Prostitution

Home Prostitution

A Tidal Wave, Not A Fire Hose: Access To Condoms In New York And Why It Is Important To Decriminalization Struggles

(Image from the film: Advocating in Albany, (No Condoms as Evidence), Red Umbrella Project)
(Image from the film: Advocating in Albany, (No Condoms as Evidence), Red Umbrella Project)

I’m a community organizer for Red Umbrella Project, and for the past year and a half I’ve been one of the leaders in the struggle to ban the use of condoms as evidence of all prostitution-related offenses in New York. We recently had a great victory in this campaign with a NYPD directive issued that bans the use of condoms for three misdemeanor offenses: prostitution, loitering for the purposes of prostitution, and prostitution in a school zone. Unfortunately that still excludes most prostitution-related offenses which, while targeted at clients, managers of the sex trades, and human sex traffickers, all too often are an initial charge filed against those doing sex work, especially transgender women of color. So our battle continues. But I feel it is important to clarify for people in the sex trades around the world why it is that we as a peer-led group by and for people in the sex trades place such great importance in this issue. While some may say that advocacy of any goal short of the decriminalization of all prostitution laws is selling out, the decriminalization of condoms opens the door for greater possibilities in organizing around other decrim efforts both in New York and elsewhere.

Handcuffs empower no one. Red Umbrella Project knows, from the arrests and incarcerations of our comrades, family, and friends, that the criminal justice system is toxic to the lives of people in the sex trades, especially those most marginalized within it. All too often sex work criminalization goes hand-in-hand with the criminalization of trans women and queer youth of color, undocumented people, and low-income women of color. Believing strongly that a peer-led model personally empowers the lives of people in ways that even the most progressive justice system cannot, we oppose the tearing apart of our communities by arrest and incarceration.

I Did Not Consent To Being Tokenized

Do not use our passive bodies as props for your agenda (Photo by Anton Marcos Kammerer, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)
Stop using our passive bodies as props for your agenda. (Photo by Anton Marcos Kammerer, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

I am a sex worker who was coerced into doing work I felt violated by, and I am horrified by SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Reactionary Feminists) who insist that all sex work is by nature coerced and non-consensual.

Recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing rise in anti-sex work rhetoric that rests on the premise that all sex work is coerced. The proponents of this claim argue that because the workers may need the money and thus feel unable to turn down a proposition they are uncomfortable with, sex work encounters are always non-consensual. As far as they are concerned, if money is involved, sex can never be consensual. They claim that by promoting the criminalization of all forms of sex work, they are “protecting” sex workers and engaging in “feminist solidarity” with us.

I’ve already seen a number of brilliant sex workers debunking this argument: by discussing their own consensual sex work experiences, by pointing out that all professions involve money and thus a potential for coercion or abuse of workers, and so on. Tits and Sass contributor Red wrote a particularly interesting piece on her tumblr in which she notes that she finds the term “constrained consent” a far more accurate term than “coerced consent.” All of those points are valid and important, if often ignored by the audience they’re intended for.

But I’ve noticed one perspective missing from the discussion: that of someone who was sometimes unable to consent to sex work, and is harmed by those who would tokenize that experience and devalue the experiences of other sex workers. After seeing my experiences casually commandeered by SWERFs as a talking point, I’ve decided to speak up.

An Excerpt From Pros(e), Issue #1 (2012)

Prose1Pros(e) is the Red Umbrella Project’s literary journal, which collects and publishes the writings of participants in their writing workshops. The first Becoming Writers Workshop, which took place in Fall 2012, resulted in this first edition edited by Melissa Petro. You can buy the print and e-book versions of Pros(e) here. They will be running a spring session of the memoir workshop, in-person class in NYC and online. Applications will become available on Feb 19th.

The following is an excerpt from the piece “Notes from the Red Room”, by Kelley Kenney. Kelley Kenney is the nom de plume of a writer and off-and-on sex worker living in New York. This is her first publication, although she’s been keeping journals privately for over twenty years.

I had one session yesterday, at 5:30 . He was a Clark Kent, bespectacled banker dude to the outside world;  pocket Lothario in the Red Room. “Feel that big hard cock,” he instructed me. “Is this cock big enough for ya?” I looked at it. It was certainly medium-sized, and not skinny. I wasn’t sure if it had been a rhetorical question, like when people say “hot enough for ya?” or if he expected a thought-out response. I was momentarily confused, looking at his wielded appendage. “Yes,” I replied, with certainty. It was big enough for me. I dared myself to touch his wedding ring in a way he would notice, thinking of what I wrote yesterday. Doing so was like licking a frozen flagpole, or touching Boo Radley’s house. A dare. I hoped I didn’t smear lube on it. That silicone stuff can be such a bitch to clean off.

The Amsterdam Window Protest: The War Continues

Sex workers and allies at the April 9th Amsterdam protest. (Photo by Robin van Lokhuijsen, courtesy of Felicia Anna)
Sex workers and allies at the April 9th Amsterdam protest. (Photo by Robin van Lokhuijsen, courtesy of Felicia Anna)

On April 9th, over 200 Amsterdam sex workers and their supporters protested the closing of legal sex businesses in the Red Light District by the city council. The demonstration consisted of a march from the Amsterdam Red Light District to city hall, where the protesters handed a letter to the mayor demanding the reopening of their closed workplaces and the active participation of sex workers in the city’s policy regarding their jobs.

Project 1012

Amsterdam has closed down at least 109 windows already as part of Project 1012, an initiative to bring the number of legal window workplaces down by 40% from 476 to 284. Project 1012, named for the Red Light District area code, is a massive gentrification project aimed at ridding Amsterdam center of “low value” businesses like marijuana coffee shops and the windows.

Government officials consider closing down legal work locations for sex workers an effective measure to prevent trafficking because they believe these businesses to be “sensitive to criminal activity” (“criminogeen” in Dutch, a new word invented solely to justify this policy) simply because they are part of the sex industry. Ironically, even local police voiced a preference for reopening the windows in order to keep sex work legal and visible.

The demonstration, the first of its kind in the Netherlands, was facilitated by PROUD, a sex worker-led union that launched earlier this year. The letter they addressed to Mayor Everhard van der Laan, demanding that the city stop closing windows and reopen closed brothels, as well as actively include sex workers in the city’s sex work policy, was signed by nearly a thousand supporters, many of whom are Red Light District sex workers themselves.

The mayor dismissed the sex workers’ concerns by saying that “the war is over,” maintaining that the issue has already been concluded decisively. He asked the protesters, “You tell me in what other city sex workers can demonstrate in these numbers in the streets,” implying that sex workers should be grateful for the rights they already have. He also stated that the city had already decided to close down fewer brothels, though this policy decision was actually motivated by the city council’s desire to lower Project 1012’s 108 million euro budget.

Romance & Relationships: (Call) Girl Meets (Rent) Boy

This year, I’m spending Valentine’s Day with a guy who’s not my boyfriend (though I wouldn’t say that to him). I’ll be spending my evening at a stuffy French restaurant in Las Vegas, with a married, submissive man who’s several decades older than me, listening to him ramble endlessly about mergers and acquisitions while I pretend to care. Back home, my boyfriend, Tom, will be spending Valentine’s Day not dissimilarly, at a stuffy restaurant in San Francsico’s Castro District, with a gay, submissive man, who’s several decades older than him, listening to him ramble endlessly about mergers and acquisitions, while he pretends to care. Throughout the day, my real boyfriend and I will send each other funny texts about the weird things our “boyfriends” might do to impress us. He’ll pick me up from the airport tomorrow; we’ll both laugh and complain and commiserate about the tedious fake-romantic evenings we spent with our clients. We’ll talk and talk until one of us inevitably says, “oh my god, we have to stop talking about these people,” and then sex work will fade into the background again for a couple days, until one of us has to work again.