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Activist Spotlight: Pye Jakobsson On the Amnesty International Vote and Holding Allies Accountable

(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.

The Worst Sex Work Headlines of 2014

image via Library of Congress

From Belle Knox to working the World Cup, the headline writers of the world’s publications had cause to write many headlines about sex work. In chronological order, we bring you the worst ten of the bunch, each gross, reductive, and hateful in its own special way.

I Begged For Change To Stay Out Of The Sex Industry,” XOJane, Feb. 6 2014

XOJane’s “It Happened To Me” feature is generally offensive (“It Happened To Me: I Had First World Problems”) but this edition might take the cake. A lot of bad things happened to this woman while she was impoverished, but her equivocation over whether or not to become a high end escort after watching Secret Diary Of A Call Girl wasn’t one of them.

Welcome Home, Daddy, I’m A Porn Star!” The Daily Mail, Mar. 10 2014

We know the Daily Fail isn’t exactly known for its rigorous journalism, and they are in the business of aggregation, so it’s not surprising that they had the single worst headline about Belle Knox.

Sex Workers Are Excited For The World Cup Because They Think It Will Make Them Rich,” The Atlantic, Apr. 15 2014

Sex workers are realists, and painting Brazilian workers as naive dreamers with Pretty Woman fantasies featuring dollar wielding American white knight clients does them a grave disservice.

Why Do So Many Leftists Want Sex Work to Be the New Normal?” The Nation, Apr. 21 2014

It’s news to us that SO MANY leftists want that, but it would seem that wanting rights for all workers should be a part of any decent politics. Katha Pollitt really goes in on the “the sex workers we hear from are all too privileged to be credible!” theme here, not realizing that her example of a New Inquiry-contributing, grad-school attending sex worker has a story that doesn’t back up her thesis.

Tech-Savvy Prostitutes Trade Pimps for Web Pages,” NBCNews.com, Jul. 11 2014

It’s a story straight out of 2007: Sex workers use the internet to advertise!

The Erasure of Maya Angelou’s Sex Work History

A young, beautiful Maya Angelou with Langston Hughes, not long after her career as a sex worker—guess she didn't think his joke was that funny? (Photo via mayaangelou.com)
A young, beautiful Maya Angelou with Langston Hughes, not long after her career as a sex worker—guess she didn’t think his joke was that funny? (Photo via mayaangelou.com)

As Black History Month draws to a close, we thought revisiting Peech’s seminal essay on Maya Angelou would be appropriate. 

Dr. Maya Angelou, American Poet Laureate, most famous for authoring I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, passed away at age 86 on May 28th, 2014. Her literary agent Helen Brann confirmed the news to press, and thus began a worldwide outpouring of grief. The top trending tag on Twitter was “RIP Maya Angelou” and, at the time of this writing, it is one of four Maya Angelou-related trending hashtags. She is hailed as a national best selling author, a genius, a spiritual God-, Grand-, and mother. She is lauded as everything Black women should aspire to emulate in life. So why is it very few of us know she was a sex worker in her youth? Why is it, even in her death, as in her life, it’s such a guarded secret? Why was this secret kept by seemingly everyone except Dr. Angelou herself?

We can, once again, boil it down to respectability politics and stigma. I am angry about it. I find myself ruminating, considering, wondering: If her work had been talked about as much as her dancing with James Baldwin or even her considerable, commanding, and lovely height of six feet, what would the sex work community look like today? If we had talked about her wonderful compassion for sex workers, how she never looked down on them, and her refusal to be intimidated by invasive and obnoxious questioning about her sex working past, what would sex workers around the world be saying today in memory of her life?

Instead, we read post after post, obituary after tribute, calling her a “pimp” and saying she had “an unsuccessful stint as a prostitute.” The most detailed accounts currently online are making sure to emphasize that she spent a “brief stint,” a “short time” in the sex industry, so as to, without explicit words, solidify the shame they believe she should have felt, the shame we should feel as well. The media uses inflammatory terms to get clicks and to emphasize the terrible and shameful secret that was, in actuality, never a secret at all.

Dr. Angelou herself says she was never ashamed.

Quote of the Week: Indoor Privilege Edition

Indoor sex work involves having access to the indoors. Do we not remember that this is an enormous privilege?

An “on and off” sex worker for 20 years, Fleur de Lit, takes on the recent decision by Ontario’s Court of Appeals with righteous anger and compassion. Though Judge Susan Himmel of the (lower) Superior Court recognized that current laws enhanced the existing vulnerability of outdoor workers, the Court of Appeals decided that laws were not the endangering force in street workers’ lives, citing instead “poverty, addiction, gender, race and age” as being the factors responsible for marginalization and subsequent risks. (And it would be ridiculous for the law to pro-actively recognize or mitigate those factors, right?) Their recent decision only legalized brothels; “communicating for the purposes of prostitution” is still illegal.

Fleur de Lit goes on to write:

Decriminalization won’t change the way that I work: carefully screening clients, asking my colleagues for references and working indoors. The onus of criminality has always been on my outdoor colleagues.

The Week in Links: May 20

400 South Korean sex workers rallied against police crackdowns, with some protestors even attempting to set themselves on fire. (Thankfully, none were successful.)

This charming article reveals groundbreaking research from the University of Arkansas. Apparently, it’s big news that some prostitutes are educated, make a “rational decision” to go into the biz, and aren’t spending all their money on drugs. Who knew?

A primary school teacher in the U.K. who was outed as a dominatrix was allowed to keep her job—the teaching job, that is. Unlike Melissa Petro, who had left the sex industry years before becoming a teacher and subsequently being fired, “Mistress Saffron” was working both jobs at the same time when her double life was revealed, but was still let off with a written reprimand.

Australian sex workers deserve better than the Swedish model: “Those proposing the implementation of the Swedish model in the ACT are showing wilful ignorance to the harms of criminalisation, and are ignoring sex workers’ actual needs.”