Politics

The Society of the Spectacle: where a rich actress who once played a sex worker is more credible than sex workers themselves. (Photo by Flickr user Anthony Citrano)

The Society of the Spectacle: in which a rich actress who once played a sex worker is presumed to be more credible than sex workers themselves. (Photo by Flickr user Anthony Citrano)

With Amnesty International’s announcement that its membership will vote on a policy of decriminalization of prostitution this weekend and subsequent protests from celebrities, there’s been considerable verbal diarrhea spewed from the mouths of rich people on the topic of “privilege.” Sex workers like me—people who have the time and energy to advocate for human rights—have been dubbed, over and over, “a privileged minority” by vicious anti-sex work mouthpieces like Meghan Murphy. Of course, it’s a common tactic to delegitimize the very people who are most impacted by structural inequality—if real “prostituted women” are too busy being tied up in someone’s basement to speak for themselves, well, golly gee, they must need someone to speak for them. This is the Spectacle of the Trafficking Victim.

The Spectacle of the Trafficking Victim exists on a continuum of celebrity culture. Our cultural victim narrative and the spectacle it provides—from voyeuristic television shows like 8 Minutes to posters of young girls in bondage—exist only for themselves. This narrative neither reflects, engages, nor critiques reality, offering little more than momentary titillation. The complicated facts of sex work exist beyond the glittery veneer of the spectacle, a veneer that acts as a distraction from our white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. It’s why we’re more likely to hear public praise for Nicholas Kristoff and his tragedy porn about trafficked little girls in the Times than for the sex workers who provide actual, tangible support for women who have been victimized in the sex industry.

Sex workers who paint nuanced portraits of their own lives have the power to expose our self-referent culture’s take on sex industry victims for what it is: fraudulent. As such, people in the business of philanthropy have upped the anti (uh, sorry). Digging deep into their designer bag of tricks, women like Stella Marr and Somaly Mam give glowing performances as the victim, despite not actually having been victimized. Their performances are applauded by the masses, their sick, cultural desire for the spectacle overriding the actual, lived realities of the people these performances affect most. As a culture, we have come to see selfies as realer than the self; likewise, we understand the spectacle of the victim to be more real than the complex realities of sex work as told by sex workers themselves.

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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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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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