Politics

“Patients Waiting To See A Doctor, With Figures Representing Their Fears” by Rosemary Carson (via wikimedia)

Most people have some form of a lurid narrative about drugs, exploitation, childhood abuse, and mental illness come to mind when they imagine the life of a sex worker. However, sex workers’ relationships to their identity are far more complex and difficult to characterize than that trite narrative allows for. When it comes to sex workers who do live with the stereotypical trope of also having a mental illness, it becomes even more essential to uncover what these sex workers themselves have to say about their lived experiences of that mental illness and sex work.

People diagnosed with mental illness frequently have their decisions invalidated and undermined by the dominant culture. Many individuals who do not have much experience with mental illness will attribute any socially unacceptable behaviors to “mental illness.” In much the same way, people who have never been in the sex industry tend to sideline the decisions of sex workers by inferring that trauma or abuse must have predestined them to a life in the sex industry. When people who are neither mentally ill nor in the sex industry say these things, they are robbing us of our ability to exert agency.

Amber, a full-service worker from Washington DC, states, “I very strongly believe that the way that society treats sex workers, mentally ill people and other marginalized communities (that often intersect)…[is] based on kyriarchal/patriarchal, colonialist, and capitalist systems of control. In order to treat marginalized people better, I think we all have a lot of work to do regarding the unlearning of certain stigmas and stereotypes.”

The presence of stigma is one the key aspects of institutional violence keeping communities and individuals subjugated. It proliferates because it benefits those in power in this way. Stigma creates legal and moral justifications for the criminalization of sex work in America. It also creates an environment in which mentally ill people can be stripped of their rights through court-ordered institutionalization, coerced medication, and the assignation of relatives as proxies to control them legally and financially. The disqualification of the decision-making abilities of communities on the margins is a weapon of the oppressor.

Tara Johnson, a stripper from Portland, Oregon, elaborates on the ways in which decision making can be invalidated based on association with the sex industry, especially if one also has a diagnosis of mental illness: “Just because I’m (sometimes) crazy, doesn’t mean I’m wrong. My sex work was not me acting out, or indulging in yet another form of self-harm. It was nothing that entitles people to belittle my full humanity. It’s nothing that automatically means that mentally ill sex workers, especially ones who may have other issues too (drug use, etc.) should automatically be deprived of the rights that privileged, able-bodied civilians are entitled to.”

Sex work is not a dysfunctional behavior stemming from our disease. Rather, it is often the best choice we can make to adapt to our mental illness. In truth, many people with mental illness find sex work helpful in a variety of ways as an occupational choice. It gives us a less rigorous schedule which allows for more emotional instability. Sex work can also affirm us as something we can excel at when mental illness has hindered our success in more traditional pursuits.

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(Photo by Flickr user Javier Morales)

There is significant debate within our sex worker community about whether LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) programming, a pre-booking diversion program for low-level drug and sex work related offenses, is a good or bad thing. The first LEAD program launched in Seattle, Washington in 2011, with private funding from the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Vital Projects Fund, and several others. This pilot program has been championed by law enforcement and drug reform advocates alike and has since launched in several other cities, with slight regional variations—just this Monday, the Baltimore Sun ran a story about the launch of a three-year pilot LEAD program in that city which Police Commissioner Kevin Davis framed as a response to Baltimore’s proposed police reform agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. A recent evaluation of LEAD programs, conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, yields seemingly impressive outcomes for the communities they allegedly serve. Indeed, LEAD programming even names “sex workers” and “drug users” as their “consumers”—a rather misleading label for those in state custody, implying agency where there is none. In truth, LEAD programming does not serve sex workers or drug users, or those profiled as such. Rather, LEAD can be understood as a diversionary program for law enforcement officers and should be analyzed under this lens.

Diversionary programs like LEAD represent the co-optation of harm reduction lingo in the service of criminalization masquerading as social services. While we may rejoice at terms like “sex worker” and “people who use drugs” being used by institutions who typically use other, nastier language to describe these populations, the population they are actually talking about is people living in poverty. Programs like LEAD, which claim to provide case management, public housing, and job training, don’t target drug users and sex workers, as most people who do drugs or trade sex have those needs met. Many, if not most, sex workers and drug users have the social and economic capital to get high or make money in private homes, apartments, or rented rooms in areas that are not under constant police surveillance.

So why do poor people, many of whom lack economic capital because of deliberate, targeted U.S. policies, need a diversionary program? They don’t. Cops do.

Many sex workers I have talked with about LEAD think it is a good way to get desperately needed housing or medication or other necessities, things which traditionally fall under the category of “fundamental human rights.” But we must consider what is gained and what is lost when private funders like Open Society Foundation and other progressive grant-makers support programs in which individuals achieve access to fundamental human rights as a consequence of crimes they may or may not have committed.

LEAD reinforces the logic that people who are trading sex or using drugs need intervention from law enforcement, even if that intervention is a “softer” redirect towards social services. Do we? Increasingly, the answer, as supported by research, is a resounding no.

As prohibitive policies against drug use and sex work are repealed and replaced, law enforcement workers are looking for ways to stay relevant in the lives of those they have hunted, abused, and marginalized for the past few decades. The LEAD National Support Bureau, made up largely of law enforcement, publicly acknowledges an “urgent crisis of mass criminalization and incarceration,” and yet advocates for, well, more police. The logic of LEAD is not much different from that of “community policing,” which made strategies like “stop and frisk” and “broken windows” household names, and redirected billions of tax payer dollars to the justice department and away from education, infrastructure, and health care. Advocates of these policies fail to realize that the issues they want to address, like drug use, are hardly a matter of police and community relationships. Rather, the root of these issues lies in the systematic disenfranchisement of targeted communities.

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WTF, Backpage?

by Caty Simon on January 13, 2017 · 9 comments

in News, Politics

A screenshot of Backpage’s New York City escorting page as of 1/12/2017.

We all knew it was coming. With California Attorney General Kamala Harris filing a second set of multiple charges of pimping and money laundering last month against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, and with Ferrer and his shareholders’ Senate hearing coming up last Tuesday before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, plus the trafficking hysteria-fueled media scrutiny Backpage had been under over the past couple of years—well, let’s just say that few of us were buying Backpage credits in bulk anymore. But most of us expected that the government would find some way to stop Backpage’s adult ads operation, however legally unlikely that might seem after years of efforts to do just that by law enforcement zealots. (After all, the California State Superior Court spanked Harris pretty hard verbally in last month’s decision on her first set of Backpage charges, reminding her that the Communications Decency Act specified that third party sites were not liable for their posters’ illegal content. And on Monday, the Supreme Court stated it would not hear an appeal on that case.)

But what actually ended up happening is that on Monday night, a few hours after the publication of a Senate report accusing Backpage of editing ads to minimize evidence of trafficking, Backpage execs decided to shutter their U.S. adult ads themselves as a free speech protest. Where the ads had once been, the site announces that they are “censored” by the government in a loud red font. Visitors are encouraged to speak out in support of the martyred site by using the hashtags #FREE SPEECH #BACKPAGE on social media.

That night, us sex workers collectively panicked, wondering how we would survive this month with no well-established national advertising site to garner low-end to middle-end escorting clients.

As usual, when powerful institutions decide to use the sex work debate for symbolic ammunition, it’s sex workers who suffer horrific real life consequences. Here, two competing neo-liberal agendas are clashing, indifferent to the material plight of the sex workers caught between them.

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threadbareRed: In journalist Anne Elizabeth Moore’s new book Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, And Trafficking, in which years of her reporting are illustrated by comic artists Delia Jean, Melissa Mendes, Ellen Lindner, Simon Haussle, and Leela Corman, among others, she takes us around the world, untangling the many levels of exploitation and corruption inherent in the garment industry.

Moore takes us way beyond the factories themselves, to shadowy zones I never heard of before reading the book. The garment industry makes use of “Free Trade Zones,” spots on U.S. soil that are exempt from all U.S. rules and regulations, where abuses run rampant.

The author connects all the threads of industrial and imperialist abuses, and presents a seamless and ugly portrait of an imperialism that never died, only changing to better fit the times—an imperialism which is still at the heart of so many exploitations and abuses worldwide. With rope from the garment industry itself, she creates a noose to hang it with. Now we gotta get more people to read the book and spread the word.

Moore interviews retail workers at H&M, a fashion model, former workers and business owners in Austria’s shrinking garment industry, and, most pertinently to us, anti-trafficking NGOs who “rescue” sex workers into the garment industry for a fraction of a living wage. All of it is painfully fascinating, the kind of horrified interest that an especially bad injury might generate, as you read on and realize how deeply all of these facets are intertwined and interdependent.

The garment industry isn’t just implicated in internationally substandard wages for women: it’s one of the root causes of them. The garment industry isn’t just loosely connected to imperialist anti-trafficking NGOs that force women into garment factories: Nike, for example, funds the anti-trafficking org Half the Sky, which is run by Nick Kristof, who not only writes openly in the New York Times about his support for and belief in the necessity of sweatshop labor—he funnels the women rescued by Half the Sky right into garment industry sweatshops which profit the very industries on the board of or funding Half the Sky! And it isn’t Just Half the Sky. Shared Hope International, the local anti-trafficking thorn in my side, has a board member who is also the international HR manager for Columbia Sportswear.

I knew before reading Threadbare that the garment industry profited off the anti-trafficking movement’s “rescue” of sex workers, but I didn’t understand just how inextricably the two were linked. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t just convenient placement and timing—it’s a deliberate, planned strategy to keep wages down and to keep women workers across the world easily exploitable.

Caty: I’m not a huge comics reader, though I’ve definitely gone through some of the classics throughout my reading life, such as Sandman and Watchmen, and on the more literary side I’ve read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis,  Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and the like. But as graphic novels get more of a foothold in sex work lit with titles like Rent Girl, The Lengths, and Melody: Story of A Nude Dancer, plus popular sex worker comic artists like Jacq The Stripper and even Tumblr darling brothelgirl, I’ve certainly been reading more comics lately. And there’s begun to be more comics coverage of leftist non-fiction, too—Harvey Pekar’s graphic history of Students for a Democratic Society particularly impressed me. So, now, finally, we have the convergence of these trends with non-fiction sex worker and labor rights comics title Threadbare.

I’m not entirely sure the comics format really works here. The fonts can be punishingly tiny, and there’s just SO much exposition. I got stalled on the book myself for months somewhere in the middle of the section on Austria’s fashion history and only ended up finishing it to write this review. On the other hand, the illustrations are gorgeous, and I’m not sure a short prose book would’ve allowed the dense material to be any more accessible.

Red: I came to comics really late; I’ve always had trouble focusing on pages where multiple things are happening. For me, images accompanying a text don’t make it easier to read, it’s too much! I love comics now, after being won over by Matt Fraction‘s Hawkeye, but reading comics and graphic novels is still a lot of work for me if I’m not using the ComiXology app. Threadbare is definitely worth the work, and many of the artists streamlined their panels in a very clear and accessible way.

I came to this book as someone who already knew a lot about exploitation in the garment industry and exploitation in the culture and running of anti-trafficking NGOs, knowledge I got through constant sifting through a sex work Google alert. People ask me for receipts all the time and I am so profoundly grateful to now have a thoroughly sourced and cited book to hand over to clinch my arguments and temporarily silence the twats.

Caty: I agree that this book should become part of every activist sex workers’ arsenal. It delivers some important perspective about sex workers’ rights as a labor movement by connecting the labor issues of garment industry workers and sex workers—who are so often the same people!

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(Image by Flickr user IoSonoUnaFotoCamera)

(Image by Flickr user IoSonoUnaFotoCamera)

It is not incidental that Prop 60 in California mandating condom use in porn was defeated in the same election cycle as marijuana was legalized in many states and Donald Trump ascended to the presidency. We are witnessing the inherent contradictions of a neoliberal marketplace, contradictions that should make sex workers and our allies reconsider our “my body, my choice” rhetoric. This rhetoric, like our new president-elect, is ultimately unsustainable. We cannot fight the ills of neoliberalism with neoliberal rhetoric. We, as sex workers and labor rights advocates, must reconsider our individual-centered framework for one more structural.

It is no longer enough to talk about individual choice or populism. It is no longer appropriate to support a libertarian insurrection, even while that insurrection fights for sex workers’ rights. The rights of bodily autonomy gained from our allegiance with libertarian parties don’t do jack shit in the face of mounting hate crimes. They don’t do jack shit for all those arrested sex workers in the Global South forced to toil in sweatshops, making all the whips and ball gags we in the North use as evidence of our “liberation.” It is time for sex workers and our allies to adopt an anti-imperialist, anti-individualistic mindset.

I know this will upset the sensibilities of many vocal sex workers who claim that a right to privacy and individual autonomy eclipses “communist” collectivism. Despite libertarians’ claims that their political model is value neutral, it is most certainly a normative philosophy, one which makes ethical judgments. But sex working libertarians and their allies tend to only pay attention to the bodily autonomy and individualism promised by this political philosophy, a concept of individualism that Donald Trump shares. This is perhaps why many so-called libertarians now unapologetically boast support for our President-elect.

And that’s why I call fucking bullshit. Bullshit—to everyone who refuses to acknowledge the interconnectedness of bodies; bullshit—to any sex worker or ally who voted for bigotry, silence, or violence on Tuesday; bullshit—to any populist fury that scapegoats entire ethnic and racial groups in the name of “freedom.” And even in the wake of significant gains for sex workers in California, I call bullshit on any labor rights ethos centered entirely on “choice.”

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