Activism

Monica Jones stands to thank her supporters around the country. (Photo via Janet Mock's and SWOP-Phoenix's twitter accounts)

Monica Jones stands to thank her supporters around the country. (Photo via Janet Mock’s and SWOP-Phoenix’s twitter accounts)

Sex workers’ rights activist and social work student Monica Jones was due to defend herself in court today after cops set her up on charges of “manifesting prostitution” when they targeted her for attending a SWOP-Phoenix protest against oppressive Arizona State University social work school diversion program Project ROSE. However, the trial was postponed until April 11th due to a constitutional challenge brought by the ACLU. Dozens of Monica’s supporters packed the courtroom, and Monica stated, “We will be back with twice as many people.” Read more about the story in Melissa Gira Grant’s RH Reality Check piece or this Truth Out piece,or watch this MSNBC interview with Monica. Of course, you could always look back on Tits and Sass’ own interview with Monica, and our interview with SWOP-Phoenix member Jaclyn Moskal-Dairman about Project ROSE. We stand with Monica Jones!

The media collectively wrung its hands all week over Belle Knox, the Duke University Porn Star. Responses ranged from columnists tut-tutting over the “troubled young woman” to outright whorephobia. Then of course there were the oh-so-sensitive pieces about her family’s response to her outting, e.g., “Welcome home, daddy, I’m a porn star!”

Stoya tells the New York Times that there’s a lot people can learn about privacy from porn performers: “Maybe it would be easier to navigate the dissolving boundaries between public and private spaces if we all had a variety of names with which to signal the aspects of ourselves currently on display.”

Then the New York Times lost any brownie points it earned with us via Stoya’s op-ed by running a long piece on a Justice Department study on the sex industry that used to word “pimp” repeatedly, compared sex work to cancer, and claimed that $150 an hour is “the common going rate for prostitution.”

Indian sex worker activists asked candidates for all forty-two seats in the upcoming elections to agree to their demands for sex work to be listed in the labor department’s list of professions, for offending sections of the Anti-Trafficking Act to be abolished, and for the government to recognize an autonomous board of sex workers. Otherwise, sixty-five thousand registered Indian sex workers will not be voting for them.

Ten officers with guns and bulletproof vests raided San Diego strip club Cheetahs in quite a show of force for a routine permits check. They took photographs of all the dancers, even going so far as to take a photo of each of their tattoos, leaving the club workers feeling violated.

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sxwrkrsuniteAny book that aspires to be the first history of the sex workers’ rights movement in the United States will inevitably face accusations of exclusion. But despite some unavoidable failures in representation, Mindy Chateauvert’s Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk, is a pretty damn good history of our movement. Still, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s critique in her review of the book—that male and genderqueer sex workers are given short shrift in Chateauvert’s work—is valid. Glancing references to Kirk Read and HOOK Online aside, the book is a bit of a hen party.

Then again, so is the movement it chronicles. Sex Workers Unite is a fairly accurate portrayal of our organizing, for better or worse. The index and the footnotes provided me with a comforting sense of familiarity as my eye skimmed over names well known to me, from Carol Leigh to Kate Zen. (Full disclosure: Tits and Sass posts were often cited, including one of my own.) At least, finally, in this text trans women sex workers are given the central role in our story that they’ve played in our activism. The book covers early movement trans heroines like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in depth, documenting their participation in the Stonewall riot and their founding of STAR House, a community program serving queer and trans youth in the sex trades. They were also involved in the lesser known organization GLF (Gay Liberation Front), an anti-capitalist group that “made room for prostitutes and hustlers, including transwomen, straight and lesbian prostitutes, gay-for-pay hustlers and stone butch dyke pimps,” but hilariously enough, couldn’t come to a consensus on whether it was still okay to take money for sex after the revolution. Chateauvert follows this thread of trans history throughout, never failing to highlight trans women sex workers’ contributions to such integral activist projects as Women with a Vision, HIPS, and Washington DC’s Trans Empowerment Project, as well as their more general influence in shaping sex worker culture.

When I first picked up the book and noted the subtitle, I felt a brief pang of disappointment at the fact that our movement is still so little-known that the the two iconic events that bookend Chateauvert’s summation of our chronology in her title—Stonewall and Slutwalk—actually properly belong to other movements. But as I started to read, I was delighted to realize what the author had done by integrating our narrative with that of so many other struggles for social justice, reminding the reader of sex workers’ critical participation in so many movements over the decades. From GLBT/queer rights and feminism to AIDS activism and harm reduction, Sex Workers Unite makes it clear that you can’t really talk about the history of activism in the US without talking about us. The book tackles our invisibility in these integral roles—in its chapter on Stonewall, for example, it highlights the rarely mentioned fact that drug using trans sex workers were the key participants of the riot, and strips the respectability politics from the typical portrayal of Stonewall rioter Rivera, who is often remembered as a trans activist forebear but not so often revered for supporting her activism via street sex work.

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Melissa Gira Grant (Photo by Noah Kalina)

Melissa Gira Grant (Photo by Noah Kalina)

Part one of this interview is here.

You encapsulate the tired terms of the sex worker debate, in which the token sex worker is asked reductifying questions ad nauseaum: Is sex work exploitative or empowering? Is it violence against women? How can we help women (always women, and always cis women, never sex working men or trans women) “exit” the industry? And so on. (I think back to a radio interview I did recently with a progressive, well-intentioned interviewer, which I thought was going to be about how anti­-traffickers hurt sex workers, but which turned out to be “Blind Date with a Hooker,” take #1001–what’s a nice girl like you doing in a movement like this?) You claim we should refuse to engage in these stale performances. But given that we often have no access to the public except through this media ritual, how do we change the terms of this conversation to our benefit?

It’s not easy to get around the debate, let me just start there. Here’s a few ways I try, with the gigantic caveat that these don’t apply to all opportunities. When I do speak in public about sex work, including to other members of the media, a line I draw right now—upfront—is that I don’t speak about my personal experiences in sex work. I’ll tell stories about what I’ve seen in my work as a journalist, and before that, I would tell stories about my work as an advocate or organizer. Just doing that can be enough to deflect the cliched kind of stuff, like wanting to know why you got into sex work, all the stuff that seems designed not to humanize you but to decide how “representative” you are. Depending on the outlet, you might even be able to turn that around. At the last debate I did agree to do, I turned to the anti-prostitution “side” and asked her, after she had insinuated that all sex workers had been abused as children, that I wondered what had happened in her own life, that had made her come to that conclusion. It was dramatic, but that was the point, and the whole room snapped to attention at the provocation—why was she allowed to ask those questions, and why wasn’t I?

I’ve also turned down opportunities when I thought I was being brought in to play a part or just stand in as a caricature. Sometimes that’s quite obvious when someone approaches you—like when a business news cable network wanted me to come on and argue why prostitution should be taxed and legalized, something I’ve never argued for, not that it prevented them from telling me what my argument would be. Sometimes it’s more subtle—like when you’ve been asked to do a panel and you realize that of everyone there, you are the only one who is a out as a sex worker, and now there’s quite a lot of weight on you to represent everything about sex work. It’s still a hustle, all of it. Sometimes you can turn the conversation around, and sometimes a producer has already decided how they are going to cast you. And if being public is something you want to do, you don’t have to do it alone. Red Umbrella Project has a guide for navigating the media and sex work, how to deal with combative interviews, how to package a soundbite, how to vet the media. And just as sex workers keep lists of bad clients, I encourage people to keep lists of bad media. Screen them, and check in with other sex workers—I’m still doing that, because odds are if some reporter just emailed everyone they could find online looking for a source on a story, you probably know someone else they emailed.

Or—another way around all of it is what you’re doing here—make your own. [READ MORE]

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Photos courtesy of Soren High

Ziploc bags overflow with disposable handwarmers, hand sanitizer, crackers and nuts. Thick cotton socks and toothbrushes, tampons and lollipops are piled nearby. A few women and a couple of men stand or sit along a heavy wooden table, chatting lightheartedly and stuffing goodies and toiletries into bags. Two children toddle around, munching crackers and playing with yarn.

Luchador in north Portland is holding its first Nudes for the Needy drive. It’s like many other holiday donation events, except for one thing: it’s headed by adult entertainers. Petite, bespectacled pole dancer Soren High brushes her dreadlocks away from her face as she hurriedly carries blankets and boxes around the room, delegating tasks to her volunteer friends.

“I’ve been homeless before,” she explains. “From about 2005, on and off until 2009. I lived in my car, with my boyfriend at the time. I lived under bridges. I know what life is like when you’re homeless, and I want to give back.”

When asked what sparked her desire to organize an event, Soren answers candidly. “I literally woke up one morning and felt like I needed to do something good. I started chatting about making blankets and giving them to family, but somebody else proposed a blanket making party, and here we are.”

The temperatures have been unseasonably frigid for Portland this year, with snow falling early in the month of December, and temperatures of 13 degrees recorded. The normal average temperature at this date is about twenty degrees warmer. “At least five deaths of street-folks were recorded within a matter of days,” Soren posted on her Facebook, rallying help in a hurry to hand out blankets and supplies on December 9th and 10th. I spoke with her about organizing in the community.

How did this begin?

Nude for the Needy started as a Christmas present for my family. I meant to make snip-n-tie blankets for everyone in my family and give them to a person in need as their gift. The idea bloomed into asking several of the girls that I work with to help with the project to come together and bring donations and a blanket. I know how amazing it feels to be given a blanket when you’re cold, or to receive food when you’re hungry. You remember that person for the rest of your life.

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Victorian sex workers at a December 17th event (photo courtesy of Jane Green)

Participants at the Red Umbrella Rally, Festival of Sex Work, Melbourne 2013 (photo courtesy of the Scarlet Alliance Archives)

After the Sydney Morning Herald published an editorial promoting the Swedish model of criminalizing sex workers’ clients, exploiting the murder of Australian street sex worker Tracy Connelly to further an anti-sex worker agenda, many sex workers responded to the piece by writing to the news outlets that printed or re-printed it. Jane Green wrote a version of the editorial that appears below and sent it to both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. The Sydney Morning Herald didn’t respond or return phone calls. The Age did, eventually, but after two and a half weeks of discussions decided against running an edited version, indicating they’d provide better access to sex workers “next time.” We at Tits and Sass thank Jane for allowing us to post the what other outlets declined to publish.

As a Victorian sex worker, I looked on in horror at the article seeking to exploit the death of sex worker Tracy Connelly, published in the Sydney Morning Herald days before the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

It is horrifying and traumatizing to the sex worker community to have an article proposing the Nordic Model of criminalizing sex workers’ clients—proven to have devastating effects on sex workers’ health and safety—released on a day used to protest violence against sex workers. Horrifying, but not surprising.

Looking back on the month of sex worker Tracy Connelly’s death, July 2013, which encompassed four high profile sex worker deaths internationally, I am struck not just by the tone of the writing, but by what it highlights to me as a sex worker regarding what the media are willing to, or interested in, discussing. It tells me what is newsworthy about our lives.

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