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(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)

NSFW PHOTOS AFTER THE JUMP

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.

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Why listen to us when you could listen to Meryl Streep? (Photo by Flickr user mostribus84)

Why listen to us when you could listen to Meryl Streep? (Photo by Flickr user mostribus84)

On July 22, a long list of prohibitionists, working through the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, released an open letter to Amnesty International as part of their long-running fight to stop them from officially adopting a pro-decriminalization of sex work stance. The letter urged the organization to vote against a draft proposal supporting decriminalization at their International Council meeting in Dublin this coming week. Besides roping in many of the usual suspects in anti-sex work circles—Janice Raymond, Julie Bindel, Rachel Moran, Robin Morgan, Meagan Tyler, etc.—the petition sought celebrity endorsements in an attempt to use fame to advance its cause. And sign on the celebrities did: Lena Dunham, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Emma Thompson, Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Kline, Christine Baranski, and Chris Cooper were among the more prominent names included.

When I first read that list, besides feeling like half of my favorite films had just been ruined for me, I was also really worried. People look up to these names. Who would listen to us in the sex workers’ rights movement when they could listen to Meryl Streep? The battle to support Amnesty International’s proposed stance has been a long and draining one for sex workers internationally, and it saw some particularly nasty fights here in Australia when prohibitionists tried to shout down sex workers at Amnesty Australia’s annual general meeting last July. As absurd as it was that a bunch of Hollywood’s most privileged could consider their voices about our oppression more important than our own, there was a lot of power and money in that list of names, and I was concerned that it might actually shift the course of Amnesty’s vote.

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Alix Tichelman. (Photo via the freealixt Twitter acount)

Alix Tichelman. (Photo via the freealixt Twitter acount)

Last month in Santa Cruz, 27 year old sugar baby and fetish model Alix Tichelman pled guilty to manslaughter in the heroin overdose death of her Google executive client Forrest Hayes, and was sentenced to six years in prison.

Throughout the eight months Tichelman was in custody, the media luridly painted her as “The Callgirl Killer,” “The Harbor Hooker,” or simply, baldly, as a “prostitute,” even though she hadn’t worked as an escort since early in 2012 and actually met Hayes on Seeking Arrangement as a sugar daddy. Meanwhile, no article on the case failed to mention that Hayes was an employee of Google X and father of five. Despite the fact that this was clearly “an accidental overdose between two consenting adults,” as Tichelman’s lawyer Larry Biggam put it, and that the two were known to have been involved in an ongoing commercial sexual relationship involving drug use, most coverage painted the young sex worker as a heartless killer. All of the media I read made sure to quote Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark’s comment to NBC News that “she [Tichelman] was so callous,” and describe the footage on the yacht’s surveillance video in which she stepped over his body to lower the curtains and sip from a glass of wine.

Few news outlets quoted Assistant District Attorney Rafael Velasquez’s words at the case’s conclusion, belying this presentation of Tichelman as a dope-fiend black widow: “This is a manslaughter case. There was no intent to kill and there was no conscious disregard for human life…She demonstrated an attempt to initially try to help him out, crying while holding him, trying to shake him, trying to wake him.”

These two accounts of the surveillance video are so starkly different that one must assume that a lot of the behavior being touted as proof of Tichelman’s inhumanity represents her reaction before she even knew Hayes was dead, when she thought he was merely in a nod—the typical effect of opiates.

What would have happened to Alex Tichelman had she called the police?

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