Politics

 

afeminismmeansWhen I make porn I find it to be a positive experience. That is based on a wide range of factors that I’ve spoken and written about in depth over the past eight years. For one, trans women’s sexuality is greatly misrepresented in media and it’s important to me to be able to create representations of sexuality on my own terms. I also take great care to address and incorporate ethics into every level of production. My porn includes Audre Lorde references. My porn has been nominated for and won several feminist awards. My porn includes complex discussion of police violence, immigration politics, post-traumatic stress, and other social issues.

Yet, inevitably, I encounter individuals who point at my work and declare that it is objectifying on face—typically without having even watched it. Then they demand that I come up with a thesis worthy defense of my claim that making my porn is a positive thing. Anything I’ve already said or written in defense of my work is ignored. Any reasoning or argumentation about my informed decision to work in porn is lost. My argument is simply represented by my detractors as “because I chose it.”

Choice feminism is the idea that anything that any woman personally chooses to do is a feminist act. The most commonly given example of this argument is that choosing to do sex work—or to take pole dancing classes, be in porn, sext, fill in the blank—is empowering simply because a woman has chosen to do it and criticisms against perpetuating objectification are irrelevant.

The problem here is that in most cases women are simply trying to point out that they know their own lives and are making an informed decision. They are not claiming that any woman’s exercise of her agency is by definition a feminist act, but that denying a woman her agency is an inherently un-feminist act— especially coming from someone who doesn’t have a shared understanding of the context of that decision in her life. [READ MORE]

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(Image via plasticdollheads.com, courtesy of Gemma Ahearne)

(Image via plasticdollheads.com, courtesy of Gemma Ahearne)

This essay is based on research interviews I conducted with current and former sex workers who are undergraduate or graduate students at universities across the globe. Their names and other identifying information have been changed.

I am subject to the capricious whims of my patriarch, a pimp of sorts, the man who decides the parameters of my labor. He is benevolent; soothing my insecurities with promises of better pay and better working conditions, someday. Things will improve, he promises. Someday, I will be able to keep what I earn, I’ll have adequate health care, and I’ll be treated as my patriarch’s equal. But first, I must pledge my allegiance to indentured servitude despite its accompaniment of crushing debt. I must allow for my assimilation into an exploitative system for a mere chance at cultural capital. I must sell my body and mind for the privilege that comes with letters after my name. I love my patriarch, though—he punctually answers e-mails and often praises my free labor. He plies me with booze to show his affection and, as evidenced by his gentle hazing, clearly favors me.

I am, of course, an academic.

There has been much ado about sex workers in academia lately. Noah Berlatsky wrote about the the value of sex worker led research in academia at the Pacific Standard; Livemint covered groundbreaking new research on Asian sex workers, HIV, and violence recently released in collaboration with regional sex workers’ rights organizations; and Lime Jello articulated the problems of studying sex workers here at Tits and Sass. Of course, there has always been immense curiosity, gross fetishization, and erratic speculation surrounding those of us who dabble in both the realms of the body and the mind. And true to my liberal art discipline’s form, I think it all says something larger about society.

I started working in the sex industry a great while ago and while my relationship to the sex industry has morphed after all these years—from an idealized notion of “liberation” in my younger days to a sense of disdain for and annoyance with the work—I still see myself as a sex worker first and an academic second.

It was pure happenstance that I fell into academia at all. By the time I learned what graduate school was, I’d worked as an independent escort and stripper for years. Upon being accepted to a Ph.D. program, it felt only natural for me to write about the situations and spaces which I occupied. The impetus for my academic curiosity was never about “access”—in fact, I find the concept of “accessing hard to reach populations” exploitative and condescending. I’ve always been one for internal exploration over armchair ethnography that privileges “the sociologist’s gaze.” There’s very little one can know about the world while rejecting self-reflection with the impunity of a toddler. All this to say, I study my precise social location: the experiences of sex workers in academia.

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Sex workers and allies at the April 9th Amsterdam protest. (Photo by Robin van Lokhuijsen, courtesy of Felicia Anna)

Sex workers and allies at the April 9th Amsterdam protest. (Photo by Robin van Lokhuijsen, courtesy of Felicia Anna)

On April 9th, over 200 Amsterdam sex workers and their supporters protested the closing of legal sex businesses in the Red Light District by the city council. The demonstration consisted of a march from the Amsterdam Red Light District to city hall, where the protesters handed a letter to the mayor demanding the reopening of their closed workplaces and the active participation of sex workers in the city’s policy regarding their jobs.

Project 1012

Amsterdam has closed down at least 109 windows already as part of Project 1012, an initiative to bring the number of legal window workplaces down by 40% from 476 to 284. Project 1012, named for the Red Light District area code, is a massive gentrification project aimed at ridding Amsterdam center of “low value” businesses like marijuana coffee shops and the windows.

Government officials consider closing down legal work locations for sex workers an effective measure to prevent trafficking because they believe these businesses to be “sensitive to criminal activity” (“criminogeen” in Dutch, a new word invented solely to justify this policy) simply because they are part of the sex industry. Ironically, even local police voiced a preference for reopening the windows in order to keep sex work legal and visible.

The demonstration, the first of its kind in the Netherlands, was facilitated by PROUD, a sex worker-led union that launched earlier this year. The letter they addressed to Mayor Everhard van der Laan, demanding that the city stop closing windows and reopen closed brothels, as well as actively include sex workers in the city’s sex work policy, was signed by nearly a thousand supporters, many of whom are Red Light District sex workers themselves.

The mayor dismissed the sex workers’ concerns by saying that “the war is over,” maintaining that the issue has already been concluded decisively. He asked the protesters, “You tell me in what other city sex workers can demonstrate in these numbers in the streets,” implying that sex workers should be grateful for the rights they already have. He also stated that the city had already decided to close down fewer brothels, though this policy decision was actually motivated by the city council’s desire to lower Project 1012’s 108 million euro budget.

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Republican Senator John Isakson urges the Senate to pass the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act in March. (Screenshot of Youtube video released by Isaskson)

Republican Senator John Isakson urges the Senate to pass the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act in March. (Screenshot of Youtube video released by Isaskson)

On Wednesday, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 [S. 178] passed through the Senate by a unanimous vote of 99-to-0. It is being celebrated as a heroic example of bipartisan cooperation for humanitarian advancement. However, if the bill continues to pass through the House, it will be delivering its system of protection over tapped wires, via an increasingly militarized police force.

Introduced by Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), the majority whip, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 is nothing short of a carceral mandate. Its primary function is to allocate funds and special privileges to law enforcement and immigration control and to legitimize the adoption of new surveillance technologies, purportedly in order to combat child exploitation.

Democratic opponents delayed the bill in committee for six weeks, debating over whether fines collected from criminal offenders could go towards funding abortion services for trafficking survivors. They argued that Republican lawmakers were trying to throw an anti-abortion rider into the bill, extending the Hyde Amendment of 1976 (which prohibited federal funding of abortion), to apply to non-taxpayer funds. To break the stalemate, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) put pressure on Democrats to pass the bill by asserting that until the legislation has gone through the Senate, he would not schedule the confirmation of Loretta Lynch, the first black woman to be nominated for Attorney General.

On Tuesday, given much pressure on both sides to move the bill along, a compromise was reached in which a separate pool of money would be created for survivor health services, in addition to money collected from criminal offenders for non-health-related services. The fund stream for survivor health services would already be covered by the Hyde Amendment, and thus could not be used for abortions for trafficking survivors. However, the language of the bill as it was passed ensures that the Hyde Amendment’s reach will not extend further to private funding.

While Democrats in support of reproductive justice and civil liberties have been vocal on the legislation’s language about abortion, they have paid less attention to the ways in which this bill also promotes the militarization of police, expands the carceral system, and funds the use of wiretapping and other surveillance technologies by immigration control, with little transparency or oversight. The amended legislation contains some benevolent provisions for increasing victim compensation and funding social services for survivors of human trafficking. However, in addition to these victim-centered services, there is a clear law-enforcement-centered strategy in the bill for addressing human trafficking, which prioritizes the expansion of funding for law enforcement and immigration control.

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Hillary Clinton in 2009. (Official photo from Department of State page)

Hillary Clinton in 2009. (Official photo from Department of State page)

For our second installment of Big Mother Is Watching You, a guide to prominent anti-sex worker activists and officials, we’d like to remind you of a few salient facts about Hillary Clinton and her relationship to Somaly Mam, after the formal launch of Clinton’s second presidential bid on Sunday. 

While U.S. Secretary of State (2009-2013), Hillary Clinton was responsible for the continuation, from the Bush Administration, of trafficking-related foreign policy harmful to sex workers in the Global South. Under her tenure, the U.S. Department of State continued enforcing the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath, a policy that led to the defunding of a number of very effective anti-HIV/AIDS organizations operating in the Global South who were were unwilling to condemn the sex workers receiving their services. The U.S. government defended that policy to the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled 6-2 against them in 2013 on free speech grounds (Justice Elena Kagan recused). Unfortunately, that ruling only applies to organizations based in the United States, though it was recently reinterpreted to also apply to organizations based in the U.S. but working in affiliates or offices abroad.

During Clinton’s administration, the Trafficking In Persons Office, a division of the U.S. Department of State, also continued to reward Cambodia with an improved TIP Report ranking for its 2008 criminalization of prostitution, a Bush administration move that led to the imprisonment of sex workers in Orwellian “rehabilitation centers” and other horrors, including beatings, extortion, and rape.

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