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October 22nd And After: The Movement Against Police Violence And Black Sex Workers

The author in a selfie with the Red Umbrella Project team. (Photo courtesy of Cherno Biko)
The author in a selfie with the Red Umbrella Project team. (Photo courtesy of Cherno Biko)

Every year since 1995, thousands of people all over the world have joined forces in an effort to end police brutality, repression, and the criminalization of our lives. In America, yesterday, October 22nd, has become known as the National Day to End Police Brutality. These efforts were launched by the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA and have historically focused on violence perpetrated against men.

As the developer of the hashtag #BlackTransLivesMatter and a national partner of the larger #BlackLivesMatter network, I must point out that the violence against folks like us manifests in many different ways and hits black cis and trans women the hardest.

Leave Cardi Alone

Like, I had to go strip. I had to go, ‘Oh yeah, you want to fuck me? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s go to this hotel,’ and I’d drug ni**as up, and I’d rob them. That’s what I used to do! Nothing was motherfucking handed to me, my ni**a. Nothing.

Full disclosure: I don’t actually care about Cardi B. Nothing that she does or creates is essential to my life and her behavior consistently irritates me. Yes, I’ve bopped along to Bickenhead (a certifiable summertime bop) and her verse on G-Eazy’s No Limit speaks to my shriveled hooker heart, but beyond the music, I don’t care about Cardi B. I didn’t watch her on Love and Hip-Hop (because I don’t acknowledge Mona Scott, unless it’s L&HH: Miami), I didn’t listen to her mixtapes, and I wasn’t actually aware of her existence until Bodak Yellow’s release became a massive cultural event. Since then, I’ve made note of particularly compelling moments in her career as they appear on twitter: past colorist and racist comments, blatant transphobia, defence of her then boyfriend Offset’s homophobia, mockery of a mother with a dead child, constant feuding with Nicki Minaj, etc. Now, I’ve written before about the prevalence of bigotry in the hood and how being “ghetto” is not an excuse for ignorance, so it would be disingenuous of me to defend her past behavior. I won’t do it. So, when I say “leave Cardi B alone”, it’s not about that. It’s about how local jagoffs on the internet took the issue of a sex worker operating on the edges of what’s considered socially acceptable to survive and turned it into a crusade against her which likened her to R.Kelly and Bill Cosby.

On Sunday, March 24, 2019, an old video of the rapper surfaced on twitter, where all discourse goes to die. In the video, Cardi can be heard responding to accusations that she doesn’t deserve her fame or success because she didn’t “work for it.” It’s a filthy lie that sex workers don’t work as hard as or harder than anyone else, and yet that lie lives on because of misogyny, whorephobia, and general stupidity. We don’t get days off. “Down time” is spent in the gym, coding websites, designing ads, engaging in advocacy, and freestyling. We function as surrogate spouses, therapists, and friends. We have to work on our bad days, our bloated days, and our heavy flow days. All we do is work, so kill that lie.

In the video, Cardi starts by saying, “Ni**as must have forgotten the shit that I did to motherfucking survive.” Now, Cardi has a thick accent, clearly influenced by her New York and Latinx roots, so some of the words are difficult to identify with 100% certainty. But it sounds like—and this is the story the internet has decided to run with—she goes on to say that men would approach her at work, ask her to (most likely) break club rules and have sex with them, and go home with her where she would drug them and then rob them. “Like, I had to go strip. I had to go, ‘Oh yeah, you want to fuck me? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s go to this hotel,’ and I’d drug ni**as up, and I’d rob them. That’s what I used to do! Nothing was motherfucking handed to me, my ni**a. Nothing.”

I firmly believe that robbing men is just taking reparations for the unending misogynistic and patriarchal bullshit we’re subjected to on a regular basis. I also believe that sex workers should be compensated for their time at all times if you’re asking them to provide labor of any kind. So I don’t care about her lightening the pockets of these men. If we’re being pedantic and dumb, we can acknowledge that drugging and robbing men, either as separate acts or in concert, is illegal. It’s “objectively” wrong. But I still don’t care. To quote MsGizelleMarie, “There’s no rules to survival sex work.” Encouraging clients to drink a little bit more or do another line, taking an extra $20 for cab fare when a john is in the bathroom, calling the police when a client gets too aggressive—we all do what we have to do to stay safe, pay rent, feed our kids, buy our meds, and take care of our parents. Cardi B became a stripper after the loss of her civilian job forced her to live with an abusive ex and drop out of college. That is survival sex work.

When your literal life is on the line, the boundaries between the available options and the acceptable options start to blur. If you have never had to choose between food and paying a bill, this is not the place for you to clutch your pearls. This conversation is not the place for you to make yourself heard at the expense of poor, survival sex workers. If you can leave sex work today and find employment tomorrow without having to explain the gaps in your CV because of your education or connections, this is not the time for you to talk about your anecdotal experiences. You don’t have the range or the right to derail this discussion. If you can call the police when a client gets out of line without worrying about being railroaded by ICE, I don’t care about your opinion. I don’t want to know what you women who can openly talk about your sex work careers without losing jobs, respect, or your lives would do in Cardi’s place. Because you have never been in Cardi’s place.

Daniel Holtzclaw, Black Women, And The Myth of Police Protection

aholtzclawbirthday

Content warning: this piece contains general discussion of rape.

On his 29th birthday, December 10th, former Oklahoma City Police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who targeted low income, criminalized Black women and girls for sexual assault while on duty, was found guilty of 18 of the 36 charges brought against him. He now faces up to 263 years in prison when he is formally sentenced next month. His crimes were calculated and monstrous. But as uplifting as it is to hear his vindicated victims sing “Happy Birthday,” I can’t help but feel like the knife stuck six inches into my back has only been pulled out three inches.

Holtzclaw’s crimes are far from a rarity. The Associated Press reported that from 2009 to 2014, almost 1000 officers have been decertified or terminated due to sexual misconduct. A 2010 study published by the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project reported that sexual misconduct was the second most common form of police misconduct. The report also found “assault and sexual assault rates significantly higher for police when compared to the general population.”

Holtzclaw’s crimes were hardly covered by major outlets and that tepid coverage robbed me of any lasting feeling of accomplishment in his conviction. And according to prosecutors, Buzzfeed, the Daily Mirror, The New York Times, Jezebel, the Daily Beast, the Washington Post and many other publications, this rapist is behind bars because he “messed up“: he raped the “wrong” woman, Janie Ligons, a woman with no previous criminal record, no record of drug use or sex work—someone who felt free to report her rape. This woman was someone whose assault demanded an answer.

If Ligons is the “wrong” victim, then am I and hundreds of thousands of other Black sex workers the “RIGHT” victim? Historically speaking, in America, the answer is yes, and that terrifies me. It’s hard to puff out your chest and declare the Holtzclaw verdict proof of progress when he wouldn’t have been taken off the streets had Ligons not come forward. Ligons filed a civil suit against Oklahoma City prior to the criminal trial. She seeks damages based on the fact that Holtzclaw was already being investigated for sexual misconduct but was allowed to continue to patrol low income Black neighborhoods. At least one other woman, identified as TM, made a report to police previously that Holtzclaw assaulted her before Ligons was raped.

The Massage Parlor Means Survival Here: Red Canary Song On Robert Kraft

Sonya, a representative from the MinKwon Center for Community Action, holds a memorial sign for Yang Song, a migrant parlor worker driven to jump out a window during a brutal police raid in 2017, after being pressured by the cops to serve as an informant. (Photo by Emma Whitford)

As we gathered on the busy street corner in front of the Queens Public Library in Flushing on Friday March 29th, over one hundred community members heard our cry: “性工作是真工作!” Sex work is work!

The police had blockaded Red Canary Song members from the library steps, protecting the carceral narratives that were being pushed inside by City Council Member Peter Koo and the NYPD—CM Koo, the NYPD, and a slew of other City initiatives were hosting a “How to Spot and Combat Human Trafficking” seminar inside the library behind us. Regardless of the heavy police presence, we continued our teach-in, passing out Know-Your-Rights trainings in English, Spanish and Mandarin to community members and passerby. Direct services providers and advocates spoke, dispelling myths and misconceptions that surround migrant massage and sex work. One of the main myths that we sought to challenge is the perspective both the police and Polaris favor: that all Asian massage workers are perpetrators or victims of sex trafficking. Many speakers and some community members referenced the recent case of Robert Kraft directly. Through the almost three hour long teach-in, we distributed upwards of one thousand pieces of print materials to participants and passersby.

The public is fed the racist myth that all Chinese massage parlors are involved in human trafficking. In fact, most Chinese workers do this work because it is the most sensible work for them to do, especially when they are new immigrants to the country and do not have access to other opportunities or employment training. For many, it is simply the fastest way to send money home, and it makes the most practical sense at this time of their lives.

“The massage parlor is a platform for our survival [here] when there are not [a lot] of other services to help immigrants transition into the country,” explains Elle, a veteran Flushing massage parlor worker.

(Im)migration, as it relates to Asian and specifically Chinese women, as well as feminine and gender non-conforming sex workers, is far more complicated than most people realize.

The Chinese hukou system, which restricts people to living in the rural area where they are born, making workers illegal in their own country, is a huge driver of internal “migrant sex workers” with no working rights in China. It is also a huge driver of migration out of China under Deng Xiaoping’s policies, which actively promoted rural migration out of China rather than overcrowding Chinese cities. These migrant sex workers often end up in Hong Kong, where our comrade Elene Lam met them as Director of Zi Teng, a sex worker rights organization in Hong Kong. By way of Hong Kong, these same workers often end up in Flushing or Toronto.

It’s an incredibly global network, connected through newly possible digital networks. Elene has literally met the same workers she has done outreach with in Canton, then Hong Kong, and then Toronto. This sequence of migration is driven by government policies that restrict the labor rights of Chinese workers who are made illegal in their own country, due to an internal caste system of rural vs. urban workers. Yet these migrant sex workers also do much to support Chinese economic development by sending a large portion of their money home.

It’s ironic and laughable in the darkest sense when Christian charities in “international development” work travel to countries like Cambodia and Thailand to convert sex workers into garment workers. Do they recognize how much “international development” these sex workers are already doing? Much more than a charity promoting the sale of handmade trinkets could ever manage.

Chi-Raq (2015)

(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.