The War on Sex Workers, Melissa

Out in Reason this month (February 2013), I’ve got a new feature, “The War On Sex Workers“:

Not all people who do sex work are women, but women disproportionately suffer the stigma, discrimination, and violence against sex workers. The result is a war on women that is nearly imperceptible, unless you are involved in the sex trade yourself. This war is spearheaded and defended largely by other women: a coalition of feminists, conservatives, and even some human rights activists who subject sex workers to poverty, violence, and imprisonment—all in the name of defending women’s rights.

This is by far the most controversial piece I’ve written. Before I get to that, some additional reading on items mentioned in the story:

• The Social Science Research Center at DePaul University’s study of the Chicago Police Department’s “johns” mugshots websites.

• Women With A Vision’s “No Justice” project, which ended the police practice of charging sex workers with “solicitation of a crime against nature,” which had forced them to register as sex offenders in Louisiana.

• Dr. Kumkum Roy, Director of the Women’s Studies Programme at Jawaharlal Nehru University, invited Gloria Steinem to speak on sex work during her trip to India as mentioned in my piece. She writes, after hearing Steinem and her co-panelists speak, “Ms Steinem and Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap refuse to recognize that unionized sex workers are voicing their own opinions—these women are dismissed as puppets of pimps and brothel owners—a gross simplification in view of the sheer numbers of women across the country who have unionised in a bid to claim human rights and dignity.”

• The 2012 Chicago Reporter investigation into the staggering increase in felony arrests of sex workers, “Escorted to jail.”

• Ann Jordan, interviewed for this piece, publishes at Rights Work, a project of the American University Washington College of Law Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, which includes a valuable Fact Checker feature for researchers, journalists, and advocates.

• The Sex Workers Project continues advocacy and research around sound sex work policy.

• The Best Practices Policy Project also continues their work on bringing the United States in alignment with recommendations on sex workers’ rights made through the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights.

by Imp Kerr

Of all the tech hijinx I covered while writing for Valleywag (missu), Facebook’s always felt the least inspired. Even in 2006, when Valleywag launched and when Facebook had just barely made itself available to anyone outside an Ivy, there was something antiseptic about it that felt so fundamentally disconnected, like whoever had built it had forgot that their business was actually on the wild, wooly internet.

Of course, it wasn’t. Facebook was in the business of our offline lives, and “frictionless” (right) sharing thereof: the business of generating wealth from and never really for its users.

Except. Except the users under its own roof. In the most recent Dissent, I look at Katherine Losse’s The Boy Kings, her excellent memoir of her time working as one of the first women at Facebook, as a way back into understanding that time, grafted onto my own overlapping years spent in San Francisco, and pointed at the question of, what really makes Facebook go and yet who is still least valued by Facebook but women?

Facebook, we know now, was never meant to be the product; we, its users were. Without us, the “product” would be worthless. Zuckerberg understood this in 2003, when he created the proto-Facebook site Facemash, built from photos of Harvard University women—Zuckerberg’s classmates and peers—and presented to users—presumed to be Harvard men—to vote on their attractiveness. In a Harvard Crimson story published after Zuckerberg beat an expulsion rap for violating students’ privacy in launching Facemash, two campus groups are reported to have opposed the site publicly: Fuerza Latina and the Association of Harvard Black Women. Zuckerberg changed course slightly, creating a site where he would not need to scrape photos off a server. We’d give them to him.

Losse herself was an early Facebook adopter, during the fall of her last year at Johns Hopkins when Facebook launched on her campus. Prior to using Facebook, she never associated her online activities with her legal name. “For women,” she writes, “there is no value in putting yourself online and offering yourself to strangers.” But women have long found ways to reap this worth for themselves, whether as fashion bloggers, porn stars, or attractive TED speakers. In performing some version of themselves online, pseudonymous or not, these women have earned their reputations and their rent.

Bonus extended mix if you want to time machine with me: the two Valleywag stories referenced in the essay, on photo-sharing site Zivity and the perils of “Girl Geek” networking.

Thanks to Sarah Leonard, the excellent editor on this, which appears as part of a feature section, The New Feminism, in the magazine and online. You can read her essay on gendered labor and Marissa Mayer in the new Jacobin. Another great pairing for the piece is Sarah Jaffe’s “Cost to Connect,” at Rhizome, which we were writing over the same weeks, and I dig the overlaps in all these very much. You should also see some influence from Sarah Jaffe’s piece in this same issue of Dissent, on being on strike from feminism:

Whether it’s City Council speaker Christine Quinn in New York City blocking paid sick days or Marissa Mayer taking the helm at Yahoo or Shannon Eastin taking the job of a locked-out worker for less money, we have to recognize that some first steps are taken on the backs of workers, many of whom are also women.

And so we are at this point, where all too many feminists see “saving” sex workers as an appropriately feminist activity but not walking a picket line with striking teachers or nurses or hotel housekeepers. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of raping Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel housekeeper, feminists rallied to her defense, but that support hasn’t led to increased support for hotel worker unions even as Hyatt hotel workers engage in a nationwide boycott, even though UNITE HERE, the hotel workers’ union, supported Diallo and protects workers like her from being fired for speaking out against abuse. Instead, it led to too many swoons over Christine Lagarde, who took Strauss-Kahn’s place at the International Monetary Fund.

As long as feminists are lauding the ascension of women to boardrooms for equality’s sake and not questioning what happens in those boardrooms, true liberation is a long way off.

The biggest thanks of all, of course, go to Kate Losse for her very sharp book. Besides the tech and boys and fame she made me want to write about San Francisco again, the barely bygone years between 2005 and 2009 – which she absolutely nails, cameras in the air and all.

Saint Nick Kristof

“…happy hookers, says Kristof, don’t despair, this isn’t about women like you – we don’t really mean to put you out of work. Never mind that shutting down the businesses people in the sex trade depend on for safety and survival only exposes all of them to danger and poverty, no matter how much choice they have. Kristof and the Evangelicals outside the Village Voice succeed only in taking choices away from people who are unlikely to turn up outside the New York Times, demanding that Kristof’s column be taken away from him.

Even if they did, with the platform he’s built for himself as the true expert on sex workers’ lives, men like Kristof can’t be run out of town so easily. There’s always another TED conference, another women’s rights organization eager to hire his expertise. Kristof and those like him, who have made saving women from themselves their pet issue and vocation, are so fixated on the notion that almost no one would ever choose to sell sex that they miss the dull and daily choices that all working people face in the course of making a living. Kristof himself makes good money at this, but to consider sex workers’ equally important economic survival is inconvenient for him.”

That’s from Happy Hookers, my critique, in part, of feminism’s departure into special-white-lady-ism, and a critique made possible by one fundamental text.

Thanks to Bhaskar and Peter over at the Jacobin for working with me on this. And thanks to Sarah Jaffe and Mike Konczal, also, for the late Thursday night thinking-and-drinking that inspired it in the first place.

This week Occupy Oakland Patriarchy took the vanguard of protesting outside “anti-trafficking” conferences.*

This is the first I’ve heard of an anti-trafficking conference getting the Occupy treatment. And I do wonder what the cops think: do they really want to take on yet more “vice” work they’re so poorly qualified to do? Local news doesn’t see fit to ask them, but are very pleased to provide some anarchist eye candy.

A perfect complement: Charlotte Shane writes about encountering the 1%, as a sex worker—not just wealthy clients, but also, what it means to accumulate her own wealth.

It’s true that many of my clients are incredibly bright, highly skilled at their jobs, and have labored for years on a minimum of sleep. It’s not that they’ve made no sacrifices or put forth no effort, nor are they unkind or unpleasant people. But its fruitless to debate whether they have “worked hard” enough to justify income disparity. Such personality and work-ethic arguments are red herrings; it’s clear that one can work very hard and not make much money, and that we each have different ideas as to what constitutes “hard” work.

* “anti-trafficking” is in quotes because the aim of this conference is to give the police more money and more power to arrest anyone in the sex trade, which would not only do nothing to reduce violence or coercion in the sex trade, it would also do little to “abolish”—their words!—anything re: forced labor, let alone commercial sex.

Right. Today’s Tax Day. I spoke to Buzzfeed about how sex workers pay taxes.

(Spoiler: all the time. And there’s no better illustration of this than this installation by artist Laurenn McCubbin, as part of her 2010 Las Vegas gallery show, Speaking To Las Vegas in the Language of Las Vegas.)

I’m just starting to dig into this new report from the Sex Workers’ Project and the PROS Network: Public Health Crisis: The Impact of Using Condoms as Evidence of Prostitution in New York City. They’re launching it today in Albany, along with sex workers and advocates from all over New York, as part of a day of lobbying for a bill that would stop cops from searching people they’ve profiled as prostitutes in order to find condoms and make what they (and the courts, unfortunately) believe is a stronger case against them. Condoms-as-evidence is NYPD’s own sexed-up form of stop-and-frisk. As a result, close to half of the sex workers surveyed for this report say they have had condoms taken from them by cops, and close to half have stopped carrying condoms altogether, for fear of getting charged for the crime of protecting their own health.

If you do like I did and flip to the back of this report, you can find your own evidence in a frightful little narrative (really very dream-of-the-1890′s) drawn from court records and sworn cop statements.

There’s quite a few cases supported with direct cop testimony. Here’s just one, involving Officer Thomas V. Hill (shield number 15783), who reported this as cause to stop and cite one woman:

(The year, by his own hand, was 2011.)

After stopping this woman for being “dressed in (describe clothing) a long black wig, tight short jean shorts, tight red shirt” Thomas sought to charge her with “loitering for prostitution.”

What’s the basis of your conclusion, officer (their handy pre-printed form asks)?

1 condom.

So you know: here’s what cops are looking for when they want to profile a woman (and let’s be real, in New York and around the country, cops are actively profiling not all women, but women of color and transgender women in particular) as a prostitute, and slap her with a charge that could get her kicked out of her apartment, cost her current and future employment, sic the state on her to take her kids…

I would love a similar check sheet for cops: do you love staring at women? Rifling through their private belongings? Roughing them up? Strip searching them? At best, that’s a fantasy they ought to be paying for, rather than having us subsidize, but you know. Cops are as perved-out on patriarchal bullshit as everyone else. It’s just that they just get paid to slutshame some of the most vulnerable people in the city straight to prison.

I guess what I am saying is, look out for cops loitering with intent to solicit you to partake in a non-consensual, possibly unconstitutional search-and-seizure roleplay.

And thank our stars for the people who want to hold them to account for that.