Activist Spotlight

AMMAR General Secretary Georgina Orellano and Maria Riot at a Women’s Strike event this month.

Maria Riot, a member of Argentine sex worker trade union AMMAR, contacted Tits and Sass after the Women’s Strike this month, eager to talk about how her organization participated in the event in their country. AMMAR has maintained a strong presence in Argentina for more than two decades, and its many bold campaigns have often made mainstream news internationally. I certainly had many questions saved up over the years to ask an AMMAR spokesperson. 

Riot is a 25-year-old porn performer, sex worker, and activist who joined AMMAR a year ago, after three years not speaking publicly about her sex work. “Now I do,” she wrote to me. “I realize[d] only some [representatives] of AMMAR were talking in the media, and [we] needed more voices telling their experiences and doing activism, so I started doing it.” English is not Riot’s first language. Tits and Sass is presenting her answers to the interview questions below as written as faithfully as possible, in order to preserve her meaning. 

Can you tell me about how AMMAR came to participate in protests on March 8th for the Women’s Strike? What sorts of reactions did you receive from local feminist organizers in response to your involvement?

AMMAR [has] a lot of presence in the women[‘s] rights movement. Since the last [few] years, we become really active at it so of course we participate in feminist events, marches, mobilizations, and debates. We believe that if we want women and feminism to listen to us, we have to be part of it and the most active we can [be].

In Argentina, we started organizing [for] the Women[‘s] Strike one month before it, in every city and province with assemblies where a lot of organizations participated. We did really intense and hard work because a lot of feminist[s] against sex work didn’t want us there. But the group that was organizing [the events] (Ni Una Menos) approved our asks to be part of the official document, so after lot of weeks of debates and discussions, we achieved having our voice in it and for the first time, our voice was [heard] on Women’s Day.

The fight was about the word “sex workers”: they wanted us to be “prostituted women” (that was [the language] in the document already), and we [spoke] up to have our identity and not the one they wanted to give to us. But the violence they used, calling us “pimps” and telling [us] that we don’t exist, made a lot of feminist[s] empathize and support us too. After all [that], [on the day of the strike], we participated with red umbrellas, lot of signs calling for a feminism that includes sex workers, and lot of women walking with us, and we [had] a lot of press and media reporting that it was the first time we officially were part of the 8th of March document and the [event].

You have been part of Argentinean Workers’ Central Trade Union since one year after the inception of your organization, in 1995. Internationally, sex workers often have trouble allying with traditional labor movements. Can you tell us how you’ve successfully maintained this alliance for decades?

AMMAR started in 1994, when sex workers working in the streets started to organize themselves to fight against the detentions and arrests [they] were facing just for working. They started [organizing] in the jail where they were arrested and then they started to [organize] in bars and restaurants near the places where they worked. When the police realized that, [they] started to arrest them [just for their political activity] and they were looking for them in the bars.

[So they were] [l]ooking for a place where they could do it without the presence of institutional violence, [and] a member from the CTA offered them a place. At the beginning it was not easy, mostly because of the opposition of women inside the union or others syndicates that were part of it, but the leadership of CTA gave them a big support because they wanted to include workers in the popular economy [and] workers that [didn’t have] their work recognized yet. It’s very important to be part of [the union] because without the government recognizing that our work is work yet, we [do have that acknowledgement] thanks to the Central Trade Union of Workers of Argentina, and that [creates] no place [for] debates about if our work is work or not.

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Bonnie at the Different Avenues office in D.C. (Photo by PJ Starr)

Bonnie at the Different Avenues office in D.C. (Photo by PJ Starr)

Content warning: This interview contains graphic descriptions of police violence and rape, imprisonment, and domestic abuse.

Bonnie is a veteran sex workers’ rights activist who has done outreach work in the D.C. area since 2001. She was a HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive) client who lived on the streets in Maryland. Later, she was inspired by the work of Robyn Few and others to participate in activism and community organizing through SWOP-Maryland. Last year, she recorded sound for No Humans Involved, a documentary film produced by PJ Starr about Marcia Powell, the street sex worker killed by the negligence and cruelty of the Arizona prison system in 2009. Currently, she’s on a community advisory board with John Hopkins researchers for the SAPPHIRE (Sex Workers And Police Promoting Health In Risky Environments) study, which examines the role of police in HIV risks faced by Baltimore cis and trans sex working women.

You’ve been doing outreach since 2001, originally to D.C. and Prince George’s County Maryland, and later to Northern Virginia and Baltimore as well, using HIPS supplies and sometimes your own money. Where does your dedication come from?

I enjoy it and have to do it and will never stop doing it. That’s because I have memories where the ends of bread, dry socks, housing, a place to get high [where they would] not send me to jail, or a place to avoid drugs (depending on my mood), were my biggest dreams.

I have 8 years where I can proudly say the drug I am allergic to has no power over me. 

Up until very recently I provided housing. I had to stop, and now I provide referrals and transportation to shelters or transitional living or an affordable place to live, whatever is asked of me.  My current venues are methadone clinics, BDSM clubs, immigrant sex work apartments, drug testing clinics, and sex or BDSM party houses. I never leave someone who wants to be inside outside. What if it was the last time I saw that person? What if they were arrested for being homeless i.e. trespassing or loitering; really any charge. A Prince George’s County cop told me and I will never forget: it does not matter what I/we do, it only matters what he/they write on their papers.

Privileged, housed people may not understand that, and it is something I cannot explain. There are two separate worlds, where the language barrier is experience.

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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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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.

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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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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