desiree alliance

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.

[READ MORE]

{ 0 comments }

Sarah Patterson

Sarah Patterson (photo by Tara Israel)

In January 2012, Sarah Elspeth Patterson and a group of other sex worker activists in NYC went to work offering health care and social services to sex workers. The much needed outcome, Persist Health Project, is the 2nd sex worker only health clinic in the United States, after Saint James Infirmary in San Francisco.

While there is limited funding for it as of yet, the Persist team are diligently working on their labor of love and helping to put an end to the lack of non-biased services for sex workers. Sex workers have a history of being subjected to discrimination, stigma, and forced hospitalization and testing in the mainstream healthcare system. NYC’s Persist strives to be a safe space where sex workers can be open and receive the care they need. You can help contribute to the growth of Persist by donating here. Every little bit helps!

I got a chance to speak with Sarah about the project upon her return from this year’s Desiree Alliance conference.

How would you describe Persist and it’s work?

Persist Health Project (Persist) is a peer-led organization that connects folks in the sex trade in New York City with providers who are either from the community themselves or awesome allies. In addition to coordinating care for people —people can call us and have a provider hand-picked for them, based on their needs —we also offer workshops on health topics, such as burnout, sexual health, and general health. To keep enhancing our network of providers, we offer trainings for health care professionals on how to work with folks in the sex trade better.

Persist was co-founded in January of 2012 by a group of sex worker activists, nurse practitioners, and social workers who are also current workers, former workers, or very committed allies. I brought together people I knew were valuable members of sex worker organizing groups, who were either interested in health for sex workers because of their own experiences with sex work or had transitioned from sex work to health or social services. Many of us had been doing organizing together, were friends or peers, and saw a collective need. Others had dreamed for a long time of opening a clinic space just for sex workers.

What was your motivation for working on this project?

I didn’t give my health a lot of thought until I became a healthcare professional and was expected to be an “expert” on these things. After I got my degree, I found myself doing sexual health education and thinking, what about my own personal health decisions? Am I really being “safe” all the time, or do I do things that are “risky?” Are there better ways to think about this, outside of thinking about everything —drugs, alcohol, smoking, sex, food, so on—as a “risk”? What’s realistic for my life, rather than what is generally taught as the “best” thing to do? Of course, the concept of making health choices that fit your life  is one the fundamentals of harm reduction. But it was only after getting the “right” answers from education that I wondered about the value of what I already knew from my own life experience, and how that might be useful to others.

I think it’s incredibly valuable to be offering positive, affirming peer support to one another from within communities involved with or impacted by the sex trade. In addition to creating communities and shared life experiences, trading sexual services can also be very competitive, anxiety-inducing and isolating. So part of Persist’s goal is to break the feeling of isolation in health care by shifting ideas of what support can look like.

[READ MORE]

{ 3 comments }

 

RIP Lusty Lady (Photo by Thomas Crown in 2005, via flickr)

RIP Lusty Lady (Photo by Thomas Crown in 2005, via flickr)

Veteran activist Emi Koyama writes in Shakesville about how her talk at the 38th National Conference of Men and Masculinities on the problems with anti-trafficking discourse was censored and how she and other women of color were subsequently harassed by a group of so-called “feminist men”, members of a group called the National Organization of Men Against Sexism, who co-sponsored the event.

Writing in In These Times, Melissa Gira Grant relates how the Philadelphia police’s transphobia contributed to the brutal murder of trans sex worker Diamond Phillips, and how Phillips was further violated after her death by the media’s misgendering.

San Francisco’s unionized and worker-owned peep show, the Lusty Lady, will be forced to close in less than two weeks, signalling the end of an important era in sex worker history. Does anyone “have a miracle up their butt” to save the place? The New Yorker gives us the real estate details behind this sad development.

Cameryn Moore tells everyone to “Shut Up About How I Should Talk About My Sex Work” in Thought Catalog.

It’s about time for Meghan Murphy to shut up about sex work, too. Porn is universally horrible, no matter what the lived experience of porn performers proves, but despite the carceral feminist lobby for laws that imprison millions of sex workers, there’s no feminist war against us? Oh, and rabble.ca can stop providing her with a venue for her vileness any time now.

On the other hand, rabble.ca did post a great summation by Joyce Arthur of the fifth national sex workers’ rights conference Desiree Alliance held in July in Las Vegas.

Malawi human rights organizations oppose a government decision to force suspected sex workers, pregnant women, and other groups to undergo forced HIV testing.

The Sunday Times, The  Guardian and the Daily Mail, aptly and none too affectionately nicknamed the Daily Fail by many, all want to know if your manicurist is a sex slave. Hurray for the promotion of more trafficking hysteria and all, but what we’d really like to see is a sober and substantive inquiry into the rights of migrant Vietnamese sex workers and other laborers. Forbes writer Tim Worstall comes to the rescue, taking issue with the Guardian’s blown up trafficking stats. (Now, if only he’d stop using words like “tarts.”) Indeed, the Guardian, after being questioned by its own Reality Check blog, sheepishly included a postscript to the article amending some of their claims.

[READ MORE]

{ 7 comments }

 Scarlot Harlot at the Portland Sex by Sex Worker fest (courtesy of BAYSWAN)

Scarlot Harlot at the Portland Sex by Sex Worker fest (courtesy of BAYSWAN)

Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot, was the first sex workers’ rights movement celebrity I ever met. I’d been escorting for only a few months when she came to speak in my area, and I identified deeply with her writing in my dogeared copy of the 1980s edition of Sex WorkI was struck immediately by her spaced out, comforting voice, her self-deprecating yet confrontational humor, and her political conviction. My coworkers and I enjoyed how frank and matter-of-fact she was with us, dishing about clients like we were already old friends. Carol is the kind of person one needs in every movement: able to connect with anyone and everyone, able to bring people together easily. No wonder she’s been so effective in her pioneering role as one of the first artist activists of sex workers’ rights movement.

I caught up with Carol while she was working on two events, the upcoming Desiree Alliance Conference in Las Vegas and the 8th Biennial San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival, and yet she still put aside time to do this interview with me.

One of the things you’re most renowned for is coining the term “sex work” in the late 1970s. How well do you think the term has held up as a way to describe our work and unite us politically?

When I think of the term and concept of “sex work,” I think of how it has empowered our activism through international use. This global proliferation of the term was largely due to the work of my mentor, Priscilla Alexander, who worked at WHO (World Health Organization) in the 80s. “Sex work” is particularly powerful as it was the first term that referred to this act without euphemism. The term “sex work” implies a rights advocacy.

At the same time some issues have come up with the use of this term.

I have heard from some quarters that sex work implies consensuality. At first I strongly resisted that notion, from the perspective that if sex work is basically work, then, in general, all work can be forced. Someone doing factory work, domestic work, etc. can be forced. (I use the term “forced” in a very general way as forced labor is part of a continuum of labor abuses.) It has been very basic in sex work advocacy to emphasize that prostitution is work, as opposed to an expression of one’s personal deviance, or a form of rape.

I often hear sex workers explain that they are not trafficked victims, but rather workers. I want to remind people, as we hold the reins of our options, that when force and choice are seen as a dualism, it obscures class and other divisions. Economic factors greatly impact one’s choices. In response to accusations about prostitution defined as rape per se, sex workers are moved to defend our work as “choice,” when we mean relative choice or choice among certain options. It’s just another typical case in which our message can’t come forth with the clarity we need and want, because we are in such a tight corner, due to laws and stigma. The term “sex work” can fall prey to dualistic thinking when one claims that by definition “sex work” implies consent. This is a long discussion and I haven’t seen much written about this. I look forward to the ongoing work of developing political philosophy based on our experiences of sex work. There is a lot we can learn from each other about discrimination, sex, minority rights, race, class, and survival.

[READ MORE]

{ 10 comments }

Audacia Ray, photo courtesy of the Red Umbrella Project

Audacia Ray, photo courtesy of the Red Umbrella Project

Audacia Ray is perhaps most renowned in the sex workers’ rights movement for her longtime editing of the now sadly defunct $pread magazine. But as a sex workers’ rights movement activist, Audacia has really been everywhere and done everything: blogging for years about her sex working experience as Waking Vixen; publishing her book, Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads, and Cashing In on Internet Sexploration; and working as an adjunct professor of Human Sexuality at Rutgers University as well as for the communications consultant for the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. Amazingly enough, in 2010 she had time to found the Red Umbrella Project, a peer-led, community-based organization that “amplifies the voices of people who have done transactional sex, through media, storytelling, and advocacy programs.” RedUP is now where her creative, media, and advocacy energies lie. Tits and Sass asked her some questions about this project.

In the introduction to the Red Umbrella Project’s writing workshop’s literary journal, Pros(e), Melissa Petro theorizes that sex workers teaching each other the art of storytelling can increase agency because by writing our stories, we can better understand our choices. This kind of storytelling will also hopefully decrease stigma by increasing understanding (rather than bolstering whorephobia like the memoir pieces full of disdain for co-workers, like so many of the sex worker bios out there.)  How do you think telling our stories helps sex workers?

One of the Red Umbrella Project mantras is that we believe storytelling is the building block of social change. I think we need to be able to tell our stories and insist on making space for them in the world if we are ever going to make change for ourselves in the world. Our creative programs, especially the Red Umbrella Diaries events, are really the entry point for many people into the RedUP programs. It’s an easy thing to wander into, be curious about, and then hopefully we get sex workers into some of our programs, building their skills and community, while also getting potential allies to care and think more deeply about the many experiences in the sex trades. I think its important for creative expression to be individualized because there are just so many different kinds of experiences that people have doing sex work. It is also important to constantly look at the bigger picture – which sex workers’ stories are being represented and which are not? What experiences are being documented that indicate areas in which our rights are being denied and violated? And to me, the creative work cannot be an end point or a stand alone thing, it has to be linked to greater social change. I want to validate art for arts’ sake, but we’ve got a revolution to do here, and it’s important to link personal storytelling to cultural and policy change. That said, not everyone is an activist, and when sex workers show up at the Diaries or participate in one of our creative programs and feel awesome – that is enough. [READ MORE]

{ 2 comments }