Magalie Lerman joined Prax(us), a Denver homeless youth and anti-trafficking organization, in 2010, as an outreach worker – one who knew the lay of the land in a way that others at Prax(us) did not. She now directs the outreach program and Hartcore, the constituent community organizing program. Hartcore and SWOP Denver (Sex Workers’ Outreach Program Denver) have collaborated on many projects – Know Your Rights trainings, a zine, a speakout, and so on. In 2012, Magalie joined SWOP Denver (which already had overlapping membership), and Hartcore and SWOP Denver have continued to collaborate. Magalie formerly traded sex and is a current webcam model. She is a queer lady and likes music and shows.
When you joined Prax(us) in 2010 you brought street experience and knowledge that was lacking in the organization at the time, and you contributed a lot to their abilities to offer harm reduction and outreach. Can you comment on the relationship between experience and effective outreach?
Outreach can happen regardless of a person’s experience. I think many good outreach workers are social workers, etc. But I would say that HartCore’s community organizing became possible after a person with the lived experience stepped in. I can say, “This happened or is happening to us. What can we do to heal ourselves and our communities?” It’s inclusive and real that way. Outreach is one of my favorite things ever, and I think it’s super important for street-based folks or people who have left the street to be able to do outreach because outreach is a way to redefine the streets. I have always known I have a place on the streets, and outreach allows me to take it back.
How do your experiences with homelessness, addiction, surviving violence, and sex work drive the work you do now?
I honestly haven’t had many good experiences trading sex. I was a drug addict, and that’s all I cared about, and I would do anything to get it. I had blinders on because of that. I didn’t step back to think ” Hmm, I should get paid in money for this, or get paid upfront, or try and negotiate safer sex.” I did what I had to do to survive at that moment in time. But I learned a lot. Still, if I had one thing in my whole life to do differently it would be that – to have been honest with myself about what I was doing, and to have sought out SWOP, HartCore, etc. while I was doing sex work. There was a period of time that I did girl-on-girl porn. It was local, and I didn’t get paid a lot, but, I mean, I got to fool around with hot girls for money, so it doesn’t get much better than that. I have been looking to get back into more empowered sex work, and redefine my experiences. I’m really big into that. Something is shaping presently.
My experiences inform everything I do both professionally and personally. Sometimes I gotta watch that and make sure I’m not operating out of a place of my own shit. I have to ask other people what their experiences are. I try to focus on the similarities and honor the differences. I look white (although I am Latina) and come from an upper-middle class family that was able to provide me with a good education. I believe these are the main factors contributing to my success, more so than anything I’ve done. This work is about combating oppression. I have experiences that inform that, but I also recognize my privilege.
Tell me about the recent interview on your activism you did with the Denver Westword. They misrepresented you?
It was my first experience being interviewed and I learned a lot. Media is very sensationalistic. I guess it makes sense that when I talk about my past along with my work the dramatic and juicy part is my past, so the media is going to cover that. The part that really upset me was the title–I mean, “Turns Exploitation into Outreach?” I know the reporter felt bad about it too, as she wrote me to apologize and said her supervisor had changed it. It called me a survivor of exploitation. Although I have experienced exploitation (really, who hasn’t?) I don’t call myself a survivor [of labor exploitation and experiences of violence]. Doing this work more and more people want to identify me that way. I guess people like labels and nice little boxes.
Can you elaborate on how people label you based on your story, and why these labels don’t fit?
I do not identify as a survivor. I have experienced exploitation, but by no means is it trafficking. Everyone wants to hear from a survivor. I regularly get called at my job from people who want to hear from a survivor, or want a survivor to speak about their experiences. This is super exploitative in and of itself. I don’t know if it’s my talking about my experiences that misleads people, or the Westword article or what, but recently I have been asked to speak on survivor panels, and interviewed by a TV station that asked for me by name and then when I got there was like “you’re a survivor of trafficking right?” Like who the hell tells people this shit? Hey, yeah that is super exploitative, especially since I think those people are only looking for trafficking survivors who are just gonna parrot their message, someone employed for a nonprofit who might be forbidden from giving a different one.
What are some of the things you are currently working on in your community organizing with Hartcore and SWOP?
HartCore and SWOP have had some awesome collaborations in the past couple years. We do Know Your Rights Trainings for people involved in the street economies, so that they may arm themselves against police harassment and abuse. We are trying to do something legislatively right now that will lessen the effects of a criminal justice intervention on people engaging in survival sex. More broadly, we want to introduce harm reduction policies on prostitution. Right now what that looks like is collecting data and coalition building.
Tell me a little bit about your community organizing philosophy.
Basically, that people need to be able to lead their own liberation. There’s a place for allies, of course. But I see organizing as a for us, by us kinda deal. Ideas are generated from the people most affected, and then we try and connect with the greater community. It’s about shifting paradigms at this point, especially around perceived ideas of street-based folks.
Up until recently, Prax(us) and Hartcore were not allowed to openly support SWOP due to the Anti-Prostitution Pledge. What have some of the funding condition changes been from the federal government and how has that impacted things? [Update: Since this interview was conducted, the Anti-Prostitution Pledge has also been reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Though they have not issued a decision, here is a good summary of what happened.]
Obama created a back door policy which states that although orgs cannot support sex work, certain programs within orgs that do not receive federal funding can. So, Prax(us) does not support SWOP, but HartCore does. HartCore is where on-the-ground support is being built, the truly radical arm of Prax(us). The right hand. We are leading the work.
Do you feel like there is a division among anti-trafficking organizations in the U.S. with respect to sex worker rights? Do any of them respect the autonomy and desires of trafficking victims and youth? How do you feel about their support of campaigns like “End Demand”? How about their entanglement with the apparatuses of criminalization, and their conflation of coercion and trafficking with sex work? Finally, how do you feel about the way anti-trafficking orgs de-emphasize the problem of labor trafficking in favor of a focus on sex trafficking?
So, the anti-trafficking movement is pretty gross. I mean, it’s really conservative. I know key players act out of a place of compassion, but in trying to help a certain type of people they are in fact disempowering them, and harming others. “Rescuing victims” is not a thing you can realistically accomplish. I can’t “rescue” anyone, and most the time I can’t even replace whatever someone is getting out of the situation they are in that they may or may not see as harmful. The End Demand model will never work, and further drives sex work underground, allowing the environment to be more unsafe. It’s all a smoke screen anyway to further politicians’ careers. Unfortunately, it fuels anti-sex work sentiment which we have to try and heal. There are many points of entry into sex work and force, fraud and coercion only represent one. Not all sex work is trafficking. When people conflate the two it creates a space where trafficking is more likely to happen. As far as sex vs. labor trafficking, that’s a pet-peeve of mine – that nobody wants to talk about labor trafficking. It’s because we are all guilty then as consumers. Plus, sex trafficking gives people who don’t know how to talk about sex an avenue to do so. Labor trafficking is a large and urgent problem. We need protections for workers, and immigration reform.
What do you feel the ideal relationship should be between the sex workers rights movement and the anti-traffickers?
A lot of anti-trafficking organizations (at least non faith based ones) differentiate sex work and trafficking, and believe in lessening the effects of a criminal justice intervention in sex workers’ lives as this would also lessen incidences of trafficking. However, most organizations cannot be outspoken about this because of Bush Loyalty Oaths, and funding being tied to anti-prostitution pledges. There are back door policies around this now, and even if organizations don’t feel comfortable publicly partnering I urge people to form underground partnerships. Find your allies. Don’t work in silos. This is isolating work already. We can and should be working in solidarity.
How do you feel about the actions of the anti-traffickers on a global level, especially in the Global South?
Our response to trafficking elsewhere is even scarier than it is here. The “rescue model” is used so often over there, and because of the economics of it all, it is able to prosper. There are sex worker rights organizations that do awesome work in the global south, and they are very outspoken about the bad impact the anti-human trafficking movement has had and continues to have on their work. That being said, because of corrupt governments and the lack of regulation, trafficking is a huge problem in the global south. Organ trafficking, child soldiers, and camel jockeys are all forms of trafficking that exist overseas. I think local responses are needed. The US can help by asking “how can we help you, and back your work up with the resources that we have?” This is not what we do, though.