Bellesa CEO Michelle Shnaidman.

How can you talk about ethics when your company is posting stolen content from producers and sex workers?

A tube site aimed at women did just that this month. Recently launched, Bellesa claimed it created a safe atmosphere for its users, which, unlike other tube sites, was supposedly free of “degrading” porn. However, like all tube sites, their collection of videos was largely acquired through piracy. While boasting “safe space” and “ethical porn for women,” Bellesa perpetuated the same exploitative practices the sleaziest tube sites do.

Their hypocrisy caused a stir in the porn industry. The site claimed to be empowering while simultaneously exploiting people’s sexual labor. At least some other tube sites let performers upload their content and get paid for it—it’s a way to make your money back on already pirated content. Bellesa also perpetuated sex positive feminism’s voyeuristic and conditional obsession with sex work, that is, the idea that it is only valid as long as it’s empowering—a standard other jobs are not held to. What this attitude ultimately demonstrates is a complete disregard for those who work in the sex industry.

To add insult to injury, Bellesa’s marketing campaign used Twitter to blast videos full of this kind of rhetoric, feeding a  liberal sex positive audience hungry for it. Feminist sex writer Suzannah Wess profiled their CEO Michelle Shnaidman at Bustle, opening her piece with, “It’s hard enough to find porn that isn’t totally degrading to women. And then, when you finally come across porn for women, it’s usually behind a paywall. There’s a good reason for this: It’s hard to produce porn ethically without charging customers. But Michelle Shnaidman, founder of Bellesa, has found a way to bring women porn they’ll actually enjoy without draining their bank accounts.”

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It’s Chuck Grassley! (image courtesy of Gage Skidmore)

As yet another terrifying resurrection of the zombie Republican health care cut bill looms over the nation, sex workers have their own nightmare legislative threat to deal with this month. That’s because, in the midst of this year’s iteration of commemorative 9/11 pomp, two anti-trafficking bills passed unanimously in the Senate which would vastly expand federal power to criminalize and harm sex workers.

The Trafficking Prevention Act (TVPA) of 2017, introduced by Republican Chuck Grassley but immediately garnering the bipartisan support anti-trafficking bills always accrue, is an expansion of a 2000 law. This 2017 version of already odious legislation makes the phrase “broad overreach” a piddling understatement.  It begins with an amendment named for Frederick Douglass,  referencing the historical Black suffering of slavery in legislation which would actively harm Black sex workers in an act of supremely tone-deaf appropriation, and goes downhill from there.

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I’ve been workshopping an excuse to write an Insane Clown Posse post for a couple years now, but could never find a plausible reason to do it. But you know what? It’s 2017 now. Nothing makes sense anyway; a reality TV star is President, knitted pussycat hats are considered revolutionary, and McDonald’s sells guacamole. Anything goes! So gather around, children—I have a story to tell you. A story of two magical wizards from the annals of Southwest Detroit, men who forged their mark on our cultural schism with a palette of face paint and a lot of Faygo two-liters.

For some perspective: On September 17, Detroit’s whitest, Confederate flag waving-est rapper, Kid Rock, will be performing his third in a series of SIX no doubt sold-out concerts in the city’s brand new, tax-payer-subsidized hockey arena. Kid Rock is handily Detroit’s most obnoxious musician, and yet he was asked to christen the shiny new venue. On the same day, Detroit’s original white rappers, the Insane Clown Posse (whoop whoop), will be performing for free in Washington D.C. as part of their Jugallo March on Washington. So while Kid Rock is gaslighting us with his fake-but-maybe-not-fake Senate run, ICP has organized direct political action. Why? Because the FBI labeled their dedicated fan base a gang. (The FBI get zero whoops, thank-you-very-much.)

A pro-Trump rally is also scheduled for that day, at nearly the same location. Which … will be interesting. Because if you explore ICP’s body of work, you’ll see that they don’t have much patience for rich people (“richies” in Juggalo-ease) or racists. For the past decade, ICP have garnered some pretty condescending and embarrassing coverage. But now that the liberal media has nominated Juggalos as the first line of defense against the alt-right, people have started examining ICP and their movement more closely. Turns out they’re not idiots, nor are their fans.

Just for funsies—and so I’d actually have a sex work peg for this post—I asked Tits and Sass contributor Kitty Stryker of the Struggalo Circus to speculate if ICP would support the decriminalization of sex work. She told me their record on slut-shaming isn’t great (but what male musician’s is?), but that they would, because ultimately, “They care about individual freedom without the influence of government.” Seems fair. So maybe the ICP are allies? At least we can determine they aren’t enemies, which we could never say about the FBI.

Anyway. Are you working this week? Delight your client or your tip rail with this colorful, anti-racist, and oddly politicized ICP playlist. Support the Juggalos. Because they’re being targeted too, and they might inadvertently fuck some Nazis up for us.  [READ MORE]

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(Photo by Flickr user Patrick Harris)

This is a hard piece for me to write, because everything I’m about to describe is still very fresh.

Two years ago, the all-over body pain and extreme exhaustion I’d been dealing with began to become more common. But I was still only using my cane sporadically, allowing me to work the stroll and occasionally go on outcalls from Backpage.

The doctors had confirmed fibromyalgia, as well as chronic fatigue syndrome. At the time, these diagnoses felt validating. The body pain, the spasming tendons and odd stabbing pains that I could name—this one felt like a rusty railroad spike going up through my foot, another like a piece of rebar traversing my torso diagonally, another like needles being shoved under my fingernails—were not my imagination, nor was the exhaustion that kept me sleeping for 19-plus hours a day, often for weeks at a time.

I was still occasionally able to make it out without my cane at this point. It had become a comfort and it provided a sense of security, a way to signal a request for patience when I was unable to move as quickly as others, and it allowed relief from the pains that shot like lightning up the bones of both my legs. But I knew that as a fat, tattooed, (although cis passing) trans woman, the cane would work against me on the stroll. Though I was 47 at the time, I easily passed as closer to 30 (the “Trans Fountain of Youth”?). But sex work is mean. Anything that detracted from cis-hetero-able-bodied standards of beauty meant lost income, so I leaned a lot. I’d stop by the church gates and rest, half-hoping I’d go unnoticed so I could regain a bit of my strength, half-hoping I’d be noticeable enough to catch a car date without having to move to more lucrative stretches of the stroll.

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Mother's Day protest at an Arizona prison (Photo by PJ Starr)

Mother’s Day protest at an Arizona prison. (Photo by PJ Starr)

Editor’s note, 8/31/2017: In light of Trump’s pardon of former sheriff Joe Arpaio for his contempt of court conviction re: the order to cease his reign of terror against immigrants in Arizona’s Maricopa County, we’re posting an updated edition of my September 2014 interview with PJ Starr. I interviewed Starr on her documentary about Marcia Powell, a sex worker left caged in the Arizona sun to die of heat stroke and dehydration in Perryville Prison. Arpaio is a mass inmate murderer and human rights violator. During his tenure as sheriff, many prisoners died of negligence and exposure, suicide in despair at intolerable conditions, and beatings from guards. Maricopa County paid out millions of dollars in lawsuits over these deaths. The Phoenix New-Times called them “a parade of corpses“, but Arpaio refused to disclose exactly how many prisoners had died. However, the paper verified that the rate of prisoner suicides alone in his facilities “dwarf[ed]” those of “other county lockups”. Arpaio himself once proudly called his tent city a “concentration camp.” His carceral tent city and chain gang model spread throughout the state, and Arpaio’s brutality was itself a reflection of the state’s violent, punitive criminal justice system. Powell wasn’t under Arpaio’s care when she died, but she went through his jail system, and the agony she suffered was a direct result of his approach to the prison industrial complex. Her blood is on his hands. And because of Arizona’s draconian prostitution mandatory minimums, many other sex workers endured Arpaio’s abuses as well. And yet, Arpaio himself is only a symptom of Arizona’s consistent disregard for prisoners’ human rights. 

I asked Starr a few additional questions this week which I’ve appended to the end of this interview, to find out what she learned about Arpaio in the course of making her documentary and working alongside SWOP-Phoenix.

Content warning: this post describes the murder of an imprisoned sex worker through neglect and human rights abuse in graphic detail. It also touches on structural violence and violence against sex workers in general.

I spoke to sex worker rights film maker and photographer PJ Starr about her upcoming documentary film, NO HUMAN INVOLVED, on the death of Arizona street worker Marcia Powell through prison brutality. The interview that follows is a composite of a week of e-mails between the two of us.

Who was Marcia Powell? 

Marcia Powell was arrested in 2008 for solicitation of prostitution and was sentenced to 27 months in Perryville Prison, a women’s prison located in Goodyear just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. In 2009, while she was serving that sentence, she was left in a cage in the sun during the heat of the day for hours. She collapsed and some hours later died in a hospital in Goodyear when the Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections had her removed from life support.

Marcia should not be and cannot be defined solely by her death. Marcia Powell was a parent; she named one of her children—her daughter—”Eureka”. A former partner described her as “so beautiful she would stop traffic.” Marcia loved coffee, everyone who knew her in prison mentions that. She had experienced mental health issues, that was clear, but as one of her friends from Perryville said to me during an interview, “she had good sense.” On one hand, there is the public figure that Marcia came to be after her death, but, as is always the case, her story is much more nuanced than what we can contain in one news story. At points in her life she did not even choose to be “Marcia Powell.” She sometimes used another name, but in prison, her ID name Marcia Powell came to be how she was known and is now remembered.

How did you get the idea to make a film about her death?

Firstly, in 2009, when Marcia Powell died, my friend Cris Sardina (who is now the co-coordinator of Desiree Alliance, but then was involved with the Women’s Re-Entry Network in Arizona) sent me an e-mail telling me about what had happened. Cris’ message put the story in my mind and I continued to think about it for a long time. Secondly, I was given a space to be part of the Filmmakers’ Collaborative at the Maysles Institute in 2010 and the collaborative focused on writing a treatment for documentary film. I proposed three ideas to the other filmmakers and every person in the collaborative advocated for me to make a film about Marcia Powell. That was a wake up moment for me to think that other people outside of the movement for sex worker rights would be so affected by the story, so I prioritized the film. I thank the other filmmakers at Maysles for helping me see what was important for me to pursue.

Who is the intended audience for your film? What would you like viewers to learn about the prison system and survival sex work by watching No Human Involved?

I am very proud that we have the genre of representation that has been carefully encouraged by people like the incomparable Carol Leigh, and I am always keen to make films that speak to the sex worker community, but I have been working on this film with the aim of having a broader audience as well. I am aiming for the film to also resonate with people who may care about human rights or women’s issues already, but who really have not yet had information about what I am starting to think of as a conveyor belt that moves people along via arrests for prostitution, or related issues like “trespassing” of “camping” in urban areas, to the court where they have no choice but to plead guilty, to the prisons where they are at the mercy of a brutal system of incarceration.

In the promo video for your film, Peggy Plews laments, “How can sixteen people pass by a human being in a cage—defecating over herself and pleading to be let out—and do nothing?” Where does this systemic brutality come from? How can we combat it?

Yes, how can so many people ignore someone who is begging for water? Incarceration relies on categorization, dehumanization and a hierarchy of command that distances each person from responsibility. Part of the problem that day was that Marcia was not seen as a person in a cage by the officers walking by. She was viewed as an irritant, a thing to be ignored until the sounds (i.e., her pleas) stopped. But no matter how responsible those individuals are for what happened, there is equal responsibility held by the people who have designed the current approach within the Arizona Department of Corrections. People who institute and maintain systems of brutality have a vested interest in erasing its history so that it seems that the the system is “normal” and permanent, and that there is no way to create change.

The first step to being involved in change is then to learn how the system was set up so we can dismantle it. One excellent resource is the book Sunbelt Justice by Mona Lynch, which explains how Arizona’s carceral policies developed and the role that their approach plays in America’s current system of mass incarceration. Another step in combating brutality is to be in solidarity with prisoners, because wherever there is injustice there is always resistance. And perhaps one more element to remember is to keep an open mind about who can be part of standing up against the abuses as allies. There are people who have worked in Corrections who challenge the dehumanization and who have questioned what happened to Marcia Powell. The system is not as invulnerable to criticism from within as the leadership might want the public to think.

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