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(Image via Melissa Gira Grant's twitter account)
(Image via Melissa Gira Grant’s twitter account)

You might recognize this sentiment: the sex workers’ rights movement is funded by “the industry.” We are “the pimp lobby,” whether we’ve ever been in any sort of management role ourselves or not, let alone whether we’ve abused or exploited other workers. You might think it’s pretty easy to laugh at that sort of thing, but if you’ve ever spent any time going through the e-mails that sex workers’ rights organizations receive, you’ll hear a lot of this, even from people and organizations who are sympathetic. They’ll make assumptions about “staff”—”we want to meet your staff”or they want to meet in “your office.”  There are people who try to chat you up about nonprofit careers at events, thinking you have jobs to offer them. And so on. It would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating, and if people with nasty motives didn’t use these assumptions against us.

It’s human to overestimate the resources of others and to underestimate one’s own. But let’s have some real talk.

Management doesn’t want to fund the sex workers rights movement. They do not have an interest in our vision for social change beyond issues of their own legality. Don’t believe me? This is management in action, or more specifically, strip club managers in action, allying themselves with anti-trafficking organizations. Management-directed organizations want to cover their own asses and reap benefits from the REAL money spigot, the anti-trafficking movement, of the “End Demand” variety, funded by former ambassador and current filthy rich lady Swanee Hunt. You’d see the same from escort agencies if they were legal, and you already do see the same from the legal Nevada brothel industry. As it is, some of the individuals in sex work management give us mild, conditional support, sort of the same way clients do. You know the storythey have many more demands than they do contributions. I have never seen any of them donate money.

Radfems, the “pimp lobby” is pretty firmly on YOUR side on this one.

Activist Spotlight: Melissa Ditmore on Responsible Advocacy and No-BS Research

amelissaditmore2Dr. Melissa Ditmore is one of the sex workers’ rights movement’s most cherished academics. For twelve years, she has worked as a freelance research consultant, with an impressive list of clients that includes AIDS Fonds Netherland, UNAIDS, The Sex Workers’ Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center, and The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). Her work has focused not only on sex workers’ rights, but also those of similarly marginalized groups like migrant workers and drug users. She edited the groundbreaking anthology Sex Work Matters and the history Prostitution and Sex Work, headed seminal research like the Sex Workers’ Project’s “Behind Closed Doors,” and she’s written regular pro-sex workers’ rights pieces for RH Reality Check and The GuardianThe project she’s most known for, though, is the gargantuan effort that produced Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, a two volume labor of love that has already become a movement classic since its publication in 2006.

Jessica Land: How did you come to edit the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work? It’s such an important work for both academics and sex workers’ rights activists, but buying the Encyclopedia isn’t feasible for many people due to price. For this reason, I’m almost giddy every time I find the volumes in a library. Is the Encyclopedia widely available in library settings?

Melissa Ditmore: I am always thrilled to see the Encyclopedia in libraries and in their catalogs! As you say, it’s an expensive book, as are most reference works. Reference books are intended for libraries, so this is how most people will get access to it. It had a second printing, so it sold well, mostly to university libraries and public libraries. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story about a fictional encyclopedia that influences history. What I want for the Encyclopedia is for some of the history to be easily found and remembered, and being in libraries is key to that.

The publisher wanted to do this, and contacted Priscilla Alexander, who co-edited Sex Work, about taking it on. She was interested and asked me to work on it with her. As we worked on the proposal, it became clear that her job was too demanding for her to be able to do both her job and such a large editing project. And it was a large project: Priscilla helped with the initial list of entries, and there are 342 entries by 179 authors. Priscilla remained on the advisory board and was very helpful throughout.

Your vast contributions to sex work research have served the interests of sex workers’ rights activists for twelve years. You’ve been involved with a wide range of organizations, from the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) to PONY (Prostitutes of New York.)What are some of the harder things you have confronted?

PONY once received an inquiry from a female law enforcement officer in the American south, and I followed up. This officer told me that a well-connected officer she worked with was abusing his power to commit extreme violence. She said that he used his badge to force women into his car, and then he would take them far away from the place they met. She believed he had murdered women, and she feared for herself if she brought attention to it, but could not live with staying quiet either. While PONY had helped other people with referrals to attorneys and even introduced them to someone who successfully pressed charges against a serial rapist in NYC, PONY had nothing to offer her in her region, and this guy may have murdered again. She only got to vent, and I hope she found the courage to report her violent co-worker to the feds, as she made it sound like the equivalent of internal affairs there would not be helpful or concerned. That was deeply distressing for both of us.

Readers of Tits and Sass know that murders of sex workers are all too common and often happen without diligent investigation, as documented in the recent book Lost Girls.

The Massage Parlor Means Survival Here: Red Canary Song On Robert Kraft

Sonya, a representative from the MinKwon Center for Community Action, holds a memorial sign for Yang Song, a migrant parlor worker driven to jump out a window during a brutal police raid in 2017, after being pressured by the cops to serve as an informant. (Photo by Emma Whitford)

As we gathered on the busy street corner in front of the Queens Public Library in Flushing on Friday March 29th, over one hundred community members heard our cry: “性工作是真工作!” Sex work is work!

The police had blockaded Red Canary Song members from the library steps, protecting the carceral narratives that were being pushed inside by City Council Member Peter Koo and the NYPD—CM Koo, the NYPD, and a slew of other City initiatives were hosting a “How to Spot and Combat Human Trafficking” seminar inside the library behind us. Regardless of the heavy police presence, we continued our teach-in, passing out Know-Your-Rights trainings in English, Spanish and Mandarin to community members and passerby. Direct services providers and advocates spoke, dispelling myths and misconceptions that surround migrant massage and sex work. One of the main myths that we sought to challenge is the perspective both the police and Polaris favor: that all Asian massage workers are perpetrators or victims of sex trafficking. Many speakers and some community members referenced the recent case of Robert Kraft directly. Through the almost three hour long teach-in, we distributed upwards of one thousand pieces of print materials to participants and passersby.

The public is fed the racist myth that all Chinese massage parlors are involved in human trafficking. In fact, most Chinese workers do this work because it is the most sensible work for them to do, especially when they are new immigrants to the country and do not have access to other opportunities or employment training. For many, it is simply the fastest way to send money home, and it makes the most practical sense at this time of their lives.

“The massage parlor is a platform for our survival [here] when there are not [a lot] of other services to help immigrants transition into the country,” explains Elle, a veteran Flushing massage parlor worker.

(Im)migration, as it relates to Asian and specifically Chinese women, as well as feminine and gender non-conforming sex workers, is far more complicated than most people realize.

The Chinese hukou system, which restricts people to living in the rural area where they are born, making workers illegal in their own country, is a huge driver of internal “migrant sex workers” with no working rights in China. It is also a huge driver of migration out of China under Deng Xiaoping’s policies, which actively promoted rural migration out of China rather than overcrowding Chinese cities. These migrant sex workers often end up in Hong Kong, where our comrade Elene Lam met them as Director of Zi Teng, a sex worker rights organization in Hong Kong. By way of Hong Kong, these same workers often end up in Flushing or Toronto.

It’s an incredibly global network, connected through newly possible digital networks. Elene has literally met the same workers she has done outreach with in Canton, then Hong Kong, and then Toronto. This sequence of migration is driven by government policies that restrict the labor rights of Chinese workers who are made illegal in their own country, due to an internal caste system of rural vs. urban workers. Yet these migrant sex workers also do much to support Chinese economic development by sending a large portion of their money home.

It’s ironic and laughable in the darkest sense when Christian charities in “international development” work travel to countries like Cambodia and Thailand to convert sex workers into garment workers. Do they recognize how much “international development” these sex workers are already doing? Much more than a charity promoting the sale of handmade trinkets could ever manage.

Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk (2014)

sxwrkrsuniteAny book that aspires to be the first history of the sex workers’ rights movement in the United States will inevitably face accusations of exclusion. But despite some unavoidable failures in representation, Mindy Chateauvert’s Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk, is a pretty damn good history of our movement. Still, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s critique in her review of the book—that male and genderqueer sex workers are given short shrift in Chateauvert’s work—is valid. Glancing references to Kirk Read and HOOK Online aside, the book is a bit of a hen party.

Then again, so is the movement it chronicles. Sex Workers Unite is a fairly accurate portrayal of our organizing, for better or worse. The index and the footnotes provided me with a comforting sense of familiarity as my eye skimmed over names well known to me, from Carol Leigh to Kate Zen. (Full disclosure: Tits and Sass posts were often cited, including one of my own.) At least, finally, in this text trans women sex workers are given the central role in our story that they’ve played in our activism. The book covers early movement trans heroines like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in depth, documenting their participation in the Stonewall riot and their founding of STAR House, a community program serving queer and trans youth in the sex trades. They were also involved in the lesser known organization GLF (Gay Liberation Front), an anti-capitalist group that “made room for prostitutes and hustlers, including transwomen, straight and lesbian prostitutes, gay-for-pay hustlers and stone butch dyke pimps,” but hilariously enough, couldn’t come to a consensus on whether it was still okay to take money for sex after the revolution. Chateauvert follows this thread of trans history throughout, never failing to highlight trans women sex workers’ contributions to such integral activist projects as Women with a Vision, HIPS, and Washington DC’s Trans Empowerment Project, as well as their more general influence in shaping sex worker culture.

When I first picked up the book and noted the subtitle, I felt a brief pang of disappointment at the fact that our movement is still so little-known that the the two iconic events that bookend Chateauvert’s summation of our chronology in her title—Stonewall and Slutwalk—actually properly belong to other movements. But as I started to read, I was delighted to realize what the author had done by integrating our narrative with that of so many other struggles for social justice, reminding the reader of sex workers’ critical participation in so many movements over the decades. From GLBT/queer rights and feminism to AIDS activism and harm reduction, Sex Workers Unite makes it clear that you can’t really talk about the history of activism in the US without talking about us. The book tackles our invisibility in these integral roles—in its chapter on Stonewall, for example, it highlights the rarely mentioned fact that drug using trans sex workers were the key participants of the riot, and strips the respectability politics from the typical portrayal of Stonewall rioter Rivera, who is often remembered as a trans activist forebear but not so often revered for supporting her activism via street sex work.

Report From 2011’s Sex Worker Open University

I’ve been a sex worker rights activist for going on a decade now, and I’ve lived in New York all that time. My focus in the early years was very local, meaning that I was concerned with what was happening in my own life and the lives of the people I worked with and cared about. I wanted us to stay safe, get rich, and not deal with douchebag clients – you know, all the dreams a girl could have. When I got involved with $pread magazine and became an editor in 2005, I started to pay more attention to what was happening outside of my little bubble. Being responsible for the news section of the magazine meant that I started to learn more about what was happening in sex worker communities not just across the country, but also across the world.

Over the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work more closely with sex worker rights activists globally, and I gotta say that it’s kind of blown my mind. In the fall of 2009 I spent a week in rural India, a few hours south of Mumbai, with SANGRAM and the sex workers at VAMP. We collaborated on a video about sex worker organizing in India, and it gave me immense respect for the work these activists have been doing. In India, there are sex worker unions, and hundreds of sex workers show up at events and rallies. They are loud, and they are a unified community struggling hard for their rights and getting some traction. During one conversation I had with an older woman about the differences in our activism, she said, “In America, you have everything. You have cameras. You use the internet. But you aren’t fighting the government together the way we are. You need to come together and collectivize. It’s the only way.” It really resonated with me. In a place where sex workers have to walk to one well that serves the neighborhood to get water for their huts, their community is infinitely stronger than ours, probably because there’s less obsession with individuality.

Since that fall, I’ve been seeking out other opportunities to learn more about the global situation of sex workers. This past month, I got the opportunity to go to London for Sex Worker Open University, a nearly weeklong event organized by a collective and held in the Arcola Theatre complex in Hackney. There were many sessions every day, an interesting blend of skill shares by and for sex workers, and presentations about policy and activism work. The event ran from Wednesday, October 12 through Sunday, October 16– you can see the full program here and feel envious – and on the Friday, we had an evening of conversation among activists from all over the world.