(A screenshot from Amalia Ulman's Excellences and Perfections series)

(A screenshot from Amalia Ulman’s Excellences and Perfections series)

‘Up-and-coming’ no longer describes Argentine-born Amalia Ulman. Her recent work– a secret Instagram photo series mimicking the online persona of an L.A. sugar baby–made some huge waves. Ulman is quickly gaining ground as an artist whose accomplishments extend well beyond speaking at the respected Swiss Institute and showing at Frieze and the 9th Berlin Biennale. Her recent viral success is due in no small part to the enduring cultural fascination with—and disdain for— sex workers. It just so happens that she used to be one herself.

Even though she was never without basic needs growing up in a working class family, Ulman found herself struggling later in life to afford food and winter clothing while making art in London, England.

“Once I had to steal a coat from a store,” she says of a time when she was also financially supporting her mother, “and for me it was the most demeaning thing I’ve had to do in my life. It was out of necessity and not just for fun or the thrill. It changes things a lot when you actually need it.”

Financial hardships aside, Ulman had to balance the time demands of artistic production: “Sadly, most people don’t really understand that the process of making art requires lots of free time. That’s why, especially now that the economy is so bad in general, it’s just full of rich kids, because they’re the only ones who can go a month without really doing anything. Because that’s how making art works.”

Moreover, Ulman was resistant to the social expectation that a young woman should be spending her time finding a husband. She was keenly aware that if she charged for that same romantic experience she didn’t want personally, she could make both time and money for herself:

“Instead of having to perform heteronormativity all night, like going on dates with random dudes, for free, I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just do that for money.’ For me, [sex work] wasn’t like a dark thing to do, or an empowering thing to do either. I was just buying time for myself to think. I had retail jobs in the past where I had a 9-to-5, plus transportation of two hours in the middle of the snow, and I couldn’t think. I would rather I monetized on my body, which I was already doing in a way because that’s how the art world was working for me…even if I didn’t want to, I was being objectified as a young female artist and most of the attention I was getting was from older men in the art world. It was very objectifying.”

Imagine this encounter: An older man invites a younger woman to a private room in Manhattan. Once there, he offers her money, sensually feeds her finger-foods, and grabs her ass as she leaves. It seems par for the course for any escort providing an outcall, but this is what happened to Ulman during a formal interview with a representative of an admired art magazine, not with a former client. This is reality in an industry with an ingrained culture of quid-pro-quo “mentorship.”

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domesticminorsextraffickingWhen I got arrested recently, my copy of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains by Alexandra Lutnick came along with me to jail. It’d be fair to blame me, as well as the boys in blue, but I think it’s unlikely that this is the last time this publication will see the inside of an evidence vault or be fondled by the fingers of a police sergeant.

After bail, tearing open my blue possessions bag, I couldn’t help thinking that this book was meant to be in lockup with me. It wasn’t published solely for those with degrees in social service. The text exudes empathy for those left behind in the system. Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking reminds me of the bourbon-infused evenings of my teenage years. I remember feeling desolate and distressed in hotel rooms, dreaming of a world with enough beds and snug blankets.

The text expertly covers the disparity of my vision of the world of sex work and the broader statistical realities of it. This book is exceptionally sourced, as it needs to be in order to defend itself from the inevitable barrage of critique that will come in response to its claims about our failed social structure.

Lutnick isn’t another hapless academic reminding society that there’s an unseen conveyor belt of children being trafficked around the country. This is a view the mainstream media seems far too fond of, one that fails to realize our failures as a culture when it comes to the root causes of youth sex trade work. Instead, she argues that isolating minor sex workers in the margins of society allows us to flee our inherent responsibility to them. The book vigorously motions against a system which criminalizes minors who’ve entered into sex work willingly to escape abusive households. Lutnick contends that the vision our society promotes of young white cis women controlled by external forces is deceptive. Youth in the sex trade are far more diverse in origin, gender identity, and age than popularized media representations of them would lead us to believe.

These minors should be viewed with respect, as conscious proponents of their own motives. Lutnick notes that those left behind in systems of oppression are far more likely to be involved in sex work, as an escape from their abusers as well as systemic violence. As a young femme, there was nowhere for me to go besides the streets. There was money there, opportunity for advancement and excitement. Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking reflects my realities and those of my contemporaries with a clear vision of the true nature of minor sex work.

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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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(Courtesy of Instagram user local_._honey)

(Courtesy of Instagram user local_._honey)

Sit down. I have news for you. If you’re trying to date or hook up with someone you know from their work in escorting or porn, without paying them, your chances of success are close to zero. This is true even if we favorite your adoring comments on Twitter.

It may come as a shock to hear this. You may feel like sexual attraction is only part of the connection you have with this worker, and that paying would deny the authenticity of that. Or maybe you think that you are a really good (looking) person and only creepy or unattractive people pay. Maybe both you and the sex worker are queer and/or have similar politics. You know sex workers and are down with decriminalization. There are many reasons you may feel you are exceptional.

You are operating under a basic misunderstanding of who we are and what we are doing. Which is this:

1. Portraying an inviting version of ourselves, one with genuine elements but oriented to be pleasing to as many people as possible.
2. …because we are trying to make a fucking living.

I am not writing this to make you feel foolish. I am writing this because in the last week I’ve had multiple experiences of people approaching me in person, calling me on the phone, and hitting me up on social media trying to have unpaid sex with me. It’s been hard to turn people down, because as both an escort and a porn performer, I am not trying to get a reputation as a “mean person”. When I do turn people down directly, they don’t listen or they’re patronizing as fuck. An anonymous internet post telling you how it makes me feel is really the best I (and tons of other sex workers) can do in the hope you get the message.

I feel devalued and strung along. When people contact me by way of my ad or social media I assume they are interested in seeing me as an escort. I’m excited and open in response. I like my job, I like meeting people, and most importantly, I like making the money I need to survive. When I realize that you’ve called me to jerk off or that you want to take me out to dinner and try to woo me into unpaid sex, I go through an emotional arc from excitement to confusion to pure rage. That is not the start of a good relationship.

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Sharmus Outlaw. (Photo by PJ Starr, courtesy of Darby Hicky)

Sharmus Outlaw. (Photo by PJ Starr, courtesy of Darby Hicky)

Sharmus Outlaw, longtime trans, HIV, and sex workers’ rights activist, died in hospice care at the age of 50 on July 7th from lymphoma. Her death was hastened by systematic healthcare bias: she endured a long delay in processing her Medicaid application because doctors were “confused” by her gender marker, and faced numerous other difficulties accessing treatment as a Black trans woman.

An integral figure in the Washington D.C. activist community, Outlaw played a major role in local organizations like HIPS, Us Helping Us, Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, Different Avenues, Casa Ruby, Transgender Health Empowerment, and Metro Teen AIDS.  She contributed her leadership to many national and international sex workers’ rights groups, such as NSWP, Desiree Alliance, Red Umbrella Fund, and Best Practices Policy Project, as well. She spoke at the International Harm Reduction conference in 2007 and as a representative of the global sex workers’ rights movement in 2011 before the High Income Countries Dialogue convened by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law. In 2009, she was presented with the Port in the Storm Award by the Washington Peace Center for her work with HIPS. Outlaw was also essential to the publication of two seminal sex worker led research papers: Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington, D.C. (2008) and Nothing About Us, Without Us: HIV/AIDS-Related Community and Policy Organizing by U.S. Sex Workers (2015), which she she co-authored.

Readers can donate to Outlaw’s memorial fund here

Her friends in the community remember the way she changed their lives for the better:

Sharmus Outlaw. (Photo by PJ Starr, courtesy of Darby Hicky)

Sharmus Outlaw. (Photo by PJ Starr, courtesy of Darby Hicky)

GiGi Thomas:

There was this young black queen, three months clean from drugs and alcohol. She was sitting in the bookstore when a beautiful black queen offered her some life saving materials. The woman said her name was Sharmus and she was just trying to help save people’s lives.

Not only did she save my life, she pushed me forward to advocate for others, become a leader in the community, receive my Masters in Social Work, and buy my first home. I can never thank her enough for being a mentor and a big sister to me. My way of thanking her is by staying strong no matter what the situation may be. So I want to say thank you, Sharmus, for instilling that in me. Love you always.

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