That Roving Band of Gypsy Whores…that Wasn’t

Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro

Hysteria Alert! We’re heading into another international sporting event, so the predictable, hysterical, and utterly fantastical stories about international sex trafficking are on the rise. We heard this claptrap about “sex tourism” two years ago when Brazil hosted the World Cup, when some NGOs claimed “40,000” women and girls would be involved. Time Magazine’s numbers were moderate compared to the exaggerations made by others. They claimed 250,000 children would be working the streets during the tournament—or one in every sixty-eight adolescent girls in the country.

Sex work is not illegal in Brazil, but citing the possibility of “child sex trafficking” before the Cup, police raided legal brothels, shutting them down and putting hundreds of adult women out of safe places to work while also undermining their own children’s economic well-being. Yet by the time Germany won in July 2014, there had been “no reports of sexual exploitation during World Cup that had to do with World Cup” according to the Conselho Titutlar for the city’s South Zone, “the organization that basically deals with all the accusations of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children.” Nor did the state Prosecutors Office pursue any cases of child sexual exploitation.

Brazil’s current economic and political crises have severely disrupted the lives of millions of workers, and brief weeks of the Olympics will not provide respite. Last week, I spoke with Thaddeus Blanchette, an anthropologist at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro/Macaé whose team has spent thousands of hours interviewing people in Rio’s sex trades since 2004. This year, there’s been “a perfect storm in sex work.” During the boom in Rio, women left the brothels to work in other industries, but since the 2008 crisis, they have returned to sex work. Everyone is complaining about the money. Blanchette interviewed a “high school teacher who just got laid off because of the economic crisis and another white secretary with half her university degree completed.” Both women were making three to four times as much as they had in previous their straight jobs, but that’s only “half of what they made before.” There are twice as many sex workers, and perhaps half as many clients. “Profitability is the lowest I’ve ever seen,” said Blanchette.

Rio’s downtown development in preparation for the Olympics has greatly shifted the population, so that the businessmen who used to patronize the upper-end clubs don’t stay after work. Instead, the “fast fadas”—a Brazilian word play on “fast food”—are doing better, largely because of the construction crews that have been working almost all day and all night. It’s also led to the displacement of sex workers—the real source of sex worker migration and those “roving” bands—who have moved into the Copacabana beach area, the heart of the tourist district. That’s where Centaurus (of Justin Bieber fame) is located. Yet since 2009, the city has tried to shut down the sex clubs and brothels with little success.

Still, the myths about roving bands of gypsy whores and trafficked girls during sporting events continue making the rounds, despite the best efforts of Brazilian activists and journalists elsewhere to challenge these fallacies. Catholic charities are telling tourists to report incidents of child sexual exploitation. (But please, folks, report only what you see in Rio, not in your own parish.) A sensationalist story in Rio de Janeiro’s O Globo newspaper about the police rescue/arrest of “child” prostitutes from a beach area in July was rewritten by Fox News and other rags to warn U.S. tourists. But the real story, as Dr. Blanchette explained, was more about impressing the media than child prostitution. Police arrested eight people, all of them black. Five were adult women and three were teenagers between the ages of fifteen and sixteen. No pimps or clients were arrested; in fact, there was no evidence that any of the minors was doing anything more than hanging out on a street corner in the evening with women a few years older than them in a faraway working class neighborhood where “gringo” tourists are highly unlikely. It’s also worth noting that the police official who spoke about the arrests, Cristiana Bento, is Rio’s own “S.U.V.” sex crimes investigator. Notably, Bento was already under fire after taking over a poorly handled police investigation of the brutal gang rape of a sixteen-year-old girl in May that roiled Brazil’s social media networks.

The Time Magazine and O Globo reports were cover-ups that distracted the public from the arrests in June this year of elite businessmen, politicians, and police officials who knowingly recruited and sexually exploited girls as young as twelve and thirteen years old for a high class “gentleman’s club” operated by the military police. The convictions of politically-connected men were extraordinary, but the media didn’t report it. Tracking both of these stories globally, Dr. Blanchette said, “The one bona fide case of child sex trafficking no one is talking about, but this case of young black women in a far, far suburb, becomes the story.”

In fact, as scholar Sonja Dolinsek writes, children in Rio faced greater risk of exploitation from the overlooked side effects of this hysteria. An “essential aspect…is the forced displacement of people and families from their homes in the context of the so-called ‘pacification’ of the favelas or slums. ‘Pacification’ is a police strategy carried out by military-style…to reduce crime, improve the public image of Rio de Janeiro and to secure the areas close to event sites.”

In sum, during the Cup as well as the Olympics, hysteria about sex trafficking was used to support aggressive, paramilitary policing of poor people of color, facilitating land grabs by developers who profited from forcing families out of their homes and sex workers out of their legal places of work. Where’s the outrage?

photo credit: Carol Leigh the Scarlot Harlot (CC)

“We ARE Organizing!” A Dozen Sex Workers’ Groups Not Named in the NYT Magazine

photo credit: Carol Leigh the Scarlot Harlot (CC)

photo credit: Carol Leigh the Scarlot Harlot (CC)

Over the last week and before the print edition appeared, Emily Bazelon’s cover story “Should Prostitution be a Crime?” for the New York Times magazine, sex workers and their allies were sharing and discussing it widely through Facebook, Twitter, and their blogs. I was thrilled to see people I know, activists I’ve admired and worked with, being given a national platform to have their say. This was and is a phenomenal media moment for the sex workers’ rights movement.

Yet, except for a throwaway nod to Margo St. James and COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and a minimal reference to the online sex worker weekly Tits and Sass, the article hardly mentions the many sex worker-led U.S. organizations, local and national, that seek to decriminalize prostitution and make the lives and work of sex workers safer. Though the portraits of sex worker activists are more diverse, the article does not acknowledge the racial, gender, and sexual diversity of the movement. Instead, and perhaps predictably – this is “white savior” Nicholas Kristoff’s platform after all – the article is framed as decriminalization advocates against abolitionists. More disturbingly, abolitionists are given organizational strength. Equality NOW, GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services) and the other promotors of harmful and hateful policies are spotlighted, almost as though the Times wants to ensure pearl-clutching concerned readers know where to send their money. Parenthetically, it seemed the Times’ anti-prostitution editorial staff designated the “NYT Picks” in the comments section because almost every one of them was against decriminalization.

Bazelon’s deinstitutionalization of the sex workers’ rights movement into a “fractious bunch” is a serious oversight. The many organizations currently active use many different strategies and take sometimes conflicting approaches to achieve a modicum of physical safety, civil rights and labor protections for people working in the sex industry. Those vigorous tensions, as I documented in Sex Workers Unite! A history of the movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk, would have given readers a much better understanding of the movement and its goals.

Almost everyone in the movement agrees abolishing laws that prohibit adults from earning money in exchange for consensual sex would be good, and they often cite the decriminalization of marijuana as the most recent example. But porn performers, strippers and other workers in the corporate legalized sectors of the sex industry are more affected by social stigma and whorephobia than criminal laws. This difference leads to diverse strategies: some seek to destigmatize “whores” through cultural projects, others believe the First Amendment or the Supreme Court’s decisions on sexual privacy are constitutional grounds for abolishing laws against prostitution. Many groups are providing non-judgmental harm reduction services to people wherever they are, services that provide vital health and safety interventions against HIV infections, drug overdoses and other dangers. Those differences make the movement vibrant, and it pushes activists to adopt intersectional analyses that address the multiple personal, financial, and social circumstances under which people decide to engage in sex work.

Listed below are a dozen sex workers’ organizations – create by and for sex workers – and what they do. Finding the websites for these groups isn’t difficult, but you’ll see more results by turning off “safe search” blocking. Even though these are registered with the IRS as non-profit organizations or advocacy groups, and the websites are “safe for work,” blocking algorithms tend to load anti-prostitution and anti-pornography websites, while suppressing links to sex workers’ rights groups.

The Red Umbrella Project (RedUP) brings the voices of people in the sex trades through storytelling, using their stories for policy advocacy and community organizing. A new documentary The Red Umbrella Diaries in which former and current sex workers read and stage autobiographical pieces about their lives, has been making the film festival rounds. Several stories were first published in RedUP’s Prose and Lore anthologies.

The Sex Workers Project, which is part of the Urban Justice Center in New York City, provided legal assistance and social services advocacy for anyone in the sex industry whether by choice, circumstance, or coercion. SWP attorneys pioneered a human rights approach to serving victims of trafficking in the courts, and their policy reports on sex work and human trafficking are grounded on clients’ real life experiences.

The St. James Infirmary in San Francisco opened in 1999 to provide non-judgmental holistic health care to current and former sex workers of all genders and sexual orientations as well as their family members. Their 290-page Occupational Safety and Health Handbook for people in the sex trades is an invaluable resource.

The Best Practices Policy Project (BPPP) researches policies affecting sex workers and people adversely affected by anti-prostitution policies, such as its 2015 report “Nothing About Us, Without Us: HIV/AIDS-related Community and Policy Organizing by US Sex Workers,” documenting the stigmas transgender women face when attempting to access medical care and the criminalization of their lives. (Full disclosure: I participated in this research.) BPPP with Desiree Alliance, and other sex worker groups have challenged the Obama Administration’s National HIV Strategy for its silence on the critical role of sex workers in preventing HIV. In 2010 and 2015, BPPP led the campaign to report the human rights abuses of sex workers in the U.S. to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. a nonprofit organization offering advice on and advocacy for men working in the sex industry, has extensive online resources, hosts “live chats” as well as in “Rent U” classes on current issues. Though HookOnline was not implicated in the widely denounced Homeland Security raids of in August 2015, the escort site provided much of the funding for its work.

The Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP USA) is undergoing a revival since the loss of its founder Robyn Few. With a national board as well as dozens of local chapters throughout the U.S., SWOP seeks to end violence against sex workers, develop new movement leaders, and provides assistance to those who have been persecuted by law enforcement. For people in need of crisis counseling, general support, referrals or information about safety and legal rights, SWOP USA operates a 24/7 hotline (877)-776-2004. Every year since 2003, SWOP has coordinated International Day Against Violence against Sex Workers on December 17th.

ESLERP (Sex Workers and Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project) has mounted quixotic class action lawsuit in the federal courts, claiming that the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, as well as in Obergefell requires the abolition of prostitution laws.

In Alaska, Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP) founded by Tara Burns, has successfully fought back against a 2012 state law that classified all consensual sex work as sex trafficking. CUSP’s report, documenting the lived experiences of Alaskan sex workers and policy recommendations that have changed law enforcement approaches to focus on crimes committed against sex workers including rape, intimate partner violence, extortion, and robbery. They are also lobbying for legislation that allow sex workers who are victims or witnesses of crimes to report them without fear of arrest.

Power Inside in Baltimore, founded in 2001, doesn’t look like a “sex worker” group because for many marginalized women and girls, working in the street economy is a survival strategy. Focusing on gender-based violence and incarceration by the “Jane Crow” criminal justice system, Power Inside assists with housing, reunification with their children, access to social services and leadership development.

Self-determination and self-sufficiency for drug users and sex workers in Washington, DC, is the goal at HIPS, founded in 1993. Showers, laundry, community lunches, and computer lab, as well as harm reduction supplies, housing assistance, and medical attention are available at their new onsite location; in addition, their mobile van services low-income neighborhoods almost every night of the week. HIPS hotline number (800) 676-4477 offers counseling and advice to anyone, anywhere.

SWOP Behind Bars, a new SWOP project, encourages people to donate books women’s prisons, building a nationwide network of sex worker-supported letter writing, and a newsletter to women in prison. More than one million women are incarcerated in the U.S. and the conditions – including prison libraries – are even worse than those in men’s prisons. Educational opportunities and post-release programs are practically non-existent, a form of sex discrimination that Margo St. James first fought in the 1970s.

Red Light Legal, a brand new non-profit organization founded by an attorney who put herself through law school by doing sex work, currently offers webinars to educate sex workers on legal matters. In the future, they will provide direct legal services and representation as well as engage in policy advocacy.

The Adult Performers Advocacy Committee was formed in 2014 by people working in the porn industry to oppose passage of California’s Measure B on the grounds that government regulations for workers’ health and working conditions should be decided by the appropriate state agency, not by voters in a ballot referendum.

Grassroots organizing to empower sex workers has been going on for a very long time. Women With A Vision in New Orleans has been doing just that for more than twenty-five years, the one group aside from Amnesty International, Bazelon cites.  As activist and blogger Renegade Evolution wrote almost a decade ago, “We ARE organizing, you’re just not paying attention.”

(This piece was first published by Beacon Broadside, 5/11/16)

Introducing the Front Porch Research Strategy

We’ve been keeping it quiet, but it’s time:

We believe

We believe

Announcing our new project, Front Porch Research Strategy this weekend, April 30, 2016 at the Anna Julia Cooper Center for the ‪#‎KnowHerTruths‬ Conference.

‪Our ‎Front Porch Research Strategy‬ begins at the intersection of service, activism, and research. Our work unfolds at the intersection of race, gender and sexuality in the Deep South. Our approach honors the political actions of African American women that began in their collective resistance to capture, trafficking and enslavement. We use an integrated, multidisciplinary research approach that centers on collaboration to unveil indigenous analyses, organize data, and inspire new processes and theories of change.

We call this “Front Porch Strategy” in honor of the long legacy of southern women building community, speaking truths, and crafting analysis in the interstices between street and home, between public and private. I’m honored to begin this adventure with Laura McTighe, Shaquita Borden, Deon Haywood, Mary Frances Berry, and the wonderful activists of Women With A Vision in New Orleans.

For me, it’s kind of a magical homecoming announce to announce this project at a place honoring the legacy of Anna Julia Cooper. Long ago as an undergrad, I began my intersectional work reading A Voice From the South, by a Black Woman from the South, AJC’s 1892 collection of essays. Few had heard of it then, but I found a first edition tucked away in the Smith College library and was hooked. (If you don’t know why, read this.)

Later as a master’s student in Washington, DC, I was fortunate to discover AJC’s “Third Step.” In the late 1920s as a retired DC public school teacher, *Doctor* Cooper, having earned her doctorate from the Sorbonne for her dissertation on slavery and the Haitian Revolution, became the president of Freylinghusen University, a night school founded to educate African Americans shut out of the elite Howard University. My first peer-reviewed article documented the Dr Cooper’s struggles with the DC Board of Education to keep this school open. And that article was published in 1984 in Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, now sadly defunct.

Anna Julia Cooper’s house in Washington, DC has the most magnificent front porch, a wrap-around masterpiece that one can easily imagine the Doctor sitting in, talking about revolutions then and now.

From Ben Shepard: on Rentboy Raids and Sex and Activism.
(With a shout-out to Monica Jnes and her new Etsy teeshirts) 


My Mother Kind of Freaked

My mother kind of freaked out when I told her about the book proposal for Sex Workers Unite! I never thought of her as a prude. When I was growing up, she rarely seemed embarrassed about sexuality matters, and her several non-traditional but heteronormative relationships definitely influenced my critique of the whole white picket fence family idea. But for her daughter to write about prostitutes’ rights threw her for a loop.

There are huge stigmas against sex work. For my mother, who came of age after World War II when the sexual double standard was as popular as drive-ins and girdles, embracing the women’s movement and sexual liberation of the 1960s was a radical rejection of her parents’ protestant conservatism. As a feminist, she rejects the idea that a woman’s sexual history is evidence of her worth or her integrity.

But sex work and the sex industry are another matter. For her, women “shouldn’t have to” be prostitutes; women should have education and employment opportunities and enjoy wage equality and childcare. My mother is also a successful businesswoman, a pioneer in a field that had very few women when she entered it in the early 1970s, rife with sexism, harassment and even sexual violence. She’s a feminist because the movement was supposed to liberate women through economic independence so they didn’t have to exchange sex for money or other support.

I don’t know any sex worker, male or female, who doesn’t support ending the wage gap between women and men, or better, a living wage for all workers. The sex workers’ movement has always spoken out again sexism, sexual harassment and sexual violence too. Sex workers with children understand acutely the burdens of organizing their care and the costs of raising children; indeed, they do sex work because they earn more and have flexible hours to care for their kids. My mother and Margo St. James, the founder of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, the first feminist prostitutes’ rights organization) were born only a few years apart; I think they would agree about a lot of things.

For all that Margo and COYOTE accomplished, sex worker activists today have other views about the movement’s direction. Their perspectives have been shaped not by the “bra burners” of the 1960s but by HIV/AIDS, immigration, the prison-industrial complex, gentrification and even the revival of burlesque. Sex workers have fought the war on drugs, educated clients and the adult public about sex and HIV prevention, and are challenging the anti-immigrant sex panicked rhetoric about human trafficking, and demanding #BlackLivesMatter and #TransLivesMatter. These are matters literally of life or death, of freedom or imprisonment, of empowerment or impotence.

Burlesque, Beyonce, and sex-positive feminism have helped to overcome some of the stigma against sex and sex work. Cultural attitudes towards the sex industry and alternative sexual expression have shifted, emphatically so in some areas of the U.S. Burlesque and boylesque performers, professional and amateur, enjoy titillating their audiences, celebrating the public display of the human body, while Beyonce declares herself “FEMINIST” in cut-to-there spangled high-cut briefs. Feminism is sexy.

The sex workers movement recognizes that no one “should have to” engage in prostitution because they have no other choice. That’s why activists are involved in efforts to change immigration laws, to provide safe, nonjudgmental health services to drug users and others at risk for HIV or impregnation. It’s why sex workers volunteer in shelters for battered women and for homeless lgbtq kids. It’s why they’re out protesting with Occupy and in Ferguson. But however narrow or wide the choices are for those who engage in sex work, stigmatization is violence.
Stigma remains and stigma kills. Slut-shaming, what my mother and Margo called the double-standard, can be found everywhere, online, in real time, in Tickfaw, Louisiana as well as San Francisco. Girls and queers are bullied by their classmates when perceived as sexual or otherwise transgressive. SlutWalk participants rightly denounced law enforcement procedures that question the “virtue” and integrity of female sexual assault victims. Transwomen of color are being murdered every week, but the media mis-genders them, suggests they had it coming because there bodies were found in areas “well-known for prostitution.”

Sex Workers Unite! is about sex workers who became political organizers and cultural activists to fight against stigma. “Brazen hussies,” “crack ‘hos,” “American gigolos” and “screaming queens” dare to believe that they deserve respect and human rights. These are stories about their many campaigns for justice.


The Origins of that 12 to 13 Age of Entry into Prostitution Factoid

For years, we have all been dogged by the “factoid” that the “average” age of entry into prostitution for girls is 12 to 13 years of age. As researchers who work with sex workers, and as sex workers, too, we “know” this can’t possibly be right. Anti-prostitution activists love to throw the “fact” into debates, yet when challenged, they too have difficulty citing any reliable source for their statistic.

I finally traced this “fact” to its source. The original academic article, “Victimization of Street Prostitutes,” was published in the journal Victimology in 1982 (7 [1982]: 122-133). The data came from research conducted by Mimi Silbert of the San Francisco Delancey Street Foundation and Ayala Pines of UC Berkeley, who interviewed 200 women and girls in SF, all of whom were Delancey Street clients. The authors note that the number of juveniles arrested for prostitution had “doubled” from 38 to 86 from 1976 to 1977. Still, this was 86 minors among more than 2,300 adult women arrested for prostitution in 1977. (FWIW, I was one of the women arrested that year. The SFPD and was engaged in a major crackdown at the time, especially in Union Square and the Tenderloin areas as developers had begun eying those neighborhoods. There were arrests across the entire /hetero/ sex industry: clubs, parlors, bars, hotels, streets, etc.).

The methodology section of the Delancey Street study states:
“200 juveniles and adults, current and former women prostitutes in the SF Bay Area served as subjects of this study. The mean ages of the subjects was 22. The youngest one was 10, the oldest 46. 70% of the current prostitutes were under 21; about 60% were 16 and under; many were 10, 11, 12, and 13 years old.
“78% of all the women interviewed reported starting prostitution as juveniles. 69% of them were white, 18% were black, 11% were Hispanic, 2% American Indian, 1% Asian, … [insert heteronormative assumptive data on marital/relationship status here]
“Despite the fact that two-thirds of the sample came from families of middle or higher income, the average financial situation of all women interviewed was described a ‘just making it.’ 88% of the current prostitutes and 92% of the juveniles described themselves as either ‘very poor’ or ‘just making it.”

It’s important to understand this data from a historical perspective. In 1977, the drinking age was 18. That meant that “juveniles” could work in strip clubs, serve liquor, and obtain a license from the city to work in a massage parlor or encounter parlor. (There were no educational requirements to receive a massage license at that time). A young person only had to show an ID stating she was 18. (And remember, this was when many states issued a driver’s license on paper, and did not necessarily include a photograph.)

Nowhere in the Delancey Street report is the term “juvenile” defined. There was (and remains) legal and social science obfuscation of this term, especially for females. An 18 year old woman is not necessarily viewed as an “adult.” Even at 21, rampant sexism meant that young, unmarried women were still considered “minors” who, though they could vote, could not sign a lease, get a credit card without a (male) co-signer.

The mean age in the survey group was 22 (n=200). If the researchers defined an “adult” as a woman over 21 years of age, then of course it would appear that “juvenile” prostitution is rampant, even though arrest statistics by the SFPD don’t support this assertion. Pines and Silbert claim that the ready availability of fake IDs meant that there were more juveniles arrested than the numbers suggest, but indoor parlor licenses were issued by SFPD, and were thus “verified” by the police, in those pre-internet times.

A second observation about the report and the academic article, and this is perhaps scarier from a social science perspective, the methodology in this study is the same one used in later studies, perpetuating the same biases. For example, Jody Raphael and Deborah L. Shapiro copied the methodology and even the survey instrument for their report on Chicago’s “prostituted women,” Sisters Speak Out (2002). This study also appeared later in the academic journal, Violence Against Women. (Raphael and Shapiro, “Sisters Speak Out: The Lives and Needs of Prostituted Women in Chicago; a research study,” [Center for Impact Research, Chicago, IL, August 2002]; Raphael and Shapiro, “Violence in Indoor and Outdoor Prostitution Venues,” Violence Against Women 10 (2004): 126-139.) Their work was challenged by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project (YWEP) which investigated “girls, including transgender girls in the sex trade and street economy” because they believed the numbers were skewed and the methodology flawed.

Third, the original report, issued in 1981, was conducted for and funded by Delancey Street mission, where Pines worked. It was conducted to justify the need for more funding from government and private donors. Pines and others would say that they were attempting to identify client “needs.” However, the recent investigations of “tragedy porn” stories circulated by Somaly Mam and other rescue missions should give us pause as the credibility of this research.

But finally, because I’m such a research-footnote-tracing nerd, it’s useful to know that the Pines & Silbert report didn’t actually have a lot of traction on its own. It is not the source most often cited in the 1980s when this “age of entry” entered the discussion. Unfortunately, it first appeared in public circulation in an essay by Priscilla Alexander, the co-director of COYOTE, in Sex Work, (Cleis Press, 1987, and 1998). Alexander was also the co-editor of the anthology with Frederique Delacoste. Indeed, in the first reviews of Sex Work published in the radical feminist newspaper off our backs, both reviewers cited that statistic.

The sad fact is that because the “factoid” appeared in a “pro-sex work” book, the antis seized on it, and began spreading it around. There’s another on our backs article, this one by Melissa Farley, “Prostitution: The Oldest Use and Abuse of Women,” (Vol. 24, No. 5 [May 1994], pp. 14-15, 22) that also uses Sex Work as its reference.


Twitter hashtag #NotYourRescueProject began as a small convo on January 2nd to challenge anti-trafficking activists who see all sex workers as victims in need of moral rescue to the exclusion of all other forms of labor trafficking. For the next ten days, sex workers tweeted their own truths and drowned out prohibitionist myths and lies. A Thunderclap of tweets landed on January 11th “Human Trafficking Awareness Day” demanding that anti-trafficking activists focus on freedom for “the millions of people who are trafficked each year, the children sold into debt bondage, the agricultural labourers who are raped and exploited, the fisherman trapped into working.”

Beacon Broadside posted a fact sheet, drawn from Sex Workers Unite,  to counter anti-prostitution rhetoric on January 4. It is excerpted below.

In 1990, health researchers estimated that one in one hundred US women has done some form of sex work during her lifetime. And yet, despite sex work being legal in fifty nations including Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Macau, the Netherlands, Austria, New Zealand, Israel, France, Germany, and England, the United States continues to be one of the few industrialized nations to criminalize prostitution. More than that, the US has actively worked to keep sex workers marginalized, and these discriminatory practices have placed them in harm’s way.

The dangers, unfortunately, are quite real. As gentrification pushed people in the sex trades and street economy out of city centers, zoning laws and “move along” ordinances have forced sex workers into isolated areas where they—and other marginalized people—are more susceptible to abuse by police and violent criminals. In the last four decades alone, more than 3,000 women who were or were perceived to be sex workers were killed by serial murderers. Criminologist Kenna Quinet identified 502 male serial murderers active in the United States between 1970 and 2009; she also identified 3,228 of their female victims. Nearly one-third (32 percent) had been engaged in sex work or street-based trades.

There are, however, signs that conditions might be improving… due to the sex workers themselves.

The first and most recognized sex workers’ advocacy group, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), was formed in May 1973 in San Francisco. COYOTE won several public policy victories in the 1970s to protect women and transgender people arrested on prostitution charges, such as the abolition of mandatory venereal disease tests, mandatory penicillin therapy, and multiday jail quarantines.

Now the fight has moved online, with sex workers around the world rallying around Twitter hashtags like #SexWorkIsWork and #NotYourRescueProject that advocate their struggle for legitimacy and safety while casting off the identity of victimhood that continues to plague them. ….

More facts about the struggle for sex workers’ rights:

  • As of 2010, half of all sex workers in the United States were employed, in one way or another, in the commercial sex industry, including: escorts, brothel workers, professional dominants, telephone sex operators, strippers, exotic dancers, sensual massage workers, webcam entertainers, porn models, adult film performers, and specialists of all types, genders, colors, shapes, sexualities, and fetishes.
  • In 1949, the United States voted against a United Nations convention calling for the decriminalization of prostitution when 48% of the UN endorsed it.
  • In 1967, in an effort to crack down on the drug market in Times Square and to force commercial sex businesses to tone down their advertising and merchandising practices, Governor Nelson Rockefeller issued that the maximum penalty for prostitution in New York State was fifteen days in jail for a two-year period. After loud protests from police and voters, prostitution became a Class B misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of ninety-one days.
  • In thirty-four states, prostitution is a felony if the sex worker is HIV-positive, regardless of the type of service performed or whether transmission to the client occurred.
  • The 1986 “Prostitute Study” was the first federally funded effort to focus specifically on AIDS among women.
  • Nevada was one of the first states to criminalize illegal sex workers with AIDS, and in March 1986, it was also the first state to adopt mandatory AIDS tests for brothel workers.
  • In 2005, President Lula da Silva rejected $40 million from the United States to fight AIDS because it came with the stipulation that Brazil’s government take a pledge against prostitution.
  • In 1999, the St. James Infirmary in San Francisco became the first occupational health clinic for sex workers.
  • In 2011, two billboard companies refused to accept public awareness ads for the St. James Infirmary created by Rachel Schreiber because by including the term “sex worker” St. James had failed to meet “community standards.”

Human Rights for Sex Workers: An Interview

This interview first appeared in The Beacon Broadside, December 17, 2013firstslutwalkTO

Melinda Chateauvert agreed recently to talk with us at Beacon Press about Human Rights Day and how important it is that the international campaign for human rights include sex workers, who have always been key activists in the struggles for gay liberation, women’s rights, reproductive justice, labor organizing, prison abolition, and other human rightsrelated issues.

Why is it important that human rights advocates include sex workers in their efforts and activism?

“Prettying up,” “normalizing,” or “sanitizing” the poster children (or martyred adult victims) of any movement means that the policy solutions will never address the people who are most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. It’s rather instructive, for example, how the mainstream of the immigrant rights’ movement places students, military veterans, and “hard-working” successful workers/business people at the forefront. (The same can be said about gay rights organizations too.) This makes them “worthy” and “deserving” of citizenship rights in the US. But what about immigrants who seek residency and asylum because they are transgender or gay or lesbian? Or who, once they arrive, find they cannot obtain “honest” work and turn to the sex industry to support themselves?

For the labor movement, organizing in the sex industry itself is certainly one focus for activism. But in truth, winning a living wage for workers everywhere would mean that a lot of workers could choose to leave the sex industry, especially those who moonlight to make ends meet while holding on to their “legitimate” day jobs.

How do sex workers rights relate to other global human rights issues?

1) Global democracy movements: Sex workers have the right to participate in government as voters, and as officials, elected or appointed.

2) HIV/AIDS: Sex workers are front line adult educators to prevent new HIV infections worldwide. They can only do so however, when government officials, health agencies and law enforcement recognize them as people who have these skills and bring them into the process, and, preferably, let sex workers determine the best harm reduction practices for themselves.

3) Immigration and migration in a globalized economy: People move from place to place looking for work and economic opportunity, for money to remit to their families back home. That women and men would move from place to place (from Lagos to Capetown to Amsterdam for example) to work in the sex industry should not surprise anyone. What should concern us however is that the criminalization of undocumented or un-permitted migration makes all migrants vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Without a visa or a passport, public officials as well as criminal traffickers can make the life of undocumented migrants hell.

Over the last few decades, sex workers have sought to reframe sex workers rights as a human rights issue. What are some of the steps they have taken?

Sex worker activists and advocates have historically called on lawmakers and the courts to decriminalize prostitution, so that people could work without fear of arrest and persecution, including harassment, stalking, prohibitions against renting apartments, from holding certain types of jobs, or from obtaining professional licensing. The discrimination that sex workers face is similar to the policies and attitudes that once prevented gays and lesbians from finding jobs and housing, from patronizing public establishments, and that threaten their rights as parents. While securing civil rights for sex workers remains an issue, activists have come to realize that the effects of discrimination perpetuates a climate of hate. Whorephobia—and its cousin slut-shaming—are dehumanizing, reducing “hookers,” “prostitutes,” “whores,” and “hustlers” to people who aren’t worthy of concern, and indeed, people who should be chased out of neighborhoods or locked up in prison. More seriously, because the police regard sex workers as lawbreakers, they often ignore or sloppily investigate crimes of violence against sex workers. Rape, battery, assault, domestic violence, armed robbery, and the kidnapping and murders of sex workers is dismissed because their jobs (a.k.a., their “lifestyles”) are considered dangerous and they were “asking for it.”

Activists have been challenging dehumanization in multiple ways. Recently, Canadian journalist Joyce Arthur called on editors, opinion columnists, and reporters to revise the style guides for terms referring to the sex industry after a Toronto Globe and Mail columnist called prostitutes “lumps of meat.”

On Monday this week, a New York Times editorial, “France’s New Approach to Curbing Prostitution”, praised the French Parliament for approving a law that would punish the clients of sex workers. It also dehumanized sex workers. The proposed law would “treat prostitutes as exploited and abused victims,” but where are the complaints from sex workers themselves about abuse and exploitation by their customers? Indeed, neither the NYT nor the commercial press is reporting on the thousands of French sex workers who are marching and protesting against the proposed law. By failing to acknowledge that sex workers chose to do the work they do, we deny them agency and control over their lives. Even saying that “we” want to “help” them get out of sex work is a denial of their agency and self-determination. Sure, some sex workers hate their work, many would like to change the working conditions, and some would rather do something else entirely. But so do a lot of fast food workers and even some blog editors.

To say “sex workers rights are human rights” is to recognize that people have the right to make decisions about their lives and their work, to say that they have the right to be safe from violence and harassment, to say that they deserve human dignity and to have a voice in society.

Profile: Sex Work Activist Hawk Kinkaid

This essay first appeared on Biographilehawk, a blog of Random House, January 24, 2014

Hawk Kinkaid is part of a new generation of activists in the sex workers movement: he’s a web-geek who networks online and face-to-face with guys who have sex for money, providing tips for improving health and safety and sharing “stories with other men as a way of learning and teaching about life in the sex industry, its foibles and fantastic.” Around 1998, Hawk and his friends retooled HOOK, a popular ‘zine, into the first online non-profit publication and educational organization for men in the sex industry. Operated on a shoestring budget with some corporate support and individual donations, HOOK gets several thousand hits a month from men actively working in the industry, and has a thousand subscribers.

Oh, did I mention he’s a man? Sex workers, people who earn money by exchanging sexual services or erotic entertainment for money or other goods, are usually represented as female. But hustlers, escorts and other males who have sex with men have been around just as long as prostitutes, strippers and other sex workers. COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), the first formal organization for sex workers’ rights, was founded as a feminist group for women’s liberation, but not without criticism. “What about the rights of male prostitutes?” a “thin, red-haired young man” demanded during COYOTE’s first convention in 1974.

Hawk’s activism is inspired by the men who came before him, and is evidence that their efforts to bring “men’s voices into the larger dialogue” and recognize sex work as more than a “women’s issue.” Affirming the human and labor rights of all adults, women, men, and trans* to engage in safe, consensual sex work is this generation’s point of unity. Men aren’t engaged in the movement Hawk says, because many see their jobs as temporary rather than as “real” work, and as a result aren’t interested in better working conditions. “Once, I stood face-to-crotch with a go-go boy explaining to me that he is actually not a dancer, but a choreographer en route to the big riches.”

Men in the industry keep writing to Hook, “asking for information and praising its benefit for helping them work smarter.” Through online advice and classes, programs provide information about drug and alcohol addiction, disease prevention, mental health care, access to medical care, retirement savings, financial planning, and disclosure about one’s work to support systems. For male “careerists” in the sex industry, the challenge of staying strong and persisting with pride might be another way of protesting against injustice.

“For an industry in which unfathomable numbers of gay, bi, and straight men have participated,” Hawk says, there are very few male activists. Decades ago, the mainstream gay rights movement abandoned its demand to decriminalize prostitution, even though men and transwomen remain police targets for solicitation and loitering charges. The invisibility of men at sex worker demonstrations and community social events makes organizing more challenging.

To move forward, Hawk says, “we need to translate these practical conversations” about health and safety into movement participation, “to energize a generation of men who are bold enough to speak publicly about their work” and aware that social justice requires shared successes. “I don’t have the answer for how this is done, and I am proud Hook is among the many programs testing out ideas… When we all collaborate on that solution, I feel confident that we’ll no longer wonder where the men are, because we’ll be there on the front lines.”

What Rights? From the ACLU National Blog of Rights

I spoke at the ACLU National Office in Washington, DC on Wednesday, March 12. This blog originally appeared on their website on March 5, 2014.

Do sex workers have rights? Put another way, can whores, hustlers, strippers, streetwalkers and porn stars demand respect and justice?

The idea that people who trade sex for money, drugs or survival should enjoy civil rights or liberties deeply divides public opinion. The ACLU position holds that laws against prostitution violate “the right of individual privacy because they impose penal sanctions for the private sexual conduct of consenting adults,” but the suggestion that sex workers themselves possess other basic rights is controversial.

For example, many citizens believe that “public women” (an old term for prostitutes) should not be allowed to work on public streets. Numerous cities have created “prostitution-free zones” that permit the police to target undesirables, forcing them to “move along” through arrest, prosecution, and banishment as a condition of probation; in Phoenix, women arrested for offending “public morals” are sent immediately to a church-operated “prostitution diversion” program and prohibited from speaking to an attorney.

In several states, sex workers convicted of felonies must register on public sex offender lists—making them vulnerable to stalking and harassment. One Virginia assemblyman recently introduced a bill that would allow law enforcement to seize the assets of any person arrested for prostitution.

Stigmas against sex work and sex create this hostile environment. Clients—specifically heterosexual males—have become new targets for public humiliation, with legislatures in several states proposing laws that levy steep fines, even prison terms, for those who choose to pay for sexual services. In practice, these laws actually endanger sex workers more. Clients who fear arrest may refuse to negotiate openly, or react violently when they feel threatened. Sex workers, concerned about self-incrimination, rarely report crimes committed against them.

Public harassment and misconduct by law enforcement are some of the dangerous consequences of client criminalization, prostitution-free zones and other laws against sex work.

Chicago police have arrested transgender women—particularly African American and Hispanic transwomen—for “buying” rather than “selling” sex and charged them with felonies, while simultaneously “proving” that they are arresting both “men” and “women.”

Even more chilling for public safety, US Department of Justice investigations of several police departments revealed patterns of systemic violence against street-based sex workers. Police officers have been convicted on charges that include the kidnapping, rape and sexual exploitation of “suspected” prostitutes; homicide detectives have conducted haphazard and careless investigations of serial murders when the victims are, or are perceived to be, sex workers.

Despite limits on “stop-and-frisk” policing in New York City, sex workers, especially young transwomen of color, are still routinely stopped. Though New York has no law against carrying condoms, police use possession of three or more condoms as grounds for arrest on suspicion of intent to engage in prostitution—a practice that goes against all the logics of harm reduction. Police departments in San Francisco, Washington, DC and elsewhere have similar policies.

The myriad federal, state and local laws against prostitution mean that “rights for sex workers” will require more than decriminalizing sex for money or other consideration.

Sex workers are human beings with the right to self-determination. It’s time for policymakers, the courts and law enforcement to recognize they are equally deserving of the civil rights, civil liberties, and above all human rights accorded to the rest of us.

View the comments posted on ACLU blog.