violence against sex workers

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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By now, you are probably aware of Rough Night and the animated and practiced (if not exhausted and slightly jaded because this happens all the f*cking time) reaction to it from the sex worker online community.

But if not, here’s a quick recap: on March 8th Paulilu Productions released the trailer for their latest summer chick-flick Rough Night, a film about five college besties (played by Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, and Zoë Kravitz) drawn apart by their busy, upper-middle class lives who then…accidentally kill a male stripper at Johansen’s bachelorette party, and, according to the film’s PR materials, “are brought closer together…amidst the craziness of trying to cover it up.”

Because nothing says “female solidarity and bonding” like trying to cover up the manslaughter of a dead hooker. [READ MORE]

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That worshipful look we hope they’re directing towards you.

You’ve met that new person, and boy, are they different! They aren’t an unemployed boyfriend living off of your lap-dance money or a girlfriend making snide remarks about you supporting the patriarchy. They’re different from the partners assuming you’re always down to fuck or the ones constantly asking how much you make. No. This new person is so enlightened. They get it! They’ve got some neoliberal politics, are woke as fuck, and they told you on the first date that they are 100% a sex worker ally.

Clearly, they are perfect.

Until they aren’t. Because as many sex workers can tell you, it’s often the open minded, polyamorous, sex positive folks who will smash your heart the most. It’s harder to see coming from them, though, because unlike the usual whorephobic partner, their red flags tend to be a lot less obvious until hindsight kicks in.

I’m here to share my dating history with you and let you know about some warning signs you should look out for in your new and improved sweetheart.

1) They won’t hear a bad word about Moulin Rouge (or other anti-sex worker media)
I use Moulin Rouge as an example because I have literally been brought to tears by two ex-girlfriends who refused to admit how problematic it was, but this can apply to any tragic hooker media. Do they view everything else they watch through a feminist lens only to tell you to “just enjoy it” when you mention not wanting to see dead sex workers? That’s a problem.

If your SO laughs about having problematic faves but doesn’t see violence against sex workers as a problem, then that person is a problem. They’re not seeing fictional sex workers as people, and if they don’t see the fictional ones as people, I guarantee there’s at least a small part of them that doesn’t see you as a person either.

2) You can only have good days
It’s perfectly fine to be annoyed by your job! It’s total bullshit that our capitalist society forces people to give up years of their lives being unhappy in a workplace that devalues them. Especially when people are just trudging along, trying to make ends meet as cost of living soars!

Except when it comes to you. You’re a healer. Your work is so important. You provide this amazing service that everyone really needs to respect. WHAT DO YOU MEAN A CLIENT CALLED YOU A BITCH?

Does your partner expect you to console them after a long day at the office but act distant when you talk about time wasters? Have they maybe flat-out said, “I prefer to only hear about work when it’s good’?

That’s not support. That’s someone with a glamorized view of sex work who wants to leech cool points out of their association with you. Having a porn star girlfriend is really neat, until you have to hear about unsafe shoots. It’s so cool dating a stripper, until she tells you about a guy smacking her ass so hard she had him kicked out.

See, if you’re on top of everything and always flush with cash and 100% job satisfied, then they are too. They get to live vicariously through all the pros of the job without having to think of any of the cons. Bonus: the partners who only look for the best case scenario in your work are often also the ones who will tell you how much they wish they could be a sex worker. They’re the ones who might even ask you for an in, but who will never take the plunge and actually do it. As long as you keep up their dream job fantasy, they never have to deal with the reality that they’d never cut it as a whore.

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Alisha Walker. (Courtesy of Sherri Chatman)

Alisha Walker (Courtesy of Sherri Chatman)

by Brit Schulte and Cathryn Berarovich of the Support Ho(s)e Collective 

Alisha Walker was just 20 years old when she had to defend herself against a client who was drunk and violent. She was 22 when she was convicted of second degree murder and 15 years in prison for defending both her own life and the life of a friend who was also on the scene. She is now 23 years old and behind bars at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois, seeking new legal representation and awaiting an appeals process.

In January 2014, Alisha Walker and a close friend of hers went to Alan Filan’s house in Orland Park, a Chicago suburb, to do a double session with Filan. Walker had seen Filan at least twice, and she had not screened him through any online resources. Afterwards, Walker told her mother that she immediately knew something was different about Filan this time. He was heavily intoxicated and very aggressive. He insisted that Walker’s friend didn’t look like her photos in the Backpage advertisement. When the two women refused to have unprotected sex with him, he threatened them with a knife. Walker was able to wrestle the knife from Filan and stab him several times, saving her own life and the life of her friend.

Alisha Walker, like many of us, comes from an average working class family, while her clients, like Filan, are mostly well-off and well-connected. Filan’s brother William Filan is a high-paid lobbyist whose clients have included the city of Chicago and JP Morgan Chase. His sister Denise Filan is a judge in the third subcircuit of Cook County.

Even Alan Filan himself was covered in a veneer of respectability, a seemingly-upstanding community member who taught at Brother Rice Catholic High School. It was easy for the media to portray Filan as a good man, rather than the violent aggressor he was, despite his tendency to be a mean, misogynistic drunk. Our efforts to screen his e-mails revealed multiple accounts of sex workers listing him as a bad client, cautioning against booking sessions with him. Even the articles most sympathetic to his memory recount his casual verbal abuse of the young soccer players whom he coached.

Walker was held in Cook County without bond for over two years while the media sensationalized the death of her attacker with wildly differing accounts of how many stab wounds he’d actually suffered, going so far as to include hesitation marks among the mortal wounds. Accounts of the stab wounds numbered from 10 to 14 in news articles, though the coroner’s report lists 14 hesitation marks and only two mortally inflicted wounds. Walker’s account of Filan’s drunkenness was confirmed by toxicology reports showing Filan’s blood alcohol content registered at a 0.208 when he was found days after his death.

Filan was remembered as a flawed but lovable man, brutally murdered. Walker, however, was never spoken about as a human being, the devoted big sister and caring and outgoing young woman her mother describes her as. Media outlets covering the story rarely mentioned that she had seen Filan at least twice without incident before he attacked her. Nor did they remark on the fact that she saved her own life and that of another woman’s in the face of Filan’s assault. There were at least 20 Backpage ads printed out on Filan’s desk, but the media often omitted this detail in their stories on the case. Nor did most articles on Walker address rumors that Filan was a habitual client of sex workers, and often (as Chicago sex worker screening sources record) was not respectful of the workers he saw.

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aholtzclawbirthday

Content warning: this piece contains general discussion of rape.

On his 29th birthday, December 10th, former Oklahoma City Police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who targeted low income, criminalized Black women and girls for sexual assault while on duty, was found guilty of 18 of the 36 charges brought against him. He now faces up to 263 years in prison when he is formally sentenced next month. His crimes were calculated and monstrous. But as uplifting as it is to hear his vindicated victims sing “Happy Birthday,” I can’t help but feel like the knife stuck six inches into my back has only been pulled out three inches.

Holtzclaw’s crimes are far from a rarity. The Associated Press reported that from 2009 to 2014, almost 1000 officers have been decertified or terminated due to sexual misconduct. A 2010 study published by the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project reported that sexual misconduct was the second most common form of police misconduct. The report also found “assault and sexual assault rates significantly higher for police when compared to the general population.”

Holtzclaw’s crimes were hardly covered by major outlets and that tepid coverage robbed me of any lasting feeling of accomplishment in his conviction. And according to prosecutors, Buzzfeed, the Daily Mirror, The New York Times, Jezebel, the Daily Beast, the Washington Post and many other publications, this rapist is behind bars because he “messed up“: he raped the “wrong” woman, Janie Ligons, a woman with no previous criminal record, no record of drug use or sex work—someone who felt free to report her rape. This woman was someone whose assault demanded an answer.

If Ligons is the “wrong” victim, then am I and hundreds of thousands of other Black sex workers the “RIGHT” victim? Historically speaking, in America, the answer is yes, and that terrifies me. It’s hard to puff out your chest and declare the Holtzclaw verdict proof of progress when he wouldn’t have been taken off the streets had Ligons not come forward. Ligons filed a civil suit against Oklahoma City prior to the criminal trial. She seeks damages based on the fact that Holtzclaw was already being investigated for sexual misconduct but was allowed to continue to patrol low income Black neighborhoods. At least one other woman, identified as TM, made a report to police previously that Holtzclaw assaulted her before Ligons was raped.

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