legislation

Senator Richard Blumenthal testifying in favor of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, with that sincere, constipated look one gets when testifying in favor of anti-trafficking legislation. (Via Youtube)

You can always count on a corporation to look out for its own interests. An existential threat to their business model will even trump the good PR that comes from beating on everyone’s favorite marginalized punching bags, sex workers). So, until recently, major tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Google opposed SESTA,the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. Their business models depend on user-generated content, and SESTA would overhaul Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which previously protected internet platforms against liability for the actions of users.

But following a compromise earlier this month between Silicon Valley and the bill’s Congressional sponsors, SESTA has passed the House and is headed to the Senate. Though they tried to keep their involvement quiet, cloaking their advocacy in the lobbying group the Internet Association, tech companies pushed hard for changes to the bill. An amended version of the bill released on November 3 by Senator John Thune addressed many of their concerns. Initially, SESTA took aim at any facilitation of user sex trafficking. But an amendment to the bill now specifies only “knowing conduct” as “participation in a venture,” meaning in general terms that sex worker advertising sites are now the only ones on the hook while Facebook and company remain immune from sex trafficking liability. Another key revision that spurred a change in the Internet Association’s position involved the development of bots policing content. In earlier versions of SESTA, developing such bots would constitute knowledge of the platform being used to facilitate sex trafficking. Similarly, Backpage’s keyword filters for policing content were used in its Senate hearing as evidence that it had knowledge of and was facilitating sex trafficking. Its own reporting efforts were used against it.

The bill also now specifies that state law enforcement officials using SESTA to prosecute individuals or entities would have to use federal law as a basis for their actions. That’s very handy for the tech companies, as in some states, “sex trafficking” can mean just about anything. While the federal definition of sex trafficking involves force, fraud, or coercion (or the involvement of minors, though this leads to situations in which young street youth get arrested for trafficking for helping their friends in the business as soon as they turn 18), a number of states, such as Alaska, have much broader definitions. This can include cases such as two escorts simply working together. A 2012 records request found that two such escorts were arrested and charged with sex trafficking as well as with prostitution—both alleged victims were arrested and charged with sex trafficking each other.

The bill remains draconian. There are enormous liabilities attached to user content for internet companies, which is a huge incentive to police that content heavily. Platforms that host advertising for sex workers are definitely still in the crosshairs. In fact, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) points out, SESTA will even target companies retroactively, a measure that was no doubt included as a way to go after Backpage. No actual intention to assist in any sex trafficking is necessary in the newest version of the bill either, so long as it is “facilitated” in some way, a term which courts have interpreted broadly.

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IWW

Together we can be the ones doing the shakedown. (photo courtesy of Tobias Higbie, from Industrial Pioneer, Februrary 1924)

I’m currently in the beginning stages of suing local Portland strip club Casa Diablo. So of course when last fall the Oregon chapter of the National Association of Social Workers hired lobbyists from lobbying firm Pac/West to find out what protections strippers need and to craft a bill that offers these protections, I was very interested. But by the second meeting it was clear that as far as knowing strippers’ rights was concerned, both groups were starting from a blank slate.

To clear the matter up, I talked via e-mail to Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, a lawyer from the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, an Oregon organization that represents workers in wage claims, does education and outreach about wage theft, and works on other ways to promote human and labor rights. This fall, Spencer-Scheurich represented a dancer in a lawsuit against Portland club Rose City Strip, which won in arbitration. She’s also done two presentations on the legal rights of strippers for SWOP-PDX.

Red: In most of the country, strippers are working thinking they’re independent contractors.  But are they really?  We’re winning these lawsuits for employee status across the country—Rick’s, Sapphire, Spearmint Rhino, Rose City—what are the indicators of independent contractors status?

Corinna Spencer-Scheurich: Those are a lot of big questions so let me see if I can break it down.  Many workers (including dancers) are treated as independent contractors, when they are actually employees. This happens in a lot of industries.

Red: Like FedEx drivers it turns out! And Uber drivers.

Spencer-Scheurich:  Exactly.  So this is a big problem overall.  It is especially rampant in the exotic dancing industry. Clearly, there are independent contractors who are dancers. The clear cases are where people are headliners or traveling acts, etc. Where they are their own business entity separate from the club. But, there are many more dancers who are employees. And those are the cases that you are seeing dancers bring across the country.

Red:  So to really be an independent contractors would you have to be registered or licensed as your own business?

Spencer-Scheurich: That would be one hallmark of an independent contractor. Another might be that the dancers could actually negotiate their contracts (instead of everyone [being] subject to the same rules).

Red:  So being able to change prices for dances, or [deciding] when they show up to work and leave?

Spencer-Scheurich: Right, the less control the club has over the dancer, the less likely the dancer is going to be an employee. So, you are more likely to be an employee if you are subject to fines, can’t set your own schedule, have to dress a certain way, can’t control how you are paid, etc. No particular factor determines whether you are an employee or [an] independent contractor. Courts just look at the whole picture. One big piece of the whole picture is whether the dancing is an integral part of the club’s business. As we know, strip clubs need strippers.

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Monica at a protest last May. (Photo via SWOP Phoenix Facebook page, courtesy of Jones and SWOP Phoenix)

Monica Jones at a protest last May. (Photo via SWOP-Phoenix Facebook page, courtesy of Jones and SWOP-Phoenix)

Monica Jones’ conviction for “manifesting intent to commit prostitution” was overturned this week! Jones said:

…My conviction being vacated is important but it is a small win in our larger fight for justice. There are so many trans women and cisgender women who might be charged under this law in Phoenix and similar laws across the country. There is so much more work that needs to be done so that no one will have to face what I have no matter who they are or what past convictions they have.

Tits and Sass contributor and Portland dancer Elle Stanger is quoted extensively in this Willamette Week article about Oregon strippers drafting two workplace protection bills for the consideration of the state legislature.

According to UNAIDS, the Asia-Pacific region will not meet the current goals of ending the HIV epidemic in fifteen years unless these countries change laws which are currently hostile to vulnerable target demographics. Unfortunately, US moralism has tied a lot of funding up in ways that mandate such unfriendly legislation, so it becomes a race to see which matters more: ending HIV… or funding.

Quelle surprise: brothels are run like businesses!  The women who work at them are like women anywhere else!  Insert mandatory crack about fake names here:

The receptionist politely rattles off a roster of exotic names, “Armani, Honey, Candy, Diamond …” names which I’m quietly confident wouldn’t be found on any of the ladies’ driver’s licences.

I see what you did there.

The nuns of the Chicago Convent of the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo are suing nearby strip club Allure, claiming that it’s a venue for prostitution.  This is their second attempt to close the club; the first involved them picketing it for violating zoning laws.  This is one lawsuit where I hope the club wins.

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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]

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Kgomotso Matsunyane discusses why sex work should be legal in her home country of South Africa: “Our police can be better served focusing their energies of legitimate, violent and corporate crimes that plague our country.”

Decriminalization in Taiwan hits stumbling blocks. Cities have failed to create designated districts where prostitution would be legal.

Tulsa police announce a crackdown on massage parlors.

Photographer Tiana Markova-Gold and writer Sarah Dohrmann documented sex workers in Morocco with their project If You Smoke Cigarettes in Public, You Are a Prostitute: Women and Prostitution in Morocco. [READ MORE]

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