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Sex Workers Are Not Collateral Damage: Kate D’Adamo on FOSTA and SESTA

(Courtesy of Support Ho(s)e Chicago)

Both sex workers’ rights and anti-trafficking organizations have been watching a bill winding its way through Congress for a while. Here at Tits and Sass, we’ve had plenty to say about it. SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, the Senate version of the bill, would have been disastrous enough—it would create a trafficking-related loophole in section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law which allows the internet to function by not holding service providers liable for user posting content. In practice, that would outlaw all sex worker advertising sites by opening them up to endless lawsuits, since any of them can be used for trafficking. That would send vulnerable people back into the streets and other dangerous venues and back into the hands of potentially abusive managers. Just think about the economic panic which followed the closures of Craigslist, MyRedBook, TNA, and Backpage’s adult section and multiply it a thousandfold if you want to imagine the impact this could have on the most defenseless members of our community. And as usual, when the sex trade is driven further underground, trafficking victims suffer as everyone around them is criminalized further, and they are further isolated with no one to turn to but their traffickers.

But the version that passed the House by an overwhelming majority last Thursday, FOSTA, the Allow States And Victims To Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, was even worse. It criminalizes “promoting” and “facilitating” prostitution without defining these terms, placing vital sex worker online harm reduction resources which both voluntary and trafficked sex workers rely on at risk, such as the verification sites and bad call lists we use to avoid violent clients. This blog you’re reading now could fall in the crosshairs of this legislation as well, as could other sites of sex worker community, making it much harder for an already closeted and stigmatized group of marginalized people to forge vital social and political connections with each other. FOSTA also includes damaging new additions such as a retiring Republican congressman’s clause expanding the Mann Act. It is a bill that has morphed into something much broader and more hurtful than its cosponsors originally envisioned, with law enforcement, social services, the ACLU, EFF, the National Organization for Women, AIDS United and even anti-trafficking organizations as well as the Department of Justice opposing it. Yet representatives rushed to embrace it in a show of bipartisan cooperation.

It seems likely that the Senate debate and vote on SESTA will take place on Monday, March 12th. If SESTA passes the Senate, the next step would be reconciliation between FOSTA and SESTA into one no doubt catastrophic law. Today and tomorrow, just as sex workers, free speech organizations, and anti-trafficking organizations mobilized against FOSTA in the House, tweet storms and phone/fax/email jams are planned nationally against this Senate vote on SESTA. We urge all our readers to call their Senators and encourage their social networks to do the same. Scroll down to the bottom of this post for more information and a sample call script.

Longtime sex work and trafficking policy researcher and Reframe Health and Justice partner Kate D’Adamo has led the sex worker and trafficking survivor charge against the House and now the Senate vote. Tits and Sass caught up with her last weekend to ask her what every sex worker should know about FOSTA and SESTA.

How did you mobilize action on the House vote so quickly? Are there any other organizations and individuals whose efforts against FOSTA you’d like to highlight?

This is so far from a solo effort! None of this would have been possible without Red from Support Ho(s)e and the group MASWAN doing some of the most fantastic grassroots organizing work. On the national support and lobbying front, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National Center for Transgender Equality have truly shown up.

I think things mobilized so quickly because people have been waiting for a moment to plug in. A lot of times sex worker rights, and movement work in general, can feel intangible; SESTA isn’t and its impacts certainly won’t be. Which also points to how long we have been laying the groundwork. When I talk about what would be impacted, it’s because this movement has been doing harm reduction and anti-violence work for years, finding ways to turn online spaces into community and safety. When folks are connecting online and calling their reps and senators, it’s because we can stand on decades of sex workers demanding liberation and justice.

Bareback: Re-Opening The Dialogue On Safer Sex In The Age of U=U

Bareback sex feels fucking amazing.

I know, we’re not supposed to talk about that. We’re not supposed to talk about bareback fucking without following it up with that ubiquitous “but use a condom!” statement. However, many communities face significant barriers to condom use and have very legitimate reasons for foregoing them—and these are the communities whose voices have largely been excluded from broader conversations defining “safe sex.”

That’s a big problem. As harm reductionists and sex educators, we can’t talk openly about what people are really doing behind closed doors. We aren’t supposed to legitimize sex without a condom as an option, or rather, we aren’t supposed to acknowledge that it may be the only option for many marginalized people. And that’s exactly the kind of dishonesty that allows HIV stigma to proliferate.

As an HIV counselor and longtime public health activist, as well as an ex-sex worker and IV drug user, I want this attitude to change. We need to re-open the conversation around what safe sex means in America and internationally, because while condoms can be an excellent means of STI protection, they are by no means a realistic option for every person in every situation. And sex workers in particular need to be involved in this conversation, since it is the most marginalized groups among us—drug-using sex workers, sex working trans women, street workers, sex workers of color, and people who fit into many or all of the above categories—who most often find ourselves in situations in which providing bareback services is our only option if we want to make a living.

The Erasure of Maya Angelou’s Sex Work History

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)

As Black History Month draws to a close, we thought revisiting Peech’s seminal essay on Maya Angelou would be appropriate. 

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.

When Will It Be #TimesUp For Rapist Cops? #MeToo And Sex Workers

Content warning: This piece contains general discussion of sexual assault and state violence. 

Last week, Time Magazine published a story about sex worker exclusion from the #metoo phenomenon. Sex workers are a criminalized population vulnerable to sexual assault, composed of people oppressed in many intersectional ways, so the inaccessibility of this newly popularized movement against rape and harassment is particularly egregious. At worst, it seems that only privileged women have access to an individualized #metoo movement. At best, sex workers are told they should have their own separate-but-equal movement in a manner which reinforces popular misconceptions about the sexual violence we face as intrinsic to sex work and our clients rather than stemming from stigma and the state.

In reality, much of the abuse and violence sex workers face comes from institutions like the police. This makes participating in a sex worker #metoo difficult since it entails calling abusers in positions of power to account.

Police are guilty of routinely targeting marginalized women and raping them. They prey on women whose allegations against police are rarely taken seriously. These women include sex workers (especially street and survival sex workers), women of color, trans women, and drug-using women—most often, women who are part of many or all the above groups. We are told to stand up for ourselves and report sexual assaults to the police, but when the abuser is the police, it becomes impossible to report it. A Brooklyn teenager tried to report a sexual assault committed by two police officers. Nine officers showed up en masse at the hospital she was in to convince her not to do a rape kit. Predatory police officers are commonly simply shuffled from one department to another when suspected of sex crimes.

In Alaska, the police are allowed to engage in sex acts before arresting a sex worker. This system of rape-as-entrapment results in only the provider being arrested. In Oakland, police officers had sex with an underage sex working teen in exchange for information about future busts. Only three of the men involved were convicted and the victim was sent away by the department to an out of state rehab facility in an attempt to shut her up. NYPD officer Raul Olmeda was paid to investigate sex trafficking. Instead, he paid an underage girl for sex and filmed their numerous encounters. It took seven months after police seized his computer for charges to be filed against him. A Phillipsburg police officer demanded free sex from two Backpage providers, threatening arrest. The officer, Justin Sanderson, had a history of sexual harassment at other law enforcement jobs and yet he was still able to gain employment in Phillipsburg. When sex workers get in trouble, we are not as immune to consequences as Sanderson was—when we are arrested, our records are tainted and we are not able to skip from job to job. This is one of many reasons why the threat of arrest has historically been very effective for rapist cops to wield against sex workers. Ex-Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw assaulted 13 Black women and young girls, many of them drug-using sex workers and almost all possessing records. It was only because the thirteenth Black woman he assaulted had a clean record and friends within the police department that the other twelve women’s reports became credible. It’s rare that officers are held accountable for being sexual predators the way Holtzclaw was. The majority of police departments do not have a training program for on-duty police officers to teach them to avoid sexual misconduct toward citizens, let alone ones training them to behave themselves appropriately specifically towards sex workers.

Confronting this police abuse is next to impossible for sex workers. Some of us have been arrested after police engaged in sexual activities with us. Some of us have been raped by cops who threatened us with arrest if we spoke out. Some of us have been assaulted and bullied by men posing as police officers. Police harassment can literally ruin our lives. Early last November, a migrant Brooklyn sex worker died jumping out of a window in order to avoid being re-arrested and deported during a brothel raid, after local cops carried out a campaign of terror to pressure her into becoming a confidential informant. The police are major perpetrators of violence against sex workers, whether as abusive individuals or as an oppressive system of state violence, and most of us are not in a position to speak out against them.

Judges also hold prejudices against sex workers. In Philadelphia, Judge Teresa Carr-Deni reduced a gang rape charge to “theft of services”, leaving the sex worker victim without justice. Several states make sex workers ineligible to receive rape victim compensation funds due to the criminalization of our work. In Indiana, for example, “a victim who was injured while committing, attempting to commit, participating in or attempting to participate in a criminal act” is ineligible for victims’ compensation.

When the entire apparatus of law enforcement and criminalization contributes to sexual violence against sex workers, it’s difficult to understand how an individualized, neoliberal movement like #metoo has become can help. Standing up against specific abusers, however powerful they are, cannot do much when an even more powerful system continues to create the conditions of our abuse. While the Time piece does devote a few paragraphs to police sexual abuse of sex workers—most notably, referencing the results of a 2016 Department of Justice report on the Baltimore police which found that the department ignored sexual assault reports made by sex workers and many officers raped sex workers after threatening incarceration—what it and other mainstream media reports on the topic miss is that criminalization and state violence are responsible for the particularly vicious rape culture we sex workers live with. When will it be #timesup for rapist cops—or for a criminal justice system which legitimizes that rape as an investigation technique and would rather jail us and reward our abusers?

The Stormy Daniels Effect: When Prostitutes Unite, Powerful Men Tremble

(via wikimedia)

It is now public knowledge that President Donald Trump’s attorney allegedly paid porn actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 for something. Although Daniels has, in the past, made mention of an affair with Trump, she now coyly denies it. On Jimmy Kimmel, she once again subtly suggested that the affair did indeed take place, holding a puppet of herself with tape over its mouth—a rather obvious testament to the ways that she has been gagged from speaking about the matter.

Whether the pair engaged in sexual activities or not, there is an undeniable connection between sex workers and rich, powerful men.

After all, seeing a sex worker implies a degree of economic freedom. That politicians in the United States tend to be rich, powerful men is perhaps a different conversation entirely, but it is not hyperbole to say that sex workers in this country have the capacity to ruin these men, but not for the reasons most might think. Indeed, the claim that sex workers can ruin rich, powerful men in this country is a loaded statement, particularly if “ruinous” is defined as simply holding onto kinky secrets.