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The Week In Links: June 17

Wee, stripper gifs!

Lots of articles coming out of Canada this week, as Ontario’s highest court considers an appeal that could legalize a variety of activities related to sex work. Read more at The Vancouver Sun (“This is ethically unsound – no government should be able to jeopardize the safety of its citizens just to send a message”) and The National Post.

A comprehensive article on missing New Jersey sex worker Shannan Gilbert, whose disappearance led to the uncovering of the bodies buried on Long Island.

In California, evidence is mounting that Joseph Naso murdered four prostitutes.

Dennis Hof (1946-2018)

The late Dennis Hof with Heidi Fleiss and Ron Jeremy. (photo via the creative commons)

Dennis Hof passed away last week at his Love Ranch brothel after a night of celebrating his 72nd birthday and political campaign. The days following have been filled with an outpouring of discourse about his death, much of which is contentious as people reflect on the so-called legacy Hof left behind. Between his business empire and celebrity fame, Hof exposed the nation to regulated prostitution and Nevada’s brothels in a novel and undeniably impactful way. His celebrity existed within a paradox of tolerance—rural communities in Nevada were often against the brothels, which perhaps itself contributed to his ability to stay in the spotlight. “I’m always looking for a new angle and something funny to keep my name and the name of the Bunny Ranch in the national media,” Hof told the Reno Gazette Journal in 2005.

This quest for the limelight was achieved for some time through exposing legal full-service sex work. However, it recently took a political turn with Hof winning the Republican spring primary for a seat as an assemblyman. His name is to remain on the upcoming November ballot for the Nevada Assembly, and many are saying he is set to win, despite being dead. With him running on a Republican ticket, conservatives are still likely to vote for him so as to ensure a Republican gets appointed to the seat afterwards.

Much of the coverage of his death is fixated around one question that everyone seems to be asking: are his brothels continuing operation, and if so, under whom? Madam Suzette (Suzette Cole) is reported to be receiving Hof’s brothels but, even with the inheritance, the Nevada system has several requirements in place that will need to be met before she can run them legally. In fact, the Love Ranch brothel was shuttered shortly after his death. Hof’s executive assistant, Zack Hames, appears confident in moving forward with the operation of Hof’s brothels, commenting that “it’s business as usual.” Other coverage has focused more on the polarized reactions to his passing, illustrating how while some are celebrating it, others are deeply grieving his loss. This split is highly visible in the sex work community.

The Worst Sex Work Headlines of 2014

image via Library of Congress

From Belle Knox to working the World Cup, the headline writers of the world’s publications had cause to write many headlines about sex work. In chronological order, we bring you the worst ten of the bunch, each gross, reductive, and hateful in its own special way.

I Begged For Change To Stay Out Of The Sex Industry,” XOJane, Feb. 6 2014

XOJane’s “It Happened To Me” feature is generally offensive (“It Happened To Me: I Had First World Problems”) but this edition might take the cake. A lot of bad things happened to this woman while she was impoverished, but her equivocation over whether or not to become a high end escort after watching Secret Diary Of A Call Girl wasn’t one of them.

Welcome Home, Daddy, I’m A Porn Star!” The Daily Mail, Mar. 10 2014

We know the Daily Fail isn’t exactly known for its rigorous journalism, and they are in the business of aggregation, so it’s not surprising that they had the single worst headline about Belle Knox.

Sex Workers Are Excited For The World Cup Because They Think It Will Make Them Rich,” The Atlantic, Apr. 15 2014

Sex workers are realists, and painting Brazilian workers as naive dreamers with Pretty Woman fantasies featuring dollar wielding American white knight clients does them a grave disservice.

Why Do So Many Leftists Want Sex Work to Be the New Normal?” The Nation, Apr. 21 2014

It’s news to us that SO MANY leftists want that, but it would seem that wanting rights for all workers should be a part of any decent politics. Katha Pollitt really goes in on the “the sex workers we hear from are all too privileged to be credible!” theme here, not realizing that her example of a New Inquiry-contributing, grad-school attending sex worker has a story that doesn’t back up her thesis.

Tech-Savvy Prostitutes Trade Pimps for Web Pages,” NBCNews.com, Jul. 11 2014

It’s a story straight out of 2007: Sex workers use the internet to advertise!

The Erasure of Maya Angelou’s Sex Work History

A young, beautiful Maya Angelou with Langston Hughes, not long after her career as a sex worker—guess she didn't think his joke was that funny? (Photo via mayaangelou.com)
A young, beautiful Maya Angelou with Langston Hughes, not long after her career as a sex worker—guess she didn’t think his joke was that funny? (Photo via mayaangelou.com)

As Black History Month draws to a close, we thought revisiting Peech’s seminal essay on Maya Angelou would be appropriate. 

Dr. Maya Angelou, American Poet Laureate, most famous for authoring I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, passed away at age 86 on May 28th, 2014. Her literary agent Helen Brann confirmed the news to press, and thus began a worldwide outpouring of grief. The top trending tag on Twitter was “RIP Maya Angelou” and, at the time of this writing, it is one of four Maya Angelou-related trending hashtags. She is hailed as a national best selling author, a genius, a spiritual God-, Grand-, and mother. She is lauded as everything Black women should aspire to emulate in life. So why is it very few of us know she was a sex worker in her youth? Why is it, even in her death, as in her life, it’s such a guarded secret? Why was this secret kept by seemingly everyone except Dr. Angelou herself?

We can, once again, boil it down to respectability politics and stigma. I am angry about it. I find myself ruminating, considering, wondering: If her work had been talked about as much as her dancing with James Baldwin or even her considerable, commanding, and lovely height of six feet, what would the sex work community look like today? If we had talked about her wonderful compassion for sex workers, how she never looked down on them, and her refusal to be intimidated by invasive and obnoxious questioning about her sex working past, what would sex workers around the world be saying today in memory of her life?

Instead, we read post after post, obituary after tribute, calling her a “pimp” and saying she had “an unsuccessful stint as a prostitute.” The most detailed accounts currently online are making sure to emphasize that she spent a “brief stint,” a “short time” in the sex industry, so as to, without explicit words, solidify the shame they believe she should have felt, the shame we should feel as well. The media uses inflammatory terms to get clicks and to emphasize the terrible and shameful secret that was, in actuality, never a secret at all.

Dr. Angelou herself says she was never ashamed.

How Did Mary Mitchell Blame The Victim And Still Get Published?

(Photo by Flickr user quinn anya)
(Photo by Flickr user quinn anya)

Content warning: this piece contains discussion of sexual violence.

By now, most reading this are probably familiar with Mary Mitchell’s Chicago Sun-Times column in which she editorializes that sex workers are responsible if they are raped, for they willingly put themselves “at risk for harm”—as if the rape of a sex worker is an occupational hazard much the way a lifeguard should expect to get wet. I would expect this type of pettiness in an anonymous online comment, not from a seasoned and respected columnist on the payroll of a major newspaper. While the views in Mitchell’s column are not rare, it is troubling to see them endorsed by the Sun-Times, suggesting the paper is more concerned with publishing a sensational, illogical, and callous opinion than it is with the harm done by reinforcing such stigma.

Mary Mitchell grew up in Chicago housing projects, and she is considered by many as an authority on race relations in Chicago. One would think Mitchell would be sympathetic to the marginalized depictions sex workers face in the media. It’s disappointing that a prominent journalist who has worked hard to call attention to inequity in her city would so eagerly discount the violent rape of a sex worker as a mere “theft of services.”

I suppose her daftness on the subject of sex work shouldn’t come as a surprise. In a column earlier this summer, Mitchell gushed over anti-Backpage lobbyist and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s letter to Visa and MasterCard asking the credit card companies to block payments to the sex work advertising website. Mitchell also repeatedly mentions Backpage in her recent column. Her use of a quote from Dart is disconcerting: “They go on the Website and meet at a hotel or people’s houses. Things can get very volatile,” he tells her, keeping in line with a victim-blaming narrative framing assaults against sex workers all too often. One has to wonder if Mitchell would have found it worthwhile to write on this crime at all if shutting down Backpage wasn’t such an important crusade for Tom Dart. Is the rape victim sex worker somehow more blameworthy in Mitchell’s eyes because she advertised on a website that has come under so much scrutiny? Hardly a week goes by in which the Sun-Times doesn’t give coverage to Dart and his war on sex work, never failing to mention Backpage. In contrast, commentators elsewhere, including editorialists at the city’s other daily paper, the Chicago Tribune, criticize the sheriff for far exceeding his authority.