Prostitution

via Flickr user Craig Walkowicz

via Flickr user Craig Walkowicz

One of the many questions OkCupid users can answer to determine compatibility with potential mates is “Should prostitution be legal?” The answer options are:

  1. Yes, absolutely
  2. Yes, only if it were regulated
  3. I don’t think so
  4. ABSOLUTELY NOT (emphasis theirs)

In my four years of using the site, I’ve noticed that those who choose answer “2” frequently add something in the comments about regulations being necessary to protect workers from harm. Somewhat less frequently someone comments that regulations protect the health and general well-being of the public. My sample size is, of course, limited, but that thinking isn’t all that different from members of the general public who support legalization. Legalization, the thinking goes, would protect the public from the perceived health risks associated with prostitution by mandating testing, provide states with tax money (which relies on the false assumption that sex workers don’t currently pay taxes) and would control when and where sex work could be done. And, if prostitution was legal, sex workers would be safer because they would feel more comfortable utilizing the criminal legal system.

What they forget is that we have an example of legal prostitution in the United States: regulated, licensed brothels in the state of Nevada. While legalization provides benefits to the state, the workers are still treated as second-class citizens. Nevada has been home to brothels since the late 1800s, and the first licensed brothel opened there in 1971. Currently, there is no statute explicitly stating that prostitution is legal, but under state law, counties in Nevada with populations under 400,000 can allow brothels. These brothels are the only places in the United States where one can engage in legal prostitution, and the people doing this work are governed by three different sets of regulations: state laws, county laws and brothel rules.1 While the state laws are easy to access and review, county laws are less so, and brothel rules are not available to the public. The small size of the counties and towns that the brothels are in means that rules frequently change depending on the mood of the sheriff. This form of legalization is a combination of modern business law and Wild West attitudes. [READ MORE]

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atheemperor

The Emperor’s New Clothes (Illustration via Commons, by Helen Stratton)

Once upon a time, there was a cold little kingdom in the north—we can call it Swedala. Now, you might not believe in magical spells, frogs that turn into princes, or other imaginary things. But believe me when I tell you that in this kingdom people were living in two parallel worlds so different they might as well have been different universes.

The emperor who ruled the country had, for the longest time, tried to erase any individual forms of expression among the people, aiming for a kingdom where each and every person lived the exact same life as their neighbor. Now, you might think that the emperor was an evil man, but he was actually a simple soul, worried about receiving love and worship from his constituency. To achieve that he hired a stable of advisers. They assured him that in order to receive the approval of the people as well as the admiration of neighboring kingdoms, it was necessary to repair the very fabric of society. They told him that magic rules to control the population were the only way that could be achieved. Sometimes the rules seemed unnecessary, complicated, or harsh to the emperor. But the few times he questioned them, it was insinuated that he might not understand the brilliance of the golden rules, for only smart men could truly grasp their innovative greatness.

Those who learned at a different pace were locked up and denied the right to have children. Others who chose to use gold dust to enjoy life were left to die in the streets, and alternative ways of expressing what it meant to be a human being were punished severely. So all those who wished to stay the way they were had to hide in the parallel world of shadows where no one could hear them—even though they could be seen, people knew to ignore them as if they were invisible. At times the emperor had doubts about this being the right way to treat the kingdom’s citizens, but he was afraid that the advisers would find him a simpleton, and quickly pushed away his doubts.

A particularly evil adviser, the adviser of state feminism, had decided that yet another group should be sent to the shadows of the parallel world. This time it was those who provided pleasure in exchange for gold. Pleasure was seen as something that only had value if it was provided for free. The adviser of state feminism assured the emperor that if he banished these people, all the neighboring kingdoms would not only admire but eagerly line up to emulate his magic rules. The people in Swedala applauded this new idea, as they never questioned the emperor’s wisdom, but in the shadows the pleasure providers feared for their very existence.

[READ MORE]

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(Art by Michif/Cree artist Erin Konsmo)

(Art by Michif/Cree artist Erin Konsmo)

The stated legislative objectives of the prostitution laws that the Canadian Supreme Court recently struck down in Bedford v. Canada were the prevention of public nuisances and the exploitation of prostitutes. However, upon closer examination of the history of these laws, their real objectives become transparent. Canada’s anti-prostitution laws were really there to protect society’s whiteness/maleness. As such, these laws were disproportionately applied to racialized and indigenized bodies. Thus, to understand what the Bedford decision means for Indigenous sex workers is to understand the essence of colonialism and the history of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws.

On December 20, 2013, Canada’s Supreme Court found the following laws relating to prostitution unconstitutional:

  • the bawdy house offense, (which prohibits keeping and being an inmate of or found in a bawdy house);
  • the living on the avails offense (which prohibits living in whole or in part on the earnings of prostitutes); and
  • the communicating offense (which prohibits communicating in a public place for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or obtaining the sexual services of a prostitute). 1

Black Marxist scholar Frantz Fanon best defines colonialism in his seminal work Wretched of the Earth. Fanon writes that  “[t]he colonized world is a world divided in two” and that colonialism “is the entire conquest of land and people” In other words, colonialism is the complete domination and exploitation of Indigenous lands, bodies and identities (and not the fun kind of domination). When colonialism is incorporated into this discussion, the racial undertones within the laws, their application, and objectives are revealed. [READ MORE]

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Melissa at Frida Kahlo's house. O, roving reporter. (Photo via Melissa's flickr)

Melissa at Frida Kahlo’s house. O, roving reporter. (Photo via Melissa’s flickr)

In the early aughts when I was a novice escort and On Our Backs was still being published, I was wowed by Melissa Gira Grant, an internet porn-making, geeky, theory spouting phenom, even managing to be friends with her despite the fact that she was an Anais Nïn devotee. Over the years I’ve kept in touch with her as she branched out into self-publishing on her imprint Glass Houses, producing works like the innovative sex anthology Coming and Crying and Take This Book, her report on Occupy Wall Street’s People’s Library; activist and foundation work at St. James Infirmary and the Third Wave Foundation; and radical journalism. Soon enough her byline became a common sight in publications like the Guardian and the Nation, bringing sex workers’ rights to the attention of the mainstream public. Now, with the publication of her new book, Playing The Whore: The Work of Sex Work, Melissa has brought her formidable intellect to bear on how the mainstream conceives of us.

You’ve always been fascinated by representations of sex work. I remember when I first met you, you talked about how you used to love to look through escort ads in the back of your local alternative weekly as a teenager, and you write about that in the book as well.

And before the paper, the phone book! It wasn’t just the ambient Massachusetts puritanism I grew up in, even if that would be easy to blame it on (and actually, I was raised Catholic). I was desperately curious about sex as a kid is what I’m saying. (Thanks for taking us to such a Freudian place right off the bat, Caty.)

So even though it wasn’t totally obvious what was going on in the phone book escort ads, they did a good job of signifying that it was probably sex. And then you got much more than clip art of lips and evening gowns to advertise with on the internet. It’s difficult to imagine what it would be like to be confined to what some print designer put together, probably to sell prom dresses. It’s not just the photos, videos, and everything else some sex workers can afford to put in their ads to stand out now online that attract me. I wrote something for $pread once about how even the typography in the headlines of ads on Craigslist Erotic Services—the asterisks, the spacing, the creative use of symbols—it reads like a red light as much as red neon does now, to someone scrolling around online. I look at ads as cultural production, as part of the labor of sex work. If someone has some old phone books to donate, or could just tear out the “E” section, I’d take them. I know ads are almost always meant to be ephemeral, but someone needs to archive ads for posterity.

Yes, I remember your curiosity about my advertising process back when I was a pre-internet escort in 2002, working out of one of those alternative weeklies, and you were an ex-stripper just starting to establish herself as a writer. You actually chronicle one of our Q and A sessions about my work back then in one of the first chapters of your new book, discussing how fraught that exchange was, given that sharing information with other sex workers can still be construed as felony pandering. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on sex workers’ fascination with other sex workers’ jobs. You captured your side of the interaction, how you didn’t know whether you should be asking, whether you were good enough to do full service work, whether what you said might make me think you thought you were too good for full service work…

Well, how else was I supposed to learn about escorting, I thought? I had met other escorts before, but they all worked in big cities, either for agencies or in ad-hoc ways using the internet (this was in the early 2000’s), using Yahoo personals or Craigslist. Way before social media, but still at a time when the back page of the newspaper didn’t seem real. I had been doing sex work for some time, and I still didn’t understand that the ads in the paper would be tolerated long enough by police for anyone to make a living off of running them. So that was my curiosity: the medium.

It’s fascinating now, to look back and remember what an outsider I felt like, within our friendship and in our very very small community, because I hadn’t escorted. It’s one thing for a dancer to help out another dancer, but to ask you how you structured your calls and organized your business? I knew I was asking you to take a risk on me, because of the legal issues that could be associated with giving that kind of advice, under criminalization. And I also, on some level, wanted to seem like, oh of course I must know all this already! But I didn’t. No one is born with the two-call system in their head. [READ MORE]

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Justin Trudeau, Canadian Liberal Party leader, prince of Morgan's heart, and...whorephobe? (Photo by Sean Kilpatrick via the Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau, Canadian Liberal Party leader, prince of Morgan’s heart, and…whorephobe? (Photo by Sean Kilpatrick via the Canadian Press)

Dear Prime Minister Dreamy (AKA Justin Trudeau),

It’s ok that I call you Prime Minister Dreamy, right? I know that you’re not Prime Minister yet, but I think we feel close enough that I can call you by pet names, because, as I’m sure you remember, we almost met twice.

I’m writing to your eminent good-lookingness in regards to a variety of comments you made these past  few weeks on a subject near and dear to my own heart, the legal status of sex work in Canada. We should go through a short recap of events leading up to your comments, just to make sure we’re on the same page before we get to the climax of my letter.

I’ve been following your non-threatening boyish good looks, boxing matches with Conservative politicians, and targeting of the gay vote for some time now with rapt attention. So, of course I was curious about what your response would be to the Supreme Court of Canada’s brilliant decision in the Bedford v. Canada case this past December that unanimously struck down three key passages in the Canadian Criminal Code around sex work. I’m sure you’re very busy campaigning while maintaining such perfectly sculpted hair, so I’ll just remind you that these three passages are: [READ MORE]

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