Caty Simon

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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Alex Andrews.

Alex Andrews is the 53-year old lead organizer of both SWOP-Orlando and SWOP Behind Bars and the new North American representative to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). For almost a decade and a half in her younger years, she did various forms of sex work—beginning with stripping to supplement her hair dressing income, she went on to do escort and phone sex work, as well as to run her own escort service. She bowed out of active sex work in 1998 because, she explains,”multiple arrests and incarceration put [me] at risk for spending way more time in prison than [I] was willing to serve.” But she continued to represent sex worker interests in local anti-trafficking organizations and to do community work supporting incarcerated sex workers. In 2016, she started SWOP Behind Bars specifically to serve the needs of imprisoned sex workers, and in its year or so of operation, the organization has been extremely effective, providing vital resources for this population. The interview below is a condensed and edited version of an e-mail correspondence I had with Andrews on her work at SWOP Behind Bars.

How did SWOP Behind Bars get started?

We got started when I engaged an anti-trafficking corrections officer from a local women’s prison in a Twitter fight. I was on my civvie Twitter account and some other sex worker activists joined me and we [were] just hammering this guy on his philosophies and the way that women were treated in prison, particularly sex workers. After about an hour of just being humiliated by some of the most respected activists in the U.S. responding to his patronizing tweets, he suddenly direct messaged me that he hated his organization as much as we did.

He turned out to have been one of the key factors to [as to] why the Lowell Women’s Prison was investigated by the Miami Herald and these articles […resulted in] getting about six people fired, including the assistant warden. I met with him the following week and then Dr. Jill McCracken joined me for another meeting a couple weeks later. Katherine Koster jumped in and suggested we ask SWOP-USA for some money. And next thing you know, we had a website, Facebook, Twitter, and a newsletter. It went out to about 200 people the first month (May 2016) and we have almost doubled our requests every month.

Why do you think there wasn’t a peer organization specifically formed around supporting incarcerated sex workers before, since so much of the U.S. movement is focused around the injustice of sex worker arrest and incarceration? Is it because usually sex workers are only incarcerated for prostitution for relatively small periods of time, even though they may often be incarcerated for longer for other survival “crimes” such as trafficking charges, assault or murder charges incurred in self-defense against violent clients, and drug possession?

Well, there are actually a lot of people who are working inside of county jails all over the country. Jacqueline Robarge has been working with incarcerated sex workers in Baltimore for more than 10 or 15 years. SWOP-Baltimore has an active book donation program. Sherrie in San Antonio recently got her chaplain’s license so she could actually go into the prisons and jails and meet with incarcerated sex workers. We are far from the only prison program. LGBT Books to Prisoners sends resource packets inside every three months. Black and Pink is almost legendary in the work they do with pen pals.  Everything they do is a study in perfection!

But the great thing that kept sex workers from really digging in?  Fear.  There is within all of us a terror of engaging with the criminal justice system.  We try so hard to avoid cops and probation officers and courts…I still get incredibly nervous when I get pulled over or find myself behind a uniformed cop at the grocery store.  We didn’t know what we would find.  There are many of us that have worked within our county jail systems and done street outreach but I think the idea of engaging with women in PRISON was just terrifying. [It’s]  “whorearchy” and though many of us reject that idea…we all recognize it exists.

SWOP Behind Bars was unifying is some weird kind of way.  We all felt it pretty strongly.  The entire community wanted to reach out to these folks and we found the least frightening—and yet the easiest—way to do it!  Completely by accident.

As a fellow white woman, how do you deal with the racial disparities that must come up in your work? It’s much more likely for imprisoned sex workers to be people of color and for the sex workers with the time and privilege to do activism to help them to be white. How do you accommodate for that fact and the power imbalance involved in SWOP Behind Bars’ work?

I have found that being a white women of privilege working with incarcerated people of color is much like being a man talking about abortion.  Shut the fuck up.  People of color can and DO speak for themselves if we white people would just get out of the fucking way.  We shoot ourselves in the foot time and time again because we keep thinking we have to “Do Something For Them”, when really the best thing to do is make sure we haven’t gobbled up all the access to resources.  I would never try to tell someone what they need or how to get it…I’m absolutely rigid in requiring consent before working on behalf of someone else.

White people have oppressed and exploited people of color for centuries.  I may not be able to stop that, but I intend to exploit every ounce of my white privilege to make lots of room for voices that want to be heard.  If we concentrate really hard on including people who might be different than us to lead the way instead of insisting that they follow us…well, that’s a good start.  The next step is making sure we are doing that for the right reason and not tokenizing them.  And after that, step down!  Take a back seat and be supportive and don’t suck all the air out of the room.  For the love of all things holy—it’s not about us, so we should let the people who know what they need make the decisions.

SWOP Behind Bars has a significant service component to its work. Though there are some powerful service organizations in the movement, such as St James Infirmary, many peer organizations don’t have the resources to maintain direct service action. What tips can you give other peer organizations and sex worker activists in general about how to sustain service work in their communities?

PARTNER!  Stop doing things alone!  Put aside personal dislikes or differences and engage with other organizations and do meaningful work.  Sex workers self-isolate for lots of different reasons.  But we share the social media spaces and we get to know each other a little better.

Some of us have infiltrated service networks.  Others have partnered with like-minded human rights community-based organizations. There are a LOT of sex worker rights folks already doing stuff in county jails—they just don’t come in waving their red umbrella.  Go to meetings that are outside your comfort zone because you know they may share some—if not all—of the your viewpoints.  Start explaining decrim to people who don’t understand the difference [between decriminalization and legalization].  Carry copies of the Amnesty International policy recommending full decrim world wide and hand them to people who just saw headlines and didn’t get it.  Engage with your public defenders’ offices.  Especially if they have a social worker component.  Public defenders LOVE the idea of decriminalizing sex work because it would take a load of work off their desks.

And don’t be afraid to LISTEN. We TALK a lot because we have a LOT to say…but sometimes it’s important to let other people talk, and they will reveal how they feel and then we can tailor our response to meet their need.  I go to anti-trafficking meetings and take lots of fact-based literature with me and hand it out. They don’t have to hear me say everything out loud.  Understanding sex worker rights has to be absorbed slowly.  They need to have time to fully understand how the things they are doing—like end demand and raid and rescue—harm us.  They digest it a little more slowly by reading it at home when they have time.

Believe me—when a sex worker rights activist goes in an anti-trafficking space, we are unicorns.  Most [of them] have never seen one.  They don’t know we exist.

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Thandie Newton as Maeve, the badass robot Black sex working heroine who keeps us invested in this glossy Game of Thrones replacement wannabe.

by Clara and Caty

[Content warning: some discussion of rape. Also, spoiler warning.]

Clara: Westworld is a science fiction western thriller created and produced by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. JJ Abrams is also a producer, so think Jurassic Park meets Firefly with a dash of Lost. As with its predecessors—Blade Runner. Battlestar Galactica, etc—Westworld uses human-like robots to tell us a story about humanity. Questions like “How do you know you are human?” “What is consciousness?” “What are dreams?” “What are memories?” “How does does your past define you?” “What is free will?” “What is consent?” are asked but not always answered.

The titular Westworld is a Western theme park where life-life robots—”hosts”—act out stories called narratives in a controlled environment for guests of the park. The park is marketed as “life without limits.” The idea is that because the hosts are robots you can do anything you want with them and it doesn’t matter.

While not a show directly about sex work, Westworld in its over-all arc is about the push/pull of market forces between client and worker. It is also about the uprising of a group who is fed up with being used. Sex workers who have to constantly prove their humanity to society and deal with client entitlement every day might find the show reminiscent of their lives.

Caty: I would argue that this show is about sex work. It’s about a separate, disposable class of people who perform reproductive/emotional labor so that guests can enjoy their leisure. The hosts’ very lives are this labor, so they can’t even be compensated for it. And they literally have false consciousness.

As the show reminds us constantly, the hosts’ purpose is to be fucked or hurt, or at the very least to immerse the clients in a fantasy, which sounds like the sex worker job description to a T. In fact, the hosts are the ideal sex workers from a certain client perspective. They are the ultimate pro-subs, who can be beaten, stabbed, strangled, and shot, only to be refurbished, resurrected, and brought back as a clean slate in terms of both their memories and their bodies, ready to take those blows again. They are entirely “authentic,” programmed to believe that the role play they engage the guests in is what is actually happening. If the Westworld story that the guest is indulging in is that Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the damsel host, is in love with him, she actually is in love with him.

But what Westworld actually does best is reflect the client mentality—an Entertainment Weekly recapper quipped that the Man In Black (Ed Harris) sounds like “a dork playing Dungeons & Dragons who yells at other players for asking for a bathroom break” when he gets pissed off after some other guests refer to his work in the real world. But to me, he actually sounds like the BDSM client I used to have who would shriek “WE DON’T TALK ABOUT THE MONEY” if I ever said anything which derailed his fantasy of being a scene elder teaching eager young acolyte (unpaid) me about kink.

And who does William (Jimmi Simpson) remind us of most but a stalker regular when he turns (even more) murderous and rapacious after realizing that Dolores doesn’t remember him—that he isn’t special enough to her to override the programming that forces her to forget him after each go-round? At first, he’s a Nice Guy—that trusted reg, the one who believes Dolores is sapient and Not Like All The Other Hosts. He’s Captain-Save-A-Host! But later, after his embittered violence runs roughshod over the park for 30 years, after he assaults Dolores over and over, and then grows “tired” of her like the most jaded hobbyist, Dolores tells him, “I thought you were different, but you’re just like all the rest.”

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threadbareRed: In journalist Anne Elizabeth Moore’s new book Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, And Trafficking, in which years of her reporting are illustrated by comic artists Delia Jean, Melissa Mendes, Ellen Lindner, Simon Haussle, and Leela Corman, among others, she takes us around the world, untangling the many levels of exploitation and corruption inherent in the garment industry.

Moore takes us way beyond the factories themselves, to shadowy zones I never heard of before reading the book. The garment industry makes use of “Free Trade Zones,” spots on U.S. soil that are exempt from all U.S. rules and regulations, where abuses run rampant.

The author connects all the threads of industrial and imperialist abuses, and presents a seamless and ugly portrait of an imperialism that never died, only changing to better fit the times—an imperialism which is still at the heart of so many exploitations and abuses worldwide. With rope from the garment industry itself, she creates a noose to hang it with. Now we gotta get more people to read the book and spread the word.

Moore interviews retail workers at H&M, a fashion model, former workers and business owners in Austria’s shrinking garment industry, and, most pertinently to us, anti-trafficking NGOs who “rescue” sex workers into the garment industry for a fraction of a living wage. All of it is painfully fascinating, the kind of horrified interest that an especially bad injury might generate, as you read on and realize how deeply all of these facets are intertwined and interdependent.

The garment industry isn’t just implicated in internationally substandard wages for women: it’s one of the root causes of them. The garment industry isn’t just loosely connected to imperialist anti-trafficking NGOs that force women into garment factories: Nike, for example, funds the anti-trafficking org Half the Sky, which is run by Nick Kristof, who not only writes openly in the New York Times about his support for and belief in the necessity of sweatshop labor—he funnels the women rescued by Half the Sky right into garment industry sweatshops which profit the very industries on the board of or funding Half the Sky! And it isn’t Just Half the Sky. Shared Hope International, the local anti-trafficking thorn in my side, has a board member who is also the international HR manager for Columbia Sportswear.

I knew before reading Threadbare that the garment industry profited off the anti-trafficking movement’s “rescue” of sex workers, but I didn’t understand just how inextricably the two were linked. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t just convenient placement and timing—it’s a deliberate, planned strategy to keep wages down and to keep women workers across the world easily exploitable.

Caty: I’m not a huge comics reader, though I’ve definitely gone through some of the classics throughout my reading life, such as Sandman and Watchmen, and on the more literary side I’ve read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis,  Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and the like. But as graphic novels get more of a foothold in sex work lit with titles like Rent Girl, The Lengths, and Melody: Story of A Nude Dancer, plus popular sex worker comic artists like Jacq The Stripper and even Tumblr darling brothelgirl, I’ve certainly been reading more comics lately. And there’s begun to be more comics coverage of leftist non-fiction, too—Harvey Pekar’s graphic history of Students for a Democratic Society particularly impressed me. So, now, finally, we have the convergence of these trends with non-fiction sex worker and labor rights comics title Threadbare.

I’m not entirely sure the comics format really works here. The fonts can be punishingly tiny, and there’s just SO much exposition. I got stalled on the book myself for months somewhere in the middle of the section on Austria’s fashion history and only ended up finishing it to write this review. On the other hand, the illustrations are gorgeous, and I’m not sure a short prose book would’ve allowed the dense material to be any more accessible.

Red: I came to comics really late; I’ve always had trouble focusing on pages where multiple things are happening. For me, images accompanying a text don’t make it easier to read, it’s too much! I love comics now, after being won over by Matt Fraction‘s Hawkeye, but reading comics and graphic novels is still a lot of work for me if I’m not using the ComiXology app. Threadbare is definitely worth the work, and many of the artists streamlined their panels in a very clear and accessible way.

I came to this book as someone who already knew a lot about exploitation in the garment industry and exploitation in the culture and running of anti-trafficking NGOs, knowledge I got through constant sifting through a sex work Google alert. People ask me for receipts all the time and I am so profoundly grateful to now have a thoroughly sourced and cited book to hand over to clinch my arguments and temporarily silence the twats.

Caty: I agree that this book should become part of every activist sex workers’ arsenal. It delivers some important perspective about sex workers’ rights as a labor movement by connecting the labor issues of garment industry workers and sex workers—who are so often the same people!

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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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