Politics

writingishard4New sex worker writers often justify their sex work with respectability politics.

I did it. I fucked up with my very first piece, in a big venue, the Guardian, contrasting my sex work to that of hypothetical trafficked workers, so-called “miserable slaves.” Even after taking feedback about that mistake, it took me a while to quit using my own favorable personal circumstances to make sex work more palatable to my readers.

I think that I did it because I was intoxicated with the power of my writing, and I thought my experience was important. Guess what—sometimes it’s not. My education and my privilege and the good working conditions I enjoy doing sex work are far less important than the broader picture—the narratives of austerity, migration, and marginalization that are the true story of sex work, the one that needs to be told in order to defuse myths and build support for sex worker rights. While I campaign for sex workers’ rights, in part, because they would benefit me and my family, I need them far less than the most marginalized, criminalized, and stigmatized among us.

I hope to educate others with an account of the process of making my writing better reflect the sex worker community. This essay is meant to be a start of a conversation. I invite reply, correction, and contribution.

Tell all the stories.

A sex worker writer should learn as much as possible about the conditions of all kinds of sex workers, from porn stars to street-based workers to parlor workers. This is not only essential for a good perspective, it’s good journalism: keeping track of multiple streams of information can produce great story ideas. I learned about the Merseyside murders and the Soho raids; about the rescue industry and about the party politics behind recent parliamentary debates on the Swedish Model and decriminalization. Through Google alerts, blogs like this one, and the indispensable Honest Courtesan, Sex Work Twitter, and Facebook groups like COYOTE and My Favorite Abolitionist, I keep track of sex workers’ rights news across the globe. Even when I am not covering an issue, perspective gained through continual study has helped me to put my reporting in better context and choose better stories.

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(Screenshot from CNN video.)

Racism, much? (Screenshot from CNN video.)

After several years of working in nonprofit agencies that take a harm reduction approach to working with drug users and sex workers, I’ve observed many similarities between the war on drugs and the war on trafficking. As the drug war has lost popularity, the war on trafficking has gained momentum. Both the war on drugs and the war on trafficking are housed within the criminal justice system, operating through punishment and incarceration. Both wars seek to eliminate their abstract opponents by attacking communities of drug users and sex workers, composed mainly of poor people of color.

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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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Medicines at a Justice for Cindy Gladue Rally in Ontario. (Photo via Ariel Smith)

Medicines at a Justice for Cindy Gladue Rally in Ontario. (Photo by Naomi Sayers)

Content warning: This piece contains references to rape, murder, violence against Indigenous women (especially Indigenous sex workers), and other disturbing material.

When I told my boyfriend that I was going to write an article about Cindy Gladue and the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW), he reminded me that I should keep my bundle and medicines close to me. My elders tell me that all important activities should be entered into with good intentions and that the medicines help with this by providing strength and clarity of purpose. With that in mind, I made sure I took a moment to smudge and put out a tobacco offering before sitting down to write this. I know that writing about this is vital but it is also emotionally difficult for me. It is hard to describe through words the visceral sickening grief that I feel when I think about what was done to Cindy Gladue.

Cindy Gladue was a Nehiyaw Iskwew (Cree woman), like me. She had dropped out of high school, like me. She had worked in the sex trade, on the streets, like me. She had experienced a lot of violence and trauma in her life, like me.

On June 22nd, Cindy Gladue was found dead, naked, and covered in blood in a bathtub at the Yellowhead Inn in Edmonton, Alberta. She had bled to death from an 11cm wound on her vaginal wall. She was 36 years old.

A semi-truck driver named Bradley Barton was arrested and put on trial for her murder. Crown prosecutors argued that Cindy’s death was caused by Barton inserting a sharp object into her vagina. Barton claimed that Cindy’s vagina had been injured from him aggressively fisting her during consensual “rough sex.” Either way, Barton left the motel room for work the next morning, knowing that Cindy was in the bathtub bleeding profusely. He didn’t call 911 until hours later and lied to the police at first, saying he didn’t even know Cindy.

On March 18th, 2015 a Jury of 11 people, 9 men and 2 women acquitted Barton of first-degree murder and decided not to convict him of the lesser charge of manslaughter. There were no Native people on the jury.

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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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