Politics

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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vote-strippersI don’t want to alarm anyone, but tomorrow is election day.  Are you registered to vote? Good. Do you know your polling location? Excellent. Got a handle on the candidates’ platforms? Fantastic! Sounds like you’re ready to vote.

Voting for president as a sex worker for most feels somewhere between futile and downright alienating. It’s not like a new president is going to make sex work any less criminalized, or anti-trafficking hysteria any less rabid. But you can still head to the polls and vote in your local elections, which are ten times more important and actually will directly affect your day-to-day life. Speaking of local elections: If you’re in California, you need to vote NO on Proposition 60, the measure that would make condom usage mandatory for porn workers.

A common refrain I hear in progressive circles is that “your vote doesn’t matter anyway,” that voting is a sham, that the electoral college has rendered our democracy a joke. I can’t argue against those sentiments, but maybe keep them to yourself on election day? Smugly quipping “lol ur vote doesn’t matter  lolzz” is a pretty dismissive slap to a friend of yours who may be more marginalized than you, or to the person who patiently navigated through a system of voter suppression to get their ballot counted.

Sorry about all that! Nobody likes it when their favorite neighborhood sex worker blog condescends to them about what they should do on Tuesday. Moving on!

What I’m going to be doing on Tuesday (besides voting) is stripping and the thing that sucks the most about working on election day is that every customer wants to ask you who you voted for and then tell you why your vote is wrong. “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing, also it’s impolite to ask strippers who they voted for,” Socrates once said. Not one strip club customer listened. [READ MORE]

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I don't think she stands for what you think she stands for.

I don’t think she stands for what you think she stands for.

With contributions by Cathryn Berarovich

In this election, there is no viable option for those of us looking to build a better world. People have exclaimed, “What about Bernie?! What about Jill Stein?” And maybe a little while ago, before looking into their respective platforms, I would have said, “Okay, yeah, sure—but organize.” But fortunately, since then I’ve been schooled by other pros on the position the US Green Party takes on our labor, and I’ve withdrawn my initial, albeit less-than-enthusiastic support.

The Green Party is traditionally seen as the go-to camp for independent voters with progressive ideals. Ultimately, however, it falls in line with the existing two party system of pro-carceral, punitive, reductionist policies on sex work. It is not a radical alternative; it is not a progressive bastion of thoughtful consideration for marginalized communities. If you cannot stand with folks in criminalized work, demand they be able to organize openly, and advocate for their full decriminalization, then you are on the wrong side of history.

When your platform position on sex work falls under the heading of ‘Violence and Oppression,’ you are no different from the dominant two capitalist parties.

“We urge that the term “sex work” not be used in relation to prostitution,” the GP USA platform proclaims. Yet, this is the term we as workers demand to be called. We are laborers in the trade of sex.

“With the increasing conflation of trafficking (the violent and illegal trafficking in women and girls for forced sex) with prostitution,” the GP platform continues, “it is impossible to know which is which, and what violence the term ‘sex work’ is masking.”

It absolutely is possible to know which is which, but that might require talking to actual sex workers, something the GP USA seems uninterested in doing. The Green Party stance on sex work demonstrates that sex workers are excluded from party policy dialogue. It also takes agency away from both consenting voluntary workers and trafficking survivors. It implies we cannot speak for ourselves, and we can. The platform ignores the damage the conflation of voluntary sex work with the term ‘human trafficking’ does to both consenting workers and trafficking survivors. Arrest, jail time, prison sentences, open records in Human Trafficking court—this is violence, and yet it’s what the GP USA calls safety.

The GP USA should know that even if the police manage to find actual victims of trafficking, rather than consenting adults engaged in sex work, in the course of their sting operations, their so-called rescue methods are carcerally violent. Trafficking survivors are thrown in cages just like voluntary workers, exacerbating their trauma, rather than being given the mental health care and exit resources they need. The purported threat of trafficking is used as a justification for the arrest and imprisonment of both trafficking survivors and consenting workers.

Perhaps the most damning statement in the platform document is the one that follows: “No source in existence knows which forms of prostitution comprise forced sex and which comprise free will or choice prostitution.”

No source in existence?! How about this blog? Or SWOP-USA, Red Umbrella Project, Paulo Longo Research Initiative, or Support Ho(s)e, to name a few? There are numerous sex worker led initiatives, organizations, and publications which can be easily found and sourced. All the time, more and more workers are coming out and actively organizing for decriminalization, or campaigning around others who have been targeted by state violence. Google that shit.

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In the fifth installment of her column, Big Mother Is Watching Youa guide to prominent anti-sex worker activists and officials, Robin D.  outlines the major figures promoting the End Demand/Swedish Model phenomenon in the United States. 

When the Sex Purchase Ban passed in Sweden in 1999, prostitution was legal there. Proponents of the Swedish Model in the U.S. talk about “decriminalizing the women,” but implementing this model has never involved the removal of criminal laws against anyone. It’s mostly all talk. Several U.S. jurisdictions (Illinois, Colorado, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago/Cook County) have had laws branded “End Demand” pass. In none of these cases was any effort made to remove criminal penalties for sex workers.

Here are some of the key players involved in bringing the Swedish model to the United States:

Rachel Durchslag, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Hunt Alternatives Report Fund Author

Rachel Durchslag.

Rachel Durchslag

“I saw a film about human trafficking, and I was haunted. Then I found Chicago was a major hub for human trafficking. Once I realized my own city was not stepping up, I felt called to do something,” says Rachel Durchslag, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (C.A.A.S.E.) founder and Sara Lee heiress. But this tourist in human suffering couldn’t take it for long, and she didn’t have to. In 2013, she left her human trafficking work to practice Reiki.

Since her youth, Durchslag grappled with poor-little-rich-girl syndrome in isolation until, at a retreat for “young funders” (read: people with inherited wealth), she found peer support. “After I said my great-grandfather started Sara Lee, I felt this lightness that I don’t think I’ve really ever felt before then. That was the first time I had ever publicly said that, and all of a sudden it clicked, I didn’t do anything wrong to be born into this family, there’s nothing productive about me feeling continually guilty about being born into this family, but there is a lot that I can do,” she explained to 136 Radio. What she did was use her trust fund to start the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, a key player in the passage of an End Demand ordinance in Cook County in 2008. They have since done some good work in making progressive criminal justice reforms including the repeal of felony prostitution in Illinois, but they are unwavering in their continued support for the criminalization of sex work clients.

Durchslag has written for the Huffington Post about reading client forums. Like the Invisible Men Project does, Durchslag appropriates the suffering of victims of violence to justify policies that clearly make sex workers’ problems worse. She does so in a very prurient manner, both in the article above discussing a 2013 C.A.A.S.E. report she co-wrote on client forums and in the report itself, in which she stoops to quoting rape perpetrators describing their crimes on review boards, without regard for the wishes of the subjects of those reviews. This disturbing voyeurism is interspersed with discussions of relatively neutral topics, such as determining what’s on offer at spas advertising erotic massage. If workers weren’t getting arrested, go figure, maybe they could tell Durschlag what services they provide directly.

Durchslag also seemed to love to give other people like her access to her tourism of the sex industry. She invited colleagues and friends to participate in the publicity around a “human trafficking play” with the dehumanizing title Roadkill.

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