Sex Work Awareness: A New Voice in the Media Wilderness

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The last couple of weeks have brought more news coverage and public discussion of sex work than you usually get in a year. When Eliot Spitzer got nailed because of his hot dates with "Kristen," the press swarmed onto the story like flies on shit. The beauty of a scandal like the Spitzer story is that it lets the media have the best of both worlds: they can use the sex to sell product as enthusiastically as Joe Francis having a fire sale, but at the same time, they get to stake the moral high ground by pointing an accusing finger at both the client and the sex worker. If Eliot Spitzer's sin was the hypocrisy of hiring call girls after building a career for himself by putting their fellow sex workers in jail, it was little more than an insignificant blemish compared to the behavior of the press. A good chunk of the editors and writers at the New York Times should just get over their pretensions of respectability and hop on a plane for California, where they can become honest, hardworking pornographers.

As is typical of American discussions of sex, the Kristen/Spitzer scandal didn't turn into an opportunity to talk about the realities of sex work, or the ways that our private desires diverge from our public declarations, or anything resembling a forthright discussion of sexuality. It was just another opportunity to obsess about sex as if it were a particularly ugly scab that just won't stop itching. Nothing demonstrates that better than Audacia Ray's recent post about her interview with MSNBC. The first question the interviewer asked her, point-blank, was: "Have you been a whore?" The supposedly more genteel, public-radio intellectual Brian Lehrer wasn't much better in his treatment of Dacia when he interviewed her on the radio. The entire show had a leering tone to it, as if he too couldn't wait to get the juicy details. And Renegade Evolution got pretty much the same treatment when the media showed up on her doorstep:

[T]he media is all over this, and guess what, the media wants to talk to sex workers about it. I know, because oddly enough, a certain Renegade and a certain DC reporter had a conversation. I thought maybe it might be an opportunity to bring some light to issues such as sex workers rights and the hypocrisy shown by fellows like Spitzer. However, that is not what the media is interested in. That's not what they want. They want to know how one goes about hiring a "high-end" escort, how prevelant is it, what goes on, do the working girls care if the men are married? What else do they spend money on when with the woman? They want the scandal, the titilation, the naughty little thrill....but nothing too dirty. Nothing about the women on the streets. They don't want to hear about the truly unseemly side of the biz. They want to hear about the men...the rich and powerful men who spend the money on "high-end" girls. They want to hear how the men will fly in to see a girl, or fly her in, spends thousands on her and on the dinners and events and everything else. They want to know how he likes it. Sure enough, men do this sort of thing. I've been paid 2000$ to spend an evening with a New Jersey business man at a boxing match then do a strip show for him. No actual sex involved. He bought an expensive dinner and a bottle of Dom to go with it, and tipped me an extra 600$. Why? Because he could, and in this case, he did not even have to worry about the actual act of sex for money. This is one such story in my experience, and one such story in the countless experiences of women like me. And that's the stories the media wants. They don't care how we feel about legalization, or rights, or men like Spitzer building careers and policy on us, let alone about the women working on the streets. Those politics and dirty tales don't sell.

And that isn't a story that's unique to Dacia and Ren or to this particular time; when the media comes a-calling to talk to sex workers, they're typically not interested in hearing intelligent analyses of sexuality or political ideas about sexuality; they want to know the titillating stories that define women and men who do sex work as the scary, depraved other: What's the weirdest thing you've ever seen? How does someone go about hiring a prostitute? Were you abused as a child? A drug addict?

That's why the one hopeful thing that I got out of last week was attending the first fundraising reception for Sex Work Awareness, a new group founded by members of SWANK, $pread Magazine, and PONY. The purpose of Sex Work Awareness is to make sure that the media and the politicians know that there's more to sex workers than the sordid, pitiful caricatures that are sold as the gritty truth by Melissa Farley and her ilk. Right now, few (if any) media people know that there are prostitutes, porn stars, and dommes with political analyses; worse yet, when they do make their voices heard, they're dismissed as phony and irrelevant.

Sex Work Awareness is aiming to change all that. From their mission statement:

We believe that all sex workers have a right to self-determination; to choose how we make a living and what we do with our bodies. SWA aims to empower our diverse community by building the capacity of sex worker-serving and sex worker member-based institutions as well as the skills and resources of sex workers themselves. SWA also conducts research about sex workers and the sex industry in order to better understand it, develop public education initiatives, and advocate for the rights of sex workers.

Right now, the only people who don't have a "legitimate" perspective on the rights of sex workers are sex workers. The resources that Sex Work Awareness intends to provide include a speakers' bureau, programs to teach sex workers to speak and write for themselves and outreach to elected representatives. One of the most heartening things about the reception was that they showed that they had a head start on the last point: State Senator Thomas Duane and State Assembly Member Richard Gottfried showed up to show their report for Sex Work Awareness. Each one made a few public comments, some excerpts of which can be seen in the video below. The press coverage of Kristen and Spitzer was grotesque and shameful, but with people like this working together, something beautiful might rise out of the pile of shit that we're standing in now.

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