Interviews

Home Interviews

Velvet Collar, The Rentboy Raid Inspired Comic Book

Velvet Collar is a comic book series written and produced by worker Bryan Knight and drawn by queer comic artist Dave Davenport. It depicts the lives of five male sex workers. In the course of the series’ narrative, an escort listing service is shut down by the feds—a thinly-veiled representation of the Rentboy raid and subsequent prosecutions.

Dale Corvino, who as Ask Dominick was Rentboy’s advice blogger, interviewed the creators of the comic series for Tits and Sass. He spoke with Knight in person in New York, while corresponding with Davenport, who is based in Los Angeles. Corvino is now a board member of the Red Umbrella Project (RedUP). The org’s 2014 documentary Red Umbrella Diaries was generously supported by Rentboy’s founder, Jeffrey Hurant. RedUP will be coordinating with SWOP Behind Bars to provide support for Jeffrey while he serves his sentence related to the Rentboy prosecution. Of this effort, RedUP Program Director Lola Garcia says, “While workers are our primary concern, nobody deserves to be jailed for involvement in the sex trade, provided they are not coercing sex workers (i.e. sex traffickers).”

The interview that follows has been edited for length from Corvino’s emails with Davenport and a transcription of Corvino’s conversation with Knight.

Dale Corvino: The Velvet Collar Kickstarter discusses representation of sex workers in alternative comics. Chester Brown is probably the most prominent creator who mines the topic, but he is admittedly writing from the trick’s perspective. Other depictions often feature characters with limited agency, as you point out. (Though there are a few inspiring exceptions to this rule.) In the queer comic space, sexuality is often depicted; sex work rarely. Does the project of depicting workers as fully realized protagonists in the comic space challenge both the comic genre and the queer comic sub-genre?

Dave Davenport: Definitely. But I’ve known sex workers at all points of my life, a good deal of my friends have been so at one time or another, and I may have had to hustle to make the rent at one point in my life. It’s a part of life, it always has been, and always will be. It needs to be a part of comics as well.

Bryan Knight: First, I’m telling stories about real people who have done or are doing illegal things…and whatever ethics we may have about it, there’s that first fundamental block. The practice has a long stigma and people are going to reflexively flinch. Second thing, there’s sex. There’s graphic sex. I made the choice not to censor that part of their lives because it happens. Not only in the transactional sense, but as a part of their private lives…it’s about as real an experience as I could fully capture.

As for queer comics…in early queer comics, we didn’t worry about mainstream acceptance, we made it for our friends. We weren’t concerned about sales or reputation because we were already fucked!

Right now gays are in the mainstream, we have marriage, and part of that strategy has been desexualizing everything we are so this particular comic pushes us back into that realm where sex and identity are intertwined…the narratives of acceptance have been, “We’re just like you!” but the truth is, we’re not…a lot of naked truths get exposed and that’s what I plan to bring to the comic genre.

The Bloody State Gave Him The Power: A Swedish Sex Worker’s Murder

Petite Jasmine, 1986-2013 (Photo via her Facebook page, courtesy of Rose Alliance)
Petite Jasmine (Photo via her Facebook page, courtesy of Rose Alliance)

On Friday, Swedish sex workers’ rights organization Rose Alliance released this statement on Facebook: “Our board member, fierce activist, and friend Petite Jasmine got brutally murdered yesterday (11 July 2013). Several years ago she lost custody of her children as she was considered to be an unfit parent due to being a sex worker. The children were placed with their father regardless of him being abusive towards Jasmine. They told her she didn’t know what was good for her and that she was “romanticizing” prostitution, they said she lacked insight and didn’t realise sex work was a form of self-harm. He threatened and stalked her on numerous occasions.  She was never offered any protection. She fought the system through four trials and had finally started seeing her children again. Yesterday the father of her children killed her. She always said, “Even if I can’t get my kids back I will make sure this never happens to any other sex worker.” We will continue her fight. Justice for Jasmine!”

Rose Alliance coordinator Pye Jakobsson was gracious enough to answer some questions about Jasmine’s struggle with the state and murder for Tits and Sass.

Caty Simon: So, for starters, can you tell us a little bit about how you met Jasmine Petite and what she worked on for Rose Alliance?

Pye Jakobsson: Jasmine contacted me around three years ago, just after the local council took custody of her kids. She was looking for help with this and had been advised to contact us. Her main activism was around her own situation and others like hers, plus a lot of stuff around the Swedish Model.

Caty: The Swedish Model criminalizes the clients of sex workers in Sweden. How does it affect sex workers there?

Pye: The biggest overall result is the increased stigma. Practical results have to do with the police going after clients. Street workers have lost valuable assessment time they need before getting into a client’s car [because the clients are too nervous about arrest to stop and talk.—ed.]  Also, their clients have more control and can say, ” Don’t drive to that spot, I know a better one the police don’t know about.” Police target  indoor workers too, trying to catch their clients. That means the focus is now on making clients feel safe enough to see us, rather than us focusing on our own safety.  In addition, the pimping laws force us to work alone. It’s also illegal to rent out premises to us. Many work from home, and if the landlord finds out, he is forced to evict you. So they want to save us, but they punish us until we are willing to be saved. And if we say we want to be “saved,” all they offer is therapy [rather than economic alternatives—ed.]

Caty: Can you tell us a bit more about Jasmine’s custody battle? In the Facebook statement from Rose Alliance re: her murder, you guys wrote that she had been pathologized for not admitting that her sex work was a form of self-harm, and that her ex was given custody of the kids because she was a sex worker, despite the fact that she’d reported that he abused her. Can you elaborate on how the state justified taking her kids away from her?

Pye: She had kids with the same guy who was abusive towards her, mostly verbal abuse, though he was convicted for physical violence 12 years ago. They had already separated when the second child was born (the children are four and five now). So they had shared custody of the oldest and then she had sole custody of the youngest.

She was doing sex work as a way to stay at home with her kids, but after only a few months of working, a relative of hers called social services to let them know she was selling sex. The relative also called the father of the kids, who also called Social Services, claiming she took clients home, etc. The truth was she only worked in Stockholm, one hour away from the city where she lived.

You Cannot Consent To Being Treated Illegally: An Interview With Corinna Spencer-Scheurich

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.

Activist Spotlight: BARE on the Mass Closure of Strip Clubs in New Orleans

via BARE’s Instagram

An unholy mix of gentrification and trafficking hysteria created the perfect political climate to allow law enforcement to shutter several New Orleans strip clubs, leaving scores of dancers unemployed. The Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers rapidly sprung into action; they disrupted the mayor’s press conference and organized the Unemployment March the following night, which drew national attention. I talked to them about the situation in NOLA, their strategy, and their future plans.

So, to start, what is BARE? How long has BARE existed and what kind of activism does BARE do?

Lindsey: BARE is the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers. We are an organization run by strippers, for strippers. I started coming to meetings a few months ago, but some of our members have been at this since the Trick or Treat raids of 2015. What we do first and foremost is provide a voice that’s been previously underexposed during the city’s assault on strip clubs: the voice of actual strippers. We’re attempting to work with city officials to influence policies and decisions that affect us. Outside of that, we really just want to foster community among dancers and show the people who don’t understand us that we are valuable members of the New Orleans community. During our first ever charity tip drive, participating dancers donated all of their tips from a Friday night’s work to a women’s shelter. Strippers literally paid that shelter’s rent for six months!

Lyn Archer: I arrived in New Orleans after being laid off from two seasonal jobs in a row, one in secretarial work and one in hospitality. I was on unemployment and got a job cocktail-waitressing at a Larry Flynt drag club. One night, a few weeks before Christmas, the club closed without notice and let everyone go. That’s when I saw how quickly fortunes could reverse on Bourbon Street and how little protection there is for workers. My first week on Bourbon, I was the likely the only stripper that didn’t realize that Operation Trick or Treat had just happened. I entered a work environment where strippers were scared, mgmt was over-vigilant, and customers were scarce. Everyone seemed confused about “the rules.” I later learned that’s because what’s written into the city code about “lewd and lascivious conduct” is different than state law and different than federal law. But these supposed “anti-trafficking” efforts are a collaboration of badges. Undercover agents from many offices move through the clubs. I began researching and writing on this for my column in Antigravity, called “Light Work.” I began to see how a feedback loop between press, law enforcement, self-styled “anti-trafficking” groups and civic policymakers can cause so much destruction for people they haven’t even considered. The club I started at was the first to close. The club was inside a building that was the house Confederate president Jefferson Davis lived in. The house I live in was the home of a Confederate general. We are working against, while inside-of, unfolding histories that are deeply, deeply violent. The more I learn about the history of sex worker resistance in New Orleans, the more I know this fight is lifetimes old and will replicate itself if we do not end it entirely.

Both Transphobic and Whorephobic: The Murder of Dora Oezer

R.I.P. Dora Oezer (photo courtesy of Cristianos Gays)
R.I.P. Dora Oezer. (photo courtesy of Cristianos Gays)

On July 2nd, 24-year-old trans sex worker Dora Oezer was murdered by one of her clients. On July 12th, there was a protest against transphobic violence Istanbul, while similar protests were held in Berlin and Eskisehir. Meanwhile, the Turkish sex workers’ rights organization Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association held a protest and read a press release in Ankara. On the 19th, Dora’s murder and the murder of Swedish sex worker Petite Jasmine inspired an international wave of protests against violence against sex workers in thirty six cities across the globe outside of Turkish and Swedish embassies. Kemal Iffetsiz Asyu Ayrikotu, chair of the Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association, answered some questions about Dora’s murder and conditions for trans sex workers in Turkey for Tits and Sass.

Caty Simon: Do you mind giving us some background on how the laws operate in Turkey re: sex work and what it’s like for sex workers there?

Kemal Iffetsiz Asyu Ayrikotu: Sex work is not illegal in Turkey, at least in theory. The only group of people who are registered are female sex workers who work at brothels which are regulated by a special Charter called “The Charter to Combat Prostitution.” Based on this legislation, several brothels operate in different cities of Turkey. The overall number of brothels and registered female sex workers who work at these brothels has changed in the last 10 years, as many brothels have been closed down. Currently, around 1500 registered sex workers work at these brothels, while the number of brothels has decreased to around 35 – 40. Both cisgender female sex workers and transsexual women can work at brothels as they both hold female ID cards.

The important issue is unregistered sex workers. These workers face a challenge coming from The Charter to Combat Prostitution, Turkish Penal Code and some laws that has nothing to do with sex work; such as the law on misdemeanors and the law on traffic. The charter gives authority to governorships, the higher local administration which governs cities in Turkey, to carry out investigations on people who do sex work in their apartments, bars, clubs, etc. and to close down these spaces for certain periods of time. The governorships, commissions assigned to combat prostitution under the governorships, and the police are the implementing bodies of the Charter.

The Turkish Penal Code is a big barrier for unregistered sex workers, as several phrases in this law target sex workers, such as the clauses on “obscenity”, “exhibitionism”, “providing a space for prostitution”, “soliciting”, “acting as mediators”, and “human trafficking.” All of these clauses are actively used against male, female, and trans sex workers, who end up with their apartments closed down, imprisoned, paying exorbitant fines, etc.

The police are some of the main perpetrators of human rights violations against sex workers, especially street sex workers. They make use of misdemeanor laws to harass sex workers on the streets by charging them with arbitrary fines every night. This is perceived as a strategy to deter people from sex work. Yet, when a sex worker is fined, they are more likely to go back to the street to re-earn the money which was taken away from her/him. Also, the law on traffic is used against those sex workers who drive down the streets to find clients, and they also end up charged with arbitrary fines.