The issue of relationship “exploitation” has been on my mind lately. There must be a way that “interdependence” can exist between a man and a woman where no one is getting “exploited.” Our culture comes up with models to address the exploitation factor, but more often than not, these models miss the mark. I’m thinking in particular of this relatively new glamorization of pimping, which is a misguided notion.
In her New Year's message, Elizabeth reflects on the place of sex work within an internet site dedicated to public discussion of sexuality and its place in our culture. I agree with her that this site was not designed to just be a sex work forum. However discussions on sexuality inevitably bring sex work in all its manifestations and diversity into their ambit.
While it is easy to discuss sex work merely as a rights based issue, a more nuanced understanding cannot be achieved without considering how our knowledge of and attitudes to sexuality inform and are informed by sex work.
Women, Sex and Blogging
Earlier we have written about the difficulty many bloggers and people working in stigmatised trades and professions have with maintaining multiple identies. We have also frequently described the tragedies that unfold when people are outed by zealous media, bigots or jealous colleagues.
This solstice season, a time for reflection and coming together, has been marked by an enthusiasm that at times borders on a feeding frenzy, to out bloggers, or suggest that they may be not be quite who they appear to be in their blogs. This raises many concerns.
Today is December 17th, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. There have been many days related to sex work and violence over the last month or two and many days that remember a myriad of other causes. The danger of days of rememberance is that each special day obscures the next. Will we remember today tomorrow? Is a day sufficient for such an important subject? Don't other causes have awareness months? Will violence against sex workers have ceased by tomorrow?
Last night's panel discussion of sex work and civil liberties at Harvard Law School, hosted by the HLS ACLU, the American Constitution Society and the Women's Law Association (?) was a learning experience. I learned that some formats, which sound helpful in theory, are very limiting in practice. I learned that one should never make assumptions about an audience. And I learned that when you've had the last word and the panel is officially over, letting it be reopened is a very bad idea.
The panel was extremely well moderated. Professor Glen Cohen promised at the beginning to keep a tight rein on the discussion and he did. That made me feel confident and safe going into the discussion that it would not become a shouting match nor be derailed by questions that are not really questions. Unfortunately that limited the opportunities for panelists to respond to each other. It meant that if we were to play by the rules (where did I learn to be such a good girl?) we could not easily challenge each other's evidence, or revisit questions once the discussion had moved on. For example, if an audience member had a question specifically for Melissa Farley, and Farley answered using anecdotal or unreliable evidence, as soon the question was answered a new question was invited. There were only a few questions that were posed to the whole panel and it was hard to get back to earlier questions without deviating from the format. So, lesson number one: advocate for format change or break the rules if necessary to get important information out.
Please Join Us December 17, 2009 for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers Event in Tucson, Arizona!
November 11, 2009
Dear Friends & Supporters of Sex Worker’s Rights:
In 2009, sex workers from around the globe met gruesome deaths and endured unspeakable violence. Some died at the hands of a solitary perpetrator; others were victims of serialprostitute killers. While some of these horrific stories received international media attention ( Boston, Grand Rapids, Albuquerque, Tijuana , Hong Kong , Moscow , Great Britain ,Cape Town , New Zealand ), other cases received little more than a perfunctory investigation. Many cases remain unresolved, sometimes forever.
In fact, most violent crimes against sex workers remain unreported. Stigma and criminalization facilitate this violence; when sex work is criminalized, prostitutes can't turn to the police for protection without risking prosecution themselves. Sex workers remain one of the largest marginalized populations in existence without the benefit of the basic civil rights that everyone else takes for granted.
Each year, December 17th marks the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Last year’s event in Washington, D.C. was a big success and this year, sex workers and their allies from across the U.S. will gather together in Tucson, Arizona to remember and honor sex workers who have been victimized by virtue of their chosen profession - including rape, assault and murder.
Here is a short excerpt from my review of Siddarth Kara's book Sex Trafficking for the Women's Review of Books.
Unfortunately, although Kara understands the variety of trafficking situations, he is stuck on sex trafficking. He meets trafficked workers in fields such as agriculture and construction, but pursues elusive sex slaves. He never asks any of the people he seeks out—the poor women, sex workers, child carpet-weavers, or bonded-laborer families making bricks—what would actually help them. Although he is sensitive to their plights, he is insensitive and uninterested in their needs and desires. Rather than focus on structural issues, his book turns to salacious material and hero fantasies. A romantic outsider, he pushes ineffective remedies.
While I disagree with their basic premise that prostitution - indoor or outdoor - should be criminalized (I believe that criminalization will make things worse rather than better) I want to point to some very helpful observations made by RI Senators Paul V. Jabour and Sen. Michael J. McCaffrey in yesterday morning's Herald News.
1. We need to re-draw the now-blurred line between prostitution, human trafficking, and age of consent issues. It does not help victims of forced labor or coercive human trafficking when we distract ourselves from their issues by focusing on the sexual content of some of their work. Nor does it help when we make generalizations about prostitution.
Honorable Representatives and Senators,
As a retired sex worker and a long time sex worker rights activist, I’d like to address the Rhode Island bill which proposes to criminalize indoor prostitution. I am hoping that reason will prevail and you will not be pressured into signing a piece of legislation which will so negatively impact the lives of sex workers in your state. While I am a resident of California and not Rhode Island, I have been fighting against laws which criminalize consenting adult prostitution- wherever those laws exist- since I left my job with the Los Angeles Police Department in 1982.
I worked for ten years as a civilian traffic officer with the LAPD, primarily at night, and I witnessed first hand what happens when laws are arbitrarily enforced and used against women to extort sex, money and information. I left the police department because corruption on all levels was so pervasive, and I became a call girl and a sex worker rights activist so that I could expose the rampant abuses perpetrated by the cops against prostitutes and others. Simply put, bad laws make bad police officers.
I experienced being arrested and incarcerated and I have to tell you, it is far more traumatic than anything a prostitute might encounter at the hands of her clients. Being arrested has quite the opposite effect of being ‘rescued.’ It destroys your life. If indeed prostitutes suffer from PTSD as many anti- prostitution activists allege, this may be a direct result of being arrested and incarcerated, rather than giving pleasure for pay.
I woke this morning to find lots of support in the face of a personal attack by Donna Hughes against me and the other signers of a letter to the Rhode Island legislature arguing against the criminalization of prostitution there.
Thank you to all those who are being so supportive of me. I will respond to the attack myself later, but first I want to say that I am very worried that this could distract from the real issue at hand, which is our work to keep consensual adult sexual exchange from becoming criminalized in RI.
Both for the sake of those who are victimized by players in the sex industry and also for the sake of those who find meaningful careers there, and for all those in between, we need to keep our focus on the creation of sane and useful laws. Criminalizing prostitution will eliminate a source of livelihood for some and will drive harmful activity further underground. This must be avoided.
Some important points to keep in mind, and to keep in front of those who make the laws:
- Adults need to be free to make decisions about the kinds of consensual sex they do and do not want to engage in with other adults.
- Everybody deserves a right to earn a decent standard of living.
- Physical autonomy is a basic human right.
- Everybody, regardless of industry, ought to have safe working conditions and be free from violence. Laws to protect workers, and laws to prohibit violence, need not criminalize work in order to be effective.
- Just because lots of states have irrational laws doesn't mean that Rhode Island needs to follow suit. (Just because something is, doesn't mean it ought to be.)
Tara Hurley, director of "Happy Endings?", wrote a fantastic letter to the RI legislators. She calls for others to do the same. She got an encouraging response from one legislator who said he was being bombarded by Hughes supporters and really needed to hear from those who oppose criminalization.
You can use these email addresses to write to the lawmakers in Rhode Island. If you live in Rhode Island your voice is even more important right now.
With her permission I am reprinting Tara's letter below. Please feel free to use it as inspiration for your own:
First let me offer condolences on the recent passing of Representative Slater. I think a lot can be learned from his career. It was difficult to pass a medical marijuana law, but Rep. Slater remained the forceful voice for its passage, and I know he gained the respect of many of his fellow Assembly Members.
One of the lessons I hope that was learned during the debate and ultimate passage of the “Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act” is that for the benefit of the citizens of Rhode Island debates should be based in reason and fact, not emotion and propaganda. I wish the atmosphere in which the medical marijuana was debated could return for the debate on prostitution.
I know many women who work in spas from when I made my film. I want what is best for these women. I want what is best for Rhode Island. I know that these two things are not mutually exclusive.
As a woman and Rhode Islander, I am offended at the tactics of Donna Hughes and Citizens Against Trafficking. It seems like Hughes and CAT do not care about the women, all they want is a "moral victory". They have no basis for their attacks on me, the spas, the people who have been writing to you, and basically anyone who does not accept or promote their agenda, including RI Coalition Against Human Trafficking. I have been following this a long time, and it is bad enough to attack me, fellow academics, or even the women they claim to be trying to help, but to attack a RI Coalition Against Human Trafficking is beyond the barrel. It is horrible that this radical fringe group could drive out the coalition that seemed to actually care about the women.
To use an analogy, I would say that Hughes and CAT are to Rhode Island and sex workers as Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church are to homosexuals. They are both radical fringe groups that use fear and hate mongering. I am an artist, so I believe in freedom of speech, so even though I do not agree with Hughes or CAT, I believe they have the same right to freedom of speech as everyone else. I just hope that people don’t confuse the propaganda and fear mongering for fact. If you would like to save yourself some time, just delete anything that comes from Hughes or CAT, unless you enjoy reading fiction and extremist propaganda.
Director "Happy Endings?"