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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.

The Racism of Decriminalization

“Place of Power.” (Painting by author from her finite gestures series)

Since I began writing this piece, both Scarlet Alliance and SWOP NSW have issued an apology to migrant sex workers for their part in the SEXHUM research. This is an unprecedented move in the right direction for peer organizations. I hope that there will be more attempts in the future to empower migrants and POC, including Aboriginal sex workers, toward self-advocacy. I also hope that in the future, such a statement and its denunciation of non-peer-led research will be initiated by organizations without the need for heavy internal and external pressure from migrant sex workers first. Indeed, I hope that no statements like this are necessary in the future because this complicity with typically unethical outsider-led research will cease to occur in the first place.

As sex worker activists we love pointing fingers at the anti-trafficking industry, whorephobic art and media, and researchers with save-the-whore complexes. Yet, the sex worker activist movement itself is similarly stigmatizing towards migrant POC sex workers. Our movement has promoted the New Zealand decriminalization model for decades without being critical of New Zealand’s criminalization of migrant workers. The global sex workers’ rights movement heralds decriminalization at all costs, while often overlooking the racism involved in its partial implementation. The argument is that decriminalization of sex work will end stigma and benefit all workers equally. However, POC migrant sex workers (PMSW) still experience stigma, raids, and racism within the purported decriminalized sex worker heavens of New South Wales, Australia and New Zealand.

Sex Workers: YOU CAN AND SHOULD REQUEST PANDEMIC RELIEF

Eleanor Roosevelt at SheSheShe Camp for Unemployed Women in Bear Mountain, New York. (photo via wikicommons)

So we’re about a month into strip clubs being shut down. Before that, most in-person sex workers had already been worried about the potential of getting or spreading COVID-19 (the illness caused by the coronavirus) at work, and probably noticed a significant dip in business. Most times we’d be SOL when it comes to accessing unemployment benefits, since save for dancers at a handful of strip clubs, we’re not employees on payroll. But that changed when Congress passed the CARES Act in March, which expanded unemployment benefits to independent contractors.

There have been a lot of misleading screenshots and headlines implying that sex workers are excluded from pandemic relief. While it’s true that some adult entertainment businesses are theoretically excluded from the Small Business Administration’s disaster loans, sex workers as workers are just as eligible for stimulus payments and the expanded unemployment assistance that’s out there as any worker. Even if you’ve been operating as a business, you’re eligible as a sole proprietor to apply for unemployment now (Unfortunately, that only goes for citizens and permanent residents. If you are an undocumented worker in need of help, there are a lot of sex worker mutual aid funds that are prioritizing workers who can’t access government aid. Here are a few lists of those funds and resources for finding help. This COVID-19 resource post from Kate D’Adamo on Slixa also has information on other types of help available for all workers, as well as some myth busting on those Small Business Administration loans—you can still apply, and though there’s a chance you’ll be denied, you might just get it. “The definition of that term [“prurient sexual performance”] is based on the application of what’s called the Miller obscenity test,” D’adamo writes, “and a lot of things are actually fine – sex shops, sex educators, probably even strip clubs. Where it gets trying is anything involving the internet, because of competing court decisions that the Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in on.” D’adamo also notes that the whole process is a “clusterfuck” because banks don’t have enough information from the Fed to process applications, and “no one’s getting shit from anyone anytime soon, prurient sex-related or not.”)

There are two main types of assistance for individuals available: The one-time $1200 ($2400 for married couples and an additional $500 per child) Economic Impact Payments from the federal government, and the expanded unemployment benefits that cover the self-employed. Unemployment benefits are administered at the state level, so you’ll need to find your state’s unemployment website to start a claim. Maybe you’ve heard that the pandemic levels of unemployment have swamped unemployment claims? It’s not a great process to begin with, and having to revamp the whole deal hasn’t gone quickly or smoothly. But it’s a good idea to go ahead and start on the process. Supposedly workers will be able to get back payments, so try to get records of everything you can dating back to when you had to stop working due to the pandemic.

Here’s how to get started.

Nevada’s Brothels: Legalization Serves The Man

via Flickr user Craig Walkowicz
via Flickr user Craig Walkowicz

One of the many questions OkCupid users can answer to determine compatibility with potential mates is “Should prostitution be legal?” The answer options are:

  1. Yes, absolutely
  2. Yes, only if it were regulated
  3. I don’t think so
  4. ABSOLUTELY NOT (emphasis theirs)

In my four years of using the site, I’ve noticed that those who choose answer “2” frequently add something in the comments about regulations being necessary to protect workers from harm. Somewhat less frequently someone comments that regulations protect the health and general well-being of the public. My sample size is, of course, limited, but that thinking isn’t all that different from members of the general public who support legalization. Legalization, the thinking goes, would protect the public from the perceived health risks associated with prostitution by mandating testing, provide states with tax money (which relies on the false assumption that sex workers don’t currently pay taxes) and would control when and where sex work could be done. And, if prostitution was legal, sex workers would be safer because they would feel more comfortable utilizing the criminal legal system.

What they forget is that we have an example of legal prostitution in the United States: regulated, licensed brothels in the state of Nevada. While legalization provides benefits to the state, the workers are still treated as second-class citizens. Nevada has been home to brothels since the late 1800s, and the first licensed brothel opened there in 1971. Currently, there is no statute explicitly stating that prostitution is legal, but under state law, counties in Nevada with populations under 400,000 can allow brothels. These brothels are the only places in the United States where one can engage in legal prostitution, and the people doing this work are governed by three different sets of regulations: state laws, county laws and brothel rules.1 While the state laws are easy to access and review, county laws are less so, and brothel rules are not available to the public. The small size of the counties and towns that the brothels are in means that rules frequently change depending on the mood of the sheriff. This form of legalization is a combination of modern business law and Wild West attitudes.

Stop AB1576: Compulsory Condom Use Won’t Make Porn Performers Safer

astopab1576
(Photo pf Chanel Preston by Mickey Mod)

Tomorrow the California Assembly’s Appropriations Committee will vote on AB 1576 , a bill that would mandate condoms for all penetrative sex acts in porn. It also requires porn companies to indefinitely carry medical records for each contractor they shoot, and the vague language of the bill leaves room for Cal-OSHA to also mandate barriers, including protective eyewear and gloves, as well as disposable plastic covering for sets, so that performers can enjoy fucking on a Saran Wrap-covered couch.

This legislation presents itself as advocacy for sex workers’ healthcare, despite a majority of adult entertainment workers opposing it loudly and clearly. The bill’s sponsor, representative (and former minister) Isadore Hall and major supporters the AIDS Healthcare Foundation have refused to take the voices of the community into account, instead collaborating with such organizations as Pink Cross, a Christian ex-porn performer nonprofit.