diversion

(Photo by Flickr user Javier Morales)

There is significant debate within our sex worker community about whether LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) programming, a pre-booking diversion program for low-level drug and sex work related offenses, is a good or bad thing. The first LEAD program launched in Seattle, Washington in 2011, with private funding from the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Vital Projects Fund, and several others. This pilot program has been championed by law enforcement and drug reform advocates alike and has since launched in several other cities, with slight regional variations—just this Monday, the Baltimore Sun ran a story about the launch of a three-year pilot LEAD program in that city which Police Commissioner Kevin Davis framed as a response to Baltimore’s proposed police reform agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. A recent evaluation of LEAD programs, conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, yields seemingly impressive outcomes for the communities they allegedly serve. Indeed, LEAD programming even names “sex workers” and “drug users” as their “consumers”—a rather misleading label for those in state custody, implying agency where there is none. In truth, LEAD programming does not serve sex workers or drug users, or those profiled as such. Rather, LEAD can be understood as a diversionary program for law enforcement officers and should be analyzed under this lens.

Diversionary programs like LEAD represent the co-optation of harm reduction lingo in the service of criminalization masquerading as social services. While we may rejoice at terms like “sex worker” and “people who use drugs” being used by institutions who typically use other, nastier language to describe these populations, the population they are actually talking about is people living in poverty. Programs like LEAD, which claim to provide case management, public housing, and job training, don’t target drug users and sex workers, as most people who do drugs or trade sex have those needs met. Many, if not most, sex workers and drug users have the social and economic capital to get high or make money in private homes, apartments, or rented rooms in areas that are not under constant police surveillance.

So why do poor people, many of whom lack economic capital because of deliberate, targeted U.S. policies, need a diversionary program? They don’t. Cops do.

Many sex workers I have talked with about LEAD think it is a good way to get desperately needed housing or medication or other necessities, things which traditionally fall under the category of “fundamental human rights.” But we must consider what is gained and what is lost when private funders like Open Society Foundation and other progressive grant-makers support programs in which individuals achieve access to fundamental human rights as a consequence of crimes they may or may not have committed.

LEAD reinforces the logic that people who are trading sex or using drugs need intervention from law enforcement, even if that intervention is a “softer” redirect towards social services. Do we? Increasingly, the answer, as supported by research, is a resounding no.

As prohibitive policies against drug use and sex work are repealed and replaced, law enforcement workers are looking for ways to stay relevant in the lives of those they have hunted, abused, and marginalized for the past few decades. The LEAD National Support Bureau, made up largely of law enforcement, publicly acknowledges an “urgent crisis of mass criminalization and incarceration,” and yet advocates for, well, more police. The logic of LEAD is not much different from that of “community policing,” which made strategies like “stop and frisk” and “broken windows” household names, and redirected billions of tax payer dollars to the justice department and away from education, infrastructure, and health care. Advocates of these policies fail to realize that the issues they want to address, like drug use, are hardly a matter of police and community relationships. Rather, the root of these issues lies in the systematic disenfranchisement of targeted communities.

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Monica Jones this February. (Photo via the Support Monica Jones Facebook, courtesy of Monica Jones)

Monica Jones. (Photo by PJ Starr, via the Support Monica Jones Facebook, courtesy of Monica Jones and PJ Starr)

In May 2013, sex worker and trans rights activist and Arizona State University social work student Monica Jones was charged with “manifestation of prostitution” in Phoenix after accepting a ride from an undercover cop.  Her arrest ignited a firestorm of protest against Project ROSE, a prostitution arrest diversion program run by the ASU School of Social Work and the Phoenix police that utilized arrest sweeps; transphobia in those prostitution arrests; and the potentially unconstitutional “manifestation of prostitution” statute under which she was prosecuted. The ACLU, SWOP-Phoenix, and other sex work and GLBT activists stood in solidarity with Jones as she gained international attention speaking out against her charges. 

“The reason why this law [the manifestation of prostitution statute] is so unjust is because it gives the police the credibility to say who’s a sex worker, who’s not a sex worker…it violates our [our First Amendment rights]—just to walk down the street, our freedom of speech,” Jones explained to us. Since her arrest, Jones has gained prominence as an eminent activist, been interviewed by dozens of media outlets, met Laverne Cox, and traveled to Australia for public speaking engagements and study, all while working towards finishing her social work degree.

In November, Jones told Best Practices Policy Project that Project ROSE had been shut down, a crucial victory for the movement in Arizona. And though Jones was initially convicted, her January 2014 appeal was successful and the conviction was vacated. We spoke with her just before the announcement was made; below is a condensed and edited version of our interview, originally conducted via video chat.

Recently, your conviction was vacated. What does that mean for you? What’s next?

I got a call from the court yesterday evening saying that the prosecutors are not going to retry me. So right now we’re looking to see if it’s with prejudice or without prejudice and will it still have an effect on me challenging the constitutionality of the law.

So your ultimate goal with your legal team is to use the case to overturn the law altogether. How can people from other states help fight the law; help fight your campaign against it?

I think there’s a lot more laws like this across this country—like “loitering with intent of prostitution,” and condoms as evidence. I think that they need to take on their own fights in their own homes and their own cities. Because when we get rid of these laws it basically gets rid of sexism and discrimination and transphobia. And it takes the power away from the cops and the justice system to say who is sex working and who’s not sex working.

 A story that brought you to the news in the last few months was your deportation from Australia at the Sydney Airport. From what I read, during your encounter with immigration you were pressured by the producers of the reality show Border Security to have your case filmed. When you refused after initially agreeing, after you realized they planned to sensationalize your story, customs officials began to treat you much more harshly. Can you tell us more about what happened there?

So what happened was I was legally constrained to come back to my appeals. I was doing my internship in Australia, with Scarlet Alliance, a great sex worker organization there, and I was leaving there to come back for my case and I was traveling back to Australia in three days. So when I got to the airport to leave to come to the U.S., they went through all my stuff. They went through my purse, they went through my phone, they went through my suitcase, they went through everything. I had everything about my court case in there in the folder. They went in a back room and went through that. They said, “Okay, you’re good to go.” So I was thinking, okay, I’m good to go.

And when I came back from the U.S., they had pulled me to the side and took me into this room, where I was proceeded to be asked, “Do you want to be filmed by this camera crew?” And the producer of the show said, “We think that your story is interesting.” Which, I’d never told them anything about my story—they know nothing about my story! And so I’m thinking, how do they know my story is interesting? So they kept on asking me questions.

After being pressured I agreed to be filmed. But during the middle of it, I said, “I don’t feel right with this, I think this is suspicious.” And once I did that they were very harsh against me—”Oh, you were doing this, you violated your visa…”

If I violated my visa, you guys should have let me know when you guys originally checked me on my way out of the country! The judge later asked [the immigration officials],” Why were you checking her on her way out of the country?” So they said I was a threat to national security. So I guess activism is a threat to Australia’s security.

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The RedUP gang at yet another conference. (Photo courtesy of Red Umbrella Project.)

The RedUP gang at yet another conference. (Photo courtesy of Red Umbrella Project.)

When I accepted the chance to go the International Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sex Work Conference in Toledo, Ohio, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The organization I work for, Red Umbrella Project, attended the conference to present our report on New York’s new Human Trafficking Intervention Courts. Just the fact that they accepted us—a sex worker-run organization—to speak threw me for a loop. When I saw that members of SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project) and Miriam Weeks (AKA Belle Knox) were also speaking, I wondered if this conference might prove an exception to the usual anti-sex work stance of the rescue industry. After all, “sex work” was right there in the title. Someone in charge must have understood the complex reasons people get into sex work better than to assume that everyone everywhere within the sex industry is being exploited and trafficked, right? But as a sex worker, I also knew what the rescue industry—and what seems like most of the world—thinks of me and my job.

Our organization has just completed an eight-month study on New York’s Prostitution Courts, now known as Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs). Now, in 11 jurisdictions within New York state, anyone charged with prostitution is assumed to be a victim of human trafficking and instead of being charged as a criminal can choose to do five to six sessions in a diversion program.

It felt to me like we were pretty well received. We didn’t deliver an impassioned speech about the plight of American sex workers, we instead explained the trafficking courts of our city, pointing out how they aren’t meeting the needs of the people they’d taken a seemingly more compassionate legal stance for. Our study found that the racially motivated arrest tactics of the NYPD were very visible within the courts, and that due to a shortage of capable interpreters, defendants who spoke English as a second language were progressing through the system at a third of the speed of native English speakers. We also suggested that the six weeks of therapy the diversion programs provided did little to address the needs of people doing sex work for survival. After a defendant charged with prostitution completes their mandated diversion program, they have an open record for six months, which can be a barrier when trying to find other work. They also cannot be re-arrested during this period or they have to start the process from the beginning again.There are more and more new court systems in the US that are similar to New York’s, and the idea of using “human trafficking” as a term that refers to all people in the sex trades is becoming more popular. And most of the time, the fight to end human trafficking is led by people who make no distinction between someone who is forced or coerced into the sex industry, someone who enters it by choice or curiosity, and the myriad scenarios in between the two. We saw a lot of this in the Toledo conference.

The best example might be the woman who, after finding out what Red Umbrella Project does, asked us, “But if your organization is made up of current and former sex workers, how do you keep the current ones from recruiting the former ones?” The member who she asked was floored as he tried to explain that that has never been a problem. How could you explain to someone with that view of sex work that no, our organization is not partially made up of unscrupulous hookers lurking around trying to sucker recovering trafficking victims back into a life of drug-addled degradation? We all tried to explain, taking varying tacks with forced cordiality. We explained that RedUP is made up of sex workers from all walks of life and varying circumstances, that our main goal is to give our members the tools to tell their own stories and advocate for themselves, and would you like to take a look at our literary journal of sex worker memoirs? It was exhausting, but it felt important for us to be there, no matter how much teeth-gritting it took.

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Bryan Saunders' "Extreme Makeover: Fuck Mattress Edition" (inadvertently?) improved labor conditions for street sex workers while it lasted (Photo via the Daily Dot)

Bryan Saunders’ “Extreme Makeover: Fuck Mattress Edition” (inadvertently?) improved labor conditions for street sex workers while it lasted (Photo via the Daily Dot)

Myanmar began a debate around decriminalizing sex work. The founder of the Sex Workers in Myanmar network (SWIM), Thuza Win, hopes the law will be changed before the 2015 general elections.

Research by University of Michigan economics professor Raj Arunachalam conducted among Mexican and Ecuadoran brothel workers and street sex workers found that beautiful sex workers make more money.  In others news, the sky is blue. (The interesting thing about the study, though, is that each subject’s beauty was measured by other sex workers.)

Tennessee artist Bryan Saunders revamped the decrepit mattress street sex workers used to entertain clients at a local park. He called the project EXTREME MAKEOVER: FUCK MATTRESS EDITION, and provided new sheets, a comforter, an array of condoms, new panties, and a trash can for the location. Slixa points out that the project’s value as a harm reduction and workplace safety measure outweighs its artistic merits. Apparently, after seven days, some of the panties were missing, all of the chocolate flavored condoms were.gone, and the flowers placed on the site were trampled on. It’d be great if someone had the bright idea to replenish the supplies and extend this undertaking to other outdoor sex trade venues.

Acclaimed queer sex worker author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore reviews Mindy Chateauvert’s new book, Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk for SFGate. (Stay tuned for Tits and Sass’ own review of Sex Workers Unite as soon as we get our review copy in the mail.)

Chinese gay rights groups are calling for Southern Television Guangdong to publicly apologize for using hidden camera footage of an undercover reporter meeting with a male sex worker.

Strip club owners unite to fight sex trafficking? We’d rather hear more about strippers fighting trafficking, thanks. Remember, sex workers themselves are most effective at combating this problem. Anyway, the strip club owners’ tactics sounds like more of the same: further surveillance of their employees.

“Feminist” hashtag #realjobsnotblowjobs made its debut on twitter this week. @ThatSabineGirl said it best when she tweeted in response, “bcos it’s feminist to slut shame women while you’re saying they’re forced into sex work against their will, apparently.” Hurray for consistently whorephobic internet feminism and its discontents.

A trans sex worker, Marco Noé López Castillo, was found strangled to death in San Pedro Sula, a Honduran red light district, recently. Nine killings of sex workers have occurred in the district since early December.

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Comments we received yesterday on our post about SWOP-Phoenix's campaign against Project Rose's diversion initiative (screenshot)

Comments we received yesterday on our post about SWOP-Phoenix’s campaign against Project Rose’s diversion initiative (screenshot)

After the arrest of activist and sex worker Monica Jones, we’ve decided to keep a close eye on Phoenix, Ariz.’s Project R.O.S.E. program. Just a hunch, but it seems a few Project ROSE-ers are keeping an eye on us, too! A big thanks to Project ROSE for reminding us that we should be oh-so-grateful to have the option of forced rehabilitation over arrest.

Red Umbrella Project,  the S.H.I.N.E. Project of the Community Health Network, and Persist Health Project will be hosting a Day of Sex Worker Health and Wellness, including a drop-in workshop on medical services  and free, confidential sexually transmitted infection testing for those in the sex trades on November 19th at 7pm, at 147 Prince Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201. This event will be free and open to the public, but it is especially designed to meet the needs of people in the sex trades.

Our own Tits and Sass co-editor Josephine helped compile a list of the best recent online nonfiction on sex work for Longform.

A new draft of bill AB640, currently stalled in the California Senate, would not only mandate condom use on porn sets for both oral sex and intercourse, but would also instruct employers to provide performers with protective eyewear to avoid ocular contact with semen. (In fact, there are unenforced laws on the books right now that demand these safety measures as well.) We’d like to leave this at that with no additional commentary besides “WTF?”, but since one of us once made a sheepish visit to her local clinic after her boyfriend’s spunk flew into her eye, we have to add that we know firsthand how low the risk of STI transmission is through that route.

Eric Barry tells HuffPo about his difficulties finding a job after outing himself as a former escort on his podcast, Full Disclosure: “I’ve stayed true to myself, and I can say unequivocally I have no regrets about that. But rent looms.” We feel you, dude.

Two new studies on Australian and Thai airports reveal bizarre biases in custom officials regarding whom they stop under suspicion of sex work or being a trafficking victim. Packing lingerie, being Asian, and whether or not the purported victim cries are apparently key factors.

In a story we missed last month, South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma pledged his continued support for the decriminalization of prostitution. Decriminalization will remain on the agenda of the newly appointed SA Law Reform Commission.

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