Activism

(Photo by Julie Bates, via Jane Green and sexliesandducttape.)

(Photo by Julie Bates, via Jane Green and sexliesandducttape.)

As a writer, a former sex worker, and someone who has been quite vocal in my writing about the industry, I’ve been approached quite a number of times to write about the play Ugly Mugs by Peta Brady.

I’ve declined each time. Firstly, because I have not seen the play. I’ve only read about it online and read sex workers’ concerns about its content. Secondly, because I wondered how much I could really contribute after reading such powerful and articulate pieces by people such as Jane Green on the subject. But I was asked again, and this time I had just been on the phone to an old friend talking about an incident that happened many years ago. And something inside me clicked, something that made me feel compelled to tell my story.

When I was in high school I had a diary. Like most teenage girls’ diaries it was full of angst and bad poetry, interspersed with observations of the people and situations around me.

I was not a popular girl in school. I had been given the “slut” label very early on and it stuck. I guess, if you were using the vulgar base meaning of the word “slut,” I was one.

I ran around with boys. I liked getting their attention. I was not afraid of sex, sexuality, sexual pleasure, and sexual gratification. I masturbated as often as I could. I watched porn videos and read Playboy magazines.

I was very lucky that despite being shunned and shamed by the “popular kids,” I had a friend, a girl who was pretty much just like me, who shared my obsession with sex and sexuality.

My girlfriend and I would swap my diary back and forth and fill it with our own dirty stories, our fantasies about the different boys (and sometimes girls) that we knew. We would tell our deepest secrets and horniest stories to each other within those pages. We also used it as a way of communicating what others were saying about us. What the rumors were about which girls were going to “fight us” after school. Where they’d said they’d be “waiting for us.” Which boys to stay away from because they were the ones who ran around telling the rest of the school about the things we had done.

It was our little safe haven. Our solidarity. Our secret.

I’m not quite sure how it fell into the wrong hands. I think I had it in my bag at a sleepover party. I don’t know why I would have even taken it with me… but I did. And when I got home the next day I realized it was missing.

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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)

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.

What is the intended audience of 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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(Screenshot of a tweet by PepperHeartsU)

(Screenshot of a tweet by @PepperHeartsU)

If you’ve been hanging out in the digital sex work community for long enough, you’ve learned a handful of things. One is that some men really like to interrupt your conversations uninvited to assume that you do your work for the sake of your sexual liberty, and to assure you that they’re totally cool with it. Secondly, sex work statistics are kind of like recipes and can be tampered with to fit the occasion of the person whose hands they’re in. And the third is that sex workers are really fucking funny. In the very likely event that I out myself one day in an effort to feed an ego that is starved for affirmation from strangers, I want to start by writing a book called Everyone Is Basic But Us: The Story of Some Funny Paid Sluts I Know From Twitter. I am currently accepting submissions for the collection.

I came across this brilliant satirical press release from Sex Worker Open University that pokes fun at the plans of Scottish Police to conduct “welfare visits” at the homes of sex workers as part of “Operation Lingle.” Putting aside for the moment that “lingle” sounds like a medieval wasting sickness, the plan itself was clearly a surveillance effort dressed up as charity. The response from SWOU instead suggests home visits for the 17,000 known police officers “plying their trade” in Scotland. It turns the tables on law enforcement and makes clear just how invasive and ridiculous such visits would be if directed at any other profession. It was one of many examples of how sex workers have used humor to their advantage when combatting the grave injustices and daily humiliations to which we are constantly subjected.

But in the same moment that I was applauding another job well done, I was reminded of a recent conversation I had with a civilian dude who loves Sex Work Twitter for its entertainment value. He isn’t a client (to my knowledge) and isn’t an activist, he just thinks sex workers are really funny. Seeing as I think of Sex Work Twitter as an impenetrable digital slumber party where we make fun of shit clients and antis, it hadn’t occurred to me that people outside of sex work or the surrounding debates paid it much mind. So if you were wondering what remarkable naivete looks like, add me on Snapchat and I’ll send a selfie. It made me wonder to what extent our movement is taken seriously when so much of our public discourse is decidedly unserious.

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(Image from the film: Advocating in Albany, (No Condoms as Evidence), Red Umbrella Project)

(Image from the film: Advocating in Albany, (No Condoms as Evidence), Red Umbrella Project)

I’m a community organizer for Red Umbrella Project, and for the past year and a half I’ve been one of the leaders in the struggle to ban the use of condoms as evidence of all prostitution-related offenses in New York. We recently had a great victory in this campaign with a NYPD directive issued that bans the use of condoms for three misdemeanor offenses: prostitution, loitering for the purposes of prostitution, and prostitution in a school zone. Unfortunately that still excludes most prostitution-related offenses which, while targeted at clients, managers of the sex trades, and human sex traffickers, all too often are an initial charge filed against those doing sex work, especially transgender women of color. So our battle continues. But I feel it is important to clarify for people in the sex trades around the world why it is that we as a peer-led group by and for people in the sex trades place such great importance in this issue. While some may say that advocacy of any goal short of the decriminalization of all prostitution laws is selling out, the decriminalization of condoms opens the door for greater possibilities in organizing around other decrim efforts both in New York and elsewhere.

Handcuffs empower no one. Red Umbrella Project knows, from the arrests and incarcerations of our comrades, family, and friends, that the criminal justice system is toxic to the lives of people in the sex trades, especially those most marginalized within it. All too often sex work criminalization goes hand-in-hand with the criminalization of trans women and queer youth of color, undocumented people, and low-income women of color. Believing strongly that a peer-led model personally empowers the lives of people in ways that even the most progressive justice system cannot, we oppose the tearing apart of our communities by arrest and incarceration.

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(Image via Melissa Gira Grant's twitter account)

(Image via Melissa Gira Grant’s twitter account)

You might recognize this sentiment: the sex workers’ rights movement is funded by “the industry.” We are “the pimp lobby,” whether we’ve ever been in any sort of management role ourselves or not, let alone whether we’ve abused or exploited other workers. You might think it’s pretty easy to laugh at that sort of thing, but if you’ve ever spent any time going through the e-mails that sex workers’ rights organizations receive, you’ll hear a lot of this, even from people and organizations who are sympathetic. They’ll make assumptions about “staff”—”we want to meet your staff”or they want to meet in “your office.”  There are people who try to chat you up about nonprofit careers at events, thinking you have jobs to offer them. And so on. It would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating, and if people with nasty motives didn’t use these assumptions against us.

It’s human to overestimate the resources of others and to underestimate one’s own. But let’s have some real talk.

Management doesn’t want to fund the sex workers rights movement. They do not have an interest in our vision for social change beyond issues of their own legality. Don’t believe me? This is management in action, or more specifically, strip club managers in action, allying themselves with anti-trafficking organizations. Management-directed organizations want to cover their own asses and reap benefits from the REAL money spigot, the anti-trafficking movement, of the “End Demand” variety, funded by former ambassador and current filthy rich lady Swanee Hunt. You’d see the same from escort agencies if they were legal, and you already do see the same from the legal Nevada brothel industry. As it is, some of the individuals in sex work management give us mild, conditional support, sort of the same way clients do. You know the storythey have many more demands than they do contributions. I have never seen any of them donate money.

Radfems, the “pimp lobby” is pretty firmly on YOUR side on this one.

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