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A Conversation With My Mom

I do these interviews because I want to talk with other sex workers about our work, and because I think we all have interesting stories. But, after interviewing Matthew and his telling me he was coming out, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to worry about that. I acknowledge that I am very privileged to have a mom who isn’t freaked out by my work, but we’d had very few conversations about how she felt about my work. Actually, we hadn’t had any. I tell her about sessions, and I told her when I started working, but beyond a few mentions here and there that was it. I wanted to know what she thought about my work, and since she’s a preacher, if she thought it clashed with our religion at all. I didn’t know what she was going to say, I swear, but I committed myself to reproducing whatever she said no matter what.

(Obviously this isn't my mom and I.)

“There Can’t Be Numbers:” An Interview With Laura Agustín, Part 2

Yesterday, we posted Part One of an interview with Sex at the Margins author Dr. Laura Agustín. Today we present our second and final segment.

It’s incredibly common now to see abolitionists argue that when prostitution is legal, as it in Amsterdam, trafficking only increases. What does the most current research actually suggest? 

Everyone wants this thing called research to prove one position or another, but it can’t. Even if there were enough funds to do massive studies with a range of methodologies and amazingly objective researchers, the target is impossible to define and pin down. It’s the same problem as with numbers, the fact that the subjects of interest are operating outside formal networks. Of course you can have small ethnographic studies that provide real insight into particular people at a certain time and place, but those studies cannot prove anything in general. And certainly not about legal regimes, as in the quarrel over which causes more exploitation.

Over a very long period we may come to understand the effects of a regime like the Dutch, but it is too early now. I did research in Holland amongst people concerned with how the policy was working in 2006, when it was already clear that offering regulation only brought part of the sex industry into government accounting. Businesspeople interested in operating outside the law continued to do so; many escort agencies and other sex businesses refused to register; migrants not allowed work permits came and worked anyway and so did people facilitating their travel and work, and, in many cases, exploiting them. None of which proves that the whole system ‘increases trafficking’. You cannot even coherently discuss an increase in trafficking when there are no baseline figures to compare with. On top of which agreement about what everyone means by the word trafficking simply does not exist. This goes for both the Dutch situation and the Swedish – claims about trafficking going up or down cannot be proved. 

Activist Spotlight: Anna Saini on Identity and Being An Unlikable Survivor

Anna Saini in performance (Photo by Filipe Besca, courtesy of Red Umbrella Project)
Anna Saini in performance (Photo by Filipe Besca, courtesy of Red Umbrella Project)

Anna Saini is  a community organizer with Voices of Community Activists and Leaders – New York (VOCAL-NY), where she works towards  ending the drug war, mass incarceration and racist policing. Her writing appears in Bitch magazine, make/shift magazine, the forthcoming Dear Sister Anthology, her self published anthology Colored Girls, as well as both Red Umbrella Project writing workshop literary anthologies, Prose and Lore issues One & Two. She is a  Brown and proud captivating performer, a veteran Red Umbrella Diaries storyteller who is featured along with six other sex worker storytellers in the upcoming documentary, “The Red Umbrella Diaries: A documentary about sex worker stories.” Writing can be a great vehicle for social change and Anna’s work is an example of this kind of activism. 

In your writing and performances you talk about your Indian family, growing up in the suburbs, and living in Detroit before moving to Brooklyn. Seems like your background is pretty mixed. How do these different experiences influence your work?

 

It wasn’t until I moved away from Southern Ontario and came to live in the United States that I actually realized how I’m a mish-mash of all these different identities. I’m fiercely working-class and Desi, Asian, queer, a suburban city girl and a survivor, an academic, an activist. It means I connect my struggles with a lot of different people and I hold a lot of intersecting communities dear to me.

 

It also means that I never really feel like I fit in or I’m at home anywhere. If you look at where I was born and raised, a bizarre and wonderful place called Brampton, it’s this brand spanking new suburb that’s morphed into a place largely populated by folks like my family, who identify as “from” somewhere else. I never really felt like I’m from there so much as I came from there. The suburbs are kind of a vacuum in that way.

 

But it’s also fascinating. It’s this unique confluence of socio-political dynamics: the suburbs, Punjabis, Canadiana and the biggest city in the country a mere thirty minutes away… It’s probably the only place in the world where you can get a proper chai from a drive-through window at Tim Hortons. Now that I don’t have to live there anymore I have a lot more respect for the place where I grew up and a lot more interest in how it made me who I am.

 

Sometimes you have to reach back into an uncomfortable past to make meaning out of it. You’re a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Dear Sisterabout healing from sexual assault. What did you share in it about your healing process?

The call-out for submissions for the anthology presented the opportunity to write a letter saying whatever you always wanted to say to another survivor. I know that often when we think of a “survivor” the expectation is that the person is valiant, strong and resilient. I wanted to talk about the flip-side of survival, the part that many consider ugly or uninspiring, the part that breaks down these myths about who we are.

I wanted to say what people don’t say about surviving, so that I could feel less alone in the experience and  reach out to others so that they could also feel less alone. A lot of folks who have survived violence that I’ve known are damaged in some kind of way. Instead of ignoring that damage, I wanted to acknowledge it, maybe even revel in it. I wanted to talk about that damage, explain what it looks like on me.

My piece is called “The Unlikable Survivor” and I guess what I’m trying to accomplish in it is to deconstruct the persona of a survivor. The commonality of our experience is that we lived while others did not. And for many (most? all?) of us the healing is never really complete.

Interview: Lindsey Kugler On HERE.

HERE. Book Cover6HERE. is Lindsay Kugler’s “mini-memoir,” covering a year in her early twenties living in Austin, being in a codependent relationship, and working on My Free Cams. She also worked as a social worker and writes about dealing with clients from both worlds in a style that reads like poetry, with negative spaces that leave you wanting more while you cackle.

One time while trying to find one of JC’s medicine bottles I found a soiled copy of The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton. I first encountered it in one of my sexuality courses I took at Arizona State and I wondered why JC would even have a copy. I imagined him pushing through a bookstore to find something so salaciously titled to bring it home and find it was less Penthouse and more personal theory.

HERE. feels like stumbling upon someone’s very relatable diary. Haven’t we all done the equivalent of getting drunk and crawling into a cardboard box so someone would happen upon us and give us sympathy? Originally self-published through Portland’s Independent Publishing Resource Center before being picked up by University of Hell Press, Kugler’s debut also has my all-time favorite About The Author line: “She is a college dropout who has never cared about school.” I loved doing this interview and can’t wait to read what she writes next.

How did you get started camming?

In the context of the relationship that I was in, I was not getting a lot of attention and I was not getting a lot of sexual fulfillment. I had first gone through Craigslist Casual Encounters being like, “I’m just interested in being on cam with someone via Skype and I don’t even really want to see you. I just kinda want to take my clothes off and that would be it.” And I got a few responses and talked to some people and then they were like, “You could make money doing this.” At the time I was working for AmeriCorps, so I was working 40 hours a week making like no money as a case manager, and I was like, “You know, I could use some extra income.” So I looked into it and really how I got started was sort of a mixture of needing to get paid and also needing to fulfill this void that I had in my life.

Activist Spotlight: Carol Leigh on Sex Worker Sinema and Challenging the Anti-Trafficking Discourse

 Scarlot Harlot at the Portland Sex by Sex Worker fest (courtesy of BAYSWAN)
Scarlot Harlot at the Portland Sex by Sex Worker fest (courtesy of BAYSWAN)

Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot, was the first sex workers’ rights movement celebrity I ever met. I’d been escorting for only a few months when she came to speak in my area, and I identified deeply with her writing in my dogeared copy of the 1980s edition of Sex WorkI was struck immediately by her spaced out, comforting voice, her self-deprecating yet confrontational humor, and her political conviction. My coworkers and I enjoyed how frank and matter-of-fact she was with us, dishing about clients like we were already old friends. Carol is the kind of person one needs in every movement: able to connect with anyone and everyone, able to bring people together easily. No wonder she’s been so effective in her pioneering role as one of the first artist activists of the sex workers’ rights movement.

I caught up with Carol while she was working on two events, the upcoming Desiree Alliance Conference in Las Vegas and the 8th Biennial San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival, and yet she still put aside time to do this interview with me.

One of the things you’re most renowned for is coining the term “sex work” in the late 1970s. How well do you think the term has held up as a way to describe our work and unite us politically?

When I think of the term and concept of “sex work,” I think of how it has empowered our activism through international use. This global proliferation of the term was largely due to the work of my mentor, Priscilla Alexander, who worked at WHO (World Health Organization) in the 80s. “Sex work” is particularly powerful as it was the first term that referred to this act without euphemism. The term “sex work” implies a rights advocacy.

At the same time some issues have come up with the use of this term.

I have heard from some quarters that sex work implies consensuality. At first I strongly resisted that notion, from the perspective that if sex work is basically work, then, in general, all work can be forced. Someone doing factory work, domestic work, etc. can be forced. (I use the term “forced” in a very general way as forced labor is part of a continuum of labor abuses.) It has been very basic in sex work advocacy to emphasize that prostitution is work, as opposed to an expression of one’s personal deviance, or a form of rape.

I often hear sex workers explain that they are not trafficked victims, but rather workers. I want to remind people, as we hold the reins of our options, that when force and choice are seen as a dualism, it obscures class and other divisions. Economic factors greatly impact one’s choices. In response to accusations about prostitution defined as rape per se, sex workers are moved to defend our work as “choice,” when we mean relative choice or choice among certain options. It’s just another typical case in which our message can’t come forth with the clarity we need and want, because we are in such a tight corner, due to laws and stigma. The term “sex work” can fall prey to dualistic thinking when one claims that by definition “sex work” implies consent. This is a long discussion and I haven’t seen much written about this. I look forward to the ongoing work of developing political philosophy based on our experiences of sex work. There is a lot we can learn from each other about discrimination, sex, minority rights, race, class, and survival.