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Lonely Little Red Umbrella: Sex Workers’ Rights in the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Pledge Hearing

A lone red umbrella at the Supreme Court for the hearings on the anti prostitution loyalty pledge. (photo courtesy of  Chi Mgbako and the Leitner Center?)
A lone red umbrella at the Supreme Court for the hearings on the anti prostitution loyalty pledge. (photo by Rebecca Iwerks, courtesy of Chi Mgbako )

On April 22nd, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc. concerning whether the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath (APLO), written into the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), violates the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The contested legislation is the U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003, or the Global AIDS Act, which states that no funds made available by PEPFAR “may be used to provide assistance to any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.” In August 2005, DKT International, a nonprofit working to improve access to reproductive health services in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, filed a lawsuit against USAID, challenging the anti-prostitution requirement. The case, DKT v. USAID, won in lower district courts, temporarily keeping the enforcement of APLO away from U.S. organizations; however, in February 2007, the U.S. Circuit Court reversed this ruling. In September 2005, the Alliance for Open Society International, Inc. (AOSI) filed a similar suit against USAID. This case was accepted by the Supreme Court in January 2013.

The Anti-Prostitution Pledge is an example of U.S. commitment to moral ideology over public health. Sex worker activists on Facebook organized the Red Umbrellas at the Supreme Court demonstration for this hearing.

Addendum: At the time of publication, the Supreme Court had just struck down the PEPFAR Pledge as of one hour ago. However, this editorial’s point still holds: OSI should have held a stronger stance on decriminalization, and there is still much work to do for sex worker activists to push forward from the momentum of this court decision.

There were only two red umbrellas in front of the Supreme Court, in spite of eager support on the Facebook event page. Actually, one of these red umbrellas was striped: only half-red and half-white, a last minute compromise during a rushed subway scramble. As described in Melissa Gira Grant’s article in The Nation, even these two unassuming umbrellas were folded away and stuffed like contraband beer into organizer David Perez’s brown paper shopping bag. We stood on the Courthouse steps, behind a group of chipper public health advocates in yellow t-shirts. Our 9:00 AM meet-up time was inopportune, as we were a few dozen places late of a seat at the hearing. Umbrellas aside, we really left neither a visual nor numerical impression.

What Antis Can Do To Help, Part One: Aiding Those Still in the Industry

Image via Telegraph
Image via Telegraph

I am a sex worker who hates the sex industry. As an anti-capitalist, I hate all industries. It’s not quite as if I’d prefer another system in place of capitalism. If I had to describe my ideology in positive terms, I’d call it fatalistic socialism, which I define as the belief that socialism would be really nice if we wouldn’t inevitably fuck it up. (Maybe I’m a Voluntary Human Extinctionist.) However, just because I have no solution to the current state of affairs and happen to be a misanthrope of the highest degree, doesn’t mean I can’t keep my hate-boner for capitalism in general and the sex industry in particular.

I’m not alone in my hatred of the sex industry, of course. Sex work abolitionist feminists* (see note below) — or as they are often known, the Antis — are right up there with so many religious zealots, conservatives, liberals, anarchists, and ecofeminists in the anti-sex industry brigade. They’re known as “Antis” because they’re also anti-porn, anti-prostitution, and anti-sex work in general (and typically anti-kink, anti-transgender, and even anti-penetrative sex as well.)  A particularly perverse sort of second-wave radical feminists, Antis are a loose collection of mostly white, middle-class, able-bodied women from the Global North, the vast majority of who have never been in the sex industry.  Still, they make it their mission to eradicate the industry by “ending demand” for ALL sexual services, so as to free ALL women from coercive male sexuality.

I find plenty of their theoretical points (if not their attendant practical solutions) agreeable to my own ideology. The sex industry is about satisfying male sexual desire at the expense of female sexual desire. Its continued existence is predicated on the economic and sexual exploitation of women, particularly queer women, trans women, poor women, disabled women, and women of color.  But, just like I wouldn’t try to tear down capitalism and free all the “wage slaves” by burning down factories and leaving the workers jobless, I’m not going to destroy patriarchy and “save” myself and my fellow sex workers by scaring off—er, re-educating our sources of income. If sex work abolition succeeds, it will liberate millions of women (and men, third gender, and agender folks as well) right into homelessness.  Further, in the interim, advocacy for abolition results in the kind of social marginalization and shitty public policies that exacerbate the discrimination and violence we as sex workers face on a daily basis.

The Week In Links: April 1st

AdultCon by the numbers

India has already blocked the new .XXX domain.

Time covers Vallejo, California’s attempts to eliminate street prostitution. (Naturally, street prostitution is a “plague.”)

A Las Vegas artist enlisted strangers to interact with sex toys made in her body image “in an effort to mimic the kinds of interactions that sex workers have with their clients.” Because sex workers are just like disembodied silicon body parts.

South Africa may soon see a reality TV show dedicated to finding the best porn star.

Antigua lawmakers refuse to even entertain the idea of legalizing prostitution. A-holes.

Canada’s Supreme Court, however, agreed to hear challenges to its prostitution laws. And a huge coalition formed in Quebec to advocate for sex worker rights.

Minnesota may pass a law that stops prosecuting minors for engaging in prostitution.

Sadly, another body has been found that seems to have been the victim of the (still at large) Long Island serial killer who targets prostitutes. Meanwhile, in the wake of finding the bodies of two (former?) prostitutes, Memphis police are denying that they have a serial killer on their hands.

We’re Not Crazy For Doing This: Sex Workers With Mental Illness

“Patients Waiting To See A Doctor, With Figures Representing Their Fears” by Rosemary Carson (via wikimedia)

Most people have some form of a lurid narrative about drugs, exploitation, childhood abuse, and mental illness come to mind when they imagine the life of a sex worker. However, sex workers’ relationships to their identity are far more complex and difficult to characterize than that trite narrative allows for. When it comes to sex workers who do live with the stereotypical trope of also having a mental illness, it becomes even more essential to uncover what these sex workers themselves have to say about their lived experiences of that mental illness and sex work.

People diagnosed with mental illness frequently have their decisions invalidated and undermined by the dominant culture. Many individuals who do not have much experience with mental illness will attribute any socially unacceptable behaviors to “mental illness.” In much the same way, people who have never been in the sex industry tend to sideline the decisions of sex workers by inferring that trauma or abuse must have predestined them to a life in the sex industry. When people who are neither mentally ill nor in the sex industry say these things, they are robbing us of our ability to exert agency.

Amber, a full-service worker from Washington DC, states, “I very strongly believe that the way that society treats sex workers, mentally ill people and other marginalized communities (that often intersect)…[is] based on kyriarchal/patriarchal, colonialist, and capitalist systems of control. In order to treat marginalized people better, I think we all have a lot of work to do regarding the unlearning of certain stigmas and stereotypes.”

The presence of stigma is one the key aspects of institutional violence keeping communities and individuals subjugated. It proliferates because it benefits those in power in this way. Stigma creates legal and moral justifications for the criminalization of sex work in America. It also creates an environment in which mentally ill people can be stripped of their rights through court-ordered institutionalization, coerced medication, and the assignation of relatives as proxies to control them legally and financially. The disqualification of the decision-making abilities of communities on the margins is a weapon of the oppressor.

Tara Johnson, a stripper from Portland, Oregon, elaborates on the ways in which decision making can be invalidated based on association with the sex industry, especially if one also has a diagnosis of mental illness: “Just because I’m (sometimes) crazy, doesn’t mean I’m wrong. My sex work was not me acting out, or indulging in yet another form of self-harm. It was nothing that entitles people to belittle my full humanity. It’s nothing that automatically means that mentally ill sex workers, especially ones who may have other issues too (drug use, etc.) should automatically be deprived of the rights that privileged, able-bodied civilians are entitled to.”

Sex work is not a dysfunctional behavior stemming from our disease. Rather, it is often the best choice we can make to adapt to our mental illness. In truth, many people with mental illness find sex work helpful in a variety of ways as an occupational choice. It gives us a less rigorous schedule which allows for more emotional instability. Sex work can also affirm us as something we can excel at when mental illness has hindered our success in more traditional pursuits.

Quote of the Week

[I]n a culture trashy with raunch yet clenched with righteousness, the sex worker persists and insists. She is lamented by some feminists, lauded by others, lectured by religious groups, legislated by governments; monitored by health services, spurned by mortgage brokers, envied or condemned by friends, invited to write memoirs by publishers, assisted by outreach services; must live under one name and work by another. The main part of this list is in passive voice, for this is how people often see the prostitute: a passive dupe. […]

This a crux of the matter: who speaks? Who knows? Is a sex worker herself the best arbiter of whether or not she is degraded, or is judgement better offered forensically from afar?

Kate Holden on Sex Work and Feminism