The Law

Researching sex worker politics and movement history for my book led me first to Carol Leigh’s wonderful archives, and then to what I only realized upon digging through dozens of boxes had become my own. (You spend ten years going to protests, conferences, clubs, brothels, and brunches with other sex workers, and you will amass a beautiful collection of paper.)

As I pack my materials back up into my archives, I’ll post pieces of my collection here.

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Program, 5th Biennial Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival, July 14th-22nd, 2007

It’s only fitting to start with a program for Carol Leigh’s own Sex Worker Festival, which continues on in San Francisco. In 2007, it coincided with the Desiree Alliance national sex worker conference, for a week of workshops, performances, films, and parties.

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A detail of the program. (Archived as text here.)

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Sex Workers’ Outreach Project USA offered this School for Johns workshop as a twist on San Francisco’s First Offenders’ Prostitution Program, or “John schools.”

These programs funnel men arrested for buying sex (or trans* women misgendered as men, as well as queer men, who are arrested for selling sex) into classes meant to prevent them from buying sex again. Researchers Rachel Lovell and Ann Jordan authored a thorough report on how these programs work, and more to the point, why they don’t actually work.

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Another detail of evening events.

The Roaming Hookerfest featured a project I collaborated with Norene Leddy on back in the day, The Aphrodite Project, a GPS-enabled platform shoe connecting the wearer to a private support network, over which they can share their location as a safety measure. Under the heel, the platform also housed a shriek alarm and video screen. Platforms were never meant for mass manufacture; we created a DIY kit for anyone to make their own. We talked about putting a mini-projector into the platform (a suggestion from artist Natalie Jeremijenko) so being part of this guerilla projector mobile movie fest was perfect.

(Want more? Here’s everything you need to know about the 2013 Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival, and how to get involved next time.)

There’s no better way to wait for the Supreme Court to hand down a decision than watching another Supreme Court in action – which you can, if it’s the Supreme Court of Canada, who livestreamed yesterday’s hearing on prostitution laws. Hanging out on #bedfordscc were an international mix of sex workers, activists, and legal pros weighing in on the testimony all day, which could result in Canada adopting some form of decriminalized prostitution. It was riveting and like nothing else I’ve seen, this deep and free-wheeling and real-time conversation about sex work policy and human rights, with just the right amount of sass and optimism. (And maybe by the time the United States is ready for our own national hearing on these laws, we’ll have opened up the Supreme Court to some form of photography.)

The US Supreme Court still hasn’t decided the case I went to go watch in oral arguments this April, on whether or not requiring AIDS funding recipients to adopt an anti-prostitution position is constitutional under the First Amendment. I’ve got a new story on the anti-prostitution pledge policy up at The Nation, paired with infographics on the HIV funding and prevention landscape.

As soon as the Supreme Court rules, which could be as soon as Monday, I’ll have an analysis up, too.

Also on the legal front: Scotland is considering criminalizing the purchase of sex, and recently published the results of an ostensibly open consultation with the public. I spoke with senior staff at Amnesty International, who were concerned that the consultation gives the impression that they support criminalization, after a local Scottish chapter of Amnesty submitted a brief in support of the bill (which featured some of the most shabby “human rights documentation” I’ve ever read). Amnesty International is demanding that chapter remove its endorsement under Amnesty’s name, and for the first time, offered public support for sex workers’ rights by opposing criminalization and the conflation of sex work with trafficking. You can read the whole scoop in my story at the New Statesman. (And huge thanks to NineMollyJem, and Jewel for their work mining through and wrestling with all the documents that came out of the Scottish consultation.)

(This is an excerpt from my email newsletter, Inside MGG. Subscribe to get updates from me each Friday in your inbox.)

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.

Ira Glass

(Update: response from Ira below.)

Ira, hi.

I’m using first names because I feel like we’ve spent a lot of time together – on subway rides, on airplanes, in bed. Even at the peep show. That’s right: the first time I heard your voice, I was in blue leopard print lingerie, thumbing through the radio dial, and since it was a Saturday morning and customers were out doing better stuff than looking at naked girls (perhaps listening to your show?), I had the luxury of an uninterrupted hour with you for my first time. It was great. I loved your strange, slow pauses and carefully casual enunciation. In retrospect, it was a lot like the speaking mannerisms I had to adopt to be heard by the customers through the glass.

You already know part of this story. Back in 2010, your production manager Seth Lind (I can’t even type that without hearing it in your voice) emailed me and asked if he could run a photo of me doing a drag tribute to you on the This American Life blog. It was totally great of him to ask, and so perfectly full circle: I had started up a podcast in that peep show, the first podcast from a peep show ever (hey, it was 2005, we were first at everything, and rubbing elbows with you in iTunes was always a thrill – like that time my show was the #1 show three weeks running in politics, religion, and business? heady days!), and now, you wanted to recognize this tribute I made to you and your show (and for a calendar raising money for sex workers to speak up in the press and produce their own media!). I was smitten before, and now I was honored.

I hope you don’t mind the intimate tone here, but you know this: radio is perfect for creating intimacy. All those voices can just go about anywhere you invite them to, bringing in stories you never expected to even want to hear, let alone hang out with the engine off (or the peep show curtain pulled shut) to finish. Those of us who make a life out of telling stories, we do it because we all at some point had to fight to have our stories heard and understood. Even though these days more and more people have tools available to them to share their stories (podcasting, blogging hey!) the media playground has never been a level one. The odds are still stacked against anyone who has ever been on the wrong side of the mainstream tracks. Because no matter how cool the toys we have available to us are in this ever-expanding media playground, some kids will always have bigger lawyers.

This is what’s troubling to me, this thing where Chicago Public Media has (on your behalf) sent its recess monitors on the producers of This American Whore. I first heard about their show (where else) on Twitter, where they were using the handle whorecast. I thought, oh wow, it’s another podcast called whorecast! That was what I called mine! But this is totally great. They are doing what I don’t have the opportunity to do right now – no longer working in the sex industry, I don’t get to hear the amazing real life stories they do. So even if they are using a name that’s close to what I used to use, I’m so glad for them. It feels like a tribute. Our collective editorial storytelling calendar is tight, and resources are scant – I’m glad to have anyone pick up stories and give them their due.

I was going to send this to Seth, who was also cool enough to invite me onto his show, Told, and tell stories about my time in sex work. (How do you follow Kevin Allison doing a story about losing his anal virginity to a cucumber? With a butternut squash.) But then I thought it really should go to you, because you’re how this all started for me, anyway. You were there for me on late nights and way too early mornings in that peep show, where I followed your media-making maxim for beginners to be willing to be really terrible at it for a while, to give yourself as many years as it takes to figure out how to even tell a story. I’d like to think my peep show paycheck was the journalism internship I could never afford. It gave me the cash to cover those critical years to be terrible and get better. And while I was at the peep show, I went from writing on my own website, to being published in the (much missed) $pread magazine, to getting my first job as a reporter. It’s been almost ten years since I first went to work at the peep show, and I’d like to think I know how to tell stories (finally! I had pieces in Reason, Dissent, and Glamour in the last month, and I honestly don’t know a single other person who can say that). So thank you.

But – even though I first invited your voice into my life when I was half-naked and under (some really cheap-ass) red lights? I would never mistake your show for a show run by and for sex workers.

Can you let your lawyers know?

Thanks, your fan –


ps: When I asked Torey Malatia what the lawsuit would cost, he said “it’s $20 for a 2.5 minute show.”

Update, February 6, 2013 / 7pm

Ira Glass responds:

It’s recently been reported in the press that we’re asking the podcast This American Whore to change their name. There’s been a suggestion that we’re singling them out because of their content. We’re not!

I’ve listened to This American Whore. I find them charming. It’s an interesting podcast and a window into a world that’s very different from my daily life, for sure. I’m glad they’re out there making these and hope they continue.

But the way trademark law works is that we or any business with a trademarked name has to protect that name. If you don’t take action when you hear about people knocking off your name, and get them to stop, you can lose your trademark rights.

Whenever we find out about any podcasts with names similar to ours, our lawyers review what action would be appropriate. Some names and shows are parodies, which are a protected class under the law. Some have audiences that are so negligible that they pose no trademark threat.

Last year, we had an issue with a podcast called This American Startup, and they eventually agreed to modify their name. In the past we’ve taken similar actions which didn’t get press attention. There are some other shows and podcasts out there still with names similar to ours that our lawyers are planning to approach. This American Whore is not being singled out.

I wish them the best. Make more podcasts! I’ll keep listening! If I lose this job and become a sex worker, I hope you’ll have me on as a guest. Just change your name.

With 81% of the vote, Proposition 35 – a misguided ballot referendum that claims to fight trafficking, but puts the people it aims to protect as well as many others at risk – has passed in California. That’s a far greater margin than expected: 7 million for, 1.6 million against. Coming home last night from an election party, once the California returns started to come in, I was surprised by the volume of the online reaction to Prop 35′s passage: how did this happen? How did so many people end up voting to put even more people in California under police surveillance, into prisons, and onto sex offender registries on a night when the state’s three-strikes law was successfully challenged? People were celebrating the Obama victory, along with a record number of women elected to Congress, and those who voted Yes on 35 were feeling misled. At the same time, those who fear they’ll be targeted by it were outraged, and already getting organized.

First, on what Prop 35′s passage means: I’ve spoken with sex worker advocates, attorneys and victims’ services providers for people who have been trafficked, as well as civil liberties groups on the potential consequences of Prop 35. Though Prop 35′s advocates have claimed it will not target adult sex workers, or young people in the sex trade, we do not yet know how their claims will play out in terms of enforcement. Given how increased penalties for prostitution introduced into trafficking law are applied currently, we have every reason to believe that police will continue to arrest people in the sex trade, no matter what their experience is or how they got there, and that the increased penalties in Prop 35 could be used against them. In fact, this is exactly what happened in Chicago over the last few years as similar “anti-trafficking” laws have been passed, and overwhelmingly, it was sex workers who paid the price – and more specifically, trans women sex workers and sex workers of color.

Already, the ACLU and EFF have filed a class-action challenge in Federal court, on the grounds that Prop 35′s sex offender registry requirements are unconstitutional. They are not challenging the core of bill, which expands the legal definition of trafficking to include the vague offense “sexual exploitation,” and which creates higher penalties for “sex trafficking” than labor trafficking. But even without the sex offender requirements in the bill, Prop 35 is incredibly dangerous.

Now, putting this in context of the good mood around last night’s victories (and how hard it is to square Prop 35 with them): grassroots support may be what put Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown and Tammy Baldwin in the Senate last night, and what gave us marriage equality and decriminalized marijuana in other states, and sent rapey Republicans packing (though, in one case, replacing a “rape is God’s will” Republican with a “the only rape is forcible rape” Democrat).

But the Prop 35 campaign winning should not be understood as that same kind of victory.

Prop 35 is a classic tough-on-crime bill, primarily backed by a single donor and an author with next to zero expertise on the issue. There is no progressive ethic here, no matter how many liberal Democrats and women’s organizations supported this. And I question what actual movement there is supporting Prop 35.

What Prop 35′s backers depended on was not a groundswell of support from people who want to support survivors of trafficking, or from people who have been organizing in their own communities to oppose forced labor. What they counted on was the profund and damning absence of grassroots support for people in the sex trade and people most impacted by criminalization – people who might oppose them – within the organizations they courted, including progressives. And they got that support: from the Courage Campaign, from Planned Parenthood, and many others. This might be the only ballot initiative in which the anti-abortion California Catholic Conference of Bishops sided with Planned Parenthood. (Meanwhile, the US Conference on Catholic Bishops are the ones who have refused to fund anti-trafficking programs that refer survivors to reproductive health care, and have tried to kill healthcare reform over contraceptive access.) All that should be enough to raise liberal hackles. But because it was about sex work and sold as “sex trafficking,” it was not.

What Prop 35′s backers really counted on was a shallow politics of feelings and fear. Who could oppose any measure to “fight sex trafficking”? Once the ballot was framed that way, Prop 35 was a sure win. But some of the over 7 million voters who ticked Yes, who were not familiar with the issues, now regret this. It’s a flaw of the California proposition system, but it’s also a flaw in the electorate, who, like the bill’s author, get their information on the sex trade from Sunday night movies on MSNBC.

This is also why it’s incomplete to characterize Prop 35 as a “moralistic” or “fundamentalist” or “conservative” win. Prop 35′s campaigners made as many appeals to “human rights” as many sex worker activists do. This should be troubling, and this can’t be countered with a sex-positive, or feminist, or even civil liberties agenda alone.

Because Prop 35′s passage isn’t a failure to protect sexual freedom, women’s rights, or free speech. It’s the obscuring of the real violence that people in all kinds of work face when they have little protection or control. It’s failure is in the reliance on police and private charities with absolutely no understanding of the issues, rather than looking for answers learned from first-hand experience, answers that could be found with sex workers & sex worker rights’ activists, labor activists (like the domestic workers’ movement), and (yes) those who support people who have been trafficked and who believe in rights, not “rescues.”

These people don’t need your “help,” California voters. They need you to get out of their way so they can do their work.

Well, that was frustrating. In an address today at Clinton Global Initiative 2012, President Obama gave his most elaborate policy position yet on trafficking, and used it as an opportunity to throw some red meat to the anti-prostitution activists who are jumping on the anti-trafficking bandwagon to get money and legitimacy for their activism, thereby necessitating my having to know who they are and what they do in order to report on sex work responsibly.

Here’s my rough-up based on tweeting the speech. Again, I am not an expert on human trafficking writ large, and I have great respect for the evidence, justice-based activism done to support those who endure and escape forced labor, and those who address root causes of forced labor. Obama’s speech was not really about them. It was crafted to hit anti-prostitution keywords and fuel the new Evangelical anti-prostitution activist base.

After all Clinton’s introductory talk of Obama the community organizer, I am aching for him to walk not just a picket line but anywhere in my own old work shoes.

So here it is.

I reported on this week’s dueling Backpage protests – one led by anti-sex work feminists and evangelical youth, one led by sex workers and allies – for the New York Observer tech site, Betabeat.

The internet is not a place. A website is not a brothel. Data is not prostitution. At least one court now agrees.

In the matter of a New Mexico man’s website for discussing and arranging appointments with escorts, a state judge ruled this week that “an online message board nor a computer amount to a ‘house of prostitution or a place where prostitution is practiced, encouraged or allowed’” (Albuquerque Journal), and so therefore, his website was legal.

The prosecution could still appeal, or try to argue that, as the Journal quoted their attorney, “if the website itself is not a place where prostitution is practiced, encouraged or allowed, and neither is a computer, is the room where the computer is stored?”

So the creation, collection, or transmission of data about prostitution in a room constitutes enough of an act of prostitution to render the room itself a house of prostitution?

What server room, hotel, or high rise isn’t a brothel, then?

The best way to illustrate the antics of NGO “rescuers” seeking to save sex workers from themselves? Thailand’s Empower Foundation turned to the golden age of silent cinema cop drama to explain why these US-backed larks turn their lives upside down.

Laugh now. The State Department’s annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report is on its way. TIP scores and ranks countries based on how much they are doing to “combat trafficking,” based on US goals, with the threat of sanctions for non-compliance.

In 2008, the Thai government passed over-broad anti-trafficking legislation, which, as Empower points out (PDF) leads to frequently violent police raids on their homes and workplaces—in much less slapsticky versions of the scene above.

If the aim of anti-trafficking legislation is to restore human rights, then why, in enforcement, do NGO’s rely so heavily on threats of public shaming, violence, confinement, and deportation—all tools of power and control that anti-trafficking campaigners frequently ascribe to “pimps and traffickers”?

NGO-conducted raids to satisfy US metrics on “combatting trafficking” aren’t just confined to Thailand. Much of Southeast Asia has been on the US watchlist at one point or another. Below, a video of an actual raid in Malaysia, filmed by sex workers.

In 2008, Malaysia had been ranked at “Tier 3″ in its 2008 TIP report, the lowest ranking possible for a country. “Rather than address the real labour trafficking issues,” said the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, “the government set out to close down the sex industry. Now nearly all brothels in Kuala Lumpur have been shut. Sex workers are forced to work in dangerous and difficult conditions on streets throughout the capital.” In 2009, after the Malaysian government’s anti-sex work campaigns, the US raised Malaysia’s rating in the TIP report to a more favorable “Tier 2.”

Kudos to nearly anyone who wishes to raise an issue like commercial sex among liberal changemakers.

In a talk at Personal Democracy Forum this week, Julie Ruvolo laid out the problems with online crusades against “sex trafficking” (I’m putting it in quotes, as I don’t have space to define and unpack the term here; take for a given that it has multiple meanings, emerges from a complicated framing of both commercial and criminal concerns, and appears so often in glossed-over media accounts of its “reality” as to be almost meaningless).

Ruvolo isn’t a researcher, sex worker (that I know of), or a Kristof type: she works at the Museum of Sex, and her bio points to her involvement in a few tech start-up ventures. Maybe it’s because she’s positioned somewhat outside the usual venues of the tech/trafficking debate that opened up some space for her at a conference like PDF. She doesn’t appear, whether she does or doesn’t, to have much skin in the game.

The talk opens awkwardly with Micah Sifry (probably unnecessary disclosure: I’ve written for his website, TechPresident) [corrected 06.17.2012 to:] Andrew Rasiej saying to the audience, “Let’s talk about sex!” We should probably watch the talk in full (or check out the crib) before going further:

Are you back?

To break it down, it appears (from the Twitter responses, anyway) that you can get a room of left-leaning people who want to make the world a better place to consider adopting a slightly less kneejerk response to “ending trafficking” than removing websites from the internet, if you:

  • • compare sex work to suicide;
  • • uncritically cite government data (NCMEC);
  • • use explicit language to describe sex acts (that might not often be uttered in a Microsoft-funded gathering);
  • • uncritically cite NGO data (Polaris Project) to support your claims (and then go on to attack that NGO, who honestly, does deserve attack);
  • • cite Kristof’s campaign to get Goldman Sachs to dump their Village Voice Media shares, without also acknowledging that he did that as part of his long campaign against Backpage and commercial sex (again, like Polaris, confusing and strange);
  • • and at no point include the voices and expertise of people involved in the sex trade.

There are, in there, some good points: calling out Google for their support of anti-trafficking NGO’s, for one, in a room of the tech-inclined. Also, calling out Equality Now and their executive director Taina Bien-Amie for her conflation of sex work and trafficking.

Considering this talk was presented before a room that I hope still contains a few internet history nerds and policy wonks, I’m surprised that Ruvolo didn’t include at least a nod to some of the structural factors behind why so many sex ads have moved to the internet in the first place, how this is nothing new in the nearly twenty years of the web, and how much of the fear-mongering on the part of so-called “anti-trafficking” experts has nothing to do with providing alternatives or opportunities for people who are coerced into the sex trade, but is a superficial internet clean-up campaign.

Likewise, their campaigns against commercial sex ignore any policy or social change that could benefit people in the sex trade right now, whether or not Backpage exists: like public education campaigns to reduce the stigma associated with being involved in the sex trade; or advocacy to fund legal services for people in the sex trade to ensure they don’t lose housing, their children, or work opportunities for having a criminal record; involving people in the sex trade in homeless services and youth services oversight to ensure their needs are being met; supporting training for medical providers and others in social services to offer non-judgmental health care to people in the sex trade; or removing the criminal penalties associated with prostitution that are themselves the largest barrier to identifying people coerced into the sex trade and who need outside support to get out.

It’s these laws – not the structure of the internet sex trade – that deter people who come into contact with someone forced into the sex trade from seeking help. In some states, like Illinois, laws against trafficking are written so broadly that buying a MetroCard or a meal for someone in the sex trade could make you vulnerable to arrest or prosecution yourself, as someone “involved” in trafficking. It’s in this climate of increased policing and penalties, of the mass incarceration of youth of color and low-income youth, that trafficking can go “unidentified.”

But to accept that “the problem with sex trafficking” is merely one of identifying victims is falling in line with the anti-prostitution campaigners’ frame. It also prevents us from calling their bluff: along with taking down websites like craigslist and Backpage, they want more money for more cops, even though sex workers and trafficking survivors alike report that cops are likely to be violent towards them in the course of “protecting” them.

Today’s so-called anti-trafficking activists (the anti-Backpage campaigners among them) have proven, in a decade of advocating for laws like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, that their primary concern is putting more power in the hands of police to arrest people involved in the sex trade, to drag a wide net and just sort out who is a “victim” (in their understanding) and who is a “perpetrator” later. They aren’t interested in adopting new technologies to better identify victims; they don’t make such a distinction, and why would they, when their endgame is to abolish any evidence of the sex trade?

By their own metrics, the anti-Backpage set are winning. They can’t end prostitution, pornography, or other forms of commercial sex, but they can make the sex trade more invisible, and much more dangerous.

Which is exactly why it’s critically important to raise this issue.

But to do so without including people in the sex trade – the people who actually use Backpage – you might miss the real problem.