Activism

tolivefreelyA version of this review originally appeared in issue 19 of make/shift magazine

In March 2016, South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa made a historic announcement of a nationwide scheme to prevent and treat HIV among sex workers, proclaiming, “we cannot deny the humanity and inalienable rights of people who engage in sex work.” Though Ramaphosa remained mum on the topic of decriminalization, the rousing endorsement this statement represents can’t be underemphasized. It’s impossible to imagine a U.S. politician of any importance saying something similar. The credit for this sea change in attitude goes to South African sex workers’ rights organization SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce) and sex worker peer organization Sisonke. In her book, To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism In Africa, Fordham University law professor Chi Adanno Mgbako covers SWEAT and parallel organizations in seven countries.

Mgbako deftly and concisely goes over sex workers’ rights 101 material. The epilogue’s history of global organizing comprehensively places the African movement in its broader context, from the 1970s—Margo St. James’ COYOTE and the French Collective of Prostitutes—to the 2012 Kolkata Sex Worker Freedom Festival. Mgbako explains the importance of not reducing sex work to “a single story” of victimization, the necessity of respecting human agency, and the need to understand sex workers’ rights activism as a labor movement. She traces the connection between violence and criminalization as represented by police abuse and client violence and the structural violence of social stigma, labor exploitation, and healthcare discrimination.

To Live Freely also transcends respectability politics and actively includes the sex workers often left out of our histories. One of the book’s seven chapters is dedicated to the multiple stigmas navigated by queer, migrant, trans, and HIV-positive sex workers. Mgbako makes sure to discuss sex-working queer women, trans men, and gender nonconforming people, who because of their lower visibility are too often excluded.

Many times throughout the text, Mgbako provides long oral histories from sex worker activists. In an admirable and sadly rare move for an ally, she explicitly connects this choice with the fact that she is not a sex worker herself, “and too often, non-sex workers take it upon themselves to speak for sex workers when the latter are fully capable of speaking for themselves.” I found these sections of the book and the solidarity they represented perhaps the most valuable. Kenya Sex Worker Alliance’s Phelister Abdallah’s harrowing account of gang rape by police, the moment representing her personal awakening as an activist, was particularly affecting. Yet, Mgbako never allows these stories to become tragedy porn for non-sex-worker readers—in her introduction, she avers that she only included narratives of abuse when those narratives illustrated the sociopolitical realities of sex workers’ struggle against criminalization. “There are no broken people in this book,” Mgbako declares. Instead, the author’s interest lies in displaying the “radiating strength” of African sex workers.

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Uptown Thief (2016)

by Caty Simon on October 20, 2016 · 1 comment

in Books, Reviews

uptown-thiefSlam poet and African American studies professor Aya de León’s new novel, Uptown Thief, is every activist sex worker’s fantasy: her protagonist Marisol Rivera is a women’s health clinic director by day and an escort agency manager and expert safe-cracker to fund that clinic for survival workers by night. True, any enterprising hooker who actually tried this would get her pet cause into very hot water. But reading about Marisol’s escapades teaming up with her escort employees to rob their rich clients’ friends, practicing some creative accounting to enter these “donations” on her books, is the next best thing to pulling it off yourself.

Though de León has never been a sex worker, she’s been open about her respect for her ex-stripper mother and her aunt’s sex work. Her book is stolidly pro-sex worker without being blandly sex positive, representing a spectrum of experiences in its characters’ diverse backgrounds of high end escorting, survival sex work, and trafficking and abuse survival. There’s even a Live Nude Girls Unite poster in the clinic’s office. There’s never any hint of judgement in the tone de León takes narrating these women’s lives, although occasionally a tinge of didactic respectability politics bleeds through in the novel’s focus on clinic entrepreneurship classes and grad student escorts. Still, a story in which every whore makes good is a refreshing change from our usual crime fiction fate of death or destitution.

De Leon does make some gaffes in describing the way the agency operates which demonstrate her lack of personal experience with the work. Marisol’s escorts dress up as delivery workers in order to get into fancy hotels (huh?). And the agency’s clients agree on every sexual act they’ll perform with her employees in advance with her over the phone—a good way to get arrested. But once I started reading the book as a wish-fulfillment vehicle instead of holding it up to an impossible standard of realism, I began to really enjoy it. Plus, de León doesn’t make as many bloopers writing about sex work practice as many other writers do, perhaps because she made a point of having sex worker consultants edit her early manuscript.

The author’s general pro-lumpenprole stance is very clear here. For example, Marisol’s ex-NYPD love interest, Raul, left the department after suing them for racial discrimination and confesses that his one major regret is becoming a cop. When he catches on to Marisol’s heists, he’s openly admiring, wishing he could be a barrio Robin Hood as well. de León depicts some of the dangers sex workers commonly face by making his white ex-partner a cop who extorted sex from workers with the threat of arrest. And, of course, one of the most reprehensible characters in the book besides the abusive pimp is a snooty billionaire financier client.

De León also exhibits her populism in the way she’s marketed the novel: she’s explained in interviews that she purposefully branded the book as a women’s urban crime novel, a la Zane and Sister Souljah, to make it accessible to as many kinds of readers as possible. Indeed, one activist I know told me that this genre represents the most requested (and sadly, least donated) books to the books for women prisoners program she works with.

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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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New chapter SWOP-Minneapolis honoring Dec 17th 2015 with a vigil. (Courtesy of SWOP-USA and local SWOP chapters)

New chapter SWOP-Minneapolis honoring Dec 17th 2015 with a vigil. (Courtesy of SWOP-USA and local SWOP chapters)

SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project) is the most recognized name in sex workers’ rights advocacy in the U.S. Currently, they have over 25 chapters around the country, and a board of directors—SWOP National. The only requirements to be a chapter are that March 3rd (International Sex Worker Rights Day) and December 17th (International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers) are recognized in some way. To avoid outing and endangerment, SWOP does not require its members to identify as current or former sex workers, though the board’s president must always be an out sex worker herself.

Savannah Sly, SWOP National’s president, newly elected in the spring of 2015, e-mailed us about the mistake the SWOP National board felt they’d made not supporting Oklahoma City serial cop racist Daniel Holtzclaw’s victims more as an organization. This mistake highlighted long held bad feeling about SWOP among sex workers who felt the organization did not stand up for sex workers of color, survival sex workers, and other less privileged members of the community. SWOP National wanted to address the community publicly about their commitment to working on these problems. I asked Sly if I could interview her about the way the organization worked and its goal to be more inclusive. The following is an abridged version of our ensuing e-mail conversation:

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Meg Munoz. (Courtesy of Meg Munoz)

Meg Munoz. (Courtesy of Meg Munoz)

Meg Munoz became an escort at age 18, and had a relatively good experience working. She then took a break from the business for two years.  Some time after her return to the work in order to pay for college, a close friend turned on her, blackmailing her and forcing her to turn over all her earnings to him for the next three years.  Her experience led  Munoz to found Abeni, an Orange County-based rescue industry organization. But Abeni’s participation in nuanceless anti-trafficking rhetoric bothered her, and after some re-examination, Munoz repurposed Abeni to be a safe space for both sex workers and trafficking survivors.  Nowadays, Munoz uses her unique experience as both a voluntary worker and a survivor of exploitation to attempt to create understanding between the sex workers’ rights and anti-trafficking movements.

Prominent activists with history as trafficking victims, such as you and Jill Brenneman, have come out on the side of decriminalization of sex work. You turned Abeni, your organization, from a rescue industry vehicle to a safe haven that serves both trafficking survivors and sex workers—plus the people who fall in between those two identities—and promotes their agency. Ruth Jacobs, a woman with deeply negative sex work experience, also recently made an about face from being a sex work abolitionist to joining the sex workers’ rights movement. How do you interpret this phenomenon?

Jill’s story wrecked me in some of the worst and best ways. She’s one of those people that you want to make everyone sit down and listen to. Her story is a powerful reminder of just how complex this can be, but how necessary the more critical conversations are in regards to hearing different voices and current legislative trends. But most of all, my hope is that [her story and those like it] would allow people to humanize sex workers and survivors in ways that extend beyond the victim narrative. Ruth Jacobs does this very well. I [see] Jill and Ruth’s perspectives as that of women with deep, intimate, experiential knowledge (both negative and positive) of the industry. They seem to genuinely understand how approaching sex work and exploitation with risk reduction concepts and better policy can boost agency and save lives. I don’t think any of us want to further entrench ourselves in more policies and laws that isolate, stigmatize, and criminalize already marginalized people.

What made you personally change your mind about Abeni being an anti-trafficking organization, motivating you to make it into “a reality based social services organization for sex workers and trafficked people”?

From a practical standpoint, Abeni was founded on developing the kind of support I wish I’d had when I was in the industry. But, from a philosophical standpoint, we had a lot of maturing to do. Back in 2009, we were the only Orange County-based organization of its kind. I was coming out of, but still being influenced by the Christian culture I’d been a part of for the last 10+ years.

We’re starting to see a slow cultural shift, but what I was hearing in regards to those in the industry usually sounded like this:

  • Girl (or usually a girl) experiences abuse, trauma, or loss.
  • She’s addicted or broken, so she enters [the] industry and experiences more of the same.
  • She meets Jesus, repents, gets rescued/leaves the industry, and then some modified version of ‘happily ever after’ follows.

The inherent danger in that is when the Christian community become consumers of these stories and insist on acknowledging and promoting only a singular type of industry experience. That’s dishonest and damaging. I just didn’t feel like that narrative reflected my story or the complexity of so many other stories I’d heard. There are hundreds of reasons people enter the industry and those were missing from the conversation. Also significant to me was the fact that it didn’t reflect my spiritual narrative, which has been a significant part of my journey.

In order for Abeni to evolve, I was going to have to evolve. I was processing trauma as well as my non-trauma experiences, so it took some time for me sort through that. I left escorting following years of intense abuse and exploitation, so that was fresh on my mind and it definitely influenced how we saw the industry. We were always supportive but ultimately had an agenda that was “exit-hopeful.” As long as we were serving “repentant” women who’d internalized their stigma, hated sex work, and felt shame about working in the industry, we served a purpose. We didn’t realize we were part of the rescue industry and, ultimately, part of the problem. We were the ones to call if you had a dire need for lip gloss or cookies. But after about a year, I began to instinctively understand that we lacked relevance and substance. I started to feel an incredible amount of conflict in regards to how we were growing and our direction. I could write a book on that alone.

Good intentions weren’t enough and I realized that if we continued down the road we were on, we could hurt or further stigmatize people. That is the thought that broke me. I knew we had to change or shut down, so we did the unthinkable: We literally stopped in our tracks and decided to undergo an organizational soul-searching. We took the next two years and continued to work with those who were already with us, but did little else but learn from and listen to the sex work community, and analyze intersecting issues like human rights, sex work, feminism, race, gender, socio-economics, labor exploitation, policy, etc.

We didn’t know of any other organization[s] that had undergone such radical shifts, so we had no idea how to navigate that. We understood how we’d been viewed by those in the industry as well as those in the anti-trafficking community, so we weren’t sure how we were going to explain our growth and change. We had real concerns about how we would be viewed and received. One of the people I really respect and listen to is Donia Christine because she was honest as fuck with me. When I met her at CCON West back on 2013, she was skeptical and didn’t hold back, letting me know exactly what she thought and what her concerns were. I value that moment so much because it showed me how much work we still had to do. And we don’t mind doing it because the sex worker community isn’t just this group of people we serve, it’s MY community. Sex work wasn’t just a pit-stop for me, it’s part of who I am and part of my identity. I love Abeni’s story because it’s my story, too.

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