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Charlie Sheen Is No Poster Boy

We're not intoxicated. (Photo by Tim Marshall via Flickr)
We’re not intoxicated. (Photo by Tim Marshall via Flickr)

In his Today Show interview revealing his HIV diagnosis, well known actor Charlie Sheen insisted that he no longer feels the stigma associated with HIV. In a predictably hypocritical manner, he made this proclamation mere minutes after he perpetuated the stigmatization of sex workers—interviewer Matt Lauer quoted the open letter he’d posted to his fans in which he called sex workers “unsavory and insipid types” and Sheen confirmed his written statements.

Quick to cast himself as the victim and the sex workers he saw as villainous temptresses, he claimed his public statement was made in response to one blackmailing sex worker who threatened to disclose his status. Sheen complained, “What people forget is that that’s money [blackmailers are] taking from my children.” As opposed to the millions of dollars Sheen spent in the past 35 years on sex workers that could also have gone to his kids? Apparently, that money is entirely different.

Sheen tarred all sex workers with a black brush based off of the actions of the one sex worker who threatened to out him. Considering the high number of sex workers he hired, it’s unfair to call any of us “unsavory” whores. If anything, all the sex workers Sheen frequented who said nothing about his status for years demonstrate the high value we place on client confidentiality in this industry. But by painting sex workers as unethical, Sheen got to proudly proclaim himself stigma free, as we bear the brunt of stigma for him.

WTF, Backpage?

A screenshot of Backpage’s New York City escorting page as of 1/12/2017.

We all knew it was coming. With California Attorney General Kamala Harris filing a second set of multiple charges of pimping and money laundering last month against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, and with Ferrer and his shareholders’ Senate hearing coming up last Tuesday before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, plus the trafficking hysteria-fueled media scrutiny Backpage had been under over the past couple of years—well, let’s just say that few of us were buying Backpage credits in bulk anymore. But most of us expected that the government would find some way to stop Backpage’s adult ads operation, however legally unlikely that might seem after years of efforts to do just that by law enforcement zealots. (After all, the California State Superior Court spanked Harris pretty hard verbally in last month’s decision on her first set of Backpage charges, reminding her that the Communications Decency Act specified that third party sites were not liable for their posters’ illegal content. And on Monday, the Supreme Court stated it would not hear an appeal on a similar Backpage case.)

But what actually ended up happening is that on Monday night, a few hours after the publication of a Senate report accusing Backpage of editing ads to minimize evidence of trafficking, Backpage execs decided to shutter their U.S. adult ads themselves as a free speech protest. Where the ads had once been, the site announces that they are “censored” by the government in a loud red font. Visitors are encouraged to speak out in support of the martyred site by using the hashtags #FREE SPEECH #BACKPAGE on social media.

That night, us sex workers collectively panicked, wondering how we would survive this month with no well-established national advertising site to garner low-end to middle-end escorting clients.

As usual, when powerful institutions decide to use the sex work debate for symbolic ammunition, it’s sex workers who suffer horrific real life consequences. Here, two competing neo-liberal agendas are clashing, indifferent to the material plight of the sex workers caught between them.

Who’s The Victim: The Tragedy of Latesha Clay

Latesha Clay cries at her sentencing. (Screenshot from MLive video of the sentencing.)
Latesha Clay cries at her sentencing. (Screenshot from MLive video of the sentencing.)

Content warning: This piece contains general discussion of child sexual abuse.

Reading about the plight of Latesha Clay, the child in Grand Rapids, MI sentenced to nine years in prison after being used as live bait in a robbery scheme, the thing that struck me was the use of the word “victim.” Of course, referring to Latesha Clay as a victim of human trafficking and the rampant racism of the criminal justice system makes sense. However, in this case, the 15-year-old mother is being painted as a villain. Every time I’ve seen the word “victim” used in relation to Latesha Clay, it’s been used to describe the men who responded to her Backpage ad, which featured the words “teen sex.”

To give you a quick rundown, in case you haven’t been exposed to this case in the media (and how could you have been? Almost all the coverage on it features the same news story that ran last October on a local crime blotter), Latesha Clay was used by two older teenagers, Trayvin Donnell Lewis, 18, and Monee Duepre Atkinson, 17, to lure men to their motel room. Both Lewis and Atkinson await criminal convictions, and like Clay, have both been charged as adults, though legally only Lewis is no longer a minor. Charging Black children as adults for crimes less severe than their white juvenile counterparts have committed is nothing new, but it is especially disheartening in the case of Clay, who, at 15, is a long ways off from adulthood.

Mlive, the website that initially ran her story, asserts that a man came to a hotel room expecting to have sex with a teenager. Upon arrival, he was greeted by Clay, who took the agreed upon payment and stepped aside. Lewis allegedly then came forward brandishing what investigators later said was an Airsoft pistol with the orange tip removed—not even a real firearm. He ordered him to the ground and requested the man’s money and cellphone. The older teens then allegedly forced the “victim” to drive to an ATM and withdraw a mere $300 before taking them back to the hotel. The teens also allegedly cleared the history from the victim’s cell phone.

After the man—unharmed except for his pride—called the police, a search of the hotel room turned up the three suspects as well as $650 in cash and the doctored Airsoft gun. Lewis is being charged with possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, even though an Airsoft gun was the only firearm found on premises. All three teenagers were hauled in and interrogated.

Something that stands out starkly in this case is the police department’s total exoneration of the men who were soliciting sex from a teenager over the internet in the first place. Kent County Undersheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young has gone on record assuring “robbery victims” that the department is not focused on investigating them for solicitation of prostitution in this case, urging them to come forward.

Defensive Punting?

Lawmakers in Colorado are proposing a way of educating men who buy sex from escorts. They’re billing it like a “Scared Straight” for hobbyists. But you know what a diversion program for busted Johns also sounds like? Traffic school. Maybe it will be eight hours long, have a brief lunch break, include a few sex trafficking equivalents of Red Asphalt, a shame workbook, and end with a multiple choice quiz. You know, because if only the guys spending money for pleasure knew that the women they were seeing were basically glorified comfort women, then maybe they’d think twice about it.

The fact that most of those guys are seeing women who participate in consensual sex work is probably not on the table, which bores me. YAWN, more evidence that people think we can’t consent to sex work, YAWN more evidence that people are cool with taking our agency away from us, YAWN more evidence that people think we couldn’t possibly want to have sex for money…

Anyway, I would love it if there were a school for Johns, but only if it were run by sex workers; Do you know how many grody men I have to point toward a shower because they showed up to a session without showering?

What Media Coverage of James Deen’s Assaults Means For Sex Workers

Stoya in 2012 at the AVN awards. (Photo by Michael Dorausch via Flickr)
Stoya in 2012 at the AVN awards. (Photo by Michael Dorausch via Flickr)

Content warning: this piece contains general discussion of rape.

I got a call from a reporter from Mother Jones the other day, her voice nervous. She was one of the many journalists who called the sex worker health clinic I work at, St. James Infirmary, looking for comments about the public sexual assault accusations made against James Deen over the past week.

She told me, “I’m learning about this world from this story, let me know if I say something wrong.” We tried in stops and starts to lay a groundwork of understanding about what Stoya’s tweets meant. It seems hard for people outside the industry to digest this story. This time around, most journalists seem to want to be survivor centered, and they want to be clear that they know a sex worker can be raped. But their understanding of the environment of porn is always one with contracts which, once signed, mean that anything can happen to you. Where all men on set are lurid in their gaze, and the sadistic domination they demonstrate is heartfelt and misogynist. It’s a world view in which porn shoots are a battle field where women try to keep as many of their boundaries up as possible.

For the survivors of James Deen whose stories are told and untold; for the sex workers whose perpetrators used the stigmatized environment of the profession to prey on their vulnerabilities; for the sex workers who have been assaulted and then continued to work, sometimes with the same person who assaulted them, because at that moment that was what they had to do to survive; this news cycle has been hell. The only thing more unrelenting than the new stories of James Deen’s violent misogyny cropping up every day is the understanding that these reports are only the tip of the iceberg, that there will be more stories of his attempts to “break women.”

There is a way in which these revelations are also exhilarating. I’ve never seen such public furor around the assaults of sex workers. It’s left everyone I know drained thinking, talking, or reading about it. Waiting to see what direction the narrative will take—will the news coverage continue to slant in favor of the survivors? What will the consequences be for Deen after the scandal of this story is dusted over by another? Will any long term systems be created to ensure worker safety, and will those be driven by performers themselves or placed on top by an outside enforcement agency?

These questions will take a long time to answer, but what is clear is the deep breath many took after Stoya’s two tweets were posted. It spread across my Twitter feed and it felt like witnessing a spell break. Arabelle Raphael said in an interview with Melissa Gira Grant that, “It was a big relief. Finally, someone had put it out there.”