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I hear a lot of supporters of the Swedish model say that the legislation does not target sex workers because we are not the ones who are criminalised by the laws. To me, this buys into a long history of treating sex workers like we exist independently of community, clients, family and other human beings. […] The main reason this is relevant to the Swedish model is that while the legislation does not specifically criminalise the sex worker, it criminalises everyone around the sex worker.

Most disturbingly, the strict pimping laws apply to people who live with sex workers (the good old ‘living off the earnings’ schtick) which may include partners and even sex workers’ children. There have been cases in Sweden already where sex workers have had their children charged with pimping because they were living with them and not paying rent. Anti sex work feminists, this is your legislation that you claim does not harm us. This is the danger of treating sex workers like we are not part of our communities and families. It is not feminist to support legislation that punishes women by targeting their children.

Hexy on Feministe explaining why the oft-championed “Swedish model” of criminalization still penalizes and endagers sex workers.

Shoplifting Safety: How Civilians Deny The Consent of Sex Workers

Mary Mitchell. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times, via Mitchell's Twitter feed)
Mary Mitchell. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times, via Mitchell’s Twitter feed)

Content warning: this piece contains discussion of sexual violence.

You may have read the recent editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times, an opinion piece in which Mary Mitchell argues that sex workers who are raped by a client are making a mockery of “real” rape survivors by even considering what happened to them to be sexual assault. Luckily, the majority of commentators discussing the editorial see it for what it is: a blatantly discriminatory piece of rape apologism. While the actual piece itself has been critiqued by multiple different authors and websites, the question of how sex work, sexual assault, and consent are related is a frequent topic in the discourse around sex work and its legality. Rather than stopping at simply declaring Mary Mitchell to be a peculiarly regressive quasi-feminist, it may be more helpful to examine the ways Mitchell’s views are actually in line with how most non-sex workers see our ability to consent.

Mitchell’s piece is filled with questionable reasoning and a variety of anti-sex worker phrases. She makes sure to allude to a victim narrative by mentioning “pimps” and “trafficking” (neither of which were present in this crime), but at the same time wishes to hold sex workers accountable for our own sexual assaults. Even more strangely, her qualifications of what deserves to be called “rape” (you know, “rape-rape”) seem inconsistent. She wants us to know that she doesn’t think women are responsible for their own rape if they “dressed too provocatively or misled some randy guy,” but seems to think that a man threatening a woman with a gun for sex is somehow not really sexual assault. What’s important for her is that we sex workers put ourselves in a situation which will obviously lead to sex: we’ve already consented by agreeing to take money. “It’s tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim,” she writes, because it’s clear the sex worker was going to consent anyhow. What is the difference between financial stability and not being shot to death, anyways?

It would be nice if Mitchell were the only person who thought this way, but unfortunately, the world is full of people with similar opinions. I’ve heard too many men joke, “If you rape a hooker, is it rape or shoplifting?” to read this as an isolated incident. And surely enough, there is at least one recent case where officials have dismissed sexual assault charges when a sex worker is the victim. In fact, the judge in that scenario, Philadelphia’s Teresa Carr Deni, used the same exact arguments that Mitchell did: calling the sexual assault of sex workers rape demeans real rape victims; it is actually more a “theft of services” (a direct quote from both Mitchell and the judge, incidentally).

Rather than an opinion held by particularly vicious bigots, I think this is actually a belief held by most non-sex workers, including many of our clients. Sex workers, in the eyes of many, are just people who are particularly lascivious, who get into sex work because they are that into having sex with lots of people. Almost every sex worker I know has a story of a client who thought that after one or two times of meeting, the sex worker would be willing to stop taking payment for their work; clients habitually try to barter us down on the presumption that we must be getting our own payment (in terrible sex). Even people who purport to be allies might hold this view: a non-sex worker who had worked on campaigns for decriminalization once asked me as I was heading off to meet a john they thought was particularly dangerous, “What is the thrill?”

In this view, our entry into sex work is a sort of broad consent: we’ve consented to whatever a client might do to us simply by being in the life. Any ability to individually consent to one round of sex is swept away, let alone the ability to consent to certain acts and not others. This is especially true for sex workers whose demographics are already highly fetishized as “always up for it,” like trans women or black women, and especially sex workers in both those demographics.

Going Negative In The Champagne Room: California Edition

Are California Republicans around just to make us appreciate how classy Philadelphia Republican strip club-themed ads are? Maybe! This little piece of work must be a parody, because there’s no way something like this gets taken seriously for a second. They’ve edited the face of LA city council member/congressional candidate Janice Hahn onto the body of a stripper surrounded by Black men who are holding guns and singing “Give me your cash, bitch/So we can shoot up the street/Give me your cash, bitch/So we can buy some more heat.” This is apparently based on her support for a Scared Straight-style program that worked with former gang members.

What Antis Can Do To Help, Part Two: Aiding Those Leaving The Industry

Stiletto by Massimo Dogana
Stiletto by Massimo Dogana

In case you missed it, read Part One here.

I am a sex worker who not only hates the sex industry, but, more often than not, sex work itself. At the very least, I am not the Charlotte York of Sex Work and the City; I didn’t set out on my current career path screaming, “I choose my choice!” Rather, I got here mostly through a series of shitty happenstances primarily relating to my mental illness.

I’ve been crazy for the entirety of my life, but I managed my poor mental health well enough for most of it. In what should have been my last year of college, my overall health rapidly declined, aided by a series of sexual assaults. I might have been able to continue school part-time, but the conditions of my scholarship meant that I would lose the remaining $20,000 if I couldn’t manage twelve credits at once. So I chose to take some time off from college and work instead.

I searched for a job for five months. I sent out dozens of applications and got rejected repeatedly, including from being a hostess at restaurants. Given that my peers with BA’s were now desperately applying to the same low-wage jobs, the fact that I was unemployable without a degree shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I might have joined those peers in returning home for a while in debt and defeat, except that I don’t really have that option. I grew up with an abusive father, and I spent most of my teen years dealing with child protective services and the family court system. And so, with two weeks left until I’d have to either move back in with my father or become homeless, I chose to answer an ad on Craigslist about becoming a dominatrix.

That was eighteen months ago, or approximately five years in sex work time. Since then, my health has gotten even worse. I wouldn’t be able to work a full-time job now even if I could find one, so I continue on as a pro domme—a pro switch, actually. I’m pleased to say that the work has proved more enjoyable than I originally anticipated. It’s intellectually challenging, creative, and occasionally fun. Unfortunately, any enjoyment I get out of it is overshadowed by the risks it entails. I’ve already dealt with almost every kind of nastiness at my job, from verbal abuse to grand larceny to petty wage theft to yet more sexual assault to the constant threat of arrest (some things pro switches do are more legal than others). My welfare has improved since transitioning to independent work, but I still spend far too much time worrying about my physical, emotional, and financial security in this job. I want out of this business, sooner rather than later. But I fell stuck for a lack of other options.

Mine is exactly the kind of situation that anti-sex work feminists claim to want to remedy. Their plan for helping me, though, involves not much more than “ending demand” for my services. Even if that were an achievable goal, it would leave me back where I was eighteen months ago: unable to pay rent. Any solution to my dilemma and to the dilemmas of so many sex workers who feel trapped in our work to varying degrees will be far more complex than eliminating our clients. It will need to be systemic and holistic. It will need to attack multiple issues at once, and it will need to be spearheaded by sex workers.

When Will It Be #TimesUp For Rapist Cops? #MeToo And Sex Workers

Content warning: This piece contains general discussion of sexual assault and state violence. 

Last week, Time Magazine published a story about sex worker exclusion from the #metoo phenomenon. Sex workers are a criminalized population vulnerable to sexual assault, composed of people oppressed in many intersectional ways, so the inaccessibility of this newly popularized movement against rape and harassment is particularly egregious. At worst, it seems that only privileged women have access to an individualized #metoo movement. At best, sex workers are told they should have their own separate-but-equal movement in a manner which reinforces popular misconceptions about the sexual violence we face as intrinsic to sex work and our clients rather than stemming from stigma and the state.

In reality, much of the abuse and violence sex workers face comes from institutions like the police. This makes participating in a sex worker #metoo difficult since it entails calling abusers in positions of power to account.

Police are guilty of routinely targeting marginalized women and raping them. They prey on women whose allegations against police are rarely taken seriously. These women include sex workers (especially street and survival sex workers), women of color, trans women, and drug-using women—most often, women who are part of many or all the above groups. We are told to stand up for ourselves and report sexual assaults to the police, but when the abuser is the police, it becomes impossible to report it. A Brooklyn teenager tried to report a sexual assault committed by two police officers. Nine officers showed up en masse at the hospital she was in to convince her not to do a rape kit. Predatory police officers are commonly simply shuffled from one department to another when suspected of sex crimes.

In Alaska, the police are allowed to engage in sex acts before arresting a sex worker. This system of rape-as-entrapment results in only the provider being arrested. In Oakland, police officers had sex with an underage sex working teen in exchange for information about future busts. Only three of the men involved were convicted and the victim was sent away by the department to an out of state rehab facility in an attempt to shut her up. NYPD officer Raul Olmeda was paid to investigate sex trafficking. Instead, he paid an underage girl for sex and filmed their numerous encounters. It took seven months after police seized his computer for charges to be filed against him. A Phillipsburg police officer demanded free sex from two Backpage providers, threatening arrest. The officer, Justin Sanderson, had a history of sexual harassment at other law enforcement jobs and yet he was still able to gain employment in Phillipsburg. When sex workers get in trouble, we are not as immune to consequences as Sanderson was—when we are arrested, our records are tainted and we are not able to skip from job to job. This is one of many reasons why the threat of arrest has historically been very effective for rapist cops to wield against sex workers. Ex-Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw assaulted 13 Black women and young girls, many of them drug-using sex workers and almost all possessing records. It was only because the thirteenth Black woman he assaulted had a clean record and friends within the police department that the other twelve women’s reports became credible. It’s rare that officers are held accountable for being sexual predators the way Holtzclaw was. The majority of police departments do not have a training program for on-duty police officers to teach them to avoid sexual misconduct toward citizens, let alone ones training them to behave themselves appropriately specifically towards sex workers.

Confronting this police abuse is next to impossible for sex workers. Some of us have been arrested after police engaged in sexual activities with us. Some of us have been raped by cops who threatened us with arrest if we spoke out. Some of us have been assaulted and bullied by men posing as police officers. Police harassment can literally ruin our lives. Early last November, a migrant Brooklyn sex worker died jumping out of a window in order to avoid being re-arrested and deported during a brothel raid, after local cops carried out a campaign of terror to pressure her into becoming a confidential informant. The police are major perpetrators of violence against sex workers, whether as abusive individuals or as an oppressive system of state violence, and most of us are not in a position to speak out against them.

Judges also hold prejudices against sex workers. In Philadelphia, Judge Teresa Carr-Deni reduced a gang rape charge to “theft of services”, leaving the sex worker victim without justice. Several states make sex workers ineligible to receive rape victim compensation funds due to the criminalization of our work. In Indiana, for example, “a victim who was injured while committing, attempting to commit, participating in or attempting to participate in a criminal act” is ineligible for victims’ compensation.

When the entire apparatus of law enforcement and criminalization contributes to sexual violence against sex workers, it’s difficult to understand how an individualized, neoliberal movement like #metoo has become can help. Standing up against specific abusers, however powerful they are, cannot do much when an even more powerful system continues to create the conditions of our abuse. While the Time piece does devote a few paragraphs to police sexual abuse of sex workers—most notably, referencing the results of a 2016 Department of Justice report on the Baltimore police which found that the department ignored sexual assault reports made by sex workers and many officers raped sex workers after threatening incarceration—what it and other mainstream media reports on the topic miss is that criminalization and state violence are responsible for the particularly vicious rape culture we sex workers live with. When will it be #timesup for rapist cops—or for a criminal justice system which legitimizes that rape as an investigation technique and would rather jail us and reward our abusers?