cheeks flushed pink and her dark hair slapping up and down around her face, she made little pleased noises instead of letting out a forced litany of “dirty talk” while some male performer (can’t remember a thing about him) went to town. I’m not an expert on her body of work, which has earned her AVN’s 2009 Best New Starlet award, but I do know that both those in the industry and casual fans alike all seem to regard her as intelligent, multitalented, and sincere. You can confirm this for yourself by checking out her twitter feed or her tumblr.

She graciously agreed to answer the following questions over email.

Stoya in a self-made skirt at AVN. Photo by Jeff Koga.

Tits and Sass <3's the Photography of Alicia Vera

"The girls were like, 'Fuck this shit. If these (civilian) girls can walk around like that (for Halloween), I'm going outside!'"

When I think of (non-posed*) strip club photos taken by outsiders—typically aspiring photojournalist types—I tend to cringe. There was the guy who was nice enough, but always just there in the dressing room. I hated that I had to walk to the bathroom to check my tampon string because this man and his giant camera were invading our space, lying in wait for one of the girls (out of those who had consented to being photographed) to do something. I wasn’t surprised to see that all his favorite photos were of the hottest messes smoking or doing lines. Then there are Terry Richardson’s strip club pictures.** They look like souvenirs that a customer using his cell phone on the sly helped himself to in order to snicker with his buddies later.