domestic violence

“A 16-year old-white girl from Monterey? Wolf Blitzer is gonna saddle that up.” Abigail (Kathryn Newton) contemplates auctioning off her virginity for charity in Big Little Lies.

[Content warning: this piece includes general discussion of rape and domestic violence.]

Maybe every rich little white girl should auction off her virginity in support of Amnesty International, the way Abigail Carlson (Kathryn Newton), teenage daughter of HBO’s Big Little Lies protagonist Madeline Mackenzie, proposes to do.

Abigail’s plot line gained little more than an eye-roll in popular analysis lauding the mini-series as a vision of female solidarity telling a vital story about abuse. Initially, I would tend to agree that Abigail’s pursuit of justice for child sex slaves is nothing more than a pulpy side-line trotted out for shock value. After all, Big Little Lies is famed prime time soap opera producer David E. Kelley’s project. And, as the perennially popular Law & Order: SVU franchise demonstrates, narratives exploiting child sex trafficking victims are reliable fodder for ratings.

But Big Little Lies deserves a more subtle read. Everything about it is meticulously intentional, from the melancholy pop soundtrack to the pristine landscape of the surf, suggesting sinister undercurrents to all that is pretty on the surface of the idyllic Monterrey community setting. The show was adapted from a book of the same name by Liane Moriarty published in 2014. Kelley was necessarily selective about which elements from the 460-page novel made it to television. Notably, Bonnie Carlson’s backstory 1 was not included in the series, nor was there a broader exploration of her character development as there was in the book. Her identity was also changed from a white woman in the novel to a Black woman in the series—the only significant Black character in the series—and the setting was relocated from Australia in the book to the upper-class U.S. coastal community of Monterey on-screen. Rather than treating these as auteurial afterthoughts, these changes are better understood as instrumental choices in adapting the central point of the work for television.

[Spoilers after the jump]

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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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(Photo by Flickr user elasticsoul)

(Photo by Flickr user elasticsoul)

When I was just a teeny tiny bottle of airplane-ready champagne, I was called a whore by a boy in my middle school science class for having the audacity to own breasts and opinions at the same time,while only being willing to share the latter. Once I got to college, men started to call me a whore in the streets when I refused their advances and they called me one even more loudly when I taught myself not to allow their presence to register on my face. I was called a whore by clients more often when I would refuse certain services, but not when I would provide them willingly. But since you could put a pair of eyeglasses on a calcified ostrich turd and its opinion would have as much gravity as those of boys, strange men, and clients, these words never especially bothered me.

I’ve always been peripherally aware of the importance of reappropriating the language of sex work but never felt I really had skin in the game until I felt how badly “whore” burns from certain tongues and with certain intentions. Since “whore” was thrown around my whole life as shorthand for “woman who does things I don’t like,” I never felt especially connected to it as it related to sex work, even when doing sex work that reflected the most literal understanding of the word. I’ve even been known to say things like, “Um, sex workers are dying out there. Does it really matter what we call ourselves?” I’m aware now that starting a sentence with “um” reflects fluency in Sanctimonious Cunt more than it reflects nuanced understanding of the issues sex workers face. Forgive me, I was an unsophisticated bottle of André at the time, a mere shadow of the Dom Perignon White Gold Jeroboam I am today. But back to being a whore.

In late July, a man who claimed to love me and who had never taken issue with my profession before called me a “whore” to my face. He told others I was a “whore” when he needed to discredit me as quickly and mercilessly as possible. Prior to our falling out, my work in the adult industry had been something that concerned him only when I reported pushed boundaries or feelings of regret and insecurity. He was supportive and sometimes downright titillated, insisting on christening my new work outfits by getting lap dances in them before anyone else did. I happily obliged because I loved him and got to choose my own soundtrack. When things quickly deteriorated and I feared for his new girlfriend, I warned her about malicious and dishonest behaviors of his which I thought she should be aware of.

His first line of defense to her was my work and it was his first line of offense against me. Obviously, he had been driven to threaten me with violence because I was a deranged stripper that thought he loved me; he just had to set me straight. The very idea was ludicrous, loving a sex worker. When he used whore stigma against me, it was to explain why he never wanted monogamy with me and how I had always been just a source of fucked up sex and that all his stated affections had been part of a game designed to entertain himself.

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(Screenshot of Association of Club Executives newsletter.)

Mayang Prasetyo, a trans woman sex worker, was killed by her boyfriend in Australia (trigger warning: article describes a brutal, perverse murder).  The Courier Mail used some unconscionably unfeeling headlines in relating the murder, and is being called on it.

Oregon lobbyists are working with strippers and social workers to come up with legislation that will offer protections to strippers, reinforcing their labor rights given that, in Oregon as in so many other places, strippers are illegally classified as independent contractors. Mary Emily O’Hara notes:

Though the panel won’t finalize the bill until later in the year, everyone seemed to agree on one thing: if you’re going to work as a stripper, some sort of basic education that clarifies rules around touching, employee status, and other workplace protections is desperately needed.

The Association of Club Executives was way less than thrilled by O’Hara’s article, as you can see from the screen shot above, taken from their newsletter. “Empowerment Enterprises”! That’s some beautiful cheek.

The Cambodian government is also proposing to enforce the labor rights of workers in entertainment venues, including sex workers.

A recent study of sex workers over 40 in India found their circumstances to be very distressed, often exacerbated by the Devadesi system.

Another sex worker is on reality tv: Former stripper Courtney Lapresi is on Master Chef, and the response to this from contestants and critics has been even more negative than Irish response to sex worker Kate McGrew on Connected. Naysayers theorize that Lapresi might exchange sexual favors in exchange for winning. As Esmerelda Murray reports, Lapresi herself is framing stripping as an embarrassing and regrettable decision she made while she was broke.  What’s embarrassing and regrettable is that, after making it on to a cooking show, she felt she had anything in her past to apologize for. Badly done, Master Chef.

Several cases of male violence after rejection made the news this week, only one involving a sex worker (progress?): An English sex worker was attacked on the outskirts of Manchester after attempting to keep walking and ignore a man who wanted her attention.

A days-long trafficking investigation/sting across Canada, which interviewed over 300 sex workers, resulted in 9 arrests, although police in Edmonton, for example insist that they got a very guarded feel from many of the women.  You don’t say.

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(Christy Mack’s dogs, who miss her. Photo via Mack’s Instagram)


Christy Mack, who was brutally beaten by her ex-boyfriend last week, inspiring this week’s series on domestic violence, now has a fund to help cover medical and recovery expenses.  Donate if you can, and share!

Vice’s food column this week features an entertaining interview with lesbian stripper and sugar baby Jacq.

Ruth Jacobs does a brief interview with Tara Burns on writing.

Brooke Magnanti, formerly Belle de Jour of book and Showtime fame, explores what decriminalization would look like for the UK.  Safer, for one, allowing workers to work together and share flats without being charged with pimping or trafficking.  She also brilliantly and succinctly illuminates the economic fallacies of the Swedish model:

The economic arguments are rarely taken into account by those who support the ‘Swedish model’ (or End Demand). By mistaking services for products, they imagine fewer customers would result in fewer sex workers. But this is unrealistic – the assumption that the number of clients and the number of prostitutes is necessarily linked is in itself faulty. If fewer people ate at fast food outlets, would the minimum wage workers there be better off without having to do anything else? Exactly.

In nearly the same vein, the Daily Beast tells us why it’s time to legalize prostitution.  Their reasons are all solid, but would apply more to decriminalization, an option many people apparently don’t understand is both different and better than legalization.

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