Prostitution

(Image from the film: Advocating in Albany, (No Condoms as Evidence), Red Umbrella Project)

(Image from the film: Advocating in Albany, (No Condoms as Evidence), Red Umbrella Project)

I’m a community organizer for Red Umbrella Project, and for the past year and a half I’ve been one of the leaders in the struggle to ban the use of condoms as evidence of all prostitution-related offenses in New York. We recently had a great victory in this campaign with a NYPD directive issued that bans the use of condoms for three misdemeanor offenses: prostitution, loitering for the purposes of prostitution, and prostitution in a school zone. Unfortunately that still excludes most prostitution-related offenses which, while targeted at clients, managers of the sex trades, and human sex traffickers, all too often are an initial charge filed against those doing sex work, especially transgender women of color. So our battle continues. But I feel it is important to clarify for people in the sex trades around the world why it is that we as a peer-led group by and for people in the sex trades place such great importance in this issue. While some may say that advocacy of any goal short of the decriminalization of all prostitution laws is selling out, the decriminalization of condoms opens the door for greater possibilities in organizing around other decrim efforts both in New York and elsewhere.

Handcuffs empower no one. Red Umbrella Project knows, from the arrests and incarcerations of our comrades, family, and friends, that the criminal justice system is toxic to the lives of people in the sex trades, especially those most marginalized within it. All too often sex work criminalization goes hand-in-hand with the criminalization of trans women and queer youth of color, undocumented people, and low-income women of color. Believing strongly that a peer-led model personally empowers the lives of people in ways that even the most progressive justice system cannot, we oppose the tearing apart of our communities by arrest and incarceration.

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A  young, beautiful Maya Angelou with Langston Hughes, not long after her career as a sex worker—guess she didn't think his joke was that funny? (Photo via mayaangelou.com)

A young, beautiful Maya Angelou with Langston Hughes, not long after her career as a sex worker—guess she didn’t think his joke was that funny? (Photo via mayaangelou.com)

Dr. Maya Angelou, American Poet Laureate, most famous for authoring I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, passed away at age 86 on May 28th, 2014. Her literary agent Helen Brann confirmed the news to press, and thus began a worldwide outpouring of grief. The top trending tag on Twitter was “RIP Maya Angelou” and, at the time of this writing, it is one of four Maya Angelou-related trending hashtags. She is hailed as a national best selling author, a genius, a spiritual God-, Grand-, and mother. She is lauded as everything Black women should aspire to emulate in life. So why is it very few of us know she was a sex worker in her youth? Why is it, even in her death, as in her life, it’s such a guarded secret? Why was this secret kept by seemingly everyone except Dr. Angelou herself?

We can, once again, boil it down to respectability politics and stigma. I am angry about it. I find myself ruminating, considering, wondering: If her work had been talked about as much as her dancing with James Baldwin or even her considerable, commanding and lovely height of six feet, what would the sex work community look like today? If we had talked about her wonderful compassion for sex workers, how she never looked down on them, and her refusal to be intimidated by invasive and obnoxious questioning about her sex working past, what would sex workers around the world be saying today in memory of her life?

Instead, we read post after post, obituary after tribute, calling her a “pimp” and saying she had “an unsuccessful stint as a prostitute.” The most detailed accounts currently online are making sure to emphasize that she spent a “brief stint,” a “short time” in the sex industry, so as to, without explicit words, solidify the shame they believe she should have felt, the shame we should feel as well. The media uses inflammatory terms to get clicks and to emphasize the terrible and shameful secret that was, in actuality, never a secret at all.

Dr. Angelou herself says she was never ashamed.

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Ah, those dreams about crying tears of sperm--a sure sign of sex worker burnout (gif made out of screenshot of House of Pleasures)

Ah, those dreams about crying tears of sperm—a sure sign of burnout (.gif made out of screenshot of House of Pleasures)

House of Pleasures (also called House of Toleration or L’Appolonide: Souvenirs de la Maison Close in its native France), directed by Bertrand Bonello, is a film depicting the last year of a legal French brothel, a maison close, at the turn of the 20th century. While the film does predictably illustrate the old prostitution-is-inherently-miserable motif, sex working viewers will find much to enjoy in the close examination of brothel history and the dynamics of women’s spaces that the movie offers. Then, of course, there are the costumes and the intense outfit envy they engender in any hooker with a pulse. The brothel workers wear diaphanous, clinging gowns that look like proper dresses in shadow but reveal their transparent naughtiness in candle light, and look even more temptingly gorgeous draped along with their wearers on the lush upholstered furniture of the maison. These elements, along with the sharp dialogue that director Bonello gives the workers, kept me watching, even when the crude, supposedly “feminist” analysis and the all-too-voyeuristic violence against sex workers he inserted into the movie made me want to hurl my remote control at the screen.

C’mon!  Take this scene, for example:

Client: [After long, tedious description of the plot of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds—this guy is obviously the Victorian antecedent of people who blurt out spoilers] Have you read it?

Brothel Worker: No. My only two books are Sade’s diaries and the Bible, and I don’t read the Bible.

My kind of girl!

And at first I thought that House of Pleasures might provide the audience a nuanced economic analysis of its protagonists’ work: Early on in the movie, it’s made clear through a close up of the madam’s ledger book and the women’s anxious conversation among themselves that most of the workers are deeply in debt to the house. Throughout the narrative, the women and the brothel itself struggle to survive in the face of the crushing reality of a raised rent. There are even some interesting insights about the unpaid emotional labor involved in the work, as it’s implied that in this upscale environment, what’s being sold as much as the sexual services themselves is a cheerful, carefree attitude of refined femininity. While the women tally their success at the end of the night by the number of men who took them upstairs, they must linger for hours in calculated languidness downstairs, making conversation and cozying up with idle clients, playing board games with them and seeing how many party tricks can be performed with a champagne flute. “Try to be joyful,” the madam chides them at the beginning of the evening.

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tumblr_n3b9i3QnoZ1sn3as5o1_500The Invisible Men Project, a tumblr-turned-Glasgow-art exhibition, supposedly reveals the previously unknown attitudes of men who engage the services of sex workers. The project was launched by the Glasgow Violence Against Women Partnership who come off as bonafide in their intention and achieve poor results. They do this by constructing a poorly designed mask (a faceless one, because sex workers are faceless, right?) and plucking quotes from the worst reviews written by clients. They paint this in the same manner an artist might paint a mask for a masquerade—with the idea of presenting cryptic truth through ambiguous art.

The Invisible Men Project is a propaganda project that fails as a creative project. They have painted the “faceless” sex workers with the words their clients use for them. As if the client’s opinion even matters. As if the sex worker’s worth weighs solely on their clients opinion about them. They haven’t even thought to use the words of the sex worker in question, they just assumed that the client’s opinion about their work resonates similarly.

Bravo to the Invisible Men Project for creating a space to glorify the misogynist attitudes of these men. And they are glorified. Highlighting their words does nothing but promote their behavior. They’re not ashamed—if they were, they would never had posted their reviews in the first place. The curators are completely aware that attaching a price tag to each piece will further shock their audience, especially if that price seems low. They don’t bother to put the prices in a context that allows for regional or socioeconomic differences.

The sex industry is competitive in its very nature. It’s not odd for fake reviews to be written, especially from the direct competition. Or for them to be exaggerated by a disgruntled client. This often happens because these business dealings are not in the economic mainstream (depending on the type of legal framework the country functions under). Every sex worker and every punter knows to take reviews with a grain of salt. The public doesn’t always know this, and the Invisible Men Project doesn’t bother to mention this. [READ MORE]

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(Image via the Stigma Project)

(Image via the Stigma Project)

With thanks to members of SWOP-USA

Laws that criminalize HIV exposure are supposed to benefit public health, but in practice are extremely harmful to public health and to the targeted HIV-positive individuals. Sex workers are highly vulnerable to these laws, which sometimes target HIV-positive prostitution specifically. Many require forcible HIV testing, and sometimes they simply criminalize HIV but in reality are applied to sex workers more frequently than to other populations.

The criminalization of HIV-positive sex workers and mandatory post-arrest HIV testing arguably violates international human rights treaties signed by the United States. Treaties with applicable provisions include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), specifically their provisions on privacy, rights to equality before the law, and sanctions against inciting hatred and racial bias. Recent forced HIV testing in Greece provoked outrage among international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. WHO/UNAIDS (World Health Organization/the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) made a statement opposing forced testing. It is widely accepted that best practices for HIV testing, with the best public health outcomes, involve three key principles—consent to testing, the provision of counseling before and after testing, and confidentiality of results. The imposition of felony offenses on individuals who are said to be engaging in sex work while living with HIV punishes members of already vulnerable communities. They are prosecuted even when they use condoms and engage in less risky forms of sex with their partners, sometimes even if they have disclosed their status to their partner. Information about their HIV status, sometimes accompanied by photographs, is often distributed widely by the media in their communities, placing arrestees at risk of retaliation and other abuse. This incentivizes avoiding testing and does nothing to encourage treatment or safer sex practices. [READ MORE]

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