Mary Mitchell. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times, via Mitchell's Twitter feed)

Mary Mitchell. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times, via Mitchell’s Twitter feed)

Content warning: this piece contains discussion of sexual violence.

You may have read the recent editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times, an opinion piece in which Mary Mitchell argues that sex workers who are raped by a client are making a mockery of “real” rape survivors by even considering what happened to them to be sexual assault. Luckily, the majority of commentators discussing the editorial see it for what it is: a blatantly discriminatory piece of rape apologism. While the actual piece itself has been critiqued by multiple different authors and websites, the question of how sex work, sexual assault, and consent are related is a frequent topic in the discourse around sex work and its legality. Rather than stopping at simply declaring Mary Mitchell to be a peculiarly regressive quasi-feminist, it may be more helpful to examine the ways Mitchell’s views are actually in line with how most non-sex workers see our ability to consent.

Mitchell’s piece is filled with questionable reasoning and a variety of anti-sex worker phrases. She makes sure to allude to a victim narrative by mentioning “pimps” and “trafficking” (neither of which were present in this crime), but at the same time wishes to hold sex workers accountable for our own sexual assaults. Even more strangely, her qualifications of what deserves to be called “rape” (you know, “rape-rape”) seem inconsistent. She wants us to know that she doesn’t think women are responsible for their own rape if they “dressed too provocatively or misled some randy guy,” but seems to think that a man threatening a woman with a gun for sex is somehow not really sexual assault. What’s important for her is that we sex workers put ourselves in a situation which will obviously lead to sex: we’ve already consented by agreeing to take money. “It’s tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim,” she writes, because it’s clear the sex worker was going to consent anyhow. What is the difference between financial stability and not being shot to death, anyways?

It would be nice if Mitchell were the only person who thought this way, but unfortunately, the world is full of people with similar opinions. I’ve heard too many men joke, “If you rape a hooker, is it rape or shoplifting?” to read this as an isolated incident. And surely enough, there is at least one recent case where officials have dismissed sexual assault charges when a sex worker is the victim. In fact, the judge in that scenario, Philadelphia’s Teresa Carr Deni, used the same exact arguments that Mitchell did: calling the sexual assault of sex workers rape demeans real rape victims; it is actually more a “theft of services” (a direct quote from both Mitchell and the judge, incidentally).

Rather than an opinion held by particularly vicious bigots, I think this is actually a belief held by most non-sex workers, including many of our clients. Sex workers, in the eyes of many, are just people who are particularly lascivious, who get into sex work because they are that into having sex with lots of people. Almost every sex worker I know has a story of a client who thought that after one or two times of meeting, the sex worker would be willing to stop taking payment for their work; clients habitually try to barter us down on the presumption that we must be getting our own payment (in terrible sex). Even people who purport to be allies might hold this view: a non-sex worker who had worked on campaigns for decriminalization once asked me as I was heading off to meet a john they thought was particularly dangerous, “What is the thrill?”

In this view, our entry into sex work is a sort of broad consent: we’ve consented to whatever a client might do to us simply by being in the life. Any ability to individually consent to one round of sex is swept away, let alone the ability to consent to certain acts and not others. This is especially true for sex workers whose demographics are already highly fetishized as “always up for it,” like trans women or black women, and especially sex workers in both those demographics.



(Photo by Flickr user quinn anya)

(Photo by Flickr user quinn anya)

Content warning: this piece contains discussion of sexual violence.

By now, most reading this are probably familiar with Mary Mitchell’s Chicago Sun-Times column in which she editorializes that sex workers are responsible if they are raped, for they willingly put themselves “at risk for harm”—as if the rape of a sex worker is an occupational hazard much the way a lifeguard should expect to get wet. I would expect this type of pettiness in an anonymous online comment, not from a seasoned and respected columnist on the payroll of a major newspaper. While the views in Mitchell’s column are not rare, it is troubling to see them endorsed by the Sun-Times, suggesting the paper is more concerned with publishing a sensational, illogical, and callous opinion than it is with the harm done by reinforcing such stigma.

Mary Mitchell grew up in Chicago housing projects, and she is considered by many as an authority on race relations in Chicago. One would think Mitchell would be sympathetic to the marginalized depictions sex workers face in the media. It’s disappointing that a prominent journalist who has worked hard to call attention to inequity in her city would so eagerly discount the violent rape of a sex worker as a mere “theft of services.”

I suppose her daftness on the subject of sex work shouldn’t come as a surprise. In a column earlier this summer, Mitchell gushed over anti-Backpage lobbyist and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s letter to Visa and MasterCard asking the credit card companies to block payments to the sex work advertising website. Mitchell also repeatedly mentions Backpage in her recent column. Her use of a quote from Dart is disconcerting: “They go on the Website and meet at a hotel or people’s houses. Things can get very volatile,” he tells her, keeping in line with a victim-blaming narrative framing assaults against sex workers all too often. One has to wonder if Mitchell would have found it worthwhile to write on this crime at all if shutting down Backpage wasn’t such an important crusade for Tom Dart. Is the rape victim sex worker somehow more blameworthy in Mitchell’s eyes because she advertised on a website that has come under so much scrutiny? Hardly a week goes by in which the Sun-Times doesn’t give coverage to Dart and his war on sex work, never failing to mention Backpage. In contrast, commentators elsewhere, including editorialists at the city’s other daily paper, the Chicago Tribune, criticize the sheriff for far exceeding his authority.




(Photo by Lane V. Erickson, via Shutterstock)

One of the more difficult aspects of living as a sex worker is never knowing exactly whom you can trust. Sometimes even allies can say offensive things or break confidentiality. In the wake of such indiscretions, it’s sex workers themselves who are left to navigate that broken trust and the increased vulnerability that comes along with it. I know this pattern leaves me wary, and it is perhaps this wariness that led many sex workers to mistrust the Give Forward fundraising campaign initiated on behalf of Heather, a sex worker in West Virginia who survived an attack at her apartment by a serial killer posing as a client.

The Give Forward campaign was launched shortly after the attack on July 18th by a man and a woman local to the area who knew each other, but who did not know Heather before Falls’ death. In an article on The Daily Dot by Mary Emily O’Hara from July 31st, the woman involved with the campaign, Laura Gandee, is quoted: “I got a text message from a friend telling me that Heather was hungry, upset, and feeling all alone in her apartment, and asking me if I could I take her some food and go comfort her…Of course I said I would, if she was willing to let me.” The article doesn’t reveal who this friend was, and while it implies that Heather was willing to let a stranger into her home after the trauma of Falls’ attack there, it does not indicate her comfort with Gandee’s visit in her own words. Gandee went on to say that, “I have spoken to a number of people who are part of a movement to ensure sex workers’ rights. At first they were very skeptical of our campaign because they couldn’t believe anyone from outside their circle would step up to help someone in their industry after a tragedy like this. I told them West Virginians are different.”

Gandee’s words conjure images of any number of rescuers sex workers have known, armed with ostensibly good intentions, and confident in their own efficacy in situations with which they have little familiarity. While many cultures in the United States and elsewhere, including those of West Virginia and other parts of the South, value loyalty and neighborliness in a crisis, it’s equally true is that sex workers often live in dual spaces of invisibility and hypervisibility. Many of us operate in the underground economy. Often, our friends and family don’t know about our work until we are arrested, outed, or otherwise thrust into the spotlight. Our work, and entire parts of our lives, are unknown to people one day and revealed the next to be judged by anyone with a half-formed opinion on sex work.


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(All photos are courtesy of Hypnox Productions)


It began with a long drive out to Hillsboro, Oregon, also known as BFO, or Butt Fuck Oregon. The spacious parking lot of the Runway Club was already almost full, and I motored past the flashing lights of the #VaginaMobile, to squeeze my tiny car next to a trailer. The sun was setting, and the excited energy was palpable.

It was 9 PM on a recent Thursday, and the stage was set for the world infamous Vagina Beauty Pageant. Runway is a newer club, about a year old, and I was pleased to see that their shift dancers varied in body shape from XXXtina Aguilera-thin to Taystee OITNB thick. Generally, Portland city dancers tend to be slender, white, and tattooed.

Much like all clubs though, the crowd was an even mix of single guys tipping, creepy guys leering, throw in a couple of jealous girlfriends sneering, and plenty of dancers hustling and heel-clacking.

The pageant’s creator, Dick Hennessy, took the stage and announced the rules. As usual, there would be no photography or touching allowed by the audience. Event photographer Hypnox handed a video camera to fellow judge Reed McClintock, at my left, and Vice contributor Susan Shepard readied her cell camera, as did I.

In contrast to last year’s scoring, contestants would be judged in two different ways. Performance scorecards would be held up after each competitor’s performance, visible to all. Privately, we passed index cards marking our score of the performers’ aesthetics. Hennessey devised this method specifically to avoid hurt feelings.


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(Photo via Amnesty International USA Flickr account)

(Photo via Amnesty International USA Flickr account)

As the vote this weekend at the Amnesty International General Council Meeting in Dublin approaches on whether the human rights organization will adopt a draft proposal supporting the decriminalization of prostitution as policy, I spoke, via e-mail, to Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) President Pye Jakobsson on NSWP’s petition to Amnesty urging them to vote in favor of it. Jakobsson is also the co-founder of Rose Alliance, Sweden’s sex workers’ rights organization, so she has key insight into the Swedish model of criminalizing sex workers’ clients championed by the the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, the prohibitionist organization behind the petition asking Amnesty to vote against the proposal for decriminalization.

Can you comment on the notorious petition by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women urging Amnesty International members to vote against the decriminalization proposal when it’s submitted at the organization’s International Council Meeting in Dublin this weekend? It’s been signed by a gaggle of celebrities—Kate Winslet, Lena Dunham, Anne Hathaway, and Emma Thompson among them—and it received a lot of attention in the news last week. Why do you think so many in Hollywood are drawn to anti-sex worker anti-trafficking activism?

I find the whole thing revolting. actually. Right, so I get holding babies is getting kind of old, and animal rights is too mainstream to gain any real attention, so now they are hugging trafficking victims.

There are just so many problems with that, though:

1) Grown up women are neither children nor puppies.
2) People who are being exploited in the sex industry need rights, not hugs.
3) Just because you once played a hooker doesn’t give you any extra special insights [in]to what sex workers and/or people who experience exploitation in the sex industry need.

How can we fight back against that sort of star power to make our case in the court of public opinion?

I really want to answer [with] some fancy, clever version of “we have truth on our side,” but so far that hasn’t been enough.

Last weekend, me and a long-time activist looked at each other and said “Shit, we need to scramble up some celebrities.” Truth is, there are not many of those around. The actor Rupert Everett that supports ECP (English Collective of Prostitutes) is one. Rose Alliance has our own little celebrity if one is into kitsch European disco from the 80s, in our member (and yes, former sex worker) Alexander Bard. If you’ve never heard of his iconic group Army of Lovers, I dare you to look them up. But that’s it.

I am not really sure we want to go after celebrities unless they have actually worked as sex workers. I prefer sticking to sex workers themselves as the experts. I do think that it is time to hold all our so-called allies accountable. You say you are on our side? Now would be a really good time to prove it. This last week several people within the UNAIDS family, Amnesty, and other big organizations have been risking their own jobs trying to do what’s right. Now, that is commitment.

It is easy saying you are an ally because you feel all fluffy inside [on the] IAC (International AIDS Conference) when you walk around with a badge saying “Save us from saviours,” but what about the rest of the year? I know I am not very flexible on this—ask our allies in Sweden. We really don’t let them fuck around. There is no time for pretty words while people are dying.

I really think we need to demand more of our allies. It is time for some old school hardcore activism—either you are with us or you are against us. And no, owning a red umbrella does not count. We need our research spread, our petitions signed and more doors opened. We need to be included in decision making processes at all levels, and those who claim to be our allies should facilitate that. I got allergic to…buzz words of sympathy without any action or commitment the […] second [Swedish sex worker] Jasmine got murdered, and I haven’t changed since.