Race

Black sex workers’ rights activist heroine Monica Jones contests her arrest.

The first part of this round table is here

Harmony: How do you feel white supremacy shows up in the sex workers’ rights movement? How does that white supremacy complicate activism intended to protect sex workers of color from the police and other violent institutions? How does it make you feel knowing women like Maggie McNeill, who have written blatantly racist articles exposing their hatred of people of color, like this one, are still called on for their “expertise” on sex work?

Phoenix: Most activists I know are white and incredibly low key racist. It seems that a lot of sex work activism is like white feminism—white cis women are the standard and everything is based around them. Women of color/non-male people of color get left behind pretty frequently.

There’s also the whole “we have one struggle” thing. It’s like white feminism (TM). White women are quick to point to patriarchy as a source of problems while ignoring that we also face racism, colonialist legacies, etc. It’s the same with sex workers. Too often things are solely framed around sex workers’ rights in regards to slut shaming/stigma, bargaining, decrim, capitalism, etc. Little is discussed about the racism sex workers of color face from society, and in the industry, both from clients and fellow workers. And of course, it all reinforces things like the idea that black clients are hyper-masculine, hyper-sexual, and dangerous. Not because they’re clients but because they’re black men. There’s also an assumption that as a black sex worker, I’ll do things white sex workers won’t do. Or that I’ll do it for less, because I’m a hyper-sexual black woman.

And it’s interesting how benevolent sexism comes in more for white sex workers, too. Way more white sex workers I know have the gross clients who want to “save them,” while my clients are more likely to assume this is the best I can do with my life. Like, white sex workers are fragile and need saving, while black sex workers are just inherently more immoral and unredeemable.

Bambi: I can so relate to seeing white sex workers’ clients wanting to save them but not giving a fuck about the black girls. We are the Sapphires—we are always expected to be stronger and tougher than our white peers. It gets tiring.

Honestly, white supremacy in sex worker “activism” is what has kept me out of it for a long time. It was triggering as fuck to read what Harmony linked to, and then to know that the woman who wrote that is one of the most vocal and prominent sex worker activists. Like really? Get it together!

I did hear that Monica Jones called her out at the Desiree Alliance Conference—another place which I feel is a mostly white woman club. I think if the sex workers’ movement wants our help, they need to make us comfortable. And from what I heard about the way SWOP-Seattle treated Monica, it makes me so mad. You all wonder why there’s not more black sex workers in your movement? It’s because of the Maggie McNeills that go out of their way to reinforce stereotypes and be racist as fuck, and there’s no backlash. I’m sure we would feel more comfortable if more white workers were willing to go to bat for us when shit like that goes down, yet McNeill still has a shit ton of followers on Twitter and goes to Desiree.

Harmony: It sickens me that prominent racist sex worker activists are called on for their “experience and knowledge” in the movement. That’s how you know your movement is fucked, especially when bad bitches like Anna Saini and Janet had to basically threaten the New York Times for them to include POCs in their recent profile of the sex workers’ rights movement—coverage which was originally initiated by white sex worker activists. There’s something very fucking wrong when you have to literally fight for the inclusion of black and brown sex worker voices in the media and SHOUT OUT TO MONICA JONES FOR STANDING UP TO THEIR CLASSIST RACIST BOUGIE ASS BULLSHIT! Let’s not stop the fight, ladies! It’s time for us to be heard!

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Shardayreon Hill, one of Daniel Holtzclaw’s victims, speaks outside the Oklahoma County courthouse at his trial.

2016 was a year in which police violence against people of color came further into the fore. Just this month, ex-Charleston police officer Michael Slager’s mistrial for the shooting death of unarmed Black man Walter Scott stirred fresh outrage among the city’s Black activists and community members. At the same time, a number of cases this year, such as the rape of multiple sex working and drug using Black women by Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, as well as the sexual exploitation of Latina teenage sex worker Celeste Guap/Jasmine Abuslin by several Oakland police officers, highlighted the specific and ongoing violence police do to sex workers of color. For this International Day Against Violence Against Sex Workers, Tits and Sass wanted to focus on this issue through this round table, which represents an edited and condensed version of a Facebook Messenger conversation sex workers of color Harmony Rodriguez, Shagasyia Diamond, Bambi, and Phoenix Calida had starting this summer. The second part of the round table is here.

Harmony Rodriguez is a Latina loud mouth queer femme native New Yorker, activist, hu$tler, and lover of hip hop. 

Shagasyia Diamond is a Black trans sex workers’ rights activist. She is a Red Umbrella Project community organizer and the founder of Project Connection, a safe space for women of trans experience who seek to enrich their lives through support groups, workshops, and trips designed to heal women and connect them to supportive services. She is currently fundraising for the Harlot’s Ball benefit, a charity event to increase services for women of trans experience. 

Bambi is a black and proud fashionista + stripper with burlesque aspirations who has moved often enough to never be able to really rep just one city or state. She always speaks up when she sees injustice and spends much of her time fighting it.

Phoenix Calida is a queer, afro latina activist and podcaster based in Chicago. They like wine and cats and they have the ability to make anything from scratch.

Content warning: Descriptions of rape by police below. 

What are your experiences and your community’s experiences with police violence and exploitation targeting sex workers of color?

Harmony Rodriguez: I grew up in the projects of Brooklyn. (BEDSTUY REPRESENT!) In Bedstuy, we were always taught that the police were to be feared and they were not there to help us. Nobody ever called the police. They were the ones that deported our fathers, locked up our brothers, and raped our mothers and sisters. From a very early age, I learned that the police were not to be trusted.

My parents were both immigrants that came to Amerikka [looking for] better opportunities. They were sold the American dream. I have five siblings, so we were always fighting for the last bit of food. When I was 12, I remember looking up to the older teenage girls that hung around my projects late at night after my curfew. The ones with the fly nameplate necklaces in gold and fitted clothing and purses. They weren’t wearing hand-me-downs like me and my brothers and sisters. They swung their hips with confidence and exuded sexy. I knew I wanted what these girls had.

And I was in a culture that is so overwhelmed by the concepts of money and capitalism—it’s in our music, our movies, etc. It’s sold to us by our brainwashed black and brown brothers and sisters in the rap music we grew up to. I was embarrassed going to school in hand-me-downs. I was embarrassed that my mother still hadn’t learned to speak English fluently. White supremacy had ingrained in me that these were reasons to be embarrassed, so I got close to these girls who had could afford to straighten their hair or get weaves (because I also had a complex about my naturally curly hair, which I’m happy to say that I now embrace and love).

They were my street sisters, my comrades, my teachers, and they were also hos. We didn’t use politically correct words like “sex worker” back then. I have only heard that term used in the white community, to be honest, and only way later on in my life. They hyped me to the game of sucking dick and selling pussy to the cars that would encircle our blocks at night. I was 14 when I snuck out one night and smoked a blunt with my main homegirl who taught me the game and [I] turned my first trick. I woke up the next morning with $50 in my pocket and I felt empowered as fuck. I could go shopping for my own clothes and I didn’t have to burden my parents who were already overworked and underpaid.

The longer I worked, though, the more exploitation and violence I witnessed being targeted at the hos on my block. We was anywhere from 12-50, but I stuck with the younger clique of hos.

I remember this one police officer that we used to call Officer Smiles because he had the creepiest ass smile and loved to patrol our block. I remember my teenage friend coming out of his car one day, pulling her skirt down as she exited, her hair was disheveled and her stockings were ripped and all the sexy confidence she exuded was gone in that moment. I ran to her and helped her cover herself with my jacket and he shot me the sickest smile of satisfaction. I felt sick. I remember asking her after we had chilled and smoked a blunt: “Are you okay?” Cause I wanted to fight this cracker and gather our homies to plot revenge. But after a long silence, she just said, “Shit girl, it’s better than being locked up, right?” And that was the mentality of the hood. We knew we were doing something illegal and if we could get out of it by exchanging money, jewelry, and—for us hos—our own bodies and bodily autonomy, we would. We just accepted that as a part of the game.

Eventually Officer Smiles got to me as well. He was rough and would slap you up if you told him to “slow down” or “please be more gentle.” I was raped by him at least 10 times before I was 18 and made enough money to leave the projects and stop doing survival street work.

But even after I left, once when I went to go visit my mother and father because they still live in that project, he caught me on my way out. I told him, “I’m not doing shit. I moved out, you can’t fuck with me anymore!” He threw a bag of crack on the ground and said, “I think that’s yours, Ms. Rodriguez, unless you want to get in the car with me.” I was 20 years old and by that time I already had a solicitation charge from a sting when I was working off Backpage. I had to go to my straight job the next day or risk being fired, so I opened the car door and just lay there in the back seat.

I was on some disassociation shit. I didn’t speak. I didn’t look at him. He could have been raping a corpse, because that’s how much I had learned to disassociate by being raped by this man.

People think this shit is just in movies and not the real realities of everyday poor WOC street workers. That’s why I got mad tight when white people were so outraged and surprised by the Daniel Holtzclaw ordeal, like, really, white people? This shit’s been happening in the hood for forever! Why the outrage and surprise now? I’ve been a street ho since I was 14. Now I’m savvy enough to use the internet, but usually poor people in the projects don’t have access to the internet, and when we need money fast, we hit the streets. And in the streets, the police abuse their authority constantly because they know they can get away with it.

Bambi: I was sexually assaulted by a police officer when I was arrested for prostitution and the cop who arrested me made me strip for him first and straddle him. I was naked and on top of him when all the other police busted in the hotel room. I could feel his erection through his jeans while I was straddling him. I wonder, would he have done that to a white girl? Or did he think that it would be easier to get away with because I’m a double minority—a black woman. It was so upsetting that he exploited his power like that. I’ve heard of friends of mine who have slept with police as well to avoid getting arrested or, worse yet, they’ve been raped by the police and STILL gotten arrested.

Phoenix Calida: I was born in and spent a lot of time in a neighborhood that has been primarily black and LatinX (I’m Puerto Rican and black). Police brutality has been a regular thing for me. Police have always targeted people because of poverty and racism, and sexism too.

My worst police encounters have always come from cops who have caught me working/know I work. There is always a threat of arrest unless sex acts are offered. And then even outside of sexual violence, they do other things, just beat up on us for no reason or take earnings. Once I lost a pair of diamond earrings to a cop so he could give them to his girlfriend.

Sexual assaults are as frequent as they are awful. My own personal experiences have been terrible. For me, the worst part is how public it is. Like everyone knows what’s going to happen when cops pull you aside. But nobody can say anything because they’re cops. Who the fuck am I supposed to call? I’ve been sexually assaulted and abused by cops on multiple occasions. And it’s bad now, because one cop tells another cop who you are, and now all of a sudden there’s extra risk and extra cops.

And of course, cops know that we can’t really go back to our communities for support either. I’ve seen an attitude of, “Well, you’re just a whore anyways, so nobody cares, but even if they did care, you would have try to explain why you let a white man rape you.” That’s a huge factor, and a major source of shame with everything too.

Bambi: I feel you on many levels. I never call the police. It’s been known since I was a kid that they will only come into our neighborhoods to be corrupt and cause harm. So it’s like we are out here by ourselves.

I have personally taken care of two different (black) girlfriends after their rapes because the police don’t do shit. It’s hard to watch people you care about go through trauma like that and not know how to hold their rapist accountable all because they are POC sex workers. It’s really rough and then I think about the case of Alisha Walker and how she’s in prison simply for defending herself from a violent trick. There are multiple cases like that. It’s fucked.

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(Photo by Flickr user nixerKG)

(Photo by Flickr user nixerKG)

Fundraisers for Black sex workers

Sharmus Outlaw‘s memorial fund

Fund for Latesha Clay

Fund for Alisha Walker

Memorial fundraisers for Black and Latinx people killed by the police

Scholarship fund for Alton Sterling’s children

Memorial fund for Essence Bowman, a Black woman diagnosed with mental illness who died in police custody in June

Fund to support Philando Castile’s partner and her daughter

Memorial fund for Melissa Ventura, a Latinx woman shot by police on July 5th

Bail funds for Black Lives Matter protesters

Bail fund for Baton Rouge BLM protesters

Bail and legal support fund for BLM Minneapolis

Please add any additional fundraisers in the comments and share this list far and wide.

 

 

 

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Beyonce’s “Formation” can be described with two words: unapologetically black.

Images of black babies sporting their natural hair, lyrics such as “I got hot sauce in my bag (swag)”, and Beyonce atop a sinking New Orleans police car in what appears to be the wreckage of Katrina are what make that description a snug fit.

The scene that made tears well up in my eyes, however, was at 3:45 – a little black boy in a hoodie, clearly an homage to Trayvon Martin, dances, carefree and passionately, being,well, unapologetically black. But here’s the catch; he does this in front of a line of police officers, all standing at ease. When he finishes and throws his hands up gymnast-style, their hands fly up in surrender. This scene is immediately followed by footage of graffiti that reads:“Stop shooting us.”

Last night, Beyonce went even further. She made history when she brought this imagery to one of the most widely watched television events of the year: the Super Bowl 50 Half Time Show. Her live performance of “Formation” continued the theme of unapologetic blackness. Her costume was a tribute to one of the greatest performers in history, Michael Jackson, and her dancers mirrored the attire of the Black Panther army.

The line in the song that hits home the hardest for me as a black sex worker is “always stay gracious/ the best revenge is your paper.” It’s reminiscent of Missy Elliot’s “Work It,” where she spat, “get that cash/ whether it’s 9 to 5 or shaking your ass.” It acknowledges us black sex workers in a way we usually don’t experience in our community. Beyoncé has alluded to sex work positively before in lines such as “a diva is a female version of a hustler.” She’s come a long way from the rampant whorephobia in her earlier work (side eyeing “Nasty Girl” here).

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(Screenshot from the film)

(Screenshot from the film)

Imagine Lysistrata—the classical play you probably read in Greek Lit class —but in the hood.

In this fictional but all-too-real version of Southside, Chicago, the women of Chi-Raq, lead by Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), opt to withhold sex as a negotiating method to force an end to the gang related violence their men engage in. Lysistrata is inspired by the story of Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian woman who organized a sex strike amongst her peers to end a gruesome civil war. Her efforts were successful and earned her the Nobel Prize. The purpose of the Chi-Raq women’s strike is not so much to save their men from themselves as it is to bring a stop to the stray bullets that kill innocent children caught in the crossfire. These female revolutionists consider their responsibility to put children first an unwritten condition of womanhood. While Lysistrata herself is not a mother, her solidarity with them over her gang leader boyfriend, whom she loves, is powerful.

Is the labor of the Chi-Raq women’s strike itself a sort of sex work? As a sex worker myself, I have a very liberal definition of what falls under that (red) umbrella. I consider any situation where sex is used as a means of negotiation to be a form of sex work. Cash exchange is not a requirement. This definition can include negotiations between married couples or any suggestion of potential future sex to get what you want in the now—what some might call “flirting.” I understand this is a controversial opinion and an incredibly broad demarcation of sex work. But the reason I keep my definition of sex work so broad is because it normalizes the behavior. The more parallels I can draw between prostitution and sexual labor within civilian relationships, the weaker the arguments for intimate labor being an inherent evil become. This also means that when I work, I feel no guilt over avoiding terms such as “escort”—which would get me targeted by law enforcement—in favor of “sugarbaby” or “spoiled girlfriend”—even though nine times out of 10 they mean same goddamned thing, just without leaving me subject to the same legal implications.

The women of Chi-Raq considered themselves activists, and peaceful ones at that, but they still end up facing federal charges for their disruptive behavior. “Activists” sounds much better than “pissed off girlfriends.” There exists near infinite terminology to frame sexual negotiations depending on the conditions in which you negotiate. As the leader of this unconventional protest, Lysistrata is careful in navigating PR—it is her articulation of the dire circumstances in which the neighborhood lives, in addition to her resolve, that makes her a force to be reckoned with as opposed to being considered a joke, or worse, a terrorist. Different titles for the same actions produce vastly different outcomes.

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